Friday, October 11, 2019

Something To Think About Every Day





A group of us visited the Borg preschool here in Reykjavik, Iceland this week as part of our participation in the annual Play Iceland conference. Their playground is surrounded by an asphalt track, a circuit around which children rode a variety of sturdy wheeled vehicles. It was a natural thing, this going around and around, logical even, the only variation being that children occasionally either blocked the way by stopping or opted to go around the course against the flow of traffic.

It’s not just we adults who dictate to children as they play. Their environment, the “third teacher” in Reggio Emilia parlance, can be almost as directive as we are. Had the pavement been a single rectangle, the play would have been different. Certainly, they might have set up a kind of track either by using obstacles or by coming to agreements, but that would have been evidence of the children manipulating their environment to accommodate their game rather than the other way around.

Adults are forever seeking to manage the third teacher in an effort to produce certain types of behavior. Indoors, for instance, we generally avoid setting up accidental race tracks that call out to the children to chase one another in circles, a common sense safety measure in a crowded classroom. Play ground equipment like swings or slides or climbers are all intended to encourage an approved type of play even if children aren’t always willing to go along as they go up the slides, stand on the swings, and try their skills by climbing outside the safety railings. Much of our playground nagging stems from children who will not be party to these attempts at third teacher manipulation

Alternatively, we might manage our schedule or expectations to mitigate the effect of our third teacher’s quirks on the children. At Woodland Park we have a couple of long hallways that call out, “Run!” to most children. This is all well and good, except when they try to run down the hallway at once, which too frequently results in someone getting trampled when they inevitably fall amidst the jostling. Instead of the adults forever nagging the children to walk, we’ve agreed to play a game whereby I release them one at a time: they still run, and they still sometimes fall, but at least we’ve eliminated much of the trampling.

Often, however, our third teacher influences children’s play in unanticipated ways, for better or worse. Our daughter’s preschool playground featured a large lawn with a single tree in it, which encouraged games of chase with the tree serving as a “base.” Their games of chase were daily, epic episodes that sometimes ran for weeks on end. I recall her teacher once moaning, “It’s all they ever do!” Woodland Park’s playground on the other hand is on an obstacle-filled, hilly terrain. The children still chase one another, but far less often than did Josephine and her classmates and there is rarely a “base.” I sometimes find myself longing for a good game of chase.

As I watched the children at Borg happily go around and around, they certainly didn’t feel that they were being manipulated and when I asked one of the young teachers about it, she replied that the track has “always been here,” with the sort of shrug one gives about inevitabilities. Still, I wonder about it. I’ve always been averse to committing to large, permanent installations on playgrounds, tending to prefer the moveable and temporary. I suppose I imagine them to be less scripted, more open-ended, but at the same time every space manipulates us in one way or another. I don’t have any particular insight here with which to conclude, other than, I suppose, to remind myself to think about the influence of my third teacher every day. 


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Thursday, October 10, 2019

Until The “Revolution” Comes




In my ideal world, young children would not go to preschools or day cares at all. It’s only necessary because most families in most countries depend upon them to keep their children safe while they earn an income.


Some of us are bucking that economic imperative, of course, such as parents who enroll their children in cooperative schools like our own Woodland Park, where at least one adult must be available for a chunk of time each week to participate not just in the management and operations of the school, but also in the classroom as assistant teachers. Others have found a way to homeschool or unschool. Often these sorts of choices involve sacrifice of some kind or another, in terms of income, for instance, or at the price of placing a cherished career “on hold,” at least for a time. This sacrifice may come in the form of a reduction in what we call “lifestyle” or, depending on the profession, even a complete derailment of a promising career. Most find the rewards to be greater than the cost, but others either will not or cannot make the calculation work for them, so they need something like preschool or daycare.


I will not judge parents for the decisions they make. I trust that they love their children and are making the best decision they can at any given moment. I also know that most modern parents, at least to some degree, have mixed feelings about whatever they have chosen.


Until the “revolution” comes, we will need preschools and day cares. Every weekday morning, right across the country and around the world, children are packed into cars and driven to institutions where they didn’t choose to go, often miles away from their homes, to be cared for until their parents fetch them at the end of the day. It’s at best an unnatural arrangement, really, even as it is necessary. How much better it would be for children if they did not have to go so far, if they could, in fact, stay right in their own neighborhood, on their own street. How much better if they spent their days in, say, a neighbor’s home, alongside the other neighborhood children. And imagine how much better it would be for parents who would not spend their precious time with their children, driving from place to place, scrambling to get from here to there, and knowing that their children are growing up in their own community rather then the artificial ones that tend to emerge in institutions no matter how well intended. How much better for teachers and caretakers to be part of same community in which the families they serve live, running in to them at the supermarket, working together on neighborhood projects, and being alongside them creating a wider home, not just for children, but for everyone.


The human animal has evolved to thrive within the context of community, in small groups of closely connected people of all ages. I’m thinking this morning of small in-home preschools and daycares and wondering why we are not working to make them available for more families. Even after the “revolution,” I imagine this will be what most of us would choose.

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Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Ten Minutes At A Time





I reckon it would be best if we didn't put so much energy into worrying about our children's futures. It would be best for both us and our kids if we could more often just be here in the present with them, wondering at who they are right now, appreciating the unique human they already are, helping and loving them right now. That would be best, but human parents have never been very good at it. Sometimes we dream big dreams for them, imagining our child, their best qualities flourishing, as a masterful something or other, admired, inspired, passionate, and supremely comfortable in their own skin. But there are times when we fear their worst qualities and fret that they will grow to be spoiled, disrespectful, and lazy, prone to messy bedrooms, selfishness, depression or worse.

Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn by no other. ~Edmund Burke

These thoughts enter our heads because we are the adults, cursed with the disease of thinking we have any control over the future. Maybe, we think, if we just lecture our children enough, take them to church often enough, give them enough chores to do, and reward and punish them appropriately we can somehow stave off the bad future and encourage the good. But that isn't the way it works.

Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. ~James Baldwin

Most of what children learn about being a human being in this world, they learn from the people they most love, but not because they have been drilled, scolded, or otherwise indoctrinated, but rather because they follow their example. If we want children to be kind, we must be kind. If we want them to be tidy, we must be tidy. If we want them to be respectful, then we must be respectful, especially toward them. Indeed, the more we focus on ourselves, on being the person we want ourselves to be, the better we "teach" the most important life lessons. Our children will not learn to pursue their passions unless the loving adults in their lives set that example for them. They will not learn to be unselfish if we live with a tight fist. They will not learn to manage their emotions, if their role models haven't figured it out for themselves.

Teach by doing whenever you can, and only fall back upon words when doing it is out of the question. ~Jean-Jacques Rousseau

That's asking a lot of adults, I know, but if we are going to ask it of our children, we must also ask it of ourselves. And we must also know that we will fail in our role modeling and fail often, but in that too we are role models. Children do not expect their parents to be perfect, but they are always making a careful study of what we do when we make mistakes. Do we give up? Do we blame others? Do we rant and rave? Do we cry and mope? Or are we able to apologize, forgive ourselves, and get back up to try again? The approach we take is very likely the approach our children will, in turn, grow to embrace as their own.

Teaching is painful, continual, and difficult work to be done by kindness, by watching, and by praise, but above all by example. ~John Ruskin

Of course, we all know examples of children, perhaps even ourselves, who have overcome poor role modeling. Perhaps we eat more healthily than our own parents, or make more time for our own kids, or avoid committing felonies. But even then, we can see that is was the examples set, more than the lessons "taught," that informed the future.

No one can predict the future and only fools take their attempts to do so seriously. When we are hopeful about the future we are, as my wife and I like to say, just "spending Yugoslavian dollars." When we worry we are, at best, wasting valuable emotional bandwidth that would be better applied to right now. The only future we can predict with any certainty is the next 10 minutes and, I've found, it's generally not too hard to be the best me, the person I most want to be, for the next 10 minutes. When we can do that, 10 minutes at a time, we are being the teacher, the parent, our child most needs. And it is from those 10 minute building blocks that the future emerges.

A master can tell you what he expects of you. A teacher, though, awakens your own expectations. ~Patricia Neal

It's not our job to "teach" our children anything, but rather to love them and to strive to live according to our own expectations, not in the past or future, but right now. The future, as it always does, will take care of itself.


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“Wow!”




A group of us walked to the woods with a class of two-year-olds from the Stekkjaras preschool here in Reykjavik, Iceland where I am participating in the annual Play Iceland conference. Most of them already already knew the protocol: they could run ahead but were expected to stop at certain predetermined points to allow the adults and less energetic children to catch up. These were the more experienced children, the ones who knew to anticipate the forest that lay ahead, but there were a few who were new to the school. These tended to be the dawdlers, the ones inclined to stop to smell the roses, or rather, pick up sticks, tug on tufts of fall grasses, and generally study the motes from which the world is made.

One boy in particular seemed disinclined to rush through the process. Occasionally, he would run with the others, his sort legs working as hard as those of his classmates’, but with the effect of moving forward at a pace not much greater than a walk. Frequently, he stooped to examine the ground. Regularly, he veered off the path. Often, he turned around and started to head back toward school, completely unaware of the general direction of our group.

We had been warned that this would be a long process, getting the little ones to the woods, and it was, but finally we arrived in the place that those of us who live where trees grow tall might not identify as a forest, but stands as one here in a land of wind and cold stunted trees. The leading mass of children stopped right there at the edge, suddenly no longer in a hurry now that they were at their destination. The dawdling boy didn’t bring up the rear, that role was left to another new child who simply seemed unenthused by the long walk, a common circumstance for children new to the school, the teachers assured us, “In a few weeks, he’ll be running with the others.”


I lost track of the dawdling boy for a bit while I observed the other children as they engaged with the trees and shrubs. They had declared their goal for the morning was to find animals and a dead bird, something that had happened on a recent trip. Along the way, many of them had stopped to collect small snails that they had picked out of the grass, so they were already halfway to completing their self-selected mission. I don’t think they were actively seeking out a dead bird as they played, although maybe they were, I don’t speak Icelandic, but it seemed that they were now simply enjoying their cold, breezy morning together under a lacework of barren autumn branches through which we spied a cloudy sky.

I would not be the first to describe the landscape here as “austere” although it seemed far from that as the children ran and climbed and foraged and bubbled over with observations, ideas, and discussion. Here, with the children, it was as rich and full and alive as any natural place on earth. 

After a bit, the mass of children headed off into a clutch of trees, following a path that they seemed to already know. This is when I discovered the dawdler again, completely uninterested in following the others. After a few steps into the trees he stopped to examine a trunk, patting it with his hand. He said, “Wow!” We could still see the others, but they were so far ahead of us that we could no longer hear their voices. I wondered if I should hurry him along, but decided to instead leave that job to his teachers. From patting the trunk, he turned to a stump that emerged from the carpet of decaying leaves and grass upon which we stood. He have it a good kick, again saying, “Wow!” He was not necessarily including me in his exploration, but I was there. He found a low hanging branch upon which some brown leaves still clung. Once more saying, “Wow!” he rustled the leaves with his hands. This is when he turned to look over his shoulder at me, including me for the first time. He pointed at the sky, drawing my attention up into the sparse canopy. “Wow!” He then returned to the tree trunk and patted it, making sounds like words, although if they were they were in a language I don’t understand. He then kicked the stump again before rustling the leaves and drawing my attention to the sky. For the next several minutes, he repeated the pattern again and again, varying it only slightly. 

By now, the others were quite a way ahead of us. I could see one of the teachers lingering outside the thicket, not too far away. I figured if he needed to catch up, she would let him know. I stood with this boy as he repeated his cycle again and again. I found myself speculating about why, about what he was trying to figure out, about what he was learning. It had to do with trunks and stumps and leaves and branches. At one point, while patting the trunk, he broke off a bit of bark, stopped for a quick study, then went back to his work. I was expecting him to move on any moment now, perhaps not after his classmates, but at least in some new direction, but after a time decided that I myself would move on, leaving him to the teacher who waited not too far away. 

I dodged past him, ducking and weaving to follow the child-sized path. I turned to check on the boy one last time to find that he was following me. I stopped to allow him to catch up. When he again stood beside me, he looked me in the face, pointing into the treetops and said, “Wow!” That’s when I realized that he had not been dawdling at all: he had been trying to teach me, this slightly dense, dawdling foreigner with whom he’d found himself in the woods. 



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Monday, October 07, 2019

That Is How Brains Grow



“We now know enough about the brain to realize that it’s mystery will always remain. Like a work of art, we exceed our materials.” ~Johan Lehrer

When our daughter was a preschooler, authority figures informed parents that the human brain was fully formed by around five-years-old. After that, there would be no new brain cells, which was why, they told us, the early years were so important. These were the scientific facts. Just a few days ago, a parent of a preschooler told me that the director of her child’s school told the assembled parents that the human brain was “90 percent developed” by five, information which she conveyed to me in a kind of jittery breathiness that betrayed both awe and panic. I recall feeling similarly about these scientific facts. 

The problem with these facts is that they were not facts 20 years ago and they are not facts today. They are the product of a debunked theory about human brain development. Sadly, these non-facts were, and still are, being used to support the toxic academic pressures being applied to our youngest citizens.

It seems that the earlier “facts” were based largely upon studies done on monkey brains in a laboratory. When skeptical scientists more recently tested the theory on monkeys living in their natural habitat they found that not only do their brains continue to produce new brain cells throughout their lives, but they produce a lot of them. It was being held in captivity that caused their brains to stop producing new cells. This has now been confirmed in birds, rats, and other animals, including humans: when animals are free, their brains grow, when they are not free they don’t.

Play is the “natural habitat” of young humans. Traditional schools are, at their core, a form of captivity. Longer school days, more academic instruction, developmentally inappropriate expectations, less time outdoors, standardization, and high stakes testing are causing children’s brains to stop growing. The cure, according to science, is to set our children free, to let them play: that is how brains grow.


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Friday, October 04, 2019

What Is A Natural Teacher?




People have called me a "natural teacher." I like the sound of it. I even sense the truth of it. I hold a degree in journalism, not education. In fact, I've only taken a handful of ed classes. Instead, I've spent thousands of hours working with children of all ages, stretching back to my days as a baseball coach during my teen and early adult years. And yes, it feels natural. It always has.

I had reason recently to reflect on my first day as "head coach" of a team of first and second graders. I was 16-years-old. I'd already, the summer before, served as an assistant coach to a team of preschoolers (which hadn't been baseball so much as a big daily play date with a baseball theme), but this was the first time I was on my own with a team. I was nervous, of course, but only before I'd opened my mouth for the first time. I sent them to run some laps, then we re-convened for some warm up exercises before launching into baseball skills. It was my first 9-5 job, one during which I coached teams of kids from 5-14, boys and girls, and it was glorious. I did it for 4 summers all told: outdoors, all day, playing baseball with kids. It was my first job and, I'm afraid, it ruined me for every "real" job I tried until I landed on my current one.


In a way it saddens me to realize that I wasted the next couple decades figuring out that this is where I belong, playing with children, thinking with children, learning with children. But not everyone falls into their niche right from the start. I suppose was too young and inexperienced, and growing up in a time when early childhood wasn't considered a "proper" option for a young man. I just couldn't see it. I thought that the sense of joy came from playing baseball all day long, not the kids.

I do, of course, look back over the path I've taken and, to borrow from the Grateful Dead, "I see now how everything leads up to this day." All the pieces fell into place, including those dark years during which I worked as a PR flack for corporate interests, to guide me to where I am today. Knowing for certain what you don't want to do is important too, I guess.


I reckon there are a lot of us in this profession who are natural teachers. In fact, I can't think of a single teacher I know personally who doesn't fall into this category. Admittedly, this is could be an aspect of the progressive play-based bubble in which I live. I imagine there may be some of us who just "fell into it," or who somehow felt there was no other choice. Maybe there are even some who are in it for the money. And perhaps there is such thing as a "manufactured" teacher, like the kind the corporate education reformers envision, but I just can't imagine they last for very long in a career that demands your whole self every day.

So that begs the question, what is a natural teacher? It certainly has nothing to do with teaching style, because we're all over the place when it comes to that. Much of what I do in the classroom derives from those years as a coach. There's a lot of, "Come on, everybody!" and "Let's all go check out the workbench!" You know, rallying large contingents of kids into common efforts, teamwork, cooperation. It tends to be loud. I tolerate more rowdiness than many teachers. But I know plenty of natural teachers whose classrooms aren't like this at all. And it's not really about pedagogy either: there are wonderful natural teachers working through all kinds of approaches, methodologies, and techniques, including not-approaches, not-methodologies, and not-techniques. I also don't think it has much to do with the creativity of the activities we choose, our classroom schedules, or any of the other superficial things we fret over on a daily basis.


No, you find natural teachers everywhere, creating all kinds of thinking communities. The common thread, however, the thing that ties us together, is that each of us, in our own way, has learned how to connect with children, both as individuals and as a community.

It begins with warmth. I love the children that pass my way, and in each interaction I try to find a way to express that unconditional acceptance to them. Physically that involves eye contact, smiling, active listening, and gentle touching. Emotionally that means setting my own petty feelings to the side, being with them of course, but not being subject to them, wiping my own emotional slate as clean as humanly possible, leaving a space in which I can understand the feelings of another untainted by my own. And spiritually it is about stillness; being present. Of all the things I do to express warmth, it's this stillness that is most vital. I don't always succeed, but this is what I'm after each time I drop to my knees and get face-to-face with a child.

This is the greatest gift we can give children because it's only when they know they are loved and accepted that they can fully engage with the world around them, without reservation and without fear.


Secondly, a natural teacher, I think, is someone who knows that she is teaching fully formed human beings. I will not be your master, nor will I be your servant. Perhaps at times I will be your guide, just as there will be times when you are mine. It's a stance that says, you are competent and respected; that you have the same rights and, indeed, responsibilities as the rest of us. It's an approach toward children that acknowledges that the most important things children are learning (as opposed to mere academics) are things that we adults continue to learn throughout our lives, and that we have no lock on profundity or expertise.

Thirdly, a natural teacher does not confuse her role with leadership. There are times, of course, when the teacher leads, but more important are those times when we let the children take over, when we understand that our role is to facilitate, to create the forum in which play and thinking takes place, but not to steer or coral or otherwise compel the children in this direction or that. One of the most common responses from people who learn that I'm a preschool teacher is, "I don't know how you do it." This is almost always said by those with managerial type jobs in which they are responsible for teams of adults. They reflect on how hard it is to get adults to do what they want, and imagine it is only that much harder to manage a bunch of little kids. A natural teacher understands that it's not about getting the children to do what she wants, but rather to help them figure out how to do what they want.


And finally, it seems, a natural teacher is one that constantly strives to balance the needs and desires of the many with the needs and desires of the few. For me, this is where my coaching background plays it's most significant role. That this is the work of everyone, all the time, throughout our lives, at least if we believe in self-governance, makes it perhaps the most important thing we do.

Implied in the notion of a "natural teacher," I think, is the idea that we are born this way, but I think that is wrong. Natural teachers are those of us who through our lives encountered people who were able to express warmth to us, who respected us and held us competent, who acknowledged us as equals without bossing or serving us, and helped us see that even as individuals our destiny is always tied to our community of peers.


Natural teachers are the product of natural teachers, those that connect with us and make us taller by letting us stand upon their shoulders.

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Thursday, October 03, 2019

The Future Is Theirs Anyway




Even the most bright-sided optimist has to admit that we human beings are far from figuring it all out. Yes certainly, if you look at it from just right perspective in just the right light, one can make the argument that we've managed make our collective lives in some ways better. At the same time, we often have to squint and rationalize to persuade ourselves it's so. We still fight bloody wars. People are still starving and sick. Bigotry and racism plague us. And we continue to fiddle as scientists urgently warn us that the earth is headed toward environmental disaster. Sure, you can say, "I'm not doing those things, but it's hard to argue that we aren't.

We educate our children. Many of us are choosing to do so in ways that differ from the way we were educated, but collectively we still rely on compulsory schooling, which has changed in many superficial ways, but fundamentally operates the ways schools have since there have been schools. We say that we educate children to prepare them for life, so that they can take their place in the project of making a better future for themselves and those around them. We arrogantly insist that we adults, people who have clearly not figured it all out, have the right, even the obligation, to tell the children what and how they should learn toward this end. We hope to prepare them to do better than the collective us, yet we send them daily to places where they are expected to do as they are told, learn what they are assigned, and jump through the hoops that are placed before them. The theory is that that this will somehow cause our children to be prepared for a future that none of us have figured out.

And as we self-righteously prepare our children for life, they are busy living it.

This is a great tragedy of not just modern childhood, but of humanity. We've doubled-down on schooling just as we need new ways of thinking, of doing, of seeing the world. We do not need more people thinking like the generations before them. We do not need more of the same. Those of us who work with young children spend our days around the greatest minds ever known. Those of us who refuse to tell them what and how to learn, who choose rather to create places where they can actually live their lives, rather than merely preparing for some theoretical future, tend to stand in awe. We cannot be among these fully formed human beings without becoming at least somewhat hopeful for the future, even as we know that most of them are destined for years of being "prepared," a process explicitly designed to shape them as replicas of what has come before rather than help them achieve their highest potential, which is as a free-thinking, free-doing, free-living human.

As the great John Dewey wrote over a decade ago, "Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself." We will, of course, never figure it all out, but doing the same thing over and over is certainly not the path forward. We need to stop this insane project of preparing our children and instead let them live. The future is theirs anyway.

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Wednesday, October 02, 2019

"You Can't Play With Us"



We were playing with cardboard boxes and cardboard blocks. A group of three-year-olds began to play a game that involved standing in a rough circle around a box while drumming on it together with long blocks. Before long they began to chant which allowed them to find a mutual rhythm. Periodically, they would then all fall down on the ground in a kind of pig pile. After a lull they began their drumming again, repeating the cycle over and over, joyfully.

It was a noisy, full body game that attracted others, both as participants and observers. Before long, we ran out of long blocks. Some children allowed this to be their barrier to entry into the game, so they either moved on or griped while watching the game as an outsider. A few, however, simply picked up shorter blocks and attempted to join in. Unfortunately, the nature of shorter blocks meant that they had to stand closer to the box that was the target of their drumming, placing them in position to be hit and jostled by the longer blocks. Each time this happened, and it began to happen a lot, the child with the shorter block complained, "Hey, you hit me!" which meant the game had to momentarily stop.

Before long, this previously fun game was paused as often as it was in motion, which caused the game to lose much of it's savor for the kids who had originally begun playing it. Not only that, but those complaining about not having long blocks began to become louder and more insistent. First one, then another of the long blocks were dropped to the ground as the game was given up. These blocks were fallen on by other children who bickered and tussled over them. The game resumed with an altered cast of participants. There was no chanting. They were not smiling. The joy had been sucked out of it.



Meanwhile, three of the kids who had originated the game, moved off together to an empty space, picked up short blocks and began to play their game together, just the three of them, joyfully, beaming into one another's faces and chanting as they had when the game first spontaneously erupted. They were clearly having more fun than the others,whose game had dwindled into almost nothing. Before long, another child attempted to join this new game, to the annoyance of the three short block drummers.

"You can't play with us," one of them said. "You have the wrong kind of block."

The ground was covered with dozens of short blocks identical to the ones being used in the game, but no matter which one he tried, he was told, "You have the wrong kind of block." They were excluding him based on what appeared to be arbitrary grounds, but having witnessed the entire episode, I knew that their exclusion was based on experience. The previous game had been fun until it had gotten too big and even though the children weren't able to put it into words, they had learned that three was the right number for this game of drumming with cardboard blocks on a cardboard box.

Few things are more icky, emotional, and complicated than when children exclude one another. Had I only stepped in during the second phase of this game, I would have likely interpreted their attempt to exclude as unfair and would probably have intervened in some way on behalf of the child being left out. But as it was, I knew that their reluctance to add another child to their game had a basis in reason and experience, even if their way of expressing it, of drawing the line, appeared arbitrary. This isn't to say that children (and adults) don't sometimes exclude one another arbitrarily, but only to point out that there is more gray area here than not, which is why children must explore it if they are to ever understand it.

I helped them with their words, "This game is a game for three people," and I supported the boy who had been excluded for the rational reason that he was a fourth person to find another game to play.

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