Wednesday, December 08, 2021

Science Denialism In Education


Over the course of the last 70 years or so, our expectations of children have changed dramatically. In many ways we perceive them as less competent. As a society we have lowered our expectations of what they are capable of doing in the world. They no longer walk themselves to school. None of them carry pocket knives, and for that matter, are kept far away from most tools. And even if you trust your own child to be home alone as you run a quick neighborhood errand, the wider society considers you neglectful because, of course, children younger than, say, about 15, are perpetually on the verge of stupidly killing themselves (or being killed by nameless, faceless others) if left for even the briefest moment without adult supervision. 

Or so our urban legends about childhood would have it. 

As a result, our children are growing up in a world scrubbed of risk, challenge, hurt feelings, and failure because, as we've come to believe, they are not capable of handling it.

At the same time, and perhaps partly as a result of this cultural paranoia, we've placed unreasonable expectations on our children, especially our youngest children in the form of schooling. We are institutionalizing our children at younger and younger ages. They are spending more and more time in "school" and less and less time playing, while being subjected to greater and greater academic expectations. Today, more than 80 percent of kindergarten teachers expect five year olds to be reading. In 1998, that number was 30 percent, and in 1950 that number was approaching zero. That our literacy rate hasn't budged over the past half century despite these developmentally inappropriate expectations tells us that our early literacy efforts, at best, have no impact, but there is ample evidence that this phenomenon is taking a mental health toll on our children, with one in five children between the ages of 3-17 struggling with a diagnosable mental illness, mostly in the form of anxiety and depression, much of which can be linked to these pressures.

These dynamics represent bookends of fear that are crushing our youth. We're afraid they are going to be hurt so we've dramatically restricted them. We're afraid of them falling behind so we reign them to carts in academic coal mines. It's almost as if our greatest fear is of childhood itself . . . or children, or liberty, or play.

From where I sit, the time for school is at an end. We have clearly reached a point of diminishing, dramatically diminishing, returns. For most children, most of the time, school is a place where they can be safely warehoused and made to nose the grindstone in a way that is contrary to what large majorities of scientists and psychologists tell us is appropriate. This is the same phenomenon we're seeing with environmental denialism. 

We, as a society, are so committed to our habit of schools that we struggle to even consider a world without them, the most common knee-jerk question being, "But without schools, what will the children do while their parents are off at work?" It's a central question, a question about caring for the children more than "education," an important question that has been answered in different ways by different societies throughout human history. 

Most prime of life adults have pretty much always worked productively in useful ways, this is nothing new in human evolution, and while birth mothers may have traditionally shouldered a somewhat larger share of the burden of child care, a substantial part was handled by the wider community, the village. Instead of ghettoizing child care into out-of-the-way, low paying, low prestige corners, most prior human civilizations have placed caring for the children at the center of life, creating communities in which children were included, in which caring for them was the responsibility of us all, and in which they were free to have a childhood, under the watchful eyes and loving hearts of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and neighbors. It's from living in a community that we learn what we most need to learn, from a wide variety of adults and other children, the lessons of working together, of being personable, of asking a lot of questions, of taking responsibility, and, when ready, and not necessarily waiting until the arbitrary age of 18 or 21, to assume our own productive, useful work.

We are currently a long way from achieving anything like that vision, but it is nevertheless the way forward, not just for children, but for all of us. If this change is to happen, it won't come from on high, but rather must bubble up from us, from individuals choosing to place caring for our children at the center of our lives. Indeed, it's already happening with more and more parents opting for homeschooling, unschooling, cooperatives, and democratic free schools. 

There is a lot of irrational fear to overcome. There is a lot of science denialism to overcome. There are a lot of addictive habits to break. And there are economic realities that make it seem insurmountable. But we know what to do and that is to create community, to find it, to nurture it. It can begin to happen in libraries and on playgrounds, in work places and nursing homes. It can begin in our schools and churches; where sports are played, where music is made, and where dancing is happening. It starts when we seek to make space for children everywhere that community is happening. It starts with learning to trust more people, including children, because trust is the greatest antidote to fear.

If there ever was a time for schools, it's at an end. When we bring the children back into the center of our lives, we will once more have the kinds of communities in which we can all thrive, together.

******

If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices

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Tuesday, December 07, 2021

"I Wish I'd Let Him Know He'd Been Seen"



Many years ago, before our school moved to The Center of the Universe, someone entered our old building as we were assembled as a community and walked off with several purses and backpacks. It happened as the parents arrived to pick up their kids at the end of their day. Everyone was gathered together in the classroom, listening, as is our tradition, to the final storybook of the day before singing our goodbye song. Meanwhile, this person was out in the hallway pilfering.

The theft was discovered almost immediately. One parent remembered holding the gate open for a man she hadn't recognized, but since he acted as if he belonged, she had assumed he was a relative or family friend of one of the kids. Upon hearing this, several other parents thought that they too had seen the man who had stolen wallets as we raised our voices together in farewell.

We all felt a sense of violation, particularly those who had lost their property. There was fear and anger, some of it irrationally directed at me. Equally irrational was the tendency of some to broadly blame "the homeless." 

Most urgent, however, was the sense that our children were vulnerable. Although this petty thief hadn't in any way threatened the children, it was hard to not let our concerns go there. And so it was that a few evenings later, we convened as a community to discuss what was to be done. 

There were those who immediately advocated for more locks and a more rigid security system. We talked about our fear. We talked about our anger. And there were those who talked about their sadness. They were sad about our community's loss of innocence. They were sad that it seemed that the solution would mean that our wide open community would become more closed. They were sad that we live in a society that creates petty theft and homelessness just as it creates billionaires. 

At one point, the mother who had held the gate for the thief said, "I wish I'd just smiled at him or said 'Hi' or something. I wish I'd let him know he'd been seen." Her point, of course, was that sneak thievery relies upon not being seen, but we as a community took hold of her notion in a broader sense. Perhaps this was, in part, a failure of our community. There were dozens of us there when it happened, at least one parent for every child. A stranger had come amongst us and not one of us had even greeted him. This thief had counted upon his invisibility and, we all agree, no one should be invisible in our community. 

And that's what we decided to do. We would keep ourselves safe by welcoming everyone, especially strangers into our midst. Instead of locking ourselves in, we committed ourselves, as a community to being over-the-top friendly, to making sure everyone felt seen.

Several weeks later, my father, who had never been to the school before, came to visit. I was going to give him a quick after hours tour of the place, then we were heading up the street for lunch. I hadn't let anyone know that I was expecting him because I figured that by the time he arrived I'd be there all alone, but dad was early. He was escorted into the classroom by a several parents who surrounded him, asking questions and complimenting me, his son. When they left, dad said, "Wow, that was some welcome! Everyone is so friendly!" When I told him that it was all part of our anti-theft policy, he chuckled, "Well, it sure worked!"

I'm remembering this today in the aftermath of another school shooting, another community torn apart, more lives horrifically destroyed. 

Some time after we moved to our new location, in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy, a group of parents wanted to make our school more secure. Located in the lower level of an old church building, our space had been intentionally designed from the start for ease of entry, as it should have been. After all, this was originally intended as a space to embrace all, in love, mercy, sanctuary, and compassion.

While I understood, it felt like a failure as we replaced doors, reinforced windows, added locks, and made plans for what we were going to do should the unthinkable happen.

And this is about failure: a uniquely American failure.

An educator from a school near to Oxford High School where the most recent tragedy took place, wrote to me yesterday that there is a lot of talk about installing metal detectors, police patrolling hallways, and other measures that would make her school more like a prison than it already is. Sadly, I know that if she speaks up in favor of alternatives, she will, in the climate of fear, be accused of being insufficiently concerned, of being naive, or worse. It's simply not what traumatized people want to hear.

So we install stronger locks on stronger doors. We enact security measures. We fill our school hallways with armed police. And we grow increasingly wary of strangers, making us less welcoming, less open, and ultimately less connected. It's easy to see how this becomes a downward spiral of distrust, suspicion, fear, and anger.

I don't see how we can end this without devising more common sense gun laws, but I also don't see how we can end this so long as we allow distrust, suspicion, fear, and anger to guide us.

As Mister Roger's mother said to him as a boy when faced with scary things in the news, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." She was, of course, talking about firefighters and nurses and other first responders, but she could just as easily have been talking about those who will not give-in to despair, who will continue to connect through love, mercy, sanctuary, and compassion, despite the horrible news, because to do otherwise is to risk not living at all.

The most important thing in the aftermath of something frightening is not to rush to action, especially action driven by fear, but rather to first give everyone involved, the entire community, a chance to speak, without fear of judgement, and for everyone to try, with their entire being, to listen, to really see one another. Nothing good can come until everyone has had a chance to grieve and that requires a community committed to talking and listening.

"Anything that is human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us to know that we're not alone." ~Mister Rogers


And it is that there are so many of us who feel alone and unseen that is our ultimate failure.


******

"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
If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 


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Monday, December 06, 2021

Among The Worst Ideas Humans Have Ever Had



Rog was in love with Marian, who loved him back. It was one of those cute preschool romances where children were exploring the loving adult relationships they see in their lives by acting out one of their own. But one day, Rog arrived to find that Marian had changed her mind. She was, she informed him, going to marry Titus instead.

Rog was frantic. He spent his morning gamely drawing pictures for Marian, offering her snack foods, and otherwise striving to convince her to change her mind. By mid-day, however, the reality had set in. In despair he threw himself onto the floor amidst the costumes, his head pressed into a corner. I went to console him, but he sent me away. When his friends then tried, he ran from the classroom and down the hallway. I found him in tears behind a door.

It wasn't so cute any more. The emotions he was feeling were real. I sat near him until he had calmed himself enough to say, "I want to marry her, but she only wants to marry Titus!" which cast him back into despair.

As he finally emerged into the initial pain of acceptance, I listened to him. At one point he had the idea of talking about it with the whole group at circle time.

This immediately struck me as a bad idea. Certainly, no one wants to share their broken heart with the world, but he was insistent so I told him that if he still wanted to talk about it when we gathered together on the checkerboard rug, he should raise his hand and I'd call on him. I assumed that after some time to reflect he would think better of it. After all, these aren't the sorts of things one wants discussed in public.

His hand, however, was up before we had even all assembled. When I called on him, he declared, "I love Marian but she doesn't love me any more. She loves Titus." I realized even as he said it that he wasn't telling anyone anything they didn't already know. Everything about their preschool relationship had been public knowledge from the start.

Marian confirmed Rog's assessment matter-of-factly from where she sat beside Titus.

One of Rog's buddies said, "That's okay, you can just marry somebody else!"

"Yeah," said another, "Marian gets to marry whoever she wants and you get to marry somebody else."

Rog made some comment about how he didn't want to marry any of the other girls in the class and his friend responded, "Well then just marry one of the boys. I'll marry you if you want."

Someone else chimed in that they were going to wait until they were a grown-up to get married and the conversation took off from there. We discussed sex and divorce and how babies are made. We shared what we knew about body parts and their functions. Before long I realized that these children, in many ways, understood more than I had at 18.

You see, I grew up in places and in an era in which talking about relationships and particularly sexual ones was taboo. It wasn't a topic of conversation in my home, my church, or my school. Or rather, it wasn't discussed when adults were present, because us kids tended to share what we knew in whispers, which wasn't a lot, and even that was largely, and often profoundly, inaccurate.

It was an era of children teaching children about through trial and error, without even the dubious support of the internet to answer our questions. Pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, and toxic relationships were hidden away in the dark corners where we discussed them, in our ignorance, not knowing what to believe. The adults in our lives would have been useful, but for most of us, we feared that to talk with teachers would have resulted in our parents being called in for a "conference," who would, in turn, scold, shame, or even punish us, without really shedding any light on our questions. So we were left alone in the dark with one another.

There are still large swaths of the US where we leave our children to learn about sex in this way, but for the past couple decades, I've been a part of a community in which most of the preschool-aged children in my life come from families who are striving to normalize these conversations.

As these children consoled their friend through frank and honest talk, cobbling together a perfectly age-appropriate curriculum, supported by adults who corrected misinformation and refrained from judgement, I saw clearly that not talking about sex certainly stands among the worst ideas humans have ever had.

******

"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
If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 

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, December 03, 2021

A Massive Battle For The Ages



I was once engaged in a massive battle for the ages, pitting my powers against those of a five-year-old boy.

It began when he declared that he was going to shoot me with his gun that had the "power of elephants."

I countered with the power of love.

He responded with a laser that had the "power of lightening."

I bewildered it with the power of love.

He retrenched with a cannon that was made from the "power of a tsunami."

I absorbed it with the power of love.

He summon up a rocket that was fueled by the "power of a tornado."

I embraced it with the power of love.

He attacked me with a sword forged in the sun, a light saber containing bees, a tank that shot earthquakes and finally a weapon made from all the power in the universe, except, he insisted, love.

When I stuck with love he fell into my arms laughing, not vanquished.

I'm thinking of this boy because his mother reached out to me yesterday. The boy is now a young man. She had tracked me down across the years to tell me that he had shared this story with friends and family around the Thanksgiving table.

******


Just in time for the holidays, even if that gift is for yourself, the full content of Teacher Tom's Play Summit 2021 is once more available for a limited time. This is 24 interviews with early childhood and parenting thought leaders and experts from around the world, including such luminaries as Lisa Murphy, Peter Gray, Maggie Dent, Akilah Richards, and the great children's troubadour Raffi. If you're looking for inspiration, ideas, and a deeper connection with young children, you'll find it here. Professional development certificates are available! Together, as Raffi sings, "Let's turn this world around!" For more information and to purchase your pass, click here.

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, December 02, 2021

Teaching Within The Cracks


A reader wrote:

. . . I share the same views as you. However, I struggle actually being able to carry it out fully. How do you give the children all the freedom you do in a center that has "rules" they want all teachers to follow? . . . I would love to get all to truly understand children but I am very outnumbered.

I receive messages like this almost every day. And it's true. We are outnumbered. We are surrounded by a world that neither understands nor respects young children. Oh sure, we find them cute, but even in that, there remains a dismissal of them as fully formed humans. "It is condescending," writes John Holt, "when we respond to qualities that enable us to feel superior to the child," which is how much of society thinks young children, if they think of them at all. And not coincidently, they tend to think the same thing about those of us who have dedicated our lives to caring for them.

But even within our sisterhood, too many of us find it natural to rule. Maybe it's because most of us work in hierarchical systems in which those who have the least to do with the children on a daily basis make the "rules" until classroom teachers find themselves likewise infantilized with very little autonomy, even if they know what is happening to children is wrong. Every study ever done on humans in hierarchy has found that those at the bottom, will, when given the chance, exert command and control when allowed even the slightest opportunity. It is in the nature of hierarchy.

I'm not ascribing evil motives to anyone, but the attitude of noblesse oblige with which so many adults approach children amounts to the same thing. It causes us to believe that we must, in our privilege as adults, wrest their freedom from them and place it in a trust where we manage it for them for a couple decades, holding it over their heads like a sweet carrot, chirping at them that "this is for your own good."

We are truly outnumbered, those of us who understand and respect children enough to entrust them with their own freedom to think, to wonder, to ask and answer their own questions, and discover what it is about the world that makes them come alive.

I've been lucky to have always worked in a cooperative school, a non-hierarchical model, in which the parents and I collaborated in creating our community. Even so, it took many years of trust-building and role modeling to get to get to the point that we could truly step down from our adult pedestals and engage the children as equals for whom we are responsible while not presuming to be their superiors. 

The sad truth is that most teachers are, for today, stuck with systems that simply cannot honor and respect young children. As Ogden Nash wrote, "You can't get there from here." But that doesn't mean that we are helpless. Those of use who "truly understand children" find that our greatest assets are persistence and "teaching within the cracks." I can't tell you how many educators have said those exact words to me -- "teaching within the cracks" -- to describe what they do. Being a great teacher requires, at times, stepping outside the rules because if we are to serve children they need us to be subversive. It's a risk that most of us, at one time or another, must take.

Sadly, we live in a world that neither understands nor respects children (or educators for that matter). Changing that will be the work of generations. Not all of us can work in a cooperative schools, so we each do what we can each day because we love the children in our lives and know that their freedom is theirs. Perhaps one day, we will find the collective courage to stand up together for children, but until then we will teach, subversively, within the cracks.

******


Just in time for the holidays, even if that gift is for yourself, the full content of Teacher Tom's Play Summit 2021 is once more available for a limited time. This is 24 interviews with early childhood and parenting thought leaders and experts from around the world, including such luminaries as Lisa Murphy, Peter Gray, Maggie Dent, Akilah Richards, and the great children's troubadour Raffi. If you're looking for inspiration, ideas, and a deeper connection with young children, you'll find it here. Professional development certificates are available! Together, as Raffi sings, "Let's turn this world around!" For more information and to purchase your pass, click here.

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, December 01, 2021

That Feeling Of Familiarity Is Indistinguishable From The Feeling Of Understanding


Several years ago, a friend involved in the business of what's called "up cycling" wound up with a collection of junk with which even he couldn't figure out what to do, so he passed it all along to the preschool, where, I assured him, the experts would make something of his nothing.

Among the detritus he delivered to our playground was part of the tub assembly of a dismantled washing machine. I only knew what it was because he told me. It was a kind of circular-ish cauldron with a large opening on one side and a smaller one on the other, to which was attached a rubbery skirt. It was large enough to fit two, maybe three, small children depending upon which end you turned up.

As one does, I imaged how the children would react to it. Perhaps they would ask "What is this thing?" For them, I was prepared to answer, "It's a thing you can play with." But since most of the kids were already accustomed to odd things showing up around the place, things with no names and no pre-determined purpose (i.e., loose parts), I knew that most wouldn't bother with adult mediation and simple declare it's name and purpose.

And I was right.

"It looks like a space ship."

"It's a bathtub."

"It's the wheel from a giant machine."

One girl inverted it on the ground and sat inside it with the rubbery bit around her waist like a kind of bodice to declare it her "ball gown."

And it went from there. Over the course of the next few weeks, I spied it being used as a window in a fort, a small boat at sea, a volcano, a bird's nest, and a drum. One group attempted to hang it up as a swing. Another filled it with sand. Yet another arranged sticks in it like flowers in a vase. As I told my friend, "Young children are the ultimate up cyclers."

As humans confronted with a new thing, our first instinct is to try to find an apt metaphor for that thing. It is, in many ways, the story of human development. Our ancient ancestors explained earthquakes, for instance, with the metaphor of giants or gods stomping on the earth. As I mentioned in Monday's post, even our most basic English verb "to be" is ultimately derived from the ancient Sanskrit words for "to grow" and "to breathe," which is to say metaphors for this amazing thing we are still trying to understand -- existence. And this is exactly what children do when confronted with new things, like this tub. They try, individually and collectively, to arrive at a metaphor for the new thing by substituting something more familiar until they find that feeling of familiarity.

That feeling of familiarity is indistinguishable from the feeling of understanding.

Even such seemingly only-the-facts things like science and math are conducted and understood through metaphor. A thunderstorm understood as friction and sparks and vacuums, of air smashing together to create noise, isn't actually those things, but rather something like those things. Indeed, the entire scientific process is one of finding better and better metaphors that approach, but never quite reach, full understanding. Likewise, those numerals we use for ciphering are metaphors of familiarity that allow us to better understand.

If the goal of education is understanding (rather than merely correct answers), then play with loose parts in their broadest sense, without adults constantly trying to inject their own metaphors into it, is the gold standard. It is that feeling of understanding we are after and that only comes through thinking about new experiences through the filter of metaphor until we find one that feels right, or at least partly right, at least for now. And then, as we play, we discover new and better metaphors, additional and supplanting metaphors, that lead us farther and father along our lifelong journey of understanding. 

******

Just in time for the holidays, even if that gift is for yourself, the full content of Teacher Tom's Play Summit 2021 is once more available for a limited time. This is 24 interviews with early childhood and parenting thought leaders and experts from around the world, including such luminaries as Lisa Murphy, Peter Gray, Maggie Dent, Akilah Richards, and the great children's troubadour Raffi. If you're looking for inspiration, ideas, and a deeper connection with young children, you'll find it here. Professional development certificates are available! Together, as Raffi sings, "Let's turn this world around!" For more information and to purchase your pass, click here.


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, November 30, 2021

Our Disconnection Makes Us Forget


During the pandemic, my wife and I have taken to referring to our dog Stella as our "emotional support animal." These have been the best of times for her. The three of us have pretty much been 24-hour-a-day companions for months now. When tensions have risen, as they do amongst humans, Stella has gone into action, providing expert emotional support by making herself available for connection, insisting upon it at times, refusing to be rebuffed because what she has to offer by way of emotional support is too important to be left to the moods of the humans. 

And, time and gain, Stella is always proven correct: when I give in and take her for a walk or play ball or massage her belly, I do feel buoyed. My troubles might still be there, but they seem a little bit smaller. She reminds me to apologize, to repair the damage I've done, and to re-connect. 

That's some pretty expert emotional support.

We all know the importance of connection, but Stella lives it. Wherever my wife and I are in the house, she positions herself at a physical halfway point between the two of us, ready on a moments notice. When we sit down to eat, she sprawls out under the table with parts of her body touching both of us. When we have dinner guests, she makes sure she is touching all of them as well. She reaches out to us several times a day, just to remind us that we're connected, forcing us to take a break from our disconnection, and to live a little. She is telling us, clearly, "This is what it's all about, you guys."

Am I anthropomorphizing my dog? Probably, but that doesn't diminish the deep wisdom in the emotional support she provides us. And what does she ask for in return? For us to connect right back with her.

Maybe you're laughing at me, but I think I'm safe in saying that most mental healthcare professionals would agree with Stella that connection comes before anything else. 

In the aftermath of the Teacher Tom's Play Summit, I finally had a moment to pick up the much praised bestseller Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Her narrative opens with her own childhood and ancestral stories about wild strawberries. I'm transported back to my own childhood where I find a similar connection to the pine trees that towered over my South Carolina neighborhood. They provided shade, needles, bark and pine cones. We climbed them, tied things to them, and hid behind them. Birds, squirrels, and insects lived in them. Periodically, a branch would fall or be cut and we would get a closer look at life in the canopy. Over the course of weeks, we would play with that branch, building with it, harvesting from it, turning it into wands or weapons. When the winds blew, the pines talked to me, although not as loudly as the chestnuts and cottonwoods I would later know in my life. When it rained, they protected me, although not as well as the cedars and firs amongst whom I live today. When they were wounded, they oozed sticky sap, a scent so heady it made me light-headed.

Those trees were my teachers and, like with Stella, they called upon me to connect by speaking every language except the human one. Indeed, it seems that of all the things that live on Mother Earth, only humans need to remember to connect. It hasn't always been this way, but as we've moved increasingly indoors, as we've told ourselves the divisive fictions about money, commodities, and property, about competition, poverty, and war, we've forgotten the source of all knowledge. 

This is indigenous wisdom, this imperative to connect, with plants and animals, with rocks and soil and the air we breath, with water and fire. When I ignore Stella, when I'm too wrapped up in my disconnection to heed her, she persists. My disconnection stories try to conclude that she is simply being a pest, that she is bored, that she is trying to take something from me, but that's a false narrative. The real story, the story of connection, is that like the rest of nature, she is offering me a gift. She is offering me medicine. Humans, despite our self-aggrandizing narratives are emphatically not the center of creation, we are not the apex. Stella sees that we are in peril, playing on the ledge of disconnection, and she's there to pull us back before we plummet to our certain demise. 

I'm not writing in metaphors here. These are lessons I've learned from Stella, pine trees, and the rest of the natural world. This is the real education. It is connection, not data, not information, not a lesson plan or curriculum. Our disconnection makes us forget. It makes us, frankly, stupid. Connection is the only way that learning ever happens. In our hubris, we've forgotten how to learn from nature, replacing it with the pathetic story of direct instruction, as if our language alone can contain knowledge, that we can somehow measure it with numbers, that bigger, stronger, older people get to tell the smaller, weaker, younger people what to do and what to know. Nature knows what we've forgotten, that all knowledge, all wisdom, all learning, comes through connection. That is how the wild strawberries and pine trees teach us.

When we walk our neighborhood, Stella dives into it with all of her senses, following trails of scent I can't smell and reacting to sounds I can't hear, connecting, fully, and according to her curiosity. Connecting, connecting, connecting. It's what I see the free children do as well, those younger humans who've not yet learned our ugly stories about disconnection and division. They heed the call of Mother Earth: embrace and be embraced.

Dr. Laura Markham said to us at the summit, "Humanity's engaged this big experiment where we remember we're all connected." It's a statement of persistent optimism, one that for me echoes that of Mother Nature. When we finally remember, we will find that the wild strawberries are right, that the pine trees are right, that Stella is right. 

******

The live portion of Teacher Tom's Play Summit is over, but it's still not too late to join Laura Markham, Lisa Murphy, Akilah Richards, Maggie Dent, Raffi, Suzanne Axelsson, Peter Gray and the rest of us. What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "Turn this world around!" To learn more and to purchase your pass, click here.

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