What We Do and Why We Do It:

Our 12 Points of Exceptional Child Education


Children, like adults, learn best when information is presented in a sensible, relevant context—when it is approached in its own natural setting. Math, science and language arts skills are permanently acquired when they are applied to topics and themes that 1) exist in the “real world” and 2) have actual, tangible relevance. Each year the Running River staff selects a theme, expressed as an essential question, that establishes a specific context for every area of learning. (Last year, for example, the theme for second and third grade was “What is Community?”) This approach challenges students to develop minds capable of penetrating to the essence of a subject—its purpose, its use, and its connection to every other subject.


All of us—adults and children alike—learn best when what is being taught has personal meaning to us. In fact, research has shown it is the main way the brain is activated. Ensuring that what we teach is personally meaningful to our students is the key to intrinsic motivation. Children in all grades are given many opportunities for choice; in middle school they select a year long “passion project,” supported by two to three mentors. Accomplishment, happiness and resilience are all driven by a person’s ability to access a sense of personal meaning and intrinsic motivation.


Many studies have shown that the “assembly-line” model of schooling fails students by not recognizing and matching their developmental stage. The brain and nervous system develop in a consistent order—but not within a consistent time frame. Optimal education matches both this order and a child’s unique place in it. Combined grades, school-wide activities, and highly personalized instruction allow Running River students to excel where able and receive support where needed.


By keeping classrooms small and organizing learning according to themes, our students —individually and collectively—have the creative freedom to identify goals, pose questions, and initiate areas of interest that coherently connect to the theme. Our experiential style supports curiosity and helps children to be fearless in asking questions and in making mistakes. Rather than pass/fail, we promote discovery and mastery, which is served by a high involvement of both the scientific method and the arts.

5. building community

The capacity to build and function well in community are skills that are increasingly important in the modern world, even as they become less valued in mainstream schools. Running River is deeply committed to involving people of all ages in the learning community because it really does take a village.

Frequent student exhibits, parent forums, and school-wide productions ensure that parents remain engaged in the learning paths of their children. By creating a setting in which all ages and diverse abilities are celebrated, students feel supported by a community that values and encourages learning. By seeing their work as valued, by observing other students functioning at a higher level, and by being required to demonstrate mastery through presentations and exhibits, intrinsic motivation is fostered.

Community learning and sharing also develops a sense of accountability, altruism and team thinking. The social/emotional well-being of our students informs everything we do; it is the heart of our day. Discipline is managed as a school, in small groups, with parental involvement and, when conflict is involved, with a conflict resolution model.

6. enriched by THE ARTS

While funding for the arts is being decreased in most schools in North America today, Running River maintains a strong arts curriculum with advanced opportunities in theater and visual arts. Research continues to show that students with highly developed creative centers and an enrichment of bilateral brain development at younger ages perform better overall in higher education and in the workforce, and score higher when tested for resilience and wellbeing.


Research shows that “reward and punishment” based systems of education do a great disservice to a child’s long-term sense of discipline and self-control. Modified behavior due to threatening influences tends to produce feelings of entitlement and self-preservation. Modified behavior due to understanding and internal motivation leads to long-term self-understanding, appreciation of limits, and cooperation. Further, standardized testing consistently leads to a diminishment of the ability and desire to learn. Testing-oriented education promotes effective test-taking skills at the expense of comprehension and memory retention. By focusing on a love of learning instead of constant evaluation, by emphasizing mastery instead of grades, Running River cultivates in its students a character that is cooperative, aspiring, engaged, enjoys education, and has a strong ability to learn.


A deep connection to nature, a sense of respect and stewardship for the earth, and comfort in wilderness settings are Running River traditions. Based on the Outdoor Education movement, our campus affords children the opportunity to explore the natural world. Our weekly hikes and outdoor living skills programs help children learn to overcome adversity, enhance their problem solving skills, advance their social development, promote their spirituality, and develop their leadership skills. We draw heavily on the research of Richard Louv and the overwhelming evidence that regular quality time in nature makes for healthier, happier, and more altruistic human beings.


Active, multi-sensory engagement in the world fosters personal empowerment and social responsibility. Running River stresses real-world activities rather than highly systematized desk work and testing. Project work, team work, meeting experts from the community, frequent field trips, animal care, garden care, and school-wide projects all support the building of life skills, integrated learning, learning retention, and meaningful engagement.

10. contemplative practices

We incorporate meditative periods into the daily schedule; on hikes we create space for “quiet times,” where children sit alone to “be” with themselves and nature. Students are regularly encouraged to learn how to “quiet their minds,” to “get centered” before activities, and to develop the ability to know their own feelings and thoughts. In addition to reducing stress, a contemplative approach to education cultivates a greater capacity for compassion, self-awareness, patience, deep listening, and a growing sense of feeling connected to all things.


We want every child to experience and develop their physical capacities. We have a 45 minute recess every day, a hike every week (rain or shine!), and we include dance, yoga and physical education in our curriculum. And….we let children move when they need to so their brains stay awake and engaged!
We understand that the health of the body is directly linked to the food we eat (75% of ALL disease is stress and diet related). We prepare our own homemade organic lunches, and we eat together as a community. We begin each meal with quiet music to calm our bodies, then we taste our food and have a moment of gratitude. The children are in charge of our garden, our compost and our chickens, learning directly about the source of our food. Our curriculum includes nutrition and how our bodies work.

12. Service

It is never too young to learn how to give. The highest aim of a human being is to serve. We find and also create projects that allow children to use their gifts in the world.

I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve. ~ Albert Schweitzer

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