Active Learners Blog

Kindergarten at Antioch School is the group with the smallest range of ages. At some point in the year, each student is six. Kindergarten parents and I spend a good amount of time during conferences talking about what it is like to be six. I often refer them to Ames and Ilg’s series of books about child development, which starts with Your One Year Old and goes to Your Twelve Year Old. When I went to the school library shelves to Find Your Six Year Old, there were no copies left, although I know we had re-ordered a couple within the last few years. The books about two-year-olds and four-year-olds were also missing. In case any parent of a two, four, or six-year-old is in need, I re-ordered copies of all the Ames and Ilg titles for those ages. It is hard to be six (and two and four), as the Ames and Ilg books attest to—dusty copies for ages one, three, Five, seven, eight, and on up remain on the shelf year after year.


In Your Six Year Old, this age child is described as “wonderfully complex and intriguing. . . a paradoxical little person. . . whatever he does, he does the opposite just as readily. . . The child is now the center of his own universe. He wants to be First and best. He wants to win. He wants to have the most of everything.” “Hard to Be Six”, the title to this article, is also the title of a book written by Arnold Adoff about just such longings of a six-year-old brother to grow up and to be able to keep up with his ten-year-old sister.

Here are the changes that happened to one six-year-old girl described in the book Your Six Year Old: “began crying at almost everything; began refusing to stay in bed at night; became a picky eater; began getting into things and creating messes, as she had around age two; became oppositional toward parents; became frequently sick, although previously she had been quite healthy; fought and fussed with her playmates, and seemed quite incapable of playing peacefully.”I recently heard someone say that good judgment develops through experience, which is often gained by poor judgment. Ames and Ilg explain the six-year-old similarly—“A six-year-old isn’t violent, loud, demanding, and often naughty just to be bad. There are so many things he wants to do and be that his choices are not always fortunate.”  So why do we concentrate this age in one group at Antioch School? Sixes are paradoxical, so in addition to the hard stuff, they also can have extremely positive energy. When things are going well, as they often are,nobody can be a warmer, more enthusiastic companion then your six-year-old” (Ames and Ilg). Ann Guthrie, our Nursery teacher, has described the school as arranged in three three-year groups, with Nursery and Kindergarten being the First three years. We divide these First years into two groups for several reasons.

Younger children need smaller groups to learn the ropes—how to make and carry out a plan, independently and with the group; how to solve a conflict; how to trust others and how to gain the trust of others. Having the younger children in the Nursery gives them a chance to do their initial work with some opportunities for both space and for contact with the sixes, who developmentally may be more challenging, especially in relations with younger siblings and peers. Having the older children in the Kindergarten gives them a chance to do intense social work in a small, supportive environment and to transition to the wider world of the school. Older Group partners and Field trips with the Younger and Older Groups, like ice skating, swimming, or roller skating, help Kindergartners build bridges to the larger groups. 

One of the First things that struck me about Antioch School, when I First began bringing my son to school was the kindness of the children to each other. It is still striking to me today. However that doesn’t mean the children are always kind to each other. Just as children have some bumps and bruises along the way as they develop the necessary skills and balance to ride the unicycle, I have observed many children’s bumps as they learn the social skills needed to forge strong friendships. I have learned to trust this process and each child’s journey on it. I work each day to observe more patiently and withhold my adult judgments and solutions when they would hinder the children’s learning.

One day a Kindergartner decided to change into a costume after lunch. The costume included a large hooped dress that puffed out around her when she sat. She and some other children went to work on an art project at the tables, while I was talking with a few children in the library. A moment later, the Kindergartner, her hoops sashaying wildly, ran out of the room, clearly upset. I Finished my conversation and began to head out to Find her. A parent, who was helping in the room, informed me that one of the other children had called her “fat.”

Of course as adults, we consider it outright rude to call someone fat. Most adults can edit the sharing of their observations and understand the nuances of sparing the feelings of others. Many six-year-olds have not developed these skills yet, and if they have, they may be intentionally rude to a peer anyway, just to see what happens. Trying such behavior at six is no more a predictor of a future as a bully than a two-year-old taking a toy from another child is a predictor of a future as a burglar. Since I could not know whether the child who had said “fat” was making an innocent observation or a purposeful test of a peer, I decided to take my cue from the costumed child.

She returned quickly, no longer wearing the hooped dress. I pointed out a seat next to the child, who had referred to her as “fat”, and she promptly sat down.

“Where is your beautiful costume?” I asked.

“I didn’t want to wear it anymore,” she answered matter-of-factly as she began working happily on a drawing, conversing comfortably with the child beside her. Later in the day, the hoop dress re-emerged, and I overheard this conversation between the same two children.

“You’re fat,” declared the friend from the table.

“I am not,” the hoop dressed Kindergartner indignantly replied.

“Yes, you are,” the other child repeated, looking puzzled.

“I’m puffy,” the girl announced.

“Yes, you’re puffy,” the other child nodded enthusiastically. Both children smiled at this discovery of common ground. 

On another day I am watching the Kindergarten ice skate. It is the First time for many of them. They have been anticipating and discussing it all week.

"Is it slippery?”  “What if I fall?” some first time skaters wondered. 

“You can hold onto the wall,” a veteran Kindergarten skater advises.

“Will our partners be there?” asks another child.

“Yes,” I assure him.

We can hold onto our partners or the wall,” someone announces.

“Yes,” I agree, “Just make sure your partner is okay with that.”  So here we are at the skating rink.  Many children start out holding onto the wall. Some hold the hand of a parent, Older Group partner, or friend. Some simply head out for the open ice—skate, fall down, get up again, and repeat—until the skating gets longer, the falling down gets less, and soon they are skating circles around the rink.

It can be more difficult to watch the child who throws caution to the wind and through a series of repeated falls learns to skate, but it is nonetheless an effective and necessary part of the learning process of physical skills for some children. Social skills are no different. While some children hold onto the walls and learn First by observing, quietly watching the interactions of others, before gently making overtures to join in; many children dive right in, trying out ways to interact—kindness, bossiness, compliments, bribery, threats, inclusion, exclusion, tactless truths, and whooping tall tales. It can be difficult to watch, especially if we don’t keep in mind six-year-olds and experiential learning.

There are many questions for the six-year-old social scientist to answer: Who is my friend? Can I have more than one friend at a time? How do you share resources and friendship among two, three, four, or more? What is comfortable and uncomfortable for friends and for me? If someone makes me uncomfortable, are they bad? What if it’s my friend who makes me uncomfortable? If I make someone uncomfortable, am I bad? Will my friends still be my friends, if I make them uncomfortable? Answers to such questions only come with much experience and discomfort.

Cheryl Strayed describes this very human process of maturing that continues long after we are six in her book Tiny, Beautiful Things: “We like to pretend that our generous impulses come naturally. But the reality is we often become our kindest, most ethical selves only by seeing what it feels like to be a selfish (jerk) First. It’s the reason we have to Fight viciously. . . before we learn how to play nice; the reason we have to get burned before we understand the power of Fire; the reason our most meaningful relationships are so often those that continued beyond the very juncture at which they came closest to ending.”

It’s hard to be six and starting on this journey of growing up. Relationships among sixes are sometimes stormy but we can learn a lot about friendships from six-year-olds. Six-year-olds forgive each other. They don’t hold grudges. They give each other second chances. They recognize the good and the bad in each other, and they choose to Find ways to make it work; to say “puffy” instead of “fat” to be a friend.


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