Calling All Teachers!

Hey Teachers (and everyone else, of course): I’m going to be talking to a few teachers groups in the near future and would love to hear tips from any of you who have figured out how to incorporate some Free-Range ideas into your classrooms.

Is there a way you’ve figured out to add free time or encourage independence? Do yo have any great thoughts on making homework shorter and/or recess longer? Or, if you’re teaching older students, any smart ways of helping them to feel and act more grown-up (in a good way)? Any special tips for those teaching special ed or gifted classes? How about tips for dealing with parents who are particularly intrusive or hovering? (And administrators, too.)

I’ve got some great talks I give to parents and conventions and the general public (see the “Speaking Engagments” tag, above). But I’d love to have some real-world insights about school to share with teachers eager for new ideas. Thanks for any help you can give. And thanks for being a teacher!  (Enjoy your weekend!) — Lenore

54 Responses

  1. I’m not a teacher but want to subscribe to the comments. I’m sure there will be some good stuff.

  2. Seconding Mae Mae.

  3. When I was teaching, I always took the kids outside for recess. I was one of the few who would send them out to run around for a bit even in the rain, for the kids who wanted to go. Virtually all of the activity was mandated by the school, though. I had fifth graders who were not allowed to walk to lunch alone, even down the hall. This was not just because of safety issues, but more fear of losing my job or getting yelled at in front of the kids if they got out of hand I was not there. I saw that happen repeatedly when I was teaching. We didn’t have a free-range principal. : (

  4. I’ll have to get back to you later tonight Lenore, but I’m a preschool teacher who is in the process of turning my entire school free-range.

  5. I teach grade 8. I do support homework (independent learning) but definitely limit it to just enough to make sure kids reinforce concepts and learn HOW to learn on their own so that when they’re older they can find information without a teacher’s help.

    The biggest thing I do to foster independence is to deal with students, not parents, as much as possible. There is a huge movement in education to cut out kids from their own education- grades are posted online for parents to see before tests are even passed back to students, parents call or email rather than having students approach teachers with problems, notes have to be sent home so parents know exactly what kids assigned each week, websites are set up where teachers report every single thing that is done during the day- it’s ridiculous! Worse, it cuts out the parent/student conversation about what happened during the day. I know kids aren’t overly anxious to share at that age, but that shouldn’t mean it becomes my responsibility to report back every minute of my students’ lives to mommy and daddy.

    To avoid this, I use a website for students to ask questions to me directly or to have discussions about topics in a forum. It’s not just to report homework to parents. I give instructions for assignments to students and expect them to listen. I let them choose what aspect of a topic they want to work on whenever possible. I also don’t post grades online. It is the child’s responsibility to keep track of their assignments until they prove they can’t. Then we step in with interventions.

    For me, by age 13 students need to be responsible enough to pack up their own backpack at the end of the day, collect make up homework from their teachers after an absence, or ask for help when they don’t understand. Teaching these skills rather than stepping in and doing everything for them is the best way I know to put the “free range” theory into my classroom.

    And when parents over-hover? Kill them with kindness and reassurances that their worries are needless, and if all else fails tell them to take their complaints to the principal, who’s great and shutting them down.

  6. Oh Gosh! Where do I begin? Lenore – there’s a book’s worth of thoughts not a blog posting’s worth!

    Quite honestly I don’t think that Special Ed or Gifted classes need any special treatment – just a tweaking of the suggestions below to meet the specific needs of the students.

    1) Risk assess anything you want to do to ENABLE it to happen and list the benefits of the activity, e.g. going outside during wet recesses. Sounds mad but it works. In the UK if you can prove the benefits outweigh the risks, under the 2006 Compensation Act I believe it is very difficult for a parent or someone to sue.

    2) Have a long term plan to improve the school grounds. Plan for natural play areas and adventure activities based upon what the children would like TO DO not to HAVE (otherwise, which kid doesn’t want Disneyland on their doorstep!). Involve children and the community in the consultation, implementation and review processes. Make it a valid project in its own right as part of ongoing school improvements.

    3) Keep homework exploratory and practical. Involve the parents that want or need to be involved, e.g. Child has to do a good deed each day for a week, in agreement with the parents. Or for a health promotion, walk to school each day for a week, decide on a healthy dinner menu and make it, etc. Encourage parents to drop their child a little further away from school if it’s too far or the roads are too busy, etc. Give variety. Ask children to write about things they are interested in.

    4) Take formal learning outdoors as much as possible. Why? It’s a multi-sensory experience and involves learning in, through and about the real world. Learning outdoors, especially in nature improves attainment, concentration, health and well-being, reduces stress levels, reduces the chances of some children developing short-sightedness, etc. Contact me for research references if you need this information.

    5) Encourage children to self-assess risks. Teach skills as well as knowledge in an experiential way starting from where the children are at. When children come to you with an issue, help them solve the problem rather than sort it out on their behalf as much as possible.

    6) Be respectful of parents and their concerns. Involve them in activities. For example, ask them to help out on trips to local woods. Ask them for their thoughts and get them talking about issues. Work on developing a positive relationship regardless of how difficult they are being. In my first headship (principal job) it took over 2 years for the village community to accept me “We were wrong about her, she’s very good” confessed one parent to a member of staff – not to me, of course!!! Persistence pays! Remember for every helicopter parent, there is an equal and opposite free range parent!

    7) Have displays of happy children involved in interesting, challenging and “risky” activities, especially outdoors. Ensure parents can see their smiling, happy child having fun engaging with these sorts of activities. Request that children bring outdoor clothes and footwear ,e.g. wellies for welly walks! (Sorry – that’s waterproof boots). Buy in or have second hand outdoor clothing in school for children who forget or don’t have.

    8) Let children do a fund raiser to pay for a school outing of their choice. When I’ve done this, children have picked: dolphin watching (in a small boat on the cold North Sea), skiing and pony trekking. All “risky” activities! Take children on school trips via public transport – that’s me next week – taking a group to a rock climbing wall downtown. We’re interviewing the instructor and creating challenges for children at recess to complete on the outdoor traversing wall and for teams to complete during gym lessons

    9) As a teacher, move from fear to freedom. Back in 2002 in my second job as a principal I actively decided that I was not going to let health and safety issues and concerns prevent me from giving children a decent education. (I think it was the day the first person in the UK died from rabies caught from a bat bite – and a bat fell out of the school attic onto the hall floor!).

    Is that enough for starters?

  7. I picked up “The Daily FIve” over the summer and although I teach middle school (the book is designed for the elementary classroom), I was inspired to try and adapt the ideas. I’m still mulling over the process and a little stumped as to how to divvy up the routine in an authentic way (that they would actually enjoy, mind you)… but I do just love this book. It encourages kids to choose between five different self directed activities, including reading to self, reading to others, listening to books, writing, and reading together. What I love most about the book is that the teachers see their kids develop a genuine and self-initiated desire to spend time, uninterrupted by “teaching”, experiencing books, something I don’t think is cultivated enough in the rigid structure of most classrooms.

    Here’s the link to the book (allows a look inside).

    Has anyone successfully used or adapted this book in working with middle school or high school classrooms?

  8. I haven’t got this book, but it seems like it might offer some inspiration for a few great research projects in the classroom (is it enough to just want it because of the title and cover?):

  9. Not to sound like a spammer, but our whole program- both elementary teacher prep and our support for experienced teachers- is built on these concepts. Specifically, check out our Critical Skills Program and David Sobel, Place Based Education guru. There are a bunch of sample lessons and our teacher community could provide you with zillions of examples.

  10. hmm, that’s a hard act to follow, but I’m always up for a challenge. These are the things I used while I cut my teeth as a teacher in an inner city elementary in a self-contained class for students with emotional handicaps – an EH class. We started our day with a good routine of stretching. As an adult, it felt great to touch my toes, do windmills and even sit ups if time allowed. Ten minutes would usually suffice. We came up with all different kinds of stretching type things, that the kids helped make up as well as your standard ones. Then, whenever we all needed a little break to get the wiggles out, we had an already set bank of approved indoor exercises anyone could lead at any time. It really helped – very simple.

    Having a routine that you follow helps everyone foster a sense of responsibility and ownership over what is happening on a daily basis. If the children see the same kinds of things happening over and over, they are able to then replicate the processes themselves independently. A great way to get this flowing is to assign the most competent students to the first and easiest routines you are trying to establish and then the less competent ones can learn them over time, and eventally take them over while you move the more competent ones up to continually more challenging jobs. Everyone benefits.

    I really liked being able to be out for a day or two and know that the kids in my class were basically running it themselves – the EH kids no less. Just like great parenting, great teaching requires that you work yourself out of a job- in essence teach the children how to learn and teach themselves. Just keep adding on the to already established routines, and slowly keep raising the bar (or quickly raise the bar for those who might actually need that approach more). Eventually you end up with a framework in which the students can function independently and are responsible for much of their own stuff. As the teacher you obviously are responsible for making sure the content and standards are met.

    I highly recommend the first few things done in the day be of a routine nature, just to get the day started on a good note, then feel free to improvise. Things like marking off the calendar, doing simple drills independently, passing out materials, etc. I don’t know about you, but I always function better when I know what to expect, then I can plan ahead and be ready to meet and exceed expectations. Good luck!

  11. I have students do LOTS of independent reading. Being an avid reader often makes students more motivated to learn on their own so I spend a great deal of time thinking of independent work for students to do in association with books of their choosing.

    For example:
    Rather than giving them lists of vocabulary words for them to learn, memorize, and then take a quiz on only for them to forget all the words the next day, my students do their own self-directed vocabulary from the books they’re reading independently – so it’s relevant to them personally. I then give them assignments throughout the year that requires them to use those vocabulary words in their writing.

    I also require they have a literature journal where they write letters to me and to classmates about the books they’re reading independently that require them to think beyond just a summary of the plot. They have a list of sentence starters that they use to help guide their thinking.

    I’m hoping that by giving them choice (with guidance of course) that I will create a classroom of thinkers rather than just making them do “compliant work”.

  12. Thank you, Beth! My in-laws are livid that I don’t make my children sit down and do those horrific vocabulary and spelling workbooks. I believe (and my children have validated it) that if you read enough the spelling and vocab will come. I, too, have them pull out words from the books we are reading, either as a family or independently. They spell and speak better than most of the kids their age we know. Facebook has shown me that!

    Hopefully, the validation of a teacher will mean more than my personal experience to my in-laws.

  13. I have the good fortune to work at an excellent Montessori school for children age 2 through 12. Being Montessorians, our overriding fundamental goal is to help children become self-motivated and independent. Often it feels (especially at the primary/preschool level) like we’re fighting against our licensing regulations (and sometimes parents!) to do this, but we have managed to find ways to work around it. Here are some of the things we do:

    We encourage parents to have their children pack their own lunches as soon as they are able (from about 4 years old). If a child forgets their lunch, it isn’t the teacher that puts one together for them from what’s in the classroom left over from snack – the child does it on his or her own.

    The children understand that it isn’t mom or dad who “forgot my jacket” or “forgot my lunch” or whatever. It’s the child’s responsibility to remember these things, not the parents’.

    We do a LOT of things in primary to prepare them for the increased responsibility and freedom of the elementary classes. From 2 until 6, we do things like: children have the freedom to choose their own work (which continues in elementary), they are always expected to clean up after themselves, they set their own lunch tables, resolve their own conflicts (with guidance and mediation as necessary!), are included in classroom problem solving and rule-making, and so on. Uh… because it would be against licensing rules, we certainly don’t have things like real knives out for carrot, banana, and apple slicing work at all times (and we certainly wouldn’t hurry around collecting all the knives and putting them on a high shelf as soon as licensing shows up for a surprise visit. Um.)

    Unfortunately, during the 2-6 years (before children are in elementary), we have a lot of restraints while playing outside. Children that age in our state are REQUIRED to be within direct visual supervision of a licensed teacher at ALL times at a ratio of no less than 12 children to 1 teacher – even, theoretically, while in the bathroom. If a child even walks *behind* the teacher, we technically Out Of Compliance. It means they can’t even go inside a classroom on their own to get a jacket, or they can’t walk to the art studio across the yard without someone watching them. But we deal with it, somehow!

    In the elementary: Because we’re a Montessori school, as much as possible the structure of the classroom work cycles is determined by the children. Barring large projects and other special circumstances, the main reason they might have homework (in the elementary – there’s never homework at the primary level) is if they chose to goof off in class instead of finishing their chosen work. Everyone has enough time to do what they need during the class time provided, and ultimately it is the child’s responsibility to recognize that. Fortunately, because children have as much freedom as possible to choose the work that interests them, teachers spend a lot less time nagging and a lot more time giving interesting lessons and helping children work on things they’re enthusiastic about. And having to do unfinished work over the weekend is a very strong lesson that children quickly learn to avoid!

    Also at the Elementary level, we do not have parent-teacher conferences. We have *student*-parent-teacher conferences. The children are responsible for sharing with their parents and teacher what their goals were for that term, how well they met them, and what they feel they still need to work on. Children are given the opportunity to be accountable for their own learning. (Occasionally there needs to be parent-teacher meetings without the children, of course, when there’s particularly difficult circumstances – but we try to keep that to a minimum.)

    Many of our school events are organized by the elementary children. The Thanksgiving Feast and our twice yearly concerts are coordinated in large part by them. They plan the seating, the food, the order of operations, etc, and then they organize getting the primary children together and make sure they’re where they need to be.

    We have a lot of field trips. I’ve led three camping trips for 5 and 6-year old primary children that were an hour or more away from school, and lasted for two days and three nights. The elementary children go on several environmental education overnights a year with their teachers, and (if the fundraising is good enough) roughly one ten-day international trip yearly or every other year. This year was the Yucatan, and they’ve also been to Hungary and Oaxaca. Of course, the teachers are always with the children on these trips, but they are nevertheless HUGE confidence builders.

    There are so many other tiny things, involving the children taking care of the environment in which they’re in, maintaining the classroom, cleaning, etc. In primary AND elementary, the children cook lunch for the entire class in rotating groups every Wednesday – the teachers participate less and less as the children get older. And, yes, from the primary years the children are using real, child-sized knives to cut the food, and they’re taught how to do it *safely.* (I mean… we absolutely DON’T do that because it would be against licensing rules. Yes, that’s what I mean.)

    The result of all of this is some of the most competent, reliable, independent children I’ve ever met. 🙂

  14. I think one of the main reasons that schools have eliminated free time is the fear of all the “bad” things that can happen during free time – especially bullying, which is, of course, a serious problem in schools. However, many more good things can happen during free time. In the last school where I worked, a very small private middle school, we had the flexibility to create our own program and place emphasis where we thought it was needed. We always tried to make room for free time in the school day and saw that time as part of a wider “social curriculum” to help kids form positive relationships with their peers and with the staff. When there were problems with free time, we generally didn’t try to take it away, but instead tried to work with individual kids or to create opportunities for kids to make the structure themselves – by encouraging basketball, board games or art projects to happen during break and lunch. I think some kids are so accustomed to having every moment scheduled nowadays that they don’t know what to do with free time, which makes them more likely to cause problems for adults, which makes the adults more likely to take the free time away – a vicious cycle. Of course, most schools now are under so much pressure to improve academic test scores that they can’t do anything more than pay vague lip service to helping foster a positive social environment for their students.

    Now I’m no longer teaching in a school. It’s so important to me that my own kids be free range that I’m homeschooling them so that they don’t have to face a system that thinks play is a waste of time.

  15. One practical thing to add. In a Montessori school, we call it care of self. The simple things that children can do to “do it my self”. This leads to real self-worth. One of these things it putting on one’s coat by one’s self. It is easy and child under the age of two can learn how to do it independently.

    1. Lay down the coat “on its back”.
    2. Stand at the top of the coat near the hood or shoulders. But not on the coat.
    3. Reach down and place hands into the arms of the coat.
    4. Quickly raise arms above the head.
    5. Shrug a bit and allow the coat to fall down to a normal position.
    6. Turn to face the teacher or an older child so you can have help learning to zipper you own coat. (By the time the child is 4.5, they should be able to zipper their own coat.)

    It takes about two times for a child to get it. Especially when others are doing it too.

    You would not believe how quickly getting out the door can be.

    Go on you try it. Then go show a kid.

    Independence it not just a place in Missouri.


  16. @ Jess – This is my second year doing Daily 5 in my room. It worked better last year because I had more support with my barometer children. This year I have some severe barometers and no support for them other than myself. Which means, the small groups and conferences are not happening consistantly. I teach second. I still love it for the organization of focus lessons, but I’m not enjoying it as much as I did last year.

  17. EV, I’ve seen people suggest that little trick, and I don’t know why. My nieces were putting on their own coats the normal way at only slightly older than two – two and a half – and their coats didn’t have to get dirty on the floor first.

  18. Uly,
    Congrats on your nieces’ dexterity, dedication, and abilities. Unfortunately, many young children’s physical make-up (arm length to torso relationship) makes it very hard for them to do many things well in a grown-up manner. The “magic” of this method is that it easier. Think shooting a granny shot or bowling holding the ball in both hands. This is a transition. Soon the children will be managing their coats in a more conventional manner, usually by four. They really want to emulate adults.

    Yes, I agree about the possibility of dirt on the floor. This is rare in our Montessori school with many children who love to sweep. I was posting a practical though for teachers in a school setting where you have 20 children trying to get out the door for a 20 minute recess.

    Thanks for helping me to be clearer in my communication.


  19. I teach kindergarten at a public school. In my classroom the majority of the day is spent doing free choice centers. In the morning we have an hour for mostly language-based centers (letters, words, books, etc.). They must go to the writing center and the math center every day, but the other four centers are free choice. They are in control of where they want to go and how long they stay at a center, promoting independence and responsibility. Many choose to do their mandatory work right away so they can be sure to have it finished. Though I don’t give them much direction about where they need to be, the kids are pretty good about visiting all the centers throughout the week. In the afternoon we have another time for play centers. There is no mandatory center in the afternoon. That much playtime is frowned upon, but I value it in my classroom and will cut other things to make it fit.

    Even though they are five, I hold them to pretty high standards of independence. When problems come up, they are expected to work it out themselves before they can come talk to me. I am often heard saying, “How can you solve that problem?” The kids have access to all their classroom supplies. If they want to use counters in math, they go get the beans.If they are painting, they get out the watercolors and fill their own water cups. At the end they rinse out the cups and set them out to dry. At centers, they get out most of their own materials and put them away when they’re done. (One student knows where things are better than me. She is the one choosing where the supplies go because she puts them away.) The students ask friends for help before they ask me. This goes for everything from directions for the writing assignment to tying shoes.

  20. Convince administration to NOT waste money on nettreckers or other subscription based search databases with “approved” websites for students.

    Every time the administration above my boss adds a new service – he looks at me and says “I bet you can do this for free and we could have used the money for equipment right”

    The good thing is with the district level stops paying for it and moves it to our budget – the tech geek teachers are tasked with showing the others how to do it for free and we use the money for cameras, GPS, or Itouches.

    Instead teach them to use boolean searches in google + common sense to avoid bad sites.

    Talk to kids bluntly and openly about what bad sites are and why they are bad. Nude photographs (elementary kids think they are gross) do not worry me as much as sites that are recruiting grounds for hate groups.

    A few years ago there was a scandal because teachers and librarians were linking to a website about Dr. King that looked good on the front – but was actually run by the KKK. Because of all the links it it shot up and became #1 on Google. A bunch of educators got together and google bombed till it went down on the list.

    Give kids permission to make mistakes both on line and off. My students know if they come to me and say I accessed a bad site, they are NOT in trouble. I look at their search terms tell them how to avoid this in the future, and remove it from the history so that it doesn’t pop up when people type in the address box. Hiding things will land the kids in the world of trouble.

    Emphasize work ethic and effort not smarts. Celebrate the gains. Instead of rewarding everyone that gets an A – reward everyone that either improves their score by 5 points or gets an A.

    Get away from the test prep and worksheets when you can let them do projects, use formative assessements guide them to discovering knowledge instead of force feeding them.

    Use GPS to turn a lesson in to a scavenger hunt. Have them Jigsaw information and report it back to the classroom. (Each group is assigned to find out about a narrow part of the whole picture when they get back the groups figure out how to fit the parts into the whole. Example for water cycle 4 groups each define 1 word Evaporation, condensation, precipitation, and transpiration. Then they come back and put the whole picture together.

  21. I’m a high school teacher. Like a few other posters, I feel like I could go on about this a lot longer than you or anyone else would want to read. But I would like to know more about the groups you are speaking to. Are they high school, or younger, or mixed? Teachers, administrators, or both? etc…

  22. At the elementary level, to squeeze in extra recess, use the playground for geometry and physics opportunities. Who cares if it’s relevant to your current lesson? And how about using running games to teach them how to check their resting and active heart rates?

    Give them research opportunities to investigate something that interests THEM, and allow them to create a presentation of their liking (PowerPoint, posterboard, report).

    All these other folks have posted such great ideas that I feel no need to go further. 🙂

  23. I teach college students, and the one thing I do to foster independence in my students is treat them as adults. It’s amazing how many college instructors do not do this. I’m always calling colleagues’ attention to the fact that referring to “The kids in my class” (when “the kids” are 18-26 years old) tends to foster kid-like behavior and attitudes.

  24. EV: I thought the coat thing was sort of standard in all KG. But it’s true. The look on some parents’ faces when I threw my toddler’s coat on the floor at his feet, instead of putting it on him!
    I went to a Montessori KG myself until my parents couldn’t afford it, and those are my first and fondest childhood memories… I especially remember the “cleaning shoes” drawer, where you could shine an old man’s shoe with real poisonous polish (it was so fun to wipe and brush, we didn’t even consider eating it). Or that time we baked our own cookies, and painted them with special, edible paint. Or being able to go to a separate bathroom on our own (I’ve always been very modest, and didn’t like adults watching over me at those times)…

  25. When I was teaching first grade, I would often have children come to me and say things like, “so-and-so stuck his tongue out at me” or “so-and-so budged in line.” etc. My first response was always, “Did you tell him (or ask him) to stop (or move)?” They almost aways said, “No” until they realized that I was not going to do anything until they first did something for themselves. If they said that they did ask the person to stop their offensive behavior, I would ask, “Well, did he stop?” If they answered, “Yes,” I would tell them that they’d done a great job of solving their own problem and send them on their way. If they said, “no,” I would tell them to try again and this time I would watch (from my desk). The children quickly learned that if they were asked a second time to stop something, I was watching and they stopped. I did this for minor infractions. I was fortunate to work in a small school where we really did not have issues of bullying. I’m sure I would not necessarily have used this method if I did not feel confident in the child’s ability to handle the situations solo.

    I also had a lot of time in my classroom when the kids were done with their assignments called “Show me that you’re learning” time. This was pretty much free time where they could play a game, draw, read, write letters to each other (yes, I promoted passing notes in my class) etc. One year, I had a student who I thought could use a challenge, so I brought in a chess set. She quickly learned how each piece moved. I had two other students who already knew how to play chess, so among the four of us, we would play games– I asked the two boys to “talk through” each move so that the learner could understand what they were thinking. It worked great. We quickly had several other students interested in learning how to play– and so they watched. We did this for a few days (I brought in more chess sets)… Then I was absent for a day and when I came back, just about every child in the class knew the fundamentals of playing chess– because they had learned it during “show me that you’re learning” time. I loved giving them time to explore areas that were interesting to them. I really loved my school.

  26. Charter schools, free market all the way.

  27. OK, EV and Jessica beat me to it… What I want to point out is that we need to help parents learn to TRUST their children, because without trust nothing can be accomplished from a Free-Range perspective. We need to help parents see their children – even the very young ones – as capable human beings, not sacks of potatoes that must be dragged around all day long.

    Sadly, the only effective way I’ve found for parents to realize what their children are capable of is by videotaping their children at work in the Montessori classroom and then sitting the parent down and saying “look at what your child is capable of doing”. I don’t know how you could incorporate this into your presentation…

    I’ve talked to parents until I’m blue in the face, but I still get kids who are toilet trained at school and wear pull ups at home, or can put on their own shoes at school and yet must be “helped” at home, or even worse: children who eat their own lunch at school, and must be spoon fed at home. Parents who don’t want their kids to be free will find any excuse and put up many roadblocks to confirm their viewpoint.

    Good luck…

  28. I personally teach preschool but my 3rd grader’s teacher is absolutely brilliant when it comes to helping them be more independent. When she assigns a research project, she does not allow the students to work on them at home. We have many parents who will do the assignment for the child, therefore all work is done at school. Also, at the beginning of the school year, each student is provided with an organizer. They are responsible for writing their assignments down as opposed to being posted on the school website for parents to look up. It also helps that the school is a language immersion program so most of the parents don’t speak the language(Spanish) that the children’s work is assigned in.

  29. I teach in a teacher-administered school, and we work by consensus. My mother was an excellent public school teacher who I noticed was constantly having to submit to the rules of school boards and administrators who had not spent time in the classroom. Our structure prevents that sort of thing, but then presents the challenge of justifying our approach.

    I have had success talking about child development in terms of…..a baseball mitt. When you walk into a store all the mitts have five fingers and they all could belong to anyone. You take it home, you oil it move it a million different ways and then you stick between your mattresses with a ball stuck in it and with rubber bands wrapped around it. It might appear ridiculous the abuse you put your mitt through. But it is all so that the mitt is better suited to it’s purpose.

    Education is like that. You have to have all kinds of experiences and struggles to help you stay flexible and receptive to the information that comes toward you. Information without experience cannot lead to understanding.

    This explanation has helped my parent understand the variety of challenged presented to the children inside, and especially, outside of a classroom.

  30. Hope I’m not too late to help you out, Lenore.

    When I conceive of “free-range” in the context of school, I think it has a lot of with what I call “play based” education. I teach 2-5 year olds and there is very little that we do in class that isn’t free choice play. This is a cooperative preschool, so I have lots of adult help in the classroom in the form of parent assistant teachers. I tell the adults that their job is to stay out of the children’s way and only intervene when someone is being hurt or a conflict turns violent. Even then, the goal is not to solve the children’s difficulties for them, but rather to help walk them through to their own solutions, which are not always the ones we would have chosen for them. I am constantly reminding the adults that we need to leave our own agendas at the door and honor the children’s agenda.

    Our curriculum includes such non-standard fare as:

    -Woodworking, including the use of hand tools, like hammers, saws and drills
    -Child-lead clean up
    -Coats optional outside (even for the 2-year-olds)
    -A strong bent toward the “law of natural consequences” as our primary method of learning (often phrased in our school as, “The best way to learn about asphalt is to fall on it.”)
    -ALL of our rules are made by the children themselves
    -Minimal assistance in the restroom, except in the case of children in diapers
    -Science and art projects that involve hot plates, sharp knives, fire, melting lead, and dropping objects from high places to see if they’ll break or bounce.
    -Outdoor play equipment such as logs, sticks, rocks, water, gravel, dirt, shovels, ropes, ladders, terra cotta pots, and real gardening tools.
    -An expectation that your child will come home each day covered in paint, mud, snot, and perhaps even a little blood.

    I have just made a proposal to our board (which is comprised exclusively of parents with children current enrolled) to experiment with moving toward at least half of our school days taking place outdoors, whatever the weather. We are removing most of our traditional playground equipment (like slides and climbers) and replacing them with naturalistic materials like tree rounds, a permanent carpentry station, permanent year-round water play, outdoor art projects, and a fully functional garden including composting, warm-frames and a worm bed.

    I hope this helps. If you want more details about how we do any of this, let me know.

  31. teacher tom,
    that sounds perfect! Abstract concepts without practical skill is (at best) useless.

  32. “Tools of the Mind” Pre-K and Kindergarten curriculum sounds right up your alley.

  33. I am not a school teacher but I teach music to children under six and I home educate my own bunch. A favorite in my music class and my living room is when we turn on the music, pass out scarves and let the music move us. It doesn’t matter what kind of music I put on, there are colors and wild jigs in every corner of the room. In my 45 minute music class, it is a good opportunity to get our wiggles out. At home, it is the best medicine for a cranky day.

  34. I teach college students, so I don’t have much to add to the elementary discussion. But I do have to add that parents should not think that learning only happens in school. My kids are often not thrilled by homework. My view is that yeah, homework is sometimes boring. My work is sometimes boring too – after you have graded 50 lab reports on the same experiment, you are ready to die. So I tell them – after you do what you HAVE to do, let’s do what you WANT to do. Let’s do a messy art project, or a science experiment in the basement. Let’s read a book about the Titanic, or use Google Maps to find where in Guatemala your birth family came from. You can learn and supplement school learning without making it a chore, and having fun at the same time.

  35. Hi Lenore, I’m a high school teacher and something I have found useful (both for students and for me) is to have some time in some lessons where the students can’t ask me any questions. So I set them a task and I might say, “For the next 20 minutes, I want you to work independently” and then they have to get on with it, by themselves, usually in silence (or sometimes with discussion amongst themselves). If they have any teacher questions, they just have to hold them for the end or figure it out themselves (which they normally do). This is is a nice antidote to the usual asking about EVERY SINGLE LITTLE THING instead of figuring it out themselves!

    Also lets me get a bit of admin done at my desk 🙂

  36. I have begun to read the comments and there are some great suggestions here. I have not read them all yet so sorry if I repeat anything. I am a first grade teacher. Someone mentioned the book “The Daily 5”, I use that book and it works wonderfully. I also like some of Rick Smith’s ideas.

    First of all I keep homework very limited. I rarely take away recess and I will take the children outside for recess anytime I can do so.

    To foster independence I make the children responsible for most of their things…
    1. They have jobs in the classroom each day.
    2. Each student is responsible for checking themselves in for milk and lunch in the morning.
    3. They have to empty their folders turning in any notes, homework, papers to my mailbox. (I do not search each folder every day).
    4. They are responsible for zipping zippers, buttons (on jackets), shoe laces, snow pants, boots etc… I have to say the first few days of winter it is difficult not to help because it would be faster but that pays off later in the year.
    5. I typically leave the children the choice to wear jackets outside in the spring/fall season. During the Wisconsin winter this is usually a non issue as they all wear jackets anyway.

    Those are just some of the little things that can make a big difference.

  37. At my daughter’s school on the bushy outskirts of Melbourne Australia we have a thing called Cubbyland. It’s in a gully area of the playground where the kids are allowed to use anything they find (fallen branches, sticks, bark, stones etc) to make cubbies (playhouses). The kids are the boss of it and the teachers keep an eye on it only from a distance, and only really intervene if the big kids start hassling the little kids. My daughter, she was in prep last year and begins grade one tomorrow, she’s six) was filled with talk every day about the schoolyard politics of Cubbyland, who was starting a war with who, who were the bosses this week, who they were setting booby traps for. (They aren’t allowed to do Cubbyland in the summer terms because of the very real possibility of snakes.) As the Principal described it, it’s like Lord of the Flies but without the Piggy killing.

    The great thing is that when Fred showed me her ‘cubby’ after school it just looked like a clearing in between three trees to me, with a few random sheets of bark, but you could totally see that to her it was a kingdom.

  38. I’m not a teacher, but I remembered some free-rangy things from school while I was reading the comments.

    High school English:
    *As much as possible we had to teach each other. i.e. different parts of speech were assigned to different groups who had to make a presentation about it. You got to choose your format, so my team found a School House Rock video and we watched it. Another team demonstrated by acting out examples (over, under, around, and through.) I don’t remember what the parts were called, but it was pretty darn fun!
    *We read Julius Caesar and each group was assigned so many scenes to present, again however you chose. My group acted out the scene of Caesar’s murder (the teacher played Caesar for us) using kitchen utensils and a banana for weapons, with ketchup packets taped to them. Pretty sweet special effects, right? Some kids wrote up questions for their sections, some made little picture books, etc.
    *We read the Odyssey and were, again, assigned separate sections. My groups made a movie. We designed a set, costumes, and even made some commercials. (My favorite was where we put live toads on silk and said, “Am-bro-sia” ala Budweiser.)

    High school language class:
    *I took Russian for 2 years. The second year class only had 3 people, so we were taught in the same class as first year. Since the teacher was spending most of his time teaching the new students, he just gave us a story to translate and set us loose.

    High school news:
    *The teacher gave us the list of announcements, then went to her office and left us to our work. It was up to us how to present everything. One day we were feeling goofy, so we did a traffic report from the school parking lot, and a weather report in front of a wall covered in snow flakes.
    *Second semester, everyone had to make a music video.

    High School Magazine:
    *We made videos, did skits, made posters, etc. to get other kids to contribute. There was a quarterly writing contest for the whole school, and when one person got up to read a poem about smoking marijuana, no teacher intervened. They let her finish, then announced, “Any views expressed in these poems do not necessarily reflect the views of this school.”

    High School Graphic Design
    *The teacher showed us how to use the programs and equipment, then let us do our thing.

    Jr High Newspaper and year book
    *The only things the teachers checked for, were that we were meeting deadlines and not swearing in print. When I wanted to put an EXTREMELY inappropriate joke in the paper, the teacher had me approach the principle with it. (This teaches to not be scared of adults. He said no.)

    Jr High shop class
    *We picked our own projects and how to build them. We were only semi-supervised while using welders, drill presses, table saws, sanders, routers, etc. After that safety video at the beginning of the year, believe me, you wear your goggles and keep your hands clear of anything sharp!

    Jr High and High School Drama
    *Kids picked their owns skits/plays, assigned their own actors, designed their own sets…

    This is probably way more information than you needed, but I’m so glad I had teachers who let me do my own thing. I’m so excited to see all the teachers on here with their concrete plans to teach kids to be independent. Woohoo! Way to go, guys!

  39. I begin every day with my kindergarten class outside. We play after everyone else has gone in to start their day. We head over to the climber and play. I generally stand back and try not to interfere with their play. We’re lucky because we have bushes and trees around the climber and these have become the areas of choice for the kids. Mostly I just had to give them permission to play there and set two rules — don’t pick up broken glass and don’t swing your sticks around until you check to see if the way is clear. I suspect many of my collegues wouldn’t approve of the students running and playing with the sticks and other treasures they find. On Fridays, we start our day in the creek valley behind the school. We’re quite lucky to have this natural place so near us, but at other schools I’ve worked at it has just meant being a little creative, but there are always all kinds of “natural” places were I’ve taken kids to play. Never had an injury or parent complaint. I have actually had parents ask me where we go so they can take the rest of the family on the weekends.

  40. Organic gardening. The ultimate outdoor classroom. I’ve worked garden programs with everything from grade-school students to grad students. (It’s amazing, since I grew up on a farm, how very bright kids in their early 20s can make it all the way into a master’s program and be totally ignorant of things like basic soil science, seed germination, and the taste of a “real” tomato.) Obviously, down here is USDA zone 9 this is very much a school-year activity – right now the gardens are filled with salad greens, root vegetables, and cabbages and the farther north you get the less chances you have of an active outdoor program in the winter. Which is why your school should build a south-facing greenhouse, plus it would cut down on the heating bills enough to pay for itself in a couple of winters.

    The Men’s Garden Club of Houston came up with a really nifty idea for grade-school raised-bed gardens. Collect as many 5-gallon paint buckets (a building contractor or your maintenance department) and with a ruler and Sharpie make 4 marks (noon, 3, 6, 9) 12″ down from the top lip of the bucket. With a hacksaw, make horizontal cuts from each mark until the cuts connect and the top half of the bucket is free. Viola! You have – with a half-bag of garden soil – a 14″ round, 12″ high raised bed just right for a second-grader to have their own lettuce or radish garden. Cut a few V-shaped drain holes in the bottom of the bucket, and you have a great pot for greenhouse or tree-starting projects.

    The learning curve for gardening – not to mention teaching gardening – is very steep for the first couple of years. If all you know about gardening is a couple of books and a few magazine articles, you are going to make some really dumb and discouraging mistakes. Partner with an experienced organic gardener if you aren’t one yourself.

    You can teach anything in a garden – biology, genetics, history, organic chemistry, even literature. Some of the best writing I’ve read – the collected columns of longtime Washington Post garden editor Henry Mitchell, for example – has been from garden writers.

  41. I teach high schoolers in the arts department – dance specifically.

    They are always a bit thrown off when, after two days of class, I ask them to choreograph their own stuff. They say things like “We don’t know how!” “You didn’t teach us enough!”

    And my response is always the same – “Give me a break! You don’t know how to dance? I’m not asking you to assemble a jet engine! Turn on a song you like – and move around!”

    With a large portion of our students being highly focused on academic excellence, most of the kids are hyper-attentive to gradepoint averages, standardized test scores, and the like. They are very concerned with how they will be rated by others. They are not familiar with the concept of trusting their own creations, and knowing that what comes from inside of them is valid and worthwhile.

    Because of that, I tend to assign a lot of projects that require minimum intervention from me. The older kids teach the middle schoolers once a month, they all have to create their own dance/music video, and they have to choreograph a piece to perform in front of a small group. In my entry level classes, I never say, “You must learn this,” I always say, “You should try this.” Most kids leave class saying, “I thought I would just learn how to dance here – but really, I learned that I am capable of a lot more than I thought I was.”

  42. I teach college students, and the one thing I do to foster independence in my students is treat them as adults. It’s amazing how many college instructors do not do this. I’m always calling colleagues’ attention to the fact that referring to “The kids in my class” (when “the kids” are 18-26 years old) tends to foster kid-like behavior and attitudes.

    I agree with this completely. I’m not a teach but I recently graduated from college. Most of the professors treated us like adults, but a few of them really babied us, to the point of having assigned seats in a 600-seat lecture hall! We weren’t even allowed to choose where to sit by ourselves, and students’ preferences aren’t arbitrary.

    Aside from labs and classes that involve a lot of discussion, I always thought that attendance to lecture-type classes should be optional, and they were in most cases. Yet most students went to most lectures because they were actually more helpful than just reading the textbook. I’ll admit that there were a few courses where the lectures were poorly done and didn’t add anything, so I didn’t go. I still managed to get good grades in those courses. There may be students who need to attend but won’t do it unless forced, but it’s my opinion that at that age, they deserve to fail if they can’t be responsible enough to do what they need to do. If they fail one course, maybe they’ll be more responsible about showing up for class next semester.

  43. My #1 tip for early childhood classrooms is to be “process-oriented” rather than “product-oriented”.

    The goal of a coloring activity is to learn about colors and practice fine motor coordination, maybe to practice sharing and communicating with others using words…NOT to color in Princess Jasmine so she looks as close as possible to the way she does in the cartoon.

    “Product-oriented” activities lose sight of targeted learning objectives in lieu of a teacher-arbited, right-or-wrong end result.

    “Process-oriented” activities focus on practice of necessary skills to move toward targeted learning objectives.

  44. You might be interested in checking out (Australian) Ian Lillico’s homework grid:

    From the website:
    “Any work that children do at home needs to be counted and he gives a rationale for teachers and parents to work together to ensure that children do some work at home, but not a lot of sedentary work. This booklet is a solution to the problem of getting kids to do something at home and not opt out of family life. It will enable parents to get children to do their share of work in the home including housework, shopping, physical activity such as sport training and engaging in family outings such as walking, fishing and exploring their world – activities which enhance family life. It also covers areas such as reading, being read to, playing a game with parents, research on the computer, music practice and many others”.

    This grid is used at my children’s school (from about 2nd grade up, I think) and is really popular with kids and parents alike. Apart from encouraging more outdoor and family activities, it is also ‘free range’ in that it gives children options about what they do and when (usually over a 2 week period).

  45. When I was a middle school science teacher (I left last year to be a stay-at-home mom) I used a “scaffolding” technique that allowed students to choose most of the activities they did for the unit. They would choose a certain number of subject-related activities to earn a “C” grade (answering book questions, doing labs, playing learning games, watching science videos and taking notes, etc.), and then pick from more open-ended creative activities for a higher grade (opinion essays, crafts, posters, poems, make-your-own worksheets/games, etc.). It is a lot of extra work for the teacher, since you have to make three times as many activities to have a variety, and the classroom is pretty chaotic with so many different activities going on at once. But the great thing about it was that kids had a lot of fun being able to pick which activities they wanted to do, using their strengths and interests to guide their learning. In essence, this curriculum is a sort of “Free-Range Learning,” where all the kids are learning the same subject (like “Rocks and Minerals,” or “Cell Biology”) but they are free to choose just how they learn it.

    I do set aside 5 minutes of note-taking every day to make sure the State Standards are covered, and there are 1 or 2 activities per unit that I require every student to do, but other than that you could say my classroom is pretty “free-range.”

    If you are interested in some examples, I would be happy to send some unit sheets to you. Just email me –

  46. I should also mention that I never assign homework, but if students do not use their time wisely in class, they may end up doing a lot of homework at the end of the unit the day before everything is due! My teaching method is hell for procrastinators.

  47. A little late to the game, but here are my ideas from when I used to teach drama and art to elementary school-aged kids. Granted, we were working in a very free minded art school owned by the city of Austin, and we were given a lot of free rein, but at the end of the day, you still had to run your class like one.

    Being a theatre major, we’d always start rehearsals with a warm up and I would do that with the kids. We’d stretch, play a fun game (like Red Rover–I had a large classroom fortunately!), and do some vocal exercises. It got noisy and rowdy a lot, but the kids loved it. They were all inner city kids who had never really been able to run around and express themselves that way.

    We would also read lots of books that related to the theme for the session and then re-enact them. My favorite activity, and the kids’ too, was where we created our own stories. I would take ideas on characters and then draw them out of a hat, and the kids would each contribute one line to the story. I would write it down and the kids would illustrate their line. Later, we would create costumes and actually enact the story for the parents. The kids learned so much from this: expressing creativity, team work, storytelling, and they all felt like a star at the end. And of course, each kid got a copy of the entire story.

    I also left the last ten minutes of class for the kids to do whatever they wanted out of a range of activities. They could either read books quietly, play dress up, draw, or play pre-approved movement games. Their favorite game was a version of Red Light Green Light but involved them holding the yoga tree pose. And each kid was allowed to do what he or she wanted, so there was no need to vote. Invariably, they’d all end up playing the same thing anyway!

    I also didn’t have a lot of rules in my class. It all centered on respect for three things: the teacher (me), their classmates, and themselves. I tried to very rarely use the word NO, instead I would re-direct. NO was usually used when someone’s safety was in jeopardy or there was serious trouble. I also utilized a three warning system…three strikes and you were out. Other teachers weren’t so lenient, but at that age, kids forget the rule sometimes when they’re having fun! I only had one incident of serious physical violence the entire time I taught, and I had kids from some rough homes.

    I think that art and PE are integral to the free-range movement and unfortunately, too often they’re being cut from school programs. The more we try to stop children from expressing their emotions in healthy constructive ways, the more we set them up for failure later in life. There are ways to allow them their freedom while still following lesson plans; it just takes a lot of creativity! Good luck, Lenore!

  48. I teach a group of mixed, accelerated 8-10th graders, and on the first day, I told them not to waste class time asking to go to the bathroom or telling me excuses why they were late for class. They really responded well, if a student is late, they come in quietly and hurry to their seat, and if they need to use the bathroom, they just get up quietly and go. I save so much time by not policing the kids!

  49. I teach university level, so it’s not the same. But I let my students live with the consequences of their actions. Didn’t do your homework? It’s okay by me. (I’m not checking, I’m not marking). But you won’t understand anything we’re doing today.

    I found when I stopped checking daily homework, taking daily attendance, and stopped forcing every little thing, my students learned about life a lot faster.

  50. I answer every question with a question. It’s my job to ask the right questions to guide them, but I let it be clear it’s their thinking that leads them down the right path.

  51. Working in NYC, there isn’t a lot of extra space, not even a lot of extra materials! However, I really like the Daily 5 and the companion book ‘Literacy Cafe’, where students can choose and are responsible for recording their daily literacy activities. Guided reading is also much easier because it is strategy based rather than reading level based.
    Like any teacher, I delegate as much of daily routine and record keeping to students as I can (homework checking, handing things out, some bulletin boards, some tech support, cleaning up.
    This year, I really like that I am able to use short songs for in class transitions (chairs to rug, lining up, etc). The students have a chance to chat to each other, dance if they want to, clean up at their own pace. The expectation is that they are where they are supposed to by and silent by the end of the song.
    Also this year, our 2nd grade team came up with TRUST as an acronym:
    TALK out our problems
    UNDERSTAND our differences
    SUPPORT each other’s learning
    TAKE PART every day
    as an ongoing effort to get kids to talk to each other and work as a community rather than as against each other (and constantly tattling).

  52. I’m not a teacher but my 6th grade son just started going to a private school and during recess they let the kids do what they want! It’s recess! The amazing thing is, a lot of kids choose to do their homework! Some days they just feel like playing too! The point is, even at a young age, if left alone, most will choose to get work done first or save to take home what they can handle, then play. They know! In the RIGHT environment, THEY KNOW!

  53. Hi Lenore,

    I’m a homeschool teacher…does that count?!
    We do activities with other families and groups and for the most part we just let our kids work out their own issues. We sit back and wait… we’re a group of unschoolers, for the most part. There are some that are “helicoptery”, but mostly because of food allergies. We encourage our little ones to put on their own jackets – one, two, flipperoo style. We encourage our children to help one another – this takes some of the stress off the parents! 😉 We take our children to indoor play spaces (despite my dislike of the germy ballpits) and let them run, jump, fall and get hit. We play in the rain and snow. We let the little ones play with sharp objects, teaching them appropriate handling of knives. Yes, two-year-olds with pocket knives and hacksaws.

  54. I have an open door policy and if parents do come in, I put them to work. The ones that just wanted to see what was going on usually don’t come back b/c there is nothing to talk about when the door is open.

    For indoor recess I give them a tub of objects like old phones and hats–they play and make up movies all on their own. If they say they are bored at recess, I give them math problems to do–they are not usually bored again (1st grade)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: