Friday, March 27, 2015

The Process Of Risk

When those of us in the play-based world think of "risky play" we too often think only of the muscle, bones and blood of the playground, sometimes glamorizing the daredevils we've taught. I know I've often made the mistake of noticing the child who is climbing a little "too high," while ignoring the day-to-day risk taking going on all around me. It's not the degree of risk that's important to education, but rather, like everything else we do, it's the process that matters.

For instance, for the past couple weeks this boy has been calling me over to look at him climb this tree.  I perceive no danger in him being less than a foot in the air, but that's unimportant because he does. He's worked his way up from having not climbed the tree at all. And while I may not be "inspired" by his efforts, someone else was, using both his example and body to support herself.

Perhaps, tomorrow they will climb higher, but for today, they have found their "just right" level of risk.

Our pallet swing is a perfect example of risk as process. Many children, especially our two-year-olds, start by simply pushing it, their own two feet on the ground. It doesn't occur to them to want to climb aboard. Others chose to sit, then stand, then share the space with others. It's a process that some children work through in a matter of minutes while others may take years.

With my own daughter, I often couldn't resist the call of my parenting ego to urge or cajole her into riskier play, but I learned to respect her risk assessment process. It's when we compel or help children into situations not of their own making that we most often place them in the greatest danger.

Parents sometimes push their children on our swings, higher and higher. I don't tell them to stop, but I do point out that the only children who have ever been injured on our swings are the ones being pushed by a parent or those knocked over by a child being swung to heights they could ever achieve under their own power.

The process of risk is, in fact, risk assessment. Too often, adults have attempted to usurp the role of risk assessment with meaningless warnings of "be careful." A better way to support our children as they explore their physical capabilities, as they challenge themselves, is to move a little closer and wait for them to request assistance. And even then, my response is often along the lines of, "I won't help you, but I won't let you get hurt."

This boy wanted to reach the trapeze bar. Instead of asking me to lift him up, he wrangled a table into position, climbed on it, then stood there for a long time holding the bar. I think it could have gone either way. Twice he released the bar as if to climb back down, but finally, after much thought, he let himself go, swinging wildly for a moment, then letting himself drop to the ground in triumph.

Feeling full of himself, I guess, he then made his way to the edge of the sandpit where someone had abandoned a broken plank of wood.

When he stepped on the raised end of the plank, his weight caused the lower end to rise from the ground. He spent several minutes experimenting with this, understanding it, figuring out with both his mind and body how it felt. Finally, slowly, he edged his way down, until his weight caused the raised end to dip suddenly downward. When it did, he ran the few steps to the bottom, where he turned around and, after testing the board a few more times, went back up.

I had witnessed the exact same process a few days earlier with an older boy who had found our homemade ladder suspended over the sandpit boat.

Children do take risks, but when left to their own devices, when allowed to freely explore their world, they also perform their own risk assessment along the way and it's more than just an individual process. Often risk assessment takes a village, going "viral" as one child is inspired by and learns from another.

Just the other day, a two-year-old, after many careful experiments that did not involve any adults warning that he was going to hurt himself, discovered that he could clip a clothespin to his finger. Moments later, his friends were trying it, too. He said, "I thought it would hurt but it only hurts a little."

Yesterday, we witnessed this sort of community risk assessment at it's highest level.

I had placed a plank of wood across two tires as a sort of prompt. The younger children more or less ignored it, but when the older kids arrived in the afternoon, their first order of business was to raise one end by adding a tire.

There was much caution at first. The first few children to attempt it dropped to their knees and even their bellies. The ones who stayed on their feet edged their way slowly, often choosing to jump off before getting to the end.

When the third tire was added, some of the children moved on to other things. Two had been enough for this day.

The process here was similar, with children learning from one another, advising one another, and supporting one another.

They figured out that if you went to the very top, your weight would cause the lower end to kick up making it "scary," so they began to hold the lower end down for one another.

There was quite a bit of discussion about what might happen if you did fall from the top. They figured they didn't want to fall into the tires.

As time when on the play evolved, becoming objectively more risky, yet the process remained the same.

There were onlookers, many of whom took on the role of kibitzing, sometimes helpful, sometimes not. At one point a boy said, "The first one to the top gets this flag." The children heard him,  paused for a moment, then continued their play as before. External motivation is irrelevant. The process of risk is it's own reward.

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

We Won't Get There Through The Coal Mine

Have you ever wondered why public schools are the way they are? As Peter Gray shows in his book Free To Learn, it's mostly just pure habit. There's been a ton of investigation into how children learn best (the answer is always some version of play), but no one has ever taken a systematic look at what and how our schools attempt to teach. Nor has anyone ever even attempted to draw a correlation between the specific trivia found in a typical pre-packaged curriculum or textbook or worksheet or standardized test and a child's future prospects. The research that has been done indicates that "successful" lives are the result of some combination of being sociable, working well with others, and motivation: the trivia has never been shown to matter, while the skills learned through playing with others is everything.

No, our entire school system is simply based upon what's been done in the past, with adults telling children what and how to learn and play being increasingly, and even intentionally, eliminated. What meaningful learning that does take place seems to primarily be the result of talented teachers who know how to work with children between the cracks, and the children themselves, who are born as highly tuned learning machines and are pretty much capable of making at least a minimal level of education happen whatever we do to them.

Oh sure, there are changes around the edges, "innovations" that come down the pike, like the famous "new math" from my youth that required schools to toss out all their old text books and purchase new ones, or, more recently, Common Core State Standards, a completely untested set of mandates that require billions of dollars in spending for new "compliant" materials. Maybe this year's kids memorize more of their trivia, or learn it a little more efficiently than last year's kids, but the question that is never asked is: Why have we decided that we must subject all of our children to this specific material in this specific manner? And because we don't ask that question, I don't think it's an accident that Americans have, as Diane Ravitch details in her book Reign of Error, fretted that our schools are failing since the inception of public schools. We just don't know, and not knowing is the medium in which fear best grows.

According to the Education Industry Association, education is on the verge of becoming a $1 trillion a year "market," representing 10 percent of our nation's GNP, second only to the health care industry in size. "Education companies" are currently enjoying annual revenues of over $80 billion and growing. I don't think anyone can deny that this explosive growth has been driven largely by corporations seeking to cash-in: this is the engine of the corporate education "reform" movement. Teachers are not driving this, parents are not driving this, children are not driving this, and the only "data" involved are numbers found on the bottom line of corporate P&L statements. Pure and simple, Wall Street types, entrepreneurs, and opportunistic politicians have taken advantage of our not knowing and ramped up the hand-wringing over our public schools, disguised themselves as Supermen, and rushed their untested, over-priced products to market, chasing after those No Child Left Behind, Race To The Top dollars, and Common Core.

Left out in this equation are the children and what is best for them, and frankly, what's best for our society, which relies upon well-educated citizens in order to function. 

This isn't to say that these education corporations aren't able to point to numbers that have the scent of research-iness about them, collected like scientists studying orcas at Seaworld then trying to claim they understand orcas. They can show you how the software and textbooks and worksheets they manufacture and sell, if used according to their directions, will lead to higher scores on the tests they also manufacture, sell, and grade. It's a perfect little self-sustaining system designed to produce steady, predictable profits. But, of course, like any manufacturer worth his salt, "new and improved" models are always in development, which, if purchased, are "guaranteed" to raise those test scores (and profits) even higher . . . At least until we have another generation of "new and improved" tests, which will lead to a new round of hand wringing, Superman disguises, and slapping another "new and improved" label on yet another untested, over-priced product

And, of course, they are always working on new and improved tests because they are essential to maintaining the vicious cycle, which is something a class of 6th grade students in Ipswich, Massachusetts discovered when they were required to take a full week out of their lives to "help" the manufacturer trail-run a standardized test. The kids had no choice, so when a teacher joked they ought to be paid, the kids took her up on it. They petitioned to get paid for their labor.

Of course, it was treated as a sort of joke, but it's no joke. Until we start asking and answering the big questions about our educational system, until children and their parents can be assured that what is happening in schools is based upon the actual research and not just habit, as long as the only measures we use are those produced by these vicious cycles designed for profit, not education, then the kids have a valid a point. As education works today, it's big business generating billions in profits off the unpaid labor of children. Teachers are at least getting a paycheck, but the real work is being done by the kids who did not volunteer for this any more than the kids "volunteered" to work in Victorian era coal mines. 

And like with those juvenile coal miners, the work is unnecessarily hard and the meager "pay" comes in the form of a scrip that can only be used in the company store to purchase test scores. Our schools can be so much better, but we won't get there through the coal mine.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Meaning Of Life

I suppose people everywhere have mixed feelings about squirrels. Many years ago, I was preparing to read a non-fiction book about these adaptable creatures to the class when one boy stopped me with a raised hand: "Squirrels are evil."

I sort of nodded my acknowledgement by way of moving on, when I saw another hand go up, this time from a girl who rarely spoke, especially in front of everyone at circle time: "Why are squirrels evil?"

This lead to more hands and a wide-ranging discussion about not how "evil" squirrels are. Not whether they were evil, but just how evil and in what manner their evil manifested itself. They were not sharing their own independently formed opinions. It was quite clear that these were things that had been overheard in their families, jokes and grumblings from homeowners who were tired of dealing with these cute creatures that seem to thrive alongside us in urban environments.

There are a number of squirrels that live in and around our playground. They have become particularly active this year. There are even a couple with the courage to race through our space while the kids are playing. Even the crows don't do that. All of this would be fine, except that more often than not, when we spy them, they're carrying peanuts in their mouths and littering the place with the shells. Obviously, someone in the neighborhood, someone who doesn't think squirrels are evil, is feeding them. This is a problem because we are a peanut-free school and there are at least two of our kids who are severely allergic -- even touching a peanut can send them to the hospital.

The adults in the community aren't really sure what to do other than to police the grounds for peanut debris, but the kids have been taking action. At first, they just chased the squirrels away, but lately they've been working on traps.

We started with simple holes in the ground, baited with things we thought might be attractive, but as our failures have mounted we've become increasingly elaborate and collaborative in our efforts. To the naked eye, many of our traps look like piles of junk, the sort of thing I've heard colleagues call "learning piles," but if you ask any of the kids about them, they can go on at great detail about how it's meant to work. Of course, what we're really building are experiences of joyful collaboration.

Among the classic "big questions" is "What is the meaning of life?" I tend to think the answer is this, building squirrel traps together. It's what humans do when not being goaded by the selfishness and greed of conflict and competition mongers. We come together around a challenge or a dream, sharing our best thinking, sharing our labor, sharing our failures and successes. It's all about working on projects with the other people. Some of our projects are the work of a lifetime, some of just a day, but in the end I'd say the time we spend working on projects with the other people are the times we come closest to the meaning of life.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

"You Want Mommy To Come Back"

Sometimes mommy has to leave and you don't want her to leave. 

When I started teaching, I was a distractor. In fact, I considered myself a master distractor. I had every confidence that I could calm any kid down in less than five minutes through a combination of goofing, enthusiasm, and "Look what those kids are doing over there!" Today, I'm more inclined to simply sit with a crying child, to listen to any words they might be trying to say, to show warmth and empathy, to assure them that mommy always comes back, and to allow them the full arc of their strong emotion. Most kids still stop crying in less than five minutes, but that's no longer the goal now that my priority is their feelings rather than my discomfort with their feelings.

So when mommy left last Friday, when he reached out to mommy as she walked away, when he screamed and cried and pulled himself from my arms, when he dropped to the floor to kick his feet in outrage, I sat there with him, blocking out the whole world but him.

I could hear he was saying words as he screamed, but they weren't at first discernible, so I said, "You're mad that mommy left," and "You're sad that mommy left." No one can truly tell another how they feel, but I was pretty sure I was close to the mark in this case. He was still saying the words through his tears, repeating them. Finally, I thought I made out, "I want mommy to come back."

I wanted him to know that he had been heard, that I understood and empathized, and I wanted it to be something that was true, so I said, "I want your mommy to come back too."

He shout-cried at me, "I want mommy to come back!"

I nodded. I worked on keeping my voice gentle. I said, "I want your mommy to come back too."

And he said back, "I want mommy to come back!"

We went back and forth like this several times. He seemed to really wanted me to know that he wanted his mommy to come back.

Other children tried to sooth him: one girl brought him a costume, another tried to hand him a construction paper fire truck. He didn't accept their overtures, although he was by now present enough to shake his head "no" at them rather than simply scream as he was doing at me.

By now he was very clearly saying, "I want mommy to come back!" And I was replying, "I want your mommy to come back too," to which he always shout-cried back, "I want mommy to come back!"

I continued to attempt to put a name to his feelings, using words like "mad," "sad," and "angry," as well as to state the truth that "mommy always comes back." But whenever I said, "I want your mommy to come back too," he shouted at me, "I want mommy to come back!" 

Then, finally, I really heard him. He said, "I want mommy to come back!" stressing the pronoun for his tin-eared teacher.

This time I answered, "You want mommy to come back."

He nodded as if to say, "Finally," and in one motion picked himself from the floor, stepped up to the art table, still crying, and got to work gluing construction paper shapes to a red fire truck pre-cut, his hands not fully under his own control. As he wadded and creased the paper, it looked almost as if he were wrestling with it, his fingers clenching and curling from the emotion that was still coursing through his whole body.

After a couple minutes, he became silent as he concentrated on manipulating the small pieces of paper, the last of his strong emotion going into this construction project.

I said one more time, "You want mommy to come back." This time he ignored me.

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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