Thursday, February 20, 2020

I Forget How Radical Our Ideas Are

I sometimes forget how radical our ideas are about young children. I forget that not everyone trusts children even if most people say they do. I forget that most adults are convinced that children must be guided, coerced, tricked or otherwise manipulated to do "right" things, even as they genuinely profess a belief in their innate goodness. I forget that out there, outside our bubble, grown-ups might proudly say they want "kids to be kids," yet their behavior demonstrates that they can't imagine them thriving absent a background of near constant correction, "good jobs," and unsolicited advice. Most people think that we agree with one another about children, but once we get talking, they start to realize that what we're saying is radical.

It's the radical idea that children are fully formed people, due the rights and respect due to all the other people. When we treat adults as untrustworthy, when we seek to guide, coerce, trick or otherwise manipulate them, when we correct or offer false praise or unsolicited advice, we are generally considered to be jerks of the highest order. Yet somehow, many of us, maybe most of us, live in a world in which it's considered normal to treat children this way.

Do they need us when they're young? Of course they do, in the way that seeds need gardeners to make sure the soil is well-tended, that it is protected, and that it gets enough water, but the growing, the sprouting, the leafing, the budding, the blooming, and the fruiting is up to the plant.

I am spending more time these days outside of our bubble, interacting with adults who seem to genuinely want to do the right thing by children, to do better by children, but who are stuck with outmoded ideas of what children are. They have no notion that, from an historical perspective, what they think is normal is not: for children to spend their days doing what the grown-ups tell them to do, to sit still, to spend all those hours indoors, to move from place to place driven by a schedule rather than curiosity. Recently, I was in a meeting with a pair of partners interested in investing in educational matters. Their own children had both been in cooperative preschools like the one in which I taught for nearly 20 years. One of them said, "On my first day working in the classroom I was down on my knees helping the kids build with blocks. Teacher Sandi tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'This is the children's project, not yours.' That was a real eye-opener for me."

I know Teacher Sandi. I know exactly how she said it. I've done it myself, often to highly accomplished professional people "slumming" for a day in the classroom. This kind of thing, as simple and as obvious as it sounds to those of us who have dedicated our lives to progressive play-based education, is for most people still a radical idea. Sometimes the thought of making the changes that need to happen seems overwhelming. It makes me want to crawl back into the bubble and stay there, focusing on the children of the parents who get it. But then I'm encouraged by how readily this radical idea can also become an "eye-opener," just as it was for me as I set out on the same journey two decades ago, and just as it continues to be.

Most of what I've learned from and about young children over the past two decades comes down to un-learning the modern lessons of "parenting," schooling, and the capabilities of children. I've discovered that if I am to do right by children I must release control, shut up and listen, get out of their way, and love them. And whenever I'm challenged, whenever things are not going well, I've discovered that the answer always lies in returning to the radical idea of treating children like people.

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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

If Adults Could Re-Learn To Trust Children

As an enthusiastic, new parent, I once made myself vomit from rolling down a grassy hill one too many times. It had likely been a couple decades since my last grassy hill and I'd remembered it as joyful, but the actual experience was anything but. The same goes for swinging. I'll sometimes sit on playground swings, but anything more than a couple back-and-forths and I'm done.

It's part of growing up. Young children crave swinging, rolling, and spinning. That's because they need it. It helps their nervous system to mature and organize. I've written before about how we've never found a need to make rules surrounding out our swing set, a place where there are often as many as a dozen kids engaged in getting their sensory fix, activating the fluid filled cavities of their inner ears, instinctively developing their sense of balance, finding their centers. It's yet another example of how children, when left to their own devices without the constant direction of all-knowing, all-protecting adults, know what is best for themselves.

Of course, they are "just" playing, and no matter how much science there is behind what they do, the play always comes first. Indeed, it is a failure of or modern world that we feel we must prove play's value with science. Play, like love, like wisdom, like life, is a pure good: that it is supported by science should strike us all as a "no duh" revelation.

One girl was working to go "all the way upside down."

One girl had persuaded an adult to wind her up in the tire swing, "Higher . . . higher . . . higher . . ." in anticipation of a wild, out-of-control ride.

One girl was opting to keep matters under own hand, twisting the chains herself, then allowing her body to more slowly spin-drop until her dragging feet brought her to a stop. They played their spinning and swinging games over-and-over, not vomiting, thrilling at their dizziness.

They were playing, following their instincts, joyfully. It was everything to them. If adults could re-learn to trust children, it would be everything to us as well  . . . Although perhaps not for us.

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Tuesday, February 18, 2020

We Are The Cooperative Animal

Two-year-olds might come to school for the toys or for Teacher Tom, but by the time they're four or five, most kids come to school to play with the other kids.

Humans are the most cooperative of all animals even if it sometimes doesn't seem like it. We're in awe of a bee hive, for instance, as we observe these mere insects managing their bee society, but humans are so adept at cooperating that we don't have to see, know, or even like one another in order to, say, send an overnight package from Seattle to Saigon, a process that involves thousands of humans working together to make it happen. While other animals certainly cooperate with one another, humans cooperate on a massive, even global scale.

As Yuval Noah Harari illustrates in his book Sapiens, our species has managed to leap frog normal evolutionary timelines through our development of language and the capacity to engage in counterfactual thinking (the ability to imagine something that doesn't exist) both individually and collectively. By all rights, we should be middle-of-the-food-chain apes, but by working together, creating a world in which we are instead apex predators, we have surpassed lions and sharks in a shockingly short time in evolutionary terms. As a result, we find ourselves at the top of the food chain, but without the bold fearlessness of animals that got that way via old fashioned biological evolution. There's a part of us that remains a nervous, always on the look out, eat or be eaten ape.

All mammals, at least to a degree, are social animals, of course. Dogs and cats for instance are so skilled that their abilities cross species lines as they become members of our otherwise human families. Birds do it too. People who have reptiles as pets report the same thing. The need for social skills is so common across the animal kingdom that it's tempting to think it comes naturally, but anyone who has tried to foster a dog that has been abused or kept in isolation without the opportunity to interact normally with other beings understands that they will be deficient in the social skills necessary to connect and cooperate, and will therefore struggle to become a member of any "pack."

Scientists tell us that we are born with our potential to cooperate, but that potential must be activated, and it is activated through play. "The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain," says Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. These changes in the prefrontal cortex during childhood allow humans to develop their executive functions, which are essential to regulating emotions, planning ahead, and problem solving, the building blocks of those all-important social skills. Washington State University researcher Jaak Panksepp says, "The function of play is to build pro-social brains, social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways."

Time and time again, we find that those who succeed in life -- and by that I mean real success as measured by things like enjoying good relationships with family and friends, having engaging, meaningful work to do in the world, and feeling overall satisfaction in life -- are those who possess the strongest social skills: the ability to connect with others, to work well with them, to negotiate and agree, and to cooperate. This kind of success has never been connected with having the highest grades, doing the most homework, or passing all the tests. Indeed, even if success is defined simply by the ability to make a lot of money, the social abilities that are activated by play are essential because, after all, our entire economic system is based upon our incredible human ability to cooperate.

As I watch children play, as they wrestle, bicker, and agree, they are doing the work of humanity. For better or worse, we are the cooperative animal. It is this ability to cooperate that has brought us all that is good about humans and all that is bad. For every instance of coming together to feed the hungry, for instance, there is a counter instance of humans cooperating to commit genocide. We have worked together to end deadly diseases only to turn around and work together to massively pollute the planet. This instinctive capacity to cooperate is where both the light and dark in us reside: our demise and our salvation.

Children instinctively come together to play with one another, to activate the connections between their neurons, to develop the skills that will allow them to be full participants in the journey of humanity. As important adults in the lives of children, our job is to create a free, safe enough, and lovely environment in which they can develop these essential skills. But it is all for nought if we don't also strive, every day, to role model the change we want to see in the world, because that's the way we "teach" them how to use these incredible cooperative super powers to create light instead of darkness.

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Monday, February 17, 2020

Making Hulda's Vision A Reality

Hulda Hreidarsdottir first contacted me in early 2012. She was writing from Iceland where she was the founder of a company called Fafu Toys, makers of toys disguised as costumes, unlike anything I'd ever seen (the company is now called Fafunia). We exchanged emails, she commented on my blog posts, and over the next couple months we discovered that we were fellow travelers. I didn't know at the time that she was only 29-years-old. I only knew that she had the kind of energy that inspires others to do better, to do best, to do. She was a woman who spent most of her childhood talking to herself and who found children more interesting than adults. She took play seriously and used her creativity to offer better play opportunities. She had great plans to change the world. One of those plans was to hold an international play conference in Reykjavik and she wondered if I would be a part of it. Of course, I agreed. 

The weeklong event was scheduled for October, then tragically, Hulda, at 32, died in her sleep in June, four months before we were to have met in person. It was a devastating loss. Her family along with her International Play Iceland co-founder, a man who was destined to become my dear friend, Tom Shea, decided that we would keep alive her unique vision of a better world for children. This October 4-9, will mark our 8th trip to Iceland to learn, to study, to connect, and to celebrate. Play Iceland has become more than a conference: it's a life-changing and life-transforming experience unlike any other I've found in the ECE world.

Last year, filmmaker David Hughes, partner of the wonderful Marghanita Hughes, joined us in Iceland, and from that produced this beautiful short documentary about how we continue to try to make Hulda's vision a reality. I can't tell you how proud I am to be a part of not just this film, but the entire Play Iceland experience. Thank you David. Thank you Tom Shea. Thank you Hreidarsdottir family. And especially thank you Hulda.

Played from Lastwood Media on Vimeo.

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Friday, February 14, 2020

Where The Fig Tree Hangs Heavy

Between the ages of nine and 12, I lived with my family in a suburb of Athens, Greece. One summer weekend we got away with some family friends to the coast to spend a sunny day on a favorite sand and shell beach nestled in the curve of a horseshoe of rocky cliffs forming a protected bay. We particularly liked this beach because the waves were gentle and the water was shallow enough that one could wade a good way out without having to reach for the bottom. We had previously discovered that there was good snorkeling along one of the rocky rises, while there was a deep pool up against the other making it an ideal place for diving from the rocks.

But what really made this a favorite beach was that on a previous visit we had discovered a "secret" path leading up through the rocks, one that required a great deal of scrambling and imagination to follow. Even better, it was one that the adults were entirely uninterested in (or perhaps incapable of) pursuing. What made it so magical is that after climbing some ways, we came to a flat area that held a patch of soil. At the end of that was a natural rock archway that we perceived instantly as a small doorway, our size, one that silently invited us, perhaps against our better judgement. We wiggled through to find a single, thriving fig tree, heavy with ripe fruit. It was like the opening chapter of a Hardy Boys novel or the tales of Narnia.

After getting our fill of swimming and diving, the older kids, there were four of us, left our parents on the beach to mind the younger children, intending to re-discover the magic path, the magic doorway, the magic tree. We struggled up the rocks as before, then through the opening in the rocks, where we found the tree. It was later in the season, however, and the fruit was on the ground which was abuzz with flies. This scene did nothing to decrease the feeling that I was in a story, even as the other kids expressed their disgust. We decided to see if this path held any more secrets when one of us discovered that it seemed to continue beyond the tree. Looking back, I'm not sure we were following a path at all, but at the time we could see it clearly.

After some light bouldering, we realized that we had emerged on the other side of the cliff. Above, we could hear the sound of cars passing on the roadway. Below, far below, was the churn of waves as they crashed against the rocks. We stopped to consider. Our imaginary path had dwindled out. Should we climb up to the road and walk back that way or just turn around to return the way we'd come? After several minutes, we decided that we could, in fact, see a path forward, albeit just barely. Indeed, the path was a very narrow ledge, not much wider than our feet. We could see that it opened up to more easy clambering a short way beyond, but first we would have to manage the ledge. Holding on to the rock face with my fingertips I edged my way toward the other side. About halfway across, I made the mistake of looking down into the devil's punchbowl of waves and rocks that would certainly be the end of me were I to fall. I saw my own death in that moment.

I honestly don't recall making our way back to the beach, but obviously we did. I think we failed to get up to the road, then returned the way we had come, although via an alternative to the narrow ledge. Upon our return, we chattered to the adults about the climb, the doorway, and the tree. We told them of our failure to make it to the road and our return, but none of us mentioned the ledge. I don't know if my brother or our friends had the experience I did. In fact, I tend to think that they simply didn't look down at that moment the way I had done and had therefore remained blissfully ignorant of how close to death they had been. Whatever the case, none of us mentioned how high we had climbed or how close to the edge we had been.

Stupid? The person I am now might judge it that way, just as we knew at the time that had the adults known, they would have scolded us. The person I was then, however, held no judgement. It was simply something I had done, something I'd experienced as part of pursuing something. What? Adventure, curiosity, magic? Yes to all of that. Importantly, this experience brought me close to death in a way that has stuck with me to this day. I didn't need scolding or fear-mongering or cautions to tell me what that moment meant. I had looked death in the face, as a boy, calmly, a chapter in the saga of my life, and emerged unscathed. To this day, I find myself returning to this memory in critical moments. It helps me with perspective. It reminds that if one is to pursue adventure, curiosity and magic, one must accept death as a companion, not a friend exactly, but perhaps sometimes as an ally, seeing him, knowing him, then continue forward nevertheless to where the fig tree hangs heavy with fruit.

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Thursday, February 13, 2020

Seeking Truth

Around the middle part of the 16th century European scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton ignited what has come to be called the "Scientific Revolution." For the next two hundred years, the scientific method brought about massive changes in our understanding of the universe by asserting that truth could be found by applying the scientific method of hypotheses, observation, measurement, and experiment, all conducted against a backdrop of rigorous skepticism. Famously, Galileo was found by the Catholic Church to be "vehemently suspect of heresy" and placed under a life sentence of house arrest for defending the Copernican notion that the Earth moves around the Sun.

Galileo wasn't the only scientist to be considered an enemy of truth, a sentiment that continues to this day with sizable segments of our population denying, at least in part, such scientific "truths" as man-caused climate change, the efficacy and safety of vaccines, and many of the foundational principles of how young children learn. Not long ago, I wrote about a man I met who is convinced that the Earth is flat, a man who is apparently not alone in this surprising belief. I'm not here today to argue about any of these specific matters, only to point out that for all of us, there are truths other than those derived from scientific.

Truth is a difficult thing to talk about. Science is only one of the ways we seek truth. Science is, at bottom, a quest to establish facts about reality that hold true no matter who is making the observation. It is a way of understanding realty from the outside. Pope Urban VIII, however, derived truth from his spirituality, which one could say is a way of understanding reality by looking within oneself, and relying upon not experiment, but faith. Artists seek truth by trying to understand reality from the inside out, assuming that reality is inherently subjective and only comprehensible through the filter of self. And then there is the most ancient quest for truth of all, the collective truths we create through our mythologies, those stories we tell again and again until they become reality.

I confess to a prejudice in favor of science because it is the only path that requires truth to change as new evidence emerges, but when I'm honest with myself, I can see that an equal share of my own "truth" is shaped by spirituality, art, and myth. And, frankly, these various kinds of truth live quite comfortably within me, complimenting one another by filling in the gaps left by the inadequacies of each. For instance, for me it's true that love is the shortcut word we use for that Holy Grail of science, the Grand Unifying Theory. I don't have evidence for that: it's a truth that I've arrived through my soul, art, and our mythologies.

Education can be defined in many ways, but most of us would agree that at some level it is a search for truth, and I would assert that any searcher who ignores the paths of science, spirituality, art, or mythology, will ultimately fall short in that quest, finding themselves unfulfilled. Truth is out there. Truth is subjective. Truth is individual. And truth is collective. It comes from without and within, and it is never complete. As humans, whatever our age, we are driven to seek truth, whatever it is, and by whatever path. Of course, we argue over it, but we just as often agree, even if we've come to it via different routes. The children in our care are truth-seekers as well. At any given moment they are engaged in science, in soul searching, in creating art, or in wrestling with the stories that define us.

Humans are the truth-seeking animal, whatever that means, and the truth we discover is the clay from which we shape the purpose of our lives.

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Wednesday, February 12, 2020

I've Never Been More Happy To Have Been Wrong

Last night my wife and I were taking the bus home from dinner with Mom and Dad. A couple boarded with a child in a stroller. The father lifted some of the seats near the front to make a space for the stroller, set the brakes, then, oddly I thought, took a seat across the the aisle from the child. Equally strange to me was that the mother also passed on the seat beside her child, instead sitting one row behind. I observed the family, not talking, the mother staring out the window while the father seemed to contemplate his navel. Not only where they not paying attention to their child who was young enough for a stroller, but they had placed themselves apart from him in a public place. I found myself pitying that child who I could not see from where I sat, but who most certainly would prefer his parents to be closer.

But then I caught myself in mid-judgement. Maybe, I thought, the child's asleep, maybe they're all tired, maybe they've been in close proximity all day, maybe they all just need a little space. 

Then the child spoke. The words were unintelligible, but loud enough because I could hear them from a few rows back. Neither parent responded, however, and again I found myself entertaining speculative judgement. As I looked at the father, I imagined I saw a stern figure, a man with a temper. I could not see the mother's face as she was sitting directly in front of me, but I found myself thinking of her as long-suffering, a woman who was perhaps browbeaten. That poor child, I thought. Poor all children I thought as I recognized that this challenging marital dynamic is all too common.

The child spoke again, this time even more loudly although the words still weren't clear to me. Again, the parents ignored him, seemingly lost in their own worlds. I thought there was something about the father that looked Russian. Perhaps an immigrant. I wondered about his own childhood, envisioning a stern father and passive mother in his own past, something he was unconsciously recreating for his child who seemed to have been "left alone" and ignored on the bus. The child spoke again, this time even more insistently, a shout even. This time I understood: "Let me out!"

Oh no. That poor child.

"Let me out! Let me out! Let me out!" The child's voice was rising. The mother leaned forward a bit. I thought she was finally going to sit up front now in order to comfort her child, but she remained like that as the child shouted, "Let me out! Let me out! Let me out!" At first, the father seemed to be ignoring the shouts, but finally he raised his eyes to look across the aisle. Slowly he crossed over, standing in front of the stroller. I was holding my breath. By now the child was wild, his head rising up above the hood of the stroller, apparently struggling against his restraints. I was tempted to step in. I'm an early childhood professional. I knew what that child needed. Perhaps I could role model for these parents a loving way to help their child sooth himself.

The father leaned over the boy in a way that struck me as menacing. What was going to happen? Would I have the courage to intervene? Of course I would if I saw any violence, but what about if he stops short of that, but still scolds or threatens or raises his own voice the way I imagined such a stern father would? I'm a mandatory reporter after all, someone the state expects to report suspicions of abuse or neglect. I wondered if I was about to witness something like that. I read the mother's unchanged position as a sign that she was tense with fear for what was to come.

The mother remained poised, but immobile, the parents not having exchanged as much as a glance. The child continued to rant, "Let me out! Let me out! Let me out!" At first I couldn't see the father's expression, but when I did, I was relieved to see that he was smiling, his face close to his son's who was evidently kicking and tossing about in the stroller. He was saying something softly to the boy, his hands touching him in a way that made me think he was tickling him. Was that what he was doing? How incredibly misguided. Tickling a child into submission? I suppose it's better than yelling or hitting, but just barely . . .

I was in full-on judgement mode when the boy began to settle, still chanting his demands, but ever more quietly. Whatever the father was doing, whoever that man is, wherever he is from, he was supporting that boy to sooth, smiling, touching, speaking words so softly that I couldn't hear his voice. The mother remained poised in her position that I now understood as full attention, as she watched this man work with the boy, and in that moment it landed on me that this couple knew what they were doing and that this boy was loved beyond measure, as all children deserve to be loved.

Soon the boy was quiet again. The father remained standing near the stroller for the rest of the trip. I only now realized that there had not been a seat beside the largish stroller: they had been forced to raise it as well to make room for the stroller. That's why they had all sat apart rather than together. The mother leaned back into her seat again, no longer looking out the window, but at the man who had soothed the boy and even though I could not see her face, I knew that there was love in her expression.

I'm sharing this story not because I'm proud of my own part in it. I might not have done anything, but my thoughts were harsh, full of the prejudice, based upon ignorance, and, thankfully, wrong, wrong, wrong. I watched the father for several stops, full of admiration for him, for what I'd seen him do, for how calmly he had done it, not once looking around to see what know-it-all jerks like me were thinking. A few stops later they got off. I regret not having told this couple how much I admire them. So I'm sharing this story today out of respect for these parents and for all parents who have been unfairly judged by friend and stranger alike; parents who are loving their children the way they know they should despite what we ignorant bystanders may be thinking. I've never been more happy to have been wrong. I'm looking forward to having my judgements thrown into my face again today.

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