Wonder in the Ellis Lower School

When my oldest son was five years old, he asked if Santa Claus was real. I answered him by saying that Santa is the magic of Christmas. He replied with another question, “Is magic real?”  As a girl who grew up with an Irish grandma who filled my head with stories of fearsome creatures, fairies, and ghosts, this was an easy question. “Yes,” I answered.
A few months later, I was reading the Roald Dahl book The Minpins to my son. The story ends with these words: “And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” As I was closing the book, my son said, “I’ve seen magic.” When I asked what he had seen, he responded with a long list that included a perfectly round rock he had found with a hole in the middle of it, a dog that had smiled at him, and an orange sky with purple streaks. Then he said, “I haven’t seen Santa yet. Do you think I need more glitter in my eyes?”

My son is in college now and probably has no recollection of this conversation, but I have thought of it many times over the years in the context of thinking about teaching and learning. Educators regularly ask questions like, “What does a child need to know?” “What skills do students need?” “How do we prepare children for the future?” These questions lead us down many paths, but in the Lower School, we always return to the fundamental truth that children possess a natural sense of wonder and awe about the world.

Every sight, sound, smell, taste, and texture they encounter inspires so many questions that the adults sometimes struggle to keep up. We don’t know what the world will be like in 10 or 20 years, but we do know that we will need curious individuals who ask questions and explorers who seek the unknown because they are not content with what is already known. So the essential question becomes how to nurture a child’s enchantment with the world so her fascination grows rather than diminishes.

We believe that the answer lies in cultivating a learning environment that keeps engagement with the world at the center of the school experience. There should not be a great gulf separating school from real life. In real life, we encounter all types of people with different abilities and needs. We communicate our ideas and listen to others. We are confronted with simple problems and complex ones. We seek out information to inform our choices. We question and argue. We make decisions. We read; we write; we make things. Every day in our classrooms, girls are actively engaged in these same activities.

They are learning by doing. Fourth grade students are designers and engineers, using straws and tape the first week of school to build a container to hold 100 pennies. By the end of the year, they are building rockets. Third grade students are archeologists, uncovering the past as they sift through the dirt and record their observations. Second grade students are urban planners and architects, constructing an entire city out of recyclable materials. First grade students are scientists and naturalists exploring the meadows, streams, and woods of Frick Park during each season of the year. Kindergarten students are authors using pictures and words to tell their stories. Pre-kindergarten girls are artists experimenting with paint and brushes, scissors and glue. 

These are learning experiences that engage the senses, challenge the mind, and live in a person long after the bell has rung. By engaging the wonder and curiosity innately inside our students, we grow girls with glitter in their eyes.