Thursday, February 23, 2017

Evidence Of A Day Well Played

Some of you may be aware that the West Coast has been slammed with heavier than normal rains, causing all manner of problems for our fellow left coasters to the south, but in these parts farther north we're set up for wading though these atmospheric rivers. 

It's part of our lifestyle and, indeed, once you've accepted the fact that you will be slightly damp from October through May, a process that takes several decades if you weren't born here, you can even sometimes be grateful for it.

We've certainly been grateful for the wet these past couple weeks. Not long ago, the adults turned up for a weekend work party at which one of our main missions was to relocate the sand that has eroded down to the lower level of our huge sandpit back to the upper level. 

The first thing the kids noticed when they returned to school the following Monday was the massive pile of sand at the top of the hill, but now that they've knocked that down a bit, the part of our shovel-and-wheelbarrow engineering project is the giant hole we left at the bottom.

Abetted by the rain, the children have been working our new cast iron pump (that's right, we finally purchased a new one after more than two decades) and shovels to create rivers that have fed a great lake, beginning the erosion cycle anew. 

If anyone knows how to play in a huge mud pit, it's kids from around here. They have the rain gear, although their boots are hardly high enough to avoid being overtopped and it would take more than a mere raincoat to keep it all out, but remember, these kids really don't know what it's like to not be slightly damp for eight months of the year.

I reckon a lot of schools, even ones around here, forbid the kids from splashing in the mud. 

In fact, I know from experience that a puddle like this one would be cause for caution tape barricades in most places and what a terrible waste of a genuine opportunity to meaningfully engage with the real world and the people we find there.

Some days, we're so covered in wet sand that adults stand by the door with brooms to sweep the children before they come inside. 

We sweep the floors and vacuum the rugs at least twice a day, often more, and still large quantities of our play ground go home each day with the children in their treads and cuffs and ears and hair, winding up in the carpeting of their cars and on their entry way floors. Indeed, the kids probably don't stop shedding sand until they finally taken their bath. The ring they leave in the tub is evidence of a day well played.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Rigor Of Play

The opposite of play is not work, it's rote. ~Dr. Edward Hallowell

Our outdoor classroom is one big slope and within that slope there are many ups and downs, reflecting our city which is built on hills. We're forever experimenting with gravity out there, rolling and flowing things downhill or dragging and pushing things up. There are parts of the space that are so steep one needs a running start to get to the top and there is very little flat upon which to rest one's legs.

We have a pair of wagons, which are regularly used on the hills. Once, we made an airplane. 

From my photos, it's easy to see the physics and engineering learning, but those were minor aspects, side-effects, of the bigger, more important project, which was figuring out how to get along with the other people.

There are those who question the "rigor" of a play-based curriculum when, in fact, we're engaged in the most rigorous curriculum known to mankind. There is simply no greater or more important challenge than the one of balancing our own individual desires and needs with those of the other humans with whom we find ourselves. 

A play-based curriculum is rigorous because of it's subject matter, which is the all-important one of getting along with the one another, something children are passionate about. Traditional schools, on the other hand, are rigorous simply because they attempt to teach less interesting things by rote, lecture, and text book, the most difficult way to learn new things because most children find them tedious and frustrating. It's an artificial rigor designed, I guess, to make the adults feel important.

Many people confuse hating school with rigor, saying things like, "It prepares them for life," but those of us who work in a play-based environment spend our days amongst children who love school, who arrive each day eager to tackle the challenges of community, and I would assert that there is no better preparation for life. Make no mistake, it's not pure joy, it's not all laughter. There are tears. There is conflict. There is negotiating and compromise. Children might complain, but they return each day eager to engage, to figure out the things they are most driven to figure out: the most important things of all.

There was so much to learn about flying our airplane together. Would it be safe? Where would everyone sit? How many of us can go at a time? Who gets to steer? Who rides and who "launches?" How do we get it back to the top of the hill? How do we make sure everyone gets a turn?

For the most part, we adults stood back, taking a few pictures, letting the kids work it out. Sure, the first few times they launched themselves down the hill, I jogged just ahead of them, prepared to intervene in the name of safety, but as it turned out on this day, I was unnecessary, even when the airplane crashed and burned.

I'll take the real rigor of play over the artificial rigor of rote any day. And so would the kids.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Not Yet Discouraged Of Man

Every child comes with the message that God is not yet discouraged of man.  ~Rabindranath Tagore

I've written before about our 4-5's class and their superhero games. There is a core group of kids who arrive each day ready for that and nothing else. They've begun making plans even before they arrive, often choosing a particular costume or t-shirt or jacket, sometimes even having come up with a story line. We begin our days outdoors and the first of the superheroes to arrive generally mill about as they await their fellow superheroes. Sometimes they can't wait for their friends and start with me, detailing who they are, what powers they have, and what bad guys they will defeat. As friends arrive however I'm forgotten in the urgency of organizing their game:

     "I'm Batman!"

     "I'm Lego Batman!"

     "I'm Violet"

     "Who are you?"

     "I'm on your team today."

     "I can fly and turn invisible."

     "I have laser eyes."

They do this every day, even if it looks and sounds no different than the day before. It usually takes at least five minutes, sometimes longer, however, as they figure out the ground rules for the day. There are disagreements, especially when their plans clash:

     "I'm the Flash!"

     "No, I'm the Flash!"

And agreements:

     "We can both be the Flash. I'll be Flash one and you be
     Flash two."

This type of negotiation goes on throughout their play. In fact, it stands at the center of the game, but it's most intense as they convene.

Meanwhile, other kids arrive having anticipated other games, like playing with the cast iron pump or swinging or hunting for jewels. And yet others arrive seemingly with no plan at all, spending the first several minutes of their day observing until they find a place for themselves. Many of these kids are occasional superheroes, some days donning the cape, sometimes not. Once the core group has more or less organized themselves, they then begin recruiting from among these kids, "Are you a superhero?" If the answer is "no," they move on to the next, but when the answer is "yes" a whole new round of negotiation begins. 

A big part of the game is hanging out in their "hideout" or "space ship" or whatever, telling others "Superheroes only." It looks like exclusion, and on one level it is, but all one need do to be included is say, "I'm a superhero" and the gates are opened. Indeed, rather than exclusion it can be seen as an invitation to play, a kind of inducement to increase the population of superheroes. You can come up here if you join us in our game. Many kids have this figured out and play along, breezily saying, "I'm Wonder Woman" whether they mean it or not, speaking it like a password. (A few, of course, don't see it this way and instead feel intimidated which is what lead to our big discussion a few weeks ago, but most accept and understand the deal.)

There have been a few experiments with real exclusion, of course, the kind where others are told some version of "You can't play," but those have been short lived because the superhero game is less fun with fewer people. No, the goal is a big, rowdy game and the kids have figured out that that can't happen if they aren't essentially accommodating and inclusive. In fact, I think this is why the game is so compelling for the kids. Sure, they love experimenting with power through their role playing, but what keeps bringing them back is that it's really a new game every day, one that is shaped anew by all the agreements they have to make with one another to keep the game going, to maintain it day-after-day, hour-by-hour and even minute-to-minute.

In his book Free to Learn, Peter Gray discusses the importance of the freedom to quit in children's play. He argues that the drive to keep the game going causes children to really listen to and accommodate one another, because if they don't kids will start quitting and if too many vote with their feet the game disappears along with them. This is why in a game of street baseball, the 10-year-old doesn't need anyone to tell her to go easy on the five-year-old: if you want the game to keep going it has to be fun for everyone so we toss the ball gently rather than doing our best to strike him out.

Yes, the whole superhero business can be messy and fraught with conflict. There are times when it isn't pretty, when people cry, but for the most part when I step back and watch it, I'm moved almost to tears by what I see: children coming together of their own accord, working to reach meaningful agreements, making space for one another, persuading and being persuadable, setting aside objections in deference to a friend, and ultimately discovering that sometimes it's a bridge too far and the only option is to exercise your freedom to quit. 

We adults have a lot to learn from how children play with one another when left to their own devices, without constant grown-up intervention. In fact, they inspire me in the way heroes always do: it's why I'm not yet discouraged of man.

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Monday, February 20, 2017

Today I'm 55

Ninety percent of life is showing up. ~Woody Allen
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. ~Goethe
Experience is the name we give our mistakes. ~Oscar Wilde

I went back last night to take a look at what I wrote here on my birthday five years ago. I'm happy to report that I still stand by every word, so I'm sharing it again today with a few edits to account for the passage of time.

Now I'm 55. It's not exactly a milestone birthday, but I nevertheless think that permits me the indulgence to offer a piece of unsolicited advice.

That's a long time to have lived, don't you think? Fifty-five years? I've seen over half a century. I've lived in historic times. I should by now know most of what I'm ever going to know about life. I've still got my health, accented by a few well-earned aches and pains. I love my work. This should be my time, baby!

Here's one thing I know: Goethe was right, there is magic in boldness. If 90 percent of life is just showing up, then I'd say another 9 percent is boldness.

Of course, boldness must be formed from something; otherwise it's just brashness or, worse, its embarrassing cousin, braggadocio. I've found one does need at least a little genuine, deep-down confidence to pull off boldness, and that can only come from experience or out-of-this-world innate talent. Since I never discovered my world class innate talent, I'm left to rely on experience. 

I'd say that 90 percent of boldness comes from that confidence. And 90 percent of that confidence comes from experience.

And experience is the name we give our mistakes.

So, you know, the secret to life is to show up and make some mistakes before it's too late.

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Friday, February 17, 2017

"I'll Help You"

Like every preschool with which I'm familiar we celebrated Valentines Day this week by exchanging messages of love and friendship with one another. I know, I know, it's a "Hallmark holiday," but so what? I like that we set aside at least one day every year to celebrate love in all its forms. Our tradition is that each kid makes his or her own construction paper pocket, decorated with hearts, lace, and other bits and bobbles, which serves as a "mailbox" into which classmates deliver their Valentines. In the morning, I set up long tables in the large room across the hall from the class room, lay out the pockets, then as the kids arrive, they start their day by distributing their cards. At the end of the day, they take them home then spend the afternoon enjoying them. It's straight-forward and simple.

The kids in our 4-5's class have come to understand that they are indeed in charge of the curriculum, and one boy in particular almost daily requests some special activity or another. Often they are things that require some prep time so we often have to agree to the following day, but not always. On Wednesday, he asked for "mat slamming." The tables were still set up in middle of the the big room, so I answered, "How about tomorrow? Those tables are in the way."

He answered, "We could move them. I'll help you."

These are fairly heavy folding tables with plenty of pinch points for good measure and they are stored in a closet where they lean against a wall standing on end. I wasn't really sure how he was going to help me, but I wasn't going to do anything to extinguish the sentiment, so said, "Alright, come on."

As he propped the doors open with doorstops of his own accord, a handful of other kids asked what we were doing. They wanted to help too. I said, "The first thing is to fold up these tables and move them into that closet over there. First, we'll have to tip the table on it's side so we can fold the legs." We worked together to tip the table, then I showed them how the legs worked, making a point of pointing out those pinch points. Without discussing it, two of them held the table still while the other three wrangled the legs into place.

They seemed to have it, so I walked over to the closet to wait for them saying, "It goes in here."

At first they struggled. They were able to get the table moving by sliding it along the floor, but they couldn't get it heading in the right direction. "Teacher Tom, we can't steer it."

I said, "The person in front is the steerer. The rest of you are the motors." That was what they needed. I thought I ought to handle the job of stashing it into the closet if only because it was too small of a space for five kids. I took the table from them and before I'd finished leaning it again the wall, they already had the next table on its side. This one had a slightly different mechanism for folding the legs, but they figured it out before I did and were soon maneuvering this one toward the closet as well.

The first two tables had been rectangular, but the third and final one was round. This one they were able to roll to the closet as everyone agreed that round tables are easier to move.

Now it was on to the gym mats which were stacked in a corner. They were no longer helping me; it was their project and I was only there in a supervisory capacity. I said, "Next we need to set up the mats." They wrestled and wrangled them. They played and ran and fell onto them. They argued and complimented and suggested and agreed. It was an inefficient project, one that got sidetracked by tumbling, chase, and general horseplay, but at any given moment at least one of them was working to set up the long runway we needed to play the game of mat slam.

I noted that I was calm, feeling no need to coach or cajole, which of course was a result of it not being my project, but theirs. I knew this because when it's my project I coach and cajole because I have internalized the dictatorship of getting from point A to point B in a straight line, whereas the kids intuitively embraced the democracy of getting there together no matter the zigs and zags, listening to their hive mind intuition rather than mere logic.

Finally, after a good half hour, they got everything set up to their satisfaction. According to the clock, getting ready for play had eaten up all the time we had allotted for play. If I'd been sticking to the schedule, we would have now had to tidy up, so of course we ignored the schedule: we'd done the important part of working together, I could hardly rob them of their reward.

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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Primed And Ready

Last week I shared a story from one of our five-year-old storytellers that was largely an exercise in using the word "poop" as many times as possible for comic effect. Naturally, her classmates found it hilarious and, predictably, inspirational. We have since seen an outpouring of similar stories, some of which have expanded the vocabulary to include "pee" and other scatological variations.

I've been here before with other classes. Once the "poop" genii is out of the bottle, it's not going back in of its own accord. I once tried to ride it out, but that just allowed it to grow until it reached a point that I one day read 15 in a row from the genre with no breaks for, you know, actual stories.

After a couple more poop stories yesterday that were met with universal delight, I introduced my concern with a true statement, "I can tell you kids find these stories funny, but I don't like reading those potty talk words over and over." In years past, this has prompted certain children to agree with me (probably out of wanting to be on my bandwagon more than any actual objection), which has lead to a discussion in which we agree that potty talk belongs in the bathroom or that we wouldn't use potty talk in our stories or, as we did one year, decide that we would use our own made-up euphemisms to replace the standards.

Yesterday, however, I was met with a unified front, "We like them! We think they're funny!"

After some back and forth, one of the kids suggested that maybe they should just read their own words so that I didn't have to. Now, we're a preschool, and while most of them have begun to read a bit on their own, it's not universal, nor is it something we go out of our way to teach. When I asked for clarification, citing the fact that not everyone can read, she amended her suggestion: the kids could read the words they know and I, Teacher Tom, could help them read the words they don't know. Several of her classmates objected, but I saw something promising there.

I said, "How about this? I like reading your stories, but I would just rather not read 'poop' and 'pee' over and over. How about I teach all of you how to read those words, then when I come to them, you can read them aloud instead of me?" There seemed to be consensus that this could work so I grabbed a piece of paper and wrote "Poop," "Poo poo," "Pee" and then "Pee pee," all the words they thought they'd like to know. I used a variety of upper and lower case letters as well because the adults who transcribe these stories are not always consistent.

I then committed a rare act of direct instruction, pointing to the words and sounding them out along with the kids. We did it several times, with full and enthusiastic participation. We then segued into me writing out their individual names and we read those aloud together as well. I frequently denigrate direct instruction here on the blog, mostly because it dominates the school experience for most children, putting blinders on them, boring them, and unnaturally narrowing their focus on what the adult thinks they ought to know whether they're curious about it or not. But in cases like this when there is a specific thing children really want to know, direct instruction can be the most efficient method of teaching it because their minds are already naturally narrowed down on a specific question, primed and ready for a specific answer.

I'm eager to try our new system, with the kids reading those important words aloud to one another. I have little doubt that they all can now include "poop," "poo," and "pee" in their list of "sight words."

As the children were packing up to leave at the end of the day, I was passing through as one boy was showing off his new knowledge for his mother who seemed to be simultaneously amused, impressed, and slightly appalled. He furrowed his brow in concentration, looking off into the distance behind his mother, perhaps envisioning the words as I'd written them in black marker on white paper. "P-O-O-P," he recited in a slightly halting cadence, then "P-O-O" and "P-E-E."

And people ask how children learn to read in a play-based curriculum . . .

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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

We Don't Understand

For me, the most challenging part of being a parent of a young child was when her friendships aren't going the way she wanted them to go. Especially heartbreaking were those teary car rides home from school when someone had rebuffed, insulted, or otherwise treated my baby badly. I suspect every parent knows the anguish of helpless pity and impotent rage; that objectless casting about for someone to blame or punish or at least be the deserving recipient of the whipsaw of karma, all of it made worse by the knowledge that no one deserves any of that; that these are just children with parents just like you who are trying to figure it out as well.

We all have a vast pool of experience when it comes to being rejected. Researchers have found that even the most popular kids in elementary school are rejected 30 percent of the time when they seek to enter into play with others. Knowing this, of course, does nothing to reduce the sting, and in particular the special pain we suffer when it is experienced by proxy as it is when it's our own child.

I still have these feelings as the parent of a young adult, but they're now tempered by a couple decades of what I'll call wisdom; the experience of having my child repeatedly come through on the other side where there really is friendship. We still, quite regularly, remind ourselves of the great genius of her classmate Katrina who I once overheard successfully comforting my then six-year-old by saying, "She's mean to me too. When she's nice to me, I play with her. When she's mean, I don't play with her."

As a teacher in a cooperative, I am right there with parents as they see their child struggling with friendships, being rejected, but also, perhaps even more painful, rejecting others. I know how it's often impossible to not drop to your knees and plead with your child to behave or feel differently, to accept, if only just this once, your advice and counsel. Or to tell them they must apologize or make amends or buck up or take it philosophically. I'm there as all of these efforts fail because we, as parents, really are helpless and impotent when we try to do anything other than hold them, and listen to them, and feel with them.

Learning about friendship, learning about how we make friends, is, in fact, a lonely road. Learning to populate that road with fellow travelers is something we have to do for ourselves, through the experience that comes from trial and error. "You just don't understand!" is a great truth our children shout at us when we try to do more than just let them finish their cry. We don't understand, even while we have a vast experience.

Friendship is a joy found quite often through pain, sometimes great pain. That's probably part of why it feels so good when we get there.

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