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Working for Play

Education happens off the lesson grid at a home-based Burlington school


Published October 5, 2011 at 8:00 a.m.

Andy Murphy’s classroom is a little different from what you might find at a traditional school. There are no desks in tidy clusters, no teacher’s chair and no blackboard (or whiteboard). Actually, his “classroom” isn’t a classroom at all.

Murphy doesn’t need one. For the 39-year-old teacher and founder of the Blue Bungalow, a progressive preschool and kindergarten he runs on the bottom floor of his home, the classroom is wherever learning is happening. And that can be anywhere from his backyard to the kitchen sink.

The curriculum at Murphy’s tiny school, which occupies 44 percent of his family’s North Street house, is as far removed from public education norms as its setting. To be sure, children are learning. But they are doing so at their own pace, exploring what interests them. When the students recently found a slug in the school’s playground-cum-backyard, Murphy turned the slimy creature into an ongoing lesson about nature and the seasons. Students now have a snail habitat and two resident slugs — Slimy and Fred.

With the Blue Bungalow, Murphy is challenging the traditional paradigm of public education, which, he says, tends to be hamstrung by test-centered, not student-centered, curricula.

The Blue Bungalow, so named because Murphy’s house is a blue bungalow, was born four years ago from Murphy’s desire to provide his son, Otis, now 6, with an education alternative to conventional preschool. He now has 13 students ranging in age from 3 to 6. This year is the first that Murphy has had a kindergarten class, which Otis is attending.

Murphy has an education background: He taught for 12 years at the independent Bellwether School in Williston. When Otis was born, he quit his job to be a stay-at-home dad. Murphy jokes that, as his son’s primary caretaker, he was often the only dad in a sea of moms. “It was Andy and the mommies,” he says. “It’s like a rock band.”

When Otis turned 3, it was time for Murphy and his wife, Amy Starble, to think about preschool. They considered Bellwether, but the tuition would have required Murphy to get a part-time job. Friends of theirs with preschool-aged children were in a similar situation, Murphy says — wanting a progressive education for their children, but not willing or able to pay the tuition at places like the Lake Champlain Waldorf or Bellwether schools.

Murphy and fellow parents, most of whom were his Old North End neighbors, discussed their options. Together, they determined that Murphy could run the type of school they wanted from his home, and the Blue Bungalow was born. Tuition runs between $2400 and $3500 a year.

In the education realm, Murphy has always stood out: Male preschool and primary school teachers are few and far between. So are those who sport nose rings and earrings, as Murphy does, making him look more like a record store clerk than a kindergarten teacher.

For now, kindergarten is as far as students can progress at the Blue Bungalow. Technically, it is not a “school” but a home childcare center, no different from a day care facility in the eyes of the state. Murphy can accommodate kindergarten-aged students because state law doesn’t require children to be enrolled in an official school until they are 6.

During his years running the Blue Bungalow, Murphy has begun exploring the minefield of rules that govern education in Vermont. Beyond kindergarten, parents may homeschool their own children and two other, nonrelated children for as long as they like. When the nonrelated students exceed two, their only option (besides an official school) is to start a school outside their home.

This restriction is of some concern to parents such as Rick Cusick, whose 5-year-old daughter, Nina, is loving her second year at the Blue Bungalow, he says. Cusick would like to see her stay on under Murphy’s tutelage. Since that may not be a possibility, he and his wife have been researching other options.

In Murphy’s first year running the BB — as parents and students call it — he came to realize, he says, that this bridge between homeschooling and a conventional classroom was ideal for his students. “It cemented to me that a home environment is a good place for a school,” he says. “It’s safe, it’s comfortable, and coming in here feels like home.” As for allowing a school to take over his family’s house, that never bothered Murphy. He’s happy to let an easel sit in his kitchen and comfortable with the blocks, books and dress-up clothes filling his living room.

For parents such as Lois Trombley, whose 5-year-old daughter, Zora, is in her first year at the Blue Bungalow, Murphy’s school is a happy middle ground. “I was definitely looking for a really nurturing environment, but I felt that homeschooling would be too isolating,” Trombley says. “And I felt that she was ready for something other than Momma.”

Murphy isn’t shy about expressing his problems with public education. Rarely do conventional schools try to determine what works best for individual students, he says. Many public schools claim to be student centered, but they are too focused on meeting curricular goals to take children’s true wants and needs into account. “Giving facts to children isn’t learning; it’s transmission,” Murphy says.

Murphy’s brand of child-centered education allows students to facilitate their own learning. The slugs are a good example: The kids were interested enough to start pursuing the subject, and Murphy rolled with it, turning the garden pests into an ongoing lesson.

The Blue Bungalow is all about flexibility. At 8:30 a.m., students arrive and settle into the day by working on an art project or some other activity for their first half hour. A “hello meeting” follows, which includes singing if the kids are into it that day. After the meeting, they break for snacks supplied by a parent, which are always vegan, in keeping with Murphy’s family’s dietary choices.

Next, the students have “explore time,” or free play. The play element is essential to Murphy’s education philosophy. “It is a chance for them to engage their brains,” says the teacher, who typically is playing right alongside his students. Play can last as long as an hour or more. There’s no comparison with a rigidly structured school that moves students from lesson to lesson.

“There are so many transitions in public school,” Murphy says. “I try to go with the flow and see where the children are at.”

For parents such as Cusick, this absence of rigidity was one of the attractive aspects of Murphy’s program. “It’s a good mix of freedom and structure,” he says.

Steve Posner sends both his children to the Blue Bungalow largely because, he says, he and his wife believe their kids learn best when they are pursuing subjects that interest them. Their older child, Lily, has “really taken to the Blue Bungalow model”; lately, says Posner, she is particularly captivated by the school’s resident slugs.

Murphy notes that he still introduces students to core subjects such as reading, writing, math and science, but with a fluidity not possible in public school. Threaded through an average Blue Bungalow day, those topics are as much a part of it as play, art and make-believe.

What’s the future of the Blue Bungalow as students age out? To launch his own independent school, Murphy, along with interested parents, would have to raise capital, find a location and get approved by the state Board of Education. It’s a challenging prospect that Murphy and the parents are investigating. But, Murphy says, a Blue Bungalow elementary school is not out of the question.