Friday, May 24, 2024

"You're Driving Me Crazy. Go Outside."

When I was a boy, even as young as four, mom would say, "You're driving me crazy. Go outside." She would then open the door, close it behind me, and not expect to hear from me for hours. That's how we all grew up back then. If I didn't see any other kids out there, I'd make my way up the street, knocking on the doors of houses where I knew kids lived, asking if they could come out and play. We played in one another's yards, garages, and crawl spaces. We played in the street, vacant lots, and the school yard. Once we learned to ride bikes, which most of us did around five or six, the entire neighborhood was ours.

Today we call it being "free-range kids," a phrase coined by Lenore Skenazy, the founder of the free-range parenting movement and recent guest on Teacher Tom's Podcast. She was was once dubbed "the world's worst mom" for letting her 9-year-old son ride the New York City subway on his own and writing about it. And while she was roundly pilloried, she at least wasn't charged with child neglect, endangerment or abuse as some parents have for simply allowing their kids to experience what was not long ago just called "childhood."

She was, however, shamed. As she tells me on the podcast, everyone who interviewed her back then would ask the same "gotcha" question about her son's adventure on the subway: "How would you feel if he didn't come home?" Of course, they knew the answer to that. She would have been devastated, but, as she says, the odds were overwhelmingly in favor of her son coming home. "They turned a tale of triumph into a hypothetical tragedy." And that's the attitude that seems to loom over parenting these days.

The real tragedy is that most children growing up in America today will spend their entire childhoods under adult supervision, never having the opportunities to experience the independence and freedom that characterized life for those of us who grew up in the 50's, 60's and 70's, what psychology researcher and play advocate Peter Gray calls the "Golden Age of Childhood." For whatever reason, we got scared as a nation, convinced there is a pedophile (or worse) behind every tree. According to the actual data, the world did not get more dangerous, but we came to perceive that it did and our children have suffered. Instead of saying, You're driving me crazy: go outside," parents were left with popping in a video or choosing between household chores and playing with the kids. Instead of kids organizing their own play the way we did, parents are on point for arranging supervised play-dates or driving junior to the playground or a class or some other "safe" facility under the ever-watchful eye of an adult. And children are suffering.

But, due in large part to the efforts of Lenore and her non-profit Let Grow, eight states have in recent years passed "reasonable childhood independence laws." In these states, parents can no longer be arrested for allowing her child to play alone at a playground or walk home from school. And Lenore tells me that there are several states with similar laws in the works. This is good news, but it still starkly illustrates the fact that normal childhood remains illegal in most places in the US.

Still, this is not just a win for both kids, but for parents, replacing irrational fear with common sense. Says Mica Hauley, Utah mother of five: "I can now make the decisions that are best for my children and not live in fear I am being judged and could be arrested. I trust that my kids can walk a short distance home from school. I may be looking out the window for them and praying for angels to be at their sides but I have to give them the freedom that will make them confident and independent adults."

To listen to my full interview with Lenore, check out Teacher Tom's Podcast. You can also download episodes from Spotify or wherever you like to listen to podcasts.


I've been writing about play-based learning almost every day for the past 14 years. I've recently gone back through the 4000+ blog posts(!) I've written since 2009. Here are my 10 favorite in a nifty free download. Click here to get yours.

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, May 23, 2024

How We Can Begin to Overcome Our Fears and Let Our Children Fail

In a recently publish paper a team of scientists and philosophers propose what they are calling the "Law of Increasing Functional Information." In a nutshell, they theorize that it's not just biological systems, but all complex systems -- from planets to atoms -- that operate according to the principles of evolution. This law is being suggested as a "missing" law of physics that, theoretically, could stand alongside the better known laws of motion, gravity, electromagnetism, and thermodynamics.

I'm sure that most physicists, biologists, and philosophers are skeptical, but, of course, skepticism is their job. The next step in the scientific process is for others to try to disprove all or parts of the proposed theory, followed by still others will try to fill in the holes that have been poked, then more skepticism, and so on, always approaching truth, but never fully getting there, which is why we call it a scientific "process."

But as a layperson considering this idea, it makes sense. Formally, the theory is expressed as: "The functional information of a system will increase (i.e., the system will evolve) if many different configurations of the system undergo selection for one or more functions." When I put this into my own words, this means that if any system, be it a planet or an atom, is to sustain itself, it must adapt. If it doesn't adapt, the system falls apart, just as a species will cease to exist if it fails to adapt. Put another way, when we look around us, we find a universe full of systems -- biological, geological, molecular, astronomical -- that exist because they have evolved to exist. What we don't see, what we can't see, are those systems that failed because, well, they don't exist.

In anthropomorphic terms, I often think of evolution as a process by which the universe says: "Given the circumstances, I'm going to do this."

Happy humans, humans who thrive, tend to be pretty good at this. We all suffer bumps, bruises, and blockades in life, we all suffer disappointment, fear, and pain. But, as the idiom urges us, the most life affirming response is to use those lemons to make lemonade. 

Learning this basic lesson is one of the primary functions of childhood. The process of learning to walk is one of falling down and getting back up over and over. The process of learning to talk is one of going from nonsense to sense. The process of learning to feed oneself begins with smashing food into our foreheads until we finally figure out how to target our mouths. When we see babies engaged in these processes, we see struggle, we see frustration, we see failure, but we all know that this is a natural part of learning to adapt and grow. And when our babies do finally succeed, we see their joy as they taste the sweet lemonade of their own efforts, which, in turn, inspires them to even more feats of independence.

If we hover over them in order to catch them before they fall, if we don't allow them their nonsense, if we insist on hand-feeding them in order to avoid the mess, we create circumstances in which the best way to adapt is to get others to do stuff for them -- to get others to make their lemonade for them. This is all well and good until they get a little older and find out that our world is a place where we must squeeze our own lemons.

Educators from preschool to college report their students are more fragile and less resilient than ever. We hear that they are entitled, that they are less likely to persevere in the face of difficulty, and that they equate feeling uncomfortable with being unsafe. Alarmingly, we are currently experiencing rates of childhood anxiety and depression at the highest levels ever seen (based on methodologies that have been used since at least the middle of the last century).

In my recent conversation with Lenore Skenazy on Teacher Tom's Podcast, we discuss the psychological principle (which I believe was first proposed by the great psychologist William James) that behavioral change is the most effect way to affect cognitive change. Which is to say, the way to help our children overcome their anxiety, depression, and passiveness is to, gently, remove the crutch of helicoptering adults, and allow them to genuinely experience frustrations, difficulties, and even, at least to a degree, risk. To allow them to confront challenging circumstances and to, on their own, struggle to adapt. As Lenore says, the definition of anxiety is the feeling of "I can't handle this." It's only through childhood independence, that we actually learn that we can handle this.

Yesterday, I wrote about a recent University of Michigan study that found that most adults, at least at some level, understand the value of childhood independence, but largely fail at providing their children opportunities to experience it, most of whom don't even allow their elementary-aged children to make their own snacks or to go down an aisle alone while grocery shopping.

It's obviously due to a culture of fear. Fear for our children's safety, yes, but also fear that if we do allow our children to, say, walk to school or to a neighborhood playground on their own, we will be judged or even arrested for "endangering" our children.

The goal of Lenore's non-profit, Let Grow, which she founded in partnership with social psychologist and best-selling author Jonathan Haidt (The Anxious Generation), is to make childhood independence easy so that parents, and other adults, can begin to see what their children are truly capable of doing. Let Grow partners with schools in many ways, but the first step is a homework assignment: To go home and do something new -- with your grownups' permission -- but without your grownup. "It's liberating for both kids and their parents," Lenore says.

Lenore tells us that many of the participants in Let Grow's homework assignment, both children and adults, are at first skeptical. She says that she has been struck by how many of the kids, when reporting on, say, baking cookies for the first time say something like, "I was afraid I was going to burn down the house." 

This is a first step in larger project of pulling back from this debilitating habit of catastrophic thinking, in which we see even the tiniest possibility of risk as too much risk; every potential danger, no matter how remote, as too much danger; and that every failure will result in, well, burning down the house.

"Given the circumstances, I'm going to do this." Whether or not the "Law of Increasing Functional Information" turns out to be a true "missing" law of physics, there is no doubt that happy humans, humans who thrive, are the ones who have learned this approach to life's challenges. 


People who want to embrace play-based learning are constantly asking me which of my 4,000+ posts to start with, so I reread all of them and curated my 10 favorites for you! To download my free booklet featuring by Top 10 Posts About the Power of Play-Based Learning, click here. It's my present to you. I hope you find it inspiring.

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, May 22, 2024

As Children Grow in Courage, So Too Grow Their Parents

From the day our children are born, they are destined to become independent from us. Not only do we know this is inevitable, but according to a recent University of Michigan survey 74 percent of parents with children between 5-8 report they "make a point" to have their children do things for themselves, while nearly 85 percent of parents with 9-11 year olds agree that their children benefit from unsupervised free time.

And they're not wrong. Research consistently shows that experience with real independence fosters self-confidence, resilience, problem-solving, and good mental health. Most of us also tend to agree with the idea of allowing our children more and more independence, gradually, with the expectation that by the time they're 18 or 21 or whatever that they will be fully capable of thriving on their own. 

My mother used to say, "You want them to be independent, then you're terrified when they are." She isn't alone. While most parents in the survey voice opinions in favor of childhood independence, far fewer, the survey finds, follow through with actually permitting it.

"Most parents endorse the idea that children benefit from free time without parent supervision, and say they allow their child to do things themselves. But parents' descriptions of what their child actually does independently suggests a sizable gap between parent attitudes and actions. Less than half of parents said their child 5-8 years old regularly engages in independent activities under their parent's direction, such as answering questions at a doctor's appointment, placing an order at a restaurant or other places of business, or fixing their own snack. This suggests some parents may be missing opportunities to guide their children in these "building block" tasks of autonomy. This pattern continues for older children (9-11 years old), where relatively few parents reported that their child stays home for a short period or spends time with friends without adult direction . . . This (poll) suggest parents may be unintentionally restricting their child's path to independence."

The survey identifies parental fear as the primary cause of this disconnect. 

There are undoubtedly neighborhoods in the US in which you wouldn't want your child walking the streets unsupervised, but the truth is that most of us live in places that are safe enough for at least some childhood independence. But even if we aren't about to start sending our four-year-olds into the streets willy-nilly, this fear seems to seep into places where it's entirely unwarranted. Awhile back, I spoke with an admissions representative from a major university. She told me that over the past couple decades, they have had to introduce basic life skills courses because too many of their incoming freshmen didn't know how to do such basic things as use a can opener, operate a washing machine, or prepare a basic meal for themselves. Not to mention how crippling it can be to not have experience interacting independently with adults. 

This poll likewise found that not only are American parents afraid for their children's safety, but are equally afraid that they will be judged if they do allow their young children independence, and are especially concerned about being criticized should something happen to them while exercising that independence. This is reinforced by the fact that some municipalities enforce criminal penalties against parents who leave their children without "adequate supervision," a vague criteria at best.

All of this harms our children, contributing, no doubt, to the surge in mental health challenges like anxiety and depression we've seen in recent decades, as well as the lack of self-confidence, resilience, and the ability to solve problems that inevitably go with this loss of childhood independence.

Lenore Skenazy, founder of the Free Range Kids movement and director of Let Grow, an organization committed to making it "easy, normal and legal to give kids back some independence," was recently my guest on Teacher Tom's Podcast. She told me that the way forward is baby steps. Parents can start, for instance, by showing their children how to do basic things for themselves, like operating a can opener or washing machine or preparing their own snack, then stepping back as they struggle, perhaps even leaving the room. This might mean returning to the occasional mess, maybe even a minor injury, but this is all part of learning to be independent. 

Over time, as parents practice stepping back, the miracle is their children are revealed to be not only competent and conscientious, but also increasingly courageous about tackling even more independence. And as Lenore points out, as the children grow in courage, so too grow their parents.

I'm a big fan of Lenore and her work. She's insightful, intelligent, committed and funny. To get a taste of my talk with Lenore, here's a snippet:

I'd really love for you to listen to my full conversation with Lenore. Head on over to Teacher Tom's World where you will also find this episode as well as my other podcast dialogs with early childhood thought leaders. If you prefer, you can also always download this and other episodes of Teacher Tom's Podcast on Spotify or wherever you like to listen to podcasts.


People who want to embrace play-based learning are constantly asking me which of my 4,000+ posts to start with, so I reread all of them and curated my 10 favorites for you! To download my free booklet featuring by Top 10 Posts About the Power of Play-Based Learning, click here. It's my present to you. I hope you find it inspiring.

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

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

When the Real World Cannot Match the Pretty Pictures

My goal has always been to make this blog seem as homemade as possible. I use a basic off-the-shelf template and the cheapest, most utilitarian platform available. I rarely engage in marketing, promotions or give-aways. I don't accept advertising. And generally speaking I steer clear of bells and whistles. I don't know if anyone else appreciates it, and well-intended people quite regularly give me advice on how I could make the blog snappier or boost my readership, and I'm happy for the free advice, but the amateur hour vibe is more or less intentional.

When I'm invited to speak at conferences, I strive for a similar thing: no Power Point presentations or videos or music. It's just me, in my jeans and hokey red cape, with a stack of notes, most of which are handwritten, some of which are in spiral notebooks. 

I suppose one could call it a "gimmick" or "style," this homemade-ness, but I tend to think of it more as an ethic, one that is full-blown at the place called Woodland Park, where parents come together to cooperatively make a school for their own children in the basement of a church. 

It's a place where we rarely buy new stuff, but rather finish using stuff others have cast-off, and where the playground shares much in common with a junkyard. When we do purchase something nice and new, like the fantastic Flor brand carpet, I worry that we're getting too fancy. 

I feel the same way about all those clean, crisp, purpose-built preschool facilities I've been in over the past several years: they're nice, and I even envy them, but I still have the urge to splash paint on the walls and tromp mud on the floors.

It's not that I particularly favor messiness or clutter or disorder (my home, for instance, tends to be a tidy, with everything in it's place) but rather that I am suspicious of slickness. 

Slickness is a trick, a way to hide the warts. It's the thing that separates the rest of us from Martha Stewart. At it's best, slickness represents a sort of unattainable ideal, but it also covers the cracks and dust bunnies that we all know are there -- that need to be there.

Like many of you, I spend time on blogs and websites that deal in our preschool world, some of which you will find over there in the right-hand column under the heading "Teacher Tom's blog list." A big part of this is sharing "art projects," and all too often, we're lured in by slick pictures of slick activities with slick end-results and slick learning goals. 

For instance, I recently came across a particularly appealing article that employed one of my favorite art set ups to "teach literacy." The idea, according to this writer, is for an adult to write each child's name in white glue on a piece of paper. The child is to then carefully sprinkle salt onto the glue letters, shake off the excess, then use eye droppers to place dots of liquid watercolor on the salty-glue to create a sort of rainbow of their name.

These art materials -- glue, salt, and paint -- lend themselves to wonderful explorations with the salt absorbing the paint while the glue holds it in place, and I reckon I could micromanage the right child through this slick little process, correcting and coaxing along the way, but why? 

Even if I do hound the children like this, none will ever turn out as slick as the ones in the pictures that accompany this article, even the most obedient, careful child will dribble paint, smear glue and get salt stuck to her fingers. An experienced teacher, of course, already knows this, but that deceptive slickness is an intimidating lie, one that I fear leads many teachers and parents and even kids to frustration when the real world cannot match the pretty pictures of product-based art and dutiful children. (In our adult world, I see this phenomenon frequently manifest itself on social media where we get the impression that everyone but us is having a grand time which undoubtedly fuels at least some of our epidemic of depression.)

When we use these materials -- glue, salt, paint -- I typically demonstrate the "right way" to the parent-teacher responsible for the project, not because I want them to teach it to the kids, but only because I want the adult to see what I think is cool about using these materials in this proscribed way. I then always say, "The children will want to make it their own." 

Most of the kids do, at some point in their process, create the opportunity to explore the absorbency of the salt, the stickiness of the glue, and blending of colors, but they also must explore the properties of the glue bottle, the techniques of using a pipette, and the effects of fists full of salt. 

They need to try using the pipettes as paint brushes, to empty bottle after bottle of glue, and to get glue and salt and paint all over their hands. The only limits are those of supply, but since we have glue by the gallon, salt by the pound, and paint by the case, we're prepared.

This is how process art works, this is how preschool works. It's a messy, free-form exploration of the universe, and there is nothing slick about it. The slickness -- in art or social media -- is only a well-meant lie with no connection to reality. It tends to make us feel that if we can't be perfect we must be doing it wrong. It's what I mean when I say that "homemade" is not a style, but an ethic.

Of course, I find our art "products" beautiful as well, those pages of tag board that take a week to fully cure, crinkling and curling and dripping on the floor. When I finally pull them out to send them home, mountains of salt crumble off, even as I try to balance it on there by way of honoring the child's intent, leaving much of it for the car ride home where it likely winds up all over the backseat. These irregular, layered, textured, ever-evolving artworks evoke the natural world, the world our species evolved to inhabit, while those slick manufactured products are more akin to the ordered, repetitive dullness of indoors.

At the end of the day, the results aren't product at all, but rather one-of-a-kind homemade masterpieces, the kind of thing one simply can't do the wrong way. That's what makes them so beautiful.


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

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Monday, May 20, 2024

The Creative Process and the Learning Process are One and The Same

The three-year-old was messing around with some long bits of string on the floor. He was at it for several minutes, lost in his process. From where I sat in my post of observation, he was obviously planning, or attempting, or questioning, or contemplating something.

It didn't look to me like he was creating order from chaos, but then he stood up, caught my eye, and said, "It's a dinosaur. I made a T-Rex." He looked from me to the string and back again.

"This is the head," he explained. He showed me the tail, the legs, and the short arms. Then he forgot me again for a moment as he dropped to his knees to arrange some wine corks. "These are the teeth."

I felt he wanted me to say something, so I asked a clarifying question, "Is this a dinosaur skeleton or one that's alive?"

He didn't respond verbally, but rather went back to work arranging foam packing material and large yoghurt containers. Ten minutes later he informed me, "I made the skin."

Anyone watching this boy, indeed, anyone reading my description, will identify this as a creative process. 

The so-called "science of learning" crowd, however, would assert that this isn't creativity at all. They assert that creativity is not possible without extensive background knowledge: that without years of direct instruction by knowledgable adults, young children are incapable of creativity. Anyone who has spent any significant time with young children will find this assertion absurd, but, tragically, this is what underpins a great deal of the curricula being sold to, and implemented by, schools these days. You see, they've narrowly defined creativity to mean only the creation of something that is groundbreaking or novel, not just for the individual creating it, but for all of humanity. This string and wine cork dinosaur simply doesn't count.

Whenever someone is trying to sell me something, especially when it comes to education, I've learned to seriously doubt their claims about what "science tells us." Simply by redefining what creativity is, by making it rare, by placing it exclusively in the realm of genius (whatever that means), they have then cherry-picked data points to "prove" their point. Yes, of course, Albert Einstein had to know a lot of physics and math before he could conceive his Theory of General Relativity, but there are countless people who studied even more physics and were even better at math who didn't have his earth-shattering epiphanies. 

This boy may not have been creating something of the magnitude of general relativity (although I could argue that this was likely the first and only T-Rex in history to have been reconstructed using string, wine corks, foam packing material, and yoghurt cups). But he did create something novel for himself. He experienced the creative magic, the discovery, of conjuring order from chaos. The charlatans who insist on decades of direct instruction as a prerequisite for creativity have bought into the manufacturing-based notion that learning is constructed like a building, starting with a firm foundation then methodically adding brick-after-brick, but this isn't how learning works most of the time. For most of us, most of the time, we learn by leaps and bounds, through spirals and circles, by taking steps forward and backward and sideways, by forgetting something only to rediscover it again in a whole new light, often as we explore something else that had originally appeared to be unrelated.

Contrary to what these snake oil salesmen assert, creativity is not the exclusive domain of the highly educated elites. In many ways, and especially during the early years, the creative process and the learning process are one and the same. 

When this boy finally walked away from his T-Rex, he left a tangle of string and a jumble of junk. This dinosaur had been alive in his imagination, and mine, for a time, but now, as far as the big, wide world was concerned, it was nothing but a small mess. That's the impact of most human creativity, most of the time, useful, even delightful, for an individual or a few, then forgotten, although it likely leaves a trace in our minds, a thread that we may of may not pick up later.

By telling this story, however, I've preserved it, perhaps for the rest of human history, where it now lives alongside the creations of Mozart, Austin, and Einstein. Maybe it will never be earth shattering, but you never know who will read about this boy's T-Rex process and, in turn, be inspired. Or maybe this boy, who is by now a young man, will be the one who saves us all.


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

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

Friday, May 17, 2024

Conquering Death

"Only birth," writes the eminent mythologist Joseph Campbell, "can conquer death -- the birth, not of the old thing again, but of something new."

Occasionally, some credentialed person or another will predict that in the future, perhaps the near future, science will have conquered death, at least insofar as old age and disease are concerned. I imagine we'll still be susceptible to falling off cliffs and whatnot, but we are already seeing how modern medicine can keep our old bodies running for years, if not decades, beyond their "natural" expiration date. Of course, any of us who have sat at the bedside of a loved one kept alive by these "artificial" means knows that this this really isn't life as we know it. Part of the tragedy of this sort of end to life, for me at least, is the raw reality of these frail and failing humans' last stand. Not today, they seem to say, not today, until the day arrives. 

Poets and philosophers have often noted that it's impossible to distinguish between pity and love. Modern science has not conquered death, but in this increasingly common process of life ending in bed, attached to machines and full of medications, has given us these dwindling moments of pity-love, waiting, waiting, not today, not today. 

Frankly, I'd rather just be eaten by a bear. 

"Did you hear that Teacher Tom died?"

"Oh no! What happened?"

"He was eaten by a bear."

It would be painful and horrifying as it happened, of course, but the part of me that lives on -- which is to say the stories people tell about me when I'm gone -- will have me going out with a bang, not a whimper.

I've been watching a pair of small birds -- I think they're Western Bluebirds (Sialia Mexicana) -- shuttling insects to their recently hatched babies. Every morning for the past couple weeks, I've sat with my morning coffee in the same place at the same time, watching them come and go with what looks like crickets in their beaks, ducking into a cavity in a tree trunk for a few minutes, then darting back out with their beaks empty. For the last few days, I've been able to hear their babies chirping from within, which tells me they are getting close to fledging: their second birth.

We tend to misunderstand the so-called lesser animals as being fortunate in that they don't have minds that allow them to think about things like death. We imagine they live in the moment, following ancient instincts, always doing the right thing because it's the only thing they can do. But every day, sometimes several times day, I see my bluebirds chasing potential predators away --  much larger ravens and crows for the most part. Death is never far away and like us, these birds are also trying to conquer death, but in their case it's not their own lives they defend, but rather those of their offspring, whose survival is paramount. That, ultimately, is how death is conquered, not by keeping the old bodies alive as long as we can, but through the constant, courageous defense of birth.

Surveys consistently find that those of us who work with young children report the most satisfaction with their lives, right alongside those in the medical profession. That makes sense because, like my bluebirds, we have given our lives to conquering death, not for ourselves, but for others. We are the midwives of that "something new." Psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik points out that caring for children is the principle project of every civilization that has ever existed. 

If I do meet my end in the jaws of a bear, I hope it will happen as I'm defending something newer than me. Likewise, I will know that if a bear does do me in, it will probably be a mama bear who perceives me as a threat to her cubs.

That is the real cycle of life and death, the story in which we are the heroes.


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

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

Thursday, May 16, 2024


The California state legislature is currently working on a bill that would require schools to enact homework policies that take into account their students' mental and physical health. Introduced by Assemblyperson Pilar Shiavo, a member of the state's new "select committee on happiness," the bill appears to have very little opposition and will likely in some form become law.

"This feeling of loneliness and disconnection -- I know when my kid is not feeling connected," says Schiavo, "It's when she's alone in her room (doing homework), not playing with her cousin, not having dinner with her family."

According to an article on the CalMatters website, "The bill analysis cites a survey of 15,000 California high schoolers from Challenge Success, a nonprofit affiliated with the Stanford Graduate School of Education. It found that 45% said homework was a major source of stress and that 52% considered most assignments to be busywork . . . The organization also reported in 2020 that students with higher workloads reported 'symptoms of exhaustion and lower rates of sleep,' but that spending more time on homework did not necessarily lead to higher test scores."

Preschoolers should never be assigned homework, of course, although I know it's happening, at least in some places. Indeed, on Monday I wrote about a five year old being coerced into filling out worksheets while flying on an airplane as part of a family vacation. Useless busywork robbed this girl of what should have been a wonder-filled, connecting experience. The evidence is overwhelming that homework, especially through the elementary years, has nothing but negative impacts on learning, well-being, and, most importantly, happiness. So good on this committee for following the science.

That said, I have incredibly mixed feelings about this bill. I support its intent and I'm pleased that it's receiving bipartisan support in an era in which bipartisanship is nearly dead. At the same time, I don't at all like the precedent of politicians telling professional educators what to do. I don't like it when it's school boards banning books and I don't like it when it's legislatures dictating homework policy, even if I think this particular policy is a step in the right direction.

It's our own fault, however. I'm outraged that our profession is so shockingly out of touch with the current science about how humans learn, that we have not already, on our own, cut back, or even eliminated, homework altogether. This proposed law wouldn't be necessary in a real, professional educational system. And this is far from the only place that our schools straight up ignore evidence in favor of discredited behaviorist and factory floor approaches to education.

I don't have any memories of homework until about 4th grade. We were expected to solve the equations at the end of the chapters in our mathematics text book. It took about an hour a week. I was lucky because my father, an engineer, was facile with numbers, and patient with me as he helped me through the challenging parts. I don't know whether or not I learned the math I was expected to learn, but I sure do remember the time I spent with my father as we, together, noodled through what was being called "new math." Prior to that, however, and even for some time thereafter, most of my evenings and weekends were homework free -- my own.

But that doesn't mean I didn't study. I would spend time in the family garden, studying the fruits, flowers, insects, and soil. I studied sports, games, and performing arts with my friends. I studied the movement of clouds, the sound of rain, and the thrill of wind.

When I was 9-years-old, my family moved to Greece where I spent my time studying an entirely new culture from the inside. I attended an international school that ascribed to a work-at-your-own-pace model, which meant that homework was optional. Every now and then, I was inspired enough by something that I would actually choose to spend "my time" working on it. In fact, I was so enthusiastic about English that I completed all the expected elementary school work by the end of 4th grade. 

Most schools today would likely respond to my precociousness by loading me down with more "advanced" English work. But at this school, during this era, I was "rewarded" with free time. So while the other kids continued to pace themselves through the work, I would read whatever I wanted in the library. One day, I discovered the collection of vinyl that we could check out and listen to on headphones, a state-of-the-art technology. That was my real introduction to popular music, not to mention the comedy of Cheech & Chong. (My friends and I found them hilarious even through we certainly didn't get much of it). When my music teacher learned what I had discovered he started suggesting music I might like. This is how I first heard The Beatles, The Fiddler on the Roof soundtrack, and The Jackson Five, my gateway into an entire world. That, to me, is the highest form of teaching.

On Sundays, we went to a non-denominational church. The pastor's son was our Sunday school teacher. What he chose to teach us about what what he was interested in: the possibility that aliens had once lived amongst us. We would spend an hour each Sunday morning listening intently to this glamorous teenager tell us about how beings from another planet helped, for instance, the Ancient Egyptians build the pyramids, showing us pictures and detailing archeological "evidence." I was so inspired that I convinced my parents to purchase all of Erich von Däniken's pseudoscientific books. That spurred me to further reading. I became fascinated with all sorts of unexplained phenomenon -- the Bermuda Triangle, the Loch Ness Monster, the lost city of Atlantis -- which ultimately led me to an interest in archeology and the study of ancient things, which was highly motivating for an American boy living in Greece, a land full of historic and wonderful artifacts from the distant past.

That was my homework.

It seems to me that all school children should have homework. In fact, they should have nothing but homework. The problem with homework is when it's assigned from above, when it's simply busywork, when it's forced onto children because it's always been forced onto children. I don't know if this legislation will do any good. I hope that educators will see it as a chance to, finally, start doing the right thing. 

What is the right thing? To me the right thing is to inspire children to pursue their own interests, even if that's pop music or pseudoscience. What if the goal was for all children to come home from school eager to dig deeper, learn more, and follow threads wherever they lead? In other words, inspired to do homework.

I might not like the idea of a legislature sticking their dilettante noses into education, but I do love the idea of a select committee on happiness. I love the idea of a society, and by extension an educational system, that measures success by Gross National Happiness rather than Gross National Product. 

We live in a culture in which loneliness and disconnection are a deadly epidemic. And I do think these legislators are onto something when they focus in a bipartisan way on homework. But I would take it further. The answer to disconnection, I'm convinced, is to set our children free to do the homework that inspires them. That might not create more happiness, but it's the direction we must go if we want our children to find purpose in life, that thing that makes them come alive, and that, at the end of the day, is what the world needs more than anything else: people who have come alive. 


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

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