the magic of unstructured play.

I am a strong advocate for unstructured play time. As a child, we lived for recess–red rover, kickball, soccer, swings, sandbox castles. We experienced play differently in the 80’s, we were screen free and allowed to roam without a microchip. There wasn’t a name for it like “free-range kids”; we were just kids. We didn’t need adults to guide us-just fresh air, open space, a friend or two, and perhaps a little dirt now and again. Through our play we learned so many important lessons about life.

Multitudes of studies point to the power of play on child development. Some structured…some not. (Ooh, and here is one more resource that is just fabulous.) I can argue both sides of facilitated play and unstructured play, especially for a generation of children who have grown up on playdates as opposed to “hey, wanna ride bikes?” However, this week, I saw first hand the power of unstructured play and its many rewards.

Our 6th Grade trip to Tybee Island started well–we enjoyed Beach Ecology class, Shark Dissection, Maritime Forest research, Marsh Ecology (for some groups), and a Night Walk on the Beach. (If you’ve never sat alone in silence on a beach at night–I highly recommend it.) The next day, as we enjoyed our breakfast, the tide started to come in..and it kept coming. It washed up over the sidewalks, the dock, the basketball court, the campfire, and into the main classroom buildings. Luckily, it did not touch our dorms. However, the depth of the water necessitated a road closure and a power outage, canceling our morning classes. We punted a bit, met a baby alligator, learned about Herpetology and then, the best two hours of the trip came to life….

All of us marched our way to the beach with the 4-H counselors in tow, in our rain boots. No plan was laid out, no list of rules was handed down. (“Stay out of the waves”was for safety—huge riptides.) And so 69 children were released to the beach. What happened next was beautiful. Play ensued. A group went shell hunting in the naturally formed tide pools. One declared a portion of the sand bar their kingdom and worked to defend it. One child stood at the edge of the waves and stared out for a long time; when I asked how he felt he said, “very happy.” A group had a fish foam fight that was full of giggles and mud. (Do not google what is in fish foam.) The largest group, by far, was determined to build a canal from the tide pool to the ocean. They worked valiantly–digging in the sand, building a dam, pushing water to flow uphill then down to the shore. It was amazing. Not a single fight, not a single whine–teamwork, encouragement, engineering, trial and error, physical exertion all ruled the work. By the time they were finished, half the grade was involved, all were invested. Not a single adult intervened. 

They had no idea they were engaged in higher order thinking. They were just “playing in the sand.” However, the lessons they learned are invaluable to them as humans. The power of collaboration, the gift of failure, the impact of encouragement, and persistence in a task, plus a healthy dose of laughter. This is what they will intrinsically take away. It was hard to fight back tears of pride as I watched them work through this hard work of play.

As we work toward rigor and excellence, we simply cannot forget the value of play in the cognitive and social development of children. It is where some of our greatest lessons will be found.



giddy for a faculty meeting

Yesterday, we had our first divisional faculty meeting since August. Our busy Head of School search left us all weary and a canceled Sept meeting was just the ticket. (I flipped the major content instead using youtube and showbie.) I wanted our short time together yesterday to be focused on learning and felt affirmed in my agenda choices by reading this blog from Glenn Robbins.  We always start with a sharing stories time (as modeled by Matthew Gould at Norwood) and we had some hearty laughs. As we are are in report card comment season, we went through an exercise inspired by Angela Maiers wherein we identified a child who was struggling for us (on an index card) and named their strengths. This yielded graceful silence as our teachers put such thought into affirming their students value.

THE BEST PART (for me) was our small group time. Teachers broke into subject area groups to share ideas in their content areas. They had time to TALK to one another in a professional context. As I walked the hallways, I heard engaged conversation, energy, and teachers taking the initiative to lead their own learning. Colleagues were the experts. Ideas were shared. It made me simply GIDDY. It made me feel like this:



As we walk our journey as educators, we simply must have time to talk through practice with colleagues. If I can do nothing else for my faculty but make this time and keep the extra stuff for an email, I will totally do it. I hope they will hold me accountable to this and never feel this way after one of our meetings:



Onward, friends!

you matter. you are enough.

I had the opportunity to join the Alabama Independent School Association community this week to participate in the annual PD day. It was local and featured a keynote rock star. I have “known” Angela Maiers via my PLN for years but had never seen her IRL, as the lexicon goes. Her Choose2Matter movement completely aligns with my beliefs as an educator and a school leader. She inspired a room of teachers to first, believe that they matter and second, believe that students matter.

While this might seem to some as cliche or fuzzy, it is paramount to serving children as educators. We must believe in the innate belonging and worth of our students for no reason other than they exist. (Read that again.) Whether or not they get the material, make the A, score the touchdown, run the fastest, draw the best picture, solve the equation first, or sing the best does not matter at all if we do not believe in their worth as a human. They matter. Just because they are themselves.

And so do we. As teachers, we might be amazing at inspiring kids to work hard, we might be experts in project based learning, we might run all the little programs behind the scenes, coach the winning team, or we solve the tech problems for everyone else. However, we matter just because we exist as humans. We matter and we are enough.

Angela showed us with science, including the Laws of Primacy and Recency, how important it is for us to feel valued before we can learn. We need in those first few seconds of interaction to be valued as a person before the brain can take over and retain or process information. We need to know at the end of each class or day that we matter. We need to believe that teachers believe in us to be successful. Our limbic system (the feels) is what is going to help us move past the frontal lobe and into the part of our brains dedicated to learning.

Beyond science, she showed us her heart. She gave us a charge–build the habit of telling ourselves that WE MATTER and WE ARE ENOUGH, every day for 30 days. When we build this habit in ourselves, we will transform our own lives as the adults. When we believe this for ourselves, we can believe it for others.


People sometimes say, “I don’t have enough time to teach character in my classroom.” I always come back to, you don’t have time NOT to.” In the long run, the time we spend investing in our children’s sense of self-worth will yield us time in teaching and learning of content. Our relationships will yield learning. In the end, we will all be better for taking the time to tell each other we matter.

Thank you, Angela. You, too, matter.

rites of passage

This past weekend was our first Middle School Dance of the year. As the children arrived in their fancy dresses and colorful khaki’s, I couldn’t help but swell with joy that this rite of passage remains the same despite decades since my own adolescence. The MS dance is a sweet tradition. The shoes come off, the dancing basically consists of jumping around in circles, with the occasional “dance of the day” (whip/nae-nae, anyone?), maybe a bold boy-girl slow dance, and lots of running to the bathroom in groups. It was the same in 1992 and I hope that it will be the same in 2022.

As much as I talk about the reimagining of teaching and learning in this age, there are some traditions that are “sacred cows.” I believe there is comfort in knowing that despite the vast changes in brain development of our children that this coming-of-age still exists. We push our children academically and athletically to a much higher degree now but they are, truly, still children and it is these moments that we can rejoice in their childhood. It is events such as this where they build their own sense of self; will they be the brave boy who does the splits or the girl who leads the conga line? These small moments shape their journey of identity in fragments that will lead to their wholeness.

As the children left on Saturday night there were smiles, dirty feet, and sweaty hair and the comfort in the knowledge that some parts of being 12 and 13 are just as they should be and always have been.

failing up.


image source

In all of our divisional parent nights and in our language with students, we are talking about failure and struggle. We are speaking of these things with a positive tone to set the message that failure is a part of the learning process. In fact, it is really the most important part of the learning process. If we constantly achieve instant success, it is unlikely that we will gain the deep learning that is necessary for critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity. We have a collective responsibility as the adults in the lives of these young humans to make struggle and failure a regular, if not celebrated, practice of life.


Japanese Proverb

In her new book, The Gift of Failure, middle school educator, author and parent, Jessica Lahey weaves her tale of learning the value of failure. Her first paragraph lays out the clear, if alarming, thesis of the book: “today’s overprotective, failure-avoidant parenting style has undermined the competence, independence, and academic potential of an entire generation.” She then goes on to share her own story of being an overprotective, failure-avoidant, parent and teacher and how she grew into one who models and embraces failure and struggle for her children and students. Along the way, she shares her research base, including Edward Deci’s Self Determination Theory (a favorite of mine) and provides practical applications such as how she was transparent with her kids about making the change to be less “do for” and more guide.

Her childhood mirrored my own. My family lived on a decent plot of land for suburban Maryland and a thickly wooded creek ran along side and behind my house. A typical Saturday would be spent down the street at a neighbors, throwing on waders and catching crayfish, or riding bikes to the 7-11 for slurpees. All of this was in the age before cell phones and statistically more crime. I had incredible parents who provided me with amazing opportunities like going to the Orioles or going to the Baltimore Symphony, taking piano lessons, and playing soccer. They helped with homework, especially math, but if I forgot it, too bad; I would learn next time to remember it. Getting to swim practice every day? From about age 10, my mode of transportation was my trusty purple ten-speed and then my teal Hyundai which was only given to me so I could become the chauffeur to my younger sister. My household chores included setting the table for family dinner, doing my own laundry starting in middle school, and the dreaded leaf raking and snow shoveling.

Likewise, I had teachers who felt my struggle and who empathized deeply with it. However, they knew their main goal was not to make me happy. They knew that struggle would be essential to making me an independent, competent, and autonomous person. I could tell you countless stories of educators who have encouraged me to fail up—to fail in a way helped me grow forward.

In the two decades or so, this type of failure has grown out-of-style. Parenting, coaching, and teaching trends have leaned towards the happiness of our children rather than celebrating their struggle. The over-scheduled lives of our children have led us —the adults in their lives — to do more for them. Or our own desire for things to be a certain way has inhibited our ability to let kids take control of things (Specifically, I’m thinking of learning to tie my shoes or the proper way to load the dishwasher.) Difficulty and patience have given way to comfort and expediency and the losers, in the long run, are our children.

This is not meant to scold us or to put all of us in the same guilty bucket of providing a free-wheeling life for children. This is a call to action for adults, both teachers and parents, to build opportunities for their own success through failure. Perhaps this means letting them forget that PE uniform or homework assignment. Or maybe it means a few more chores, done to their best effort and a little less comfort. In learning the value of failure and hard work, they will reap the rewards of autonomy, self-reliance, and competence in a way that will serve them for life.

This is not meant to scold us or to put all of us in the same guilty bucket of providing a free-wheeling life for children. Rather it is a call to action for us, the adults making the decisions for our children, to build opportunities for their own success through failure. Perhaps this means letting them forget that PE uniform or homework assignment. Or maybe it means a few more chores, done to their best effort and a little less comfort. In learning the value of failure and hard work, they will reap the rewards of autonomy, self-reliance, and competence in a way that will serve them for life.

freshly sharpened pencils

One of my favorite movies is a fun romantic comedy called “You’ve Got Mail.” It is chock full of quotables but “I would send you a bouquet of freshly sharpened pencils, if I knew your name and address.”, is one of my favorites. The start of school is such a wonderful and frenetic time. We scurry to prepare backpacks, uniforms, schedules, and permission forms as we start to renew morning routines and get back into the swing of school. We look with anticipation of the first day wondering who we will sit with at lunch and will the teachers be fair, funny, or firm? (Hopefully all three!) It is a fantastic time of year.

As I start my 14th school year, this time as an administrator, I still feel all of those anticipatory things. I love getting back together with teachers and setting our goals for the year. I love seeing students with new shoes on and a look on their face that says, “I’m not sure how I feel about this yet, but I’m excited.” I love seeing the wide eyes of a 5th grader walking into the Middle School for the first time and the sleepy eyes of an 8th grader for whom this is old hat. It signals that it is time for us to begin anew.

While we have traded freshly sharpened pencils for iPads and styli, paper books for e-books, and the monthly newsletter for the monthly email, the start of school continues a timeless rite of passage for children. We “do school” differently than in ages past. School becomes a place to learn so much more than facts and figures. Our schooling now includes lessons on how to learn so much more than what to learn. We realize, in the 21st Century, that much of what we may have been taught in school is accessible at our fingertips from the device in our pocket. So we, the teachers, have a great opportunity to learn for ourselves how we can innovate our classrooms to reach the kids we have now and prepare them for their future. This process of renewing our professional practice is a model for our children on how to continually grow throughout a lifetime.

So we begin our year with great excitement and anticipation as we begin to map our 2015-2016 journey. Perhaps a nice, fresh, Dixon-Ticonderoga #2 will find it’s way into a backpack somewhere. To remind us from where we have come.

fail better.


image source

I am absolutely obsessed with Jessica Lahey‘s new book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.  I am only half way through and I’ve decided this is a must read for all big humans who love and/or work with small humans. She knocks it immediately out of the park in her first paragraph:

“today’s overprotective, failure-avoidant parenting styles has undermined the competence, independence and academic potential of an entire generation.” p.xi

She goes on to talk about her own realizations as a parent and teacher and how she feels as if she was doing them a dis-service by promoting success and preventing failure. It is through her own stories that she takes the blame off of parents and teachers who have promoted a success-driven environment.

What I love the most about this book, so far, is her focus on the work of Carol Dweck and Edward Deci. She validates my views as a teacher-leader in my beliefs about growth mindset and Self-Determination Theory. When we provide opportunities for our children to struggle and/or fail, we are providing the greatest possibility for them to grow into resilient, competent adults. She also validates my belief in encouraging intrinsic motivation. Sticker charts, money for grades, or any form of food motivation do not equate to student success. I’m look at you, Class Dojo. (So much research on this, I don’t even know where to begin.)

I’m about to delve into Part II and III and can’t wait to share more…stop everything you’re doing and go get this book!