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Written by Tedd Wakeman - co-founder/director

For most students across the country, heading back to school in the Fall is not exactly a cherished occasion. It signifies the end of summer freedom, the end of physical and intellectual engagement, and the return to a system where student interest is rarely a priority.

Since the founding of Sycamore, we knew the first day presented a golden opportunity. We wanted to send a unique message to our students that learning is playful and filled with wonder. Rules and procedures and policies can all be addressed in time. The first day only happens once…so we seized the opportunity to develop growth mindsets right out of the gate.

In 2021, with many COVID restrictions still in place, we planned a magical day to kick off the year. Mid-morning, a package arrived. It was from the “Shrub Queen of the Mountain”. Within it was a letter and a metal box locked with five different locks. She expressed to the students in her letter that in order to open the box, they would need to participate in a variety of activities. If they succeeded in taking on the challenges, they would earn what was needed to ensure a most beautiful year at Sycamore.

Filled with curiosity and excitement, the students scampered off to a day of activities. One rotation boasted “Minute to Win It” style games designed to challenge our kids physically while immersing them in the joy of play.

Another rotation presented intellectual challenges as students needed to make observations, find connections, and assemble a tile puzzle that unlocked a secret clue.

A third rotation gave students an opportunity to learn more about the school and the staff through our own, customized Jeopardy game.

Finally, the last rotation led kids to the Maker Space. Here they were given a bag of resources and the opportunity to ask twenty questions about a particular object hidden under a box. The goal was for kids to ask good questions and gather enough information about the hidden object to be able to build one of their own. The big reveal at the end allowed them to see how close they came to the model.

At the conclusion of each activity, teams were presented with three puzzle pieces. In the afternoon, when all rotations were complete, teams assembled their puzzle pieces to find more clues. There were numbers and compass directions on the completed puzzles. These needed further discussion and analysis in order for the group to decide the next move. A school-wide problem-solving session broke out. Keys were earned, combinations were discovered, locks were unlocked, and the students were able to spy the box’s contents at last.

Inside was a congratulatory letter from the Shrub Queen and five blue bottles containing very special tonics. These magical liquids were derived from the essence of Sycamore’s foundational mindsets: Collaborate, Think Critically, Live Imaginatively, Take Action, and Be Adaptable.

Per the instructions of the Shrub Queen, these tonics were to be poured at the base of our Sycamore tree in the back yard. By doing so, the tree would then nourish the campus for year of magical thinking and learning.

All in all, it was a wondrous first day. Yes, it takes a lot of teamwork and planning to create a day like this for students. Yes, it’s much easier to default to reading rules, explaining expectations, and covering school procedures. However, it’s totally worth introducing students to the magic and wonder of learning on the very first day of school. First impressions mean everything.


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