What is underwater? (On learn-y things)


By Hope Wilder and Dr. Kevin Currie-Knight

Reading! That’s educational, right?

Reading! That’s educational, right?

I want to tell you a secret. When we look at which photos of our program to select for PR purposes, I always comb through for the most visible examples of what we secretly and jokingly call “learny” things: kids reading books, or playing chess, perhaps doing a math problem as they play “school.” When I see these things happening at Pathfinder, I eagerly pull out my camera to capture these moments, because most of the time in our program, to most observers, it doesn’t look like these children are learning anything at all. That skepticism is eased, it seems, by pictures of “learny” things.

Here’s the type of “learny” picture we tend not to choose:

What are these kids doing with a baseball bat?

What are these kids doing with a baseball bat?

Unlike pictures of kids playing chess and reading books, this picture just looks like kids playing. If the goal is to convince families that Pathfinder is a place where kids not only have freedom, but will also learn along the way, this picture makes that a hard sell. The learning isn’t obvious. 

But let’s take a closer look. There is learning in this picture. It’s just subtle. If we use the metaphor of an iceberg mostly covered by water, this photograph shows only the surface you see above water. The learning, it turns out, is all the stuff underwater. No less real, just hidden from the camera’s view.

What is happening in this photo? From the view above water, you might see two children, baseball bats, and a ball. They appear to be “just playing.” Well, let me tell you. “Just playing” is the tip of the iceberg. A whole world of learning is happening underwater.

In this example, these Pathfinder members are playing “Goat-Ball.” Goat-Ball is a Pathfinder original game that started last fall. The process of inventing the game was an epic community event that lives on in legend amongst the children here. Goat-Ball, as it is now, is a two person game where the goal is to hit the other person in the legs with the “Goat Ball.” 

Goat-Ball is a fierce sport. Part of the game is adapting to different size, age, and ability players, all while keeping it fun.  (In between camera takes, these two teamed up on me and kicked my butt.)

Goat-Ball is a fierce sport. Part of the game is adapting to different size, age, and ability players, all while keeping it fun. (In between camera takes, these two teamed up on me and kicked my butt.)

Goat-Ball has consistent rules, but also has built in flexibility. The two main players are bound by strict rules governing who has possession of the ball; it is not a random or haphazard game. The ingenious part comes in with audience participation.  If an observer tosses a wiffle-ball at you during play, you have 7 seconds to touch the Goat-Ball before you are out. (This is a “shot clock.” The first time it came up, half the players wanted 5 seconds, half wanted 10, and someone proposed 7 seconds as a compromise.) Other audience members can join in to throw the Goat-Ball randomly to stir up the play and make it more exciting. New inventions and rules are tried out, and kept if they make things more fun. My favorite rule is that Goat-Ball players are allowed up to “1,000” misunderstandings. It is always OK to ask clarifications about the rules while playing Goat-Ball- it is a very forgiving sport.

There are Goat-Ball tournaments organized by kids with tickets for sale. Premium seating includes inside the play-house (where you can see all the action.) Observers at the ground level can start the shot-clock with wiffle balls, or insert randomness into the play as a non-player “Bouncy-wouncy ball” that sends the Goat-Ball off in a random direction. The excitement in the air during a Goat-Ball tournament is palpable: the same thrill goes through the crowd as at a Major League game. It is all in good fun.

The above-water skeptic might still ask: okay, but what are they learning that at all resembles what someone might learn in school? The answer is that they are learning a lot. They are using math when they have to figure out the point structure of Goat-ball. They are continually learning how to make sure the rules (and enforcement) are fair in a way that makes it fun for everyone to play. (In school, kids might talk about fairness. Here, kids do fairness.)Kids at Pathfinder practice persuasive argument for their own point of view, complex negotiation skills, and critical thinking while engaging in a game. Making paper “tickets” for the game is spelling and handwriting practice. The referee is a volunteer position, but if players think a call is unfair they feel free to challenge the call, and even instate a new referee, or change the rules.  

In another educational setting, kids might be called upon to write a persuasive essay. Here, they practice the skills of thinking that are the core essence of what is needed to be a persuasive speaker or writer.

Design Tool   Bonfire.png

Creativity, persistence, teamwork, grit- all of these are on display in the organic process that Goat-Ball grew out of. And it is a prime example of an activity that is simply impossible without a community of children to play with.


But let me tell you another secret. At Pathfinder, we don’t worry about learning much. We know that learning is a byproduct of doing fun and interesting things.  Jim Rietmulder says it best in his new book When Kids Rule the School, about his experience a similar school to ours: “If I’ve learned one thing in 30-some years of doing this, it’s that kids who are busy and happy are learning and growing. It’s that simple.”

Ooh, look! Science! A learny thing!  Actually, this kid looked using the microscope for about 10 seconds. Glad I got a picture of it!

Ooh, look! Science! A learny thing!

Actually, this kid looked using the microscope for about 10 seconds. Glad I got a picture of it!

At our community of self-directed learners in Durham, NC, anything goes. The byword is, “you do you.” Children have the right to choose their activities, and guess what? Most of the time, if children are truly free in choosing, it does not look like math class. However, I believe that learning is happening all the time. It just takes help from a translator to make that learning visible to outside observers. That’s my job.