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Play Mountain Place: A Problem-

Solving Place for Children and Families

By Michelle Weiner Woolner

Dan and Robin, seven year olds at Play Mountain Place, wanted to change the limit about bringing Yu-Gi-Oh cards to school once a week.   Clipboard in hand, they circulated around the Mountain Yard, where thirty-seven elementary students and their teachers were playing basketball, reading, digging in the sand, eating, building sleds in the woodworking area and face-painting on the stage.   The boys, having first negotiated between themselves who would carry the clipboard and who would do the asking, brought their petition to each person in the yard.   After gaining substantial support for their proposal, they would form a committee to come up with new limits, based on the issues and concerns of each committee member.   With their extensive experience with conflict resolution and problem solving, the committee is rarely tempted to resolve issues through voting.   They have already experienced that voting can disempower the minority voice.   The discussion will continue or be carried into another meeting until a consensus is reached.

In the Little Nursery Yard, three year olds Sara and Ella both want to use the blue bucket.   Renee, their teacher, asks if they have any ideas about how to work out the problem.   After considering the idea of using the bucket together, or one person using the red bucket, or one person waiting 5 minutes, Sara decides she doesn't want to play with buckets and says she wants to do a different plan.   Ella says she still wants to use the blue bucket, but she wants help checking with Jamie to see if he will help her fill a pool with sand, using the bucket. Renee says she wants to check with everyone using the pool to see if the sand plan works for them. She says she will also help Ella check with Jamie about her idea..

These children live a philosophy that encourages decision-making and self-regulation and that minimizes competition and encourages cooperation in an atmosphere of deep respect for differences. The process they engage in promotes creativity and resourcefulness. The solutions to a given problem can be worked out in so many different ways, with peers and adults available to support.

Play Mountain Place was founded in 1949 by Phyllis Fleishman as a pre-school that was respectful of each child's individuality.   She encouraged self-motivation, expression of feelings, and strong bonds of friendship.   In expanding the school for older children, the program was modeled after and influenced by the humanistic psychology of Carl Rogers.   The work of A.S. Neill, founder of Summerhill in England, also had an influence on the formation of Play Mountain Place for older children.   During the early ‘70's, the program expanded to include middle school aged children.   Pictures of Play Mountain Place were included in a photographic essay on free schools of that time, entitled Summerhill USA , by Richard E. Bull.   It was at this time that Pasadena and Los Angeles Unified School Districts became interested in providing alternative school models on an experimental basis.   Play Mountain Place assisted the districts in setting up their own alternative schools and these schools are in operation today.   In 1987 children at Play Mountain Place successfully petitioned the City of Los Angeles to honor Rosa Parks annually with “Rosa Parks Day” every February 4.   Play Mountain Place staff have lead teacher training for Los Angeles and Orange County school districts in methods of respectful, open classroom communication and conflict resolution.   They have lead mediation skills workshops for Southern California divorce attorneys and provided Peaceful Parenting and Teaching workshops for public agencies and private companies throughout the Los Angeles area.   They continue to network with other free and democratic schools; in 2002 and 2003 Play Mountain Place participated in the International Democratic Education Conference.

Current parents and staff are offered Communication Skills workshops throughout the year.   In the workshops, basic components of peaceful conflict resolution and mediation are taught. Participants learn to facilitate two-way and group conflicts, of the kind that come up in families and school settings. Sometimes the dynamics within a family feel stuck. Using the technique of role-playing, participants can explore ways to shift communication styles and improve relationships. These skills are the foundation of the non-shaming, non-blaming, non-authoritarian approach that adults at Play Mountain Place are expected to maintain.   Adults can also practice at monthly seminars for parents and weekly seminars for teachers and interns.

Play Mountain Place currently serves children from ages 2-1/2 to 12 years in three separate yards (with adjacent indoor spaces). Because the program is primarily based outdoors, there are tree houses, climbing structures, sand and water areas, fantasy play spaces, craft areas and garden plots available to encourage experiential exploring.   The physical activity that children engage in is a vital element of their learning process, as current brain development research indicates.   The children's physical freedom is only restricted by safety concerns.   This freedom also extends to the exercising of their emotional expression as well.   Children are encouraged to express all their feelings, including anger.   Some emotional energy is “played out” by choosing physical activities like running, playing basketball or digging in sand.   Children are also provided with newspaper for ripping, crushing and punching.   Adults might hold a pillow for an angry child to punch.   There is clay to squish and plastic bottles tied up with rope to whack. Children can have the support of an adult when they are experiencing anger, sadness, grief and joy and the adults will not stop them or divert their expression of feelings. Processing feelings is often the first step in conflict resolution.   People seem to do some of their best thinking after they have had time to experience and understand their feelings. After processing their feelings, children are usually ready to engage in the process of problem solving.

The community is dedicated to working out problems, regardless of the complexity of those problems, using respectful communication.   The respect for individual personhood permeates the   whole community.   Individual differences are embraced and considered enriching to the whole.

Play Mountain Place serves as a model for community that supports and nurtures individuals and their relationships.           

For more information about Play Mountain Place, take a cyber-tour of our website at www.playmountain.org .                

Note: Names have been changed to preserve people's privacy.

Michelle Weiner Woolner is a mentor elementary teacher at Play Mountain Place.   She has led anti-bias workshops and youth leadership groups in Los Angeles and currently serves on the advisory board of Together, a group working to end racism and other forms of discrimination.

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