© 2015 Marla McLean

Focusing on love.

In August, most of our school met for a retreat. At one point, we were asked to go around the table and share our intention for the school year. When it was my turn, I took a big risk, and I said, “This year, my intention and goal is to teach, learn, and encounter all the ups and downs with love. Not just the hippy part, but the hard, gritty, difficult part.”

For 20 years I’ve been researching young children, creativity, and wonder.

For eight years I have taught a Graduate University class called Art and Science-Developing Creativity at The Corcoran College of Art & Design/George Washington University.

Research is in my favor here.

Businesses want creative curious people. Think tanks want creative curious people. Scientists need creative curious people. Look at this article link here!

Alas, policy only slides deeper into forcing children younger and younger to spend their formative years in a fixed mindset being coerced to decode and read long before they have had the experience to comprehend ideas, problems, relationships, and the world around them.


This is not a flaky word.

Love is extremely difficult. It takes practice, passion, commitment, and grit when applied to any instance…sharing, mistake making, idea forming, friend making, conflict resolving, exploration, imagination, conversation.

Without the source of love, there is no reason to keep on trying, to create something, solve something, learn something, get up after a fall.

Often in life we are required to love a person (our children, our spouse, our sibling, our students, a neighbor), so in need of support that they act unloveable. Where does one build the capacity?
And what does this have to do with the Atelier, School Within School, with children, with collaboration, with wonder, with the 100 Languages?

I would say everything.

In the studio “can’t” is a bad word. A disabling word. What can you say instead? I need help, this is tricky, what do you think, how can I, what is not working here, can someone lend a hand, any ideas how to solve this?

What else is a bad word: Good Job! The children are living life, not performing. What does one say instead?

You worked really hard, how do you feel? Tell me about this? How? Why? When? What?

What part was frustrating? How did you figure out how to solve the problem? What do other people think? What makes you say that? What are you thinking of next? What do you need to practice? You must feel really good, you stuck with it, even when it got hard!


What else is a bad word?

Scribble scrabble. There is no such thing.

Easy peasy. No such thing. If it is that easy then you are not growing.

I know that, I know everything, I’m an expert. (said the 5 year old)
No person knows everything. Life and school would be so boring if you knew everything. We are all researchers here learning together. Different people have different areas that they are very strong in. Together, we learn from each other and strengthen each other. Some grown ups spend many years researching things, we invite them to share with us so we can learn from them. We also learn from our friends who are children.

This is love.

Recognizing mistakes. Leaning in to the unknown. Asking questions because it is rewarding and awe inspiring as opposed to answering the question correctly. Listening, observing, watching, admiring, and loving those around us in our learning groups.
Sometimes this is painful. Sometimes this is joyful.
Let us be a witness to these moments instead of being a fixer.
Let us facilitate the language, the environment, the hands, the mind, the body, and the heart to develop equilibrium in this spinning complex world.

When a child is afraid to make a mark on a paper because they are afraid of making a mistake, this is the opposite of love. When a child is afraid to answer the query, What do you think?, because they are not sure what the “right “ answer is, this is the opposite of love. When a child doesn’t try something new, because it’s different, that is not love. This is fear.

The studio is a place where children practice, express, and communicate in 100 ways.
IMG_0986Conversation in the Atelier with 3 year old Sebastian:
Sebastian: “Ms. McLean, you need to let those butterflies out of the glass, so they can fly home to their families.”
Ms. McLean: “They are called specimens. A scientist found them dead, and instead of letting them just stay on the ground, they carefully put them in glass so we can look closely at them.”
Sebastian: “Well then they need to go to a Dr. so they can get better. So they can go fly out the window to their family”
Ms. McLean: “They are dead Sebastian”
Sebastian: “When will they be done being dead?”
Ms. McLean: “They already died honey.”
Sebastian: “Why?”
Ms. McLean: “I don’t know, they probably lived their whole life, and then got old and died.”

And they they do this hard; with me facilitating, in an environment that provokes curiosity, awe, tenderness, rigor, and satisfaction.
IMG_0834 (1)

Let’s give our children the gift of failing, of asking for help, of finding delight in the surprise of life and making.
IMG_0798 (1)
Let’s give our children the time to experiment, practice, and make visible their wonder of the world around them.
Let’s nurture this type of love that does not need an external reward to feel fulfilled,

for the fulfillment is in the experience,
small boy
in the doing, in the thinking, in the imagining, in the making.

I am not alone in my research.

Ron Ritchard (Harvard Researcher, HGSE, Project Zero ) has written a new book, The Cultures of Thinking,  on these very ideas, he calls it “the residuals of learning.”

Vygotsky called learning in this context Zone of Proximal development, and Howard Gardner talks about Multiple Intelligences.
Loris Mallaguzzi, Reggio Emilia Visionary and founder,  writes, “We need to define the role of the adult, not as a transmitter but as a creator of relationships — relationships not only between people but also between things, between thoughts, with the environment.”
IMG_1199To which Milo M. responded, “I’m a vegetarian.”

Let us give our children these opportunities so they can be justice seeking, wonder filled, problem solving, curious, creative, compassionate, and risk taking humans.

This year I’m focusing on love.









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  1. Deborah Loomis
    Posted October 13, 2015 at 7:30 am | #

    Thank you Marla! I am so thankful to you and the other wonderful teachers at SWS who truly put love into practice with each of our children every day. When I think about the alternative model of spelling quizzes, worksheets, and flash cards, I am so amazed and relieved at the different approach SWS takes, and the outcomes it achieves in the emotional, social, and intellectual development of our youngest citizens.

  2. Nicole Mogul
    Posted October 13, 2015 at 6:27 pm | #

    Thank you for all that Love Marla. You work so hard on this blog!!

  3. Kirsten
    Posted October 27, 2015 at 6:03 am | #

    Thank you for being in the world and dusting SWS everyday with your love.

  4. Posted November 17, 2015 at 10:44 am | #

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful pictures and words.

  5. Posted August 22, 2016 at 1:53 pm | #

    Marla McLean, Atelierista » Great overview of how to intentionally follow the learning timelines of children s explorations with wire.

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