Natural Born Learners

No lesson plans, no grades, no academic tracks. At a small education center in Germantown, the kids lead their own learning.

Whether it’s building a house for a pet hamster, making a battery from a lemon, learning to read or write, or playing Dungeons and Dragons, the children follow their curiosity. But is that proper education? For Peter Bergson, co-founder of The Natural Creativity Center, the answer is emphatically yes — if we’re willing to let kids learn outside the box of traditional schooling.

Bergson founded the Center in 2015, basing the curriculum on the simple belief that humans are born problem solvers—and naturally creative. “The purpose of our Center,” he adds, “is to help young people and their families cultivate their innate ability to think flexibly and meet challenges creatively.” The fact that the Center embraces racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and cultural diversity also stands out at a time when Philadelphia’s public schools are becoming increasingly segregated by race and income. What’s the key to the Center’s success? We caught up with Bergson to get schooled.

Parents can enjoy making patterns alongside our young people as well as share their talents in a wide variety of areas, from cooking to forensics, woodworking to physics.

How do you help your students develop creativity?
For us, learning and human development are natural processes that are easily derailed by compulsory schooling, with its external motivators such as grades and testing. Traditional schooling is based on the assumption that the adults know what all young people need to know. By imposing that content on them, it interrupts the process of figuring things out and pursuing their own interests, and of inventing new content. Their brains get worn out doing all of the memorization and regurgitation you get in traditional schools, which is another reason why so many graduate without having any idea what they really want to do with their life.

What’s the best part about operating the Center?
Without a doubt, watching young people grow and enjoy life as they pursue their interests in new and interesting ways, especially if their previous experiences had left them feeling bored, stupid or angry.

Thirteen-year-old Sophia facilitates a sewing circle making miniature doll clothes while ten-year-old Ellie researches the price of apartments in Philadelphia and seven-year-old Mira works on her bear’s head (in the background).

What’s been the biggest challenge?
Convincing some parents, and even some young people, that self-directed education is far more valuable, and enjoyable, than learning based on mere memorization and regurgitation. There is the mistaken belief that if something isn’t required, it can’t be worthwhile, and that we are dependent upon some authority (like a teacher) first to instruct us and then to tell us whether our answers are right. We as a society focus too much on external validation—grades, diplomas, praise—as if they are any assurance that we really know what we’re doing.

(Left) Seven-year-old Rukia explores how high a stack of Montessori blocks can go while almost-seven Aria collects the materials for her sewing project and sister Julia, age 10, begins to sketch her own design. (Right) Facilitator Al Zami-Chi helps Max (of Germantown) and friends enjoy his seventh birthday in a baking project resulting in chocolate cupcakes.

If you could correct one myth or misconception people have about your creative process, what would it be?
That people aren’t naturally good at learning and creating and need to be forced or bribed in order to learn about the world. Just the opposite is true. As the parent of any toddler will tell you, there’s an insatiable curiosity and desire to explore and learn that begins at a very early age.

What’s the most challenging aspect about the creative process?
Overcoming self-doubt, which has been fostered by frequent criticism and correction, by a fear of loss of approval from parents and other authority figures, and by consistently failing to live up to the expectations of others.

Who was your favorite Visiting Artist this year? Why?
We had a parent who grew up doing woodworking, and she initiated an activity that centered on wood-burning followed by coloring in the designs that emerged with watercolors. She found just the right balance between instruction and experimentation. She introduced some basic skills (and safety procedures), then gave the youths free range to explore and create. It left them excited and looking forward to doing more.

(Left) A multi-aged group works collaboratively to design their own board game. (Right) Seventeen-year-old Jaya explores the inner workings of a CD player.

Most memorable moment with a student this year?
Watching an eight-year old girl plan the design of a home for her pet hamster, then helping her learn to use a power drill to construct it.

Each child has very different creative strengths and capacities — how do you identify those unique characteristics?
Often you can identify them just by watching the young person’s activities. Mostly, they ask for help when and where they need and want it, or they self-manage their own developmental process through experimentation and self-correction. We want to keep reinforcing the idea that their education is theirs, not ours, and that we are there to support them, not control them.

How do you get students to develop skills in disciplines they might not have a natural aptitude or interest in?
No one develops skills in every area (or even most of them). Most adults, for example, are not well developed in music and a foreign language and math beyond arithmetic (if that!) and history and creative writing…you see what I mean. And we don’t need to be in order to be happy and successful in life. We believe in exposing youths to a wide range of interests, but in the last analysis, it is their choice as to which ones they pursue.

We all develop most and best where we have the most interest. Our role as facilitators (we prefer that term to “teachers”) is to create opportunity, in part by modeling (for example, inviting a youth to join us in water coloring, or dissecting a fetal pig, or solving a math puzzle or measuring before cutting a piece of cloth or wood) and in part by providing the tools and materials needed to explore or create. We also respond to their initiatives (“I want to learn animation”; “I want to build furniture for a dollhouse”; “I want to learn how to read”, etc.)

(Left) Woodturning begins with a design for thirteen-year-old Sophia. (Right) Real tools support real work in the all-ways busy wood shop.

I’ve seen a Facebook post in which you used Dungeons and Dragons as the topic of a class – what sorts of lessons did the students learn?
D&D sprang from the interests and wishes of some young people. They came across some old players’ manuals and wanted to explore…they then discovered a staff member had some experience, and a pseudo-club was born. Different groups met a few times each week, and the paths of adventure varied widely from group to group. The areas of engagement spanned a number of what would be considered traditional academic subjects (including character development, plot structure, writing and reading, operational mathematics, statistics and probability), as well as a host of “soft skills” — such as group problem solving and strategizing, negotiation, lateral thinking, and team-building through collaborative world building. Everything sprang from their self-motivation.

Where do you develop ideas for class topics? Is it from the kids themselves?
Yes, the young people themselves initiate much of their own activity, with learning being a natural by-product of doing. (For example, following a recipe can lead to improved reading skills or learning about measurements.) What sparks their choices? Sometimes it’s something that they bring in with them in the morning (“I want to make muffins”; “I want to make a real treasure map”; “I want to build a catapult”; etc.).

Sometimes a Visiting Artist initiates an activity simply by bringing in their wares and putting them to use, then acceding to the requests of youths who ask to join in or do their own version, just as a three year old at home would ask to help peel the potatoes or mop the floor. Young people want to participate in life in interesting ways, and we should support that wherever possible.

About Natural Creativity
Natural Creativity’s program for youths (ages 4-17) runs Mondays through Thursdays from 9AM — 3PM. Everyone works in multi-age groups as well as in pairs and independently. Activities are either initiated by the young people themselves or introduced by staff or Visiting Artists to meet individual needs and expand the possibilities for new explorations.

For more info, visit NaturalCreativity.org or contact Christopher Steinmeier, Executive Director, by email or phone — (888) 208-0576.

Natural Creativity is currently located in the Loder Education Building of the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, 6001 Germantown Avenue. MAP LINK (The Center is currently working to acquire and renovate a permanent site in lower Germantown.)

2 Comments

  • Georges Pfeiffenschneider

    Hi, I’m a primary school teacher from the Grand-Duchy of Luxembourg whose convictions about education have changed drastically over the last few years, both because of my own daily experience with demotivated kids in our compulsory school setting and my discovery of the work of enlightened educational pioneers like A.S. Neill, John Holt, Jerry Mintz, Yaacov Hecht and others. So now, at age 55, I have come to believe that age-mixed, self-directed learning is the foundation of a fair and sustainable society, and I am currently working with a team of like-minded parents and educators to create the first learning centre for homeschoolers in our country. To me your well-documented article about The Natural Creativity Center is yet another confirming factor in this endeavour, and I will certainly share it with as many people as I can to help foster the attitude that people are naturally good at learning and creating and don’t need to be forced or bribed in order to learn about the world. Thank you!

  • Cynthia Flynn, CNM, PhD

    In this time of increasing polarity, which threatens our very democracy and produces the kind of gridlock that leaves hundreds of thousands of Americans without a paycheck, Natural Creativity Center (NCC) represents one of the best hopes I have seen to protect values that many of us hold dear. NCC teaches that people of different ages, races, incomes, religious beliefs, and backgrounds can help us solve problems we care about–often using techniques we would never have thought of–if only we work together. I have only visited NCC once, I live very far away (Washington State), I am retired on a fixed income, and I have never given birth. But each quarter, I give what I can to NCC. I consider my small donation as support for an educational approach that could change our country, and I hope it does!

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