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. 

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 04, 2022

Product, Process, Play, And Permission

I make art in flurries. You can see some of it by clicking here and scrolling down. I've even had a collection of my art on exhibit at the North Seattle College library where it inspired at least one class of burgeoning artists to make their own versions of what I'd done. And, I'm proud to say, that I've even sold a handful of pieces.

When I'm talking about "my" art, of course, I'm talking about the finished product. I'm talking about the thing that someone might display on a shelf or hang on a wall. If you ask me questions, I will tell you about my process

When I made the piece in the picture at the top of this post, for instance, it started with the idea of a saw embedded in the stack of books. I don't know where this idea came from.

I carried the idea around in my head for weeks, not necessarily planning to make it, but one day as I killed time in a thrift shop, I spotted this incomplete set of the The Complete Handyman Encyclopedia. I was struck immediately with the corny joke about an incomplete complete encyclopedia and liked the idea of my saw slicing into these particular books. While standing at the cash register forking over $7, I thought it would look particularly cool to sink four long bolts through them as well. I had no idea if it was even possible to do what I was thinking about doing. Or rather, I had no idea if it was even possible for me to do it. It was exciting to finally fire up the circular saw and lay into those books. Would the spinning blade cut properly or just shred the cardboard and paper? Would it be a nice clean cut like I envisioned or would it be a mess? How deeply should I cut? Is it dangerous to be using this tool for this purpose? Will the cut be too wide to hold the hand saw securely? Would I have to resort to glue? What kind of glue? 

These and dozens of other creative questions and challenges raced through my head even while I was in the process of angling into the tops of those do-it-yourself manuals. Everything about getting those bolts installed was a struggle. I cursed and sweat. I regretted that I didn't have a drill press, but only the measly 3/8" hand drill I've been using since I was in college. The paper dust kept getting impacted in the holes, and the holes refused to line up through the entire stack. I had to stop frequently because the pages kept smoking, threatening to burst into flames -- at least that was my fear. 

Would some scorch marks add or detract from the finished piece? I sweat and I cursed and I nearly gave up several times. At one point there were tears of frustration in my eyes, and as I tightened down the last of the nuts, cinching the entire thing into a flexed muscle of kinetic energy, I experienced a wave of relief and joy and "I did it, you stupid m----r f-----r!" that can only come from being on the other side of the creative process.

Just making stuff. Being who I am. Exploring. 

In the world of play-based learning, we generally say "process over product." Indeed, for many of us, this statement is the gateway through which we enter play-based learning. The idea is that when preschoolers make art the creative process is where the learning happens. "Process over product," is a reaction to the all-too-common practice of marching kids obediently through step-by-step craft projects that produce cookie cutter results. If we want children to be creative, critical thinkers, instead of rote rule followers, we must value their process over all else, we say. When you see a preschool wall full of matching teddy bear art, we tell parents, run like the wind.

Italian art educator Roberta Pucci agrees that walls full of matching art is a warning sign, but she is likewise suspicious that "something should be over something else." Product, she argues in my conversation with her at Teacher Tom's Play Summit, can be every bit as important as process. Indeed, she says, they cannot be separated.

Roberta, Israeli art therapist Nona Orbach, and Swedish pedagogical consultant Suzanne Axelsson have spent the year since last year's play summit, huddled together over Zoom with their glasses of wine, talking about preschool art, and specifically about scribbles and drawing. The collaboration of these three women, who I've come to think of as The Super Friends, has resulted in an initiative they call The Grammar of Drawing.

"Children are often very proud of their products . . . they are often deeply connected to them," Suzanne tells us, adding that the mantra of "process over product" oversimplifies and can lead us to be dismissive of what children produce.

The Super Friends have gone beyond the framing of process and product to include play and permission as well, the four P's of preschool art, all of which are of equal importance. The piece of art I've pictured a the top of this post is a classic example of how process, product, and play are too intertwined to be separated. I was, all along, inspired by an idea and explored my way through a process that produced something of which I am proud, not in small measure because of the process and the play. But where does permission come in?

As Nona explains, because there is hierarchy in the world, permission, especially when adults and children are together, is necessary. "Permission is an experience between two people, or between two aspects of one's self, characterized by allowing, accepting, and belonging." We ask ourselves, "Am I allowed to be who I am? . . . If the answer is 'yes,' that is permission." 

When I made my piece of art, I gave myself permission to curse and cry and struggle, but when it comes to preschoolers, there is almost always another person involved, an adult who must give permission for the child to be who they are. Nona tells the story of a toddler who discovers a beetle and smiles at her grandfather. When the grandfather smiles back at the child without saying anything, "this is permission." We know we're in an environment to of permission when the child is likewise giving permission to the adult.

It is only within the environment of permission, a place where we know we are welcome to be ourselves, that we can fully and honestly engage in the playful process of producing art . . . Or anything else that is personally meaningful. It is in this context, says Roberta, that we can share or unique individual potential with society. "You can't truly be yourself without community" says Suzanne, "You can only try be your unique self together with others." This is why permission is essential.

These Super Friends are engaged in an ongoing process under the heading of the Grammar of Drawing. They came together with the idea of collaborating to "make an idea," which is, in the end, what art is all about. And they want you to know that you have permission to join them. 


To watch my full interview with "The Super Friends," 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, with permission, is the only way we will change the world.

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 03, 2022

"Please Sir, I Want Some More"

"The last thing we need is another $9.99 toy that's gonna break in a week." 

The boy was silently pleading with his mother, holding the boxed plastic play set, wearing an expression that Oliver Twist must have worn as he begged his master for another serving of gruel: "Please sir, I want some more." His mother's scolding was without heat, almost as if she was reciting it as part of a well-known ceremony. "It's not your money to spend," she said, "Your father and I work hard for that money."

I recall my own mother making similar arguments, of course. "Money doesn't grow on trees," she would say when we wanted to play games of chance at the State Fair, shoot a round of mini golf, or get Sno-Kones from the vendor at the park.

There is nothing new about being budget-minded, of course, although it struck me that my brother and I had generally begged for experiences, whereas this boy was begging for a plastic fantastic toy, one that, as his mother knew, in the spirit of our buy-and-dispose world, would be garbage within days.

We see our economic system at work in this little, everyday tableau. A busy, overworked mother forced to take her child shopping because there is no other option in her two-income household. And the boy was doing exactly what the system trains us all for, which is to buy and consume, even if it will break in a week.

"Neoliberal economics changed things," says Pennie Brownlee, New Zealand-based early childhood expert and Teacher Tom's Play Summit presenter. It wasn't that long ago that most families could get by on a single income, she points out, which allowed families to prioritize their children. Today's parents, according to Pennie, are forced to make the hard choice between what's best for their children and putting food on the table and a roof over their heads. Of course, there have always been families that struggled with this, but as Pennie points out, it is now the norm, even for middle class families.

It's popular to blame parents, to accuse them of selfishly buying into the consumer society. Others even put the blame on feminism, placing it on the shoulders of uppity women who should just suck it up and stay home with their kids like mothers did back in the "good old days." This is like blaming global warming on those of us who prefer plastic drinking straws while ignoring corporate practices that account for almost all of the world's pollution.

And while there are plenty of inspiring examples of families that have managed to rig their lives around something other than the economic treadmill, the kind of economic system Pennie bemoans is relentless in its goal of maximizing profits at the expense of such things as childhood and Mother Earth. Increasingly, the system is leaving families living hand-to-mouth, frantically striving to keep their heads above water, with no way out, prioritizing economic necessity over the things that really matter. 

It strikes me that this modern-day Oliver Twist pleading for an over-priced, crappy plastic toy is an almost perfect metaphor for where we find ourselves. 

When we remove children from the center of our lives, says Pennie, "We lose our humanity."

When we hear our policymakers talk about families and children, they invariably, no matter what party they are from, talk about the economy: about jobs, about wages, about preparing our youngest citizens for those damned imaginary "jobs of tomorrow." It's as if we are all simply resources existing to serve the economy rather than the other way around. This is what happens when we value soulless systems over humanity.

And it is children and families who are left begging, "Please sir, I want some more."

What we need are policies that prioritize children, families, the environment, and authentic play.

I have no illusion that my play summit will result in opening the eyes of our policymakers, but I can hope. I can hope that some of you will listen to Pennie and the other presenters and be inspired to demand change wherever you are, to unite with similarly minded people, or to at least be reminded that there is more to life than working, consuming, and finding someone to watch the kids while we do it. 

As another play summit presenter, Sonya Philip said to me, speaking of her native India, "I wish I was 20 years younger because there is still so much to do." Maybe my hope is that we can pass the baton to those of you who are 20 years younger who will, in turn, pass it along to the next generation.


To watch my full interview with Pennie, 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 is the only way we will change the world.

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 02, 2022

Connection Is Healing

Prior to the pandemic, every classroom at the Daybreak Star Preschool in Seattle had a grandparent in the room. "We wanted to protect our elders," says Nick Terrones, the director of this school for urban Indigenous families of all tribes and Teacher Tom's Play Summit presenter, "so we asked them to stay home" the past couple years. "But, they'll be back this year," he adds with a smile. 

From the outset, Nick tells us, Daybreak Star has existed to serve families and that, in the tradition of Native cultures, means that elders are at the heart of everything they do. "Before I make any decisions," he says, "I have to consult our elders." He's excited that the kids are going be learning the art of totem pole carving from an elder this year. "There are some things we can only learn from our elders."

"It takes a village to raise a child" is a phrase we know today as an old African proverb, but Nick sees it as central to American Indigenous cultures as well. "We rely on the power of community . . . It makes us slow down to listen." He calls it a re-Indigenizing practice.

This is important to Nick's work. "We talk a lot about decolonizing, but you can't decolonize unless you also re-Indigenize." It's about honoring and respecting Native family history, he explains, learning not about culture, but rather learning through it. Nick sees it as a "call to ancestral spirits."

"People come to Daybreak for a sense of healing." Like many Native children, Nick grew up without much connection to his own heritage which is one of the historical facts that unites all tribes. Central to Daybreak's mission is this healing from the collective trauma that resulted from colonization which involved the intentional destruction of Native culture, history, and language. As Nick says, "The Spanish did their job!" But by reconnecting with the strength of ancestors, their knowledge, and their teachings, this healing becomes a joyful process, one that emerges from community.

To re-Indigenize is to reconnect with not just culture, but also to to the land, to nature. "We see ourselves in relation to everything," says Nick. Even the animals and plants are viewed as relatives. This is ancestral wisdom that means that nothing in nature is ours to exploit. "We only take what we need . . . We don't live on the land. We live with the land."

It always comes back to connection. 

What do we lose when our elders are no longer central to our lives? What do we lose when we are no longer connected to our ancestors, our stories, our language, our culture, and the collective wisdom of the people who came before us? Right now, as we experience extreme heat, unprecedented flooding, and raging fires around the world, we are suffering from our disconnection with nature. 

Disconnection is trauma. Connection is healing. It's easy to look around in despair for our world, but I take heart from the conscious re-connection, the re-Indigenization, happening at places like Daybreak Star, here healing is a joyful process.


To watch my full interview with Nick, 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. It's only though connection and relationship that we can ever understand our world.

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