Why we love to play

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” —Fred Rogers

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” —Fred Rogers

Morna Harnden’s guest post below beautifully explains the importance of play to early childhood development and learning. Morna directs Austin Children’s Garden, which offers preschool programs as well as homeschool classes in South Austin.


This summer I had the absolute delight of volunteering in Teacher Tom's classroom at the Woodland Park Cooperative School in Seattle, Washington. Teacher Tom has long been one of my early childhood heroes (he even wears a cape!) through his insightful blog Teacher Tom and various trainings he has led with the Pedagogy of Play conference.

I wish the majority of parents and educators already understood the huge value of a play-based curriculum, but as the co-founder and co-teacher at Austin Children's Garden (an experiential and play-based learning community), I regularly find myself defending children's play to adults who are concerned about their child's education by explaining how and why we learn through play. As Teacher Tom says, “The idea that play is the opposite of learning is just too well embedded in our collective psyche.”

Questions that often come up are:

  • So, what does a “play-based curriculum” even mean?

  • Does that mean the children just play all day with no structure or learning? How will they transition to traditional school?

  • What is my child actually learning when they play?

After spending my childhood attending various Montessori, Steiner, and Democratic schools in the 1970s and 1980s (thanks Mom and Dad!), I have devoted my adult life to understanding early childhood growth and development (birth through age 8) from an integrated and holistic perspective. I am fascinated with how children learn and feel grateful for the calling to co-create the most healthy and joyful learning environment I can with the local community around me, as well as the global community of inspiring educators around the world.

“We can best help children learn, not by deciding what we think they should learn and thinking of ingenious ways to teach it to them, but by making the world, as far as we can, accessible to them, paying serious attention to what they do, answering their questions—if they have any—and helping them to explore the things they are most interested in.” —John Holt

“We can best help children learn, not by deciding what we think they should learn and thinking of ingenious ways to teach it to them, but by making the world, as far as we can, accessible to them, paying serious attention to what they do, answering their questions—if they have any—and helping them to explore the things they are most interested in.” —John Holt

Having been an educator in many types of schools, there are a few principles that I have seen as integral in supporting young children's growth and learning across the board:

  • Longer stretches of time with the freedom to play, explore, and discover in a natural yet stimulating learning environment that engages all the senses, alternated with an offering of shorter segments of meaningful hands-on, experiential projects that foster new skills and encourage mastery.

  • A small group size of mixed-age children, more like an extended family than a large classroom, to play with and learn together.

  • Fun, inspired, and loving adults who focus on empowering the child with inquiry-based learning, modeling self-regulation tools, and creating a physically and emotionally safe environment.

  • Ample outdoor play and exploration that allows nature to be a powerful learning experience filled with wonder and reverence.

  • Open-ended and natural play materials that encourage creative imagination and the discovery of innovative solutions.

  • Open-ended, process-based art and creative activities that are set up as an invitation to explore and express.

  • Predictable rhythms through the day, week, and year that create a natural structure and provide security with a sense of the interrelationships and wholeness of life.

All of these principles can be woven together to create a strong foundation and love of learning in a healthy, balanced, and experiential play-based environment. There is argument among some educators that to be truly play-based there would be no adult-guided projects. However, in my experience, as long as they are offered as a creative invitation with freedom of choice rather than a demand for every child to sit down and perform an activity only in the way the teacher dictates, and when these guided activities are sandwiched with longer times of free play, then meaningful hands-on projects are a wonderful inclusion in a play-based curriculum!

“Play is the highest form of research.” —Albert Einstein

“Play is the highest form of research.” —Albert Einstein

One of the most fascinating aspects of children's play I have observed is how much they are naturally learning about language, reading, math, science, culture, social skills, and more. I encourage parents to read the research about all the educational benefits and the foundation for healthy learning that play provides, from Harvard University to the high academic performance of play-based schools in Finland, to the most current studies by the NAEYC. All of this is important information, but as an educator and parent myself, what I am most inspired by is the growth and development of the whole child, not the ability to regurgitate information and perform on current academic testing methods.

Children are born to learn. The human experience is designed to learn about life in a natural unfolding rather than a rote exposure to dry activities that lack a sense of meaning or connection to them. Children love to play because it’s fun and it feels natural to them! Play is their true state of flow. When children are allowed ample time to play, they intrinsically make the connection that learning is fun, they discover what truly makes their hearts sing, and they develop the power and inspiration to follow their bliss.

“Creative people are curious, flexible, and independent with a tremendous spirit of adventure and a love of play.” —Henri Matisse

“Creative people are curious, flexible, and independent with a tremendous spirit of adventure and a love of play.” —Henri Matisse

It’s an exciting time for education! Old paradigms are shifting. To be a part of this positive shift for whole-child education, here are a few ideas for parents of young children to consider:

  • Ask your child’s school how much time your child spends in free play a day. Many schools claim to be play-based but often only provide 30 minutes of outside play and/or 30 minutes of guided indoor play. Children thrive with hours of play! Advocate for more free play and more outside play. Create parent alliances in your schools and make your preferences clear to the teachers and administration as well as the local and national government.

  • Do the research and trust that you are giving your child the best opportunity possible by allowing them the opportunity to spend hours every day in play.

  • Support children’s outside play—host backyard play dates, spend the day in the woods, get friends together and go camping, check out so many of our awesome local programs like the Free Forest School and Earth Native Wilderness School to supplement more play in nature.

  • Limit or eliminate screen time and observe the quality of play that arises when ample time and space allow for it.

  • Provide open-ended toys like blocks, silk scarves, magna-tiles, simple figures, and natural objects like sand, shells, and pinecones that allow children to use their creative imagination.

“Almost all creativity involves purposeful play.” —Abraham Maslow

“Almost all creativity involves purposeful play.” —Abraham Maslow

Teacher Tom says it beautifully; “I invite you to imagine for a moment” schools “in which children are free to discover and pursue their passions while marinated in community. Imagine that transformation, then imagine how all those free and motivated minds will transform their world.”

In the alternative education community of Austin, this transformation is a reality, with a growing number of holistic and experiential play-based learning environments. It is a profound honor to be a part of that transformation and the lives of the thriving children in our community.

To learn more about the benefits of play and how parents can play with their children to help develop their brains, bodies, and hearts, please come to our free talk by play therapist and parent educator Chelsea Vail before our Open House at Austin Children’s Garden on November 16th at 1pm.

Morna Harnden

What’s new in Austin’s alternative education community?

Photo by  Ian Schneider  on  Unsplash

Here’s a brief roundup of some of the latest developments in the local alt ed scene as the 20192020 school year gets underway. Kudos to all the educators who have been working hard all summer to better serve each member of their learning communities.

Apple Blossom Center for Discovery and Gantry Academy have joined forces in Leander to offer a number of options to serve students in the community. They are launching homeschool enrichment days (Wednesday afternoons and Friday all day) with activities including Sportsball athletics, cooking, art, music, STEAM, entrepreneurship, and more. Options range from $100 to $300 per month.

Ascent is the latest Acton Academy to launch in the Austin area. Founders Janita Lavani and Samantha Jansky are some of the most experienced Acton guides and curriculum creators anywhere. They spent the summer acquiring and beautifully renovating the campus at 5701 Cameron Road to create both the Spark Studio for ages 4–6 and the Elementary Studio for ages 7–11, where the school year begins right after Labor Day.

Clearview Sudbury School recently added a music room to its campus and a new staff member, Rose Hardesty, Clearview’s first to have graduated from a Sudbury school. This fall, Clearview will celebrate its 10th anniversary by bringing in Jim Rietmulder, the author of When Kids Rule the School and a nationally recognized expert on self-directed democratic schools, for a talk on Friday, November 15, at 6pm.

Huntington-Surrey School has moved to a new location in north-central Austin: 4700 Grover Avenue. The school has served high school students since 1971 and has now expanded its programs to work with exceptional 7th and 8th graders, either part-time or full-time.

Julia’s Garden Montessori is launching its elementary program, called Taller, based on the Scottish national Curriculum for Excellence. The school’s staff has grown this summer to include new administrative, wellness, and education specialist roles to meet the needs of all learners, from the toddler stage through 9 years of age. It is currently in the home stretch of the accreditation process with the International Council for Accrediting Relationship-based Education (ICARE).

Progress School has renovated and moved its classrooms into a larger building on the same campus to better accommodate its growing enrollment. Learners will be grouped into three rather than two multi-age classes. Progress is currently working with ICARE toward accreditation as a relationship-based education school.

New alternative education mobile app beta testing in Austin


We’re excited to help spread the word about a unique opportunity for Austin families to help beta test Journey of Heroes, a wonderful new app for learners of all ages. Founder Tory Gattis and the Journey of Heroes team join us on the blog to explain what it’s all about, how it works, and how you and your family can get started using it and sharing your feedback to help make JoH an even more useful resource.

A new mobile app to help families discover and co-create learning adventures for kids is launching with Austin as its very first beta test city, and we’d love to get your input on how we can make the app better fit your family’s needs. The app is called “Journey of Heroes,” based on Joseph Campbell’s classic “Hero’s Journey”. We believe that students should see themselves as the protagonists of their own life stories (see graphic), especially when it comes to their lifelong education. The app is designed as a platform to help learners discover their passions and develop their own unique talents while acquiring knowledge and valuable skills, especially 21st-century skills like collaborative problem solving, creative design thinking, and entrepreneurship. And we want to enable this in a fun environment with learning adventures instead of classes, heroes instead of students, and guides instead of teachers.

JoH_Heroes Journey PNG_1200.png

The app was inspired by Tinder and Bumble, except that instead of swiping through potential dating matches, we wanted parents to be able to swipe through potential learning experiences for their children whenever they have a few minutes of downtime with their phone. We also wanted to make it as easy as possible for families to connect with other families seeking similar learning experiences for their children.


As you can see in this screenshot, the app functions as a deck of cards, allowing parents to swipe through different existing adventures or potential ideas for new ones, looking for co-creators. Using the app, you can scroll through or search for different learning adventures available in your area, save and show interest in attending your favorites (which will give you notifications about them), post ideas for learning adventures you’d like to co-create with other families, or even offer your own learning adventures for other families to join.

The app was inspired by Workspace Education in Connecticut, where a colearning community of nearly a hundred families co-create learning adventures for their children in an amazing 32k sq.ft. building that includes makerspaces, science labs, classrooms, performance spaces, and just about every other kind of learning space you can imagine in an environment that feels like a high-tech company campus. (Learn more about colearning communities at www.IACLC.org.) 

The app should be available on both the Apple and Google Android app stores by the time you read this or possibly in the very near future depending on their approvals. If you don’t see it there yet, please don’t give up—check back often!

We’re really looking forward to collaborating closely with Austin’s alternative education community to shape the app before we release it to the world. This is your chance to affect the very earliest stages of what we hope will be a transformative platform in education. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us with questions, feedback, or thoughts on new features; we’d love to hear from you at support@JourneyOfHeroes.app. Also, if you know a good source of Austin learning adventures that should be in our app, please let us know! 

Sincerest thanks for your time, consideration, and support,
Tory, Cade, Eloragh, and the rest of the Journey of Heroes app team

Citizen of the World: Nioucha Homayoonfar’s Memoir of Childhood in Iran

Contributing writer Shelley Sperry is back with an insightful and relevant interview with children’s nonfiction author Nioucha Homayoonfar. I hope the conversation inspires you to get your hands on a copy of this beautiful memoir and share it with the young people in your lives. It’s a great conversation starter on the reality and diversity of immigrant experiences.

A while back I had the pleasure of talking with Nioucha Homayoonfar, an Iranian-American author whose memoir of her girlhood in Iran during the 1980s revolution came out earlier this year.

Nioucha’s story mirrors that of so many young people whose lives traverse two different cultures and communities, and who are caught up in larger historical forces as they also try to navigate their own evolution from childhood to young adulthood. I’m tremendously grateful for the chance to talk with Nioucha about her life and her book. Stories like hers, written specifically for young readers, provide human context for the complex events our kids learn about in school and news soundbites. I can’t recommend this dramatic, tender, and often funny memoir more highly—for kids or adults.

Here’s a slightly shortened and edited version of our talk:

Nioucha Homayoonfar, author

Nioucha Homayoonfar, author

How did you decide to write a memoir for a young audience rather than adults?

That decision evolved organically. When I started writing, the voice of a young person just came out—not the voice of an older person looking back at her life. I really liked that voice, so I stuck with it. I hadn’t thought about the age group or my audience at first. I just knew the story I wanted to write. I did some research, and at the time I was starting to write, in 2008–2009, there really wasn’t anything like this available. Now I see it as a great opportunity because I feel young people should know more about what is happening in other countries, and what it’s like to live there.

The work you do in your day job deals with international relations too, so that perspective must be very important to you.

People have always told me I’m a citizen of the world. After 9/11, the circumstances were so tragic and horrifying, and there was a new thirst for stories from other countries and other cultures to help make sense of the world. 

And that’s true of children as well as adults. Many classrooms, including the school my own kids attend, have students from dozens of different countries, and it’s phenomenal. I see that my kids and their friends want to understand how people and events are connected. 

Why did you decide to write nonfiction, rather than turning your story into a novel?

I started out writing some short stories and personal essays. I think a nonfiction author is just who I am. If you want to hear the true side of a story, take Nioucha with you, my family says. She can’t lie or hide the truth. As a reader, I also gravitate toward authors who write from their own dramas and hardships. That feels genuine and pure, so that’s what I aspire to as well.

But having said that, once I had a book contract, I did decide to take some things out. I had to realize that I wanted to remove things that might be hurtful to people I love. 

You’re very hard on yourself though, and honest about your own anger and mistakes. Did you draw on diaries for the book?

As a child, I used to keep some diaries as “someone” to talk to, or a form of therapy. I lost them years ago, but they were written in Persian, so I hope whoever found them just tossed them away. I did write more diaries after we left Iran. I still have those in a box and have not opened them yet. Those were tough years, watching my parents struggle when we first moved to the United States. I just haven’t found the strength to revisit those, but I know that I will look at them eventually because I want to draw on them for another story.

That would be a valuable story for a lot of kids right now to read. 

Yes, the issue of immigration is so important right now. It doesn’t matter when you move from one culture to another, it’s still very hard. I find the thought of my parents’ move here with two children really terrifying, now that I have two kids of my own. I think about that a lot now. Migrating is one of the hardest things people can do. We went from stability before the Iranian Revolution to suddenly feeling like the rug was pulled from underneath us in a matter of moments. I carry that with me, realizing that life can turn upside down so quickly. The Syrians are living that right now.

How did you access your memories from so long ago? You talk in minute detail about food, clothes, and music—and then in the next sentence there’s a dramatic political event.

My memories are really intense from that period because of the heightened intensity of life. One day we could be enjoying a wonderful meal with family or coffee with friends, and the next moment we could be running to hide from bomb sirens. Or the religious police could come and arrest people in front of you. There was an element of danger just renting your movies or buying some music because you had to deal with the black market. All my memories from that time are still vivid and detailed. Even now that I live in the United States, I still sometimes panic when I hear a siren. The biggest trigger for me is fireworks. It’s a beautiful thing here, symbolizing family and picnics, and joy—I really have to calm myself down when I hear them, though. 

Do you have advice for parents who want to help their kids embrace the world and be citizens of the world like you?

What I do with my kids is bring them often to the local libraries and museums with exhibits about other countries and periods of time. Of course, I love National Geographic’s line of memoirs celebrating people from other countries, which is the series my book is part of. Nawuth Keat and Martha Kendall wrote Alive in the Killing Fields about surviving the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. There is also so much available for kids on video. You can find series in French and Spanish and other languages on Netflix, with subtitles.

I grew up reading novels by writers from other countries, and that really takes you outside of yourself, so I think most of all I would encourage parents and kids to search their libraries for those stories.

For more information about Nioucha and her story, check out these links:

Shelley Sperry
Sperry Editorial

Jumping rope to help others


David Darcy founded and currently teaches at
School on the Rise in Southwest Austin. He is also a nationally recognized expert on Waldorf and homeschool education, frequent public speaker, musician, and nature enthusiast. He joins us on the blog to share a special service project his students are involved in and to invite others to join them in supporting a great cause.

Most students love animals, movement, and helping others. These will be combined this fall when the students at School on the Rise hold their annual Jump-a-thon to raise money for a good cause.

Heifer International was chosen as the recipient of our fundraising because their program is based on “the gift that keeps giving.” Heifer works with people in need all over the world, giving them animals that produce food or fiber that can be turned into a sustainable source of income. Family members are taught how to care for the animals, and the income is used for food or other basic needs and often allows parents to send their children to school. Furthermore, Heifer requires each receiving family to give offspring from their animals to others in their village, thus growing the wealth and knowledge of the community.

 At School on the Rise, each of our students will decide which animals they want to have Heifer donate to a hungry family. They then set goals of how many times they will jump rope during the week. By getting relatives, friends, and neighbors to sponsor them for a certain amount per hundred jumps, they turn a week of jumping rope into a donation to help others.

The Jump-a-thon started in 2012 when six students raised $1,285; their goal had been to raise $720. One student that year jumped 9.000 times in the Jump-a-thon week. Since then, the amount raised each year has grown as the number of students participating has grown. Chicks, honeybees, and goats are the animals most frequently given by our students, although some have given sheep, rabbits, or even a llama or water buffalo.

The Jump-a-thon involves goal-setting, as students set challenging but achievable goals; people skills, as they talk to potential sponsors; perseverance, as they work toward those last hundred jumps each day; and follow-through, as they go back to their sponsors to collect the donations.

Most of our students can jump one hundred times in less than a minute, so jumping 2,000 times a day is a very reasonable time commitment. But if their goal is 10,000 jumps for the week, and their legs are hurting Wednesday morning, they really have to work hard to meet that goal.

I would love to have students at other schools join us or do their own Jump-a-thon. So please contact me if you'd like to learn more.

David Darcy

Announcing the Alt Ed Job Board

Almost as soon as this website went live, back in 2011, I started receiving messages from educators looking for jobs in the kinds of schools and educational programs that were featured here. Many of these inquiries came from teachers or administrators working in traditional school systems who were nearing the burnout stage and looking for a workplace where they could re-engage their creative talents, reignite their love of the learning process, and feel better supported both professionally and personally. Others were people who had attended or worked in alternative education in other regions and were interested in moving to Austin specifically to be part of a larger ecosystem of like-minded educators.

I tried my best to connect these job seekers with members of Alt Ed Austin’s network of schools and other educational programs that might have openings, but this tended to be a hit-or-miss proposition. It was time consuming, too.

Soon I also began to get requests from schools to post job openings somehow on the website. But I didn’t really have a good place or mechanism for doing so, and I wasn’t sure it fit into Alt Ed Austin’s primary mission of serving families looking for educational options. Still, I kept informally passing along information about job openings to prospective job candidates, and vice versa.

Then I received a desperate plea from a parent whose child’s beloved teacher was moving across the country for family reasons. She wrote, “We love the school. We love the teacher who is leaving. Our child and his classmates have been thriving here. But our school director and community are having a heck of a hard time finding someone who could even come close to filling her shoes. Can you help?” This parent’s message convinced me that helping fill open positions in alternative education falls squarely within Alt Ed Austin’s mission. Of course families want to know that open spots will be filled in a timely manner by great educators who are the best fits for their learning communities.

Thus was born the Alt Ed Job Board. I’m proud and excited to say that it’s been in its pilot stage for a couple of months now and is officially here to stay. Please pass the word (and link!) to anyone you know who is looking for fulfilling work in education or who has a position to fill in a learner-centered school, enrichment program, summer camp, or other education-focused organization. And to those in the midst of a search: I hope you find the perfect match.