Saturday, August 13, 2022

Maybe There, We Will Find Ourselves


My wife Jennifer and I began our lives together in a nice apartment in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. After a few years we purchased our first home, from there we moved to a larger home, then a larger one, then a larger one, and finally the largest of them all. Each time we acquired furnishings to fill up that extra space. Each time we started with plenty of storage, then, over time, filled that up as well.

That big house, stuffed with stuff finally came to overwhelm us so we committed ourselves to a small downtown apartment, smaller than the one we had started out sharing. We made six trips to the dump and countless others to charitable organizations as we pared down, yet still we wound up with the largest storage locker they had, stuffed with stuff. It took another year of Craig's List selling to finally get it all down to a more reasonably sized locker. Then the place flooded, destroying all but a few things. I still mourn a few items that, but mostly I felt it as a kind of escape.

About a year ago, we moved to our current home. I sent Jennifer to visit our daughter in New York, clearing the decks for me vs. the stuff. I was determined to not letting a single thing, not a paper clip, stay in our new home unless it was absolutely essential, one way or another.

My process was very similar to the one recommended to early childhood educators by Teacher Tom's Play Summit presenter Lisa Murphy, which is to regularly remove every item from our classrooms, then before putting anything back, ask ourselves some important questions: "Why am I putting this back in?" "Who is it for?" "Who's going to miss it?" 


She tells about a family child care provider who decided to leave the rooms empty until the children asked for it. I know, it would be a kind of logistical nightmare, especially for those of us who tend toward being pack rats, but man, what an eye-opening educational experience it would be. 

If you tried it, would they ask for any of it back?

We live in an era of ever-increasing stuff, most of it crap. Toy boxes overflow. Cellars and attics are bursting at the seams. Our closets, shelves and drawers are stuffed. Unless we proactively and intentionally think about our possessions, they slowly, but surly comes to possess us. Lisa's advice is practical, but it is also at the same time deeply philosophical. Why is this in my life? Organizational celebrity Marie Kondo recommends asking ourselves, "Does this spark joy?" but as early childhood experts and parents, we have the responsibility to ask, "Does this spark joy in children?"

As I was going through my process, I came across many things that I had saved, not because they sparked joy exactly, but because they sparked memories. I held each of those item for a moment, allowing the memories to take me where they would, but then, perhaps after reducing it to a photo on my phone, I let it go, and as I did, it in turn released me. 

We are not put on this earth to curate our stuff, but rather to use it or let it go because sometimes, as with the children in Lisa's story, the most important thing we can do is explore this vast empty space. Maybe there, we will find ourselves.

******

It's not too late to join Teacher Tom's Play Summit, but today is the last chance to watch my full interview with Lisa for free. Please join us August 13-17. Click here to get your free pass and learn more about all 20 of our incredible sessions with early childhood experts and thought-leaders from around the world. You will be inspired, informed, and challenged. Professional development certificates are available and you can upgrade to unlimited access. Please share this far and wide. 

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, August 12, 2022

Shoulder-To-Shoulder, One Day At A Time, In Gratitude




For the past many months, my wife Jennifer and I have been all Teacher Tom's Play Summit, all the time, and tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. PST, it finally begins.

Originally, our plan was for the event to take place in mid-June, but that was before Jennifer's accident in April, a near-death experience that upended all of our plans. Four months later, still not a day goes by when we are not continuing to be impacted by her 14-foot fall down the stairs, landing on her head. She still suffers daily from vertigo, she still needs bed rest every afternoon, she still can't safely drive, walk down stairs easily, carry heavy objects, or concentrate for extended periods of time. 

When the doctors told us it might be a year or more before she was back to normal, it hadn't seemed real. Now it does.

Of course Jennifer at 50 percent is like another person at 110 percent.

Yesterday, as we sat shoulder-to-shoulder at our dining room table, taking a Zoom meeting, it occurred to me that we've hardly been apart since April. Of course, I've run errands and we've both occasionally seen friends separately, but for the most part we've been like we were at the table, shoulder-to-shoulder, living and working together.

This is the classic recipe for marital discord, disaster even, and we've had our moments, but I know that when I reflect back on this summit in the years to come, it will be this absolute togetherness that I'll most recall. We've been one another's partners in every way, every day, shoulder-to-shoulder, aligned in our love and in our life's mission, which is to make the world a little better by making the lives of young children, and those who care for them, a little better.

Tomorrow is day one of the summit, featuring my friends: Lisa Murphy, Lenore Skenazy, Maggie Dent, and Kisha Reid. Lisa is one of my greatest professional inspirations. Lenore's Free Range Kids movement set me on the road to being the educator and parent I am today. Maggie, in many ways, has taken me under her wing. And Kisha, one of my best friends in this profession, is also one of my most important guides into thinking about play and the families of young children. I'm moved to the edge of tears as I write this, recalling that each of them have reached out in care and compassion for us during these challenging months, offering their help and support.

Day two presenter Monique Gray Smith talks about gifts and gratitude, saying "sometimes a hug can be a gift." This morning, I'm overwhelmed with gratitude for our community of play-based early childhood educators. We are truly in this together on behalf of the children. 


I'm grateful this morning for the pandemic. I know this might be a strange thing to write, but it's amazing to me how many of our presenters expressed their own gratitude for these difficult times that we've all shared together, shoulder-to-shoulder. Monique talks of the importance of finding gratitude for the "gifts of the pandemic," a sentiment my mother expressed by reminding me to "count your blessings." Kisha Reid tells us that many of her school's families reconnected during the past couple years, spending more time together, especially outdoors. "They've been camping more," she tells us. "Some of them turned their yards into playgrounds." She tells us that as the new school year is starting more families than ever are opting for her half day program because they don't want to lose this blessing that emerged from darkness.

I'm grateful this morning for presenter Caitlyn McCain. I've learned so much from her, not just about talking with young children about challenging social issues, but also about the importance of "trying on," the way children try on costumes or actors embody characters, as a way of understanding. I'm grateful for the gift of Tiersa McQueen's courage as a mother, her commitment to really seeing and hearing her four children, especially when what she learns doesn't match society's conventions. My heart is full for the lifelong work of Valora Washington who has been championing play for Black and Brown children for four decades. 

My friend Juliet Robertson was the first interview I conducted for this summit. We did it so early because she needed to undergo another round of cancer treatment and wanted to talk with us before re-engaging her cancer -- not fighting it, she tells us, but by confronting it with the non-violent direct action that stands at the center of her pacifist upbringing. I was overwhelmed when I reached out to Suzanne Axelsson to ask her to join us only to have her tell me that she had spent the last year working with Roberta Pucci and Nona Orbach, inspired into collaboration by last year's summit. They wanted to share, shoulder-to-shoulder, their powerful insights at this year's summit. My heart is full that I've finally been able to tick meeting Pennie Brownlee off my bucket list. And I cannot tell you how grateful I am for Sonya Philip as well as Anitha Mereka and Jan Brown who show us what it means to really fight for the rights of children to learn through play in educational cultures (India and Rwanda respectively) that are too often characterized by unhealthy competition and yelling teachers.

I'm grateful for the deep commitment of Nick Terrones, who works each day to not just decolonize, but, as he says, to "re-Indigenize" the world for Native children and their families. And I cannot say enough about the gift of Jesse Hagopian who tells us about the joy and beauty of linking arms with fellow educators, parents, and students, always courageously at the forefront of the most pressing educational struggles of today: the fight against high stakes standardized testing, the movement to ensure that all children have access to recess, and Black Lives Matter at School. Likewise, I'm grateful for the gift of Mina Tobias' story about the impact of mental illness on her family and how that has sparked a struggle to cut through the stigma and shine light on the very real, very large problem of mental illness. 

Mr. Chazz Lewis inspires us with his raw honesty about learning "the hard way." Naomi Fisher takes us into an often painful deep dive into what we think we know about how humans learn. Vanessa LaPointe tells us how to regain our "swagger," both as parents and educators. "You've got this!" she says.

And then there is Mónica Guzmán who talks to us about nothing less than healing our divides. Americans today say that division -- political, social, and educational -- is the single challenge in our world that impacts them most directly. I expect that this is true of people all over the world, and until we figure out a way to heal these divides, these wounds, we can't possibly make progress on anything else. Her message of "radical curiosity" as the healing power we need is one that lifts me out of despair and makes me finally see that it is possible. Each of us is in a position to turn our assumptions into questions that can let us see that we are all, even if it doesn't always look like it, meant to be shoulder-to-shoulder on this earth. 

Jennifer and I are grateful for the gift that is you as well. We hope that you'll accept the summit as a token of our appreciation for all that you do with and for young children. Please join us for the next five days, or even for one day, or even for one session.

I have a vision of this summit as an enormous round table with all of us sitting together, shoulder-to-shoulder, face-to-face, sharing our perspectives, but more importantly, listening. Then together, arm-in-arm, in beauty and joy, we will stride out together in the name of our children to make the world, one day at a time, in gratitude, a little bit better.

******

Please join us for Teacher Tom's Play Summit. Our presenters represent 11 countries, an age range that spans more than half a century, and a rainbow of culture, race, and neurotype. We want to include you as well! We want to include you so much that we've made it free! Please join us August 13-17 for 20 sessions from early childhood and parenting experts. You will be informed, inspired, challenged, and most importantly, included! Click here to get your free pass and learn more. Professional development certificates are available and you can upgrade to unlimited access. Please share this far and wide so that we can include everyone who wants to be included. 

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, August 11, 2022

If Our Goal Is To Help Our Fellow Humans


I arrived home from walking the dog, to find police cars, fire trucks, and an ambulance filling the city block just below my apartment window. In recent years, I've taken it on as a civic duty to get nosy about anything involving police activity, so instead of just staying out of the way, I got out my phone and got it ready to record. As I waited to cross Westlake Avenue, a young man excitedly told me that there was someone on the roof of my building, eleven stories up, threatening to "start a fire and jump." 

My first thought is to wonder if it was was someone from the building I know. One would need to gain access to the building and then use an elevator code to get up there, so it was likely that it was one of the 300 or so people who live in the building. 

I did what we all do, I think, when we consider suicide. I recognized how small my problems were compared to what this person was going through, I despaired about the tragedy of mental illness, I wondered if there was something I should be doing to help. I finally decided that the best thing I could do would be to just get out of the way and leave it to the professionals.

It wasn't until I was back in my apartment, the flashing blue and red lights just below me, that I thought to ask, "What professionals?"

Fire fighters, EMTs, and ambulance drivers aren't mental health professionals, and if the last decade has taught me anything, it's that your typical cop certainly isn't. If someone is threatening to start a fire and jump from the roof of a tall building, I can understand why you would want fire fighters and trained medical people on hand, but why police? I counted at least 10 officers milling around below me and just as many squad cars, including one larger, ominous looking van. From what I could determine, they were there for . . . What? Crowd control? Two of the police vehicles were being used to block off the roadway to traffic. Fair enough, but do we really need an army of well-armed men on the scene of an individual's mental health crisis? I can't imagine that their presence gave any sort of solace or peace to the poor man on the roof. 

As Mina Tobias, co-founder of the Don't MIND Me foundation, tells me at Teacher Tom's Play Summit, one in four families are directly impacted by mental illness, yet it's something we rarely talk about except, like I'm doing here, when it comes to a dramatic crisis. We look the other way. We sweep it under the rug and hope no one will notice. And this silence is deadly. Mina tells us the story of her brother Sylvester and her family's struggle to get him diagnosed and treated. "And we're some of the lucky ones," she says, pointing out that the stigma and fear surrounding mental illness combined with lack of funding leaves too many alone in a world. And alone in a world that does not understand mental illness, is a real and present danger. She recounts the time a SWAT team was called on her Black brother as he suffered from a bi-polar episode. Fortunately, the family was able to convince the officers that they could holster their weapons, but the vast majority aren't so lucky. They are left to fend for themselves against the army of police who arrive ready for battle when compassion is what's needed.


If you have to send an army of any kind to the scene of a potential suicide, wouldn't it make more sense to send in an army of mental health professionals, people trained in the art and science of talking people off of ledges? It occurred to me that I, as a preschool teacher, was probably better equipped to handle the situation than a cop: I've spent my entire career working with human beings in emotional moments. I even considered making my way to the roof of my building. What stopped me were all the guns. I was afraid of getting caught in crossfire or being mistakenly identified as a threat. I spent the rest of the afternoon anxiously anticipating, not the tragedy of a despondent fellow human throwing himself to his death, but rather the sound of gunshots. 

I'm left with asking why we persist in our irrational reliance on an armed response to mental illness and the answer I keep coming to is the one Mina talks about: we need to break the silence. We need to find a way to set aside our shame and fear about mental illness normalize telling our own stories about mental illness. This is the mission of the Don't MIND Me foundation. It's fear and ignorance that causes us to resort to men with guns rather than mental health professionals. 

We need to rethink our nation's relationship with mental health and the place to start, I'm convinced, is with telling our own stories. That's what makes sense if our goal is to help our fellow humans. 

******

To watch my full interview with Mina, please join us August 13-17 for the free Teacher Tom's Play Summit. Click here to get your free pass and learn more about all 20 of our incredible sessions with early childhood experts and thought-leaders from around the world. You will be inspired, informed, and challenged. Professional development certificates are available and you can upgrade to unlimited access. Please share this far and wide. Compassion must be born anew with each generation and we are the midwives.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Learning The Hard Way


Our daughter lives in Manhattan, which means that my wife and I regularly visit the Big Apple. I love walking in that city. Every block, it seems, offers vistas and experiences that can only exist in the urban density. It's exciting, vibrant, rough, and beautiful. 

And the people -- there are so many people. I'm aware that this isn't a selling point for many, and sometimes they do just seem to be in my way, but honestly, most of the time, I'm thrilled by being one of millions, a unique individual amidst other unique individuals, with our varied histories, perspectives, opinions, and attitudes. You can hear a half dozen different languages in a single block. I find myself regularly overwhelm with the miraculous idea that we are all there, closely together, somehow, despite our differences, finding ways to make it work. It's not always pretty, of course, but in the back of my mind is this idea that this city is evidence that there are still a lot of us who have not given up on humankind.

When I'm in the city, I find myself becoming a different person. For instance, I've spent most of my adult life in Seattle, a place where most of us wait on the curb for the crosswalk light to change. It's such a habit that when I first arrive in New York, I find myself instinctively waiting while my fellow humans flow past me, crossing against the light. At first I might try to stick to my Seattle training, but before long, perhaps after two or three days, I've joined the flow.

Education consultant Mr. Chazz Lewis shares this example with me at the fast approaching Teacher Tom's Play Summit. "Crossing against the light is part of the culture of New York. No one has to tell newcomers what to do." This is an example he uses to show us how culture teaches.


I'll never forget an early, rainy morning in downtown Seattle, standing on the curb waiting for the crosswalk light. There was no traffic. Indeed, the only people I could see were the people standing, waiting, in the rain, on either side of me. To my right was a disheveled man who had obviously been sleeping rough. To my left I recognized John Ellis, the CEO of the Puget Power company. No one was telling any of us what to do. There was no threat of punishment, no reward, no fear, yet here we stood together, united as products of our culture.

In his frank and honest interview, Mr. Chazz talks about his own journey as an educator, how he learned "the hard way" about such "unhealthy classroom habits" as punishments, rewards, coercion, fear and shame. "We spend too much of our time yanking children along the path," he says, instead of focusing on creating a true learning culture, one that doesn't require such heavy handed "management."

The Reggio Emilia model of early childhood education considers the environment, which includes culture, to be one every child's three teachers, on equal footing with adults and peers. More often than not, I've found that when challenging or upsetting behaviors emerge from children, the solution isn't to fix the child, but rather to fix the environment. It might not always be the case, but it is always the right place to start. What is it about the classroom culture that makes this child feel like he needs to hit others? How can I work with my third teacher to reduce the amount of shouting or running? What is it about our culture that causes so many kids to hoard or compete or destroy the work of others?

Sometimes the solution is as simple as re-arranging the furniture. If the kids are running in circles inside the classroom, it's probably because the environment looks like a race track. 

Often, however, the answer lies in the culture you are creating as the de facto leader of this small, dense community. For instance, no one, no matter what their age, responds well to being told what to do. Imagine what would happen if you tried to command those New Yorkers to wait for the green light. Or, perhaps better, imagine how you would respond if one of those New Yorkers brusquely ordered you to, "Move it!" I might, after all, move it, but I'd do so reluctantly, probably feeling resentment or anger, but there's an equal chance I'd refuse to budge at all. There's even a chance that I'd have some choice words for them.

Most classrooms with which I've been involved, most of the time, share much in common with Manhattan. As Mr. Chazz says, "Classrooms are a diverse mixture" of family backgrounds, temperaments, and capabilities. Like the city, classrooms tend to be densely populated places, exciting, vibrant, rough, and beautiful. 

As the adult in the room, we make a mistake when we think it's our job to command and control these children, forcing them to comply with our ideas of order. This can only lead to learning lessons the hard way, both for the adults as well as the children. No, as leaders, as guides, our responsibility is to first see the children, to understand them in all their wondrous diversity, and then to work, hand-in-hand with them and the environment, to create a learning culture that works for everyone.

******
To watch my full interview with Mr. Chazz, please join us August 13-17 for the free Teacher Tom's Play Summit. Click here to get your free pass and learn more about all 20 of our incredible sessions with early childhood experts and thought-leaders from around the world. You will be inspired, informed, and challenged. Professional development certificates are available and you can upgrade to unlimited access. Please share this far and wide. Together we can create cultures that teach.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Tuesday, August 09, 2022

The Secret To Happiness


As the new school year starts, a common practice for early childhood educators to ask parents to tell us their greatest hopes for their children. It was something I adopted during my first couple years as an teacher, expecting to learn something important about the children's families, but eventually gave up on it because, in my community at least, virtually everyone replied with some version of wanting their kids to "be happy" or to "love learning."

From where I sit, the first was largely impossible, while the later was largely inevitable.

We are born with an instinct for learning. That's what curiosity is, that's what play is. We can crush the natural love to learn with schooling and schoolish-ness, of course, but since Woodland Park has a child-lead, play-based curriculum, I had no concerns about the children from that perspective.

Happiness on the other hand is a strange emotion in that, as Aristotle pointed out, it is the one emotion that tends to disappear when we try to examine it. We can all sit down with our other emotions and figure out what's causing them, but happiness is too slippery for that. It doesn't stand still for close examination and this is especially true when we are concerned with the happiness of others. Happiness doesn't want to be examined, it wants to be experienced and, frankly, hallelujah for that.

As psychologist and Teacher Tom's Play Summit presenter Vanessa LaPointe tells us, it's easy to get "duped into the belief that it's your job to make the child be happy." She's talking about parenting, but it also applies to any caring adult. Of course, we wish for the happiness of others, but when we try to manufacture it we will fail. And when the truth is told, the most important things we ever learn are the products of experiencing all of our emotions. Happiness isn't a very good teacher. Indeed, it's the so-called negative emotions like frustration or sadness or pain or even anger, that teach us the most.


When we try, and inevitably fail, to make our children happy, we then, as Dr. LaPointe tells us, become "alarmed and full of angst," which in turn makes the children alarmed and full of angst. Our job, as important adults in the lives of children is not to manufacture anything, least of all happiness, but rather to allow them to grow toward their highest potential, or as Vanessa puts it, "the fullest version of themselves, so that they can then be happy."

Indeed, it is at this point, and only this point, that learning and happiness hold hands. It's here that we see that both learning and happiness manifest as lifelong pursuits, driven by curiosity. This is why Aristotle was convinced that the only way to know whether or not we've lived a happy life is from the perspective of the end, when we cast our gaze back over our lives and see that we've lived as the fullest version of ourselves. That is, in the end, the hope for all of us.

The secret to happiness is to allow it.

******

To watch my full interview with Vanessa, please join us August 13-17 for the free Teacher Tom's Play Summit. Click here to get your free pass and learn more about all 20 of our incredible sessions with early childhood experts and thought-leaders from around the world. You will be inspired, informed, and challenged. Professional development certificates are available and you can upgrade to unlimited access. Please share this far and wide. Let's allow happiness!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Monday, August 08, 2022

"What These Children Need Most Is Play"


The long-term effects of the things we do to children in schools is a notoriously difficult thing to capture in research.

Generally speaking, however, we as a society have concluded, based on our collective behavior and with little evidence, that more academic training at earlier ages is the way to go. We assume that if we want kids to be good at school (a dubious goal at best) then we must give them lots of practice in preschool, which has lead in recent decades to two-year-olds being expected to sit at desks to be the targets of formal literacy and mathematics training. It has lead to our youngest citizens spending the bulk of their days indoors, focusing increasingly on things like worksheets and memorization drills. 

Many of us, including readers here, have looked on with horror. Preschoolers are simply not developmentally ready for this type of schooling. We see evidence that these unrealistic pressures are one of the leading causes of the current spike in childhood anxiety and depression. When we point any of this out, when we say that the push toward academic preschools is harmful to children and prevents them from working on the foundational social-emotional learning that young children need, proponents of top-down, adult-directed academic style schooling insist that it's the price we must pay for the long-term benefits, especially for disadvantaged children. They point to studies that show that children who are exposed to these "school readiness" types of curricula have a leg up with things like letter recognition and print awareness.

They can legitimately assert this because the research on the short-term effects consistently shows that children from academic preschool programs do enter kindergarten with certain advantages over those who have spent their preschool years playing. The part of the research that they ignore is that whenever an attempt has been made to study the long-term impact, we see that those advantages disappear rather quickly leaving the drill-and-kill kids largely indistinguishable academically, and worse off by other measures, from comparable peers who were not enrolled in academic-based programs. 

This is a consistent finding, going all the way back to the Perry Preschool Project, still the gold standard for long-term research on the impact of preschool. This study continues to track low-income children from a play-based program since the mid-1960's. They were the first to find that academic advantages faded rapidly once the kids moved on to elementary school. It's a result that has been replicated repeatedly, right up to a recent study on Tennessee's Pre-K program for children from low-income families that not only recreated this result, but found that by 3rd grade the children who attended the academics based program performed worse on both academic and behavioral measures than classmates who were never in the program.

In other words, the Tennessee Pre-K program harmed the children it sought to help.

The children studied in the Perry Preschool Project, however, the ones who attended a play-based, child-centered program also lost their short-term academic advantages, but continued, into adulthood, to reap the benefits of their behavioral head start. They had fewer teenage pregnancies, were more likely to have graduated from high school, to hold a job and have higher earnings, to commit fewer crimes, and to own their own home and car. They are more self-motivated, better at working with others, and, generally speaking, are more personable. 

The key, I think, is that these kids got to play when they were young, which is the soil from which healthy, happy, well-adjusted adults grow. 

If you want to read more about the research into the harm caused by academic preschools, I urge you to take a look at this recent piece in Psychology Today from author and researcher Peter Gray.

I know that many of the people who read here do not need more research to tell them that young children need play and lots of it. We are in the classroom every day, seeing the benefits with our own eyes. But as the Biden Administration here in the US gears up to offer free universal state-run preschool for 3 and 4-year-olds, there is a great danger that they will ignore the evidence in favor of yet more academic-style schooling for our youngest citizens. This will harm the children and it's harm that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

I also know that many people who read here will, however, hold their noses and support anything that offers free childcare for low income families. 

We are compassionate people. We know that the families of our low and middle-income students are struggling financially and free preschool, even free drill-and-kill preschool, will be a boon to them. Experience tells us, however, that nothing is really free, no matter what party is in charge. This "free" preschool will come with so-called "accountability" requirements that will invariably mean, among other things, high stakes testing (high stakes for those whose funding is on the line). This will mean sitting preschoolers in desks to be trained to pass tests. This will mean top-down school prep curricula, a grindstone that is completely inappropriate for these children who need to play. And, as researcher and author Valora Washington tells me at the upcoming Teacher Tom's Play Summit, poor children, and especially children of color already suffer from a play deficit. When we push heavily academic experiences on them we are creating the very deprivation we seek to overcome. "What these children need most is play," says Valora.


Still, many well-intended educators have told me that it is a price we should be willing to pay for the economic relief that universal preschool will provide low and middle-income families. As Valora tells us, this harms the very children we seek to help.

One of the Biden administration's strongest arguments in favor of universal preschool is the economic benefits it will bring to families. I can stand fully behind free universal childcare. This is something we should have done long ago. But labeling this as "school," even "preschool," is a real and present danger to the children and families we are hoping to help because our society has consistently demonstrated that it will do harmful things to children in the name of schooling. 

******

To watch my full interview with Valora, please join us August 13-17 for the free Teacher Tom's Play Summit. Click here to get your free pass and learn more about all 20 of our incredible sessions with early childhood experts and thought-leaders from around the world. You will be inspired, informed, and challenged. Professional development certificates are available and you can upgrade to unlimited access. Please share this far and wide. All children need to play!

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, August 05, 2022

The Culture Of Inclusion


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

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

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


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

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

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

"What are you playing?"

"You're playing with blocks."

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

******

I strive to make inclusion part of everything I do. Not only because it is morally right, but also because diversity is strength. In this spirit, I've made every effort to include a variety of perspectives for the upcoming Teacher Tom's Play Summit. Our presenters represent 11 countries, an age range that spans more than half a century, and a rainbow of culture, race, and neurotype. I want to include you as well! I want to include you so much that it's free! Please join us August 13-17 for 20 sessions from early childhood and parenting experts. You will be informed, inspired, challenged, and most importantly, included! Click here to get your free pass and learn more. Professional development certificates are available and you can upgrade to unlimited access. Please share this far and wide so that we can include everyone who wants to be included. 

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