“To give your sheep or cow a large, spacious meadow is the way to control him.”
– Shunryu Suzuki: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
So much teacher energy goes into “class management.” Whole systems of behavior modification are put into place and the kids in the class are caught in the crossfire of the switches and chocolates, punishments and rewards, threats and prizes all with the same aim—to tame the wild beast we call the child. And you don’t have to read Lord of the Flies to know that there is some justifiable fear of the energy of children left unchecked. Try spending a day in a room with a 4-year old without ever saying the word “No” and you’ll witness a chaos difficult for our adult psyche to bear. Not to mention the havoc of things thrown helter-skelter, banged on, licked and tasted, grabbed out of the hands of fellow 4-year olds or used as assault weapons.
My school’s response to this is to create consistent, comforting, loving, life-giving structures that give the children the calm rituals that focus energy and lean toward harmonious co-existence in an indoor space. Witness the 3-5 year olds in the Montessori classroom eating lunch in silence and you’d think you’d landed in a Zen monastery. Watch the kids in the classroom buzzing around making things and working in groups and discussing books and you’ll see kids happily engaged in the things that ignite their incessant curiosity, feed their hunger for mastery and understanding, quench their thirst for companionship as they go about the business of figuring out how things work together. Watch them in the music classes given permission to run and shake and leap and dance in wild abandon, but to the beat and meter of the music and always ready to freeze in a shape in a split second. Watch their raw urge to pound out their exuberance and even anger on drums that cooks it all into a coherent stew of beautiful rhythms, their urge to shout put into a Hungarian “Hey!” at the end of the dance and their equal need to whisper realized on a sweet glockenspiel solo.
In short, all that we perceive as wild and untamed is simply the child’s natural entanglement with a life of mountains and valleys, thunderous storms and tranquil lakes, ferocious growls and loving purrs. As repressive institutions from schools to churches to whole governments show, it is possible to lock those urges in cages and keep them in check with armed guards. But that’s what kills the human spirit and produces robotic, bland, obedient, compliant, shadow versions of our full human promise. We likewise can’t let all those wild energies roam the countryside of human community unchecked. And so at our best, we learn to temper them in the molten fire of discipline, practice, ritual, to give them shape and focus and restraint and more refined expression. That’s what art is for, that’s what school schedules and classroom procedures are for, that’s what sports can do and meditation and so on.
But as Suzuki-Roshi notes, another fine strategy is to enlarge the areas where children—and adults— can roam. How many of our rules and procedures have to do with getting along within a confined space? Quiet voices, no running, be careful with materials, etc. Note above I said, "Try staying in a room with a 4-year old without saying "no", but what about if they were outside the whole day in a large, spacious meadow. Depending where, you might need to point out the poison oak and inedible mushrooms and such, but otherwise, just let them go. Often the most rambunctious kid who drives you crazy in class is in his element and the most delightful kid on the trip. The angry scowl of that kid always being reprimanded starts to soften and you can see happiness and innocence bloom on his face. (And the gender choice here is not wholly accidental—boys from time immemorial are the ones roaming the countryside hunting while the women weave baskets and tend the fire. Schools have always been a more friendly place for girls than boys. But that's another subject.)
And so I return from a glorious two days with the 5th grade, the last remnant of our old Calaveras Camping trip that we did for 20 years. Then it was with 60 kids from 3rd to 5th grade for five days, we bussed to the Sierras and I was in charge with my daughter Talia (and Kerala) accompanying from 1 year old through 11. Now it was with 20 kids in 5th grade for three days in China Camp in San Rafael and Talia was in charge and I was her occasional helper. How wonderful was that?
And the kids were so happy. They belonged in that place, playing tag between the bay laurel trees, hiking to the beach, doing yoga out in a meadow (with Talia leading), gathering in an open space after a flashlight-less night hike lit by the full moon. This is where they belong, this is where we all belong, children of the earth out on that earth, far away from the malls and the screens and the talking heads on the news. Let’s remember this. Get the kids out of the house, out of the class, out under the stars. A clear procedure for making s’mores and a clear limit of the number they can eat is all the control you’ll need.