Open Connections

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Open Program: Supporting the Development of Life-long Learners

At the conclusion of each program year, we take time to reflect upon the year and to say goodbye to Open Program youth who are moving up to Group Tutorial. A lot changes from September to June; everyone is taller, many have toothless grins, and most importantly, significant developmental growth has taken place during this time period. It’s always bittersweet when it is time for our oldest OPers to fly from the nest. Okay, not quite from the nest; it is time for them to venture out of the OP and head on to new adventures at OC. I believe that each program at OC is amazing in its own unique way, and at the same time I feel the OP is the heart of OC. This is where it started back in the 1970’s with Co-founders Susan Shilcock and Peter Bergson. This is the beginning of it all and I am fortunate to be part of this life-long adventure.


The OP is designed for youth ages 4-9, with the largest clusters in the 4-7 age range. Each year, I find myself wondering what the drive is for certain youth to leave the OP and move on to Group Tutorial. I decided to find out for myself. As I queried various youth I found a consistency among their responses. The top responses that I’ve heard a number of times over the years are as follows:

  • “Tutorial looks really fun!”
  • “I wanted to try something different.”
  • “ My mom said I have to try a different program next year and that I am too old for the OP.”
  • “ My parents said I have done everything there is to do since I have been here for four years.”
  • “My friends are all going and I want to be with them.”


I have been in the OP for thirteen years(!) and feel it is my duty to help both parents and youth alike recognize the countless benefits of time spent in the OP—including extended time (3+ years, 3 days a week!). I have come to love this space of exploration, self-directed learning and freedom of creativity as a mother of my youth (who have all attended OP), as well as on behalf of all youth who attend OC. In addition, I get to witness first-hand the countless opportunities my co-Facilitators and I have to engage in lifelong learning and to indulge our natural curiosity. Open Connections, and the Open Program in particular, is a place I wish I had experienced when I was growing up. I can’t imagine why anyone would ever want to leave. Okay, maybe I’m partial since I am the Open Program Coordinator, but I definitely feel there is more to it than initially meets the eye.


Our main goals in the OP are to support the youth so that they can become self-directed individuals. Giving them this support at an early age will help them grow into independent, life-long learners. By the time they venture out to new experiences they are ready to take their own initiative for learning and are persistent in doing so. They are developed problem solvers ready to tackle all challenges and obstacles with a can-do attitude. They have become responsible for their own actions. They have a natural sense of curiosity and a hunger to learn more. Most of all, their sense of confidence to be who they are is strong.


I hear people say that they have done all there is to do in the OP but I beg to differ. Even with the repeated exposure to a material or activity there is new learning happening. I will never forget a particular youth who loved to explore antlers, learning about the size and shape from different animals. Feeling the weight and imagining how it would feel carrying them around all day, he looked at them time and time again. As he got older he started to notice small intricacies about them; the designs they had and how two antlers from the same animal seemed to match. He came up with observations like, “This is how you can tell if you find two antlers from the same moose” and questions such as, “Do the markings tell a story?” This led us into research and finding out more about antlers and the stories they tell. When he was four years old and just starting the OP, he did not show this interest in the details, but instead was more amazed by the size of the antlers, and loved the touch of them. I have to wonder if he would have had the time and flexibility to go into further exploration on this topic if he had been in a more structured, traditional learning environment or if he hadn’t spent multiple years, multiple days a week in the OP. This antler scenario is just one such example of the ways in which OP youth approach their learning and investigation differently as they age, despite being in the same environment for multiple years.


I hasten to clarify that we are not just repeating activities over and over again. There are many examples of activities and materials which grow with youth and adults over time. These activities will stay in our “treasured” collection and youth will see them more than once, while other OP activities are rotated throughout the years to keep things fresh. Facilitators in the OP work diligently to come up with new, creative and captivating activities each day to keep youth inspired to try new things. At OC we believe that all people are born naturally curious; the OP fosters that curiosity through the flow of the program.


As I gathered information from the youth about their reasoning for moving on to new beginnings, I also inquired about what they love about the OP. What do they miss most about the OP? Again, so many of their answers were similar to one another. “I love that I can choose activities that I like to do and there are so many to choose from.” Another youth shared that, “I like that activities are out all day and I can choose when to do them.” Yet another youth commented that he “enjoys all of the outside learning we do.” A veteran OPer shared that she “likes that activities are different every day and every year.” I have to agree with the youth on this matter. I know all of the hard work and preparation my co-Facilitators put into creating this enriching environment. The low ratio of Facilitators to youth gives us the flexibility to take youth on small group explorations. Youth could choose to go on a nature hike early in the day while others are inside working in the woodshop, sewing a pillow or playing a math game. This is one of the many reasons the OP is such a special space. We have the ability to choose topics of interest to explore and the flexibility to change the day around when the youth’s energy level or interests dictate the desire or need. We can dig deeply into the varying and ever-changing interests of each youth and help keep the flame of their natural curiosity burning brightly.


So, parents and youth alike, I ask you: Why rush your time in the OP, a self-directed, ever-changing environment? I can admit to my selfishness of not wanting to lose the ones I have come to love. I form such a special bond with these wonderful youth and I am blessed to spend my days learning and growing with each one of them. Although deep down I have these feelings, they are not the reasons for sharing this. I feel the OP has so much to offer. I find my own time in the Open Program to be engaging and personally fulfilling. In my opinion, even older youth and adults could benefit greatly from a program designed in this way. Consider carefully all of these amazing aspects before zooming on out.


I promise you, opportunities for new learning abound!