Read what some of the local press has to say about Open Fields School.

Upper Valley Parents' Paper
The Valley News
The Country Courier

Open Fields School

By Jec A. Ballou
Reprinted with permission from The Upper Valley Parents Paper, April 2001, Volume 2, Issue 3. UVPP, P.O. Box 377, Lyme N.H. 03768. 603-353-4590.

The rooms, full of bright red and blue wooden chairs, stacks of books and anatomy charts, buzz with activity. Kids work among themselves, their faces full of wonder and discovery. There are no adults standing over them coaxing them through lessons.

On a recent afternoon, two girls ran a makeshift post office, selling stamps to other students for ten cents a sheet. A group of kids worked together around a table to figure out how to balance mock bank accounts to pay for the stamps. In a different room, another group was spinning through gymnastic moves. Dozens of board games filled the gaps on shelves between thousands of books. A few kids zipped and buttoned into snowsuits and headed outside for sledding.

It’s immediately obvious that this is a place of self-direction and motivation, a place where learning really is fun. Amidst all the activity and excitement there is direction. Three teachers oversee the 21 students, and every morning is spent quietly studying subjects like math, language arts and writing. But beyond that, this school doesn’t resemble any other. The amount of freedom here is rare.

The kids, ages four to twelve, decide their curriculum as much as anyone does. There are no precise grade levels or grade assessments for the students’ work. Kids are free to be kids, which means fostering their inherent sense of curiosity, using the resources around them, and learning things that will remain with them a lifetime. It might all sound idealistic, but the school turns 30 years old this year, proving it must be doing something right.

Founder Jean Aull believes what it does right is listen to each individual child’s needs instead of demand a lot of busy-work. Wanting to give children more creativity and excitement as opposed to reducing it, Aull founded Open Fields School in 1971 in an old three-story house beside the common on Thetford Hill. Working in education programs for many years, Aull saw an unsettling number of frustrated and bored elementary students. She decided to do something for them. With no building, no students, and everyone telling her the idea would fail, she started her school.

“I was just too stubborn to give up,” she chuckled. The first year, she had a handful of students. By the second, she had 15. Every year since, enrollment has fluctuated between 20 and 30. Kids come from as far away as Canaan and Enfield in New Hampshire and Royalton and Tunbridge in Vermont. Students, parents and friends agree that Open Fields infuses kids with an insatiable love of learning. Some parents enroll their students for that reason. Others like the individual attention kids receive there.

“By the time kids get through here, they’re so turned on by learning things, that there is no stopping them,” said Nellie Pennington, a parent whose older son has graduated and whose younger son can’t get enough of Open Fields. “The philosophy is that if kids are excited about it, they’re going to learn,” said Pennington. And kids at Open Fields are indeed excited about learning.

A typical day at Open Fields begins at 8:30 a.m. Class sessions take place until 12:30, with time set aside for socializing and pursuing individual interests. After a daily meeting and lunch, afternoons are spent on projects, reading or free time until day’s end at 3:00 p.m. Studying is balanced evenly with hands-on learning like nature walks, running the makeshift post office, sledding and art projects. Teachers do not assign homework, but can help with suggestions for self-directed projects. The school follows practices similar to home schooling. Educational activities happen in small groups and are integrated into real life situations. And they are meant to be, above all, enjoyable..

“It’s unusual to have your kids wake up and say ‘I can’t wait to go to school,’” said parent Stu Coulter, who moved with his family to the Upper Valley a few years ago. His daughter had previously been struggling in public school. She was unhappy and lacked direction. Coulter heard about Open Fields and decided to give it a try. In virtually no time at all, his daughter flourished beyond expectation, he said. She now comes home from school radiant and full of stories, anxiously awaiting the next day so she can go back to school. Snow days that cancel classes disappoint her.

A lot of Open Fields parents share stories like this. Pennington said a lot of students are very sad when summer vacation comes each year and school closes for a couple months.

Some Open Fields alumnae report in retrospect that everything was so much fun they never realized how much they were learning until they later saw they were on par, if not ahead of, their peers in high school and college.

Cora Brooks, a published author, is in her first year of teaching at the school and said, “I feel like I’ve come to heaven.” Brooks has taught all over – in elementary schools, colleges and graduate schools, mental health programs – but she said the educational freedom at Open Fields is the best she’s seen.

“Sometimes public school diminishes the child. But here it is just the opposite. They’re allowed to follow their natural movements. The teaching here is more like guiding them and encouraging them,” adds Brooks.

Open Fields funds itself by donations, fundraising and $4,000 tuition per student. It limits enrollment to 30 children each year to allow for ample individual student attention. The school can be reached at (802) 785-2077 or

Find out more about Open Fields School at their 30th Birthday Party Open House on May 19th, 1:00 - 4:00 p.m. All are welcome.

Jec A. Ballou lives in Randolph, Vermont. She is a freelance writer and dressage instructor. She also teaches Journalism at Lebanon College.

Everything Was Always Made Fun

Alumni Return To Thetford To Celebrate Open Fields School's 25th Anniversary Valley News, Tuesday, July 9, 1996 - by Norman Sibley

“What do I remember? Zillions of things! Definitely the best education of my life. Definitely.” That's how Sara Bush summed up her experience as a student at Open Fields, a private elementary school in Thetford. She was one of approximately two dozen former students and teachers who returned to their unconventional alma mater last week to eat cake and reminisce about the school's first quarter century.

“This is our second reunion,” said Jean Aull, who founded the school in 1971 and has propelled it forward ever since. “We did the 20th. This is the 25th. The next one will be in the year 2000. And I'll be 60 years old. And the one after that, maybe I'll retire.”

The three-day gathering included the annual Open Fields Circus, a commemorative game of volleyball, a walk to the sledding hill, and other quasi-official events.

But the main agenda was, as teacher Cynthia Keith Dobyns, put it, “chatting.”

Evidently there was plenty to chat about. Though some of the former students had attended Open Fields for only a year or two, they had vivid recollections.

Barb Callahan, now a nurse in the cardiology intensive care unit at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, attended for a single year, beginning in the fall of 1973. She is, by her own account, “passionate” about it. “I was in the fifth grade. It was a wonderful year. Often I look back and think, 'Was I only there one year? I couldn't possibly have been there such a short time.' I have so many rich memories that it seems I'd have to have been here 10 years to fit them all in.”

She remembers having some initial reservations: “The first few days, I thought, 'I'm not going to learn anything. I'm not going to science class or math class, and there's no spelling!' But after that year, when I went back to public school, I thought, 'Oh, I'll be so far behind.' And I was so far ahead, actually. Socially and just everything. I'd be talking to my friends about different things I'd learned on our nature walks, and they'd have no idea what I was talking about. I hold Open Fields very dear and dear to my heart. It's amazing that it was only one year that I was here, but my fondest memories are definitely from Open Fields.”

Allison Bush, Sara Bush's younger sister and a recent graduate of the University of Vermont, spent only two years - second and third grade - at Open Fields, but her memories are also rich: “I remember having soccer games in the afternoon. Square dancing, both outside and upstairs in the big room at the back, doing lots of polkas. I remember French with Cynthia, and Latin with Jean. And I remember making togas and I think it was Greek coins with Nancy Chapman [a former teacher]. We made a press for Greek coins. (We were) always making a lot of stuff, to go along with the lessons. Always doing something with our hands while we were thinking about stuff, too.'

Sara Morris, currently a plumber's apprentice in Post Mills, started at Open Fields in the first grade in 1981 and remained there through the entire six year program - with the exception of a brief detour into public school for the first half of the third grade, which was not a notable success. 'I think Open Fields is a better atmosphere for the elementary school years,” she said. In public school, “you're stuck sitting in the seat, every day, same spot. And it made me not want to be there. It made me not want to learn anything. But here, you're always changing things, always moving around. It's a different environment. Everything was always made fun. When you're learning it's made into fun, instead of having to sit down and grind at it. It's a much more family type environment. It's much more homey as opposed to... school. You don't not want to go.”

Sara Bush, who is now pursuing a doctorate in biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, expressed similar views, based in part on a brief stint as a substitute teacher in a public school in Massachusetts, where, as she put it, “all these kids were doing things that I knew were boring and they knew were boring.”

With a shifting cast of collaborators, Jean Aull has been providing one alternative to public education for 25 years. In all that time, very little has changed at Open Fields, which she clearly regards as a point of honor.

“What pleases me most,” she said, as Friday's chatting drew to a close and the participants began folding up the lawn furniture, “is that we've gone with the times but we've never really changed our philosophy. We've never stooped to being what somebody else wanted us rather than what we really thought we should be - even though it's meant some lean times when the tide was saying, 'More homework; you've got to teach them everything in the first year.' I've steadfastly maintained that you don't have to do it that way. It's tricky sometimes, because if you'd just fudge that a little, you'd probably fill the place more often. But I'm glad we never did.”

Asked to list the school's defining characteristics, she said, “The small and personal, we've never let go of that. We've resisted the impulse to move to a bigger place or get 10 times more kids, though there were years when we might have been able to do that. ... Solid basic skills; self-confidence and self-discipline - that's what we're aiming for, and you can do that in any number of ways. But small and personal is it what makes it happen.”

And she clearly has no intention of altering her priorities. “To do well what you do,” she said, “you'd better stick to what you do well.”

Norman Sibley is design supervisor at the Valley News. His son attends Open Fields.

Thetford Hill's Open Fields School

From the Country Courier, July 7, 1995. Article by Michelle A. Sherburne.

Children are eager to explore, discover, and learn naturally. They are like sponges, soaking in everything that is around them. Open Fields School bases its philosophy on the concept that education should be molded around a child's natural learning process. The small, non-graded private school, located off the common in Thetford Hill, is open to children ages 5 to 12.

“The students learn the solid basic skills, but it should be fun and interesting. We want to open doors, not close them,” Director Jean Aull said. Open Fields offers reading, writing, mathematics, science, and social studies as well as painting, music, photography, carpentry, computers, dramatics, or any other subjects that the students show an interest in.

Open Fields doesn't have a curriculum that is carved in stone. If the children are interested in a particular subject, then the teachers foster that interest by creating a learning experience around that interest. “When they get excited, you get excited!” Aull said.

In the first six weeks of a new school year, the teachers observe the children to find out what their learning abilities and levels are. After a break in October, the students are placed in appropriate classes. Open Fields promotes education at the child's pace, not a class's pace, so a class consists of different ages depending on the students' abilities.

Open Fields has scheduled classes but the students are not bound by formalities of structure. The students have free time and are allowed to do what they want -- play outside, read a book, or work on a project. The children's free time teaches them responsibility and self-discipline.

Not every subject needs a textbook to map out what to teach the students. With a little imagination and knowledge, any subject can be presented in an enthusiastic manner and children will want to learn.

Everywhere you look in the school there are posters, maps, crafts and science projects, all evidence of the diverse education these students get. And books! Everywhere you turn, there are bookshelves. “The school has 8,000 books!” Aull said. The school also has five Apple 2C computers and three Macintosh computers that the students use in their classes.

There are no tests and they do not give out grades. “In a class of four kids, you know what they know. It isn't necessary to grade. We are conscious of grade levels and their abilities,” Aull said.

At Open Fields, the teachers do not push competition in education and the students do not compete with each other. Without a grading system, that natural tendency to compete for an A is nonexistent. “We do not stress competition. Nobody's failure is somebody else's success. We help the kid by telling them they 'can' do it,” Aull said.

Too often a child who needs extra help in a subject is labeled “special needs,” which can be derogatory. That label sticks all through school. At Open Fields, if a child needs help they get it, without the stereotyping. “We figure that the student is trying and working at it. It is no big deal. Just because a child may not be academically minded doesn't mean they are stupid.” Aull said.

Aull doesn't believe in homework. She figures the children have enough work at school and should be able to play when at home. “They're kids -- they should be allowed to be kids,” Aull said.

Playing outside is the best form of exercise for children because they play hard and create their own games. “That's their physical education! Structured physical education isn't necessary for 5 to 12 year olds,” Aull said. They also go on hikes and walks, and go sledding in the winter.

The diversity in ages is a healthy factor at Open Fields. Five year olds play with 10 year olds. “They take care of each other. It is wonderful,” Aull said. Children's social skills are nurtured because they are interacting with different personalities and age levels. The older ones know the ropes and set the example for the younger students. It makes them feel important and teaches them responsibility.

Not to paint a picture of a utopian school here, there are problems, of course. Open Fields gets the geniuses as well as the special needs children, whether it be emotional or academic; children that are struggling in public school, and just regular children. But the teachers deal with the problems on a one-on-one basis. There is discipline but in a small atmosphere, problems are dealt with immediately and on a personal level. More importantly, the children are taught to deal with their own problems.

“My aim is to teach self-confidence and self-discipline. You have to foster it,” Aull said.

Before teaching, Aull was a writer for magazines like Ranger Rick and Field & Stream. She realized that she was writing for children but had a strong desire to teach. “I sort of backed into teaching,” she said. Aull has a teaching background, though she is not an accredited teacher. In the 1970's, she saw a need in the Upper Valley for an alternative in education and decided to start a non-graded, private school.

Aull bought a house on the common in Thetford Hill in 1971 and established the Open Fields School. The first year Open Fields was open, there were eight full-time and four half-time students. Open Fields has students from Topsham, Chelsea, Bradford, Thetford, and Enfield and Lyme, NH. “We have had students from all over Vermont and New Hampshire,” Aull said. The 1994-95 school year had a low enrollment of 15 students, but the school averages around 25 students a year. “One year we had 34!” said Aull. They thrive on staying small and personal. That's the key to their success.

The majority of students go on to public schools after Open Fields. They have to adjust to a more structured learning environment, but academically the students do well. Many alumni have attended Vassar, Dartmouth, Hampshire College, Carnegie-Mellon and even the Sorbonne in Paris.

Usually the students' transition to public school is a smooth one but Aull chuckles at the parents' apprehension of their children's transition. “The kids are ready but the parents aren't. I tell them, it isn't like they are going to Harvard Law School. It's just public school!”

A small school doesn't need many teachers and presently there are two full-time teachers, Mary Layton and Cynthia Keith Dobyns, and Aull teaches part-time. Aull hires teachers who know how to work with children and can work in a small, personal situation regardless of their teaching credentials.

The school is funded by tuition, donations and fund-raisers. The low $3,500 tuition per student isn't enough to run the school so they are always fundraising and now they are applying for grants.

In the past 24 years, Open Fields has had 300 students. The school is dear to the alumni hearts and Aull said they return loyally for reunions. When she sees students who are adults now, she is proud of the job she did. “We brought them up to enjoy themselves.”

Open Fields' personal approach to education is a family experience. In July 1996, Open Fields will be celebrating its 25th anniversary. “We are really excited about that!” Aull said.

When June rolls around, the students aren't anxious for summer vacation because they won't be able to go to Open Fields every day! “I hear it all the time. The kids hate to go away!”

Michelle A. Sherburne is a regular contributor to Country Courier and lives in Wells River.