Thursday, August 22, 2019

Helping Children



He had learned to climb to the top of the concrete slide earlier that day. Unable to ascend the face of it directly because it was too steep and slippery with sand, he had discovered a shorter span of concrete off to the side that he could manage, albeit with much effort. After proving himself a handful of times, he had the idea of taking a truck to the top of the concrete slide with him. He had needed both hands and both feet to make the ascent on his previous attempts and the challenge of occupying one of his hands with the truck was a trick one step removed from his capabilities.

I was forming this opinion from a position of about three feet away, perched amongst the lilac roots that stand at the top of the concrete slide. I could have helped him. Indeed, I considered it, either bodily or with unsolicited advice, but fought back the urge. He was repeatedly climbing a few inches, putting every ounce of himself into the effort, only to slide back down, truck and all. Eventually, he gave up, never once even looking in my direction.

It's hard to not help children when they are struggling, either physically, as with this boy, or emotionally. We are, as adults, inclined by both nature and nurture to help the children in our lives, but at the same time, we want them to experience the satisfaction that comes with doing things for themselves. We want them to grow into self-sufficient, independent, confident people, something that only comes from through practice and struggle.

I thinks it's easier to find the line when it comes to physical challenges, like the one this boy set for himself. Even if he had asked for help, I'd have likely said something like, "I won't help you, but I won't let you get hurt," or perhaps remarked on his efforts so far, "You're working very hard right now." Maybe, depending on the circumstances, I might have offered a tip, like, "I'll bet you can do it if you don't take the truck," or pointed out that some kids have found an easier route that involves going the long way around. One thing I avoid, both as a teacher and in life, is to offer unsolicited help or advice.

The line is blurrier when a child his struggling emotionally. The instinct of many people, I've noticed, is to simply swoop in and pick them up, which is, I think quite often a version of offering unsolicited help. I always ask a child if they want me to hold them or take them on my lap, and I've found that I'm rejected more often than not, so I simply tell them "I'll stay close to you while you're sad/angry/frustrated." Adults likewise indulge in the urge begin suggesting things that we think might "help," like eating a snack or getting involved with some activity or going to a quieter place, all of which might be valid ideas, but also fall into the category of unsolicited advice. It's easy to forget that it's not our job to end their struggle: it's our job to be available to help them through it, and ultimately only the person experiencing the emotion can determine what kind of help, if any, they need. That's the path to sufficiency.

Finding these lines is one of the most important things we do we do as adults in the lives of children. We do it most accurately when we allow the children themselves to show us where those lines are. And for any parents reading here, the line will be in a different place with you than with, say, their teacher. I can't tell you how many children need mommy with them as they go to the toilet, for instance, but don't need any adult help at all when mommy isn't there.

John Holt wrote, "We cannot assume, just because we hear someone say, "I am doing this to help you," that what he does will be good." And what good help means can only be determined by the person being helped.


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Wednesday, August 21, 2019

But What Are They Learning?




I was recently asked how I go about explaining to skeptical parents what their child is learning as she plays. It's a common enough question, one I don't need to address very often in my day-to-day life as a teacher, largely because the Woodland Park Cooperative School's reputation as a play-based school precedes it, mostly only attracting families who are seeking what we have to offer -- the opportunity for their children to play with other kids in a safe enough, loving, interesting environment, -- so I don't often have to deal with skeptics. The families of the children I teach tend to view play as a pure good, like love, one that needs no other supporting evidence.

When I see children on the floor, say, building with blocks, I know they are learning, because that's what play is: it's children setting about asking and answering their own questions. Can I stack this block atop that one? Can I make it even higher? Add a roof? Create a room? A zoo? Can I persuade this other person to join me in my vision? Can I join them in theirs? They aren't saying these things aloud or even in their heads, but it's quite clear that when humans play, when we freely choose an activity, that is what we are doing, testing the world, performing experiments, seeking answers to questions we ourselves pose. Play is how our instinct to become educated manifests itself, a concept that is supported by more than a century of research and observation performed by the brightest names in education, from Dewey and Piaget to Montessori and Vygotsky.

But as to the question of "what" children are learning at any given moment, the only one who knows that is person who is playing, and the moment we interrupt them to ask, the moment we test them, we forever change it. It's version of what in physics is called the "observer effect." As humans play, they are unconsciously asking and answering questions as they emerge, pursuing trains of thought, playing with variables, theorizing, making connections between one thing and another. The moment another person steps in with his own questions, that pursuit stops, and when the questioner is in a position of authority, like a teacher or parent, those questions become an imperative. The child must end their learning to explain it, to prove it, to translate it, and to invariably narrow it down to a sentence or two that can only, at best, provide a glimpse of a glimpse of what is actually being learned.

Experienced play-based teachers know this, of course. We tend rather to stand back and instead of testing the children we attempt to closely observe, then make educated guesses about what we imagine that child is learning. When they attempt to stack one block atop another, for instance, we might guess they are learning about balance. When the building falls we might surmise they are learning about gravity. When they invite another child to play with them, we say they are learning important social or emotional skills. But at bottom, it's all just guesswork and imagination, and even if we are correct at one level, we are invariably wrong about much of it, both specifically and through omission.

The great truth is that no one can ever know what another person is learning unless they directly tell us of their own accord: "Guess what I learned? . . ." And this is especially true of young children who likely don't even have the vocabulary or experience to put their insights into words capable of communicating the depth and texture of their moments of Eureka!

I rarely attempt to answer the question of what a child is learning at any given moment, even as I spend much of my day wondering about it. I can say, when asked, "I see her building with blocks," "I see her attempting to balance one atop another," "I see her building falling down," those are the things I know to be true; observable facts. But to suggest that I can know with any precision what she is learning is to ask me to read another person's mind. There is no test capable of answering that and our guesses are simply that, guesses, and they can only, at best, get at a very narrow sliver of truth.

But I do know my fellow humans are learning when they play and that has to be enough.


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Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Time To Make Sure He Believed It





One of our newly-minted three-year-olds has recently learned how to "pump" himself on the swing and he has lately been joyfully testing the limit of our swing set. A few days ago, another boy ran into his swing zone and was knocked down. This happens a lot less often than one might guess, but it does happen, especially with children who are new to the place.

The boy who had been knocked down looked about as if wondering what had happened, figured it out, then hopped up and went about his play before I could even take two steps toward him.

Meanwhile, the boy on the swing had brought himself to a complete stop. His eyes followed the other boy as he as he ran off, the event already, for him, in the past. The boy in the swing, however, remained hanging there for a minute. Then he began to bawl. I tried consoling him with the assurance that he had done nothing wrong, that it had been an accident, that the other boy was obviously unhurt and unafraid, but he was inconsolable. I know from experience that he's not inclined to want me to physically comfort him, so I just stayed close as he cried himself out. Then he hung there with his thoughts for a good ten minutes.

He wasn't physically hurt; it was his conscience that was bruised. Or perhaps he was crying in pure empathy, on behalf of the boy he had knocked down. I imagine he was sorting through regrets, perhaps wondering if he could have done something differently, perhaps feeling whistful for the innocent days before he could swing himself so high. I had assured him that he had done nothing wrong, but he needed, I think, the time to make sure he believed it.

He left the swings altogether then, opting for the art table where he joined other children drawing with oil pastels on construction paper, but on the following morning I was relieved to see that he was back in his customary swing. I placed a pair of orange caution cones in front of him and another pair behind in order to divert children away from his swing zone, keeping everyone a little safer. I'll never really know what exactly the boy felt or thought, but I do know the world is a better place with him in it.


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Monday, August 19, 2019

We're All Here To Teach One Another



I like reading and then subsequently owning hard cover books. About a decade ago, my wife and I purged our lives of our excess possessions, emptying cellars, garages, attics, and cupboards before moving into a small apartment where we live amongst only our most beautiful or useful possessions. We count our thousands of hard bound books in both categories. One of my hobbies is to peruse the aisles of the few used bookstores remaining in Seattle, hunting out not just particular titles and authors, but also books with covers that will enhance our shelves.

I was reading one of our newest acquisitions over the weekend when I turned to page 152 and found, to my dismay, that the book's spine had been broken. For those of you who read paperbacks or from e-readers (no judgement), that means that some clumsy, careless, or malevolent reader of the book had handled it in such a way that the pages had become separated from the binding. I felt a surge of disappointment, of loss, followed by an urge to scold and blame. My wife had read the book before me, maybe she needed a reminder. No, she might occasionally dog ear page, but treasures books as much as I do. Maybe I should take it back to the used book seller and demand a refund. No, they're a small business probably barely eking by: this is by all rights a buyer-beware situation. Could it have been my fault somehow? Could it be repaired? Do people repair bindings any longer? Am I going to have to seek out another copy of this book for our shelves?

It was all silliness, of course. There was and is nothing to be done. Every binding of every book ever published is going to, in the course of time, pull away from its binding, not to mention return to dust. Indeed, knowing what we think we now know about the nature of time, the spine has always been broken. It's not mine to bemoan it's loss, but rather to take pleasure in it, to use it now, while it is a book. 

Last week, I was playing with a two-year-old. She was picking up objects one and two at a time, studying them, putting them through their paces, combining this object with that, fiddling, experimenting, using them, filling her hands and brain and heart with them, then dropping them to the ground, not necessarily forgotten, but without regret or remorse. I thought of her as I contemplated the broken spine of my book. Oh, to have the capacity of a two-year-old, the wisdom, to live in the world as it truly is.

We're all here to teach one another.



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Friday, August 16, 2019

"Appreciation Is A Holy Thing"



After reading a story, then singing our final song together yesterday, the children came forward to hug me, not one at a time, but all together, and there we were, a massive scrum of bodies, wrapping one another up in our arms.

Since my first year teaching, this is the way the two-year-olds have said goodbye to me at the end of the day, and they have taught it to the older kids attending this session of our summer program. I've never asked for it or encouraged it in any way other than, I suppose, to be open to it. It starts on the first day of class each year because there is always one child who genuinely feels the urge to hug me, to receive a hug from me, then others see it, think that's a good idea, and come for their hug as well. I say the children's names as they approach, "Here's my Sarah hug, my Nora hug, my Alex hug . . ."

Mister Rogers said, "I believe that appreciation is a holy thing." We are saying goodbye to one another, of course, but we're also saying thank you, expressing our gratitude, showing our appreciation, not in payment for any particular favor, but simply for the time we've had together. It starts spontaneously, then, as the year progresses, becomes a sort of ritual, each child making it her or his own. There are some who rush to be first, others who wait for the crowd to thin. Some don't want to let go. Some come back for a second and third and fourth hugs. A few don't want to hug, preferring a high five or simply eye contact. Some are moved to start hugging their classmates.

It's a beautiful way to end our time together, almost as if we're all topping one another up before heading off into our separate lives.

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Thursday, August 15, 2019

Children Don't Need Adults To Give Their Play A "Purpose"





A few years back, I was watching a boy named Henry carry a yellow traffic pylon across the playground. He carefully placed it on the ground, not on it's base, but on it's side, taking care to get it "just so," before climbing atop an old packing crate. He stood poised atop the crate for a moment then launched himself, coming down on the pylon. Crack! I heard the sound of the pylon breaking from across the yard.

Stupidly, I asked him, "Henry, why did you do that?"

Without missing a beat he replied, "I wanted to see if I could break it." Duh.


We had a brief conversation about property after that, although in hindsight I think that "property" has a somewhat different meaning when we spend our time on a junkyard playground like ours, but I keep this episode in mind whenever people begin to talk about "play with a purpose," a mantra for those who have accepted the importance of play while clinging to the hubristic notion that children need adults to "make" it educational. Here was a boy with a question, one of his own devising, and therefore one in which he had a genuine interest. He was motivated by his curiosity, Can I break this? and set up an experiment in which he discovered his answer.

The standard definitions of play frame it as "for enjoyment" or "recreation," which can clearly both be aspects of play, but those of us who spend our lives observing children going about the business of actually playing know that there is always a question behind what they do, even if it's not one that can be stated as clearly as Henry's. The purpose of the player isn't always evident to the observer, but there is always, beneath the enjoyment or recreation, an inquiry of some sort at work, one that might not always lead to a definitive answer as Henry's experiment did, but is an exploration of oneself, the other people, and both the physical and psychological environment in which the child finds himself. Play is how our instinct to educate ourselves manifests.


When it comes to education, play is enough: it contains within it all the important questions and answers. We don't need adults commanding, coaxing, coaching, or cajoling the children in order for it to be purposeful. When I hear people use the phrase "play with a purpose" (or something similar) I cringe because no matter how well intended, I know that these are people who don't trust the children's natural instincts and so feel compelled, however gently, to turn their self-directed learning into yet another adult-directed activity that may or may not lead children to answers that are important to them.

Not long ago, I watched a teacher attempt to compel a group of five-year-olds through a type of relay race she had designed to help the children "deepen" their understanding of the autumn leaves they had collected, matching like-with-like and so on. The teacher's enthusiasm and the children's curiosity about this "game" she was describing was enough to keep them interested for a few minutes as they waited in queues for their turn to race from one end of the room to the other, but it wasn't long before there were children exploring under tables, chatting with friends, and, in the case of one boy, simply moping against the wall. The teacher started by trying to cheerfully coax them all back into the game, but it didn't take. She tried to ignore the rebellions to focus on the children who were still engaged in her play-with-a-purpose game, although it seemed to me that most of them were doing it by way of pleasing their teacher more than because the game held their interest. I sympathized with the teacher as I watched her jaw twitch because I have experienced similar episodes in my own teaching past, but the bottom line is that she had managed to turn their natural interest in things like collecting fall leaves and running into a chore from which none of them were learning much other than perhaps a lesson in obedience and disobedience.


Children's play is always purposeful even if we can't tell what that purpose is and it's always educational even if we don't know what they are learning. The moment the adult imposes her own agenda, play comes to an end no matter how playful their top-down agenda tries to be. Children will always lose interest because the questions are not their own and without interest "learning" becomes a chore for everyone.

Play is a pure good, like love or happiness, and, like love or happiness, it tends to disappear when we overthink it.


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Wednesday, August 14, 2019

"Who Wants To Play Tackle Basketball?"


He started by arranging our two basketball stanchions to form a small court amongst the wood chips, then, holding a jack-o-lantern face ball under his arm, called out, "Who wants to play tackle basketball? Who wants to play tackle basketball?"


He was one of the oldest, biggest kids on the playground, a boy who I know likes the occasional rough and tumble game. His calls attracted several younger children, curious about what this exciting older boy had up his sleeve. One of them accepted his offer, "I want to play."

"It's tackle basketball," he warned, "You're gonna get tackled."

The look on the girl's face told me that she had no idea what he was talking about, so I said, "I don't think she knows what tackling means." Then to her, "Do you know what tackling means?"



She shook her head, so I explained, "Tackling means that your going to get grabbed and knocked to the ground."

The older boy confirmed my definition, "Yeah," he nodded vigorously and in a voice that he intended as persuasive, "that's what's gonna happen." 

She thought better of it, so he went back to his call, "Who wants to play tackle basketball? Who wants to play tackle basketball?"



Now he was attracting a crowd, including many children his own size, but still had no takers until finally one slightly younger, smaller boy said, "I want to play," putting himself forward. I again defined the word "tackle" and he said he understood. The two boys stood facing each other for a second, then the older one wrapped up the younger boy, taking him to the ground, then rising to stuff the ball through one of the hoops. As the younger boy dusted himself off, the older boy declared to the rest of us, a look of pure joy on his face, "That's how you play!"

Several children said, "I don't want to play," but the younger boy re-engaged and the game took on the pattern of the older boy tackling the younger one, then scoring. Meanwhile, the other children began to assemble court side seating or themselves, arranging milk crates and other objects to serve the purpose.



As the game became more intense, I said to all assembled, "If you play rough games you might get hurt," mainly by way of managing expectations because I knew that tears at some point were going to emerge to start marking the limits of just how rough and tumble this rough and tumble play was going to get. And sure enough, moments later, the younger boy was crying. I invited him to sit in my lap, a place he's been before while crying over his bumps and bruises.

During a pause, the older boy said to me, "I can't play this at home. My mom does not like tackling." I imagined that this might have a lot to do with the fact that his two years younger sister was his most likely tackling target.



Eventually, a couple of other children, after having watched for a time, wanted to test their skills, joining in for a round or two before retiring back to the audience. The older boy continued to instruct and encourage the others. At one point he initiated the ritual of high fives all around after he scored (and he was the only one who ever scored). At another point, one of the children brought a long stick to the match, to which he responded, "No weapons in tackle basketball." He told them that he was the referee and began to blow his pretend whistle at intervals, usually for violations of previously undisclosed rules. When one girl said, "I want to play, but not get tackled," he blew his whistle on her, saying, "It's tackle basketball. You have to get tackled." If you cried, everyone decided, you had to go sit on Teacher Tom's lap until you weren't crying.


Then the moment came when everything changed for the older boy. Two kids wanted to play at once. Up to then, it had been one-on-one. Made cocky by all his success, he agreed, saying, "It's you two against me." He still managed to tackle the other two and score, although it looked to me more like a bout of straight up wrestling. It then became three-on-one as another kid joined, and it was at this point the odds were evened. Then it became something of a free-for-all.


After a time, however, the crowd began to thin, then the opponents stopped responding to his challenges, and after a solid half hour, the boy was once more left alone on his tackle basketball court. He was tired and dirty with a look of exhausted joy on his face. "I'm definitely going to play that again tomorrow!" he said as much to himself as to me.

I've published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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