The Blacktop Blog Posts

Protecting and Cherishing Childhood
Dr. Olaf Jorgenson

Dear ACDS Families,

It was wonderful seeing so many of you at the Pumpkin Carving last week. We missed this beloved tradition in 2020; how exciting to have a turnout that was nearly twice our customary crowd -- as testimony to the community’s desire to gather, reconnect, and celebrate together. 

Earlier that day, the children enjoyed another ACDS tradition, the Halloween Parade on the blacktop. As the students were gathering before the parade, I passed a line of 2nd graders and stopped to offer compliments on their costumes. One of the children, dressed as Hermione from Harry Potter, looked at me solemnly and asked, “Is a wand a weapon?” (Obviously this was a serious concern for her, since weapons are not allowed in the parade.) 

After musing briefly and weighing the likelihood of a seven-year-old clobbering her classmates with a wand, I told her that it wasn’t really considered a weapon, and she could bring hers to the parade. 

Her eyes widened with wonder; she leaned forward and in a barely audible voice hushed behind her mask, she asked, “But what about the spells?”

With a smile behind my own mask, I paused for effect and replied, “You’re right. You’ll need to help me make sure we only have good spells during the parade.” She nodded earnestly, and seemed satisfied with the plan.

I walked away with a big grin and a warm heart. If only she could see the world in those magical terms for years to come! 

One of our school’s founding values is honoring and preserving childhood. In the digital era, and especially in fast-paced Silicon Valley, it may be more challenging today to safeguard the magic of childhood than it was back in 1982.

Certainly that’s the case in school communities that aren’t united around these same sorts of goals for children. Some of you may recall the NASA creativity test from a decade ago, illustrating how childhood imagination is gradually eroded over time.

At that time, this longitudinal study showed that fully 98% of the five-year-olds evaluated demonstrated a “genius-level” imagination. Five years later, only 30% of those ten-year-olds scored at this level. By age 15, the creatively-gifted proportion of the cohort dropped to just 12%. As adults, a paltry 2% of us qualify as imaginative geniuses. 

How is it that our creative childhood horsepower wanes like this over time? Indeed, this study and others that have replicated its findings inspire considerable speculation about what specific environmental factors snuff out childhood creativity, and what can be done to reverse the damage. Most often (though with very little actual agreement), educational reformers and pundits point to schooling as the most likely culprit in suppressing childhood creativity, usually citing the ways teaching and learning today discourage unstructured play, problem-solving, opportunities for exploration, and an environment conducive to imaginative risk-taking, all of which could help foster childhood creativity. And all of which, as you know, are hallmarks of learning at ACDS.

I share these musings with you because as I walked back to my office Friday morning, I remembered how I used to feel defensive when I first arrived in 2008 whenever people referred to ACDS students as “sheltered.” I saw then as now, all around me, children unabashed to ask questions, who openly display their academic and creative abilities (regardless of their relative skills), who fearlessly sing and dance and act onstage. Who talk openly, even in upper elementary, about wands and spells. It’s cool to be smart at ACDS, to read (and write) books, to make one’s own Halloween costume (and wear it publicly, even at age 14). In 2008 I arrived at a school where it takes three solid nights to get through the student talent show because literally dozens of children feel safe and excited to share their passions with an audience.

It is true that parents and teachers are drawn to ACDS because we believe childhood is to be cherished, not accelerated. We celebrate innocence, creativity, and playfulness in our children; we appreciate childhood vulnerability and recognize the gift of a safe, joyful beginning in life. If all of that emerges from “sheltering” children, then it’s worth the occasional dig from outsiders. 

Over time it occurred to me that “shelter” in the context of ACDS actually has two meanings. The first -- attributed at times by those outsiders who judge our community without understanding it -- is the sense of “limiting,” as in preventing children from experiencing (and ostensibly hardening to) a fuller but harsher world beyond this campus. Having served at other schools where students engage in this “adultized” world, it is not clear to me that avoiding those experiences amounts to deprivation at all, so I strenuously reject this attribution.

But the second meaning of shelter has to do with providing protection, and that’s the meaning, in contrast, which I’ve come to vigorously embrace.

At ACDS, we protect children from forces that threaten their childhood imagination and innocence. We collectively resist the sorts of media influences, risk behaviors and peer pressures that creep into other schools as early as third or fourth grade, affecting clusters of eight- and nine-year-olds suddenly contending with adult ideas and images they’re not ready to understand, and forcing a sudden self-conscious end to the “childish” behaviors we revere and nourish at ACDS. We strive to provide a childhood that allows our children to experience, in the words of Neil Postman, “a series of revealed secrets,” rather than exposing them to pressures and expectations and influences beyond their developmental readiness.

In this sense of sheltering, we’ve found across four decades that our students thrive in a safe place to pursue their interests, to try and fail with skinned knees but without scars, to be whoever they are without judgment, to discover their gifts, and to begin to build a moral foundation that serves them in high school and beyond.

Yes, our children are protected -- as in sheltered and safe -- at ACDS, and it’s exactly what they need to experience a childhood defined by curiosity, wonder, joy, and confidence. And a childhood in which wands cast good spells.

With warm regards,

Ole

Olaf Jorgenson
Head of School