Thursday, March 21, 2019

"I'm Playing With You"

(This is a follow-up post to one from last week on the same topic of inclusion and exclusion.)

When our daughter Josephine was a preschooler, she would complain, "I wanted to play with her, but when I asked to play, she said, No." This wasn't a once or twice complaint, but one she voiced almost daily, and more often than not she was being rejected by her best friends. 

When I asked her teacher (and my mentor) Chris David about it, she replied, "If you want to play with a preschooler, sometimes the worst question to ask is, Can I play with you? The answer is almost always No." And while I've found this characterization to be a bit of an exaggeration, it is true for most kids some of the time and some kids most of the time. These are years during which children experiment with power and there are few things more powerful than telling someone No.

Instead of asking to play, Chris suggested to "just start playing." If it's dollies, then pick up a doll and start playing too. If it's blocks, start building. If it's painting, then paint. And before long you're not just playing beside someone, you're playing with them.

Entering into play with another person can be a very challenging proposition at any age. Some kids are naturals at it, and if you take the time to observe you'll find that most of these "master players" do it just the way Chris suggested I coach Josephine. Perhaps they take a moment to survey the scene, but typically it isn't very long before they've dropped to their knees and gotten busy. They don't try to change the game in progress, they don't try to get their hands on a toy that's already in use, and they definitely don't ask for permission.

When I suggested this approach to Josephine, however, she answered, "But I have to say something!" I've since found this to be true of a lot of children. It might just be temperament or it could be that they've internalized some adult social conventions, but whatever the case, there are some kids who seem constitutionally incapable of simply dropping into the midst of things. They feel the need to announce themselves or their intentions or to otherwise make themselves heard as they enter into play.

So Josephine and I strategized what kinds of things she could say that didn't present a yes or no option.

"What are you playing?"

"You're playing with blocks."

"My dolly is your dolly's best friend."

Or the line I use to this day when role modeling how to enter into play, the straight-forward assertion of fact, "I'm playing too." 

I don't expect every game to be open to all comers, sometimes you have something going with your buddy and there isn't room for one more, but we strive, as a general rule, to create a culture of inclusion in our classroom. It starts with the adults, of course, and since in our cooperative classrooms about a quarter of the bodies in the room belong to grown-ups, that gives us a running start. As adults, we almost always respond positively to attempts to enter into play with us. After all, that's part of why we're there, and when we can't, we explain why (e.g., "I'm helping Billy with this puzzle right now"), then let them know when we will be able to accept the invitation (e.g., "I'll play with you as soon as I'm done"), then we follow through.

I tell the adults that it's their job to role model inclusive behavior, to always seek to find a way to add one more child to whatever it is they're doing. If it's a puzzle, invite a second or third child to help. If it's a board game, go ahead and stretch and bend the rules to accommodate one more. If it's playing princesses in a castle, find another throne, make another crown, or suggest another gown.

When a child complains to me, "They're not letting me play," my stock response is to reply, "I'll play with you, come on." We then head right over to the kids who have somehow given the impression they don't want to play, sit down beside them, and say, "We're playing too." I don't want to boss or guilt anyone into playing with anyone else, but if I'm going to understand the dynamic of this particular exclusion, I figure I need to get right in the middle of the play, rather than the middle of a fight about play. Most of the time, this is all it takes, the exclusion was accidental or the result of a misunderstanding, and once I've helped break the ice, the game is on, everyone finds a role, and I can begin extricating myself.

Sometimes, however, by putting myself in the middle of things, I learn a little more about why things aren't working out. Sometimes I discover that the child is being excluded for a valid reason. For instance, "She keeps knocking down our buildings." I then turn to the child and restate their objection, "They don't want you to knock down their buildings. If you want to play with them, you can't knock down the buildings. If you want to knock down buildings, we can play that game over there," setting up a couple of concrete options, giving the child a chance to weigh out what is most important to her.

Sometimes I'll find that there is already an intense game in process, one that doesn't currently have room, for whatever reason, for another participant. I'll say something like, "We want to play with you," and give them an opportunity to explain why their game is a two person operation, to which I'll reply, "Oh, then we'll play with you later. Come on, let's do something else." We then set up shop nearby, often playing the very same game they're playing. Not always, but often then, the two games easily merge into one.

Of course, often I'll see that it is a clear case of exclusion, something done simply as a way to exert power at the expense of another child. This is usually the domain of a group of three or more kids. In this case I might, as a last resort, invoke our rule, You Can't Say You Can't Play, reminding the children that this is something to which they've all agreed. If nothing else, it's a way to start a conversation.

There are times when I find myself coaching children the way I did Josephine, but at least as often, it's about the role modeling, inserting myself into the play again and again, not commanding the other children but just dropping to my knees and getting busy.

If you or someone you know is interested in joining the Woodland Park Cooperative School (Seattle), we are currently enrolling for the 2019-20 school year. Click here for information. There are still spots available for 2-5 year olds.

I've published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. 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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Wednesday, March 20, 2019

There Is No Truth Without One Another

"Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth." ~Mikail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics

Schools tend to view their role to be the education of individual children, each child there to become their best self. The focus is upon each of them learning a certain set of skills and retaining (however temporarily) a certain body body of trivia with the ideal purpose being that they achieve their highest potential. The degree to which this is achieved can be debated, but for the most part, even the most progressive of schools tend toward the approach that each of us are out there pursuing truth and that it must be done as individuals. This is the theory behind testing, for instance, or grading, or rules that prevent others from talking during "study time." We are, by this theory, self-contained "selfs" who may work and play together at times, but who are, at bottom, stand-alone entities.

But as Russian philosopher Mikail Bakhtin and other see it, the idea of the individual self existing separately from others, is a myth. Indeed, we create truth, both about the world and about ourselves, only through one another. Truth is not something that we acquire or possess as individuals, but rather something we create in dialog with the other people. We see this very clearly in the relationship between a newborn and its parent. And I see it every day as I observe preschoolers playing together, engaging in mutual action and dialog, collaborating, cooperating, competing, as they, together, creating truth through their play with one another. This is why play is the highest form of education: it acknowledges the collective nature of any valid search for truth.

Of course, I care about the individual children I teach, but on a day-to-day basis I find myself focused more upon the entire community and my role in it. As I see the children in their collective pursuit of truth, I can never forget that I, and the other adults, are co-equal creators of this truth, whether we want to be or not. The degree of our engagement or disengagement, the specific words we use, the things that we make available to the children, all of this shapes our collective search for truth. Our values and opinions do not hold more value to this project than those of the children, but they are a part of it. Indeed, we owe truth to the children in our lives, and part of that is truth from our perspective: we owe it to them to make transparent why and who we are. It's likewise essential that we seek to understand their values and opinions and to listen to them without judgement. The goal is not to persuade or convince them, but rather to engage in dialogue about important things, because as Bakhtin says, "truth is born between people."

There is no truth without one another; there is no self. The best education is one that puts this collective pursuit of truth at its center. And that is exactly what play does.

If you or someone you know is interested in joining the Woodland Park Cooperative School (Seattle), we are currently enrolling for the 2019-20 school year. Click here for information. There are still spots available for 2-5 year olds.

I've published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. 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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Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Eye Of The Beholder

Our community built the prototype of our junkyard playground over a decade ago. We were in our old digs atop Phinney Ridge, working with a tiny space, but still managed to create most of the features our larger space has today: sand pit, work bench, garden, art space, and what we later learned were called "loose parts." When we moved to our current location in the Center of the Universe, we were obviously ready for the challenge a larger space presented, creating the foundation of new playground in a week because that's how much time we had before school started that year. It has since continued to evolve, as we've added, subtracted, and moved things around in the ongoing project of creating our preschool version of what we later leaned was called an "adventure playground."

From the outside looking in, the place looks a bit like a junkyard or vacant lot. This is not by accident, but it has become a sort of dividing line between those who see Woodland Park as a sort of childhood fantasy land and those who would never, under any circumstances, allow their little ones to set foot in that place. Indeed, even current parents sometimes make comments about the mud, the broken toys, the spare tires, the jumble of shipping pallets, and the general debris of crates, wood scraps, and other miscellany that is strewn about the place. Even I, one of the lead proponents and curators of our space can find myself wanting to give it a tidy.

The good news is that we have regular all-hands-on deck weekend parent work "parties," with our state-of-the-art outdoor classroom receiving the bulk of our attention. For one thing, at the behest of a five-year-old named Thomas, we built a two-level sand pit with our cast iron water pump positioned at the top, which means that the continual flow of water downhill causes the sand to re-locate from the top to the bottom. One of the big jobs at these events is to man shovels and wheelbarrows to return the sand back to the top where the process of erosion begins once more.

Another of our tasks is to essentially make a distinction between what is garbage and what still has play value. This is a job where a lot of judgements must be made because, as we all know, one person's trash is another person's treasure. In the past, I've felt the need to monitor this process with an eagle-eye, sometimes even going so far as to pull perfectly good junk out of the dumpster, sometimes even engaging in friendly debate with parents over the play-value of this or that piece of debris. But on Saturday, as our team of parents undertook the task, I realized that they no longer needed me to "helicopter parent" the playground. Each time I peeked at the trash pile, I saw nothing but actual garbage. In fact, I even heard these parents discussing who and how this or that was used yesterday or last week or a few years ago as they told the stories of our junkyard playground to one another while they worked, allowing themselves to be in awe of the ingenuity, creativity, and industriousness of the children who play there.

It wasn't long ago that our junkyard playground confused people, even those whose children played there, but no more. What I learned over the weekend is that we are now a community of adults who truly understand the value of playing in "natural" places like this, places where play is not proscribed, where loose parts dominate, and where mess, like trash and treasure, is in the eye of the beholder. In other words, we as a community really do seem to understand play.

If you or someone you know is interested in joining the Woodland Park Cooperative School (Seattle), we are currently enrolling for the 2019-20 school year. Click here for information. There are still spots available for 2-5 year olds.

I've published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. 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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Monday, March 18, 2019


I was enjoying a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon with a walk through Seattle Center. As I approached a short flight of stairs, I found my way impeded by a girl of about five who was playfully descending by walking the full length of each step before stepping down, then walking the full length of the next step before stepping down, and so on.

I was in no hurry so I waited as she zig-zagged her way to the bottom, where her mother waited. When I interact with children I don't know in public, even if it's just to stay out of their way, I like to make friendly eye contact with their parent, but this mother was absorbed with her phone. I am in no way judging her for looking at her phone. For all I know she was dealing with something necessary. I only mention it because the girl was clearly feeling pretty happy with herself. She was beaming with what looked like pride as she followed her self-selected pattern of decent. Mostly, she was concentrating on her feet, but every now and then she looked up at her mother who was temporarily busy doing something else.

I waited until the girl had completed her game, after which she ran to her mother, who stashed her phone, and the two went off happily hand-in-hand, the girl skipping at her mother's hip. I stood there for a moment thinking about what I'd seen: a child on the quest to teach herself something about something, and judging by her behavior it looked to me like she was pretty satisfied about what she had learned, discovered, confirmed, or dismissed. I, a stranger who will likely never see her again, had witnessed it, while her parent had not.

Those of us in early childhood education spend much of our time and energy observing children and making educated guesses about what they may have learned doing this or that. Many of us are required to submit forms or write reports or otherwise document this "learning." But I worry about it. I know it's well-intended, I know that everyone from administrators to policy-makers to parents want some kind of evidence that learning is taking place, but it's hard for me to call this kind of thing "evidence," any more than I can place that label on standardized testing (or any testing for that matter). I mean, I can guess the girl on the stairs was learning something about patterns or gravity or her mom's patience, but not only do I not know, her mother, who is probably the person who knows her best in the world, doesn't know either, and not just because she wasn't watching. Indeed, even the girl herself may not know.

And had this mother been watching, it would have materially changed what her daughter learned. Had the girl found her mother looking at her when she looked up, it would have transformed the moment from one of internal motivation to one of external motivation. Had her mother been smiling, had she been wearing a look of anxiety, or one of impatience, everything about the situation, and therefor what was learned, would have changed. In fact, one could argue that adult observation actually derails the child's learning, especially if that child has come to expect that adult observation comes complete with "Atta girls" and "Be carefuls" and tut-tuts.

I spend much of my professional life observing children, which means that I am, for better or worse, part of what they are learning. There was a time when I moved around from place-to-place, sitting first with this group of children, then with that, engaging then moving on, but it became clear to me that when I did this, I materially altered their play, making myself too central. These days, I tend to perch myself in regular places, near, but not within the play. Sometimes I even leave the play yard or classroom altogether. My intent is to, as much as possible, become part of the "furniture." The children don't always allow that to happen, because, after all, we love each other, but I hope that they, as much as possible, forget about me, which they will never do as long as I'm correcting or suggesting or narrating. Several times a day, whenever I feel that I'm becoming too much a part of the play, I excuse myself for a time, heading off into a back hallway or the storage room to give the children a chance to return to their own things, confident that they are learning because they are playing, even if I'm not there to observe it.

And despite all of this, I will continue to observe, striving to be as unobtrusive as possible, not because I need to document someone else's learning, but rather because I want to deepen my own.

If you or someone you know is interested in joining the Woodland Park Cooperative School (Seattle), we are currently enrolling for the 2019-20 school year. Click here for information. There are still spots available for 2-5 year olds.

I've published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. 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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Friday, March 15, 2019

The Promise Of Democracy

A cooperative is an enterprise that is owned and operated by its customers. It's a model for organizing people toward common ends that's been around for centuries and over that time it has been successfully applied to both non-profit and for-profit ventures alike. I've spent the better part of the past two decades, more than half of my working life, in cooperative preschools, and because of that I often think that I must be, by now, one of the world's leading experts on how a small-scale cooperative works.

Our political candidates are being asked these days if they are "capitalists" or "socialists." They've scrambled to figure out a palatable answer, but when I put myself in their shoes, I think I'd be inclined to answer that I'm "none of the above." If I had to put a label on it (and I'd rather not), I reckon I'd say that I'm a "cooperative-ist." Unlike with capitalism, which requires an impossibly level playing field in order to operate as the sort of meritocratic utopia envisioned by its supporters, and socialism, which requires an impossibly benevolent and uncorrupted bureaucratic apparatus to fairly distribute prosperity, cooperatives have the advantage of actually having been tested successfully in the real world. In other words, the world has never experienced a pure enough capitalistic system, nor a pure enough socialistic system, while purely cooperative systems not only exist, but thrive.

The strength of the model is that individuals have voluntarily come together toward a common end, in our case to educate our own young children. Our school is owned by some eighty families, each of which is a co-equal owner of the school, and each of which is responsible for assuming a role in the day-to-day, week-to-week, year-to-year operations, up to and including serving as assistant teachers in the classroom. Decision-making is necessarily democratic and transparent. Because our cooperative's "customers" are also its managers and employees, tuitions and expenses are kept as low as necessary (as opposed to as low as possible). The natural state of a cooperative is to be economically efficient without the austerity. When extra funds are needed or desired by the community, they tend to show up, one way or the other.

Of course, things are not perfect, which is the case of any human endeavor. Whereas we are unsurpassed in our economic efficiencies, cooperatives like ours can appear quite inefficient when it comes to decision-making. With so many co-equal owners, as you might imagine, we spend a lot of time in meetings, often hashing and re-hashing everything from the behavior of the children to what type of paper towels we will use. It can be frustrating for some of us, but no one ever said that democracy would be fast or easy, and at the end of the day I really can't think of a better use for my time on the planet than getting together with my neighbors and figuring out what kind of world we want to share.

Every now and then I've contemplated life outside of our cooperative, a place where I've grown up in many ways, a place where I've seen time and again the power of people of goodwill coming together without hierarchy in common cause. Every time I consider other pastures, I opt for the beauty of what I know, despite the occasional frustrations. We've overcome challenges and created opportunities together, talking, cooperating, and compromising. In many ways, I think that the cooperative model embodies the true vision of what our nation's founders had in mind when they conceived of a self-governing nation, which is why I think the most important thing we do in our cooperative community is to, on a daily basis, role model for our children the promise of democracy.

If you or someone you know is interested in joining the Woodland Park Cooperative School (Seattle), we are currently enrolling for the 2019-20 school year. Click here for information. There are still spots available for 2-5 year olds.

I've published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. 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 14, 2019

Bribing, Lying, And Cheating

The college admission scandal that has been splashed across the headlines for the past couple days is shining a light upon what I consider to be the ugliest aspect of education in America. On the surface, it's a salacious story about wealthy parents getting caught bribing, lying, and cheating in their quest to get their kids into prestigious universities. From where I sit, it's just the tip of the iceberg.

Private universities have always been "flexible" with their admissions policies when it comes to the children of the wealthy, powerful, and famous. Indeed, what the parents in today's headlines have done wouldn't even be illegal except were it not for the fact that they apparently lied in their tax filings, which is what might land them in prison. No, what this story highlights for me is that the stress and anxiety that caused parents to commit crimes on behalf of their children is epidemic throughout our educational system, and not just in private schools.

As a high school senior, I sent away for applications to several prestigious universities as well as one from a nearby state school. Places like Harvard sent me thick packets of material to fill out that including writing essays and whatnot with no guarantee of entry. My state schools application was a single page and because my grade point average was better than 3.0, they had to take me. From where I sat as an 18-year-old, my decision was made for me.

Sure you could call me lazy or unambitious, both of which are fair, but the point was that it was my decision to make. In fact, if mom had had her way, I'd have taken a year or two off to see the world before committing myself. There was no pressure beyond the existential one of stepping off into the unknown. I had walked into my SAT test (a standard college entry test still used by universities) with no preparation other than the actual knowledge I'd acquired during my 12 years of pubic school. No one expressed disappointment in my decision, no one told me I could later transfer to a "better" school. There was a general consensus that I ought to at some point possess a bachelors degree, but when, how, and where I went about that was up to me.

Today, for many families, even the selection of a school for their two-year-old is a matter of stress and anxiety that far exceeds what I went through while applying to colleges. And the situation around kindergarten has become almost unbearable. Parents, in their misguided quest to set junior on the path to an elite university, and thereafter, an elite profession, are scratching, clawing, scheming, and conniving. This has lead to demands that our schools become increasingly academic and competitive, which flies in the face of what evidence tells us about how humans of all ages learn. It is forcing our schools to become more hoops to jump through than places where we learn to be critical thinkers, to pursue knowledge, and learn to work together with other people. It has become all about becoming college and career ready which is not the same thing as educated. And, tragically, it is creating a generation of anxious, stressed out kids who are growing in to anxious, stress out adults, something the world definitely does not need.

I don't know how to end the insanity, but if we value our children, if we value education, it must stop, for both their sake and our own. The proper career aspiration for young children is princess or cowboy, and as far as I know, there is not a university on earth offering a bachelors in either. Successful people (and by that I mean those who are satisfied with their lives, who have careers that stimulate them, and who have good relationships with their families and friends) have never been created through anxiety and stress, let alone bribing, lying, and cheating. Successful people become that way because they are self-motivated, sociable, and able to work well with others, which are traits that come from being free to educate oneself by asking and answering one's own questions, what we in the preschool world call "play."

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. 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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Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Excluding And Including

"But I want to play with you."

"We don't want to play with you. You keep following us around. We need space." I recognized her mother's coaching. A year ago there had been a child who had pestered her to play all day long, day-after-day and it had been, in part, this advice about needing space that had helped curtailed it. She was trying it again.

"I just want to play with you."

"You can't because we need space." She was referring to herself and her best girlfriend.

He stood in place, looking dejected. Just then another girl entered the scene, "Can I play with you?"

"Sure . . ." she answered, then stopped, looking at the boy she had just rejected, then at her friend as if casting about for a rationale. Then she had a bright idea. "This is a game for girls only. No boys. That's why you can't play with us." It's a common enough gambit around the preschool, to evoke gender as a dividing line.

"I just want to play too."

"It's a girl game . . . " she began before being interrupted by her friend. "It's okay, he can play." She looked back and forth between the girl and boy, as if torn between the competing loyalties of friendship and fairness. "But he has to be our brother, right?"

Everyone accepted this solution and the game continued.

Who can play and who can't is among the most fraught aspects of life in preschool. As the adult, my instinct is to advocate for some version of universal inclusion, but I know that to expect this in preschool is to insist the children attempt to do something that no humans have ever succeeded in doing. There are always people who we exclude from any group in which we find ourselves: there are always lines to define who is "in" and who is "out." Sometimes they are common sense exclusions like when a room is full to capacity and the late comers must be left on the street or when an individual has history of disruptive or violent behavior. Sometimes the lines are outright arbitrary or even cruel, and meant that way. If adults are still figuring it out, and we all are, every day, then it's only natural that children must struggle with this as well. Indeed, many of our political, social, and cultural divisions are, at bottom, questions over who we will allow "in" and who we will keep "out."

The following day, the two girlfriends were once more playing together. They had "adopted" our entire menagerie of giant plastic insects and were discussing building a block home for them. The boy again approached, "Can I play with you?"

"No . . . " She had said it reflexively and was now casting about for a reason: she knew she needed a reason. Finally, she fell back on the one from the previous day, "This is only a game for girls."

"Please," he whined. He looked as if he were about to cry.

"But . . . " she began to object before halting. I don't know what stopped her, of course, but as she looked into his face as it crumpled toward tears, I can't help but think it was empathy. We all have vast experience in being rejected, even preschoolers. We've felt it and know how it must feel in others. "But . . . " she said again, trying, I think to find a way to merge her desires with his.

Then her friend said, "We just want to play with each other right now. We're two mommies with all our babies. We'll play with you later."

This brightened him up. He said, "Okay . . . I could build the castle while I'm waiting."

The girls looked at one another as if for confirmation before saying it together, enthusiastically, "Yeah!"

The girls then huddled together with their pile of plastic insects as this boy who they had included built a castle around them.

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. 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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