By Erin Kenny ©2017
“I’m the leader!”
“No, I’m the leader!”
This is one of the most common exchanges you will hear at most any American preschool. Young children seem to have an almost obsessive need to be first but what that means to most of them is that they are in the front of the line and they can then run as fast as they want ahead of the group. At Cedarsong’s Forest Kindergarten, we coach the children as to what it truly means to be a good leader, and it is not running off ahead without a care.
I grew up as the oldest in a family of seven where the first six kids were only a year apart. It was chaotic and cacophonous to say the least. This being the 1960’s, many parents, including my own, would leave their young children home alone to watch each other. Being the oldest, my parents named me as the boss while they were gone. The problem was that my siblings would not recognize my leadership and all my bossiness could not make them do what I wanted them to. I learned early that, as a leader, you cannot force others to do what you want them to.
As I got older, I looked towards nature for some guidance about leadership and I thought about flocks of migrating birds. Who decides which bird is going to lead? And then at some point in time, seemingly without any communication, the lead bird drops back to allow another to take the leadership position. In wolf packs, the alpha male follows the pack, instead of being in the lead position, as this is the best way for him to keep an eye on the group.
A major theme of The Cedarsong Way is group bonding and inclusion. Vying for your position as leader is divisive. At Cedarsong we began to have conversations about what it means to be a good leader. After coaching and experiential learning, the children began to incorporate some of the finer points of positive leadership. Now when teachers ask the group “what is a good leader?”, they give answers such as “A leader is when you’re bigger than everybody and you take care of everybody” (boy, age 5) and “A leader is when you make sure everyone in your group is okay” (boy, age 4). Now we see our very young leaders hanging back, making sure even the littlest ones are staying with us and offering them assistance if they are having a challenge crossing a log. Their tender nurturing side comes out with this new envisioning of what it means to be a good leader.
Knowing how and when to delegate is an important quality of good leadership. No one likes being micro-managed and a good leader will create feelings of value and self-worth amongst everyone in their group. True leaders are connectors not dividers. At Cedarsong’s Forest Kindergarten we are cultivating a culture of the benevolent leader. We encourage older children to step up as leaders for the younger kids and we continually bridge social bonds by asking children to inquire for help from each other before asking a teacher. We tell the older children “You’re a teacher now for these younger kids” and their self-pride puffs them up noticeably. “I’m a teacher?” a five-year-old asks in disbelief because no one in the current cultural climate has ever given him the message that a five-year-old can be a teacher.
Building positive leadership should be part of the standard preschool curriculum. At Cedarsong’s Forest Kindergarten, children are put in the leadership role as part of our pedagogy since the entire premise of the Forest Kindergarten model is that it is child-driven. Students are guiding their own education, leading teachers to what interests then the most so that we can support the learning through open-ended questioning. I also lead the children by role modeling the many ways to interact with nature. When I see something interesting, all I need to do is get down and stare at it intently and, within seconds, a flock of children will be gathered around for a “lesson”.
Being a good leader is not about being on the top or first in line. It is about bringing the power up from within. It is about empowering others and helping them feel good about themselves. When you follow your own passion, others will follow you. Be a role model for the leadership qualities you want to see in your kids.