GUY RAZ, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Guy Raz. For nearly 20 years, Blue Man Group has been drawing crowds to its quirky performances. The show features three guys with blue heads who play weird instruments and do crazy things most of us simply can't do. At this point, the group is no longer just three blue and mute men; Blue Man Group is a multimillion dollar international operation. And now, the original founders of Blue Man Group have started a preschool in New York's East Village. It's called - what else? - Blue School. NPR's Margot Adler reports.
(Soundbite of music)
MARGOT ADLER: If you think about Blue Man Group, those three mute guys with the blue heads, wild light displays, and instruments made out of PVC tubes, the Blue School seems normal in comparison.
(Soundbite of people talking through tubes)
Ms. APRIL GRASTI (Teacher, Blue School): Hey, Kai(ph).
KAI (Student, Blue School): Hey, what?
ADLER: Although there are talking tubes that go across the ceiling from one part of the building to another, teacher April Grasti(ph) is speaking with Kai, a four year old, although they are about 75 yards apart.
KAI: I could hear you, though.
Ms. GASTI: What do you see down there?
KAI: I see only tubes. That's it.
ADLER: But most of what you see here is what you'd see at many good preschools - stories being read aloud, music, building with blocks.
Unidentified Student #1: We are making the triangle building.
Unidentified Student #2: Uh oh...
ADLER: And creative art projects. Art specialist Pam Cher(ph) sits with a handful of four year olds.
Ms. PAM CHER (Art Specialist, Blue School): Everybody take a vote. Do you want to do it based on the story of Leonardo(ph), the terrible monster, or do you guys want to make up your own story?
Unidentified Student #3: I want to make up my own story.
Unidentified Student #4: I want to make up my own story.
Ms. CHER: OK.
ADLER: But every once in awhile, there is something a little different. I missed by seconds a girl being taken to the bathroom to bathe because she immersed herself in mounds of shaving cream. Kindergarten Teacher Nancy Simko is cleaning up. She says the class was talking about things that were snow-like.
Ms. NANCY SIMKO (Kindergarten Teacher, Blue School): It was a material that they were exploring, and they ended up exploring it very deeply from head to toe (laughing). Every parent that came in said, my kid could never do that at home, could never have the opportunity to do that at home.
ADLER: To get all covered with shaving cream?
Ms. SIMKO: You know what? It is a little messy; it is a little out of control. But now it is done, now we clean it up.
ADLER: Then there is the Wonder Room. It's padded all over so you can jump around. But if you pull the pads up, there is an interactive light floor with high-tech games. Right now, a group of children have finished building a house.
(Soundbite of students in the Wonder Room)
Unidentified Woman: It's a giant house in there now.
Unidentified Student #5: It's morning time.
Unidentified Student #6: Morning time.
(Soundbite of children screaming)
ADLER: They also use black lights during something they call glow time, when they create a more serene atmosphere. Blue Man Group co-founder Chris Wink says they were trying to create a space...
Mr. CHRIS WINK (Co-founder, Blue Man Group): That can move from almost serene, meditative, and simple; to complex, high-tech, and kind of fast moving.
ADLER: When you talk to the founders, the reason they started the school is clearly very personal. Matt Goldman says he went to fancy schools, a fancy college, graduate school...
Mr. MATT GOLDMAN (Co-founder, Blue Man Group): It wasn't until my last year in graduate school that I started having the excitement and the vigor and the passion for my education.
Mr. PHIL STANTON (Co-founder, Blue Man Group): I think you have to start with our own experience in education, our own feeling like something was missing for us.
ADLER: Blue Man Group co-founder, Phil Stanton.
Mr. STANTON: Then when you add to that that we are parents now. It's like you want to make it right to them, and that ups the ante quite a bit.
ADLER: Stanton says he jokes with people that there were a set of ingredients that they had when they began to perform and create the character of the blue man. They say they could have just as easily squeezed out a school. He says they came together to celebrate curiosity and creativity, a way of putting art and comedy and music and science and technology all together. And even the character of the blue man, he says, is a kind of divergent thinker.
Mr. STANTON: The character's really like an adult child in his innocence. He looks at objects that are common to us and uses them in a different way, but a very creative way.
ADLER: Ian Kerner is a therapist and author. He happened into the play group the founders began for their kids, before there ever was a school and loved the spontaneity and energy. At the time, his son Owen was in a very well-respected private nursery school that was, he said...
Mr. IAN KERNER (Therapist; Author): Tried and true, and I think what's great about the Blue School is it's true and new. They are going for something that's very educational, but it's very new, and that newness attracts me, it attracts my wife, and it attracts our family.
ADLER: It seems to be a mix of child-centered hands-on activities with trying to pull in some high-tech notions. Chris Wink puts it this way.
Mr. WINK: Education's become - it's just replicating itself and based on really old models. Our culture is changing so fast and there's so many incredible ideas out there. What if we cut(ph) into the game and kind of cracked it open a little bit?
ADLER: So, they've brought in educational reformers from Britain; they're incorporating the Italian Reggio Emilia approach which emphasizes exploration and revisiting ideas in many media. They've had more than 200 applicants for 30 places this year, and they're hoping to eventually go up to fifth grade. But this is a New York City private school with private school tuition. Goldman says they took the price of all the private, independent schools in the city, found the mean, took about $10 off, and that was the tuition - hold your hats - $27,000 a year for kindergarten. Elite schools in Manhattan like Trinity and Horace Mann charge as much as $32,000 a year. Goldman says when it comes to kids, you can always spend more.
Mr. GOLDMAN: When we first started looking at all what's out there, and we said $32,000 for kindergarten, are they crazy?
ADLER: Now they say things are more expensive than they thought, but they also say this is an experiment. Again, Chris Wink.
Mr. WINK: You know, the experiment will only be successful if what we do reaches out to, you know, inner city schools or other places that don't necessarily have the facilities that we have here. There's more to it than the gadgets. How do you get kids to be participants in the learning process in a way that turns them on? But then how do you have the teachers than, of course, add the stuff that kids aren't - isn't going to occur to kids.
ADLER: Of course, these are questions that school reformers have been arguing for more than a century. There is clearly a new mix here - a lot of high-tech, a lot of talk about getting kids to think about things in multiple ways, important in a more complex and fast-paced society.
But is this really new? Is it more than very good, well-endowed, progressive preschool? Founder Matt Goldman says they're very much still in process. But he believes that something going on here is very right, and his best proof of that is what takes place at his home every Saturday morning when his kid says, let's go to Blue School. When he says no, he has a very disappointed four-year-old. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.
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