Friday, July 20, 2018

"I Want It Out!"

When we replaced the pallet swing with a tire swing, some of the kids were ticked off. They had loved their pallet swing, but some of the adults were concerned about the hard, sharp, spinning and swinging corners of the shipping pallet and felt that replacing it with a tire would reduce the "hazard" without likewise reducing the "risk," or as the kids phrased it, the "fun."

"It's no fun!" more than one of them complained, even before trying out the new swing. Part of the objection was obviously a reaction to change, but when I dug down with a couple of the more vocal children, we determined that the main thing that was missing was a floor. The pallet had provided a nice flat platform upon which several children could sit together while swinging, whereas the tire, with it's hole in the middle forced everyone to sit on the edges which wasn't as much "fun." So we made a floor by cutting several pieces of wood that fit snuggly inside the tire, side-by-side. The individual pieces of wood are loose within the tire, creating the impression that they are removable, but they aren't, at least by preschoolers who don't have the physical strength to bend the edges of the tire the way we adults did while installing them.

This doesn't mean that kids don't try to remove them. Every now and then someone gets a bee in her bonnet about it, making it a project, one that involves the struggle of a puzzler noodling over a frustratingly impossible challenge. Yesterday, a three-year-old girl took it on, while a three-year-old boy objected. They were wrestling over the boards, pushing and pulling and wresting. Their faces were intense with the effort. Every now and then, one of them would say, "I want it out!" to which the other would reply, "I want it in!" It was a classic conflict between two strong-willed children.

Typically, I don't involve myself until and unless the children show me, by resorting to violence, that they need some support. There was some pushing of the shoulder-to-shoulder variety, but I didn't interpret it as violent as much as "persuasive" in nature, especially since they continued to speak with one another, fussily, firmly, even a bit angrily, but still under emotional control, both clearly accustomed and expecting to get their way. The intensity was ramping up, however, so I moved closer.

"I want it out!"

"I want it in!"

They were contending over those boards, one pushing downward, while the other pulled upward. They were getting louder.

"I want it out!"

"I want it in!"

A younger child approached the two, oblivious to their conflict, taking hold of the ropes that suspend the tire. She had earlier discovered pleasure in pushing the swing and was seeking to recreate it. Ignoring the bigger kids wrestling around, she began to gently rock the swing. They continued to contend with one another, but as the swing began to move, they both raised their legs, still saying, "I want it out!" and "I want it in!" albeit with the intensity turned down a notch as they concentrated on taking seats side-by-side on the tire.

With the tire now freely swinging, the older kids fully on board, the younger girl was able to create a steady rocking motion: back-and-forth, back-and-forth. The older kids were no longer wrestling, their hands taking old of the ropes, their bodies balanced for the ride. There were a couple more murmured rounds of "I want it out/I want it in," a kind of wind-down as their conflict fizzled out.

Soon they were giggling together, sharing the swing, no longer thinking about the floor upon which their feet rested as they swung together back-and-forth, back-and-forth. When the younger girl lost interest in her game, the older children took turns pushing one another.

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Thursday, July 19, 2018

"Are You A Boy Baby Or A Girl Baby?"

Children often bring their own toys to school. There was a time when I strongly discouraged this practice, mainly because these toys too often became bones of contention, with the owners forever asserting their ownership while the non-owners evoked our classroom ethic about community property: You can use it when I'm done with it. Today, I'm a fence-sitter. I mean, after all, I bring my own private property to school every day and I'm certainly not going to give the kids turns playing with, say, my phone. I'm going to insist upon my ownership rights. At the same time, if you're going to leave an attractive toy lying around the place, you can hardly expect that your fellow preschoolers aren't going to want to lay hands on it.

So now we sort of play it by ear. You are welcome to bring your toy from home, but you are cautioned that other kids are going to want to play with it, and it's possible it will become lost or broken, and if you are worried about that, you can put it in your personal cubby for safe-keeping. Most kids, most days, opt to store their beloved treasure safely in their cubby, visiting it throughout the day.

There are some kids, however, who have no qualms about sharing their toys from home. Indeed, some have even said to me, "I brought this to share with the other kids," and they do seem to take joy in watching their friends play with them. A few weeks ago, one of these generous spirits brought a naked action figure to school and set him free. Now he's become a part of our playground. Most of the older kids, and their parents, seem to know it's Tarzan, although I keep calling him Hercules because, honestly, without the loincloth, they kind of all look the same. Lately, however, one of the younger children has adopted it as her baby, carrying it around against her chest, soothing it, stroking it, and feeding it the way one does. It's a silly sight to my eyes, this be-muscled tough guy being mothered so gently, but as she has explained, "He's little and he's naked. He's a baby."

We were discussing Tarzan in a group a few days ago, when the subject of his gender came up. "He's a boy baby."

"I don't think he's a boy. He doesn't have a penis."

The group studied the figure for a moment. One of them said, pointing to his groin, "That's his penis," Several of his friends responded, however, that they didn't see a penis although they all agreed that this is where it would be found if there was one.

"But I don't see a vulva either."

"And he has daddy breasts. Mommy breasts are bumpy."

We were silent for some time, studying this anatomically incorrect doll.

"She has long hair like a girl."

"Teacher Tom has long hair and he's a boy."

We were silent again, a moment that was finally interrupted with a bright idea, "Maybe it can be a boy or a girl or whatever you want it to be!"

That decided, there was a murmur of agreement as the group broke up to go its separate ways. Left alone with her baby once more, the "mommy" looked her baby up and down, then asked, "Are you a boy baby or a girl baby?" Then she hugged it to her chest without waiting for an answer.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Entirely Too Much Of This Kind Of BS

Our daughter Josephine is a 21-year-old who found her passion by the time she was an eight-year-old and who has now pursued that passion to New York City, a place about which Sinatra sings, "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere." And from where I sit, it seems she is making it: pulling down the best grades of her life, earning money, and finding plenty of time to play with her cool friends. As I recently shared a story about her, someone who has never met her interrupted to ask if she had been "gifted" as a child. I think she is gifted, of course, but not in the sense that is meant by the term. By most measures I'd say she has always presented as a fairly typical kid, good at some things (usually the things she enjoyed) and not so good at others (usually the things she didn't enjoy) which is more or less the way I'd describe myself.

We tried not to pressure her about school. We let her quit extracurricular activities when she wanted to quit. Finding something "boring" was more than good enough for me. And with few exceptions we didn't make her do things she didn't want to do. Of course, people warned that we were setting her up, saying things like, "How will she ever learn about perseverance?" They would caution that success only comes from putting our noses to grindstone, while young, doing the things we don't want to do, every day as a matter of course, painting a portrait of life as relentless, competitive, and exceedingly difficult, at least if the goal was to "make it." It was easy for me to ignore them because I'd already figured out, even 20 years ago, that what they were saying was pretty much pure BS, the kind of BS that is spread by tightly wound people who take life way, way, way to seriously.

There is entirely too much of this kind of BS out there and its impact is compounded by the fact that it passes for wisdom in too many circles. Most of the time it's just BS, but it can also be toxic, like when parents worry that their five-year-old is "falling behind," a fear that too often drives a well-meaning adults to expect junior to strive to be a champion at everything, just in case. And that's BS.

I've never had an instinct to lead children. My driving interest is to play with them, to listen to them, to make jokes, make art, make math, make engineering, to just make things, together. There's no "behind" because it's about learning in the wild, about the world, ourselves, and what it means to be ourselves in that world. That's the fundamental question we live to answer. Everything beyond that is BS.

There was a time when I would entertain myself with the cocktail party game of asking people if there was anything their parents forced them to do that they still do today. Most people couldn't think of anything and those that did always, always, cited piano lessons. Not violin lessons, not regularly attending church, not making their bed, not putting their nose to the grindstone. Indeed, it seemed that for most people, the moment their parents stopped compelling them, they ran like the wind. Yes, I'm sure that everyone can come up with exceptions to this rule, but you have to admit, it's largely true.

Putting one's nose to a grindstone is a waste of youth. Even thinking about the grindstone is an abuse. If there are grindstones in their future, and my own life is a testament that it is not inevitable, then they will learn how to deal with them soon enough, tragically. No, if there is a best time for making mistakes, for chasing dreams, for indulging one's passions, for just goofing around, it's in our youth.

As I watch the children I teach play, I see them making mistakes, chasing dreams, indulging their passions and goofing around. I don't wish wealth or fame or power or "success" on any of them. No, my hope is that they get to keep playing, throughout their lives, every day, doing those things that bring them peace and joy and love. Of course, there's crap they'll have to get through, but don't you think kids already know that? Everything they do is accompanied by pain and disappointment and conflict and fear. That's life. But when children play, when no one is harping on them about "success," but rather leaving them free to pursue their passions, it never becomes a slog. There are no grindstones. From where I sit, the only losers in life are the ones who waste it at the grindstone.

As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, "We are here on this earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different." Kids already know this. They show us that no one works harder, or perseveres more, than those who are farting around. And they also know to call BS when they see it. That is the secret to making it there or anywhere.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Time Will Tell

Several months ago, we decided we were done with the large batch of clay with which we'd been playing. It had been around or a long time, was full of wood chips and pebbles, and had started to mold. There was probably 50 lbs. of the stuff in a large tub. We considered tossing it over the fence where it could return again to the earth from whence it came, but then wound up just leaving it in a corner of the play yard.

It sat in the sun and in the rain, the light and the dark. Occasionally, a child would stick her finger into it or drop more debris into it, but mostly it just sat there. At some point, someone, it must have been an adult because the tub is heavier than children can shift without drawing attention to their project, the tub got moved closer to the where we tend to make art. And then it sat there some more. Every now and then, I'd notice it and think I'd sure like to have that tub for other uses, but there was always something else with a greater demand on my time. But mostly it just sat there, an unnoticed part of our landscape, something a newcomer might notice, but invisible to our eyes.

There are always things like our tub of clay in every life, I reckon, items that were once useful, even necessary, but that then "disappear" until, finally, we get the urge for purging. Then out they go, leaving a happy space of emptiness. My wife and I spent a weekend overhauling a closet and our laundry/storage room and each time I've opened one of those doors for the past couple days I'm struck by a sense of lightness, of being unburdened. That said, it's not always easy casting things away. I felt an emotional attachment to some of the things I dropped down the garbage shoot, things that were victim to honesty, to admitting to myself that I would never again use or wear or otherwise employ that object for its intended purpose. I don't think that's what's going on with the tub of clay, however; it's ongoing survival has more to do with inertia than anything else, although when I tell myself the truth, I have to confess there is a small part of me that is simply curious. What will happen to that clay if I do nothing?

I was rewarded in my laziness last month when one child dumped some water on the crusty surface of the blob, then another discovered that she could use it as paint. She created a reddish-brown self portrait. Others tried their hand at this new technique as well. Yet another girl, inspired by the first, used the clay-paint as nail polish for both herself and a willing adult.

We've now had a run of dry weeks and the tub of clay is now hard as a rock, or at least I assume it is because it's gone back to being mostly invisible. I briefly took note of it yesterday, however, and considered once more tossing it over the fence, or perhaps dumping some water into it as a prompt, but I had more pressing things to do, so there it sits, a part of the landscape, an occupier of space, perhaps a burden, perhaps an inspiration. Time will tell.

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Monday, July 16, 2018

Even If You Are Children

One could be excused if she were to come away from reading this blog with the idea that I'm not just pro-child, but also at least a little anti-adult. This is not true. After all, I am an adult myself. I like being an adult. In fact, if my fairy godmother presented me with a choice, I'd opt for adulthood in a heartbeat. There are certainly things I admire about children, like their boundless energy, short memories, and their ability to live for the moment, but I wouldn't trade away my adult advantages for any of it. Like I sometimes say to the kids, "The best thing about being an adult is that you get to eat ice cream whenever you want."

That's the part I would struggle with the most. As a young child, I was fairly sanguine, accepting for the most part the idea that grown-up got to be in charge because they knew more, were bigger, and had the money, but I could never go back, not from where I am now, a 56-year-old man who doesn't like to be told what to do. 

No, my gripe with adults, the one you find on these pages and the one that might lead readers to conclude that I'm down on grown-ups, is that I really have a problem with people who think it's in their purview to boss other people around, especially when those people are children. In many ways, this is why I write this blog in the first place, because I think a lot of this bossing around is of the unconscious, entitled variety: expectations of obedience, language full of commands, the imposition of punishments and rewards, the knee-jerk assumption that "mommy knows best," none of which I would accept if it were directed at the adult me. I write, I suppose, in the hope that I can help convince some adults, at least a little bit, that children might be inexperienced and smaller, but they are still fully formed human beings worthy of the same sort of respect due all fully formed human beings.

The other day, we were goofing around with Mo Willem's book Don't Let The Pigeon Drive the Bus, when we fell into a discussion about why it is that adults get to do all the driving, a complaint I picked up from William Steig's picture book entitled Grown-ups Get to do All the Driving. I was taking the side of childhood, insisting "It's not fair!" Some of the kids were on my bandwagon even as most of them were just playing along, understanding it as a joke. Others, however, pushed back:

"It would be too dangerous if kids drove cars. They would get into wrecks."

To which I argued, "Adults get in wrecks all the time! I think kids would be even more careful than grown-ups."

"Kids are too short. They can't see out the windows."

To which I argued, "Maybe kids could just sit on a stack of books!"

"But then they couldn't reach the brakes."

To which I argued, "Maybe they should just make kid-sized cars!"

"We don't know all the rules about driving."

To which I argued, "Don't you know what a red light means?"

"Stop!" they called out.

"Don't you know what green means?"


"Don't you know what yellow means?"

"Be careful!"

"Right," I argued, "it means be careful, but adults seem to think it means go faster because they always speed up when they see a yellow light. See? Kids know the rules better than the adults."

It went on like this for some time, a fun give-and-take, but I'll be honest, there was a part of me that was disappointed that more of the kids weren't taking my side. I suppose I should chalk it up to wisdom on their part because, after all, the last thing we need are a bunch of three-year-olds behind the wheel. Indeed, I reckon our world would be more livable if a bit of the kids' wisdom rubbed off on adults and lead more of them to abandon their vehicles, but that doesn't appear to be about to happen.

No, I like being an adult. I like that I can eat ice cream any time I want, even as I fully understand why loving adults sometimes feel they need to serve as a stand-in for a child's self-control. Still, we all know that the things we learn in childhood tend to stay with us as we grow into adults. Sometimes adults do have to say "No" or "Enough" or "I'm not going to let you drive the car," but my gripe is that we too often do it when it isn't necessary: expecting obedience instead of seeking agreement, commanding instead of striving for understanding, punishing or rewarding instead of trusting in the more certain lessons of natural consequences, insisting on being right rather than taking the time to actually listen to these smaller people who often see the world more clearly than we do.

That is the way I want to be treated and it's the way I try to treat the rest of you, even if you are children.

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Friday, July 13, 2018

It's Not Good Enough To Be "Just Fine"

For the past several years, our school's enrollment has been about 60-65 percent boys. A new parent recently asked me about that, wondering if that had to do with me being a male teacher. It does not. For the first decade or so of my tenure at Woodland Park, our enrollment was more like 60-65 percent girls. The main difference between then and now: a larger playground. Indeed, parents even told me that it had been the small playground at our old place that made them reluctant to enroll their sons. 

No one said that about their girls. In fact, when we re-imagined that small playground into a sort of mini-adventure playground, the mother of one girl, complaining about the mess and weather, said, "You know, the indoor curriculum was pretty good all by itself."

There's a sad "secret" that those of us who work in "alternative" or progressive schools don't often talk about. While our waiting lists often fill up with boy applicants, there are always spots available for girls. This doesn't happen at our school because we enroll on a first-come-first-serve basis with no attempt to balance for gender, hence the imbalance, but most schools do try and they all struggle with it. You see, many parents of boys tend to see our type of play-based, full-body, outdoor-focused eduction and recognize it as a perfect fit, while parents of girls too often feel it's nice, but their child doesn't "need" it. As the admissions director at a local progressive elementary school once told me: "It's a prejudice. Girls need this sort of education as much as boys, it's just that they're more likely look like they're sitting down and doing the work, so everyone thinks they're just fine wherever they are."

I've heard it myself from parents looking beyond preschool, saying exactly that, opining "She'll be fine," about their girls while saying, "My boy needs more time." I'm here to tell you that all children need more time if the next step is going to be sitting at desks, absorbing direct instruction, filling out worksheets, and taking tests. That's not good for anyone, let alone young children. The evidence is quite clear that the best educational foundation for children under seven, girls and boys, is play.

Perhaps it is true that boys tend to make it obvious that they need a bit more opportunity to move their bodies, but the same holds true for many girls as well. That said, all girls still need and deserve the same freedom to play, to explore, and to ask and answer their own questions. It's not good enough to be "just fine."

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Thursday, July 12, 2018

Not Flipping The Boat

When I came across the boys, they showed me that they had wedged a long plank under the stern of the sandpit row boat. I had seen them using the projecting end as a spring board, but they told me it was a lever. They were, it seems, on a mission to overturn the boat.

This isn't the first time kids have set themselves that goal. A few years back, a team, with the help of one of their fathers, actually succeeded, but that had been a project of brute force, one that relied in no small measure on the muscles of a full grown man. It wasn't the first time, nor would be the last, that one of the adults in our cooperative school became so engaged in the play that they took it over.

In this case, the boys were working on two theories about why their lever wasn't flipping the boat. The first was that they simply needed more weight on the raised end. The second was that they needed a second lever to augment the first. I quoted Archimedes at them, "Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world." They listened to me as if I was one of the mumbly adults in the old Peanuts cartoons, then went back to their deliberations.

One boy was weight enough to budge the boat a bit, so they added another on the end of the lever, then another, but without improving their results. After some discussion, and a brief argument about whether it was a leaver or a "diving board," they decided they simply needed more weight so they began collecting "heavy things" to balance on the lever in the hopes of finally making it heavy enough to lift the boat.

Meanwhile, one of the guys went to work on the plan to install a second lever. He determined that there was "too much sand" under the hull at the point he had selected so began excavating, starting with a block of wood as his tool, but after much frustration trading it out for a proper shovel. As he worked, other children began to take an interest in what he was doing, watched for a few minutes, then found their own shovels.

Back at the original lever, the team had balanced as much as they could fit to no avail. The boat still wouldn't budge, but by now the project had taken on a life of its own. No longer were they talking about using their lever to overturn the boat. The talk now centered around what else they could add to what was rapidly becoming a classic "learning pile," one of those mounds of moveable objects that periodically grow wherever children have access to junk, one another, and the freedom to play without adults hovering around commanding them to "be careful" or to otherwise "guide" or "teach" or in some other way interfere (the way the muscly father coaxed and cajoled a team to actually flip the boat those years ago). This was fully their project, one into which they had flowed in the great river of children playing together.

Likewise, the kids undermining the port side of the boat with their shovels were no longer seeking to set a second lever. Their project had turned into a kind of treasure hunt. They dug out chunks of wood (probably parts of the old wooden row boat that sunk beneath this same sand ages ago), plastic dinosaurs, florist marbles, and various other bits a bobs that had been lost for years. They collected their finds in a bucket, working together, not declaring any of it "mine," but rather calling all of it "ours." This was fully their project, one into which they had flowed, another tributary in the great river of children playing together.

In the end, the boat remained where it was, embedded in the sand, unflipped, but the kids' project was, as all preschool projects are when left to their natural flow, a success in that it was something they did together.

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