Here’s a scene not uncommon for a morning at the Co-op: children are building a system of rivers and dams with sand and water buckets. Plans are drawn up, orders are issued, experiments ensue, dams hold, troughs overflow, disagreements arise, ideas are shared, and a proposal is made that progress resume tomorrow. These children aren’t merely expending wet, messy energy until their “real work” starts. They’re organizing complex tasks, developing gross and fine motor skills, exploring properties of matter, and solving problems through experimentation and social cooperation. All of these “lessons” are taken in experientially, and that creates a depth of understanding no formal instruction could hope to match. Plus, play is fun—a happy pairing of inquiry and amusement that encourages self-direction and lifelong learning. Even as trends favor more academics for young children, we maintain allegiance to a play-based curriculum as the most effective, most developmentally appropriate way for preschoolers to learn about the world around them.
Go play, the once-familiar refrain that ushered children outdoors for the day, has fallen into disuse as our connections with nature have frayed. Indoor playdates and screen time are more the norm than excursions into the woods or trips to the swimming hole. We want to help change that, because we believe that nature has a profound ability to teach and empower. We devote careful thought to the design of our outdoor spaces, we bring the outside into our classroom in the form of stories and materials, and we promote unstructured play outside every day. Yes, even in the rain and cold. It’s an essential dimension of child development—crucial to physical health and emotional well-being. And nature is a child’s best-equipped laboratory for experimenting, imagining, testing, and observing. As anyone who has hosed down a muddy child at pick-up can tell you, the Co-op is committed to the layers of sensory stimulation and depth of experiential learning that only a close encounter with nature can provide.
The pace and rhythm of daily living keeps accelerating, and children are not immune to the hurriedness that so thoroughly typifies our 24/7 planet. In fact, they’re particularly vulnerable to the intellectual and emotional demands made by overweening competition, information overflow, constant novelty, and unremitting media stimulation. We believe with utter conviction that childhood is a time of becoming, and we craft all aspects of our program to give them this essential time and space. Given opportunities for open-ended, self-directed play in a supportive environment, children will make discoveries, master skills, and experience progress in their own style and on their own timetable. We have an abiding trust in children’s competencies and discernment—innate gifts that don’t need a schedule, an agenda, academic contrivances, or even an Internet connection.
We support one another. Whether it’s stepping in at the last minute to trade a helping parent day, making dinners for a family when someone is sick, or just listening with empathy, Co-opers provide the kind of aid, comfort, and encouragement that makes parenting more manageable and rewarding. In a culture that continues to grow more mobile and fragmented, the value of those connections can’t be overestimated. The model of sharing strength and drawing support is a powerful one at the Co-op, and its benefits ripple outward when we apply it beyond the community of current families. Our extended family of alumni, other Austin preschools, child development experts, university researchers, local family resource centers, students and teachers, online forum members—these are just some of the individuals and organizations who can both contribute to and benefit from collaboration with the Co-op, perhaps through educational seminars, social opportunities, or information sharing. The relationships we’ve forged and the esteem we’ve earned in these circles mean that we have a unique opportunity—and in some circumstances even a special responsibility—to broaden our definition of community as liberally as our resources allow and our needs require.
Working together is more than just a contractual duty at the Co-op. It’s a commitment to community that animates everything we do. And throughout Co-op history, the results have been remarkable: We have been inspired time and time again by what this community has achieved when it turns its collective attention toward a new horizon and its will toward a new goal. There are other, more personal, rewards as well. Cooperation models to our families (and reinforces to ourselves) the value we place on the strength and success of our shared spaces, especially the ones we fashion for the benefit and enjoyment of children. And finally, in a culture where it seems that any product or convenience can be bought and sold, it’s the expression of a belief that participation is the most effective, immediate, and meaningful way to meet our responsibilities and honor our relationships.