In the News
By Benjamin Smith
When the day's activities involve finger painting, playing in a sandbox and doing crafts with lots of sparkles you expect it to be a little messy, but the Little Red Wagon Playschool may just have a perfect mess.
The Newton based preschool, which has a campus in Sudbury, is featured in a new book called "The Perfect Mess." The book, co-authored by Needham resident David Freedman and Columbia business professor Eric Abrahamson, explores the hidden benefits of being messy. According to the book messy desks are signs of an efficient manager and messy homes are more healthful for children. Perhaps the most famous benefit explored in the book is the accidental discovery of Penicillin.
Little Red Wagon, which has an entire chapter devoted to it, is featured as one of the many businesses that thrive with what the authors call a "messy philosophy."
"Red Wagon is just a wonderful example of a mess," Freedman said. "A lot of other schools frown on kid's messy ways. They are bigger about order and how you are supposed to learn."
"Every time I went to visit (Little Red Wagon) they never had a lesson plan, never," he explains. "They let the kids do what they were interested in and with the help of the kids evolve a lesson."
The idea at Little Red Wagon is to use a child's own interest in an activity to turn it into a teachable moment. Teachers are trained to look for learning opportunities as the students learn. It can lead to a lot of improvisational lessons based on students activities. One example in the book is of a young boy pounding a doll with a block, when a teacher expressed interest and asked him about what he was doing, the boy explained he needed an injured patient on which to practice medicine. Soon half the class was involved in running a hospital.
"It ended up being a week long project about medicine and how the body works," Freedman said.
The school has built its philosophy on a practice that has been used for decades in Italy, according to director Gail Leftin. Rather than producing a typical classroom environment Leftin describes the school as more of a studio encouraging the flow of ideas, activities and lessons.
The benefits, according to Leftin, are that students learn to love to learn. They enjoy school and are excited by the prospect of learning something new. Children are encouraged to be creative and use their imaginations in any way that might suit them. In addition, Little Red Wagon has few power struggles between students and teachers. The children are doing activities that they want to rather than what they are told to do.
"When children learn from a poster, or from a teacher's lesson, then what they're really learning is how to follow directions and remember facts," Leftin states in "A Perfect Mess."
Leftin admits she was apprehensive about the title of the book, or having her school being thought of as messy.
"It's not what the school is; not how we wanted to be thought of," she said. "but he did a great job in explaining the philosophy of our school."
It's the philosophy of the school that is the focus of the chapter and one that can be in conflict with educational trends and legislation like No Child Left Behind with its testing to academic standards being required at younger ages.
"There is kind of this battle going on with early childhood as society redefines our goals." Leftin said.
Leftin added that teachers at Little Red Wagon are well aware of the national and state academic standards. They work to incorporate lessons about shapes, letters and colors so that it's students are prepared when they enter kindergarten. Almost all of her students go into kindergarten with knowledge above the minimum standards for early childhood, she said.
Since "A Perfect Mess" was released in January, it has been featured in segments on the Today Show, CBS Sunday Morning and NPR. A Canadian broadcasting firm has visited Little Red Wagon to film a documentary about the school and explore its teaching methods.
"We had a number of parents that wanted to come just for the day that the film crew would be here," said Leftin.
Little Red Wagon PlaySchool is located at 31B Union Avenue. It offers half day and full day classes for children aged 3 months to 5 years and can be reached at 978-440-7220.