Our approach at Wildwood is very intentionally age-mixed. The benefits of blending kids of slightly varying ages and abilities are clear, both in the classroom, and out.
On a recent Tuesday on the elementary campus, I watched two groups of students entering the Big Yard in straight lines from opposite corners. The 3rd graders, coming from the west, were walking downstairs after spending some time in the tech lab. The Whale Pod, heading in from the east, entered through the Big Yard woods.
As students in each group began to recognize each other, they broke ranks from the neat, single-file lines, rushing past their teachers and toward each other. I hear Whale Pod associate teacher, Alli Newell call across the Big Yard to 3rd grade associate, Jody Poulos, “This feels like West Side Story.”
In this Wildwood Story, the two worlds meet but don’t collide. The kids all rush each other with excitement and joy and pair off to play tag, soccer, and basketball. The students, from Melissa Capuano’s 3rd grade class and Sara Lev’s Whale Pod are teamed up as part of Wildwood’s long-running Buddy program.
“At least twice a month,” says Alli Newell, “our Pod kids spend time with Melissa’s 3rd graders. Sometimes, like today, it’s play time on Big Yard. We’ll also have reading time together, or we’ll do a holiday-themed project.” To which Melissa Capuano adds, “This year our classes made Valentine’s cards together.”
The Buddy program has been a Wildwood institution for decades. Assistant Elementary School Director, Melissa Linehan, can attest to the program’s profound effects. “My oldest son, Michael, became great friends with his younger buddy in the program. As adults, they went on to be in a band together. I’ve even heard them talk about their “buddy” time at Wildwood in radio interviews.”
The kids playing on the Big Yard today are happy keeping this Wildwood tradition alive. Whale Pod students, Nita K. and Harper S., readily offer endorsements when I ask what they like most about their 3rd grade buddy Emma L. “She’s fun and she’s big enough to give us piggyback rides,” they exclaim. While I see a smile on her face, I also sense that Emma, weighed down by her two Whale Pod piggyback riders, good-naturedly is practicing the Life Skill of flexibility— adapting to the wants and needs of her younger buddies.
Melissa Capuano adds that the buddy program also provides her 3rd graders the opportunity to practice another Life Skill, Responsibility. “We’ve had some great conversations about what it means to be the big buddy,” she says. “Because they’re larger, they have to be conscious of how hard they play.” “And,” she adds, “the 3rd graders are great at holding each other accountable for being good role models for the Pod kids.”
Some of these friendships may be fleeting; other Wildwood buddies will remain connected throughout elementary school and beyond. Both ways, our goals are met, as Wildwood’s day-to-day commitment to community building is realized, and resonates in our student’s lives.