Friday, March 01, 2024

Why Children Bicker as They Play

One of the things Seattle's teachers won in their 2015 strike was a commitment from the school district that elementary school students would receive a minimum of 30 minutes of recess per day. In fairness, some schools were already providing more than that, but there were several, apparently, that were limiting their youngest students to a meager 15 minutes. It's actually disheartening to this play-based educator to learn that a half hour is considered a victory.

The ostensible reason for such pathetically restricted recess is that longer recesses cut into that all-important "classroom time," but I also heard that some administrators favor limited or non-existant recesses because when children freely play they are more likely to wind up in conflicts.

Let me be the first to say, "Duh."

As a teacher in a school that engages in no direct instruction, but rather bases its curriculum on the evidence of how children learn best, which is through their own self-selected play, I'm here to tell you that conflict stands at the center of how learning happens. Our entire school day is, for all intents and purposes, recess, and yes, much of what the children are doing while playing both indoors and out is bicker.

For adults interested in eliminating bickering, I would say that 15 minutes is about right: it usually takes the children at least that long just to figure out what they're going to do, which, in a robust classroom like ours, with lots of kids with lots of agendas engaging with shared and limited resources, is typically followed by a period of often intense negotiation, which often shows up as conflict.

For instance, a group of four and five-year-olds, mostly boys, found themselves playing together with a collection of cardboard tubes and tennis balls. For the first 15 minutes or so, they engaged like independent agents, each arranging tubes, and collecting balls for their own personal use. That time passed relatively quietly, with each of them exploring and experimenting. 

The next 15 minutes was characterized by physical and emotional chaos, as they began to bump up against limitations of space and resources, but the real impetus for the conflicts were their divergent ideas for how they were going to play. Most of the kids were setting their tubes up at angles down which they were rolling balls, but at least one guy was more interested in using the tubes as a way to practice balance, rolling them the way a lumberjack might. The resulting spills and his lurching body, of course, tended to upend his classmates' carefully constructed efforts and there were a lot of things said about it, like, "Hey! You're knocking over my tube!" which was followed by a round or two of argument, sometimes even accompanied by shoving and other physical attempts to solve their impasse. 

Others began to collect balls, "all the balls," which lead to complaints like, "Hey! You have all the balls!"

Some objected when friends would block up the end of the tube so their balls couldn't pass through, robbing them of the satisfaction of witnessing the end result of their experiment.

By the end of this 15 minutes, there was one boy crying, several flush with frustration, and a couple who found themselves wound up into a slightly hysterical state by the hubbub. This is where I did my work for the day. I stepped in several times to help cool tempers and encourage conversation, which I did by reminding the children of the rules they had made together the previous week, the agreements we had made about how we wanted to treat one another. Among those rules were such classics as "No taking things from other people," "No hitting," "No pushing," and "No knocking down other people's buildings," along with an agreement that if someone tells you to "Stop!" you must stop and listen to what the other person has to say.

Most of the conflicts I let run their course as the kids were talking, sometimes loudly, sometimes heatedly. As long as they were heading toward resolution I stayed on the sidelines, but when things became physical or the emotions turned intense, I dropped to my knees in the midst of it and said things like, "I saw you take that tube from him. We all agreed, 'No taking things from other people,'" and "He's crying because he worked really hard building that and you knocked it down." But mostly what I did was encourage the children to listen to one another by simply saying things like, "I want you to listen to what he has to say."

This is the period of recess play that those administrators want to avoid. I know that many schools consider recess to be a time for the classroom teachers to catch a little break, leaving the school yard in the hands of a few "monitors." One kindergarten teacher told me that they often have 40 or more children per adult on their playground. I know I wouldn't want to face that second 15 minutes without all hands on deck.

So why do we put up with that second 15 minutes? To get to the third 15 minutes and beyond. That's when all that bickering begins to pay off. That's when all the conflict and talking and listening start to bring those ideas and agendas together. 

For the next hour I more or less sat on a bench and watched the children play, together, saying sentences to one another that began with the invitation word, "Let's . . ." 

"Let's connect all the big tubes!"

"Let's put all the balls in this bucket!"

"Let's move it over here!"

There was still a bit of bickering, but it was of the productive variety, with children actually listening to their friends' thoughts and ideas, sometimes disagreeing, but mostly finding ways to incorporate it within their own agenda. This is the gold standard of a play-based curriculum: creative, cooperative play, and sometimes the only way to get there is through that second 15 minutes.


Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network or anywhere you download your podcasts.

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, February 29, 2024

Universal Experiences

There are certain universal experiences. The alpha and omega of birth and death to name the most obvious. Loss and grief is another. And, naturally, there are those feelings that start in the body like hunger, pain, and fear. Not only are these experiences universal today, but they have been universal throughout human history.

We might feel like we're alone, and at the end of the day we are, but if we open our ears, eyes, and hearts, there is an entire population of fellow beings who are telling and showing us that we are genuinely all in this together. Whether or not we're able to take comfort in that universality is up to us.

There are some universal human experiences, or near universal experiences, that the modern world has made less universal. Case in point, for most of our species' 300,000 years, pretty much everyone experienced life-sustaining hunting and gathering. We can joke about how we still hunt and gather it in the supermarket or online, but it's obviously not the same thing as going out into nature and understanding it enough to find sustenance there. Another previously universal experience that has today, like hunting and gathering, been relegated to a certain class of humans is caring for the children. Whereas our ancestors raised children collectively, today, it is largely the job of mothers, professional caregivers, and other early childhood professionals.

At the same time, our modern world offers us modern universal experiences, or near universal experiences, about which our ancestors knew nothing. Individual economic insecurity, for instance, is something that most of us, at one time or another, and to one degree or another, experience. Our ancestors raised children in the context of community, with grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins all playing their part. 

Not long ago I was out with a group of friends. It hadn't occurred to me that aside from my wife and me, none of them had children of their own. I made a comment about the rights of children to be included in day-to-day life, something that would make most readers of this blog nod along, only to have these smart, accomplished adults, tell me, in so many words, I was wrong. One of them even said, jokingly, but with an earnestness, "I would prefer that there were never children anywhere that I am."

In the grand scheme of things, this is an attitude outside the human experience, but one that is increasingly common in our modern world. Indeed, for most new parents, the last time they spent any meaningful time with young children in any context was when they, themselves, were young children, which is to say they have no experience at all with caring for them. No wonder so many new parents are anxious.

Another near universal modern experience is schooling. As cognitive psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik writes in her book The Gardener and the Carpenter, "Nowaday, when middle-class people become parents they typically have had lots of experience with schooling but little experience with caregiving. So when parents or policy makers hear from scientists about how much child learn, they often conclude that we should teach them more, the way we teach them in school. But children actually learn more from the unconscious details of what caregivers do than from any of the conscious manipulations of parenting."

This is something that was widely accepted, if not understood, when it was common for humans to spend their lives in societies that included children at the center of life. Schooling was, as Gopnik points out, "a very specific reaction to the rise of industrialization in nineteenth-century Europe." As an invention that has only been around for a couple hundred years, schools continue to be modeled on the assembly-line notions of standardization and efficiency, which is obviously a reasonable way to mass produce, say, washing machines, but not so great if our goal is to "produce" the kind of motivated, curious, critical thinkers that the world needs.

I've now spent more than a quarter century amongst preschoolers, learning at least as much from them as they've learned from me. Since almost of all of that experience has been among children who know they have permission to play, to ask and answer their own questions, to pursue their own passions and interests, I have had the privilege of spending my time with the only humans who have no experience with schooling. I've observed first hand how children educate themselves within the context of community. And since my schools have always been cooperatives in which their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles attend alongside the children, I believe that I've had more than a glimpse of what education and child-rearing looked like throughout most of the Homo sapiens experience.

The people like Alison Gopnik who study childhood learning tell us, flat out, that our schools are doing it wrong, that more "teaching" is not the answer. More play is. This is what is best, not just for children, but for all of us. The very fact that otherwise intelligent people would wish children away tells me that they are unknowingly suffering from a lack of children in their lives. I can tell you from personal experience that having children in my life makes me more creative, more optimistic, more open-minded, and more philosophical. When we remove children from the center of society, we lose the perspective of these new hearts and minds as they, for the first time, encounter our world. We lose the capacity for seeing the world anew. We lose one of the most fundamental connections between humans, not just today, but through history. As Gopnik points out, we relegate caring for children, the principle project of every civilization that has ever existed, to what are essentially pink-collar ghettos. 

Of all the rifts in our world, this, I think is both the most profound and the most unappreciated.

During the past quarter century, I've tried, in my way, to shine a light on what to me seems so self-evident. That it's not just good for children, but for all of us, to re-normalize authentic childhood, which would mean re-normalizing authentic communities. Authentic communities are ones that embrace the presence and contribution of children everywhere there are humans. It's quite clear to me that in a fractured world, this is the one thing that would truly transform our world for the better.

Can it start in our preschool classrooms? We can try.


Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network or anywhere you download your podcasts.

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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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

"The Perfect Uselessness of Knowing the Answer to the Wrong Question"

"There is really only one question that can be answered," writes Ursula LeGuin in her classic novel The Left Hand of Darkness, "and we already know the answer . . . The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next."

Of course, wanting to know what comes next is natural. Humans are inclined to seek out security and predictability, or the illusion of predictability, is one of the ways we seek to assure ourselves that tomorrow will at least be no worse than today. Astrological readings, weather forecasting, and business planning are all efforts to see into the future, hopefully to one that is in some way an improvement on today, but at a minimum one for which we are prepared. The most hopeful or ambitious among us hope to shape that future, to make it fit our dreams in some way.

It can be both stressful and exciting to know that choices we make today will shape the future. All of us some of the time, and some of us much of the time, find ourselves time-traveling into dystopian futures of our own making, but we likewise know that no matter how much we prepare and plan and forecast, it might still go wrong. We try to focus on our hopes, but our fears will have their say.

"Complete certainty, safety, and a life of no fear is impossible," writes Brandon Webb in his book Mastering Fear, "There'll never be a pain in your life where you'll think, 'now's the right time, I'm totally prepared and at ease . . . If you wait for fear to go away first, you'll never do it. Because the fear is never going away."

Studies show that successful people experience as much fear and anxiety as the rest of us, but that they have learned to make decisions about what to believe and do, even when the evidence is less than fully persuasive either way. Or as the philosopher William James has it, "It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all."

Perhaps the most obvious warning sign that we are doing it wrong, is that for the past several decades, we've seen an alarming spike in the incidence of anxiety in our youth, including preschoolers. Children as young as three are being diagnosed using the same diagnostic tests that we've been using since at least the middle of the last century. There are many theories about this, but the most persuasive to me is that our schools, even preschools, are becoming increasingly academic and competitive, which is to say future focused in a way that is developmentally harmful to young minds. Instead of living in the now, which is the natural habitat of the young, we try, in our incredible hubris, to peer decades into the future in order to reverse engineer their lives, imposing the onus of college and career readiness on humans who should, by all that is good, be contemplating motes, pretending to be fairies, practicing getting along with others, and asking and answering their own questions, not about the future, but about the world in front of them right now. No wonder they're anxious.

The people in LeGuin's story certain individuals have developed an ability they call Foretelling, which allows certain individuals to know, with certainty, the future. Henry, the stories protagonist, seeks out a Foreteller in order to know what his future holds. The process involves asking a question, the more specific the more accurate the answer will be. Henry, however, is not satisfied with what he learns. "You don't see yet, Henry, why we perfected the practice of Foretelling?" asks the Foreteller, "To exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question."

School has come to be about right and wrong answers -- that's what we test, that's what we grade -- but life is about learning to ask the right questions because the future is always uncertain, it can always go wrong, and it will always be different than the future for which we've forecast or planned. And at the end of the day we are always faced with an uncertain future, which is why the most important thing we can learn is how to ask and answer our own questions, not to be more right than the next guy, but rather to develop the habit of wondering, because whatever else the future holds, our ability to wonder is our bulwark against the permanent, intolerable uncertainty. We will never know what comes next, but it's our curiosity that will make life in the future possible.


Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network or anywhere you download your podcasts.

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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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

The ABCs of Book Banning

I recently watched the Academy Award nominated short documentary The ABCs of Book Banning, in which director Sheila Nevins, turns the camera on children between the ages of 8 and 16 who attend schools impacted by the wave of school book banning that has taken place in parts of the US.

In this public discourse, we've heard from parents, we've heard from policy makers, we've heard from the media, but this film is one of few efforts that strives to listen to children who have been directly effected by having certain books removed from their libraries and classrooms. And they have questions.

I've embedded the entire film below because the children's voices are far more persuasive than anything I could write. Of course, I'm not surprised at their clear-sightedness both about book banning as well as the subject matters being banned. As a preschool teacher I've read and discussed several of these banned books to and with young children and have been deeply moved by the compassion, insight, and thoughtfulness of the resulting age-appropriate conversations about race, gender, history, diversity, and identity.

Those who support these book bans argue that to broach these subjects in school is to violate their parental rights. They worry that their innocent children will be made to feel guilty for historic wrongs. They worry that their innocent children will be confused and upset to learn that other people have experiences and perspectives that differ from those of their own families. At the extreme, they worry that these books, if allowed to sit alongside the shelves and shelves of "approved" books, will somehow "brainwash" their innocent child. 

"Later," most of them say, but not now, not when they are so innocent. Innocent is another word for ignorant.

I don't recall a time when I wasn't aware of the Nazis. Some of my earliest drawings were elaborate war scenes in which the good guys were shooting Nazis. By the time I was in middle school I'd read The Diary of Anne Frank and knew enough about the Holocaust to fantasize about traveling back in time to, if not assassinate Hitler, at least, as the author of the book Monsters Clair Dederer puts it, "spritz (my) enlightened-ness all over the place." After all, the German people simply must not have known. They must not have known what was happening because if they did, of course, they would never have allowed such evil to occur.

"We imagine," writes Dederer, "we would've been that person, the one who would've written the letter, who would've spoken out, would've hidden the Jews, would've provided the stop on the Underground Railroad . . . We say this to ourselves as the world literally burns, as militarized police forces murder citizens, as children are held in camps at our own borders . . . The idea of time -- laden with the badness that came "before" -- and our apex at the top of it is a way of distancing ourselves from the negative aspects of humanity. The idea of the Past functions in the same way the word "monster" does -- it serves to separate us from all that is worst about humanity. We are the adults of the world. we have outgrown our worst behaviors. We are not monsters. That is not us. We cast history, and monsters, out from our enlightened circle."

Ultimately, this is what all of us do, not just book banners, especially when it comes to young children. Let them be innocent (ignorant) for awhile longer.

I get it. I shielded my own five-year-old daughter from 9/11, an effort that got me tearfully scolded by her when she learned about it as an eight-year-old: "You mean it happened when I was alive? You have to tell me these things!" I skipped the pages in my books that discussed the assassination of MLK because I wanted the kids to be inspired the man's work, not frightened that his work got him killed. I'm meticulous in listening to children's questions about "touchy" subjects so that I can be certain that I'm only answering, honestly, the questions they ask and not confuse or scare them with too much information.

The problem with arguments that rely on childhood innocence is that the children themselves do not want to be ignorant as the children in this documentary make clear. We are compelled by biology to grow and learn alongside loving adults. The books I read to preschoolers may not reveal the whole, unvarnished truth, but they do tend to answer the questions that we should all be asking:

Why are some people different from me?

Why is there pain?

Why are things so unfair?

These are questions we are born to ask, born to discuss, and born to seek to answer. When we "protect" children from considering these questions, from looking at the world from new perspectives, we seek to separate them from life itself, to tell them the myth (and they know it's a myth from the moment they emerge into a world that is too bright and too loud) that they live in a largely perfected world.

It's no wonder that so many children feel betrayed by adults as they grow up to learn the truths from which we, in our own ignorance, have attempted to protect them.

I've not read all the book mentioned in this documentary, but I've read enough of them to know that their focus is not on the worst of humanity, but rather on the triumphs of those who display the best of humanity in the face of horrors: courage, honesty, kindness, justice, and wisdom. These are stories of human goodness are every bit as true as the ones about evil. These are stories our children will need to know if they are going to be the ones who stand up to evil, not in a time-travel fantasy of spritzing their enlightened-ness all over the place, but rather to be the heroes of today, who write the letters, speak out, hide the Jews, and provide stops on the Underground Railroad. After all, now is the only time that virtue has any value.

I watched this documentary with teary eyes, moved by these children who are already so much wiser than many of their elders. I imagine you will feel the same way.



Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network or anywhere you download your podcasts.

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

Monday, February 26, 2024

The Prejudice of Knowing

It was a pleasant day so we had our doors open. When whether permits, we like to connect our indoors with the outdoors. The fresh, moving air, the bird song and insect buzz, the scent of plants, of dirt, of moisture. When I step onto the patio for an al fresco lunch, the food, under the sky and trees, tastes better. After the cold, winter months, it cheers me to experience the feeling of continuity between these fundamental spheres of modern human existence. 

I'd just taken a seat on the sofa with a book when a bird, a Northern mocking bird, crossed over from the outside and into my living room, slamming headlong into a window on the opposite side of the room. The sound was sickening. Then it did it again, then again, its wings flapping as wildly as my own heart. It didn't understand an environment of walls and ceilings and was especially panicked by the concept of windows, against which it continued to hurl itself.

These mocking birds are my favorite local fauna. They sit on the top branches, effortlessly singing their multitudinous song, sounding like a dozen different birds in one. Sometimes they imitate, and improve, the honk of a car horn or the twitter of a smartphone. In early spring, the males sing continuously, while periodically launching themselves upward, briefly flashing their distinctive black and white markings in what I assume is a mating display. They fiercely protect their nests, fearlessly chasing away the much larger crows and ravens, sometimes teaming up with their mates in a choreography of defense.

Outdoors, in their natural habitat, these birds know exactly what they are doing. They need nothing from me except to be left alone. They let me know this by dive bombing me, the way they do the ravens, should I get too close for comfort. 

As I rose from the sofa to help the trapped bird, it made a dash for a smaller set of clearstory windows above some bookshelves where it redoubled its hopeless efforts as it sought to escape both the house and me. I didn't want it to injure itself, so I stopped where I was. Thankfully, it paused, not perched but rather lying flat, its yellow eyes on me, panting, hurt. Inches away, through the glass, was its natural habitat, but here, in my home, was hostile territory.

Other species have dens or hives or other indoor spaces, usually used for sleeping, hiding out from harsh weather, and protecting the young from predators, but they tend to live their lives outdoors. This was true for most of human existence as well, and remains true in parts of the world, but for many of us, even those of us who enjoy the kinds of moderate climates in which Northern mocking birds thrive, spend most of our lives behind walls and under ceilings.

Back in the 1980's, in response to increasing anxiety and depression, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, invented the term shinrin-yoku, which translates as "forest bathing" or "absorbing the forest atmosphere." The idea is simply to spend time in nature. The practice has been found to lower blood pressure, heart rate, and the level of harmful hormones, like cortisol, which our bodies produce when under stress. It can lead to increased feelings of well-being and happiness. So effective is this treatment for the ailments of modern life, that doctors from around the world are now prescribing it for their patients.

The interesting part is you don't need a forest to do it. You don't need a beach or a bush or a desert in order to get the benefits. We are finding that just 10-20 minutes a day outdoors, wherever you are, increases well-being and happiness while reducing stress. Spending time outdoors is linked to increased concentration, focus, and memory. Perhaps natural spaces are an even better tonic, but what this tells me is that it's spending all that time indoors, not just a deficit of nature, that is harming us.

Every preschool teacher knows that young children cheer when told it's time to go outside. Inspired by Dr. Peter Gray, I've often polled children as to whether they would rather be inside or outside and at least 90 percent of them enthusiastically choose outside. And no wonder, they feel better when outdoors, and when we feel better, everything is better. These studies also suggest that the more time we spend outdoors, the greater the benefits.

I'm not saying that we don't need to spend time in natural spaces, but simply that many of us allow our inability to easily access natural spaces to prevent us from taking ourselves and the children in our lives outdoors.

Just as that mocking bird knew it needed to be outside, so to do young children. So do all of us if we're honest. One of our most widespread and destructive prejudices is that we tend to define "knowing" as a purely cognitive function. This allows us to dismiss the knowledge of birds and babies and nature, and is why we feel we need to do all that scientific research in order to "prove" what the rest of the planet's living things know about inside and outside in the center of their beings. It's this, I think, that most disconnects us from nature: this prejudice of knowing.

I backed away from the panicked mocking bird, circling around in a way I hoped was non-threatening to open the window nearest where it lay hurt and panting. I then went around the other way, leaving the room altogether in the hope that it would calm itself enough to discover the way out I'd provided it. I returned 30 minutes later to find it in the same condition. I'm no bird psychologist, but I took its immobility as a sign it had given up, that it was depressed and waiting to die within these horrible walls and confounding ceilings. 

So I moved slowly to the kitchen where I fetched a broom and, slowly, slowly walked toward the bird. It eyed me, it panted, but it didn't move. As I raised the broom to where it lay on the top of the bookshelves, it renewed its frantic efforts to break through the windows. As gently as I could, I pushed the bird away from its hopeless position and off the top of the shelves toward the open window. The bird fell, but before it hit the floor, it spread its wings, those stunning black and white markings on full display, and flew out the door like it was escaping hell.

It knew, in its bird soul, that outdoors was where it belonged.


Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network or anywhere you download your podcasts.

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, February 23, 2024

The Creative Struggle to Express Ourselves

I've never written about the day I became a father. I think about that day and often tell parts of the story, but so far I've not found all of the words to do so, if words are even adequate. What I need to say is too complex to express in my normal way. Maybe it requires a novel. Maybe it requires poetry, sculpture, or painting, or it's possible that the way to say what I need to say hasn't been discovered yet.

Those of us who have spent our lives around young children, are familiar with their creative struggle to express themselves. It's part of the process of learning the language, of course, so the conversational short cuts and "good enough" putty with which we spackle our day-to-day adult conversation is yet to be learned. Children regularly find themselves thinking thoughts or having feelings for the first time and they need to communicate about them. Without being able to make use of the cliches upon which we adults rely, they must invent a way of saying it.

An excited five-year-old once replied to an adult who had off-handedly asked, "How are you?" by replying, "This day has a powerful, huge, even big magic in it!"

A three-year-old described an accidental lever she had made on the playground in the form of a chant: "Push down, go up, push down, go up, push down . . ."

Another preschooler, playing with a wine cork in a tub of water, explained, "It went on the water and didn't go down in the water, but I could push it down. And it went back on the water!"

In each example, you can hear the child grasping for complexity, for depth, for knowledge about themselves and their world, then striving to express the fullness of it, grasping at words, building with them the way they build with blocks. Soon they are going to learn to simply say, "I feel good" or to reduce the complexity into words like "lever" and "float," but right now it's the complexity that matters, because it's not just the angels and devils that live in details. Understanding complexity is all about the details, the fullness of a thing, the process or experience. Later will be the time for more concisely summing up the complexity.

Too often, educators try to skip over the complexity and go straight to the summing up, immediately offering children the simple concise answer. Stripped of complexity, the responses are rendered mostly meaningless even if absolutely correct. In Douglas Adams' novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, they build a computer programed to answer the question, "What is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything?" After seven million years the computer calculates the answer, which is "Forty-two." It's the right answer, but without the rest of the story, it's useless for anything beyond passing a test.

When children play, we sometimes see it as frivolous and purposeless, and perhaps to that child, in that moment, it is, but we should never make the mistake of thinking it's meaningless. This is why we don't step in to correct the child by telling them that there is "no such thing as magic," or "help them" by showing them what else a lever can do, or which other objects can float on water. When we do, we risk rendering the moment meaningless, or as the great developmental psychologist Jean Piaget wrote, "Every time we teach a child something, we keep him from inventing it himself." The complexity is where the action is because that's what interests us about a new thing, the details. When we leave children to decide for themselves which of those details are relevant, where to build their own scaffolding, and whether and when to move on to something else entirely, we free them to learn beyond the surface of right answers into where complexity lives. When humans engage like this, even frivolously and purposelessly, we're inventing for ourselves.

And as we invent, we find we must communicate about it. But it's more than that. We're a language-using animal and we must use language to bring our inventions into existence. Learning is literally being constructed as we strive to express it, be it through words, art, or science. That someone else, like a loving adult, has listened carefully, understood, and acknowledged that they've understood is a vital part of that process. It's this process of inventing that's important, not the outcome.

As we get older, we tend to experience fewer things for the first time, which leads many of us to fill our language with words and phrases that rush us past the complexity. We've got places to be and things to do, after all. We don't have the time to just play, to let ourselves fall into the details and wander around, being frivolous and purposeless. I suppose when you've seen it all before, it's hard to summon the enthusiasm for inventing things, unless, that is, you have young children in your life. If you listen to them, listening not just with your ears, but with your heart, it's impossible to not be inspired. 

When a child answers, "How are you?" with, "This day has a powerful, huge, even big magic in it," you find yourself nodding along, at once understanding something more complex, and therefore more true, than the old shoe of, "I'm fine, and you?" We can't do this ourselves without play. Without play, we lose sight of complexity and stop inventing our world, becoming increasingly efficient, but going nowhere. 

This is something I started to discover on the day I became a father: children are here to remind us to keep inventing life for ourselves.


Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network or anywhere you download your podcasts.

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, February 22, 2024

Bicycles are Always Better Than Money

When we're little, people tell us we can be whatever we want to be so we imagine ourselves to be princesses and superheroes. We don't aspire to become these things, we embody them. 

Then we're taught we're just pretending so we start to aspire. We believe that we can one day be ballerinas and baseball players.

A precious few are never taught the long odds and go on to the stage or the diamond, while the rest learn that we must be more realistic. People still tell us we can be anything we want to be, but already our choices have been limited. We assert, "But I am an artist!" or "I am an actor!" or "I am an entrepreneur!" or "I am an inventor!" while the world, with a pat on the head, says, "Of course you are," while advising us that we still might want to consider back up plans in case that doesn't "work out."

"Work out," of course, means to result in sufficient income. And that from the start has been the bottom line. We've never been free to be whatever we want.

We don't often tell our children the truth about money in our culture. Oh sure, we scold them that this longed for item is too expensive or that we go to the office most days only so we can put food on the table. But when we tell them they can be anything they want to be, we know we are speaking the language of fairy tales. We don't mean to lie, of course. We do it in the spirit of bucking them up, of inspiring them, of demonstrating our belief in their capabilities, but at bottom we know the odds are too long and that money will eventually claim them. 

That said, it would be a cruelty to tell our four-year-olds that they will never fly to the moon, so we let them dream. We even encourage them to dream. Many of us join them in their bubble for a time, temporarily convincing ourselves that they will one day fly a space ship, but we ourselves have learned the hard truth about money, even as we try, for these precious years, to protect them from it. Barring extraordinary luck or talent, we know that even hard work is unlikely to set them free from money's incessant demand that it be earned and managed and grudgingly spent. We've absorbed the dubious lessons of thrift. Some of us even believe that the entire purpose of childhood is to be shaped into an employee. 

Money is nothing but an idea. It is a story we collectively tell ourselves. 

Children who grow up in poverty begin to learn the story much earlier than those born to families that are well off. These children learn it because there is nowhere to hide from it. Their parents run themselves ragged in minimum wage, dead-end work. Any money that does come their way is converted directly into the food on their plates, a reality that is hidden from the children of wealthier families. Any dreams they might have are exposed as chimera beside the reality of money in a household in which money is scarce. It takes longer for a middle class child to learn the story of money because it can survive longer as an abstraction, but even those of us who try to protect our children from it for as long as possible, can't help ourselves. We buy them piggybanks in which they are to "save" each precious coin. We discourage them from "wasting" it. We even forbid them things that we can afford under the guise of teaching them that "money doesn't grow on trees." 

Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg writes in her essay The Little Virtues: "If we deny him a bicycle which he wants and which we could buy him we only prevent him from having something that it is reasonable a boy should have, we only make his childhood less happy in the name of an abstract principle and without any real justification. And we are tacitly saying to him that money is better than a bicycle; on the contrary he should learn that a bicycle is always better than money."

Ginzburg suggests that our goal should not be to teach children the value of money, but rather "an indifference to money." After all, for most of us money is something that comes and goes all through life. If we overvalue it, when it goes it's such a blow that it tends to destroy everything else on the way out the door. We can hardly think any more. It makes people jump from tall buildings. It even threatens our most important relationships. If we overvalue it, when it does finally come, it's a boon that it ascends to a pedestal. We then cling to it to the exclusion of all else, praying that it never leaves us again, as if it is our savior or a loved one who can never love us back. 

Being indifferent to money is such a shocking idea for many of us because it flies in the face of the story we tell about money. To be indifferent to money is to risk not having money, after all, and of all the things one might dream about being or doing, money is the one that we must never give up on. At the same time, isn't it objectively true that a bicycle is always better than money? It certainly should be for a child. Perhaps it should be for all of us.

People who think about money more than I do, tell me that money is simply a tool. When we drop a coin in our piggy bank it is the equivalent of hanging our hammer on a hook in our tool shed or storing our spatula away in a kitchen drawer so we can find them when there is a nail to be driven or a pancake to be flipped. But from a very young age, when we go to our piggy banks to use the money we've collected, say for a piece of candy, our parents caution us. "Are you sure you really want to waste your money on that?" "Didn't you say you were saving up for that bicycle?" And even when we've scrimped and saved enough to purchase the bicycle, it isn't long before the newness wears off and we begin to miss the money. Indeed, the empty piggy bank taunts us with its emptiness, sneering, You see, money is better than a bicycle. No one ever regrets using their hammers and spatulas, but there is always loss attached to the use of money. If money is a tool, it is a tool unlike any other.

These same money experts tell me to think of money as blood. It's meant to flow through the system, carrying the fiscal equivalents of oxygen and nutrients. Then doesn't that mean that when it stops flowing, like it does when left to sit in a piggy bank, it has clotted? Don't billionaires represent the ultimate blood clot? Blood clots kill. No, money is not anything like blood because if it were we would all understand it to be a sin to impede its flow by saving it. We would all know the very idea of accumulated wealth as pure evil. No, money is nothing like blood.

As we learn the story our culture tells about money our dreams begin to disappear to be replaced by years of striving at things we would rather not do in service to money. No wonder so many of us feel disillusioned and exhausted. This is what the pursuit of money instead of dreams does to us. We rationalize, telling ourselves that we will live life at the grindstone until we have enough and then, finally, in the few years we have left, we will pursue our dreams. Or as the character David Howard says in Albert Brooks' movie Lost in America, "I've finally reached a level of responsibility. Now I can afford to be irresponsible!" 

And that's exactly the worst thing that our story of money does to all of us: it casts our dreams, the best of ourselves, as irresponsible. This, I assert, is why so many of us look back on childhood with so much sepia toned fondness or why we believe that young children live ideal lives compared to our own. That is the one place that the stories we tell about money have not yet penetrated. It's the one place where bicycles really are always better than money.


Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network or anywhere you download your podcasts.

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