Wednesday, February 28, 2018

If Only We Could Find A Way To Not Un-Learn It

When the children don't need me, which is most of the time, I sometimes unobtrusively putter about the classroom. I'll pick puzzle pieces or play dough off the floor or right an overturned chair, but only once I'm sure the things are genuinely discarded and not actually "in use." Often I will find popular items abandoned in out-of-the-way places and I return them to their expected places so that the children who are looking for them will know where to find them.

Yesterday, I discovered that one of our two-year-olds had dumped the tray of plastic cutlery into the basin of our pretend kitchen sink. These are daily use items and while they hadn't travelled far from their usual place, I figured I'd return them to where they live.

Usually, the children ignore me as I tidy up, but in this case one girl took an interest.

"What are you doing?" she asked so softly that I almost couldn't hear her.

"I'm just putting the forks and knives and spoons back into the tray."

Without a word, she began to help me. In fact, I just stepped back as she shouldered the responsibility as her own. One-by-one, she carefully lay the individual pieces of cutlery side-by-side in the tray, taking a care that I'd not have taken to make sure they were all facing the same direction. Indeed, I don't know her system, but she seemed to hesitate before placing each piece, deciding purposefully among the three sections of the tray. When she was done, she picked up the tray and put it on the shelf where it belongs. She didn't turn to me for approval or even acknowledge me in any way as she then went about her business.

Later on the playground, I was talking with an adult visitor to our school. We were standing near the swings where several children played. Few of these young children have figured out how to "pump" so they were mostly just hanging there, kicking at the ground to create a little momentum. I mentioned to the guest that our general policy is that adults don't push kids on the swings. As we observed, one girl approached another who was sitting on our tire swing. She stood looking for a moment regarding at her classmate just hanging there, sizing up the situation, then, without a word, took her position and began to push the swing in a gentle back-and-forth arc. It was the same sort of wordless shouldering of responsibility that I'd experienced earlier with the cutlery.

The more I've learned to stay out of the children's play, the more I trust not just their competence, but their ability to unselfishly regard the other people and to seek to help them. I'm reminded of Jon Muth's picture book The Three Questions, which is based upon a short story of the same name by Leo Tolstoy, which I've previously written about here. From the conclusion of Tolstoy's philosophical story about a king seeking truth:

Remember then: there is only one time that is important -- Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary man is he which whom you are . . . and the most important affair is to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!

It's a truth that I feel in my own heart, even if I often struggle to live it, but the more time I've spent with young children, the more I stay out of their way, the more I see that they are the ones who truly understand it, not intellectually of course, but by simply living in the "Now," regarding their fellow humans in their toils or trails, and making a decision to help them. This is why I can never consider adults as more intelligent than children. This is why I do not see "development" as a one-way street. There are things we learn as we gain experience, but I know that we simultaneously lose an equal amount wisdom, wisdom that would serve us all if only we could find a way to not un-learn it.

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