Friday, November 21, 2014

In That Direction Lies Success

































I think most of us, if asked to define "success," would think deeply enough to consider more than the capacity to acquire great wealth. Certainly, we would cite things like having "enough" money and a holding personally satisfying job, but we would also include things like mental and physical health, good personal relationships with friends and family, and a general sense of well-being about how life is going.

There has never been a study that links early literacy or early numeracy to any of these aspects of "success," even the superficial one of wealth. None. Never. 

The research that's been done on successful people tends to find, rather, that their success comes from being motivated, sociable, and having the ability to work well with others. These are the skills and attributes children work on when they have ample opportunity to play, especially outdoors, with other children, with few toys and lots of time, and with a minimum of adult intervention. Our job as adults to prepare an environment in which free play is possible, to keep an eye out for hazards (as opposed to risks children choose to take on their own), and where children have the opportunity to do things for themselves, even if it means failing, and failing often.

As a teacher in a cooperative and a parent myself, I understand the pressures parents are under. On the one hand there are those who insist we must drill and grill our youngest citizens lest they "fall behind," while on the other, there are those who are in the business of selling us on the idea that children are constantly at risk of abduction or injury or other dangers. These twin manufactured fears, and they are largely manufactured, have caused a generation of parents to behave as what is popularly called "helicopter parents," always hovering nearby, always ready to step in, always urging and cajoling and warning, teaching helplessness instead of independence. All this leaves precious little time for the children to actually play in the way that will allow them to grow into successful adults.

I reckon by writing this, I'm now, at one level, joining the fear-mongers, providing parents who are already pulled this way and that by fear, one more thing about which to worry: is my child getting enough free play? For that I'm sorry, but the answer is, if you're a typical American parent, probably not.

We are a cooperative preschool, which means that I work more closely with parents than most teachers. I write here often about teaching children, but one of the most important things we do is to also teach their parents, which is done formally through our parent educators, and informally by our larger community of families who are, collectively, striving to offer children the opportunity to acquire the skills and attributes of success through play. It's a learning process I've witnessed time and again, one that I experienced myself as a parent. I know that for some it is a painful one of "letting go," of coming to trust the world enough to know that those inevitable bumps and bruises our children experience, both physical and emotional, those "failures," are the true building blocks of success. It's hard because we live in a culture that tells us our job as parents is to fix things for our kids, to make things easy, to soften the blows. We have to consciously push back against the culture of fear that has come to surround parenting if we are to raise truly successful adults.

Most of our three-year-olds are out of diapers. When they tell me they need to go to the potty, I point to the bathroom and say, "The toilet is in there." If you ask their parents, many will insist their child still needs their presence, if not assistance, in the bathroom, but it's really no longer true. Sure, children may want mommy with them, after all it can be an intimate, private moment, but when mommy isn't at school, they've shown they are more than capable. Yes, some struggle to get their pants back up, others miss the toilet, and I'm sure few do as thorough job of wiping as mom, but they all come out of there, mission accomplished, then hop up on the stool near the sink to wash their hands. 

It's likewise difficult for parents to step back and allow their children to engage in, say, conflict or risk, but it must be done if our goal is successful children. Yes, they will fail, and those failures form the foundation of success. Indeed, when looked at from the wider perspective they aren't failures at all, but rather steps along a pathway. As Thomas Edison famously said about the invention of the light bulb when asked by a journalist how if felt to have "failed a thousand times":

I did not fail a thousand times. Inventing the light bulb was a process of one thousand steps.

In that direction lies success. 



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Thursday, November 20, 2014

"Don't Do Anything To Anybody Before You Ask Them"

































Well, it's finally started, our 4-5's class has discovered dramatic play games involving guns. For the past couple weeks a girl v. boy game has been brewing. It started with one of the girls agreeing to be chased and "trapped" by a couple of boys and has now spread until yesterday we had a stand-off in the sand pit with everyone pointing weapons at one another. 

It's not a lot different than the games I played as a boy. It's mostly a game of chase and bravado. In kindergarten the boys chased the girls, sometimes with guns. In first grade the tables were turned when the girls chased us, with the threat of a kiss should they catch us. Last year, the girls discovered the kiss defense and I reckon they will again this year.

Making things especially interesting is that this class, in the process of making their own rules, came up with this one:

Don't do anything to anybody before you ask them.

Holy cow, what an agreement to make with one another! Yesterday, as the game ramped up, I found myself much more involved with the play than I usually do, as kids, mostly girls, found themselves in uncomfortable positions. It started when I found myself in a group of the boys who were discussing their plans to trap "the girls." I asked, "Do they want to be trapped?"

They agreed the girls probably didn't even know, so I reminded of the rule to which they had all agreed. "Oh yeah." There were four of them and as they moved around the playground together asking individual girls if they wanted to be trapped, they met with universal refusal: none of the girls wanted to be chased and trapped. This was disappointing to the boys, who upon finding that their efforts had managed to unify a group of girls who took over the new playhouse, declaring it a "girl's club," retreated to the concrete slide where they consulted amongst themselves.

I always have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, you hate to see girls v. boys, especially when it involves exclusion, even if, as in this case, it may have been justified. On the other hand, there is a certain kind of unifying power found in identifying with classmates through gender. 

I asked the guys how it felt to be told "no boys allowed," and they answered "Bad." I said, that's probably how the girls feel when you say you're going to trap them without asking first. I don't know if it was this discussion that prompted it or not, but after a few minutes, one of the boys, the "idea guy," lead his crew to the playhouse, saying, "Do you want to be on our team? If you're on our team we won't trap you."

Surprisingly, a couple of the girls accepted this invitation, leaving the playhouse to join the trappers, which was no longer a team of boys. Still, with no one to trap, the game eddied into a swirl around the sandpit boat. 

I checked in with the three girls who remained in the playhouse. They asked if I would help them board up the doors and windows "for protection." Our new playhouse is designed for this possibility and soon all the windows were covered, although there weren't enough boards left to satisfactorily cover the door, which was a good thing because it allowed a couple of the boys to come in, announcing, "We're on the girl's team." 

We now had two mixed-gender "teams," one that wanted to trap and one that didn't want to be trapped.

It was around this time that other duties called me away. When I returned, I found everyone armed to the teeth, brooms, stick ponies, and shovels being used as weapons, one group in the boat and the other aligned outside the boat, all aiming at one another, about a dozen kids altogether. Not all the girls participated, nor did all the boys, and the teams I saw were gender-mixed. I was tempted to once more remind them of their brilliant rule, the one that takes the Golden Rule up a notch by requiring everyone to think not only of themselves, but others. Upon surveying their faces, however, it was clear to me that everyone agreed to be part of this game, which is the way we usually determine "consent" in the larger world.

In years past, we have always discussed asking "permission" or "consent" before involving others in our games, especially those that involve more violent themes like shooting or trapping, but this is the first time the kids have pre-emptively created a rule about it without any coaching from adults. It's an easily forgotten rule in the rush and crush of active play, but at least once a day I hear a child's voice saying something like, "Hey, you have to ask me first!" which tells me it's becoming part of our play culture.

"Don't do anything to anybody without asking them first." It's an encumbering rule, for sure, one that requires more talking, especially right up front. But it is a democratic rule, one designed to protect the rights of a minority against the tyranny of the majority. I'll be interested in how this one plays out over the course of our year together.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Removing The Impediment Of Profit


 

I'm often asked about my "teaching philosophy." Now understand, on a day-to-day basis I don't really see myself as having a philosophy per se, at least not in the sense of a cohesive, comprehensive approach to early childhood education. I do attempt to adhere to certain principles, like being genuine with children, treating them like fully formed individual human beings, taking time each day for reflection, and then getting out of the way, which, increasingly, is how I attempt to interact with the grown-up people as well.

Awhile back, I attempted to flesh-out some of my thinking in a long post that took several days to write entitled Why I Teach the Way I Do, but I've recently coming to realize that I neglected to recognize just how fundamental the cooperative model is to how I live my day-to-day life. I guess maybe that's because it's so much the water in which I swim, the air I breathe, that it's hard for me to step back and fully appreciate this truly remarkable, democratic, and even revolutionary way we've chose to organize ourselves to deliver the "product" of early childhood education.

I often joke that we're "a little communist society," one in which all the members are there voluntarily, one that works as smoothly as any enterprise with which I have personal knowledge, one where, indeed, at any given moment, those with "ability" do, and those with "needs" receive. But I realize I do the cooperative model a disservice when I speak of this way, causing many people who would otherwise be enthusiasts to dismiss us as some sort of out-of-the-mainstream, hippy-dippy, crunchy granola school. 

Today, I want to try to correct that impression. 

Cooperatives exist in almost every sector of our economy. If you've ever purchased products from, say, Sunkist, Ocean Spray, Sun-maid, or Sunsweet, you've done business with a cooperative. In fact, cooperatives drive a significant proportion of our nation's agricultural and food marketing economic activity. True Value and Ace Hardware are cooperatives. Credit unions are cooperatives. Cooperatives provide healthcare, transportation, insurance, financial services, food, clothing, recreational equipment, housing, energy, telephone service, and, of course, child care and education. According to a study by University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives, US cooperatives in all their various forms "operate at 72,993 places of business (establishments), collectively accounting for nearly $652B in revenue, $154B in income, (more than) $74B in wages, and (more than) 2M jobs." Cooperatives hold over $3 trillion in assets. That's real business.


The Woodland Park Cooperative Preschool is a type of cooperative that is defined as "customer owned," in that the families that enroll their children become equal owner-operators, which is how the vast majority of cooperatives are organized, although there are also producer-owned and worker-owned cooperatives, as well as purchasing cooperatives. Whatever the organization, however, it is the underlying principles of cooperatives that are the most intriguing, and inspiring, to me:

Traditionally, the defining characteristics of a cooperative business are that the interests of the capital investor are subordinate to those of the business user, or patron, and returns on capital are limited. Cooperative control is in the hands of its member-patrons, who democratically elect the board of directors. Member-patrons are the primary source of equity capital, and net earnings are allocated on the basis of patronage instead of investment . . . The USDA summarized these characteristics in its definition of a cooperative as a "user-owned, user-controlled business that distributes benefits on the basis of use." A broader definition of cooperative by The International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) employs broader terms in its definition of a cooperative as "an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise." The ICA has adopted the Rochdale principles (based on a consumer cooperative in England dating to 1844), seven world-wide, generally acknowledged principles that guide the cooperative enterprise: voluntary and open membership; democratic member control; member economic participation; autonomy and independence; education, training, and information; cooperation among cooperatives; and concern for community . . .

There are those, many of whom in powerful positions in our government and economy, who insist that the future, and specifically the future of education, belongs to the principles that underpin for-profit corporations, that the competitive drive for profit will somehow lead to the best educational results. I can't see that from where I sit. I understand, I suppose, how level playing field competition (and that's a mighty important condition, one that is rarely met) might lead to innovation and lower costs when it comes to consumer products like televisions, but my experience with cooperatives, both as an employee and member, has taught me that this is not the only way to achieve high quality, low cost results. In fact, what most cooperatives do is remove the impediment of profit, allowing customer-owners to directly focus on our common needs and aspirations without having to consider the pressures of producing return-on-investment to stockholders.

This is the water in which I swim as a teacher and it is, in a very real sense, why equality, democracy, independence, cooperation, and community stand at the center of everything we do.

(If you want to read more about how a preschool cooperative like ours operates, you might want to read my 5-part series entitled Cooperative Nuts & Bolts. Click on the link over there under "Teacher Tom's Topics" and read from the bottom up.)


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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Standardization Is Always The Enemy Of Learning


I went to kindergarten back in the 1960's. We played outdoors, built with blocks, pretended, and made some art. I don't think there was any particular curriculum or ideology behind the program offered by Mrs. Jennings and Mrs. Ruiz. We mostly played, much like the kids do at Woodland Park, although I remember one classroom project in which we sat around tables, each responsible for coloring in a part of a train -- box cars, coal cars, passenger cars. I got the engine. Mrs. Jennings gave very specific instructions about how to color our pictures. We were to strive to color side-to-side, using only horizontal motions, and to stay within the lines.

It was the kind of project I always enjoyed. To this day I love the challenge of creating artwork that requires fine motor deftness and precision. I chose to make my engine mostly red and was quite impressed with how wonderful the finished product looked. I'd already learned to take aesthetic pleasure in staying within the lines, but the whole horizontal coloring concept was an epiphany to me, a concept I employed in coloring projects throughout the rest of my youth.


The following day we arrived at school to find that Mrs. Jennings had taped our individual pictures to the wall to create a train, my red engine at the front. I was proud of that engine, but man was I appalled at my classmates' work. Most of them had failed to stay within the lines, and from what I could tell only I had adhered to the horizontal coloring method. Yet there was Mrs. Jennings, not scolding anyone, not correcting anyone, not making anyone do it over, but rather enthusing about the beautiful train we had made together.

Of course, today I can see that the problem was not with the other kids, but rather with my own expectations. You see, I was apparently a coloring within the lines prodigy, much in the way some four-year-olds prodigiously teach themselves to read in preschool, while most of their classmates are still years away from being developmentally ready for it. Mrs. Jennings instructions had hit the five-year-old me right where I lived, while it went right over the heads of most of my classmates: she knew this, which is why she didn't scold or correct. It's why she saw beauty.


The development of human beings, especially in the early years, is notoriously spiky. My own daughter began to speak at three months, but didn't crawl until her first birthday, and wasn't walking until she was closer to two. Some kids are capable of reading at an early age, some are genius climbers, others have advanced social or artistic or musical skills. Every parent knows their own child is a genius: every preschool teacher knows that every child is a genius. And we all know that every child is also "behind" in some areas. This is all normal.

Indeed, the range of "normal" is enormous. This is one of the most powerful aspects of a cooperative preschool. As parents work with me in the classroom as my assistant teachers, they come to appreciate this, and even, as Mrs. Jennings did, find it beautiful. And this is why a play-based curriculum is ideal for young children, it allows each child to focus like a laser her own personalized educational objectives in a way that meshes perfectly with her developmental stage.


Sadly, kindergarten, at least he public school variety, no longer accommodates this wide range of "normal." Over the past decade or so, kindergarten has transformed dramatically, and not for the better:

A new University of Virginia study found that kindergarten changed in disturbing ways from 1999-2006. There was a marked decline in exposure to social studies, science, music, art and physical education and an increased emphasis on reading instruction. Teachers reported spending as much time on reading as all other subjects combined . . . The time spent in child-selected activity dropped by more than one-third. Direct instruction and testing increased. Moreover, more teachers reported holding all children to the same standard.

The whole idea of standardization runs counter to what we know about how young children learn and develop, yet that has been the focus of the corporate education "reform" movement, which spawned this era of the federally mandated Common Core State Standards and high stakes standardized testing. The cabal that created this pedagogically indefensible mess, lead by Bill Gates through his foundation, have ignored what professionals know about how children actually learn:

To make matters worse, the drafters of the Common Core ignored the research on child development. In 2010, 500 child development experts warned the drafters that the standards called for exactly the kind of damaging practices that inhibit learning: direct instruction, inappropriate content and testing . . . These warnings went unheeded . . . Consequently, the Common Core exacerbates the developmentally inappropriate practices on the rise since NCLB (No Child Left Behind).

No, the goal of these "reformers" was never to meet the children where they were developmentally, nor to shape a curriculum around the way children learn, but rather, as Bill Gates famously said in an interview with the Washington Post: "(T)o unleash powerful market forces on education." You see, standardization makes it easier for businesspeople to develop products to sell to schools. The dehumanizing metaphor Gates used was to compare it to standardizing electrical outlets.


Mrs. Jennings understood, as all professional early childhood educators do, that children cannot be standardized like computers or washing machines or electrical outlets. Some of us can stay within the lines, but most of us can't, and that's what makes us beautiful.

Standardization is always the enemy of learning.


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Monday, November 17, 2014

Safety Drills
































On a regular basis, we adults at Woodland Park drill the children on the finer points of both personal and community safety.


Last week for instance, the grown-ups kept our distance as a team of 4-year-olds put themselves through a battery of physically demanding exercises involving our swing set, starting when they re-discovered how to place a long plank between the two seats, creating what we usually call "the giant swing."


They began with simple balancing and cooperation drills, starting with a child standing on each end of the board, holding the chains in two hands, as a third child sat, straddling the board, while holding a purple stick pony in his right hand. They had originally set out to practice the more challenging safety exercise of four kids standing together, but two of them quickly recognized that they were in over their heads, so they adjusted the maneuver to instead work on a few of their more foundational balance and cooperation skills which is what lead to the straddling. 


We adults nodded from a distance in admiration of their commitment to developing their core safety competencies.

 
They then began practicing what they would do should they find ladders in and around the swing area. 


On this day, they concentrated specifically on what would happen if there was a step ladder adjacent to the giant swing. 


It took some doing to get it just right, but I'm confident at least one girl is feeling pretty good about how to safely climb over the top of the step ladder and down other side onto the giant swing. 


They also practiced their safety skills when a homemade ladder is present. These are particularly technical drills. The ladder is positioned with one end on the ground and the other angled up onto the seat of the giant swing. This gives the children a chance to practice being safe when they do what they would do upon discovering a homemade ladder positioned with one end on the ground and the other angled up onto the seat of the giant swing. 


Most of the children are successfully crawling up with an acceptable safety record, but one of our students appears ready to take the next step. Repeatedly, concentrating on his feet while also providing instructions to his friends about how they could best support his efforts (such as keeping still), he drilled himself on how to safely step his way up to the second rung before jumping off. An exercise he repeated several times.


They then worked on what safety skills they would use should they need to employ the homemade ladder as a seesaw. 


Naturally, as the teacher, I was the leader of these drills, a responsibility I performed, for the most part, from outside the schoolyard fence (where I was simultaneously operating the hose that fills the cistern of our cast iron pump). I supported their efforts by raising my eyebrows in just the right way and occasionally lowering them into an ernest frown meant to communicate, had they looked in my direction, that I too was serious about safety.


These are not easy drills, mind you, especially since they must test themselves for every eventuality, such as doing it on one leg, or jumping, or causing the whole thing to swing higher or twist crazily. 


We find that a running dialog amongst the players is important to coordinating safety efforts. I was particularly impressed with their ongoing safety discussions, which I acknowledged by winking my right eye in a subtle, yet supportive way:

"Try it like this!"

"Hey, that almost hit me!"

"Stop! Stop! You're moving it too much!"


These, instructional statements were interspersed with those important safety sentences that begin with the word "Let's . . ." These "Let's . . . " sentences are a vital part of their drills in that they tend to preface planning discussions. For instance, "Let's pretend this is a ship" would lead to developing a series of specialized drills designed to prepare them for those moments when it's imperative that they pretend the giant swing is a ship.


We finished by adding a pair 10 foot long cedar 2"X2"s. We have some work to do on how we would stay safe while experimenting with a sudden catapulting action in the midst of lots of people. But, naturally, that's not an insurmountable problem because we can always work on it until we get it right. Like I said, we do these drills both regularly and rigorously, which is the key to any good safety program.

When they were done, I wore an expression that, had they been looking, would have let them know I expect the same sort of effort tomorrow. Nothing less will do when it comes to safety.

(On a serious note: Before chastising me for not taking safety seriously, let me assure you there is no one more safety conscious than me. That is why we permit children to experiment with risk. When we don't allow children to practice assuming responsibility for their own safety, we leave them dangerously unprepared for the hazards that exist in the real world. From where I sit, a classroom in which adults enforce a long lists of "safety rules" places young children at far more risk than this sort of play. And yes, a few bumps and bruises are a necessary part of how safety lessons are learned: this is true whether you have a long list of safety rules or not.)


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Friday, November 14, 2014

Sling Shot Painting?
































Yesterday, the wonderful Kisha of the Discovery Early Learning Center preschool, posted a video on the school's Facebook page of her kids engaged in an art exploration that she described like this:

Sling shot painting in the art studio! I dare you! The children took this idea and "stretched" it beyond the idea that I had in my head as I set out the materials. What they did was way more awesome than what I envisioned.

She did not share the idea she had in her head, but I reckon it had something to do with sling shots. What I saw in the video were baggies of paint with small holes cut in them, hanging by string from lengths of wood. Kids were paired up, holding opposite ends of the sticks, across the table from one another, then working together to bounce the sticks up and down so that the bags hit the table causing paint to squirt out onto paper. There may be more or less to it than that, but I'd viewed the video just before leaving on my bike commute to work and by the time I arrived on Woodland Park's doorsteps, this was the take-away that had become fixed as an idea in my own head.


We didn't properly take up Kisha's challenge in that we did this outdoors rather that in the "art studio," largely because we don't have an art studio. The three-year-olds were the first to give it a go and, honestly, it went pretty much exactly as it had happened on Kisha's video. It took the adults awhile to figure out how long the strings should be and how big to cut the holes in the bags, but the kids took their ends of the sticks and started bouncing them, creating wonderful splats on the cardboard we were using as targets . . . And also, in equal measure, sending dramatic streams and sprays of paint through the air, which I hadn't seen in Kisha's video, but anticipated, not being inexperienced the ways of flying paint.


By the time the four and five year olds arrived in the afternoon, I felt that we'd worked out the kinks and were now ready for an even more rousing session involving bigger, rowdier kids. And indeed, they fell on it immediately, bouncing those sticks with abandon, emptying the first couple of bags onto the cardboard, themselves, and the world around, then, after about 10 minutes, abandoning the project for greener pastures. 


That's the way it goes sometimes in a play-based preschool: something that was a hit one day with one group of kids is a dud with another.  I made a few attempts to lure kids into a re-engagement, but by then most of the more gung-ho types had cleaned themselves up and weren't too eager to go through the experience again.


As a cooperative preschool with lots of adults around to support me and the kids, we have the luxury of assigning an adult to "manage" stations like this. At our fall orientation meeting, one of my requests of these parents addresses exactly this scenario: "If the activity I've planned appears to be a dud, please start goofing around with whatever it is and see if you can make me right. If you can engage even one kid, it's a success." Wyatt's mom Amy had been responsible for the morning session and since the kids fell on it, she mainly spent her time refilling bags with paint, untangling string, refining the process, and generally just trying to keep up with demand. 


Yuri's dad Bill was at the art table during the afternoon session, and when he found himself alone, he got busy tinkering. He was down there by himself for quite some time, not just standing around, but goofing off. After a bit, I noticed that he had managed to attract some curious kids. His innovation was to dispense with the sticks altogether and to instead tie the baggies of paint to long pieces of string that he threaded up and over the clothesline we use to hang drying art. The kids were then pulling on the string, raising the bags up and down. Some were bouncing the paint bags a la the original stick version, but others were raising them as high as they could, then releasing the string so the bags fell with a, explosive splat.


This is the sort of thing I love about the cooperative model, this incredible interplay between children and playful adults. What Bill was doing was more than just creating an "art project" for the kids, he was role modeling goofing around, tinkering, or, if you will, the sort of creative persistence that is the only reliable connection between failure and success.


On Monday, I will, in all likelihood, reset Bill's version of "sling shot painting" for the three-year-olds. May it continue evolving from there.




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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Wondering About Giants In The Universe


































On Tuesday, I posted a longer piece about engaging in philosophical discussions with young children. In the process of writing that, I was reminded of this post from awhile back. If you read Tuesdays' post you'll recognize the concluding story, but I thought it made a nice companion piece so dusted it off to present anew.

Years ago, our family took a vacation to Palm Springs with a group of other families, all of whom had children about the same age. We were in a big resort with a number of swimming pools and tennis courts, we had bikes and scooters, and everyone brought a few board games. The idea was that the adults would rotate keeping an eye on the kids, creating lots of room for everyone else to enjoy more adult recreations. I played a round of golf, but my main "me time" motivation was to hike in the desert. I love few things more than awaking in the dark in order to get a cup of coffee and bit of breakfast in me in time to hit the desert in the cool morning, just as the sun begins to peek over the mountains. One morning I awoke extra early and drove over to the Joshua Tree National Park.

I'm not going to try to describe this special place to you, but hiking among the Seuss-ian trees and unlikely rock formations opened me up to the universe, calming and exciting me in equal measure, taking my thoughts away from the petty concerns of day-to-day life. When I returned to our group, I persuaded our entire group that they must return with me on the following day. The children were not exactly thrilled with this idea, especially my own daughter Josephine, then about six-years-old, who simply could not understand why she should be expected to leave her Spring Break paradise for "a desert." As we drove through the park looking for a place for our group picnic, she griped, "What's so great about this place?" Then sarcastically, "Oh look, there's a tree. And another tree. And a rock. And a rock . . ."

People often praise me for my patience, but this was one of those times when I was approaching the end of it. The kids piled out of the cars shouting, complaining, and fighting, our late-ish start meaning we'd arrived as the heat was mounting. No one was anywhere near reveling in the mystical wonder of it all. We found a patch of shade with picnic tables and while the others began to set things up, I took my girl by the hand, a little testy, and said, "Let's go for a walk." We followed a barely there trail around the corner of the abrupt rock formation against which they'd built the parking lot and suddenly we were alone in this magnificent place. 

We walked in silence for a few hundred yards. Tension ebbed away as we became two people, both now alone with the person with whom we had spent most of our waking hours during the past six years. When Josephine finally spoke, she asked as if continuing a conversation, "Do you ever think that maybe we're just tiny specks?"

I said I had thought about that.

"Maybe there are giants and we're so small they can't even see us."

I told her about the "Bowl of Soup" theory: the idea that our entire universe is just an atom at the bottom of a bowl of soup in another, larger, universe.

"Maybe the giants will eat us." She wasn't bothered by this idea. In fact, she smiled as she said it, the way one does at a bright idea.

I said that our whole universe might be born, live, and die long before the giant even came close to getting to the bottom of his bowl, let alone getting it into his mouth.

She thought about this and nodded. We walked some more in silence. We had been following the base of the rock formation along a track that was leading us back around toward our friends. I've always enjoyed what I call, "scrambling," which is to sort of clamber up and down rocks. I jumped on top a boulder, bounded to a larger one, then stair stepped down the other side. Josephine had never been a climber, but she followed me and we scrambled our way back to our friends.

My formal study of philosophy is limited: most of what I know of it comes from what I've gleaned through secondary sources like novels and biographies. This does not mean that my philosophy is not profoundly meaningful to my own life: it is, just as yours is to you, and just as our children's is to them. Don't doubt that children have a philosophical life just because they're little. Indeed, most early learning is of the philosophical sort: we have experiences and we try to make sense of them, attempting to fit them together in a reasonable and systemic way, to create and test theories about the big questions.

When my brother-in-law died when Josephine was two, she asked, "What happens when people die?"

I told her that some people believe in heaven, then sketched it out a little for her.

She said, "Uncle Chris is in heaven drinking coffee, playing his guitar and playing basketball . . . And getting it ready for us."

A couple years later she announced from her car seat over my right shoulder, "I don't believe in heaven any more."

I said that some people don't.

"I think you come back alive as your favorite animal. I'm going to be a bunny, because that's my favorite animal."

It's tempting to answer children's philosophical questions with certainty, to let them know it's all taken care of, when that's by no means the case. We have the same open questions we've always had about the nature of existence, of reality, of logic, of values and morality, of war and peace and life and death. Oh sure, some of us have it figured out, and I don't mean that sarcastically. I know many people who are quite certain about their own philosophies, and I don't for a moment doubt them, even when I think they're wrong. One could even argue that all of us are, at any given moment, certain about our philosophies. They may not be satisfying philosophies, ones that are wrecking our lives even, but it hardly seems that we can behave in any way that does not jibe one-hundred percent with our core beliefs. That they may not jibe with our purported or aspired to beliefs is another matter. Changing one's most deeply held beliefs, ones we've been forming since before emerging from the womb, is often a gargantuan task, one that is only possible in the context of philosophical investigation. 

The children of Woodland Park spend their days playing, and it's important that our playground be a world in which we are all free to engage in philosophical investigation. This is why we have long, hand-raising discussions on the subjects like the Easter Bunny or the Sugar Fairy. This is why we talk about the dead things we find or the animals we accidentally kill, which is the occasional fate of the worms in our compost or lady bugs in the garden. This is why we spend so much time talking about our rules, our agreements about how we as individuals will live together. This is why we wonder aloud about unanswerable questions, like "What is play?" 

I know that many of the readers here are folks who have very firmly held religious, political, and social beliefs. Those are our beliefs, ones we hold based upon our own philosophical investigations. But no matter what I believe, one thing I cannot do is tell you what to believe. I can share my own beliefs with you. I may be able to make you behave the way I want you to behave, but I'll never get another person to believe what I want them to believe, even if that person is a child. Our beliefs only arise from our own, uniquely conducted philosophical investigations. 

I want the children who come to Woodland Park to know they have the scope and space to engage on their own and with each other in these philosophical investigations, to explore the meaning of existence without the fear of being wrong, or the judgement of others, to take a hike amongst the Joshua trees and wonder about giants in the universe:

Studying philosophy cultivates doubt without helplessness, and confidence without hubris. I've watched kids evolve to be more rational, skeptical and open-minded, and I've seen them interact in more fair-minded and collaborative ways. As one 10-year-old said, "I've started to actually solve arguments and problems with philosophy. And it works better than violence or anything else."

When Josephine and I got back to our friends, they joined us in our scrambles. As we re-rounded the corner, putting the rock formation between us and the rest of the world, the children began to discuss the Bowl of Soup theory.

"If there were giants, we would see them."

"Maybe they're so big that we fit between their atoms."

"If they eat us, we would get digested, then pooped out."

"Maybe that's where these rocks came from."

"Maybe we're inside of poop right now!"

It was a raucous, free-form conversation that bounced from the sublime to the ridiculous the way all the good conversations do.

People tend to assume that adults, by virtue of our longer time on the planet, have an inside track on this sort of wisdom, but I'm here to tell you that this simply isn't true. I've found that we are all, always, equals when it comes to our philosophical investigations. In fact, one of the greatest truths of all was made clear to me in my own three-year-old's musings.

We were in the car and she was griping about something.

I lazily replied, "You know, Josephine, nothing is perfect."

She rode in silence for sometime before saying, as much to herself as to me, "Nothing is perfect . . . except everything." It doesn't get deeper than that.


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