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Open fields, open minds

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Vivian Ayers Allen brings Workshops in Open Fields concept to Chester for second year

By Brian Garner

Children will come to the open fields; they will leave with open minds.

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Vivian Ayers  Allen, whose accomplishments range from being a poet honored by NASA, a nominee for a Pulitzer Prize, an artist, and author to raising two daughters (who are accomplished in their own right), Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Ayers Allen, and two sons, professional musician “Tex” Allen and businessman Hugh Allen, brings her philosophy and love of education to the Workshops in Open Fields, being held on the grounds of the historic Brainerd Institute in Chester June 4-28.

Characterized as a “summer pre-school literacy program,” the workshops invite preschool children ages 4-6 to engage in “innovative lessons for literacy and the arts” and features “classroom” visitors, engaging lessons and field trips to other places in Chester County. For example, last year workshop participants visited the Powell Farm in Sharon, S.C.

Last summer on the final day of the program, The N&R sat down with Mrs. Ayers Allen and she explained the history of the Open Fields concept.

In the 1970s in Houston, Texas, Ayers Allen was a part of the Harris County Community Action Program, a program for arts and culture in Houston. She and a group of artists were working to develop a program for artistic instruction for kids. Driving around Houston, Ayers Allen noticed a lot of open fields, and envisioned a program where students were out in the fields, going from one activity to another, learning the different arts disciplines and improving their literacy at the same time, under the tutelage of volunteers and artists in those different disciplines.

“I started Open Fields because I married into the most privileged class, but my mentality was never really there. So many of the good-looking, buttermilk-fair children in Texas were playing in open fields all summer long, with weeds this high and no one complaining and then someone would ring bells and they’d have to go back to school. I knew they couldn’t do their best like that, and I didn’t think we…should sit back and look at that and do nothing about it.

“I chose a field – I had been appointed to create a cultural program for the indigents of the county, who were black and white and brown. I thought to take one of those fields where the grass was as high as the children, close to museums…and do a program in the arts that exposed those children who were running wild with no agenda, to every available arts discipline,” she said.

Her program was so successful that it was applauded and recommended to the nation as a “prototype of grassroots programming” by Nancy Hanks, the second chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

“When she heard about this, she sent someone to Houston to talk to me about this, and I had the first grant before I got started,” Ayers Allen recalls.

“But that’s not the real story; the real story is I called the teachers that I knew who were teaching arts disciplines to be in a seminar with me. I wanted to hear from them what they thought about it and how they would approach this. It’s never right to think you have all the ideas. When I finished that first meeting with them, I knew which way to go (with the program),” she said.

She has adapted some of the same ideas and methods she used for putting on the workshops in 1970 to the program in Chester.

Ayers Allen said she had to overcome a lot of resistance last year to the program, and the Chester County School District wasn't quite sure what to make of her preschool literacy program.

“Those were people without children; but if you have children, you’re not going to say no to a preschool literacy program, are you?

“We persisted and did what we could, under the circumstances.

“But this year is going to be the real year, because now we have about 20 volunteers from the school system. (The volunteers are a mix of certified teachers and artisans).

“And these are our children we’re going to serve; they’re not someone else’s children,” Ayers Allen said.

The program has a closer collaboration with the school district in another way. The workshops at the Brainerd site will be one of the school district’s “Read-Feed-Succeed” summer reading-and-feeding sites. Free lunch and snacks will be provided for the children every day.

Ayers Allen is a third generation graduate of the Brainerd Institute. The location chosen for the Workshops in Open Fields means more than just fresh air and sunshine, although that is part of it, too.

“I know what’s on those grounds, spiritually,” Ayers Allen said.

“I was an honor graduate of Brainerd – I graduated with highest honors in music at Brainerd. I also emerged as a writer at Brainerd. I won the contest at the state level in my junior year,” she said.

“You know, you don’t appreciate a place like that until you get away from it,” she added.

“Environment is everything in education; it’s a large factor. You’d have a hard time duplicating the Brainerd environment and what it was for me anywhere else,” she said.

The outside nature of the Workshops in Open Fields is part of what makes the program unique and what is part of the allure of the program – it’s a different kind of learning.

What makes it special?

“Well, you’re here,” Ayers Allen said, when asked that question outside during the program last year, “would you prefer to be inside the public library or outside in the field with the wind? We’ve got everything here we need,” she said.

“Someone once told me about the special way the children react to the trees on the site, the trees that are just as old as Brainerd was. The air is fresher with those trees there,” she said.

Ayers Allen said the program would continue to focus on preschool literacy for children ages 4-6, because this is an important area to address.

“Technical observation tells us that children who have no preschool don’t compete very well. I’ve visited the high schools and seen whole classes of students waiting for the bell to ring so they can catch up with the class. Well, you don’t just see things like that – you do something about it,” she said.

“And as they say in Chicago, ‘this has got to be did,” she said.

Ayers Allen said the program would build on what was done in the open fields last summer. In addition to reading activates, community leaders have been invited to visit the workshop and tell the children about their professions.

“This happened last year. One of the most fantastic things that happened was Dr. Sam Stone came and gave a talk about bones and anatomy. That was a marvelous time for all of us,” she said.

She said “us” because as a facilitator, Ayers Allen is very much a presence during the workshops.

The workshops will take place on Mondays through Thursdays from 9 a.m. to noon. Plans are still being formed and there may be some Friday activities as well, June 4-28.

The workshops are free and open to any preschool student ages 4-6.

Vivian Ayers Allen believes the teachers who get these students in the next school year will have an easier time with them, because in those open fields, their minds have been opened.

Dance Free Days

As a kickoff to the Workshops in Open Fields, Mrs. Ayers Allen’s daughter Debbie Allen will bring her dance company and the Debbie Allen Dance Academy to the grounds of Brainerd for Dance Free Days on June 2nd from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and June 3rd from 1-5 p.m. Ages 4 and up are welcome and no prior experience is necessary. Students will learn concepts from ballet, jazz, tap, African and hip-hop dance.

For more details about Workshops in Open Fields, call facilitator Pete Stone at 803-899-4391. The Brainerd Institute is located at 115 Marquis Street in Chester.