Open Connections

  • Op Grounds canoe
Natural Learning in the Open Program

Written by Michelle Brockway, Facilitator. Originally printed in the Fall 2019 OC Magazine.


At Open Connections, we believe that all people have the right and privilege to create a self-directed life of purpose and fulfillment. We also believe that young people are born with a natural curiosity about the world. How do you approach nurturing this natural curiosity which is the root of a self-directed life? What does self-directed learning look like in the early years of development? Do you introduce youth to new materials or topics or information to see which direction they take? Do you ask your youth, “What do you wish to learn more about?” Perhaps you could take a totally hands-off approach, stepping back and offering no direction whatsoever. We believe that a mix of these approaches will best nurture natural curiosity. We aspire to make learning and soaking up new information as exciting and purposeful as possible each day by offering a broad range of experiences and approaches for the budding life-long learners who join us in the Open Program (OP).


One of the approaches we take is offering new materials or new ideas in open-ended activities. This encourages the creative minds of young people and Facilitators alike. Each may pursue a different path from the same beginning, leading to a plethora of outcomes. For example, one youth may choose to follow the given recipe to make slime (an OP favorite) while another might alter the recipe and make paint. Yet another might make slime using different ratios of the given ingredients, learning the science of which ingredients govern which attributes of the slime. We recognize the importance of exposure to new ideas and materials, speaking to the adage of “You don’t know what you don’t know.” By offering open-ended activities we support the creative thinking and curiosity of each individual.


One of our goals in the OP has been to invite young people to share their wishes with the Facilitators, and then we work to build their ideas into our offerings. We do this in a variety of ways. One such way is by taking a poll during Group Time. By including the youth in the decision-making process, it is clear to them from the get-go that their voice matters. Said another way, the ideas and wishes of a four-year-old are honored and valued as much as a forty-year-old Facilitator. We use this knowledge of individual’s interests as a spring-board to support them in digging deeper into specific topics. Sometimes through a poll we discover that there is a common interest, say, everyone wants to learn more about making pizza (or maybe just eating it). Pizza seems to be a recurring yearly interest and the “how to” for Facilitators is how to follow through with these requests and create new learning at the same time? Perhaps we offer pizza-making through studying Italy. Perhaps we create a math activity and take advantage of the use of fractions through measurements. Yet another approach to pizza-making is to take a scientific approach and experiment with the growth of yeast at different temperatures or environments.


While Facilitators seek new beginnings and new offerings each day, there are always opportunities for youth to arrive at OC with their own thoughts and ideas for their time in the OP on that specific day. Our goal is to strike a balance. We see the benefit of Facilitator-initiated or led activities, and we also see the tremendous value of letting the day unfold organically, with the youth taking the reins of their day, so to speak. If you were to pop into the OP on any given day, you would likely witness a mixture of these approaches. You’d see a cluster of youth happily engaged at the art table where a Facilitator has set out some materials for the youth to engage with however they wish (an example of Facilitator-initiated activity— meaning, the Facilitator initiated setting up these materials, but is not directing how they are used.) In another part of the room, you’d likely see a youth working one-on-one with a Facilitator engaging in a Conceptual Development activity such as Attribute Blocks/Venn Diagrams. Such an activity would fall under the category of Facilitator-led. If you cast your eyes towards the environments (two-story play structures in the OP), you’d likely witness a lively fantasy based game that is a reflection of a pure youth-initiated and led activity, or perhaps you’d see two youth working diligently in the woodshop making a new bookcase for their bedroom (a self-directed project). Think of each of these types of approaches (Facilitator-led, Facilitator-initiated, youth-led, and self-directed) as squares in a patchwork quilt; each individual square is important, beautiful, and unique. However, the real magic comes when you sew together the pieces; a vibrant quilt is born.


As life-long learners ourselves, we (OC Facilitators) have to be conscious of our process. Because we genuinely love to learn more about the world around us, it is easy for us to fall prey to the notion that it’s our job to share every idea, wish and activity that comes to our mind. However, sometimes the deepest learning on the part of the young people comes when we step back and don’t jump in with a pre-planned activity or project. For those of you who have not stepped foot in the OP (and I highly encourage you to come down and get a tour) it is filled with materials of all kinds ranging from writing and drawing materials, to math manipulatives, building materials to take-aparts. A woodshop (with real hammers, saws, drills, etc.), sewing and handwork area, and lab table are further examples of the breadth and depth of what’s offered in the OP. One day last spring, we purposely left the tables and work spaces empty. We watched with curiosity as the youth arrived, wondering what they would say when they saw those empty tables. One youth approached a Facilitator and said, “what are we doing today?!” and the Facilitator responded “whatever you wish to do.” Facilitators watched as youth continued to arrive. Some youth immediately immersed themselves in projects, while others spent a little while meandering throughout the program space before deciding on a material to explore, game to play, or person to play alongside. As Facilitators, we were there to offer support when asked, but were conscious of not asserting our ideas or agenda into their day. One youth took the time to sew a dress, another spent time exploring tools in the woodshop. One youth asked to explore the creek and catch frogs, while another wished to listen to stories read by a peer. In every direction, the room was filled with new learning and exploring. This day served as a great reminder of how self-directed learning and natural curiosity are so closely intertwined. We plan to incorporate more of these “empty” days into the OP, while keeping a balance of Facilitator-initiated and Facilitator-led activities as well. It’s been a wonderful summer mixed with relaxation and staff development, and we are thrilled to have the OP space abuzz again with the sound of laughter, and the bountiful energy that our OP youth display. Welcome back!