Note: 20+ students, 3 staff members and some parents went on an overnight field trip to Vanderkamp Center - A Christian Retreat and Summer Camp. The following testimonial is from the director of the camp.
Working with the Sudbury School kids was amazing for me. I've worked with thousands of different children, and saw a few startling differences in the tendencies of Sudbury kids. The first was a willingness to ask for help. We did one ropes activity that requires the participants to traverse a long series of cables and ropes. The catch is that it pretty literally can not be done alone. Every group I've worked with until this week struggled mightily at the section that requires help. Typically they will try to do it alone several times before asking if they might possibly be able to work together. Many times people just want to give up. The Sudbury group had no difficulty at all.
When the first student reached the difficult portion, he assessed the situation, and simply turned and asked for help. Others happily came to his aid. When he completed the course, he did not celebrate - but he walked back to assist others in that same difficult portion. Children I normally work with are petrified at the idea of being caught "cheating" and are normally obsessed with doing things "on their own." While Sudbury school students are given the freedom to do things on their own in their day to day lives, they collaborated more seamlessly than any group I've worked with, whether child or adult. They also embraced the challenge happily. Children from 3 years old, to 7 years old, to 17 years old worked together with the adults in the group in a totally natural way. I was amazed.
A few other observations:
I was amazed by how peacefully the children negotiated, and how awesome they were at playing. They had no shortage of ideas for little games - they turned the water totter first into a boat and then into a slide. They used elements on our ropes course in creative ways to entertain themselves. I never heard a child complain about being bored, and I never saw a child arguing over a scarce resource (many groups of kids will wind up arguing over the ping pong table or foosball table, but those items were happily shared with kids of all different ages).
I noticed a lot of wonderful non-violent communication in the impromptu school meeting that impressed me a ton as well. When Otto(i believe) raised his concern, he did not accuse anyone else of anything - he even used "I feel" statements that I have trouble getting my 21 year old staff to do. I don't know his age - 11? 10? But he communicated his needs earnestly without a hint of self-consciousness, and while he didn't get his way, he definitely seemed to feel heard. I told him later that I was impressed with how he carried himself, and he said, "Thanks. I lost, but oh well!" I reflected privately how different it feels to be heard and not get your way vs. being told "Because we said so."
The unprompted thankfulness at the first meal was amazing to me too. Kids calling over to John and saying, "Excuse me - this food is great! Thank you so much!" Yeah, that doesn't happen here, ever.
I'd say one thing that really jumped out to me as well was the lack of fear for adults. I could tell that adults in these children's lives are equal partners in most cases. They spoke respectfully to them without cowering before them. They met me and saw me as someone whom they could have fun with and not a new person who was going to impose his will on them. They stated their needs in the school meeting openly and honestly. With virtually every kid I work with, getting them to state their needs is usually preceeded by a long period of, "Are you sure there isn't something on your mind?" followed by a lot of, "I'm fine" talk when it's obvious they aren't fine.
The last thing, of course, is how easily they blend with ages. I watched Riley, Eli, and Amelia play magic without any hint of annoyance toward Amelia for her slow pace. I watched Casper give piggy-back rides, Cara, Aiden, and Katie look after Oliver, Lucy letting May sit on her lap... these kids definitely didn't suffer the illusion that age is in any way important.
Perhaps long and rambling - but that's my testimonial. Feel free to use all or none of it! I truly was blown away. It really inspired me to go back and infuse even more choice into our program here. It's funny - I wrote and published this little essay before you came: http://www.vk.org/wpsite/2011/10/the-power-of-choice/ and those ideas were so deeply reaffirmed this week. Pretty great!
Send my love to those wonderful kids and I look forward to seeing you all again very soon!
Director of Program and Marketing for Vanderkamp