Kindergarten at LWS — Portal to Lifelong Happiness & Success

Why Kindergarten Counts

by Living Wisdom School Director Helen Purcell

Can kindergarten influence your child’s chances of success and happiness in later life?

Most definitely! – but perhaps not in the ways you may have imagined.

What kind of education do you want for your child?

Living Wisdom School Director Helen Purcell

I would like to make a case for a complete, well-rounded approach that takes into account not only the child’s physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being, but their individuality as well.

Play & Learning – Essential Partners

When we’re talking about a four or five-year-old, the first thing we need to consider is that children of that age absolutely need a playful, loving approach to learning. It is the single most important key to preparing little children for success now and in the years ahead. Once we have that playful, happy foundation, we find that the children feel inwardly free to achieve amazing things.

Many of our parents have come from rigid school cultures where the children were forced to sit at their desks most of the day and allowed very limited playtime. That model is neither creative nor realistic. As a result, it utterly fails to produce learning in the most efficient and natural way because it doesn’t make use of the child’s natural enthusiasm. Instead, it pounds information into young brains without opening their hearts to receive it. But that is not how children are made. Nor does this approach draw them into the learning experience in a way that helps them absorb learning naturally and efficiently.


The day begins with Circle Time, just before math class. The children sing, share, and practice breathing exercises to calm themselves and focus their attention. Priceless skills for all of life!

In his wonderful book Where You Go, Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, Frank Bruni, a long-time New York Times columnist and feature writer, laments the tragic failures of the traditional approach of forcing children into a system that ignores the way they are made. He excoriates today’s approach which is oriented toward improving the children’s high school grades and SAT scores and preparing every child to be accepted at Harvard or its equivalent. I think it is a wonderful sign that St. Francis High School in Mountain View, for example, has made Bruni’s book required reading for every parent.

I often talk with parents of kindergarten children who are deeply concerned about this very false and misleading kind of rigor, which fails to tune into the child’s actual needs at each developmental stage, and which, in kindergarten, must include play.

In the very early years, children should be learning that learning is fun and that mastering academic challenges is exhilarating. At this age, they are very open to whatever is going on in the classroom and at school. And an instructor who can bring together the twin threads of learning and play, and do it in a happy, loving way, will be very successful. As we demonstrate in our book, Head & Heart: How a Balanced Education Nurtures Happy Children Who Excel in School & Life, our kindergartners are not falling behind their Harvard-acceptance competitors. Quite the opposite, as a direct result of the playful approach, some are even able to absorb concepts at more advanced curriculum level.

During the first months of PreK-K, the students learn that learning is great fun when they are challenged at their own level. Once they have reached that understanding, they are able and eager to spend time learning quietly together – a most unusual and happy accomplishment for a classroom of four- to six-year-olds!

When learning is delivered in a format that matches their natural development, children become deeply engaged. Thus – believe it or not! – you will find four or five tiny tots working silently together, heads bowed in deep concentration.

We are intent on helping each child to be comfortable and happy within the school environment. With this goal in mind, a practice that helps us greatly is the inclusion of yoga and meditation at the start of the school day. If we can help children discover an enjoyable state of calmness and concentration within themselves – a state of happy, relaxed mental attention – they will be gaining a powerful tool that will help them to be successful throughout their school years.

At Living Wisdom School, children start the day with yoga and meditation, and then, most days, they go right into math class. When the teacher sets a tone which makes them comfortable and at ease in the environment, a great deal becomes possible in math, phonics, writing, art, and science. In fact, anything is possible when the children’s hearts are open and eager to dive into the day’s lessons.


The Incalculable Benefits of A Stress-Free Learning Environment

When you can give a child an experience every day at school of being comfortable and relaxed in the environment, they will inevitably gravitate toward the joy of learning.

When the learning environment is also alive with inclusivity and friendship, instead of cliques and competition, children are happier and learn better. In other words, learning and joy go together.

It is well documented that generalized stress at school interferes with learning. In a Washington Post article, “How Much Does Stress Affect Learning?” (June 10, 2011), education and foreign affairs reporter Valerie Post quotes Catharine H. Warner, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Maryland:

“Our findings indicate that stress in the classroom environment affects children’s likelihood of exhibiting learning problems (difficulties with attentiveness, task persistence, and flexibility), externalizing problems (frequency with which the child argues, fights, disturbs ongoing activities, and acts impulsively), problems interacting with peers (difficulties in forming friendships, dealing with other children, expressing feelings, and showing sensitivity, or internalizing problems (presence of anxiety, loneliness, low self-esteem, and sadness in the child). These findings suggest that stress – in the form of negative classroom conditions – negatively affects the way children pay attention in class, stay on task, and move from one activity to another.”


During partner walks, the youngest children spend time with the older ones, forming happy bonds of respect and caring. (Click to enlarge.)

The tremendous energy that we devote to creating a calm, peaceful, joyful, accepting classroom and school environment frees children to be exactly who they are. When you’re allowed to be who you are, and when you’re challenged at exactly that level, you will have daily successes that will give you a joyful experience of learning. By contrast, just trying to meet someone else’s rigid demands and requirements all the time, at someone else’s level creates a tension that prevents learning by shutting down energy and enthusiasm.

As a teacher for more than fifty years, it has been my experience that tension is never a positive factor when it comes to learning. On the other hand, feeling free to make mistakes, and to have those mistakes accepted as a natural part of the learning process, is an amazing, blissful, and extremely helpful experience for the child. It fuels an exhilarating learning process.

In our school, we achieve that freedom by combining learning with play, and by making sure our kids have free time. We fight against the misguided compulsion to structure every minute of the child’s day.

Children Can Be Happy and Successful in School

Krunal focuses on his math classwork. The photographer held his video camera less than a foot from Krunal for more than 30 seconds, yet Krunal remained entirely focused on the task at hand. It was not a rare or a posed event! It is simply part of the natural flow of the day, once the children become deeply engaged with the curriculum. A fringe benefit is that discipline problems become rare, even at this young age.

Parents and educators who visit our school invariably remark on how every child is completely him- or herself, and how they show a remarkable level of maturity and confidence. Our children are typically centered in themselves in a natural and real way. And when they do become scattered or upset, they are given the tools to catch themselves with the support of a discerning teacher.

You can see their ease in their eyes and in how they carry themselves. A child will walk into the principal’s office, not at all intimidated, and say, “Helen, I need an ice pack for my friend.” Someone is hurt, and they are eager to help, without fear or hesitation. Or they’ll come in to share a birthday treat with me.

If it’s a difficult situation…they aren’t feeling well, or someone needs to call a parent, they’ll come in with absolute trust. In fact, they will be at ease with every adult in the school, including all the classroom and PE teachers, music teachers, and math tutors – because there is a family atmosphere that is consistent and consciously cultivated every day.

Theater Magic – An Extraordinary Experience of Learning and Growth

Our theater program includes every child from grades TK through eight. It creates an extraordinary atmosphere for learning, and for cultivating personal success qualities. The kindergarten children are on stage, rehearsing and performing with the older children, and they develop a level of comfort and confidence that is far beyond what most kindergartners get to experience at school. When they can engage easily and confidently with an adult or an older child, even in a playful way, they feel empowered to walk in the world in a very different way. So, Partner Reading and Partner Walks and play with older children are an extension of the confidence-building practices the children experience every day.

Young elementary children dance during a Theater Magic performance.

Our methods come to fruition most clearly, especially for the youngest children, during spring quarter, when you can watch a child get out of the car in the morning, brimming with confidence, the same child who wouldn’t look at you six or seven months earlier, or who would cringe with shyness and hold their mother’s hand tightly.

I’m thinking of a child who was extremely fearful at the start of the school year, and now when her father says, “Have a great day!” she will turn and look at me with a big, confident smile and say, “Good morning, Helen!”

It is a maturation made possible because at Living Wisdom School there is a definition of self that allows for the inclusion of everybody, not just one’s own classmates and teachers, but every single teacher and every single child.

Choosing Happiness

We don’t have an intimidating or fearful culture. This morning, I was explaining to a parent that the fundamental principles on which our school is based are most clearly expressed by two of our School Rules: “Choose Happiness,” and “Practice Kindness.”

To Practice kindness means learning to be considerate and loving with one another and to recognize that doing so helps create a loving and safe atmosphere.

To Choose happiness means learning that you have the power to choose how to respond to life’s challenges. The children learn to focus on the positive rather than the negative, to control moods, and to raise their energy to meet difficulties that arise.

These two rules define the culture of the school. If you choose happiness, it means that you don’t have the right to take out a bad mood on anybody. Rather, you have an obligation to use your will power and understanding to turn the energy around with the ready and willing help of both teacher and classmates.

It is amazing to watch the rules in action. For example, a child might come to school, and maybe they aren’t feeling well. Maybe they are feeling a little moody or even snarky, yet everybody is sympathetic. The teacher might say, “I’m so sorry you’re not feeling well. Take a moment on the pillows in the corner, and don’t forget to take your teddy.” So, there’s sympathy, but there’s also an expectation that at some point— and it should be soon—the child needs to choose to be happy.

And they do because they are shown how to do it. They are given the specific steps to take in order to be kind and choose happiness. They learn that they have the power to choose positive feelings and behavior. Because all the children in the school know each other and because the older ones sincerely love to help the kindergarteners, the older ones become role models.


Partner reading. All of the children in the school know each other well, and the older ones love to help the kindergartners.

The right behavior is constantly modeled for the little ones, and the teachers deliberately take time to give them instructions on how to choose happiness every time the need arises.

Over several months, the older children work with the younger children at play rehearsals, and they learn to be very sensitive to the well-being of the little ones. They want to take care of them, to help them, and guide them in the spirit of friendship. Thus, they develop a sense of responsibility for others, especially the little ones.

Four and five year old children can be especially selfish and self-involved. They need to grow into a sense of the other. To see exactly that constantly modeled for them by the adults and the other children in the school environment is a priceless gift. For such young ones, it is an invaluable foundation for acquiring the maturity that we must all achieve to be successful at every level, and it is an awareness that we instill in them starting on the very first day of kindergarten – an awareness of another’s reality.

Does Living Wisdom School Over-Emphasize Soft Skills?

Parents often ask a huge question about our school: “You have a wonderful school culture, but how does it translate to grades and test scores?” And, of course, the proof is in our graduates’ high school and college acceptance and grades, and in their adult success.

In our book Happiness & Success at School, there’s a wonderful account of how, in the military and in sports, individual attention, individual freedom, and individual acceptance create a culture based on what’s best for the individual and produce the highest success. We are not simply spouting wishy-washy, unrealistic ideas that we haven’t tested and that don’t work in the real world. The interplay of happiness and success is a real-life experience for our graduates who have gone on to major universities and corporations.

Constant individual attention and encouragement help the youngest children learn to love learning. TK-K intern Ava Magholi encourages a young math student.

I received an application recently from a parent of a fifth-grade boy. Unfortunately, that class was full, so we were unable to take him. The parent was sad because the child’s predisposition to self-judge made him afraid to try anything. His fear precluded success. By contrast, our school culture supports an attitude toward learning that includes the ability to “fail happily” on the road to success and then try again—a wonderfully liberating gift.

In the late 1980s, a professor of computer science at MIT, Seymour Papert, published a book called Mindstorms in which he pointed out that the most wonderful lesson children can take from learning to program computers is that mistakes are a natural and necessary part of the process. He pointed out that professional programmers make, on average, at least 10 mistakes per hundred lines of their first code drafts.

Papert called it “the debugging approach to life.”  Kids today have so much stress around success and on getting it right the first time. There’s a tremendous competitive and comparative emphasis in the typical approach to learning which results in children asking, “Am I as good as somebody else?” as opposed to, “What am I learning?” and “Was it fun?”

In our school, the children know who excels in this or that subject area, because we celebrate those successes. But we also celebrate the small, daily successes that lead eventually to greater mastery as the most important kind of success for every child. Included in those celebrations are our children’s beginning mastery as artists, poets, singers, scientists, dancers, and mathematicians.

Success builds upon success. I’m thinking of a boy who had some very significant challenges at school until he began rehearsing for the all-school play, whereupon he flourished amazingly. The success he enjoyed in the theater program translated to an ability to self-regulate in class in order to do well. He was motivated because he had experienced what it feels like to be successful.

Each of us has an inborn drive to experience happiness and to be free from suffering. The universal spiritual law is that whenever we expand our awareness by learning something new or by overcoming a challenge, we experience a corresponding inflow of joy. And if you’re having happy learning experiences every day, you’re going to want more and more of them.

The Straitjacket of Modern Education

I often wonder how our culture went wrong when it failed to take into account the link between learning and happiness. Children are so elastic, so ready to learn, especially when it comes to learning which thoughts and actions will give them joy. Instead, they too often find themselves bound in straitjackets of expectations that may or may not be realistic. Tragic.

Learning by rote and by drill no longer needs to be the foundation of a child’s school experience. What is necessary is the cultivation of imagination, resourcefulness, and creativity, starting at the earliest age. We need to support the children who are learning at the bottom end and take the limits off each child’s horizons. That way they can surprise themselves and keep growing every day.

We had a first grader whose artistic ability was beyond all imagining. He made several sketches of a ship, beautifully executed with lots of fine detail. We put one of them on the cover of our annual literary magazine. Traditionally, an older student was awarded that honor. We had a choice – to celebrate excellence, or to abide by a more rigid standard. But it was clear that what that little boy had achieved was not equal. So, he got the cover!

Everybody in the school acknowledged and celebrated the boy’s talent. The older kids were saying, “Whoa, who did that cover?” The truth is that we don’t shy away from celebrating every child’s success, and we ensure that there are plenty of successes to celebrate by having children operate at the edge of their ability all the time.

A girl who came to us in the fall absolutely flourished in the school play. She took to her role and developed it beautifully. That talented little girl had been very unhappy in her former school, but when she came here and felt embraced by the energy, she realized that she could let loose and be as creative as her abilities allowed.

Once I spoke with parents who are brain researchers at Stanford. The father was educated at a very progressive school in Israel, while the mother had a more standard education. They chose our school because they have friends whose children go to our school, and they recognized the level of acceptance and individuality that exists here and which results in the happiness of the children. More than anything else, they simply wanted their children to be happy during their time in school. This kind of prioritizing is truly refreshing.

Yet, sometimes, it is hard for parents to hold on to the idealism that brings them to Living Wisdom in the first place. When their children reach third or fourth grade, they’re tempted to buy into the culture that is constantly pressuring them to think, “Oh my God, how am I going to get my child into Harvard, Stanford, Yale, or Princeton?”

The parents I spoke with above understood the theoretical and practical aspects of our system, but they really didn’t want to talk about that side. They wanted to tell me how the families of children in our school had told them that their kids have never been happier, and that as brain researchers they knew that a great deal of learning goes hand in hand with a great deal of happiness.

It is really that simple. Happiness and school success are not mutually exclusive – in fact, the opposite is true: happiness is indispensable for the most efficient learning to take place.

We need to help children leverage their natural gifts. Maybe the process won’t be as linear as our culture would prefer, and maybe we won’t always be able to quantify it with numbers, but our successes have proved our methods year after year in terms of where our graduates go to high school and college, and their adult successes.

Follow this link to view a list of high schools and colleges
that have accepted our LWS graduates,
and examples of their inspiring careers.

Learning Priceless Personal Success Qualities

Another factor that makes our kindergarten so special and powerful is that from the first day, we practice leading with the heart. We teach our children what it feels like to appreciate another person’s reality, and how happy it makes them feel.

If a kindergartner gets some place first, it is their nature to let everyone know that it’s their place. They can be very territorial…It’s my toy, my place, my pencil. Yet, they can also have very open hearts if they are allowed to. By showing them that the greatest happiness comes from being unselfish, together we create a wonderful learning environment. Whether in the sandbox or on the tricycle, relating to a reality other than their own is something even the youngest children are learning at Living Wisdom every day. In fact, it is a priority.

Two children were arguing over a bike, so we did a conflict resolution, and one child said, “Okay, how about five minutes for him and five minutes for me?”

The teacher said, “That seems reasonable.”

The other child thought about it and said, “Well, what if we had it at the same time?”

The teacher said, “I don’t think that’s possible.”

He said, “Oh, yeah, it is, because one of us could drive and the other could stand on the back and then we could switch places.”

It is a defining story which illustrates how, once they understand the principle of conflict resolution, children can be creative and take it a lot farther than we might imagine.

We help our children have many experiences of happiness, and we teach them how to find it for themselves. Then, they begin to look for it all the time, and they become very expansive. Once, I was talking about something with one of the eighth graders in my office, when he suddenly said, “Oh, hey, Helen, I gotta go!”

I said, “Well, we’re not quite finished, are we?”

He said, “I know, but the younger kids are about to show up, and they want me to hide the ball for them.”

This eighth grader, RJ, a big, strong, athletic six-foot tall boy, was truly connected to the younger children—tiny kindergartners and first graders, and he wanted to honor that connection based on their game in which he would hide the ball somewhere on campus, and they would have to find it.

For an older child to hide the ball might be considered hostile, but not in our environment. Here, it was an expression of friendship. The little tots adored RJ, and he was willing to break off a lively conversation with me to indulge them.

“No Bullying!” – More than Just Empty Words

The principals of two of our local high schools were in conversation with me and asked me about the culture at our Living Wisdom High School, because I’m on the school board, and the high school was up for certification, which it did receive.

The conversation came around to what makes our school different, and I boldly and truthfully said, “We do not have bullying at our school.” Immediately, I noticed a sudden change in the atmosphere. They sat quietly, and I intuited why – because they couldn’t say the same about their schools. The issue of bullying comes up quite often in my talks with prospective parents.

I always say, “It is not allowed, and it’s not that we have to come down punitively in order to enforce that rule because we have actually created a culture of kindness. Our children understand from the inside out that practicing kindness, one of our school rules, gives them the highest happiness.”

living wisdom school rulesI would say that at least 50 percent of the parents who come to my office are trying to escape a culture of bullying at another school.

I think that bullying comes from the highly competitive atmosphere in many schools today. I’m not talking about sports; I’m talking about grades, social advancement, and test scores. Unfortunately, a constant, brutal sense of competitiveness permeates so much of the social culture in schools today, particularly high schools.

Many parents in Silicon Valley have had to struggle to get where they are, and they naturally value material success. So, when you have an efficient and balanced environment such as we have here, one that brings the whole child, not just their will power and intellect, into the educational process, we can initially look a little suspicious, especially when there is anxiety about a child’s chances of getting into a “good college” – even though we can hold our heads high when it comes to our graduates’ successes.

Our supportive culture frees a child to do extraordinarily well. I’ve seen extremely introverted and fearful children, who were not able to thrive in the highly competitive cultures of other schools, blossom when they come to Living Wisdom School where they are respected, accepted, and naturally part of the group.

I’m sure that we will reach a tipping point in this country when parents will wake up to the simple truth, one we have demonstrated for many years – Children can be highly successful at school and be happy and well balanced at the same time.




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