When School Is a Force for Connection

Sometimes, you don’t realize how important something is until it’s gone.

That’s definitely true of social interaction in the era of COVID-19. In the “old normal,” people were just there, saturating our environment. It wasn’t until we were forced to shut ourselves away for many, many months that we realized we could get sick from not having those people around, the same way sailors only realized how important fruits and veggies were after spending months with nothing to eat but fish.

Kids are feeling the pangs of isolation too, and their parents know it. We are social animals, and our children can’t develop properly without a community. But what can we do about it?

We’re lucky to be living in the age of the internet, where we can FaceTime and play online games to our heart’s content. Technology is a powerful tool that can connect us across distance. But just having the tool doesn’t mean we’ll be really connected. We all know that getting together on Zoom is just not the same as being in a real room together.

We all know that friends still drift apart even when they have instant, round-the-clock access to each other. When you aren’t in the same place, can’t see each other, can’t sense each other, it’s like there’s a brick wall between you. You have to reach out, schedule a meeting, and then actually remember to get online when the appointed time comes. Often, climbing over the wall is just a bit too much effort, and it gets harder as more time passes.

School is a case in point. School has always been the hub of friendly gatherings for children, yet students who are currently doing conventional school online are still starved for socialization. They get all the classes, all the instruction, all the assignments they “need,” but the free spaces have not been replicated — the lunchroom, the playground, the halls between classes. Society scrambled to re-open schools so kids wouldn’t miss out on “learning,” but they overlooked the actual needs of children.

The Open School is different. Social interaction is the central element of our program. The Open School’s virtual program is like a big wrecking ball that knocks down the walls that divide us.

We begin with the premise that kids want connection, and that joy is the foundation of connection. Fun and laughter are what bring us together. A shared purpose is what binds us. So at The Open School, we do what we love. We play. We pursue our passions. When we get bored, we learn. When we crave a sense of meaning and progress, we work. There’s no need for adults to tell children what to do.

Maybe it seems paradoxical to you that we are a “school” but we don’t make kids learn. Isn’t “school” a place where kids go to learn? But think about this: all the things conventional school is making students learn — math, literature, history, science, and so on — kids can learn from books or websites. The only thing school provides that children can’t get at home is a community larger than their family. And conventional schools in the age of COVID-19 do not seem very concerned at all with providing that.

A school cannot make sure that students learn a certain set of things on a certain timetable while at the same time creating a space where connections can form and community can flourish. You simply can’t have it both ways. You have to decide which is more important: learning facts which may or may not ever be relevant to the student’s life, or maintaining good mental health, interdependence, and enthusiasm for life.

Technology is a powerful tool for connection, but simply having the tool doesn’t mean we’ll be really connected. The Open School, however, creates real connection. I’ve seen kids who seriously struggle with social interaction make friends in this program. And friendship is the springboard from which children go forth into the world and learn to master it.

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