Making a Kidstarter

Brooklyn Beta

This is a speech I gave at Brooklyn Beta 2013, an annual gathering of some of the folks who are changing the world by solving big problems on the web.


Welcome! I am the director of the Maple Street preschool. I am also a good witch, according to my daughter.

I have never spoken to a group of techies, and to start, I thought about the similarities of our lives…and imparting some magic.

Perhaps you are familiar with Kickstarter, the largest platform that raises funds to put forth ideas, creative projects, and hopefully joy, beauty, goodness, kindness, and happy people.

In my field being a preschool Director, I often begin with a “Kidstarter”. A Kidstarter: raising ideas that children think of and express putting forth coziness, care, love, awkwardness, and play.

For this Kidstarter here today, I wanted to tell you about a couple of classrooms full of deeply creative and surprising ideas that would help to show you how we at Maple Street think, feel, and create. “We” being the people who love the ideas of young children.

You know, or know of, a few of them I would predict. My assistants today are two of them. Maggie is my children’s ideas and community joy coordinator, and Marisa even has a blog called “Shit Preschoolers Say.” Here are some of her favorite lines (Marisa and Maggie read) link to Marisa’s Tumblr blog:

We the kid-idea-o-philes can be teachers, parents, directors, caregivers, therapists, fairies, or really anyone, like perhaps Bill Cosby as depicted in the show Kids Say the Darnedest Things from the late nineties.

We all know how to “Kidstart”. The way you run a Kidstarter is that you walk into a place with kids. I am not suggesting you go to Prospect Park and start interviewing kids randomly. Usually they find you in a classroom or at a friend’s party or in a restaurant. They have a special loud silverware-banging rolly-pollying running-around way of making themselves known.

So for my Kidstarter I began by asking our children what I should speak about at a really big, really fun meeting. (This is a really big fun meeting). I didn’t set up gift levels or anything like that because in a Kidstarter the gifts are already there. A Kidstarter is completed and the goal is reached when the grown-ups pay attention to the gifts of children, when they receive them.

Let me give you some examples. Remember the way to do a Kidstarter; we just walk into a classroom and state that we are interested in their ideas. So I did. There was a group of 5 or so children finishing up their snacks. I said, “good morning” and then asked them the Kidstarter question, “What should I talk about at a really big fun meeting?”

Lily smiled and said: “Talk about eggs” Her friend Nadia replied firmly, “No. No. No.” Lily then tried again with an effortful thinking face. “Talk about swirls and tornadoes,” she said. Then I asked Nadia, “You think I should talk about myself?” She nodded, nodded, nodded and confirmed, “Yes!”

Wendy Cole

Wendy Cole

So here I go, a little about myself. I am a preschool director. I came to preschool from being a social worker in the field of child abuse, and when I first started my job as a preschool director, people would say, “you have such a hard job.” And I would reply that it was good, happy and yes, hard.

Preschool can get tough and messy with poop, snot, biting, 50 children dancing around playing and singing and laughing and gurgling and turning and falling and sprawling and getting Band-Aids and hugs.

There are a million billion trillion emails, humongous-ly mad-faced parents, and confusing monstrosities of bureaucracies.

There are brilliant, stretched or stressed teachers who don’t get paid enough, a kindergarten admissions ogre and a ridiculous marathon to an exact idea of what success should look like, which is often stress and grades, and testing lots of it!

Preschool is tough and messy the way life is, so now you know a little about me. I am tough and messy. I want to continue with my Kidstarter, and in a Kidstarter if you want really strong ideas you go to the block area. Blocks get kids started. So I went to the block area and I asked the same question, “What should I speak about at a really fun meeting?”

Yasmeen said, “Talk about a monster.” I asked, “What kind?” “A monster baby” Then Ada said, “Talk about a princess. A beautiful princess who speaks Iceland.” And I said, “Like you?” And she said, “Yes.”

And the Icelandic Loch Ness monster curricula arose; Kidstarted.

So when I first began as a Kidstarter, I thought about individual children and the classroom and then over time I began to think more of the whole community, all the children, all the adults, everyone parents, siblings, grandparents, childcare providers, custodians, all of our friends and people in our neighborhood.

That’s when I began to notice two really special parts of organizations that grow children: rituals and surprises.

I have been working at Maple Street for thirteen years; long enough to have a Bat Mitzvah! And I began studying rituals and surprises about a year ago; writing about them, practicing them, loving them…and today is the first time I am talking about them, so it feels really special like my own ritual and surprise Bat Mitzvah.

Brooklyn Beta

Rituals and surprises; how they work together

I noticed that at my son’s older and more traditional school there were more rituals, like chapel, and field days, and annual dance concerts. And at my daughter’s newer beacon of creativity school, there were many surprises and some rituals too, though it felt new. There is stand-up comedy on Mondays, and formal Fridays, often with a guest chef and live music.

I noticed when the two interacted there was this magic joyous community feeling. Rituals connect everyone; make you feel safe and part of a community. Surprises keep us fresh! They make the rituals relevant and fun, and at their best, promote a culture of kindness, anti-oppression, and happy people.

So back to my Kidstarter. I went over to the water table; a table full of water, sometimes with props like shells, and this time it was dinosaurs. The children were playing and studying how water moves and changes.

I Asked Noah, “What should I talk about at my big fun meeting?” “Airplanes!” shouted Noah. “Dinosaur airplanes,” added Asa. “Transformer airplanes,” stated Henry. He added, “They transform into a motorcycles”. “It transforms into a robot!” exclaimed Asa.

Children, as you can hear, collaborate and innovate easily, and when we reflect on that, we too can transform things.

So Maggie, one of my lovely assistants, today often called an “administrative assistant”, came into my office one day and said she might want to teach. She wasn’t satisfied in her job so much. I was a little surprised, but I understood. I also thought her job was perfect for her. She did a little stand up when parents and caregivers came in, emailed with 3 year olds when they were feeling sad or mad, and made everyone feel part of the community. I explained this to her, that her job was right and that she could do it more fully and insert more creativity and laughter in it, and that we could do anything.

Maggie began emailing me instantly with band ideas for the lobby. Her coworker Zoe started making “free stores” with our lost and found items. We began a cafe called “Le Maple”, a pop up coffee shop. We served coffee and baked goods got a Yelp! review from parents and even have Le Maple aprons. We also created soda fountain with cool hats, and served flavored seltzer this summer.

We have had surprise trombone parades, a free original art sale, a diaper-wearing preschool comedian, board meetings with 4 year olds, spirit animal parties, traveling willaby wallaby madrigal singers, a superhero belt study disco party, and a two year old spa day.

We have a lot of artists, musicians, and theater people on our staff, and in our grown up body that are essential in inventing and producing our rituals and surprises.

It is fun, and it’s more than fun when grownups play, kids play more. When grownups learn, kids learn more…and the best surprises turn into rituals when grownups ask when the next Cafe Le Maple is happening. Rituals and surprises transform things, just like Henry said I should talk about transformers. Transformers…so let’s transform things together.

A few more things about me, while I am a fan of learning to be on task, I am a bigger fan of divergent thinking. Why? Because it is super fun having that crazy idea pop in your head, sharing it and doing it. For you all, that might mean Excel poetry, Google Calendars with made up holidays, Haikus about iOS 7. And children don’t filter those ideas usually though, when I asked Simon what I should speak about he said, “President Obama.” And then added, “I am just guessing.”

Kepler, Jeremy’s son in the audience, told me, “Speak about some people getting married,” and his friend, Zazie, interrupted him and exclaimed loudly, “No one. I am getting married to no one, and no one is gonna be there not my mom and dad.”

So now it’s time to try a Kidstarter which is hard to do with no children here, but imagine for a second you walk into a room and a child says, “Bunnies. You can’t hit bunnies, and your head is made of bunnies.” So I said, “What is my head made of?” And she said very confidently, “Your head is made of spinach.”

And then the group of children proceeded to let us know that Marisa’s head is made of mouths. Simon’s head is made of marshmallows. Kepler’s head is made of chocolate, and Willie’s head is made of strawberry rainbow ice cream.

So here we go. And I recommend you make this a ritual every day, or study it, or surprise someone at a party and ask, “What is your head made of?”

So now for a quick practice in Kidstarter rituals and surprises, turn to the people sitting next to you and tell them what your head is made of, and why.

How did that go? Any examples?

Amazing heads we have here, I love your brain.

So, before I finish, when Chris and Cameron asked me to speak, they asked me if I had any problems that needed solving in the world. The first thing that came to mind was to ask you all to please take that beautiful, silver, flat, Mac Apple, and turn into a juicy delicious tasty one; your favorite kind, Golden Delicious, Mutsu, Granny Smith, where children and their grownups can taste the sweetness point out the bruises and experience the grit.

Write an app about your passions, but play with it so deeply that there is a Kidstarter there, whether it is your kid, a kid you know, or yourself as a kid years ago. What is mostly out there now was not started by kids, it is not creative, it is consumptive.

I am happy to talk to all of you. You can help me turn a community supported agriculture curricula into an app, or I can find you people who tell trickster stories, create songs about cows and sea stars and cumulus clouds every day, and study artists so deeply that when you go into a class, everyone has decided they want to look like Frida Kahlo and has special painted eyebrows.

I want to end by thanking you all for being Kidstarters, and for being you and whatever your head is made of. I want to thank you for joining me in rituals and surprises! I want to thank Chris and Cameron and Juliette and Jeremy for having me speak. I want to thank Maggie and Marisa and Zoe, who is not here, for helping me; all for all Maple Street kids and all their grownups, every single one.

Finally, when you leave a big happy meeting, which could also be called a party if you are a kid, you expect a goody bag.

So Kidstarters, here is a goodie bag of surprises. It is magic, or so the preschoolers say, and it may be powerful. Enjoy it, throw it, create something with it, Instagram it, or take a bath in it, or do whatever you do for creating joy!

And let me know what happens…I can’t wait to see your surprises!

Thank you. Much love.

Follow @surprisewendy on Twitter