Friday, April 09, 2021

We Too Often Rob Children of What Makes Anything Worth Pursuing


"Don't worry Leon, you can always make some more blood."

I heard Luke say it in passing, consoling his friend, as I was on my way to somewhere else. Not having heard what came before or after, it struck me as both hilarious and intriguing. I couldn't help but try to bring it up again. When next Luke and I met on the playground, I said, "You can always make some more blood."

"It's true, Teacher Tom! Your heart pumps and makes more blood. That's why you don't run out when you bleed." Luke knows a little something about bleeding. "And you know what else? Blood is really blue."

I was sitting on the ground with Audrey and a couple of other kids. Audrey interrupted, "No, blood is red."

"No, really," Luke said, turning to her persuasively, "It's blue inside, but when it comes out it looks red."

"Luke, it's red. I've seen it."

"No really, it's true, it's blue."

I thought I could clarify. "I think what Luke is saying is that blood looks blue when it's inside our body. See my vein?" I showed her my inner wrist. "Doesn't it look blue? Veins are how blood flows in our bodies."

Luke supported me, "That's right, Teacher Tom. That's what I'm saying."

But Audrey had other information. "No, that means the blood is flowing to your heart, and it's red when it flows away from your heart. That's the way blood flows: around and around." She drew a circle in the air with her finger.

Some of the other kids were fascinated with studying the visible veins in their wrists and I was distracted into that conversation, but the science debate continued between our two experts. By the time I re-focused on them Luke was saying, "I guess we're both right."

And Audrey replied, "Yeah, we're both right."


Friendship won out over being right, but not over science. Luke was, of course, correct in his assertion that blood inside the body -- as seen through the skin which reflects blue, but absorbs colors of other wavelengths -- appears blue to the human eye. And, of course, that is the nature of color: we only see what is reflected. It's why everything appears to be the same color, black, in the pitch dark. Audrey was correct in her assertion that blood flowing away from the heart tends to be a brighter red because it is highly oxygenated, while on its return trip it tends to be a sort of purplish-red because it is oxygen-depleted. 

It's tempting, as an adult with a little more information, to step in and correct the flaws in their arguments, to give them the correct, or more correct, or more complete answer. This is the sort of conversation that we so often pounce on as a "teachable moment," but I chose to let them conclude like this. Science is built on inquiry and collegial debate, just like this one. (The angry debate is for politicians and theologians who are too often more invested in winning arguments than understanding)

Luke and Audrey came to the table with essentially true, but incomplete information, which is how we all go through life every day. They each walked away with a little more truth, but their knowledge, like that of all of us, remains incomplete. That is what drives the educated mind, not the knowledge, but the incompleteness, the wanting to know. Education is about discovery. It is about knowing that I can think and find answers. When we leap in with our grown-up "knowledge" we too often rob children of what makes science, or anything for that matter, worth pursuing.

******

Teacher Tom's Play Summit is online, free, and takes place June 21-25. To learn more and to get on the waitlist, click here! I'm excited about this line-up, including Akilah Richards, Peter Gray, Lisa Murphy, Maggie Dent, and the one and only Raffi! But I'm mostly excited about all of us coming together, for children, to turn this world around.

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, April 08, 2021

Are Uncluttered Classrooms Really Best for Young Leaners?

Jean Piaget in his office

The conventional wisdom is that an uncluttered classroom is best for young learners. I regularly see photos labeled as "classroom don'ts" with scads of posters and other art on the walls, things dangling from the ceilings, and materials stuffed willy-nilly on shelves. These busy, messy spaces, we're told, are full of distractions, making it difficult to concentrate. They are visually over-stimulating, whereas a cleaner, tidier space, with it's bare walls and organized shelves, calms children, which is, according to this theory, the proper mindset for learning. Indeed, research indicates that a tidy space may promote such desirable traits as healthy eating and generosity. People in tidy spaces are, likewise, more likely to follow rules, adhere to expectations, and to make "conventional" choices, which would, I presume, make them better at, say, passing a test.

"If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?" ~Albert Einstein


Research also indicates that a messy space promotes creative thinking and stimulates new ideas. "Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights," according Kathleen Vohs, the University of Minnesota psychological researcher who studies these things. "Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe."

So I can understand why educators concerned with such things as "classroom management" and marching children through a curriculum would value a spit-spot classroom.

Steve Jobs' home office

I can also understand why educators might want the visual of a tidy space as a way to appeal to parents considering where to send their children to school: order is very appealing in the abstract.

But it seems that what we lose is creativity.

I'm certain that some people are reading this with arguments in their heads one way or another, because, naturally, we all have our personal preferences. My own home tends to be very tidy . . . as far as you know, because I tidy up for company. I suppose I consider my natural state, as far as space goes, as right on the edge. What I do with the next hour will often determine whether it's neat as a pen or a pig pen. Having spent more time at home during the past year since any time since I was an infant, I've seen a kind of ebb and flow. It almost feels like I need to occasionally clear the canvas, so to speak, before I can launch into my "real work." And then for weeks, the laundry situation is a mess, my counters are bestrewn, and my table tops are home to disorderly stacks.

Albert Einstein's desk the day he died. Ralph Morse/Time

The notion of space is a fascinating thing to consider. For most of human existence, we spent the bulk of our waking ours in unconfined space, with the sky as our ceiling, but we've always also created interior spaces in which to secure ourselves. Today, most of us spend most of our lives indoors and this goes for children as well. Indoor space is fundamentally different than outdoor space: one is finite, the other infinite. We feel we can control our indoor spaces, whereas, beyond the confines of our gardens, the outdoors is a place where we have no choice but to give up control: the sun rises on the evil and on the good; the rains fall on the just and the unjust. There is a feeling of freedom that one can attain outdoors that is more elusive when we're confined. We breath easier, we set aside our urge to control. We can't organize the trees or tidy the clouds. Being outdoors allows us to more easily just let go, which, is the best mental state for creativity.

Interior order is a more attainable thing, or so we think. We seek to control as much as we seek to be free. Both urges live within us. When someone sets themselves free indoors the way one might outdoors, we often talk about it as "giving up," a phrase that can be uttered in joy or in despair, and I suppose messiness can mean either of those things. Our interior spaces are like that. They often reveal our mental state. And changing the nature of our interior spaces can, quite often, trigger changes in our mental state and vice versa.



But these considerations are about spaces we can control. Piaget made his own office messy. I clutter up my own home. Classrooms, however, are shared spaces, much in the way that Mother Nature is a shared space. We release control outdoors, at least in part, because it's simply too vast to consider controlling, there are too many variables, too many agendas, so we "let go" which is a nicer way of saying "give up." When I see a tidy classroom, I see a single hand of a control and it doesn't belong to the children. I worry because I see space designed for and by "management." Not only that, but I know that the children who spend their days in that space are not free to manipulate the environment toward their own ends.

My goal is always creative thinking and new ideas. That is what learning is in my book. And toward that end, I've always preferred classrooms that are creations of all of us, not just "management." This means, "letting go" and embracing the notion of "tidy enough." This is the natural state of a world in which children have agency. It is the environment of creative thinking and new ideas.

It's tempting to fall back on the common wisdom of "finding a balance," but I think that's bunk. Balance is too often just a version of "both sider-ism," a dull compromise that leaves everyone dissatisfied. No, I think of my classroom space more in terms of ebb and flow in which the canvas is periodically cleaned.

Our spaces shape us and we shape them in a back and forth between our urge to control and our need to be free.

******

Teacher Tom's Play Summit is online, free, and takes place June 21-25. To learn more and to get on the waitlist, 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, April 07, 2021

Let's Turn The World Around: Teacher Tom's Play Summit



We heard it from Mandela,
"Turn this world around,
For the children" - turn this world around.
He's done it once before, and now we hear his call
For the children, turn this world around.
Turn, turn, turn,
Turn this world around
For the children, turn this world around.
Turn, turn, turn, 
Turn this world around
For the children
Turn this world around.
                                ~Raffi

It's an urgent message, one that's part of almost every conversation I have these days. The principle project of every society has always been to care for the children, yet in so many ways, we are failing in this fundamental task. I myself have been going along for years, feeling like I was doing enough: that if I just tended my little corner of the world where children are free to enjoy an authentic childhood, where they are respected, where their needs are met in a community that strives to let them grow up as free people . . . but I know now that this is not enough.

These last 12 months have been transformative in so many ways, not all bad. Indeed, many of us have expressed our hopes that the legacy of the pandemic might be exactly the catalyst we need to turn this world around, not just for children, but for all of us. At least as many are expressing fears, because transformation doesn't always naturally happen the way we want it to. No, the only way the world has ever "turned around" has been when we make it happen.

This is the inspiration behind Teacher Tom's Play Summit, a free online gathering of early childhood educators and parents taking place June 21-25. Please join us. Together we will turn this world around. 

We've managed to pull together some of the most progressive and thoughtful people in ECE, from Peter Gray, Lisa Murphy, and Maggie Dent to the beloved children's troubadour Raffi whose message of "child honouring" comes directly from the Dali Lama. We have cast a wide net to assemble a line-up of both established experts as well as less often heard voices from marginalized communities. The fate of young children is one of the few issues that can truly unite all of us, and it starts with listening to children, to one another, and sharing our perspectives from around the globe. 

Maori educator Brenda Souter says, "It's a journey. It's not a destination . . . And we certainly have not reached it if it is." Ojibwe teacher Hopi Martin warns, "There is a real need to repair what is lost. We've got to work together or we're in big trouble." And Denisha Jones, co-founder of Black Lives Matters in Schools, tells us that first "we have to liberate ourselves" which is, I think, the most logical next step in this journey that may not reach its destination in our lifetimes.

But that's okay. As Defending Early Childhood board member and Play Empowers founder Kisha Reid said to me when last we spoke, "Let's take over the world!" which is her way of saying "Turn this world around." 

As we hopefully try to emerge from a pandemic, from political and social turmoil, and as we are finally opening our eyes and ears to the voices of those less often heard, the time is ripe for transformation, for children, for all of us, and we are the ones to make it happen.

Please, please join us. Please share with others. Now is the right time and you are the right person. Click here to learn more about our presenters and get on the waitlist. Let's turn this world around.


******

Teacher Tom's Play Summit is online, free, and takes place June 21-25. To learn more and to get on the waitlist, 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, April 06, 2021

Only Compassion Makes Hope Worth Something


Seattle's public schools have re-opened for in-person instruction this week, a sign that many are taking as the beginning of our return to "normal." Vaccinations in our state are going to be available for everyone over 16 starting next week, another signal that "normal" is just around the corner. But let's remember some things.

Nearly 40,000 American children lost a parent to the pandemic. Black children were disproportionately impacted.

So far, only one American child has died from influenza during the current flu season. A typical season sees a couple hundred deaths.


77 percent of US educators are working more today than a year ago.

60 percent enjoy their job less. The same number do not feel their school district's safety precautions were adequate.


Between 2009 and 2016 there was a 15.4 percent drop in the number of education degrees awarded and a 27.4 percent drop in the number of people who completed teacher preparation programs.


Nearly 40 percent of adults in the US report symptoms of anxiety or depression this year, up from 10 percent who report these symptoms during a typical year.

The pandemic has disproportionately affected the health of communities of color with nearly 50 percent of Black adults and 46 percent of Hispanic or Latino adult reporting anxiety or depression.

Nitrogen dioxide and carbon emissions (the main pollutants in the burning of fossil fuels) in New York City are nearly 50 percent lower than before the pandemic and 25 percent lower in the nation overall.
 

Noise pollution has been greatly reduced in most cities during the lockdown period.

There has been an increase in biomedical waste and trash levels have spiked due to the disposal of masks, gloves, and other personal protection materials.

Recycling has declined in the past year as governments restricted recycling programs in many cities by nearly 46 percent due to worry about the risk of spreading Covid-19.


41 percent of us report that the pandemic has had a negative impact on our personal relationships. 

33 percent of us report that the pandemic has had a positive impact on our personal relationships.

40 percent of adults under 50 report it has had a positive impact, while only 25 percent of those over 50 saw improvements.

45 percent of those 65 and older say the pandemic has forced them to remain isolated at home compared to just 27 percent of those under 50 say this.

Only 14 percent of adults feel their health has improved in the past year.

Double that number say their health has gotten worse.

Only 13 percent report positive changes in their work situation. Americans with higher income levels were more likely to mention positive work changes (21 percent) than were lower income earners (8 percent).

22 percent of children had at least one unemployed parent, the highest rate observed since 1967.

Prior to the pandemic 1 in 5 American children lived in poverty. The data is not yet available for 2020.


35 percent of children 5-17 infected with Covid are Hispanic/Latino

Black, non-Hispanic children have a hospitalization rate of over 16 percent

Hispanic/Latino children have a hospitalization rate of 10.5 percent

White children have a hospitalization rate of 2 percent.

In the first two months of the Covid crises alone, 336,000 child care employees lost their jobs, the vast majority of whom are women and disproportionately women of color.


It's human nature to look forward and it is always a good thing to count our blessings and seek out silver linings. But there is no normal to which we can return, there is only this new reality. Hope is vital, but it will be compassion, and only compassion, that will make our hope worth something.

******

As preschool educators, we don't just educate children, but their families as well. For the past 20 years, I've been working in a place that puts the tri-cornered relationship of child-parent-educator at the center, and over that time I've learned a great deal about how to work with families to create the kind of village every child needs and deserves. I'm proud to announce that I've assembled what I've learned into a 6-part e-course called Partnering With Parents in which I share my best thinking on how educators can and should make allies of the parents of the children we teach. (Click this link to register and to learn more.) Register now to receive early bird pricing. Discounts are available for groups.

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, April 05, 2021

Teaching Young Children, the Interplay of Minds, and (Of Course) Fighting Imperialism




In Marshall McLuhan's book The Gutenberg Galaxy, he is concerned with the affects of media on humans,  taking a deep look at how the adoption of the phonetic alphabet dramatically changed our relationship to the world.

"When words are written, they become, of course, a part of the visual world. Like most of the elements of the visual world they become static things and lose, as such, the dynamism which is so characteristic of the auditory world in general, and of the spoken word in particular."

He argues that with the advent of the printing press and the widespread literacy that followed, the balance of our senses has shifted so that our visual sense has come to dominate, pushing our other senses to the background. Whereas pre-literate humans were more attuned to all their senses, modern humans have become increasingly reliant upon seeing. "Seeing is believing," we say, but for preliterate humans reality seems to reside far more in what is heard than what is said. Modern humans are conditioned to disregard much of our aural world, favoring the visual because that, we've come to believe, is where the most significance lies.

McLuhan makes the case that this narrowing of our experience into one in which the visual sense dominates has lead to such things we consider bedrock, like the perception that time passes in a linear manner, that space is uniform, and cause and effect are sequential. For preliterate humans, words existed not as a sequence of symbols on a page (or screen in the present case), but rather as sounds. 
"Sounds are in a sense dynamic things, or at least are always indicators of dynamic things -- of movements, event, activities for which man, when largely unprotected from the hazard of life in the bush or veldt, must be ever on the alert . . . Sounds lose much of this significance in Western Europe . . . for rural Africans* reality seems to reside far more in what is heard than what is said."
(*Note: When he writes of "rural Africans" here, he is referring to research performed in the early part of the last century when most of rural Africa was preliterate, which is no longer the case.)

His larger argument is that with the advent of the new media of the electronic age, and the creation of "the global village," we are beginning a process of rebalancing all of our other senses, but in the meantime, we are in a position similar to the ancient Greeks, those early adopters of the phonetic alphabet, who were the first to experience this breaking apart of the "magical world of the ear and the neutral world of the eye . . .

"It follows, of course, that literate man, when we meet him in the Greek world, is a split man, a schizophrenic, as all literate men have been since the invention of the phonetic alphabet."

Whether or not you buy the entirety of McLuhan's larger argument, I find his case for the impact of literacy on human beings convincing and it occurs to me that the young children in our preschools share much in common with those rural Africans in that they still live in a the "magical world of the ear."

I've taught many children who have been "diagnosed" (a word I'm loath to use in this regard) with sensory processing disorders. These children are characterized as "oversensitive" to their environments, particularly to sounds or touch, which can overwhelm or even cause physical pain. One boy, for instance, would vomit at the sound of a leaf blower. Others have hidden from certain sounds or been driven to distraction by the feel of articles of clothing on their skins. Some of these children are more sensitive to taste or smells. We couldn't use Ivory Soap in our classroom one year because it activated a child's gag reflex.

"Treatments" typically involve slowly conditioning these children to be less sensitive or more senstitive, to balance out their senses, but one can't help but wonder if what we are witnessing are natural humans responding to an unnatural world. As a fully literate people, versed in the visual logic of cause and effect, maybe it's us, not them, who are insensitive and out of balance. We've become so separated from our sensory world that we are insulated from the essential dynamism of sounds, scents, tastes, and what we feel on our skin. In making ourselves more visual as a species, we have blinded ourselves in other ways (to use a common metaphor that proves our prejudice in favor of the visual).

Stepping back, it seems obvious that it's not just children with a "diagnosis" who can be viewed as natural humans. At one time or another, every child suffers from anxiety, nightmares, and seemingly irrational fears, experiences we dismiss because we live outside their world. Every child is at times violently repulsed by certain sounds, foods and fragrances. They have not yet learned the trick that we have learned: to exercise the visual sense until it dominates, essentially blocking out all the "noise." It seems that instead of "treating" or "curing" children our focus ought to be on getting down on the floor with them and seeking to enter into their world, not with the mission of fixing them, but rather with the perspective of a researchers trying to understand, with the goal of adjusting the environment to suit them, not the other way around.

St. Thomas Aquinas, a rare literate man in a time before the printing press, but living in an era like our own when the a new media (the printing press) was in the offing (give or take a couple centuries), pointed out that neither Socrates nor Jesus committed their teachings to writing "because the kind of interplay of minds that is in teaching is not possible by means of writing."

This remains true in the early years: we are not filling empty vessels, but rather igniting flames, and that can only happen through this interplay of minds.

As adults, those of us who work with young children have a rare opportunity reside in an actual human "village" before literacy, one in which all five senses (and there are certainly more than the standard five) are free to play in the world. The narrowing will inevitably come later as the lessons of literacy are absorbed, but for these precious years, young children can show us not just our human past, but, if McLuhan is correct, our future as well. The outside world is pressuring us to force "literacy" upon these free people, to begin ever earlier the process of conditioning them to an existence in which seeing is the only believing. The imperialism of Western literacy has driven us to conquer most of the globe, there is hardly any "rural Africa" left, and now they're coming for the last non literate humans.

I seek to protect the early years for the children themselves, who are capable of perceiving in ways and to a depth the rest of us have unlearned, but I do it also because I've seen what happens to cultures we've colonized.

*****

This post is one that emerged from the Woodland Park "village," one that could not have been told without the parent, grandparent, and educator working together. As preschool educators, we don't just educate children, but their families as well. For the past 20 years, I've been working in a place that puts the tri-cornered relationship of child-parent-educator at the center, and over that time I've learned a great deal about how to work with families to create the kind of village every child needs and deserves. I'm proud to announce that I've assembled what I've learned into a 6-part e-course called Partnering With Parents in which I share my best thinking on how educators can and should make allies of the parents of the children we teach. (Click this link to register and to learn more.) Register now to receive early bird pricing. Discounts are available for groups.

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, April 02, 2021

The Hallmark of a Master Player


The girls were playing a game that involved being in the playhouse with periodic forays to the top of the concrete slide. 

"I'm sick!"

"No, I'm sick too!"

"Me too."

They were huddled together, five of them. They had been playing together for the better part of an hour.

"You can't be sick!"

"Yes, I can be sick!"

"I'm sick!"

"We're all sick!"

"Everybody can't be sick!"


There was a lot of bickering as they played. It hadn't started as a game of sickness, but from the moment they had declared the lilac leaves to be medicine, someone had been sick. It seemed that someone else had to remain healthy to fetch the medicine which could only be found at the top of the concrete slide. What had been a smooth, free-flowing game up to this point, threatened to become bogged down with the bickering.

"Okay, I'll be the doctor." Sarah affected a weary resignation, sounding very much like an adult giving in. She scampered up the slope, collected a fistful of leaves, then dropped to her bottom to slide back down.

I moved on to other things, but when I returned they were all running up and down the concrete slide. I remarked, "You're all doctors now."

One girl paused to correct me, "We're sisters, Teacher Tom. And our mother is very sick." Now I noticed that Sarah was lying on her back in the playhouse, eyes closed, under a scattering of freshly picked leaves. Sarah was always a popular playmate, a leader even, a kid who initiated games and who had learned to phrase her ideas as invitations, like "Let's pretend . . ." or "I've got an idea . . ." But the real secret of her success, I think, was knowing what to do to keep a game going, even if it meant making the sacrifice of playing the less desirable role of doctor or sickly mother. This, I've found, is a hallmark trait among "master players," those kids who are always at the center of the action.


After a bit, Sarah declared herself "healthy" and became a sister while another girl took her place as the mother, but only after more bickering. Sarah's sacrifice of earlier had the side-effect of making the mother role more glamorous and now they all wanted to be the one being buried in leaves. The turn-taking settled when Sarah numbered them off, the girls were again racing up and down the concrete slide, announcing their mission to no one in particular, "I must get medicine for my mommy," and calling out to one another dramatically, "Help me sister! I'm stuck!" 

One girl was particularly adept at getting to the top, often going up and down twice to the other girls' once. "I'm the best sister!" she declared, standing at the top looking down at the others who were struggling with their ascents.


"That's not fair!"

"You're not the best! I'm the best!" 

"Nu-uh, I'm the best!"

"Well, look how fast I can go!"

"I can go faster."

"Well, I'm still the best!"

The game was teetering again. As the girls argued over who was the best and what it meant to be best, Sarah shouted, "I know! We can all be best!"

The idea was roundly accepted, "Yeah, I'm the best and you're the best" and "We're the best sisters!"

Sarah, shrugged, holding her palms toward the sky as if stating an obvious fact, "We're all the best . . ." Then added in a softer voice to no one in particular, "but no body is better." A master player at work.

******

This story is one that emerged from the Woodland Park "village," one that could not have been told without the parent, grandparent, and educator working together. As preschool educators, we don't just educate children, but their families as well. For the past 20 years, I've been working in a place that puts the tri-cornered relationship of child-parent-educator at the center, and over that time I've learned a great deal about how to work with families to create the kind of village every child needs and deserves. I'm proud to announce that I've assembled what I've learned into a 6-part e-course called Partnering With Parents in which I share my best thinking on how educators can and should make allies of the parents of the children we teach. (Click this link to register and to learn more.) Register now to receive early bird pricing. Discounts are available for groups.

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, April 01, 2021

Paying It Forward


One five-year-old boy frequently brought a toy from home to school with him: a truck, an action figure, a play set of some sort. His father cautioned his son each morning while dropping him off, "It might get lost." "It might get broken." He would offer, "I can take it with me. I'll keep it in the car so you can have it as soon as school is over." But the boy resisted. He wanted the toy he had selected for that day with him at school.

The boy well knew that his father's warnings weren't empty: some of his toys had been broken already and a couple had even gone missing. For most kids this would have been a problem involving repair attempts, all-hands-on-deck searches, and tears, but this boy's typical response was a shrug. Even more interesting was that when the lost toys turned up again, be it days or weeks later, he would be delighted, remind everyone that the toy was his, then promptly lose track of it again.

The boy's father really didn't care about the toys one way or another either. They were mostly gifts, he told me, from his mother-in-law, who regularly cared for the boy during the week. The grandmother was a little more possessive about the toys, often asking the boy to help her find them when she was on point for the end-of-day pick up. Often he would refuse to help, leaving her to her own search, although typically there would be other kids who were more than willing to engage in a game of search. 

As for me, there had been a time when I would have cared about those toys. I held with the now-debunked theory that toys from home were distractions that too often lead to conflict or tears. I didn't like having to help the child keep track of their personal items and urged them to keep them in their cubbies, but had come around in recent years to the realization that many adults felt better bringing their own personal items (like phones or purses) into the classroom, so why shouldn't the kids be allowed to have their own toys if it made them feel better? And how can I, an advocate for self-directed learning, rob children of the opportunity to learn about bringing personal items out in to the world?

I found that most children readily learned the lessons I'd previously, foolishly, tried to instill through coaxing and nagging: if you bring your personal items with you, no matter how special, there are risks. Not only was there the prospect of the toy being lost or broken, as the father warned, but there was the real possibility that other kids would want to play with it, which for many children stirs up strong emotions. There is a great deal of social learning involved as children figure out this real life scenario for themselves.

There was one boy, for instance, who insisted that he had brought his new robot-dinosaur to "share" with everyone. Of course, such a glamorous toy immediately placed him in the midst of a swarm of children clamoring for a turn. At first he was delighted with the attention, taking pleasure in detailing the "rules" for playing with it. "You can only hold if for one minute," he said. "You can't take off the head because it's really hard to put back on." "No throwing it or breaking it." And so on. He seemed confident, in charge. I got the feeling he had thought this scenario through, planned for it, perhaps with the help of his mother. When he finally got around to handing the toy over to a classmate, he did so cautiously. His fingers seemed to cling, even as he intended to let go. Then I watched his expression melt from beaming confidence to anguish when faced with the reality of another child handling his special thing. "I want it back!" he shouted. "It's one minute! Give it back!" Toy back in hand, he turned to me on the spot and shouted, "I want to put it in my cubby!" How's that for documentation of learning?

It takes most children a little longer to figure out that the best place for their special personal items was in their cubby or, if small, their pockets. Either that, or they have to keep it clutched in-hand throughout the day, which greatly impedes their play. But this one five-year-old boy was unique in his indifference to the fate of his personal affects, even brand new things. I remarked on it to his father, who shared that he was biting his tongue about his mother-in-law's toy-buying habit. "I never wanted our house to be a toy box disaster. He doesn't play with them anyway. He begs her for them in the store, then throws them under his bed when he's home."

This information in mind, I began to notice the boy's pattern. He would arrive at school with something special, show it off by demonstrating what it "can do," share some stories about how "cool" it is, then hand it over to the first kid who asked. Maybe he wasn't sharing the toy at all. Maybe he was sharing the feelings the toy had evoked in him when it was in the store, before it was his. As I watched this play out over the following weeks and months, I became increasingly convinced that he was playing the role of his grandmother, being the person who "gives." He was sharing more than an object; he was sharing a whole experience. I would sometimes catch him watching the other children play with his toys with a look I read as "satisfaction" on his face.

One day, I explained my theory with his grandmother who was shaking her head over yet another lost toy. At first she looked at me like I was crazy, but as we stood shoulder-to-shoulder watching him running around with a blade of asperagus he had plucked to use as his sword, she was smiling. He picked up a plank of wood and announced to the nearby kids that it was his skateboard. He demonstrated how it worked and said, "It's so cool." Soon all the children around him had found their own "skateboards." There was one girl who couldn't find a plank, so he gave her his. The grandmother said, "You know, maybe you're right. Maybe he's paying it forward."

It's a lesson I've learned over and over while working with young children: they pay everything forward, one way or another.

******

This story is one that emerged from the Woodland Park "village," one that could not have been told without the parent, grandparent, and educator working together. As preschool educators, we don't just educate children, but their families as well. For the past 20 years, I've been working in a place that puts the tri-cornered relationship of child-parent-educator at the center, and over that time I've learned a great deal about how to work with families to create the kind of village every child needs and deserves. I'm proud to announce that I've assembled what I've learned into a 6-part e-course called Partnering With Parents in which I share my best thinking on how educators can and should make allies of the parents of the children we teach. (Click this link to register and to learn more.) Register now to receive early bird pricing. Discounts are available for groups.

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