Monday, October 15, 2018

The Mother Of The Cedarsong Way

photo credit Niki Buchan

On Friday morning I sat down to breakfast with my friend Erin Kenny, founder of the internationally renowned forest preschool Cedarsong Nature School. We were together at our hotel in Reykjavik, Iceland where, by a quirk of crossed paths, we have spent much of our face-to-face time, despite the fact that we live only 15 miles apart as the crow flies, she amongst the forests and farms of Vashon Island and me in the urban density of Seattle. On the surface, we could not be more different, but whenever we're together we find ourselves connected through our respective lives' work, teaching and learning from young children.

When Shakespeare wrote "though she be but little, she is fierce," he could have been writing about Erin, a powerful, smart, tireless advocate for children, not just through her first-of-its-kind forest school, but for children around the world. I long admired her from afar and am honored to have gotten to know her as a compatriot and friend over the past couple years.

Erin is sick, having learned that the cancer she has been battling for years is nevertheless progressing quickly. Her doctors tell her she has only three to six more months to live. She is surviving these days on a diet of yogurt and fruit juice as her body is betraying her robust spirit. On this Friday morning, the rest of the participants from the Play Iceland conference scattered, our conversation swung from the physical to the metaphysical. Erin spoke of her son, her community back home, and of the plans she has made for them in the eventuality of her death. She talked of the reports from those who have experienced near death and the light and love they felt there. We also discussed the idea that eternal life is found in the stories people tell about us after we're gone, of which she said, "One of the good things about this is that I'm getting to hear what people will say about me when I'm gone."

They are things that are better said before you are gone, Erin, whether that day comes tomorrow or many decades from now.

sculpture by Einar Jonsson

I love you, Erin. I love who you are and what you have meant to our profession and to the children both in your own backyard and around the world. You have opened my eyes, you have made me think, you have inspired my own practices, and you have single-handedly pushed us all toward the deep understanding that humans, if we are to survive and thrive, must re-connect with one another and with mother nature; that this is the source of everything that is good about humanity. That has been at the center of your message to the world and will be the core of the stories that will make up your eternal life. Your profound influence has been both local and worldwide, with people from all corners of the globe seeking you out, calling out for you, clamoring to learn more about the Cedarsong Way, practices that will continue to spread like ripples from a boot stomped in this mud puddle of a world.

You have touched me not just through your work, but through your being. I will never forget that you reminded me, despite the pain and exhaustion that was exacerbated by our travels, to fill my lungs with Iceland's cold, clean, glacial air as we crossed the tarmac together to board our plane home, nor will I ever be able to sit on a beach without thinking of your poetic description of the black sands and salt air and fresh winds that you found in Iceland. I will always cherish having seen waterfalls and volcanos and oceans with you.

We have cried together, both in sorrow and joy.

You will always be with me in the pure peace of a Northwest forest.

You will never be gone. You live and you will live. I want you to hear this now. I'm honored to be your friend and ally. We have traveled our different roads, but they have brought us to the same place. I want you to hear this now, because now is what we have. All of us will be forever grateful for your magnificent life and work.

You promised me that you would meet us all again. It's a promise to which I will hold you, my dear friend, protector of nature, champion of children, and mother of the Cedarsong Way.

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Thursday, October 11, 2018

Where Compassion Grows Best

Several years ago, I was passing a table at which four boys were eating snack. They were discussing a classmate, a boy with sensory challenges that often manifested in ways that disturbed and even hurt his classmates. One of them said as I passed, "He's a bad guy." That stopped me in my tracks.

"Yeah," a friend replied, "He's a real bad guy."

And another, "He hurts me all the time."

The poor boy had one defender in the group who added, "He never hurts me," but his opinion was overwhelmed by the prevailing sentiment. As I stood there, they came to an agreement that they weren't going to pay with him any longer.

As a teacher, it was upsetting to hear. Yes, he had hurt these boys and others. They had every right to be wary of him, even to shun him. That said, this was a preschooler with a diagnosed condition, one that caused him to behave impulsively. He wasn't a "bad guy," of course, but there was no doubt that he frequently did bad things, things that hurt and frightened other people.

I went home that day knowing that we adults needed to do something. There is always going to be a little hitting and shoving around the preschool, but obviously, despite our best efforts, we had not succeeded in keeping the other children safe from this particular boy. Because of that, the kids, or at least the four boys I'd overheard, had decided to take matters into their own hands, labeling and then shunning, "natural" consequences that come right out of our hunter-gatherer past. But obviously, this was a natural consequence we could not allow to stand, not in a school setting and not amongst children.

Ultimately, our "solution" involved the kind of transparency that is one of the hallmarks of a cooperative school. Since all the parents work in the school as assistant teachers, all of them were already aware not only of this boy's behavior, but the underlying condition that caused it. We had already been attempting to mitigate things with a plan of action, but it was clear we were falling short, so after much discussion, some of it tense and tearful, we decided the best thing to do was to extend our transparency to the children, to share this boy's challenges with them, to explain how he wasn't a "bad guy," but that his brain sometimes made him do bad things, like hurting other people. And instead of having these discussions at school where we feared they would have the affect of shaming the boy, we placed the responsibility upon each family to talk about this boy and his challenges with their own children at home. We provided resources as a fallback, but we left it to each family to find their own way of discussing it.

This was, to say the least, a challenging emotional process for the parents of the boy who was not a "bad guy." His mother shared some of her feelings with us, but I can only imagine her private anguish. It was often crushing for her to sit in those parent meetings where we discussed her son's behavior hearing from her peers what the other children had experienced and what they were saying at home. It was almost unbearable to hear her own beloved child being labeled "bad guy." Yet, she understood it too, he had done "bad" things to those other children. She later shared with me, however, that the process had also been cathartic. She had often worried about what others were saying about her family behind closed doors, but now, with it all out in the open, she had found compassion where she had feared accusation.

As the weeks passed, families had their discussions at home, helping their children understand and how they could help him. Things got a little better. We coached them to be firm with him, even proactive:

"I don't like that!"

"You can play with me if you don't hurt me."

"You are hugging me too hard!"

"Don't knock down my building."

The hurting still happened, although perhaps not as much as before. But more importantly, the children began to show more compassion toward him when he was impulsive because we had helped them actually understand their classmate beyond the cookie cutter label of "bad guy." Sure, they still yelled at him, got angry, and cried, but they were far less prone toward shunning. I'll never forget one girl saying to him, "I know it's hard for you to do, but if you don't stop pinching me, I'm not going to play with you." It was a kind of perfect balance between compassion and self-preservation.

This process would be a difficult, if not impossible, thing to do in a traditional school where "privacy" and "confidentiality" concerns override those of transparency, but that doesn't mean that parents' hands are tied. The school may not be able to be transparent, but parents can be. We found that one of the most powerful tools at our disposal was one-on-one play after school, at homes where a calmer atmosphere made the boy less inclined to his impulsivity, where the children could form a different kind of bond than was possible at school, where they had the opportunity to make deposits in the "good time bank," so that when problems arose there was a balance to fall back upon. But perhaps most importantly, it gave the parents a chance to get to know one another which is where compassion grows best.

In other words, it all came down to relationships and it started with adults of goodwill because that's where community begins.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Small Black Chunks Of Ash

We went for a hike together on the Solheimajokull glacier here in Iceland, some 30 of us from all over the world, early childhood educators here for the Play Iceland conference. We've come together to reflect upon our practices, to think about the children we teach, to study a culture that does many things well, to be inspired, and to learn from one another.

Hiking on a glacier is a lot of work, but we're all accustomed to hard work. It takes us outside our comfort zone, but we're all accustomed to that as well. It requires full concentration, the dangers are real, the consequence of a false step dire, there is no place for our own petty worries as we find ourselves moving forward step over simple step, placing our feet firmly before focusing on the next, but this is how we spend our days anyway: it's what working with young children demands. And we must rely upon one another, sticking together, stopping to wait when someone tires or falls or struggles with unfamiliar equipment, we do it together or not at all, and that too is part of the life of an educator.

A glacier is really a river flowing in slow motion, this particular one moving at a rate of 2 centimeters per day, seeking its own level on its way to the sea, which is the destination of all rivers, shaping the landscape as it goes, eroding, creating a new the landscape over decades and centuries. But, of course, it doesn't stop there. Evaporation pulls the water back into the sky where it forms into clouds to be carried back to the tops of mountains where it falls as snow to once more begin its long, slow journey back to the sea.

Glaciers in Iceland are dusted in the black ash from the active volcanos here, gritty stuff that crunched under our clampons, the spiked footwear that made our trek possible. The ice itself was riddled with holes, most of them tiny, but many large enough to break a leg or even to swallow a whole body. Some have grown into caves. As we waited for the others to catch up, our guide pointed to a larger chunk of ash, about the size of a thumb, saying, "Do you see this rock? This is where a hole will form, maybe even becoming a cave." He explained that the small black rock will absorb more heat from the sun than the white ice that surrounds it, causing it to melt the ice beneath it, causing it to slowly drill into the ice. The hole will fill with water which will accelerate the melting, making the hole larger and larger, over decades, until it is a cave the size of the one we entered yesterday, one at a time to stand in awe and take our pictures.

All of us here for the conference are play-based early childhood educators, people who have looked at the research about how children learn, about how humans learn, and have committed ourselves to doing what is right for the children we teach. We've taken this week to stop hiking on our own glaciers in order to take a breath and examine our work from a new perspective, in the company of like-minded people. One of the big questions we ask ourselves is how do we help more people understand that this is the direction we must go? To demand it? Will we ever be able to convince policy-makers, opinion-leaders, parents, and other educators that if we care about raising a generation of humans with the critical thinking skills, the creativity, the self-motivation, and the ability to work together to solve the enormous problems our world faces, it must be through allowing them to ask and answer their own questions? Some of us have been wondering about this, and working on this, for decades, and it sometimes feels that we've not made any progress at all. It feels as if we are frozen, as we continue to institutionalize most our children in places that are frozen in a past that was created by nothing more than the habit of believing that adults must tell children what to learn, how to learn, and by when.

But then I think that maybe we are those small black chunks of ash, not much to look at, but perhaps slowly melting the ice, creating holes in the command-and-control model that grinds away at the natural curiosity of children, reducing them rather than lifting them up. I grow impatient. I worry about the all the children, even as I try to stay focused on the few that come my way, but I like to think that the circle of thaw around me is widening, growing. I hope that by joining my hole with those being created by like-minded others, we are carving out larger and larger places in which children can educate themselves the way they were designed to do it. Indeed, I have to believe that is what is happening because continuing to do the same thing we've been doing is obviously not working, not for the children, and not for any of us.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Joy Is Our Real Compensation

There is a preschool teacher shortage here in Iceland where I'm visiting as part of the annual Play Iceland Conference, just as there is in much of the world. I think the reasons are obvious -- low pay, low prestige, and high stress -- and the answers are likewise obvious, but more often than not, those making the decisions tend to opt for stupidest solution which is to simply lower standards. Instead of higher pay (which would be a first step toward improving both prestige and stress) and taking other common sense measures to make ours a more attractive career choice, they tend to think the answer is to put our youngest citizens into the hands of less and less qualified people in settings with lower and lower bars.

This is not a gripe on my own behalf. Of course, like most Americans from every walk of life, I wouldn't object to a bit more money or a bit more free time, but I feel appreciated and respected, even loved, in my role as a preschool teacher. It's valuable, important work we do, and everywhere I go, be it Iceland, Australia, Greece, or Vietnam, I find myself amongst professionals dedicated to teaching and caring for these brand new people. No, the challenge is in finding enough. Turnover is high and schools everywhere are constantly on the look out. One school principal here told me that even if he didn't have a job opening, he would hire any qualified professional who walked through his door because they are so hard to find and he would be perfectly happy to keep someone around "in waiting." Indeed, many of us here on the Play Iceland trip have been, only half-jokingly, offered jobs. When I joked back, "But it might take a couple years for me to learn to speak Icelandic," I was told, "That's not a deal-breaker: you could just communicate in one of the other 99 languages of children."

Of course, if I were in charge of the world, I would probably start by doing something about a global economic system that seems to require two-income households. Those of us who grew up in what Peter Gray labels "the golden age of childhood," didn't attend preschools because we had parents at home with us, providing much of the teaching and care that preschools provide today by proxy -- and as dedicated as we are, we will usually be poor stand-ins for what a parent can provide during those vital early years. We learned everything we needed to learn by playing with other children, outdoors, with plenty of time, and minimal direct supervision. I often think of our little cooperative school in Seattle as a neighborhood or a village, a place where young children are being raised by a community, and where the standards we strive for are those of the village rather than those of the drill-and-kill crowd establishing standards today.

Every time I see this sculpture in Reykjavik, I think I'm looking at the fellow responsible for drill-and-kill education

That's not going to happen, I'm afraid, until the revolution, so in the meantime we're faced with a problem, a crisis even. Modern society has never been very good at valuing children, and when it does, it too often values them as economic assets, the workforce of tomorrow, wide-eyed innocents to be groomed for the factory or cubicle, taught to toe the line and pass the test rather than to pursue their passions and think for themselves. And, naturally, this not only sucks the joy out of education for children, it is also soul-crushing for those of us who remain professional preschool teachers because we genuinely care for children and know that this approach is not just wrong, but evil. This is where burn-out comes from. This is where high turnover comes from. This, I think, is the real source of our crisis.

Yesterday, a group of us visited the Stekkjaras preschool not far from Reykjavik. I've known some members of their staff for several years now, having met them both here on previous trips to Iceland and back home in Seattle. They are seasoned, dedicated, thoughtful, joyful professionals, people who I'm proud to call my colleagues and allies, and although this was my first time visiting their school, I found no surprises, nor did I expect any. The building is well-lit and modern, but we nevertheless spent most of our time outdoors in the crisp autumn weather. Indeed, the entire teaching staff was out there with us on the playground in the morning, not just supervising the children, but playing with them, down on their hands and knees in the sand, blowing bubbles, getting soaking wet in the water, laughing and calling out to one another and the children. My joyful friends have, naturally, created a joyful place, a place where teachers would want to work, where they are encouraged to play, to be silly, to make a mess and to be as joyful as the children.

It seems to me that this is one of the keys to addressing our crisis: joy. This is certainly why I was attracted to teaching preschool in the first place and why I intend to remain where I am as long as they'll have me. We will never be the highest paid profession. We may always be looked down upon by the suit-and-tie crowd. Even some of the stress is a natural part of caring for young children as any parent will tell you. But we cannot allow the stealers of childhood to have their way, to burden us with their tests and their fear-based schemes to fill even the earliest years with tedious academic instruction, to suck the joy out of our schools. Not only does it crush the children, it crushes us. Children must be allowed to learn the way they were designed to learn, which is through play, through their self-selected pursuits, through their passions and through their joy. That is not only what is best for the children, but likewise for the teachers: the joy is our real compensation.

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This Is Probably True

Yesterday a small group of us spent the morning at the  SteinahlĂ­Ă° preschool in Reykjavik as part of our participation in the annual Play Iceland Conference taking place this week in and around the nation's capital. The city's original preschool, housed in what appears to be an old farmhouse and one other somewhat newer building, is, enviably, located amidst several acres of forest and field.

When we arrived, we were invited to join an expedition to check on a dead mouse that the children had discovered some weeks ago. They had decided to not bury it as they normally would, opting instead to simply put it under a rock in a distant corner of the property where they had been regularly visiting it ever since. I understood that this was both a scientific and spiritual endeavor.

When children lead, even the simplest of outings can be an epic saga, one with the destination always in mind, but only accomplished via detour, diversion, and daring. Our adventure began, the children spontaneously holding hands, at the small crop of hearty kale that continues to thrive despite the freezing temperatures. As I understand things, the land was originally donated to the trust that now owns it under the condition that it always be used for children and that it always be used, at least in part, to teach them how their food grows. We fortified ourselves on greens amidst a veritable orchard of now bare berry bushes, where I imagine these lucky children forage joyfully during warmer months.

From there we continued on trails between the trees, worn by generations of little feet. Our way was criss-crossed by similar paths, but the children knew exactly where they were going. First, however, we stopped to examine ice we found in a nearby tire swing hung from the branch of a tree. The teacher warned the children not to eat the ice, but they, in the spirit of adventure, nevertheless tasted it the moment her back was turned, giggling together as co-conspirators.

We wound our way to a small, steep, and grassy hill that seemed to rise from nowhere. Naturally, we stopped for a frolic.

Back in the woods we came upon a tent-like structure made from colorful fabric, damp now and dripping in the moist wintery air. All along the way, the children had been collecting small bits of garbage (plastic bags, food containers, beverage, etc.) that had inevitably found its way onto their land from the surrounding city. No one told them to do this; it simply appeared to be what one did. There was some confusion, however, about the things found in the tent, much of which turned out to be toys that other children had made from recycled materials. Together with their teacher they determined what would stay and what they would pack out.

The children tended to stick together, and even when one of them detoured she would stop before getting too far away to call out to the others who more often than not followed, ducking into natural evergreen hideouts or gathering around to examine motes. Proceeding in this manner we eventually came to our destination at the farthest corner of this epic place, dropping to their knees around the rock under which they had left the dead mouse, heads together. Carefully, they lifted the rock to find that the mouse was gone! They huddled together for some time discussing this great mystery. They rejected the notion that it had been eaten by some scavenger, agreeing among themselves that the mouse had somehow moved itself. They did find a small bit that they thought might be the tail or a leg, but one boy pointed out that he saw no blood, so how could that be part of the mouse? Clearly, it had moved itself, and he dropped the "tail" unceremoniously into the leaves and moss underfoot.

The adventure home, in the spirit of all the great sagas, was even longer than our outbound journey. We stopped at the "magic tree," we saw faces in both stone and wood. We discovered a shopping cart that some mischief maker must have tossed over the fence. We stopped at the "fairies' rock." The story is that when the new pedestrian/bicycle roadway was built along this side of the property, the fairies who called this rock home didn't want to be left outside the fence, so a crane had lifted it into its current place. In this land in which some 80 percent of the population claims to believe in the existence of the "hidden people," and where it is common to design buildings around certain rocks so as not to offend the trolls, it was no surprise when their teacher told us with a straight face that the fairy story was "probably true."

When we came to the fields we played chasing games. When we came to a thicket of trees, we made the sounds of police sirens (something learned not from the reality of Reykjavik where crime is rare, but rather from television) and the children took turns being arrested and placed in a jail of trees. And whenever we came to ice, they secretly tasted it.

We tend to misuse the word "myth," I think, using it most often as a synonym for "false," when in fact mythology is really all about truth, or at least the quest for truth. Those ancient sagas tell of humans exploring, discovering, and striving to make sense of the world. It is therefore "probably true" that there are fairies and trolls, just as it is "probably true" that the mouse moved itself. Of course, these truths may not be confirmed by our modern scientific understanding, but that doesn't mean that our myths do not likewise reveal a perspective on truth that eludes the scientific method. This is probably true.

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Sunday, October 07, 2018

The Emotion Of Us

Understanding the expressions and body language of the other people is a skill that comes more naturally to some of us than others, but it is among the most essential things we must learn if we are to live satisfying lives. Most young children arrive at our school with at least some understanding of this: after all, they have been studying their parents' faces for their entire lives. Some easily learn to apply what they have learned to the rest of us, while others need some help in making sense of the often confusing twists and turns they see in the faces and bodies of others.

I find myself frequently pointing out the facial expressions of children, especially early in the school year, making factual statements like, "Mary's face looks angry," or "I can tell Hank is sad because he is crying." I strive to avoid the language of command, so I don't say, "Look at her face," the way I've heard other educators doing, but rather stick to simple statements about what I'm seeing, directing the children's attention toward their classmates in the expectation that they will make their own decision to join me in my contemplation of the external manifestations of emotion. For some, the emotion is so strong, or their own sense of shame is so great, that they simply can't look, and that's fine, it tells me they already at some level understand and any additional browbeating from me will only serve to turn their attentions away from the other child and onto me, the adult who is browbeating.

It's useful to contemplate emotions when the emotions under discussion are not actually present. I find the classic children's song If You're Happy and You Know It a good starting point for community discussions of how to identify how others are feeling. We start conventionally with "happy." Sometimes I just show them with my own face, sometimes I show them a picture of a happy child, sometimes I make a happy face with pieces of felt on our felt board. Inevitably, some, sometimes most, of the children reflect "happy" faces back at me, which I point out, "I see that Grace has a happy face . . . and so does Terry . . . and so does Francis . . ." and so on. Usually, I point out the shape of their mouths, the light in their eyes, and as I do, they look around at one another, seeing the admittedly artificial representations of what happy looks like on the faces of others.

We then go to "sad." We show one another our sad faces with downturned lips and worried eyebrows. "If you're sad and you know it, cry a tear . . . Boo hoo," we sing, using our fists to wipe away the pretend tears. We show one another angry faces, pinching our mouths or gritting our teeth and lowering our eyebrows. "Sometimes," I say, "the angry fills up our whole bodies," so we stand up and stomp our feet to help "get the angry out." We show one another our surprised faces and our frightened faces. Sometimes children suggest other emotions, like "frustrated" or "jealous" and we try to identify how we can see those feelings on the faces of others.

The highlight emotion, however, is always "silly." Everyone enjoys making their silly faces, striving to make one another laugh, "Look at my silly face!" In real life silly faces are usually invitations to play, to join in, to do something wild and out of the ordinary: it's happiness inflated with giddiness, giggles, and gusto and it always loves company. Being silly together almost always involves looking deeply into the other person, connecting with them through face and body, giggling, agreeing and not giving a damn that we're making fools of ourselves. When we're on the outside of silliness, there is a tendency to sometimes think things are about to spin out of control and as adults we too often think we need to step in, to calm things, to re-direct, but I think that's usually a false premise. 

Children often tell me that I'm silly, to which I reply, "Thank you. That's a compliment." It tells me they feel invited to play with me, which is after all, why we're all here. Young children may still need to work on reading happy, sad, and angry in other people, to develop the habit of studying the faces and bodies of others for insight into their emotional state, but silly is something they always understand. It is in many ways, the emotion of us.

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