Thursday, August 06, 2020

Creating a Place Where Children Think for Themselves


"Teacher Tom, look what I made!"


"I'm looking at what you made."


I strive for Woodland Park to be a place where children are as free as possible to create, explore, study, and play with as little adult judgement as possible. I am not there to critique their work or to teach them tricks, but rather to be the resident expert on safety, schedules, and courtesy, while providing the time and space for children to ask and answer their own questions about their world.



When a child says, "Look what I made!" most adults respond as if it's a request for judgement and offer some sort of knee-jerk praise. "It's beautiful!" we might say, placing our benign stamp of approval on the child's work. I was taught that a more appropriate response is to instead focus on the effort (e.g., "You worked on that for a long time") or to simply stick with the facts before you (e.g., "You used red paint and some bits of string"). It's the difference between children learning to be motivated extrinsically versus intrinsically. Our constant critiques, even when offered as praise, teach children that their value is in the eyes of others, and in particular those with power, while our goal, I hope, is for them to learn to judge their work for themselves, to be guided by their own internal light.



Even though most of us already know this, it remains challenging. It's hard to not want to praise children. And, especially as parents, it's even harder sometimes to avoid criticizing them, especially as they get older and we fear they are headed for pain and heartbreak or, if we are honest with ourselves, embarrassing us. I have been trying to train myself in the art of speaking with children for a couple decades now and it is still hard for me. I still catch myself making mistakes daily.


When I'm at my best, however, when I'm truly creating a place where children think for themselves, it's when I am unhurried enough to take a moment to collect myself before speaking. I've found this to be a key for me: that pause to make sure I am saying what I want to be saying. And I've noticed in recent years that the words I'm saying, when I'm at my absolute best, are even less intrusive than comments about effort or a factual description of what I see before me, but rather just an echo of what the child says to me.



When a child says, for instance, "Look what I made!" I find myself responding directly to her words and nothing more, "I'm looking at what you made."


"Teacher Tom, this is for you." . . . "This is for me."


"Teacher Tom, I fell down." . . . "You fell down."


"Teacher Tom, look what I can do." . . . "You can do that."


"Teacher Tom, I'm here." . . . "You're here."


It's as if I'm a mirror for the children, a surface upon which to reflect. Most of the time this is enough, the child just wants to know that he is heard, even though some children then proceed to tell me what they want me to know rather than having been directed into a channel dug by my adult assumptions. Perhaps they will then describe what it is they've made, or share that they were or weren't injured, or detail the process by which they achieved whatever it is they've achieved. Most often, however, they simply smile in recognition of having been heard, then go back about their business, turning away from the mirror of me, and returning to the inspiration coming from within.


******


If you like my blog, you'll love my books! Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe, as well as the US and Canada. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 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, August 05, 2020

Sitting and Watching is the Not So Secret Sauce


As a boy of six-years-old, I objected to the term "babysitter." For one thing, I wasn't a baby, and for another, the word conjured the image of babies being sat upon. 

By the time I was 10, old enough to be entrusted with the care of children back in the early 70's, it made more sense. After all, most little kids were "babies," with all their whining and fussing, although no one did much sitting on my watch. My counter to whining and fussing was to actively play with my charges. After all, I was, by virtue of being a big kid, a figure of some glamour, someone to be looked up to, and having recently been a little kid myself, I knew it. I would spend the first few hours performing the role of games master, romping right along with them, winding them up, tiring them out, then packing them off to bed, making a big deal of allowing them to stay up past their bed times if only they would agree to not tell on me.

By the time our daughter Josephine was old enough to babysit (which in the 00's was 12), I'd evolved once more. I now placed the emphasis on the "sitting." As a teacher, I'd figured out that a big part of the adult role with young children is sitting (or standing or kneeling or squatting) and watching (another word for babysitting, as in "watching the kids"). I told Josephine that she could entertain the kids if she wanted, but that babysitting was a job with the description in its title. 

The longer I've worked with children, the more time I spend sitting and watching. Of course, there's more to it than that, but the sitting and watching remain at the core of what I do. It's a policy of non-interference, of creating space in which children are free to pursue their own interests in their own way. The watching is, of course, partly about keeping them safe and, in certain circumstances, protecting property, but mostly it's about understanding. Usually, when we assert that "all behavior is communication" we are referring to some sort of misbehavior, but it applies to all behavior, be it building with blocks, hiding treasures, drawing a picture, or running in circles. So perhaps the word "listening" is better than "watching," although it is a listening that is done, as Eleanor Duckworth says, "with our whole being," because that's what it takes to understand. When adults don't make the effort to understand, we react to children based upon our fears, assumptions, and prejudices, thereby misunderstanding, which, more often than not, leads to even more misbehavior as the child struggles to be understood.

Sitting and watching is the not so secret sauce.

We live in an era of adult intervention. The prevailing idea of parenting or teaching or babysitting is that we must constantly be guiding or teaching or correcting, that sitting and watching is laziness, that if we aren't constantly enriching the children's world we are neglecting them. This lies at the heart of much of the stress and guilt parents are feeling, especially during these days of pandemic when the children are home and their parents are torn between paying the bills, keeping the house, and instructing the kids. 

Janet Lansbury advises young parents to lay their baby on a blanket on the floor and just enjoy watching them. Professional play workers say that their job is to "loiter with intent." Eleanor Duckworth wants us to shut up and listen with our whole selves. In past generations when stay-at-home parents (usually mothers) were the norm, children were usually left free to entertain themselves, which is to say play in their rooms, in their gardens, or around the neighborhood, without the constraints of adult cautions, corrections, or, heaven forbid, lectures. 

This is the natural habitat of childhood. When we step back, when we sit, we leave a space that is perfectly conducive to the proper development and education of young children. When we watch, when we listen to what they are communicating, we will understand when, how, and if they need us. And most of the time, all they need from us is to know where we can be found and that we love them.

******

If you like my blog, you'll love my books! Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe, as well as the US and Canada. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 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, August 04, 2020

"You're Doing It Wrong"


The father knelt beside his two-year-old son as the boy was trying to put on his own shoes. It was a lazy, sunny mid-summer Monday afternoon. In the "normal" scheme of things, this father would have been at the office of one of the local tech giants, but today, as he has for months now (and as he will be doing for months to come) he's working from home, which is one of the stories of this pandemic.

The boy was being slow and deliberate, not yet succeeding in his self-appointed task, but likewise not yet failing. One shoe scooted across the porch decking as he tried to insert a toe. Now the shoe was just out of reach. He bent at the waist from his sitting position, stretching toward it, but it was just a bit too far away.

"Now you kicked it away," the father said. "I'm going to do it for you."

"No!" the boy replied. "I do it!"

The father reached out to push the shoe closer to his son. I could see wrinkles of frustration in his expression. "Okay, then do it."

The boy pulled at the opening to the shoe as if trying to stretch it wider, a strategy that I use myself. He lay the shoe on the ground, then tried once more to insert a toe, again pushing it out of reach.

"You're doing it wrong," the father scolded. The man again pushed the shoe closer to the boy, saying, "You have to hold it with your other hand or it will keep moving away."

Taking no heed of his father, the boy turned his attention to the other shoe. He slid it on his hand, making a close study of the process as if trying to understand how it all worked. 

"You are still doing it wrong. It goes on your foot." The father's irritation was just below the surface as he was clearly struggling with it.

The boy held his well shod hand close to his father's eyes, showing him what he had done.

"You have put the shoe on your hand, but it goes on your foot." The father's words were clipped through a tight jaw.

If this had been happening at school, I likely would have put a hand on the father's shoulder and role modeled informational language, something like, "You've put the shoe on your hand." I might have pointed out to the father than his son was teaching himself to put on his own shoes, that he wasn't asking for help, that his trial and error process was allowing him to look at the challenge from a variety of angles, to understand it fully, and that each thing he did was a step along the path to eventual mastery. I would have said something about it not being a race or that there is no right and wrong when someone is in the process of learning. But this was happening on the front porch of a private home and I was a mere stranger who happened to be passing by.

The boy giggled wildly, taking his father's words as a joke. Of course shoes go on feet! He then inserted his free hand into the other shoe, holding them both in his father's face, delighted with himself, enjoying the joke.

His father couldn't help himself. His tension evaporated as he laughed as well, joining his boy in the joy of a process that would one day be so routine he wouldn't have to think about it. One day, the skill he was teaching himself there on the front porch with his work-from-home father would be second nature, but now it was a process in which to delight, to discover, and through which to connect. Maybe this accidental joke was a lightbulb for this parent.

The father said, "You're doing it wrong," but this time with a jesting tone. The boy screamed in delight waving the shoes in front of him. "You are doing it so wrong." The boy was hysterical by now, screaming his laughter. "Shoes don't go on your hands," he said, rolling his eyes. His son was nearly incapacitated from laughter. When the boy then threw the shoes, one by one into the lawn, his father said, "Now you are doing it very, very wrong! Shoes don't go on grass. They go on feet!" This was so funny that the boy could hardly catch his breath.

As I continued on my way, I heard the peels of laughter behind me, a father and son learning together on a sunny mid-summer Monday afternoon. The pandemic stories we see on television are mostly grim, but this is also a pandemic story, one being told in homes around the world as parents and their children discover one another.

******

If you like my blog, you'll love my books! Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe, as well as the US and Canada. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 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, August 03, 2020

This Might Not Be Such a Bad Thing


Despite the Covid-19 pandemic continuing to surge in the US and elsewhere, some school districts have already opened and others are hot on their heels. And as could easily be predicted, districts in Mississippi and Indiana have already reported positive Covid-19 tests, requiring quarantining, despite precautions. The largest district in Georgia has reported 260 cases amongst staff as they returned to classrooms to prepare for reopening. And a YMCA summer camp recently, despite requiring evidence of negative tests, staff masking, and health screening when the campers arrived, still sparked an outbreak with positive cases numbering in the hundreds. As long as we insist on putting children together in large groups, there will be outbreaks no matter how careful we are. 

As things now stand, it looks like more and more schools across the country will be opening in the coming weeks, despite clear evidence the pandemic is nowhere near under control in much of the US, and the common knowledge that schools are always major contributors to the spread of pretty much anything that's going around.

The pressure is on from all sides. In some places, like Arizona, governors are so keen to jump start their economies that they are threatening punitive budget cuts to schools that don't restart in-person instruction in their schools. Families are struggling without the free child care that schools provide while our governments dither over providing the financial relief that out-of-work and furloughed parents need to put food on the table. Meanwhile, other parents and teachers are pushing back, protesting against plans to reopen, not wanting to expose their children or themselves to a virus that has already been deadly to over 150,000 Americans.

We all know the outline of the arguments and, frankly, there are clearly no good solutions right now when it comes to schools. For many of us, it's either brave illness or brave poverty. Some families are choosing the former, not because they aren't afraid, not because they don't love their children, and not because they aren't worried that their children will bring the virus home to more vulnerable household members, but because they can't afford not too. What a horrible, horrible choice they are forced to make.

I'm not saying that school districts and teachers aren't doing the best they can, but what they are being asked to do is impossible, especially when it comes to younger children who will be expected to behave in ways that are not just unnatural for them, but contrary to their highest and best interests. Maybe this school or that school will manage to avoid an outbreak, but there will be outbreaks, many of them, and there is no way to tell in advance where those will be. Naturally, most parents are nervous, and many of those who can afford it, are going to refuse to send their children back to in-person schooling for the foreseeable future. 

This might turn out to be a good thing for everyone. One of the most important ways to slow the spread of any communicable disease is to "spread out," something that is not possible in typically crowded classrooms. I'm hoping that enough parents opt to keep their kids home that things are simply not so crowded. That alone would be a good thing.

Speaking selfishly, I'm glad our daughter is no longer a child, but were she a preschooler, I know I would be doing whatever belt-tightening I needed to do in order to keep her at home this fall. I'm not particularly afraid of getting sick, but I am concerned about my own parents, my mother-in-law, and most of my adult friends who are, because of their age, in the higher risk categories. And while I've bucked and bridled at each new restriction, I also feel it is my moral and ethical responsibility as a citizen to do my part in slowing the spread of this virus. 

Of course, being a preschool teacher with over 20 years of classroom experience, my stance probably falls into the category of "that's easy for you to say," but I know I'm not alone. In other words, I have no doubt that the coming months will see a surge in the number of families opting out of preschool, creating a generation of pandemic homeschoolers. This might not be such a bad thing. After all, there is no compelling pedagogical or developmental reason to send our youngest citizens to school at all. It's right there in the name: preschool. What young children should be doing, from a pedagogical and developmental prospective, is to play. What they need is an environment in which they are free to ask and answer their own questions and, frankly, much of what we call "school" doesn't jibe with what we know children need most. Already, we have plenty of anecdotal evidence that some families, at least, are considering never going back to preschool, let alone "big school." Many parents have had their eyes opened to their children, their capacities, their competencies, and their drive to educate themselves through their own self-selected activities. Of course, there are the challenges of boredom, of independence, of trying to balance working from home with caring for children, but from what I'm hearing and reading, there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of us who have been forced by the pandemic into "homeschooling" and have found it's not looking so bad. In fact, if my mailbag is any indicator, many have already decided they're never going back.

Over the weekend a friend said to me, "The world will never be the same." Many major employers in my neck of the woods are already encouraging their employees to work from home until well into next year, a move that I believe is a harbinger of a permanent shift to more stay-at-home workers. Many smaller preschools and child cares will never reopen. Entire sectors of the economy are having to figure out ways to transform how they do business and I think that includes education. Some of these changes are temporary, but as my friend pointed out, what the pandemic has done is to accelerate some changes that were already happening, just at a much faster pace.

Homeschooling falls into this category. Even before the pandemic, the number of families opting to homeschool their children was increasing at a rate of around 2-8 percent annually, which accounted for 3-4 percent of all school-aged children. I don't know how many pandemic homeschoolers there will be, but there will be a substantial number, and many, I know, will never turn back. Of course, some will simply try to recreate "school" in their homes, which won't necessarily be an advantage to children (and which is why I don't really like the word homeschool -- it's too suggestive of "drill and kill" academics for me), but many, especially the parents of younger children, will take the evidence-based path and free their children up to learn the way nature intended: through play. This is a revolutionary time and I believe that from the hell of pandemic there is a real opportunity here, a silver lining if you will, an possibility to embrace childhood play as it deserves to be embraced. This will be a boon for not just children, not just for families, but all of us.

Back in February, before we knew what this pandemic meant for all of us, I wrote The Time for School is at an End. Nothing has happened to change my mind and, for better or worse, we may have the pandemic to thank for that.

******

Although the summit is over, you can still join the dialog. Go to The Play First Summit page, register for free, then choose the all-access pass that is right for you. You will then have unlimited lifetime access to our conversations with twenty of the world's top early childhood and parenting thought leaders, including Janet Lansbury, Peter Gray, Lisa Murphy, Ijumaa Jordan, Maggie Dent, and Cheng Xuequin (Anji Play). This is not just another series of lectures, but rather a collection of conversations about our challenging times, how they are impacting young children and families, what we can do about it, and how we might seize this moment to transform the early years into what they ought to be for children everywhere. 


Also, Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe thanks to my friends at Fafunia! It's also available in the US and Canada. If you want to go directly to the Fafunia page click here.  And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well.


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, July 31, 2020

Collective Imagination


There is no civilization beyond the one that we collectively imagine. It's this ability to collectively imagine that truly makes Homo sapiens unique among the species on this planet. Growing up, people insisted that it was the accident of opposable thumbs that was our special adaptive advantage, but it's more likely that our ability to think counterfactually, to consider things that don't exist, is what really makes us, for better or worse, such a dominant species. I'm not the only one who argues that this, along with our unsurpassed ability to cooperate with one another across space and time, is what puts us, again for better or worse, where we are today. Most of what we consider society, most of what we consider human order, is nothing more than a product of our collective imagination communicated across space and time.

The idea of money is a classic example of our collective imagination at work. At one time or another, we've all held paper currency in our fingers and wondered how it could possibly have value. Objectively, it's just a useless piece of paper, yet we've all agreed upon its worth. Increasingly, we don't even use that piece of paper, but rather simply the pure idea of money, making our transactions electronically, moving numbers around inside of computers and then simply agreeing that a fair transaction has been made. Consciously and unconsciously, our parents, and then the wider world of humans, taught us about money, not as a product of collective imagination, but as a hard fact about the world. We labor, we fret, we beg, borrow, and steal for this imaginary thing called money.

Before money, according to the stories we tell from within our civilization of collective imagination, we bartered with one another for the things we wanted. But that's a distortion of what came before, a perspective that only makes sense from within the context of a world in which money exists. Anthropologist tell us that prior to money, "commerce" was a complex system that was not measured in the tit for tat way required by money. For instance, debt, a curse of a system of money, was once viewed as a blessing. When someone did you a kindness or lent a helping hand, they weren't placing you under their thumb, they were rather tying you more closely to the community. Interdependence was one of the foundations of these earlier collectively imagined societies. The more debt you had, the more closely connected you were, and you, in turn sought to grant others the blessing of interdependence by doing and giving for and to others. If you tried to show off, if you tried to stand out, if you tried to leverage people's debts, you risked ridicule, ostracism, and even, in extreme cases, banishment. The invention of money was, once more for better or worse, a kind of declaration of human independence, a separation of the individual from the collective, yet it was all, and is all, a product of our capacity to collectively imagine.

There is no way out of imagined order, of course. Even if we are capable of revolution, of breaking down the walls, we emerge to find ourselves within another imagined order and another and another. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to create something new and better: all it takes is collective imagination. 

I've been thinking about our collective imagination since last week's Play First Summit. I'm thinking of speakers like Ijumaa Jordan who spoke of the system of white supremacy that we've collectively imagined into existence. I'm thinking of Chazz Lewis who urges us to teach our youngest citizens the art of protest. I'm thinking of Sonya Philip who told us she feels like a lone voice advocating for play-based education in India. I'm thinking of Maggie Dent who envisions growing altruism in the next generation of Australians. I'm thinking of Elena Maschwitz and her hope that Argentina is primed to create new "mental models" for their society. I'm thinking of Chris Bennett who seeks to create an entirely new method for organizing the care for and education of young children. I'm thinking of Cheng Xueqin who is in the process of transforming the lives of young children in China. And I'm thinking of Wendy Lee who told us of how the nation of New Zealand has undertaken an intentional process to create Te Whariki, a woven mat curriculum underpinned by the radical notion of young children as competent, confident learners, and to "measure" their success not with tick boxes, grades, and tests, but rather by the unique stories of each individual and interdependent child. Each of them, each of us, is working to break down the walls of the collectively imagined world in which we find ourselves.

The metaphor of the woven mat keeps returning to me: a place for us all to stand, made from many strands. There were nearly 75,000 of us at the summit: 75,000 strands brought together in space and time. I hope that we've all returned to our corners of this imagined reality both dissatisfied and inspired. The weaving together of these strands has already begun, we are collectively imagining something new, which is the most human thing of all. Seventy-five thousands strands is not enough, of course, but it's a start. 

******

Although the summit is over, you can still join the dialog. Go to The Play First Summit page, register for free, then choose the all-access pass that is right for you. You will then have unlimited lifetime access to our conversations with twenty of the world's top early childhood and parenting thought leaders, including Janet Lansbury, Peter Gray, Lisa Murphy, Ijumaa Jordan, Maggie Dent, and Cheng Xuequin (Anji Play). This is not just another series of lectures, but rather a collection of conversations about our challenging times, how they are impacting young children and families, what we can do about it, and how we might seize this moment to transform the early years into what they ought to be for children everywhere. 


Also, Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe thanks to my friends at Fafunia! It's also available in the US and Canada. If you want to go directly to the Fafunia page click here.  And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well.


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, July 30, 2020

"The Walled Off Garden of Childhood"


In 1973, I was 11-years-old, living with my family in a suburb of Athens, Greece. My brother was 9 and our sister was not even four. We lived a couple of miles from the American Club, a place that ex-pats from English speaking countries congregated. We primarily frequented it to use the swimming pool, movie theater, and book store. Us boys were pretty much free to go there whenever we wanted and we thought nothing of hopping on our bikes to, say, check out the latest comic book offerings. Our little sister, we all thought without ever even saying it, was too young for such solo excursions.

One day as we played in our garden, she asserted that she knew how to get to the American Club all by herself. My brother and I, not always being the gentlest of older siblings, doubted her, but when she persisted, we challenged her to back up her boasting and lead us there, which she proceeded to do. This was not a direct course, it was rather one that required many twists and turns, and covered, like I said, a couple miles. We boys began by teasing her, but as she competently led our expedition farther and farther, our mockery turned to respect. She guided us all that way without one false turn.

I share this story as an example of how we regularly underestimate the capabilities of young children to understand and navigate the world. Indeed, that is one of the reasons we create what John Holt called the “walled off garden of childhood,” a place where we keep our children to protect them from the outside world: a place where we round the corners and pad the edges, where toys replace the actual stuff of life, where things are dumbed down and kept simple, where we seek to protect their precious innocence from the “harsh reality outside.” When children are given the chance, they time and again prove themselves more than competent even as we bustle about in their wake as their keepers, cautioning them to not touch things, or to stand back, or to be careful, oblivious to the fact that, more often than not, they are already not touching things, standing back, and being careful, all on their own, prior to our busybody expressions of doubt about their competence.

A couple years ago we took a group of four and five year olds to an art gallery in Seattle, a place that touts itself as a place for such field trips. Prior to going in, they asked the children to avoid running, yelling, or touching the artwork, all of which are the sort of standard issue admonishments one finds on signs for adults before entering such places — nothing wrong with that.  But then, the security team took it upon themselves to shadow us, following us from place to place, forever leaping in whenever one of the children got “too close” to a painting or sculpture. They had not warned us about getting close to things. Indeed, the adults around the gallery were often standing with their noses mere inches from the canvasses as they made their studies, but any time one of the children came within even a few feet of a piece, a member of the security detail was right on top of them. Whenever a child, in their excitement, walked briskly, they were warned not to run, again, something the adults in the place were permitted to do without so much as a peep. And we were followed everywhere we went by a staccato of shushing, anytime anyone of them expressed delight in something they saw or thought or felt about the artwork, while adults were allowed to crack their jokes and express themselves unmolested.

The children took it in stride. After all, they were all accustomed to being treated this way because this is how we adults tend to behave toward children when they stray outside the walls of their garden. But we adults, in contrast, found ourselves becoming increasingly anxious, on edge, stressed out by the stress of the security team. We, as adults, were absolutely not comfortable being treated as if we were incompetent, and it finally became too much for us so we took the children outside for a snack and didn’t return.

When we treat children, or anyone for that matter, as incompetent we teach them incompetence, yet the belief in their incompetence is so ingrained, that most of us take it as normal that children are not yet ready to function outside of their garden without our constant, stress-inducing vigilance. Yet time and again, when I’ve had faith in children, when I’ve held them  as competent, far more often than not they show me that they are.


******

Although the summit is over, you can still join the dialog. Go to The Play First Summit page, register for free, then choose the all-access pass that is right for you. You will then have unlimited lifetime access to our conversations with twenty of the world's top early childhood and parenting thought leaders, including Janet Lansbury, Peter Gray, Lisa Murphy, Ijumaa Jordan, Maggie Dent, and Cheng Xuequin (Anji Play). This is not just another series of lectures, but rather a collection of conversations about our challenging times, how they are impacting young children and families, what we can do about it, and how we might seize this moment to transform the early years into what they ought to be for children everywhere. 


Also, Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe thanks to my friends at Fafunia! It's also available in the US and Canada. If you want to go directly to the Fafunia page click here.  And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well.



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

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

All We Have to Do is Open the Doors

My earliest memories are of playing outdoors and barefoot. I remember walking to the end of my driveway, a concrete slab that held warmth, but not heat, stepping gingerly onto the blazing asphalt street, running on my tippy toes to the other side, then stepping thankfully into the cool of a neighbor's lawn where I slowed down to let my soles be soothed by the tickle of grassy blades. You had to watch out for "stickers," which is what we called the thorny blackberry rhizomes that encroached into even the best maintained lawns. Stepping on a pinecone was more painful, but avoiding them was simply a matter of keeping an eye out, while the only real defense against the camouflaged stickers was to develop a nice, thick callous on the bottoms of our feet.


Mud oozing between our toes.

Sand eroding from beneath our feet as a wave draws back from the beach.

The slippery, weedy bottom of a road side drainage ditch.

The rough security of granite as we grip it with our toes.


Speaking at The Play First Summit, Marghanita Hughes says that being barefoot outdoors in nature connects us to the earth. It reminds us that we are not separate from nature, but rather a part of it. "Today," she says, "we have, sadly, a disconnection." Prisoners in maximum security prisons spend more time outdoors than the average American child; half of all children worldwide spend less than an hour a day outdoors. This is a genuine deprivation, one that impoverishes all of us.


I don't think anyone doubts that this is a tragedy. The research is clear, overwhelming, and irrefutable. All of us, and especially children, need hours of outdoor time every day. It's a boon to the mind, body, heart, and soul. It makes us smarter, stronger, and happier. Indeed, it's so obvious that I almost feel foolish for pointing it out, yet once again we're faced with an enormous gap between what we know children need and what we provide for them.


Of course, this has become par for the course when it comes to our youngest citizens. The scientific evidence tells us that children need play, and lots of it, in order to thrive, yet they are spending more and more time at younger and younger ages bent over the rote "desk work" assigned to them from on high. The evidence tells us that, in Marghanita's words, "Creativity blooms in the soil of freedom," yet our children spend more time confined than our prisoners. We know that children need to move their bodies, that they need to breathe fresh air. Of course, of course, of course . . . Everyone knows these things, yet worldwide we are heading in the opposite direction. Why?


Caring for children is the central project of every civilization that has ever existed. Being outdoors is irrefutably in the "best and highest interest of children." It's easy to make happen. All we have to do is open the doors. It's cheap. In fact, it's free. It's plentiful. And in this era of pandemic, it's important to point out that viral transmissions are less likely when outside. Everything tells us that we need to open the doors, take off our shoes -- or bundle up, or slather on the sun screen -- and send the children outside.


In conversation after conversation, the experts and thought-leaders that came together at the summit spoke of the need for early childhood educators to become activists on behalf of children. I know it makes many of us uncomfortable. As Lisa Murphy points out, "What makes us really good caregivers, makes us horrible advocates." Our profession attracts the kindest of hearts. We're at our best while immersed in this moment, serving and supporting children. This is our greatest strength and greatest weakness. But we don't need to march in the streets to be good advocates. We can just open our doors more often. We can be inspired by Marghanita and make art in the woods or on the playground. When we do this, even for an extra hour, or even an extra half hour, a day, we are standing up for the children in our care. And once we've done that, we can take another half hour, then another, slowly inching our way forward.


Maybe activism doesn't always have to involve boisterous chants and fists in the air. Sometimes it can be as quiet and subversive as children tiptoeing silently across a lawn. We just need to open the door.

*****

Although the summit is over, you can still join the dialog. Go to The Play First Summit page, register for free, then choose the all-access pass that is right for you. You will then have unlimited lifetime access to our conversations with twenty of the world's top early childhood and parenting thought leaders, including Janet Lansbury, Peter Gray, Lisa Murphy, Ijumaa Jordan, Maggie Dent, and Cheng Xuequin (Anji Play). This is not just another series of lectures, but rather a collection of conversations about our challenging times, how they are impacting young children and families, what we can do about it, and how we might seize this moment to transform the early years into what they ought to be for children everywhere. 


Also, Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe thanks to my friends at Fafunia! It's also available in the US and Canada. If you want to go directly to the Fafunia page click here.  And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well.




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