Imagine a school where pre-schoolers are accorded all the rights and responsibilities of democratic citizenship: where students truly practice, rather than just read about (when they are old enough to study Social Studies in the typical 5th grade) the principles of free speech, free association and freedom to choose their own activities; where students vote on the rules that affect them. What better training can we offer to cultivate a true spirit of democracy in them? Many people are skeptical that a school of that sort could ever work. They wonder whether children, given such power, would make reasonable decisions, either for the school as an institution or for themselves as individuals.* One day, while I was in the garden, a couple of children came running down from our semi-indoor space complaining at the top of their voices, “This boy pulled my hair.” The boy was complaining, “but, the girls were yelling at me.” There was a visible excitement to share their own versions of what had happened. “I need to sit down to listen to all of you,” I said, sitting down to come to the height of the children and started listening while maintaining an eye contact and curbing adult tendencies to offer a solution. The girls started complaining in unison, “Boys are so mean.” Then, the boy said something similar about girls. Meanwhile, our seven-year-old boy who was swinging until now, stopped the swing and made a wise comment, “I have no idea why they are saying boys are mean and boys are saying girls are mean. Boys and girls are exactly the same from inside.” I acknowledged, “That is a very interesting perspective”. When we have child-led conflicts, the solution also needs to be child-led. Unlike a typical pre-school where adults become worried that the four-year-olds would fight, and as a result, decide to split them apart or offer a solution, at Sahaj, it being a democratic kindergarten, our adult policy is to TRUST children. And our job remains to be gentle moderators as we decide what to do next.
It is a common misconception that a child-led approach means a child does whatever he/she wants. Rather, a child-led approach is way too nuanced than to box it into brackets.
Loosely speaking, a child-led approach entails the child is free to choose what he/she wishes to do, as long as there is no real safety hazard (physical, mental & emotional) involved. As childcare givers, we are aware that kindergartners with their still developing brain functions are likely to get into hitting & pulling of hair, it becomes our job to support them to self-regulate. It is pretty unfortunate that most of the pre-schools are operating without taking into consideration psychological research.
Rule No.#1 Moving on, as I was engaged in deep listening, Our six-year-old suddenly proposed , “let us make a new rule. No one can pull each other’s hair.” My standard response is to ask for everyone’s vote, I quickly asked everyone, “does everyone agree?” All of them said in unison (including the five-year-old who had pulled the four-year-old’s hair), “Yes”. We have a new rule. Let us write down our new rule. Our old rule chart had no space left and hence, we decided to make a new poster. There was absolutely no confusion, only clarity. We re-visited our old rules and started discussing new rules- Rule no. #2 The existing rule of No Snatching stayed. Rule no. # 3The children went on to suggest the rule, “No yelling.” I inquired with a curious mind, “Are you sure? Since, when you all are excited or happy, sometimes, there is yelling. So, our six year old responded, “NO yelling at each other. But, yelling in excitement is allowed.” I repeated this perspective and I asked them all, “do you all agree?” They said “YES!” Rule no. #4 We had an existing rule about avoiding the usage of mobile phones. I inquired, what about this rule? Our seven-year-old said, “Phones can be used for taking pictures and videos. But, cannot be used to watching videos, since we come here to play with each other. Phones can also be used to receive important calls.” I did my inquiry part, “does everyone agree?” All of them did. Rule No. # 5 axed. A few days back, we had made a verbal rule (with the consensus of all children) that children can be pushed on a swing by adults only for 10 minutes. Many a time, they have complained that this rule is not fair. So, I inquired with all of them, and they said this rule was fine. We have no need to change this rule.
When children are treated fairly, they know what it means to be fair to others.
Rule No.# 6The existing rule to offer privacy while there is someone in the bathroom was also accepted. Rule No.# 7 axed: Our now six-year-old who was five when she had recommended that we should make extra lemonade for our youngest child at Sahaj said that now, our youngest doesn't need extra lemonade. So, this rule was decided to be axed. For a school with no rules, we have our own set of rules that have evolved over time as the situation demanded. Once, we co-decide the rules, there has never been a violation of the rule till now. Everyone including our now four-year-old (who is the youngest) follows these rules. For instance, once one of our five-year-old who had kept the washroom door open while using the washroom. Our five-year-old and six-year-old went there to wash hands, they exited the bathroom to offer privacy and moved to an alternative hand washing area. The other day our four-year-old wished to watch a video; when she was reminded of the Sahaj rule, she gave up on her demand and started doing something else.
My self-observed theory on human behaviour is that it is far easier to build consensus on rules rather than impose them. When children understand that they are responsible for themselves and the community, this knowledge develops self-confidence, self-esteem and self-knowledge.
Sahaj in it's attempt to offer democratic space (to the youngest children as well) has led us into nurturing young children who clearly know they have a voice and that their "voice matters".
As we see every day in our work at Sahaj, if RESPECT & TRUST are offered, children make reasonable and fair decisions not only for themselves, but also for the community. *Many democratic schools exist and by all reasonable measures, they have proven successful. Some of them have existed for decades, and they serve students as young as four onwards, all the way through the teenage years. Such schools have produced many hundreds of graduates, who have gone on to success in all walks of life.