Monday, September 20, 2021

"Bad Guys"

Most years, there are play themes chosen by our five-year-olds that cause concern. Usually, it's some version of "bad guy" play -- pirates, zombies, spies, superheroes. A couple years back, they were going with the generic "bad guy," which largely played itself out as making fierce faces, posing threateningly, and attempting to capture one another, although it sometimes took the form of attempting to dam up the "river" others were creating in the sand pit.

Typically, the concerns come up because other children begin to report, either to me or to their parents at home, that they're afraid of the "bad guys." It's a delicate balance between the perfectly normal interest of some children to explore the dark side of power and human nature and the perfectly valid desire to not be fearful at school, especially given that some kids are still working out the line between "real" and "pretend." Our parent community had been discussing the subtleties of how we should address this balance for a couple months, both formally and informally, and we had engaged in a lot of playground the circle time discussions among the kids as well, but one day Francis brought things to a head by proposing that we make a new rule: "No bad guys."

The children at Woodland Park make their own rules, a process that requires consensus. When Francis suggested her new rule, dueling cries rose up from those present, one side supporting her and the other against. It was clear that there would be no consensus, but that didn't mean it wasn't a good prompt for a public discussion, one that I hoped would at least get everyone's cards out on the table.

Once everyone settled down, we began to take turns by raising hands and sharing our thoughts on this proposed legislation. It became quickly evident to me that most of the children were actually in favor of banning "bad guy" play, with a small group of boys committed to continuing their favored game. 

I said, "I have an idea, how about everyone who wants to make the no bad guys rule move to that side of the rug and everyone who wants to keep playing bad guys move to that side." 

Gio piped up, "And if you don't care, sit in the middle," a move of diplomatic genius given that he had friends on both sides of the divide. 

My knee-jerk idea had been to create a visual demonstration for our "bad guys" that showed that they were in the minority. Even with a large block of kids choosing the non-commital position in the center of the rug, it was immediately clear that most of the kids with an opinion were all for banning bad guy play, with only five boys remaining staunchly against Francis' proposed rule.

We started with those in favor of the rule, giving them, one-by-one, the opportunity to tell the "bad guys" how their play made them feel, most of whom said they either felt afraid or angry. It was an oddly quiet and sincere five minutes during which everyone seemed to genuinely be listening to one another. As they spoke, some of the kids in the middle shifted to that side. 

When they were done, I turned to the "bad guys," asking, "And why do you guys like playing bad guys?" Each of them took a turn making their case, citing "fun" as their main support, although several made the point that it was "just pretend." A couple of the fence sitters moved to their side.

I then said, "We can't make Francis' rule because everyone doesn't agree, but some people are afraid and some people think it's fun. What can we do?"

After some discussion, most of which was just restatements of the already established pros and cons, the "bad guys" made what I thought was a brilliant and magnanimous offer, "How about we can be bad guys, but we act like good guys." This received widespread approval, but there remained a new minority of those who still supported an all-out ban. By this time, most of the kids were sitting in the middle of the rug, growing restless.

We had been at this discussion for quite some time. We had had a terrific air-clearing discussion in which everyone made their case. But now we were at a logger-head. It was obvious that the matter was not going to be addressed via the formal rules, at least not on this day.

I said, "It looks like we're not going to be able to make a new rule. Some people still want to play bad guys and some people still want them to stop."

And Gio piped up, "And some people don't care."

"And some people don't care . . . But I will remind everyone that we already have an important agreement that we sometimes forget." I turned toward the list of rules we have mounted on the wall: "We all agreed, don't do anything to anybody before you ask them." I turned to the bad guys, "That means you have to ask people before being bad guys to them." I then turned to the rest of the kids, "And I want the rest of you to remember that it's just pretend and that you can always just tell the bad guys to stop." With that I looked back at the bad guys for their agreement on this point, "Right?" They nodded.

Later, when we moved from indoors to outdoors, I was prepared to help the children by reminding everyone about our discussion, but it was unnecessary because, for the first time all year, the "bad guys" chose to make mud soup with our playhouse kitchen supplies, while others swept sand back into the sandpit. 

It was clear that we had really listened to one another and it became even more obvious a couple days later when the mother of the "leader" of the bad guys pulled me aside to tell me: "Last night Henry said he wasn't going to play bad guys any more because Francis doesn't like it." And true to his word, for the rest of the year they played "good guys." 


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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, September 17, 2021

Hard Play

Hard work and planning ahead. It's the not-so-secret ingredient to success. 

How did you get so wealthy? Hard work and keeping my eye on the prize.

How did you win the championship? Hard work and lots of practice.

How did you grow your business? Hard work and a good business plan.

Of course, people will also attribute some of their success to others -- spouses, employees, teammates -- and some are humble enough to credit their god, but at the end of the day, it's the hard work, they tell us, that allowed them to separate themselves from the also-rans.

We want our children to learn to work hard, to have grit, to get back up when they fall down, to learn to set goals and strive. We worry when they seem lazy, overly sensitive, easily discouraged, or aimless. Our schools are set up with the values of hard work and planning at their core. We worry when things are "too easy" for a kid, so we have special programs to challenge them. We worry when they don't know how to concentrate on the task at hand, prioritize, or are too easily diverted. We even go so far as the drug children who struggle with this.

By the same token, we tend to shake our heads when someone fails, tut-tutting that they could have worked harder or that they could have had a smarter plan.

Everyone knows that hard work and planning are the keys to the kingdom. Indeed, it's "common knowledge."

But I'm not convinced that hard work and planning pay off. Or rather, I don't believe there is any real evidence that hard work and planning increase one's odds of success any more than, say, natural talent or sheer good luck.

"Work" is one thing, but "hard work" is quite another. The inclusion of the modifier "hard" suggests that this is something we would rather not be doing; that we would much rather be doing something else, but we've put our nose to the grindstone in service to our plan or goal. By its very nature, "hard work" doesn't pay off now, the only moment any of us truly possess, but rather at some point in the non-existent future. In other words, hard work calls for us to sacrifice our certain joys and pleasures on the alter of planning. And as the Yiddish proverb cautions us, "Man plans and God laughs."

No, despite proclamations of the victors, my experience has been that hard work does not inevitably lead to success. Far from it. Plenty of people, most people in fact, work very hard indeed, and success still eludes them. I'm thinking of those single mothers working three minimum wage jobs, but who still can't pull their family out of poverty. I'm thinking of all those minor league baseball players who work their tails off, but never make it to the big leagues. I'm thinking of the 95 percent of small businesses that fail within five years. Cold-hearted critics will say, "Ah, but if only they had worked harder." Or worse, "If only they had worked smarter," which is a dig at their poor planning. But the evidence seems clear to me that hard work and planning are hardly guarantees of success: most of us will still fail in the hard work and planning paradigm, no matter how heavily we mortgage our present to pay for the future.

There are those who will insist that hard work is its own reward. A life doing the things I'd rather not be doing at the expense of things that could bring me joy or satisfaction right now? Sound like flimflammery to me. There a those who warn us "If you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there," but that's a recipe for arriving at a destination only to find you've missed out on the beauty along the way.

Throughout my career as an early childhood educator, a career I never planned for, but rather fell into, I've lived among humans who haven't yet bought into the ethos of hard work and planning. Oh sure, they apply themselves in ways that might look a lot like the proverbial hard work, but because it is entirely self-selected, because it is done in service to the moment rather than some distant goal or objective, we know it as play. Hard play if you will. And unlike hard work, which must come at a cost, hard play is genuinely its own reward. It's how we learn about ourselves, our passions, and what makes us come alive. Hard work is inflexible. The dictate to keep your head down and focus on the prize causes us to ignore the flowers, to set our relationships aside, and to live for an imagined future. Hard play, on the other hand, is infinitely flexible. It ensures that we will stop and smell the flowers, to treasure our relationships, and keeps us anchored in the only thing any of us really have -- Now!

Too often, we adults look at children engaged in hard play, and assume it is our responsibility to impose hard work upon them "for their own good," but we would be much better, I think, to step back and learn from them . . . for our own good. These are the humans who are living authentically. They might not always be happy, but they are successful. They teach us that the real secret to success is hard play and flexibility.

In our society, the "successful" will always claim, in hindsight, that their secret is hard work and planning, but that ignores the vast majority who work hard and plan, yet still find themselves coming up short. 

What I have learned from children is that hard play and flexibility may or may not lead to riches or glory, but it will always leads to success.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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, September 16, 2021

Letting The Child Be A Child


"Children do not like being incompetent any more than they like being ignorant. They want to learn how to do, and do well, the things they see being done by bigger people around them. This is why they soon find school such a disappointment; they so seldom get a chance to learn anything important or do anything real. But many of the defenders of childhood, in or out of school, seem to have this vested interest in the children's incompetence, which they often call "letting the child be a child." ~John Holt

As a two-year-old, Angus found school disappointing. 

"He likes school," his mother told me one day as we watched him play alone in his own corner of the playground, "But he'd like it a lot better without the other kids." She said it with a chuckle, one that told me she appreciated it as an eccentricity. I didn't tell her that it's quite common for children her son's age to feel that way mainly because to do so would have been to risk robbing her of her delight.

As a cooperative school, Angus' mother was always welcome in the classroom and she had so far opted to be there every day. During the first week of school she told me of how she had prepared Angus by telling him that school was a place where he would learn stuff. He had interpreted this to mean that he was going to learn to drive a Metro bus.

He was passionate about Metro buses. He was disdainful of school busses. And he actively disliked the toy school school busses we had in the classroom. He came by his driving interest honestly. Riding Metro was often how he and his mother spent their days away from preschool. Sometimes they would choose a destination, figure out their route, then execute their plan. Other times, they would simply choose a specific line out of curiosity and ride it to see where it went. 

One day, I told him I needed to get to my doctor's office in Lake City after school and he informed me which buses I would need to take to get there from the school. When I told him I had to go home first, he asked me where I lived, then recalculated based on this new starting point. One day as we played together I began to quiz him on bus routes. "Where does the 62 go?" "How about the 550?" As far as I could tell, he knew his stuff.

After absorbing the disappointment of not getting to learn to drive a bus, he settled into a routine of pretending to be a bus driver, sitting alone, usually with his back to the rest of us, employing whatever circular shaped object he could find as a steering wheel. To be allowed into his private world one had to wait until he "stopped" and opened the door for you. His expectation was then that you sat behind him. He  would then speak to you, eyes forward, hands on the wheel. When he was done with you, he would inform you that you had arrived at your stop, then pantomime opening the door to let you out.

As he got older, he began to "drive" his bus around the playground (i.e., holding his steering wheel and running). Before long he had established several stops. Children would often wait at one of the stops for Angus, who would transport them (i.e., the children ran along behind him) to as near their destinations as the route would allow. He spent one morning making construction paper "Orca Cards," which is what Metro calls its passes, and distributed them to his classmates. It irritated him that he had to make new ones the following day. "They're supposed to keep them in their wallets!" He carried a wallet in which he carried his own real and pretend Orca Cards. Eventually, other children were inspired to start their own bus routes and for a time we had an entire mass transit system on our playground.

As he got older, he became interested in other things, including the other kids, but never did take much of an interest in any of our toys. When he played "construction," he eschewed such childish things as blocks and Legos. He needed real "lumber," a hammer, a saw, and "a lot of nails." I once offered him a yellow costume construction worker helmet, but he rejected it with the wave of his hand. When his attentions turned to insects, only the real things would do. No picture books or plastic bugs for him. He was even suspicious of the lady bugs we raised in the classroom from larva because we kept them indoors rather than outdoors. He didn't use the words "natural habitat," but it was there in his assessment of the situation.

Angus expressed himself well, even as a two-year-old which caused the other adults to consider him "advanced" or even "gifted," but the more I got to know him over the years, the more I came to understand him as simply more "natural" than most of his classmates. I once visited his home. There were no toys in evidence, no safety gates, and no childish art taped up on the walls. The only things that might have caused one to suspect a child lived there were the muddy holes dug in the backyard, the odd collections of household items to be spied around the house, and the bedroom wall covered in framed photographs of Metro busses.

Today, when I hear the expression, "Let the child be a child," Angus is the first person who comes to mind.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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, September 15, 2021

In The Process Of Becoming Ourselves

The specific collection of atoms that formed me on the day I was born has not existed for decades, yet I've remained me for 59 years and, if history is any guide, I expect to be me until the day I die. 

Even through that afternoon some years ago when I experienced a brief spell of amnesia, brought on by a migraine as far as I can tell, I remained me. I still knew my name, I knew my wife and daughter, my mother, father, brother and sister, but for the life of me, I couldn't identify anyone else. It came upon me as I was looking at my Facebook page. In a flash all those friends became strangers. I was certain that I had, through some fluke, been logged into someone else's page. Still, throughout that experience, there was a continuity that let me know that I was still me, even though a piece of me had been temporarily erased.

It was unsettling nevertheless. There is comfort in knowing the full story of who we are, although I reckon that most of us, at one time or another, have fantasized about turning the page and finding ourselves in an entirely different story. Some of us even act upon it, trying out everything from new addresses to new life partners. We might quit our jobs. We talk about getting a "fresh start," as if wishing to return to the womb in order to begin again with "Once upon a time . . ." 

Sometimes you read about a person, often a criminal on the run, who has gone so far as to assume an entirely new identity. In the end, we learn about them because they've been discovered, but I wonder about the ones who get away with it. Even if they can eventually assume the trappings of a new me, the old me is still there in the story of what came before.

Young children are just beginning to experience themselves as a lifelong story, but we err if we assume that their's is not as rich, deep, and meaningful as our own. These are the foundational chapters being written, the stories they will spend the rest of their lives embracing or rejecting. The temptation is, out of our love for them, to try to steer their stories toward the sunshine and butterflies, and we no doubt should when given the chance. We turn off the scary movies. We shield them from the news. We turn their attentions toward the bright side and try to wrap their anxious visits to the pediatrician in the garments of heroism.

Casey Curran

We should do all of that, of course, but no matter what we do, our children, like all of us, will at times grow dissatisfied with who they are and wish, at least temporarily, to change it. We see it in their dramatic play where they literally try on transformative costumes. We see it as they assume their roles in housekeeping games. We see it when they imitate others. In many ways, they have the advantage over us in that they are children and no one expects them to remain children forever. We know from a very young age that we will grow up to be something else, yet the stories of adult transformation is not nearly so clearly laid out. We tend toward stagnation, especially once when we've achieved one of our "goals," like owning a home or getting married or landing the perfect job. We forget that we are always in the midst of our story.

We take our vacations. We drink too much. We have affairs. We lose ourselves in popular entertainment or books or music, but these "escapes" are more in the spirit of placing a bookmark in our story, only to return to where we've left off. No, what I think I've learned from spending so much time with young children is that I want my own story to be one that is so engaging that I can't put it down. And that means it can't all be sunshine and butterflies. Or rather, sometimes the butterflies must be in my stomach. Sometimes I must head out into a storm. Sometimes I must step off into the unknown. These are the moments of transformation without which that thing that I call "me" cannot move beyond that original collection of atoms.

When we consider a child, we strive to see them for who they are, but we cannot help but consider who they are becoming, because growing and changing is so clearly in the nature of childhood. Too often, I think, we forget that this is also in the nature of life. We are always in the process of becoming ourselves.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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, September 14, 2021

"I Love You The Same"

I had known the boy for two years. He didn't want his mom to leave, although she had left him at school hundreds of time before. He stood at the top of the stairs at the schoolyard gate, yelling after her, crying through the slats, saying, "Come back! I want to go with you!"

I sat beside him as he yelled. I said, "You want your mom to come back."

"Yes, I want her to come back." He cried and yelled some more.

"I think she has some things she has to do."

"She does," he answered. We had both heard her tell him that she had an appointment as she walked away. He cried and yelled some more.

When this happens with younger, less experienced children, I remind them of when mom will come back, but I knew that he already knew this. Instead, I said something else that was true, "I wish your mom would come back."

"Me too," he replied. He cried and yelled some more.

"I'm going to miss her."

"Me too," he replied.

"I wonder why."

"Because I love her."

"I love my mommy, too."

He started to cry and yell again, then stopped to tell me, "And I love my daddy."

I nodded, trying to wordlessly convey the idea that I was right there with him.

He was looking at me, tears still hanging from his lower lids, fingers still curled through the gate slats. He was thinking something through. Finally, he said, "I love you, too . . . " as if wanting to make sure I didn't feel left out.

I answered, "I love you," a little too eagerly, I guess, because he hadn't finished his thought.

". . . but not as much as Mommy or Daddy." Then he stopped again, perhaps taking a moment to absorb what I'd said on top of his words. In any case, after a moment, he let go of the gate and stepped toward me, "I actually love you the same." He didn't want me to feel unloved.

I said, "I'd like to play a story with you."

And he answered, "Me too."


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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, September 13, 2021

The Primary Purpose Of Every Society Is To Care For The Children

I was recently talking with the person responsible for hiring educators for a large regional chain of preschools. Altogether they employ some 300 teachers. With the school year on the verge of starting they still had 45 vacant positions with few prospects in the pipeline.

I asked the logical question one asks in a capitalistic society, "Have you offered more money?" She had. Indeed, she was offering more money than some of the current teachers were making, which had her worried that should the word get out, everyone would legitimately want raises. And word would get out,  she knew that, which would mean raising tuition, and that would be a hardship for some of the families many of whom had no other choice because even before the pandemic there weren't enough available child care and preschool slots to meet demand.

This is the story of our profession in the US right now. We're not the only sector struggling to fill vacancies, but our situation has been brewing for a lot longer than the pandemic. Around here, parents are paying as much as $2500 a month per kid, which is a big hit for most middle class families, let alone families with lower incomes. If you have more than one kid, it often takes an entire adult salary just to afford child care. Between this and the pandemic, no wonder so many parents are opting to keep their children home, at least for the time being, and not rush back into the workforce.

The famous "invisible hand" of the marketplace is not working here. Economists tell us that when demand is high and supply is low, prices will rise until a kind of balance is reached. This should mean that educators, who are in demand everywhere, should be able to command substantial raises, yet the typical annual income for a child care or preschool teacher in our state remains stuck at under $30,000 per year, not a livable wage. For wages to increase as our economic theory says they should, centers and schools would have to dramatically raise tuitions, but that would then price many of their customers out of the market. So they stay home while employers in other sectors gripe about all the unfilled jobs they have, blaming it on workers who have grown "lazy" on the "government" dole. Their solution, of course, is simply to take away any support these families have, which will leave them no choice but to come crawling back to the low wage jobs. But what are they going to do with their kids? Well, the government will have to subsidize . . . .

It's a mess. It is a mess made by applying the principles of capitalism where they don't belong. Caring for children, whether we acknowledge it or not, is the primary purpose of every human society. Throughout most of human history we understood this. Children stood at the center of every one of the so-called "hunter-gatherer" societies that have ever existed, which is how we lived for at least 90 percent of our time on the planet. Even as we moved into more agricultural societies, children and adults spent their days living and working together. It was the mental experiment of the "invisible hand," as proposed by the Scottish economist Adam Smith, that in many ways spurred the Industrial Revolution and the ultimate removal of children from the center of life.

I assert that most of our world's problems come from this removal of children from the center of life. As any of us know who work with young children, they have a vital role to play. For one thing, 98 percent of five-year-olds tested by NASA were found to be "creative geniuses" while only 2 percent of adults fit that category. Living and working amongst geniuses inspires everyone's thinking. No wonder it seems that we're incapable of thinking our way out of our problems. 

When children are removed from the equation, it's too easy to lose our way and begin to believe that money, not caring for others, is our highest pursuit. No wonder so many of us feel that it's all a rat race and try to satisfy ourselves with more, more, more.

As Iris Murdoch writes, "Any trouble with money confuses the mind." Young children do not care about money, at least not in the way adults do, and their indifference reminds us that we have more important things to do, like caring for the children. They remind us that there are an infinite number of possibilities open to the spirit.

It seems to me that the first employer who figures this out will be the winner, not just in the game of capitalism, but in life itself. What if parents could bring their children to work with them? What if instead of lobbying to make prospective employees so destitute that they are forced to take crap jobs, they opened their arms to families, providing high quality on-site childcare right there in the same building? What if parents could lunch with their children? What if every employee, parent or not, was required to take their turn in the nursery amongst the geniuses? What if everyone from the CEO to the custodians spent time together on their knees with the children? I have no way of proving this, but in my mental experiments (which are at least as valid as Adam Smith's) you would wind up with people who are more creative, more motivated, more capable of working together, and happier. I imagine turn-over would be greatly reduced and loyalty greatly increased. This is the dream of every HR department everywhere.

This is why I remain dubious about efforts in our country to fund universal child care as a government function. In the proposals I've seen, we would merely perpetuate the separation of children from society, isolating them in pink collar ghettos while their parents spend their days in unnatural child-free zones.

The primary purpose of every society is to care for the children. That is where our humanity lies, not with the invisible hand.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! "Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler

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, September 10, 2021

Wasting Time

The boy wanted to figure out how to "walk on a ladder." It was one of the three level, step-stool style ladders that live on the playground. After messing around for some time, he figured out that by standing on the middle step and clutching the carry handle, he could rock the whole thing side-to-side, lifting one set of legs, then the other, which in turn caused the entire thing to "walk" forward an inch at a time. 
All told, after all his efforts, he finally managed in the end to move himself and the ladder forward about a meter.  

He wasted more than an hour teaching himself this useless skill, hardly getting anywhere at all.

Of course, that time really wasn't wasted, but that's how most educators with lesson plans to get through are compelled to view it.

He was making a study of physics; he was experimenting with gravity and motion and momentum and balance. He was educating his body. He was learning a lesson in perseverance. This was no easy thing he was doing. It took courage to even consider it. 

An enterprising teacher could, I suppose, make a study of the curriculum through which they are expected to process all the kids and strive to write the whole thing up in a way that cleverly connects ladder walking to one or more of the "learning objectives" found there. That would be the thing to do, but no one has time to do that for an entire classroom full of kids, each of whom is engaged at any given moment in similar time-wasting projects that can theoretically be linked to other "learning objectives." It's much more efficient, meaning less wasteful, to just rely on the worksheets and texts and lesson plans which are already tidily linked to the appropriate "learning objectives." It doesn't matter if the learning actually happens, only that we have data (e.g., a completed worksheet) that suggests that it might have.

This boy wasn't the only one "wasting" his time in this scenario. I was there too, his teacher, watching him. I wasn't busily coaching him or cheering for him or chirping physics terms at him. I wasn't cautioning him to be careful. I wasn't fretting over him falling behind. No, I was just sitting there watching him.

One of the reasons that so many resist the idea of children learning through play is that it appears so inefficient. There are no straight lines from here to there. Much of it looks like this boy on his ladder rocking back and forth, moving forward imperceptibly. They might like the idea of self-directed learning, but they can't bear to look at it in practice because of all the waste. Certainly, they reason, we can streamline this process, cut the fat, and get right to the learning. For one thing, we could get that teacher off his lazy ass.

But that's simply not the way learning works. As John Holt writes, "Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners." It is the product of the thinking and the doing. The gymnastics we go through to plan and assesses and justify, the data we collect, the goals that we set on behalf of the kids: that's the real waste of time.

Education is not a manufacturing process. If the goal is learning, play is as efficient as it gets. There is no way to pre-determine how any one individual gets from point A to point B, especially if they're really striving to get to point C, D, or X. Most of the time, the best practice for a play-based educator is to sit and watch. To "listen" with our whole being. To take the stance of a researcher and strive to know what this child in front of us is thinking about. Not to assess whether they are right or wrong. Not to tick boxes or assign grades, but rather to understand which is the only true guide to what a child is learning and what they need from us.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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