Unplug & Play! A Living School book review

Paula Estes and her intrepid students at The Living School play a lot of games—and learn a lot while playing them. In fact, games are an intrinsic part of their curriculum. So of course they jumped at the chance to review a new book of games for Alt Ed Austin’s readers. Here are their educated opinions.

About a month ago, the students at The Living School set out to explore the book Unplug & Play! 50 Games That Don’t Need Charging, by Brad Berger. Each week we chose a few games to play, discussed our experiences, and worked to get an overall feel for this new book of games. We hope our review is helpful.

The fifty games in this book are grouped into six categories, allowing every student to find games that really spoke to them. While one set of games may require focus and memory recall, another may challenge your word building or problem solving skills. Some of the best games were the bluffing games, where reading the personalities of the other players was key.

We found that most of the games required personal interactions, and many of them led us to learn more about the other players. We were challenged to use our imaginations, let loose, and have fun. The scorekeeping and competitive aspects took a back seat to the laughter and silliness.  

The Six Categories of Games

  1. “Matchmaker, Matchmaker”—making lists to compare with others
  2. “Call My Bluff”—creatively learn more about other players
  3. “That’s My Plan and I'm Sticking to It”—strategy games designed to make a plan to reach a goal
  4. “Ready, Set, Go!”—speed to the answer before others playing the game
  5. “Try to Remember”—memory games
  6. “I’m Puzzled”—easy-to-create puzzles

We all agreed that there were some great new finds in this book. We tried more than 25 games and decided that at least half of those are ones we will play again. Our favorite games came primarily from three sections: “Matchmaker,” “Call My Bluff,” and “Try to Remember.” These games had us laughing hysterically and wanting to play again and again. Our three favorite games were Popular Match, What You Didn't Know about Bob, and Uncommon Combos.

Learning a new game at The Living School
We discussed some of the pros of the book:

  • Great for playing in the car, around a campfire, on road trips, or as party games
  • Nothing but a pencil and paper required
  • A good variety of games, with something for everyone

Some of the cons:

  • It would be helpful to give a suggested age range for the games.
  • Some of the games had very complicated scoring. (We tended to make up our own scoring when needed.)
  • There were some games we tried but never played because the directions were too confusing and frustrating.
  • It would be helpful to put a range for the number of players for each game. (Groups of 4 or 5 seemed best.)
  • The book itself (a paperback) is a bit flimsy and might not hold up well over time and use.

Living School kids play a bluffing game around the campfire

Overall, we think this book is worth the purchase, as it encourages many types of games that will get people laughing and talking, using their imaginations, and challenging their memories. We love games and will continue to play many of these at school, around the campfire, and with our families.

Paula Estes

Why did the chicken cross the schoolyard?

One of my clients, new to Austin, recently asked me, “What’s up with chickens on campus? Seems like all the cool schools around here have them.” We Austinites love our backyard chickens, and I am no exception, but her question got me thinking. Why do so many alternative schools, each with a different educational approach, make hens and other domestic animals important parts of their curricula and learning environments?

I asked educators and students in the local alt ed community. Their answers—some detailed and complex, others beautifully simple—were full of surprises and insights. Here’s what they shared, in words and pictures.


Animals are an important part of our community at the schoolhouse. They help us meet our commitment to real sustainability, and they are wonderful companions too! We keep chickens at the neighborhood garden on our block. Every day the kids have jobs to contribute to the work of the schoolhouse. Each week they take a turn on Kitchen Patrol or Chicken Patrol. The Chicken Patrol feeds, waters, fills the nesting boxes with straw, collects eggs, and enjoys the company of our eight hens. We find it a wonderful way to build connection, feed kids’ curiosity about living things, and teach responsibility and practical skills as well. It is also a visceral encounter with “closing the loop”: we use our chicken poop to fertilize our garden beds via a “chicken tractor”; the feathered ladies scratch and turn up the ground, eating bugs and depositing free fertilizer in the garden!

The kids just love playing with the birds, and are so proud to take home eggs each week. We have a Coop Co-op where participating parents bring in a bag of feed in exchange for a turn on the egg rotation. Fresh eggs can’t be beat! And the kids get the pleasure of sharing the bounty with their families at home.

We also have two cats at the schoolhouse: Super Cat, and the more elusive Guthrie. Everyone works to build the trust of the cats, learns how to pet them gently, and is always on the lookout for a Guthrie spotting. (She is the more skittish and of course becomes the prodigal cat when she sneaks up on the porch during the quiet of Class Lesson time!) The kitties often provide a cozy comfort to someone who needs a little love.

—Caitlin Macklin, founder and mentor, 9th Street Schoolhouse


The Austin EcoSchool community was recently joined by a cheerful flock of seven fowl: six hens and one rooster who has very feathery feet! Our flock was donated by a parent who has been raising chickens and goats in the city for some time.

In our Morning Circle last week we talked about chickens, what we know and don’t know about taking care of them. Many of the kids have had some experience and were generous with their knowledge—thank goodness, since I know so very little about the subject!

The kids are, of course, all agog at the new additions and spend time with them every day. We’ve been collecting eggs and using them in various cooking projects. There is talk of selling eggs a little later on. We’re also planning to add some chicks to the flock, and eventually we’ll even have pygmy goats!

On the subject of urban school farms, our squash plants are going bonkers; there are squash blossoms everywhere! The baby fig tree has wee, cute baby figs on it, and the asparagus plant is pushing up more asparagus shoots. It’s amazing what some rain will do!

We’re so excited to be expanding our school farm and edible campus, and I invite everyone to come by and check it out.

—Cheryl Kruckeberg, campus director, Austin EcoSchool


Our animals are a great asset to the Tinkering School. They are often the first thing that kids connect with when arriving; they help in adjusting to the new environment. They’re a comfort and provide a lot of comic relief and entertainment!

—Kami Wilt, director and founder, Austin Tinkering School


We have chickens, a donkey, two mama goats, and three baby goats at Inside Outside School, with more babies due any day. The students feed the animals, collect eggs, hang out in the barnyard, and love on our animal friends. Soon we will all be learning how to milk a goat and how to make cheese and soap.

The students have integrated study projects to learn more about animal husbandry and also grow foods in the garden for the animals. Three of our own hens’ eggs hatched last spring, and the students got to watch them grow and change daily. In a world that sometimes seems short on compassion, caring for animals is one incredible way to grow children with big hearts!

—Deborah Hale, executive director, Inside Outside School


Animals are an important and personal way to experience the life cycle and to accept and marvel at how amazing it is.

—Paula Estes, director and teacher, The Living School


They love us no matter what, and they teach us to love and care for something other than just ourselves.

—Adam, student, The Living School


The kids absolutely love them! At Whole Life Learning Center we have 20 chickens, a goat named Eleanor, and a mini-donkey named Gertrude. The kids help with their daily care, collecting eggs and tossing chicken scratch, putting out hay and water, and, most importantly, giving them love and attention. They learn about meeting those basic needs as well as some of the more involved aspects of animal husbandry, like training a stubborn donkey to walk on a lead!

The kids are so sensitive to the animals’ needs; it’s beautiful to see their senses of empathy and responsibility develop in relation to our feathered and four-legged friends. And it goes both ways: when a child needs some quiet time or wants to practice reading, she can go sit with Gertrude and Eleanor and chat or read with them—good friends always listen.

Oh, and finally, they get to see how the animals fit into the whole ecosystem. The chickens give us tasty eggs, the donkey protects the chickens from predators (and protects the gardens from vegetarian predators too), and Gertrude and Ellie serve as our lawn service, complete with fertilizer for the gardens!

—Michael Carberry, founder, director, and mentor,
Whole Life Learning Center


Hi, my name is Averi, and I’m a student at the Whole Life Learning Center. It is a really awesome school and we really love animals. This school really helps fullfill my passion for animals because it has tons of animals, like Gertrude the mini donkey, Ellie the goat, and a lot of chickens. I think that animals can teach just as well as humans, just different things. As Nelly, one of my friends at WLLC, says, “Animals can be teachers too!” Human teachers teach stuff like math, reading, and writing, and animals teach things like love, responsibility, and a sense of purpose. I wrote a quote: “You can study all you want, but true learning comes from experience.”

—Averi, student, Whole Life Learning Center


The art and science of giving

One of the many practical skills students learn at The Living School is the art and science of giving. Director and teacher Paula Estes guest blogs about how and why service projects form a core part of the curriculum at this unique microschool.

Life's most persistent and urgent
question is: What are you doing
for others?

                —Martin Luther King Jr.

When Teri asked me if I was interested in writing a guest blog post for her fabulous new website, I knew immediately what I wanted to write about. Service projects are a vital and regular part of our school community, but like many of the things we do at the Living School, they grew out of our everyday experiences.

Raking leaves for neighbors is just one of The Living School’s frequent and varied service projects.

Years ago when the kids were younger, we had conversations on our walks to the neighborhood park about litter and why people throw trash on the ground. This led to regular trash walks in our neighborhood to clean it up. We often plugged into seasonal opportunities to donate or volunteer. Each fall we gathered our too-small coats and donated them to Coats For Kids; each spring we gathered school supplies to donate to Manos de Cristo's Back-to-School program.

It wasn’t until about three years ago that I realized the potential for service projects as a regular part of our learning experience. In the month before winter break we were discussing our tradition of making gifts for each other, and one of the kids said, “Maybe we should just give the money we would spend on making gifts to people who need it.” That year at our winter family potluck we had our first Giving Tree. Kids individually researched and chose nonprofit organizations to which they would give small financial donations or volunteer their time. They shared with the group at a ceremony what they had learned about their chosen organizations and how they were working to solve particular problems in the world. I was amazed at the diversity of the kids’ chosen organizations and at the thought they had put into their selections. As a result of this positive experience, we began to weave regular service projects into our learning.

We often combine our projects with field trips to see how our work relates to the bigger picture. For instance, after gathering food for the Capital Area Food Bank, we took a tour and learned about the millions of pounds of food that are distributed each year, the thousands of volunteers who work to sort the food, the companies that lend trucks to transport it to smaller food pantries, and the local businesses that give food that would otherwise spoil and end up in a landfill. Trips like these give us a sense of what one person—connected with a larger organization—can do. Suddenly we no longer feel powerless.

Service projects also create great opportunities to build on kids’ interests, which can lead us down diverse and unexpected paths. For example, many of my students feel a strong connection to animals, so we have been drawn to making treats for chimps at a primate sanctuary and helping Austin Pets Alive! in various ways.

Other projects arise as a result of a current event or natural disaster. Building toiletry kits for earthquake victims in another country or collecting books and toys for a child who has lost it all in a local fire can help kids feel empowered in a situation they may find scary or overwhelming.

In preparation for writing this post, I asked the kids what their favorite service projects were. They almost unanimously chose the big Heifer International family fundraising effort we conducted over the recent winter holidays. These are a few of the reasons they gave:

  • “It helps you learn about people in another region of the world.”
  • “It helps people, it’s not just charity . . . it helps them to help themselves.”
  • “It has that ripple effect of the gift.”
  • “Writing the letters helped us with our writing skills.”
  • “You let us choose how to raise the money.”

This last comment came from a kid who took a unique approach to earning the money. Adam asked the owner of his neighborhood corner store if he could set up a lemonade stand on a Saturday in front of the store. Not only did the owner allow it, but he also donated the cups and ingredients to make the lemonade. With each customer, Adam was able to share his project, his goal, and information about Heifer International. He had a vision, and he made it happen!

When Teri asked me to relate why I felt it was important to include service projects in the curriculum, I was reminded of a conversation I had with a youth from a local high school one Saturday while working in a community garden. When I asked him how he chose this project, he simply said, “I have to complete a certain number of hours to graduate, and this looked like the least boring of the choices.” My reaction was: how sad. I don’t want our children to do service projects simply because they will look good on their college applications.

These are some of the reasons we do service projects at our school:

  • They help connect us to our local community and to see ourselves as part of the larger world community.
  • They build empathy and compassion by introducing us to the challenges and concerns of others.
  • They encourage goal setting, problem solving, independence, and creativity while drawing on students’ interests.

Making this list made me wonder what the kids thought—so I asked them. Here are a few of their answers:

  • “With friends, the work of service projects feels more fun and less like a chore. Once you do it with school friends you might be more likely to do it with your family another time.”
  • “It gives you a challenge—how am I going to work toward this?”
  • (and my all-time favorite) “When you do it and you are being educated about it, you will grow up to do it and teach that to your kids!”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Paula Estes

Big words


Paula Estes has a tradition of surprising her students at the annual Living School holiday potluck with gifts they’ve designed themselves without knowing it. This year was no exception.

Last week she invited the kids to write a few sentences on what they like about their school, leading them to believe it was for some other purpose. Then she stealthily loaded their responses into the “word cloud” generator at Wordle (where words that appear more frequently in the source text are given more prominence), and voilà! The new school t-shirt design was born. The shirts were a hit at the holiday party, and families report that they were inspired to try some interesting things with Wordle at home.

I am struck by the amount of love in this cloud (and this school community). Which words would rise to prominence in a word cloud about your school?