Roosevelt Island Explorers
Roosevelt Island Explorers (RIEx) is one of many homegrown initiatives driven by appreciation of the Island’s unique community and exceptional beauty. Our work aligns with two unifying threads that shape the Island’s identity today and our vision for its future: the Island as a hub of innovation, and the legacy of the Roosevelts. Inspired by the Roosevelts’ selfless quest to improve lives of the American people, we believe that high-quality education belongs to all children. In a place like Roosevelt Island, no child should have to look for a better school elsewhere. By developing a program that challenges the standardized, test-driven education, we aim to sustain the Island’s legendary ingenuity by breaking new ground in early childhood education.
My husband and I discovered the Island in 2007 through the auditorium-renovation project at PS/IS 217, and were quickly seduced by its breathtaking views and the strong community. We were not alone. Many young families recognized the Island’s nurturing qualities and made it their home. Soon, people of childbearing age and children 0-5 became the Island’s fastest-growing population groups. Around that time, while immersed in studies about child development, I discovered the Reggio Emilia approach known worldwide as the model of excellence in early childhood education. Developed in Italy after World War II, the Reggio approach represents the most comprehensive summary of progressive education theories and practices from all over the world.
The main tenet of the Reggio approach is the belief that children are born ready to learn and are perfectly capable of figuring out the world around them. They construct their own knowledge through interaction with everything and everybody in their environment. This process cannot be rushed, as children’s exploration sees no boundaries. The role of adults is to guide them gently without imposing what they think children should do. Most importantly, the Reggio Emilia community believes children are its most precious resource and the responsibility of all. This means that all Reggio Emilia children ages 0-6 have access to affordable, high-quality infant-toddler centers and preschools.
When surrounded by the Roosevelt Island community, I could not help connecting the two: in the midst of intense debates about the quality of the American test-driven education, our Island seems to offer a solution. The possibility of engaging children and the community in an unrestricted exploration of life around them shaped the vision of the Roosevelt Island Explorers.
We introduced RIEx to the community in 2012 through the Children’s Garden, located between 455 and 465 Main Street. With help from parents and from 455 Main Street management and staff, this garden became an outdoor classroom where children explored freely, building relationships with the environment and each other. Engaged in activities meaningful to them, they constructed, created, shared, and laughed, taking exploration to new levels in a joyful process of LEARNING. The garden is also a place where parents, working alongside their children, remember their childhood experiences and create new ones. We are becoming a learning community for children and adults. While the Reggio Emilia schools demonstrate a community embracing children as capable, thinking beings, our task is the reverse: by demonstrating children’s vast capacities, we hope to change the prevailing public perception that children are weak and in need of protection to become capable, strong, and powerful. After building a supportive community, opening a school would follow as a natural next step. This is not an easy task.
Seeing children in action is the best way to demonstrate not only their capabilities but also the endless learning possibilities that exist on Roosevelt Island. During the 2013 and 2014 Fall for Arts Festivals, we created a large Island map and a cardboard Renaissance City. On Roosevelt Island Day in 2014, children and parents created art by weaving recycled materials into a chicken fence, and made music with instruments made from found materials. The area around the fountain became a yarn cobweb, stretched around the trees. The RIOC community outreach group proved essential for the site organization. Materials came from the nearby construction site, and parents helped with art- and music-making. It was a community coming together.
While these one-day events serve as beautiful examples of the educational and social possibilities that exist on the Island, only a sustainable Island-wide program can truly support children’s holistic development. RIEx was first envisioned as a preschool, and continues to evolve by following our non-negotiable goals: The program has to be affordable and accessible to all Island children; just as children’s participation cannot be limited by the family’s income, it also cannot be limited by age. The image of children needs to change to embrace their extraordinary capacities. Complete freedom is necessary to create programs that educate the whole child. And children’s active community participation is essential for their civic development.
In order to integrate these goals with the families’ needs, we are now searching for alternative ways to offer innovative programs, advocate for children’s right to quality education, and facilitate community building through collaboration with other Island groups that share the same values and goals. Our ideas include a Children’s Learning Center, a story-telling festival, a creative recycling center, sending holiday wishes to the world, and others in development. These Island-wide initiatives can materialize only with community participation and support. We believe in the capacity of our resourceful community to guide its own affairs and invite you to join us on this exciting journey.
This is a continuing evolution of a vision with the potential to maximize our Island’s unique qualities for the benefits of not only children but also the entire community. Imagine the Roosevelt Island approach: deciding together how we want to care for our children!