Friday, March 27, 2020

They'll Need Something to Do When the Novelty of That New Toy Wears Off





I was born in 1962, a year some people place at the tail end of the Baby Boom, while others insist I'm of the Gen X vanguard. But as we seek to pin a label on me, having lived my entire life on the cusp between idealistic hippie and ironic slacker, I've found that the real generational dividing line comes down to toys. If you claim to have played exclusively with rocks and sticks, you're a Baby Boomer; if you had a full toy box, you're Generation X.



I had a bedroom full of toys. I also played outdoors almost every day with the Azar, Weibel, Saine, Beale, and Cozart kids, roaming in packs around the neighborhood (or at least our suburban cul-de-sac), all ages mixed together, making up games with the stuff we found along the way. But I also owned SST Racers, Clacker Balls, Creepy Crawlers, piles of stuffed animals, Matchbox cars, board games, action figures (which we called "army men"), and an arsenal of toy weapons, including one very nifty number based on the TV program The Man From U.N.C.L.E., that transformed in seconds from an innocent-looking movie camera into a rat-a-tat-tat machine gun.

So what happened to create this divide between generations? The Thunder Burp Machine Gun happened, that's what.


In 1955, a TV commercial for the The Thunder Burp Machine Gun debuted on the first episode of The Mickey Mouse Club. It was the first time a toy had been advertised on television outside of the Christmas season.

According to Howard Chudacoff, a cultural historian at Brown University, this was an historic moment for toys. Almost overnight, children’s play became focused, as never before, on things. “It’s interesting to me that when we talk about play today, the first thing that comes to mind are toys,” says Chudacoff. “Whereas when I think of play in the 19th century, I would think of activity rather than an object.”



By the time I was out of diapers, big budget marketing of toys was in full swing. I doubt there are many of us born in the second half of the 20th century who can't fondly sing a full collection of toy commercial jingles. In other words, we were there at the birth of the commercialization of childhood and grew up as both its target and its product. Of course, being on the cusp, these toys were an addition to, not a replacement for, the rocks and sticks but as the decades have passed, mass produced, mass marketed toys have come to co-opt children’s play. 

Today, it’s hard for most of us to imagine childhood without toys.

For most of human existence, toys simply weren’t a thing. Children played with objects, of course, and they may have even made their own toys -- dolls, balls, games, and whatnot -- but for the most part, children thrived without them. Today, many children are virtually drowning in toys. Their rooms, closets, and classrooms are stuffed with the descendants of The Thunder Burp Machine Gun. As a young parent, I tried to stem the flow of toys into our house, to little effect, as every adult who visited us showed up with toys for our child, not to mention birthdays and holidays, all of which are toy giving bonanzas.

Our children haven’t changed, however. We’ve all seen the truth behind the joke that young children spend more time playing with the boxes the toys came in than with the toys themselves. Of course, sometimes that’s because the toys themselves are so poorly made that they break before the boxes: planned obsolescence that we mistakenly blame on the carelessness of children. Even well-made toys have their demise built into them. And we’ve all witnessed how quickly the novelty of new toys wears off. Today’s favorite will be found under the bed collecting dust in a matter of days. Most toys come with a “script” built into them, a “right way” to play with them that psychologically limits children. Adults reinforce these limits by forbidding children from, say, throwing their trucks or dismembering their dolls, but even without our nagging, the script is usually enough to cause children to lose interest.

Children never grow bored with rocks and sticks, or for that matter with cardboard boxes, bed sheets, paper clips, clothes pins, gardening tools, hand tools, wine corks, bubble wrap, cotton balls, pinecones, leaves, planks of wood, spare tires, logs, running water, or pretty much anything else that is not a toy.



In 1971, architect Simon Nicholson wrote an article for a magazine called Landscape Architecture entitled “How Not to Treat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts Play.” Perhaps it wasn’t the first time that the phrase “loose parts play” was used, but it was this manifesto that in many ways kicked things off. In the nearly 50 years since its publication the idea has grown, first slowly, and then suddenly in recent years as more and more early childhood educators have made Nicholson’s theory, instead of toys, a centerpiece of their play-based programs.

That the theory emerged from architecture is fascinating to think about. It echoes, in a way, the work of Reggio Emilia founder Loris Malaguzzi who was at about the same time postulating that children had three teachers: adults, other children, and the environment, the environment being the primary purview of architecture. Nicholson’s theory, as he phrased it in that original article:

In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.

Nicholson was not talking exclusively about early childhood, but about educational environments in general. He included playgrounds and classrooms in his discussion, but also places for all ages, like museums and libraries. His big idea was that we are most inventive and creative when allowed to construct, manipulate, and otherwise play with our environments. He argued that when we leave the design of spaces to professionals (and I might add, the design of playthings to toymakers), we are, in effect, excluding children from the most important, and fun, part of the process. We are, in his words, “stealing” it from the children.



Even if we haven’t consciously adopted the theory of loose parts play, every early childhood professional, even those working in otherwise highly structured environments, knows this to be true. None of us would, for instance, build a block structure for the children, then expect them to learn anything by merely looking at it and listening to us lecture. We know that the children must take those blocks in hand, must both construct and deconstruct, must experiment, test, and manipulate. We also know that their play, and therefore their learning is expanded as we add more and varied materials to their environment.

The theory of loose parts applies the principles of the “block area” to the entire environment, encouraging us to let go of our ideas of how a learning environment is supposed to be and to instead fill it with variables, things that can be moved, manipulated, and transported. This, as Nicholson points out, is where creativity and inventiveness live. It lets the play be about the activity rather than things. It’s important to remember that his theory continues to be a radical one, even as it is in many ways simply a return to traditional values. This is about more than tree cookies and toilet paper tubes and clothes pins. It’s about more than old tires, shipping pallets, and planks of wood. At its core, the theory of loose parts is a theory about democracy, about self-governance, and about the rights and responsibilities of both individuals and groups to come together to shape their world according to their own vision.

The world is always ours to shape and when we are not shaping it, it is shaping us. Nicholson’s insight was that our environment is too often a kind of dictator, one that is restricting rather than expanding our possibilities. As we work with our “third teacher” it’s important that we keep this in mind and always ask ourselves, “Is this stealing the fun from the children?”

And when it comes to toys, I think the answer is a qualified “Yes.” Of course, children have fun with toys for a time and within limits, but in many ways, the mountains of toys that have come to define childhood are shaping their development in ways that limit their ability and motivation to shape their own world, as they await the next toy to come into their life and entertain them.



I think I very much would have wanted the Thunder Burp Machine Gun had I known about it, probably at least as much as I wanted that Wheel-Ofor Christmas, but probably not as much as the "real wristwatch" I saved up my money to buy. And as fondly as I remember my many toys, I'm very clear that it was that time spent outside or in the garage, monkeying around with the kids and the random things I found there, that was the real formative part of my childhood.

The genii, of course, is already out of the bottle on toy marketing, and every kid is going to own a Barbie or a Star Wars brand light saber or a merchandising item from a Disney movie. Even if you're the most disciplined parent on earth, an aunt or grandpa will slip one to your kid when your back is turned. And indeed, your child may even miss something socially important when it comes to future cultural literacy if you're too hard core about it. But that doesn't mean you can't also have boxes and sheets and popsicle sticks and rubber bands and paper clips at their disposal. After all, they’ll need something to do when the novelty of that new toy wears off.

******
And now, another in my series of short videos for parents who find themselves suddenly homeschooling their preschoolers. I'm making these videos for parents. If you're a teacher, please feel free to share it with the parents of the children you teach. If you want to watch all of my tips videos, look at the bottom of previous posts here on the blog, or visit the Teacher Tom TV YouTube channel:


I hate to do this, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've just had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 6 months. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the donation button below. 


Or even better, sign up for Partnering With Parents a 7-part e-course designed to help you make allies of the parents of the children you teach. Thank you!



I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share
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Thursday, March 26, 2020

We Can Help Children Heal Through the Stories We Tell



I went for a long walk yesterday, past Seattle Center to the Olympic Sculpture Park, then along the waterfront as far as Pioneer Square where I hairpined back along 1st Avenue to Pike Place Market, before turning up Pike Street, to Westlake Center, then back home to South Lake Union. On a normally sunny spring afternoon, all of those places would have been thronged with people, but for obvious reasons they weren't.

There were people out, the solo pedestrians all spaced six feet apart, but there were family "pods" walking in groups, still maintaining a distance from others. The only people who didn't seem to be following the protocol were some of the mentally ill street people. Every conversation I overheard was about some aspect of the pandemic. People were sharing information, opinions, a speculation. They were ranting about politicians, sharing their fears, or expressing their fearlessness. There were people in masks and gloves. Indeed, for the first time since 9/11 at least, everyone seemed to share a one-track mind. No one was distracted. We were all focused on this moment and this crisis.

And then it hit me: this is what it looks like when it's all-hands on deck. Unlike 9/11 when we the people were rendered fairly helpless, left to our worries and prayers, this crisis is something about which each of us must do something, and from my perspective isolating here in downtown Seattle, it seems that everyone is taking action. 

It wasn't that long ago in human history that a virus like Covid-19 would pass through populations unchecked. We had no way of seeing it coming and very little ability to do anything about it even if we did. The first news reports I heard about this coronavirus were in mid-January. I recall it well because I was staying in a bed and breakfast in Keri Keri New Zealand and my host liked to listen to radio news as he fried my eggs. We had a brief discussion about it. He wondered if I should cancel my trip back home, but I dismissed it, boasting about my robust preschool teacher immune system. Besides, this wasn't the first time I'd heard about deadly diseases in other parts of the world. I wasn't worried.



By mid-February, it seemed like everyone had heard of it. Experts and early-adopters were warning us that the US "isn't ready," that we needed to start taking action right away, but most of us were still not prepared to take action. Or maybe more to the point, we were prepared to take action, but weren't quite clear what that action should be. Would it be enough to simply be more cautious: washing our hands more often, coughing into our sleeves, staying away from people who looked unwell. The warning voices were growing louder, there were more of them, and their advice seemed to be coalescing around this idea of "social distancing," of staying home form work, of closing the schools. For many of us, that still seemed extreme, but it was getting hard to ignore.

And then we reached a tipping point, at least here in our state. We went into the lockdown we are living under today. It seems to have taken us a long time to get it, but looking back I'm honestly rather impressed by what we've done in a relatively short time. In about two months, we more or less formed a global consensus about how we as a species were going to fight back and as I walked about yesterday I saw, at least in my corner of the world, how remarkable humans can be.

A virus in China mutated in a way that allowed it to not just infect humans, but be transmitted from human-to-human, easily, mutating continually as viruses do, killing some of the host bodies in the process. Our species, Homo sapiens, identified this novel threat, one against which we have no natural immunity. Or rather, our usual defensive method of contracting an illness, then allowing our immune systems to figure out how to fight it, was inadequate. We did the math, as a species, and didn't like where this was going, so we, collectively, through rapid communication, both mass and person-to-person, through argument and negotiation, have come to an agreement about how we are, again as a species, going to mutate to combat this. At least that's how I'd be looking at it if I were a space alien sent to study the lifeforms of Earth. I can hear Marlin Perkins enthusing about the remarkable and rapid adaptation of the Homo sapiens to the threat posed by this coronavirus in this ongoing "dance of survival."


As I walked the quiet, well-spaced sidewalks of downtown Seattle, I, like everyone else, was thinking about this virus, but I was also thinking about us. One of our biggest adaptive advantages from an evolutionary perspective is our incredible ability to communicate and cooperate. It's not always pretty. There are many useless or even destructive mutations along the way. And, of course, we still might fail if we can't reach some sort of consensus on things like climate change, but we are uniquely adaptable because of this ability to cooperate in large numbers and over vast distances.

There are weeks and months ahead of us. There are still many debates to be had, minds to be changed, and behaviors to be modified. And yes, there are still people who will get sick and die, but as that alien Marlin Perkins would likely point out, neither species, Homo sapiens nor the coronavirus, will wipe out the other, but rather we will end up finding some sort of balance as the novelty of the virus wears off and our immune systems add combating this virus to our repertoire.

We are saving lives by working together like this to slow the spread of this virus. As I mentioned in a previous post, we will emerge from this as heroes, bruised and bloodied perhaps, but that's usually how heroes emerge from battle. We are defending our species by working together.

I'm sharing this perspective this morning because it gives me some comfort. Indeed, it even fills me with awe and wonder, inspiring me to think what Homo sapiens can do because of our incredible ability to cooperate. People have been asking me for advice on how to talk to our children about this, how we can help them "heal" when this is all over. More importantly, I think, is that we think about healing ourselves, because for most preschoolers, this time at home with the family is a win. It is we adults who need to find a way to overcome our fears, anger, and sadness so that it doesn't damage our selves or our children. It all comes down to the stories we tell. In the aftermath of 9/11 we healed ourselves in part by sharing stories of the heroes. In this crisis, we are all the heroes. When I tell the story of now, I will talk about how we have all come together by staying six feet apart, about how we fought and agreed our way into cooperation, and how we will come out in the end, like our own immune systems, stronger than before. We will all come out of this with scars, but it will be narratives like this that will help us all heal as we re-build the way heroes do.

******

And now, another in my series of short videos for parents who find themselves suddenly homeschooling their preschoolers. I'm making these videos for parents. If you're a teacher, please feel free to share it with the parents of the children you teach. If you want to watch all of my tips videos, look at the bottom of previous posts here on the blog, or visit the Teacher Tom TV YouTube channel:


I hate to do this, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've just had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 6 months. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the donation button below. 


Or even better, sign up for Partnering With Parents a 7-part e-course designed to help you make allies of the parents of the children you teach. Thank you!


I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share
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Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Sometimes Mommy has to Leave and You Don't Want Her to Leave





Sometimes mommy has to leave and you don't want her to leave. 

When I started teaching, I was a distractor. In fact, I considered myself a master distractor. I had every confidence that I could calm any kid down in less than five minutes through a combination of goofing, enthusiasm, and "Look what those kids are doing over there!" Today, I'm more inclined to simply sit with a crying child, to listen to any words they might be trying to say, to show warmth and empathy, to assure them that mommy always comes back, and to allow them the full arc of their strong emotion. Most kids still stop crying in less than five minutes, but that's no longer the goal now that my priority is their feelings rather than my discomfort with their feelings.


So when mommy left last Friday, when he reached out to mommy as she walked away, when he screamed and cried and pulled himself from my arms, when he dropped to the floor to kick his feet in outrage, I sat there with him, blocking out the whole world but him.

I could hear he was saying words as he screamed, but they weren't at first discernible, so I said, "You're mad that mommy left," and "You're sad that mommy left." No one can truly tell another how they feel, but I was pretty sure I was close to the mark in this case. He was still saying the words through his tears, repeating them. Finally, I thought I made out, "I want mommy to come back."


I wanted him to know that he had been heard, that I understood and empathized, and I wanted it to be something that was true, so I said, "I want your mommy to come back too."

He shout-cried at me, "I want mommy to come back!"

I nodded. I worked on keeping my voice gentle. I said, "I want your mommy to come back too."

And he said back, "I want mommy to come back!"

We went back and forth like this several times. He seemed to really want me to know that he wanted his mommy to come back.

Other children tried to sooth him: one girl brought him a costume, another tried to hand him a construction paper fire truck. He didn't accept their overtures, although he was by now present enough to shake his head "no" at them rather than simply scream as he was doing at me.


By now he was very clearly saying, "I want mommy to come back!" And I was replying, "I want your mommy to come back too," to which he always shout-cried back, "I want mommy to come back!"

I continued to attempt to put a name to his feelings, using words like "mad," "sad," and "angry," as well as to state the truth that "mommy always comes back." But whenever I said, "I want your mommy to come back too," he shouted at me, "I want mommy to come back!" 

Then, finally, I really heard him. He said, "I want mommy to come back!" stressing the pronoun for his tin-eared teacher.


This time I answered, "You want mommy to come back."

He nodded as if to say, "Finally," and in one motion picked himself from the floor, stepped up to the art table, still crying, and got to work gluing construction paper shapes to a red fire truck pre-cut, his hands not fully under his own control. As he wadded and creased the paper, it looked almost as if he were wrestling with it, his fingers clenching and curling from the emotion that was still coursing through his whole body.

After a couple minutes, he became silent as he concentrated on manipulating the small pieces of paper, the last of his strong emotion going into this construction project.



I said one more time, "You want mommy to come back." This time he ignored me.

******

And now, another in my series of short videos for parents who find themselves suddenly homeschooling their preschoolers. I'm making these videos for parents. If you're a teacher, please feel free to share it with the parents of the children you teach. If you want to watch all of my tips videos, look at the bottom of previous posts here on the blog, or visit the Teacher Tom TV YouTube channel:




I hate to do this, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've just had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 6 months. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the donation button below. Or even better, sign up for Partnering With Parents a 7-part e-course designed to help you make allies of the parents of the children you teach. Thank you!


I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share
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Tuesday, March 24, 2020

"I Wanted to See if I Could Break It": When Children are Free to Pursue Their Ideas




When we built our junkyard playground, the idea was to create a place where children could just be children. It was a place where things didn't need to be tidy, where children didn't need to be tidy, and where tidiness was in no way part of the equation.


Among the junk we collected were some traffic cylinders, tall plastic pipe with a weighted base like you might see instead of traffic cones at a highway construction site. The kids used them for all sorts of things, from cannons to stanchions to levers, and even sometimes to indicate the need for caution. One boy took a fancy to carrying them. He had a big strapping father and I presume he was instinctively preparing himself for his future as a big strapping young man by hoisting, heaving, pushing, and carrying any heavy object upon which he could lay his hands. These cylinders were particular favorites. He would lift one of the cylinders onto one shoulder and march about the place, stopping periodically to switch sides so as to create a kind of balanced work out.


One day I was watching this boy from across the junkyard playground as he carried a cylinder. He stopped and placed it on the ground, on its side, taking care to arrange it in a particular way. Finally satisfied, he climbed onto a large wooden crate. He then jumped onto the cylinder, splintering it with a loud crack.

I called out, "Henry, why'd you do that?"

He replied, "I wanted to see if I could break it."

Of course. At the time I scolded him a bit about intentionally destroying community property, but I regret that today. After all, we had set up a junkyard for him in which to play. A junkyard, which by definition means a place full of stuff no one but the children could possibly care about. In fact, most of the junk in our junkyard playground is already broken.


For most of human existence, children spent most of their days outdoors, playing the in the woods, the fields, and the streams. Adult supervision was minimal. No one stopped them from breaking up rotting logs, throwing rocks, gathering fists full of leaves from the shrubbery, or picking all the flowers then tossing them into a mud puddle. That's the beauty of a junkyard playground: it's that sort of place for urban kids.


We've all known children who must take things apart, driven to find out what's inside, to understand how it works. You usually can't do that stuff at home or school without catching hell. I imagine you couldn't even do that when families lived in caves. Yet, part of our human urge to understand our world is to develop theories (or wonderful ideas, as I wrote yesterday) then test them out. Sometimes, perhaps often, part of that process requires yanking up grasses by the roots, dismantling toy robots, or smashing a traffic cylinder.


We don't provide many places like that for children these days. Even forest and nature schools tend to enforce the ethic of respect for natural things, which generally forbids the sort of "destructive" experimentation children need if they are going truly test their theories about the world, which is to say, fully develop their intelligence.

Most children, most of the time, don't intentionally destroy things, although we've all known some who do. No, more often than not the destruction comes as a sort of surprise, an unexpected consequence of testing their theory, like an explosion in a chemistry lab. Sometimes the children are even reduced to tears by it, shocked that their plaything (that is to say, the object of their wonderful idea) is gone, another lesson learned.

We need more junkyard playgrounds in the world: places where children can pursue their ideas without adults hovering and hampering.

******

And now, another in my series of short videos for parents who find themselves suddenly homeschooling their preschoolers. I'm making these videos for parents. If you're a teacher, please feel free to share it with the parents of the children you teach:



I hate to do this, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've just had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 6 months. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the donation button below. Or even better, sign up for Partnering With Parents a 7-part e-course designed to help you make allies of the parents of the children you teach. Thank you!


I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share
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Monday, March 23, 2020

"I Have an Idea!": The Essence of Intellectual Development




"I have an idea!"

It's a call that rises from the playground, from the classroom, from wherever it is that children are playing together. "I have an idea!" Eureka! Aha!

You don't hear it often, if ever, when children are bent over their lessons, doing what they've been told, but the moment they are free to play, free to engage their world, to pursue their own questions, it fills the air. They share their idea, in shouts or whispers. These ideas are theories about the world, perhaps not original in the history of human ideas, but always original to the one doing the thinking.

"I've got an idea!" He shows us his idea by using a block as an oversized drumstick, creating a rhythm on a cardboard box. His friends then, one by one, join him, trying out his idea, making it bigger, louder. They smile at one another, at the sound they are making together. This is not my idea. This is not what I wanted to have happen today. My idea was that they build with the blocks or put things in the cardboard box, but the children, as they always do, had a better idea.


He wedged a board into amongst a fallen pile of shipping pallets. It jutted out, but was anchored firmly. He showed it to me, wordlessly, smiling in satisfaction. "I made a diving board." Then he carefully climbed out to the end of the board, stood there, summoning his courage, and leapt. 


It was such a good idea that others soon joined him. Again, not my idea at all. To me it looked a bit dangerous, but it was a better idea than mine.


She came across a round table, upon which I'd dumped a set of circular building toys. "I have an idea," she said aloud, but to herself, as she set about arranging the circles in a circle on a circle. 


Her idea sparked another idea. A boy started to match small colored dinosaurs (and mastodons) with the circles, putting the yellow ones in the yellow circles, the red in the red, and so on. The girl, feeling possessive of her original idea, objected, insisting that they should be all mixed up in a "rainbow." It was a clash of ideas ending finally in an agreement that some of the dinosaurs would match their circles and some would not.


"This is my idea," he said to me as he put the traffic cone on his head. It fell down over his eyes. He was going to remove it, but a friend laughed. 


That's how he concluded that his idea had been a good one. He did a silly dance, then his friend joined him. Then he had another idea: cones on his hands. He later tried cones on his feet as well. It caused him to fall down repeatedly, laughing all the while. This was clearly a great idea.


The girls clustered around the doll house were in a constant state of ideas, ideas built upon their own family lives, their own relationships, what they know about domestic life, augmented by ideas about how things could be different. "I'll be the big sister!" "Let's not have a daddy: only girls in this family." "This mommy only makes cake for dinner."


When children play, they are developing and examining their own theories, their own ideas about the world. They don't always announce, "I have an idea!" but that is what they are doing and these are always better ideas than those of teachers or curriculum writers or their parents. Children rarely have ideas when set to tasks or when limited by the artificial intellectual confines so often imposed in schools. None of us do. Indeed, as psychologist Eleanor Duckworth says, "the having of wonderful ideas is the essence of intellectual development." There may be times when children must do an adult's bidding, but when it comes to developing their intelligence, they must be free to have their own wonderful ideas.

******

And now, another in my series of short videos for parents who find themselves suddenly homeschooling their preschoolers. I'm making these videos for parents. If you're a teacher, please feel free to share it with the parents of the children you teach:



I hate to do this, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've just had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 6 months. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the donation button below. Or even better, sign up for Partnering With Parents a 7-part e-course designed to help you make allies of the parents of the children you teach. Thank you!


I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share
-->

Friday, March 20, 2020

We're All Scrambling: Talking With Parents About These Interesting Times



With millions of preschoolers staying home from school, we suddenly have millions of parents scrambling to figure out how to step into the role of their children's preschool teachers. They've found themselves as accidental homeschoolers, or as I've been thinking of it in my moments of dark humor: coronavirus homeschoolers.

Contrary to what many in the business and policymaking worlds seem to think, being an early childhood educator is a skilled profession, one that we've spent years honing, practicing, and improving through ongoing professional development. Now, quite suddenly, a generation of adults find themselves in our shoes with little or no training and if my social media feed is a reliable barometer (and it probably isn't) a lot of them have already concluded that we deserve raises.

In unprecedented times, we are all finding ourselves having to scramble. As for me, I had a full schedule of speaking engagements at conferences around the country cancelled or postponed, wiping out 90 percent of my expected income for the next 2-3 months and maybe longer. I'm not sharing this to evoke pity, but rather by way of letting you know that, one of the ways I've shifted gears is to work with my friends at Fairy Dust Teaching to produce my first e-course called Partnering with Parents: Making Allies of the Parents of the Children You Teach. It's a six-part series in which I've shared what I've learned from my two decades as a teacher in a cooperative school, working day-after-day in close partnership with parents. The series launches on March 28, but I've just completed a bonus episode entitled Talking with Parents About These "Interesting" Times, which will be available immediately to anyone who signs up.

This series is intended for teachers, even though there is plenty of good information for parents as well, but much of it assumes a certain level of experience, so as a veteran preschool teacher, I thought it might be useful to begin offering some thoughts, tips, and advice to parents who, unprepared, have been thrust into a new role. Below is the first in a series of free 2-4 minute videos I will be making in the coming days that I hope will be helpful. If you're a teacher, feel free to share it with your families or simply take any of the thoughts and ideas you find useful and make them your own. If you're a parent and you find it useful, you might want to share it with other parents.

As a play-based educator, I strive to avoid telling people what to do and instead make my own thinking as clear as I can. At preschool, it's the children's job to take it or leave it, which is how I feel about this blog and any tips I offer for coronavirus homeschoolers. My hope is that I can provide food for thought and reflection as you scramble to figure out these unprecedented times.

I hope you find today's tip useful. And please join me on Fairy Dust Teaching.





I hate to do this, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've just had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 6 months. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the donation button below. Or even better, sign up for Partnering With Parents a 7-part e-course designed to help you make allies of the parents of the children you teach. Thank you!


I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Thursday, March 19, 2020

There Are Plenty of Things to Worry About Right Now: Your Preschooler's Education is Not One of Them



Increasingly it's looking like our children aren't going back to their schools until, at best, May, but quite possibly not until the fall. The world is in crisis, but let me assure you, it's not an educational crisis. We are confronting a health crisis, an economic crisis, a mental health crisis, and even a child care crisis, all of which will leave holes in our society that will take years to refill. But when it comes to the education of our preschoolers, we can and should relax.

Young children were built for this. Young children are the masters of learning from whatever life throws at them. Indeed, from the perspective of a typical preschooler, getting to stay home with the family might be the best thing that's ever happened. Oh sure, right now it might be hard. Right now the kids might be going a bit bonkers, but give it another week or so. Give your family a chance to find a rhythm. Soon the novelty of not having to separate from mom and dad each morning will begin to wear off and you'll get a better sense of your new normal. 

For many parents it's not possible, but those who can, I invite you to step away from your computer, hang up the phone, and just let your child climb all over you. Talk to them for as long as they want to talk. Snuggle as much as they want to snuggle. Play Candyland or read that favorite book, or listen to that special song over and over. Let your child know that for the foreseeable future they don't have to be anxious about you going anywhere. This is a time to connect deeply as families. This is important both children and adults.

It will be different for every family, but I imagine that in a week's time, most of us will find our tanks are full, that we feel satisfied, that we are, perhaps for the first time since our children headed off to their first day of preschool, able to simply relax into our relationships with one another without the nagging anxiousness about it coming to an end.

Every preschool teacher is a researcher. Now is a time for parents to become researchers as well. Instead of feeling like you need to fill their days with "enrichment," I urge you to instead simply observe them at play: no "good jobs," no unsolicited advice, no using the moment to answer email or check social media. Ask yourself, what are they teaching themselves right now? What theories stand behind their play? What are the driving questions they are trying to answer? I like to think of it as listening with all of my senses, with my full self. What will you do with the data you collect? Nothing. Be satisfied that you now know it. Better understanding our loved ones is an end unto itself.

If you do this, you will be doing what play-based educators do. You will doing what is best for both you and your child.

We're in a crisis, but it is not an educational one. There is no need for rigid schedules, desk time, drilling, or worksheets. Don't turn your home into school. Don't turn yourself into a taskmaster or games master or crafts master or whatever. Your children are already fully equipped to teach themselves and the first thing most of them will be driven to learn is how to live in this new normal. Since none of us know the answer to that question, we're in this together, learning side-by-side, with, and for one another. This is as it should be. There are plenty of things to worry about right now: your preschooler's education is not one of them.

I hate to do this, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've just had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 6 months. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the donation button below. Or even better, sign up for Partnering With Parents a 7-part e-course designed to help you make allies of the parents of the children you teach. Thank you!


I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share
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