OPFS class exploring trees and weather in the early spring.

“I am happy to ‘run’ with the children, but I also plan and I am ready to build on their ideas and play.”                         ~ Carol Stanley 


  • A child-centered, emergent curriculum that stresses play and project-based learning.
  • An inclusive community inspired by the Quaker tradition.  
  • We focus on the socio-emotional development of our students through character building, town hall meetings, Socratic dialogue, and experiential learning in the community.
  • We provide them space to learn from and to teach one another.
  • We are a micro-school that uses a  “blended learning” approach

Emergent Curriculum
A “constructivist” approach to learning that is naturally individualized,  building off the interests and strengths of each learner.  In our emergent model, we’ve created a rich, engaging learning environment. Central to the emergent approach is the ongoing process of observation, planning, and documenting children’s learning.  Students engage in play, hands-on projects, learning gardens, and fields trips where they are active participants, designers, and voices in and of their learning.  Student thinking and assessment is continuous and documented authentically without the use of high-stakes tests and letter grades.  We reference and align when possible with IL State Standards, Common Core standards, and NEXT Generation Science Standards as a part of our emergent approach.

As a part of this approach, our teachers use webbing to plan and document learning.  Check out this link to see how that works. 

Curiosity is the heart of OPFS. We believe that all children are naturally curious and it is the job of the school to harness the innate curiosity in each child.  Children are always asking questions, and here at OPFS, we’re paying attention!  Student-directed inquiry is the backbone of our emergent curriculum and project-based learning.  What many do not understand is that if we let the child’s natural inquiry flow, they will innately come to learning reading, language arts, math science and social studies...it is when we let their interest determine the path, that we as guide are able to twist and turn them so they hit all that they might in a graded, traditional setting.  

“Child-Centered” = “Learner” Centered

Why are schools everywhere recognizing the need to approach learning from the “learner’s perspective”?  What does “child-centered” mean?  The OPFS is “child-centered” for the same reason schools, universities, businesses and governmental organizations are “learner-centered”; modern Neuroscience and Sociobiology..

It really boils down to a simple idea-one that every culture participates in and imagines: the process of learning.  How does it work?  What is most effective?  What do we need to know or know how to do as a culture? As a people?  As human beings?

Fortunately, advances in Neuroscience and Sociobiology have answered some of these questions.  We now know that human beings are not blank slates, or “empty vessels” devoid of concept or understanding; that we all bring a certain set of understandings, background knowledge, or culture into every classroom, interaction, or situation.  

We know that children learn best through play and that the human brain continues to form dendrites, brain cell tendrils, throughout the entirety of their lives.  We know that learners are not passive observers; rather active participants in the learning process.

“Learner-centered” can mean many different things depending on the context, country, or culture.  For early childhood educators it can mean:

  • providing a variety of materials in Pre-K classrooms for children to explore and develop fine motor skills and cognition.

  • providing students with a variety of books and reading materials

  • listening to students tell stories about their summer vacation

  • differentiating activities or assessments

  • Providing visual aids for visual learners

For businesses it could be:

  • Allowing employees to present project ideas using different modalities, art, or technology

For public health officials and doctors it could be:

  • Printing CDC posters on the Zika virus in a non-English language for areas of the city with high population of non-English speakers

Learner-centered basically means adapting the teaching for the benefit of the learner.   

For school-age teachers, child-centered at its simplest means asking, “Who are my students? Where are they from?  How do they learn best?  In child-centered education, “the preoccupation is not the teacher’s instruction, but the child’s construction” (Piaget).  

With the advent of the Common Core Standards, funding for schools became tied directly to schools being able to “reach” a set of standards; which are basically learning objectives and key understandings for ELA and Math.  For each grade level, from Kindergarten to the twelfth grade, these schools are attempting to develop a wide array of skills (like “Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions” SLS1.5thgrade )  and impart certain understandings (“Explain the function of conjunctions, prepositions, and interjections” LS1a.5thgrade)
across subject areas to all of their students. 42 states plus the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core as guidelines for success.  

There is a myth, that all schools now have to ”teach to the test’.  It is a myth because most schools recognize that the Common Core does not say HOW schools have to teach nor does it determine HOW schools go about reaching the Common Core Standards.  The law simply requires that they reach the benchmarks and document the learning through standardized tests.

In reality, schools around the country are creating communities of belonging, that are rich, meaningful, and tremendously fun.  There are so many American schools that do a fantastic job of creating “child-centered” environments--where kids are safe, joyful, and genuinely interested in learning.  Many are reaching or exceeding the Common Core and State Standards.   Even schools that are deemed ‘failing’ by Common Core Standards are still able to document and track the learning of their students in qualitative and quantitative means other than standardized tests that are unique to their school community, culture and population.

So that’s the upside.

The downside is that some schools are spending too much time, money, and effort trying to connect their students to the standards instead of nurturing creativity despite knowing that tapping into the learner’s intrinsic motivation is central to keeping learners engaged and interested. Many teachers are genuinely concerned with the dependence upon the “memorization of facts” to pass certain standardized tests and reach the standards.  In addition, parents and teachers have recognized that many of the standards are biased towards particular cultures, language groups and learning styles.  

Fortunately, Democratic institutions around the country--schools, businesses, and governmental organizations--are resilient.  And fortunately, many are asking asking:  “If you don’t keep the learner’s perspective in mind, how do you expect to reach, let alone, teach them?”  Michael Horn, of the Clayton Christensen Institute and author of many best-selling books about schools, defined “Blended Learning”, a form of child-centered education, as “a formalized education program that takes place partially online, where students have some control over the time, place, path, and pace of learning.”  For OPFS students, this means kids are:

  • spending less time sitting in desks and more time interacting and solving problems.  

  • It means, they are using technology to access texts, to conduct research, and to communicate with classrooms and experts around the world.

  • It means they are setting and tracking their goals and growth in different subject areas and skills.  

They are conducting experiments, investigations into real-world events and ideas, and exploring topics of interest to them through project-based learning and field trips.  

OPFS is not only the school to have wrestled with the “child-centered, intrinsic motivation” vs. “core knowledge/extrinsic motivation” debate nor are we the only school in the Chicago-area to have claimed to have effectively resolved this conflict.