The Cottage Way

You know, one of our Cottage-speak catch phrases is “the Cottage way”. I used it in another post, without further explanation, because we are cultural insiders here.  Families use it all the time at debrief and in our surveys, to indicate whether or not something was in line with our collective philosophy.  It’s …something about…child led?   A “yes environment”?   If you want to be fancy, “emergent curriculum”?

In conversation with a Cottage friend the other day, I realized that we, who are shaping this program, have a clear vision about what we mean by this “Cottage way”, but we don’t often articulate it very clearly.  I’m going to try to tell you all about it, because now more than ever, I think that what we do is revolutionary, critical, and valuable to our kids.  There is a key word that I want you to keep in mind through what I’m about to tell you: empathy.

The Cottage way is about valuing each child as the singular, beautiful, complex human that they already are.  Every single child needs to be heard and understood.  Each  child needs attention. Each child has special challenges, and lots of abilities.  Each child has huge feelings that erupt from time to time.  Each child needs to feel loved and wanted. Each child needs to feel that we respect and appreciate the person that they are, exactly as they are.  I want to show you how that looks in our classroom, because mostly it’s almost invisible.

  • The cars have been out for two months, in the same area, because one kid plays with them every day. Often he plays by himself, but sometimes, he is able to let other kids into his game, into conversation, into his world for a few minutes or half an hour. Our hearts soar, and we do everything we can to facilitate that kind of thing happening again.

  • Some kids love to feel their bodies in contact with all kinds of sensations: fabrics, slime, sand, landing on a wrestling mat, or crashing on bikes. Other kids never take off their shoes, avoid crowded hand-washing scenarios, and refuse to paint because even touching paint with a brush feels gooey in an agonizing way. We watch, listen, try, and offer curriculum as invitations to kids. Each child’s response to what we have offered is discussed and weighed.

  • If behavior is communication, then when a child tests limits, they are asking us to affirm that we are keeping them safe. When a child hits, they are showing us that they are not in control of their body right now, and that they have flipped into “fight or flight”. That’s a person who needs our support and help to calm down.

  • Sometimes we allow some not harmful but annoying behavior to take place, because it’s the best strategy that kid has right now for making the other kids laugh. We can follow up with more strategies later, but in that moment, we just want to make room for that kid to hear a little “yes”, when so much of what they try is a “no”.

  • When it’s quiet, we go sit down with a kid who is not ready to come ask us for attention.

It’s not the same for everybody. This one might get more time on the swing, and that one might get more special talks, and that’s because those two children are two different people, and we see them for who they are when they are with us. Whatever they come to work on, we work with them. Whatever they bring that needs working out, we work it out together. We accept, love, and respect them and all that they are. We do this because that’s the Cottage way. We don’t give up. We love them just as they are. We keep supporting them, and we are there cheering when they can do it themselves.

When we engage with each other, adults and children in our community, in the Cottage way,  we are laying the foundation for a life where empathy and compassion are central. We make room for who you are. We acknowledge that we may not be the same, and I may not even understand you right now, but we both have value. That’s understanding that our kids will take with them into every part of their future life.


JocelynNeil Symes