Tuesday, March 28, 2023

How We Learn To Be Courageous

The children were rowdily queuing up to take turns jumping from the impromptu "diving board" they had created from a plank of wood that they had rigged up. The distance from springboard to the ground was less than two feet. A few leapt fearlessly, hurling their bodies into the air with abandon, but most were more cautious, some exceedingly cautious, and many remained on the sidelines, watching.

This was, in the eyes of most of the children, risky business. They didn't need adults hanging around cautioning them. They most definitely didn't need anyone commanding them to "be careful." They were all, clearly, approaching this self-created, self-selected challenge with the knowledge that pain was a possible consequence and were taking due measures.

One of my wife's relatives, a man who had made pediatric orthopedic devices for a living, was famous within the family for having regularly joked that "Kids are always trying to kill themselves" which was in large measure, he claimed, why he remained in business. It was an edgy joke, one I'm sure he rarely made in front of the families he served, but it echoes an attitude that many of us carry with us about young children: they may not be trying to get hurt, but they are certainly too ignorant, innocent, careless, and foolhardy to be trusted with their own assessment of risk.

Our first responsibility as adults working with young children is safety. We tend to define a "safe environment" for children as one in which injuries are rare. All preschools and child care centers have safety protocols. Hazards are identified and removed. Rules are made to prevent children from engaging in activities the adults deem too risky. Educators are often called to the carpet, fired, or even sued when a child is injured on their watch. Yet we all know, just as did the children lining up for this diving board (which would likely be banned in many settings), that complete certainty and safety in life is impossible.

And I think most of us also know, or at least we should know, that if we ever managed to create a completely certain and safe environment, it would be a kind of hell on earth. Novels of dystopia are written about futures in which the only freedom is the freedom from risk. Lenore Skenazy's Free Range Kids movement emerged from the recognition that in our extreme efforts to keep children safe we are inadvertently teaching our children (and parents) to be incompetent and fearful. Gever Tulley's book Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do) is a stark reminder of how our culture's anxious embrace of safety at all costs is a very recent phenomenon, one that robs children of an authentic childhood.

I won't to go into the research about the benefits, indeed necessity, for children to engage in risky play, but if that's what you're looking for, Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter is one of the pre-eminent researchers and scholars in the area and you'll find everything you're looking for in her blog.

What I want to focus on here is the more philosophical and psychological side of risk and courage.

Not only is life without risk impossible, but a life without it is no life at all, which is to say the only absolute certainty and safety is death itself. The great William James wrote: "It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all." One of the great problems, according to James, is that life is full of decisions and most of the time we are forced to decide even when the evidence is less than fully persuasive either way. In other words, no matter how scientifically we approach our decisions, no matter how carefully we analyze the data, no matter how orderly our row of ducks, at the end of the day every important decision we make first requires us to make a decision about what to believe.

In our scientific age, however, deciding what to believe is a kind of sacrilege. It calls into question the very concept of truth. It requires faith that takes us outside of the realm of evidence. When those children edged out to the end of the diving board, contemplated, then leapt, they were not thinking about educating their vestibular systems or developing their pre-frontal cortexes, they were choosing to believe that they would land safely. And those who turned around and edged back to the security of the solid ground were choosing to believe that they would not . . . At least not today.

We worry about the kid who leaps, but we should be at least equally worried, perhaps more so, about the child who never chooses to leap. 

Courage is the ancient virtue that is called forth when we choose to believe, then act. And courage only comes to those who practice. Indeed, the more we practice behaving courageously, as these children were doing, the more courageous we become. As I stood watching the children, I saw them grow, before my eyes, more courageous with each effort. Before long, those who chose to believe, were believing more and more courageous things about themselves: leaping higher, farther, and faster until they had played the risk out of this game and were ready for another.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that "action is character" an assertion that is supported by both neuroscience and social research. The more people engage in day-to-day acts of courage, which is choosing to believe that they will stick their landings, the more courageous they become. Having the courage to act in the face of uncertainty is the very definition of human freedom. The only path to freedom is courage.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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Monday, March 27, 2023

All It Ever Needed To Be

We once had this little platform built from a pair of shipping pallets and some discarded fencing slats that resided just behind the windmill. They were products of our very first summer session, and we've been using them as outdoor "floors" ever since.

It's in the nature of loose parts to go wherever the children take them, but when I was tidying up the place, when I came across interesting toys and tidbits like seashells or baskets or cow bells or knots of root or other junk, I would toss them into the area of these platforms behind the windmill.

In all honesty, I did it mostly so that I would later have a collection of objects at hand for playing stories. Sometimes when a kid got upset or was missing mommy, after we'd spent some time hanging out with the emotion, I would walk them to these platforms. It was a great place to reconnect that child with what was going on at school, especially the other children, who usually then gathered round, finding their own loose part props or sets or characters to take part in the game.

But I certainly didn't have to wait until a child was upset to play there, nor did the kids. 

For a long time, I kept getting the urge to do something "more" with that space in the bullseye of our outdoor classroom: maybe build it out a bit more, frame in a wall or two, create more opportunities for making cubbies or forts or whatever. I once saw a photograph from the 1920's of a giant outdoor doll house, which was really just a set of irregular, head-high shelves accessible from both sides. I also thought it might be cool to inset colored plastic windows in the windmill so when the sun shined through it would create patches of color on the platforms and nearby ground. And I often considered adding some sort of mechanism to make it a little easier for the kids to turn the windmill's vanes -- as it was, only the oldest, strongest kids could manage it.

But then again, as much as I was in love with my ideas, I always came around to preferring the ideas that were already emerging in this platform space, a simply defined area in which I tossed junk as I tidied.

The whole point of our school, and the reason that what we were doing was important, is that it was a place where children got to practice playing with the other people. It really doesn't matter how much you know, how many facts you can recite, how high you can climb, or how talented you are. If you don't learn how to play with the other people, it makes everything else a little empty. It's the other people, your friends and family, your relationships with classmates and teachers, your connections with co-workers, bosses, and customers: it's what happens there that at the end of the day makes for a happy life.

So when they connect, like this group of our younger children did over a simple game of "feeding the pony" using the small pile of straw that remained from the big one we once had there, a game that started in earnest, then evolved into silliness, a game that erupted spontaneously as a result of several independent suns revolving around the floor behind the windmill, then suddenly syncing up, they were doing the most important work there is.

I would start thinking about what we adults could do with this space behind the windmill whenever it sat fallow for weeks on end, as it did sometimes, being used primarily as a pass-through on the way to somewhere else. However, after watching how this area was used for 12 months, studying the ebb and flow of how the children played there, I had the data I needed to discard more concrete concepts like building a full-on play house. It needed to remain much more flexible than that if it was going to fully support this kind of open-ended, freeform cooperative play. 

I'm glad we adults went slowly here, that we didn't give in to the urge to colonize it with our adultishness. We were wise to go on letting the children show us how they wanted to use this space without a name, this space behind the windmill where I tossed the loose parts. This was all it ever needed to be.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Friday, March 24, 2023

Human Intelligence Will Always Be Superior To The Artificial Kind

Tam Van Tram (detail from Nonconceptual Space)

You can't swing a dead computer without hitting someone yammering on about artificial intelligence (AI). It will eventually evolve to enslave us. It will be the greatest boon to humankind since the invention of the printing press. It will make life harder. It will make life easier. It's human ingenuity at its finest. It will destroy humanity. 

The focus in educational circles, at least online, is all about ChatGPT, described by the creators as an "AI chatbot." Proponents are claiming that it will revolutionize and streamline how teachers who are required to march children through standardized curricula will lesson plan, freeing up time for really focusing on individual student needs. Others are bemoaning the fact that it can write essays that are almost indistinguishable from human written ones and, hilariously, that they can pass all of our standardized tests,  meaning that it can qualify for just about any of our educational degrees.

My take is that ChapGPT and its successors, which few of today's adults can even conceive, will no doubt completely decimate schooling as we know it. As it gets more sophisticated, especially in the hands of AI natives (meaning today's preschoolers), it has the potential to upset the entire apple cart of top-down, adult-controlled, test-measured, curriculum-dictated schooling, revealing it as the empty charade it is. Within a generation, we will see that schooling as we do it today has very, very little to do with learning or education, as our entire system will be revealed to be a cage in which we hold children until they are compliant enough to join their parents in the workforce.

That's my prediction and preferred outcome. And I sure hope I live to see it.

The term "artificial intelligence" is a marketing term. It is indeed artificial, but I have little expectation that it will ever be intelligent. Will we one day release a nefarious program that evolves into a kind of robot that harms us, either physically or through some sort of brainwashing? No doubt. But it will continue to be long on A and short on I because what computer scientists call "intelligence" isn't really intelligence, at least as humans experience it.

Intelligence is a product of what we call the mind and learning is how the mind adapts and changes through its interactions with its environment. This, I think, is exactly what those who are developing AI are trying to do: create computers that can adapt. And they are certainly beginning to accomplish that. The great challenge, and the one that will prevent true intelligence from ever emerging in my opinion, is that there is no actual mind behind it. In humans and other living creatures, the mind precedes the adapting or learning. And increasingly, we are beginning to understand that our emotions and feelings precede all thinking.

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio points out that emotions and feelings are the product of evolutionary survival (avoidance of pain, satisfaction of hunger, drive for procreation, avoidance of toxic food). And it is from these survival instincts that what we call the mind has emerged. In other words, all learning starts with emotion and our emotions start from a sensory experience. Something we see or hear or smell or taste or feel triggers a bodily sensation (sweaty palms, racing heart, hunger) that then translates into an action, one of which is likely some sort of thought process.

The place where the alarmingly and inaccurately named AI falls apart is that it conceives of the mind as separate from the body. It reminds me of the science fiction trope of trying to preserves the minds of great people by preserving the heads. It's fiction, but not science. The mind cannot function without a body: it is not just a product of our brains. Or, if you will, our entire bodies are our brains. We don't have bodies. We are bodies.

AI is something. Perhaps something wonderful or horrifying, but at the end of the day, it is not intelligent, at least not in the way that humans are intelligent. 

As science writer Ed Yong says in his book An Immense World, "You can't simply imagine how a human mind would work in a bat's body or an octopus's, because it wouldn't work." This is because their bodies have, over millennia evolved specific kinds of minds that produce kinds of intelligences that we cannot fathom. I suppose it's possible that should humans survive for another million years, we will be able to, through computer husbandry evolve an entity with the actual survival instincts and sensory abilities required for intelligence to emerge, but I'm not holding my breath.

In the meantime, I'm cheerleading for ChatGPT and its potential to reveal our current schooling madness for what it is.

And, of course, I've written all of this with the caveat that there is no way for any of us to know any of this. It's all quite likely BS -- long on both B and S. But I find it fun to think about. A computer will never do anything just for fun, and that, at the end of the day is why human intelligence will always be superior to the artificial kind.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Thursday, March 23, 2023

Why We Need To Sometimes Mess With People

You've gotta mess with people. ~Utah Phillips

When our dog plays with other dogs, after the initial sniffing ceremony, she proceeds to engage in behavior that, were she a human, would be called "messing" with them. She tries to jump on their heads, to bite their butts, to nip at their heels. She bumps them. She runs at them. She sometimes even barks and growls. Some dogs, usually older ones, rebuff her by turning their backs, ignoring her. More timid dogs might attempt to hide. Prickly dogs might react with fangs and snarls. But most take up the challenge and mess with her right back.

Of course, we recognize this as playing, but it usually at least starts off with this sort of probative messing with one another and even after they've settled into a mutually satisfying game, it isn't always pretty.

This is how it often looks when young children attempt to enter into play with one another as well, at least when left to their own devices, without adults urging the usual niceties and rules.

Sometimes it starts when one two-year-old messes with another by knocking down her block tower. Sometimes the builder objects and that's when I say something like, "She's crying because you knocked over her tower." But sometimes she laughs and wants to do it again. Sometimes these very young kids mess with each other by snatching things or knocking things on the floor or moving right up into someone else's face and smiling like a horror movie clown: just messing with people to see what will happen. 

Not long ago, I watched a boy systematically go around our block area, smiling and smacking kids on the top of the head, each one recoiling or even crying. Adults were futilely attempting to persuade him to stop, until he came to one boy who smiled, stood up, and smacked him right back. They then wordlessly exchanged head smacks until they were both laughing uncontrollably. You never know what's going to happen when you mess with people.

As they get older, most of them have figured out to leave the other people's block towers alone, but that doesn't mean they're done messing with people. For the most part that's what spontaneous classroom wrestling is all about, or the silly name calling, or intense dramatic play. There are always a few four and five year olds in our class who more or less greet one another with a body slam or even a hit. Last year, one boy went through a phase during which he snuck up behind both peers and adults alike and swatted them on the rump. One of the most popular games in that class was called "sneak attack" and involved tagging someone, shouting "Sneak attack!" and running away. Heck, a big part of the gun play we see around our school is really just an attempt to mess with people. This week, a group of boys and girls experimented with pouring water onto the heads and backs of unsuspecting people, including me.

And it's not just messing with people physically. As they get older it often turns toward messing with people socially or emotionally, playing games of rank or inclusion and exclusion.

This is a core part of the play instinct, I think, and it's an aspect that confuses adults perhaps more than anything else. We jump in with admonishments and corrections, telling children what not to do, and, frankly, robbing them of the opportunity to learn from the natural consequences of their behavior. Of course, if a child is being physically injured (or the likelihood is high), or if the social-emotional stuff tips toward bullying, we step in, but most of this messing with one another is of the run-of-the-mill experimental variety and if kids are going to get the full benefit of it, we need to take a couple steps back.

More powerful and effective than telling children what not to do, is when children are provided the opportunity to learn what they can do. They can say, "No!" or "Stop!" They can say, "I don't like that!" I role modeled that behavior, for instance, when children poured water on my back, standing up and firmly saying, "No! I don't like when you pour water on me!" More powerful and effective than telling children what not to do, is to narrate (or as Magda Gerber called it "sportscast") the consequences of their messing with the other people, like when I say, "She's crying because you knocked over her tower," supporting young children in making the connection between their behavior and the behavior of others.

As important adults in children's lives, we too often create worlds too strictly controlled by black and white rules -- no hitting, no taking things, no excluding -- then proceed to enforce them assertively and uniformly, and in the process we too often gut much of the essential educational value of playing with the other people.

We'll get it wrong sometimes, of course, but developing the ability to recognize when it's just kids messing with people and letting it play itself out is vital if our children are going to grow into emotionally and socially healthy adults. It's through this instinct to mess with people that we learn how to connect with one another in mutually satisfying ways, which is the reason we're here.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right 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, March 22, 2023

Truth Is Always About Perspective

is the word used to identify the myth that life prior to the industrial era was brief, brutish, and simple. It's a concept that emerged from the European Enlightenment, the era during which large parts of the globe were subjugated by brutal colonialism, often excused in the name of bringing civilization to the "savages." Primitivism remains with us today, of course: just witness how readily we label our adversaries -- be it in war, politics, or just neighborhood squabbles -- as animals or cavemen or simply idiots (e.g., both sides portray their enemies as apes in political memes). These labels help us dehumanize others, freeing us therefore to not have to treat them as human.

Naturally, not all Europeans believed the myth of primitivism during the Enlightenment, or at least not entirely. After all, America's so-called founding fathers used the principles of the Iroquois Confederacy as the foundation of much of the US Constitution. Early Jesuits reported that the New World "savages" were on the whole more clever than the average person from back home. Famously, the pilgrims who landed at Plymouth only survived because the Wampanoag people taught them how. Ultimately, none of this stopped colonizers from simply taking whatever they found valuable, be it natural resources, ideas, or knowledge, but first they had to re-label the people they stole from as primitive.

More open-minded Europeans learned from these sophisticated civilizations, but the learning was typically narrow and superficial because precious few saw them as anything other than primitive adversaries or noble savages, dismissing the very soil from which their wisdom grew.

Kandiaronk, a chief of the Wendat people, a man who had spent time in Europe, is quoted as saying, "I have spent six years reflecting on the state of European society and I still can't think of a single way they act that is not inhuman, and I genuinely think this can only be the case, as long as you stick to your distinctions of 'mine' and 'thine'. I affirm that what you call money is the devil of devils; the tyrant of the French, the source of all evils; the bane of souls and slaughterhouse of the living. To imagine one can live in a country of money and preserve one's life is like imagining one could preserve one's life at the bottom of a lake."

Many of us today, centuries later, see the great wisdom of this critique. Yet although Kandiaronk clearly disapproved of European society, he only labeled their ideas as inhuman, not the people. Were it not for the myth of primitivism, Europeans might have learned what indigenous people knew. For instance, they might have known that trees talk to one another, a truth that Western science is only now "discovering": they communicate via pheromones that carry meaning on the breeze and through interconnected root systems and by other mechanisms that we are still trying to figure out. Enlightenment era scientists dismissed talking trees as primitive mumbo jumbo, yet even then it was already ancient wisdom.

Primitivism, or something like it, is a bundle of prejudices that become limitations preventing us from seeing all kinds of truth, not just human.

Birds have known about and used magnetic fields for navigation for eons, yet Western science is only just now starting to understand them. Scientists have only just discovered that marine animals make D-amino acids, yet catfish have known and used them for hundreds of millions of years. Galileo invented his famous telescope in 1609 using tubes with lenses, a "primitive" imitation that jumping spiders evolved millions of years before.

In this regard, primitivism might be better framed as speciesism. But it's all of a type.

And our blind spot isn't just for animals, but plants as well. (Even that term, "blind spot," is an ableist term -- like "lack of vision" to mean lack of creativity, or saying "I see" to mean "I understand." It presumes human vision as some sort of superior way of sensing the world.)

As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in her amazing book Braiding Sweetgrass: "Plants tell their stories not by what they say, but by what they do . . . What if you were a teacher but had no voice to speak your knowledge? What if you had no language at all and yet there was something you needed to say? Wouldn't you dance it? Wouldn't you act it out? Wouldn’t your every movement tell the story? In time you would become so eloquent that just to gaze upon you would reveal it all. And so it is with these silent green leaves . . . Plants teach the universal language."

These -ism myths are grounded in the concepts of hierarchy, power and progress. We see them at play in how we relate to young children. Due to their relative helplessness (although they are not ever as helpless as we seem to assume), their size, and the fact that we believe we can see them progressing into the future, we likewise tend to see them as comparatively simple, perhaps even brutish. Experts have long asserted that they are driven by "base" and selfish motives, that they must learn to be civilized, that their instinct to play is a waste, and that they must be controlled and even colonized for their own good. Some have labelled these attitudes, assumptions, and prejudices as childism.

I have found, however, having spent my career observing children with the goal of learning from them rather than raising them, that like other cultures, species, and even plants, they possess insights into truth that I simply cannot perceive as an older, straight, middle class human male of European heritage.

Truth is always about perspective. And what primitivism is, in all its forms, is the supremacist assumption that one's own perspective stands above all others. What we "see" is simply the result of perceiving the world from within our own cultural, biological, and sensory bubble and that "blinds" us unless and until we take the time to "listen" to other people, to other species, to plants, and to children, especially when what they reveal to us about the world are the devils that are invisible from our own perspective.

Whenever I catch myself insisting upon my own perspective and mine alone, I try to recall what science journalist Ed Young writes in his book An Immense World: "With every creature that vanishes, we lose a way of making sense of the world. Our . . . bubbles shield us from the knowledge of those losses. But they don't protect us from the consequences."


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right 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, March 21, 2023

"Education Is A Process Of Living"

Recently, one of our toilets stopped flushing: the chain that connects the tank lever to the flapper had broken. I cycled to the hardware store and located the replacement part I needed. Back home, I turned off the water to the toilet, flushed the tank dry, removed the old part, installed the new one, and turned the water back on. Then, although I was confident I'd set things to rights, I gave it a flush, taking satisfaction in watching the tank empty and refill as it ought to.

I've made this simple repair a number of times in my life. I remember my roommates and I panicking a little when it first happened in college. We were all slightly afraid of our landlord, plumbing repairs were not in our budget, and the internet didn't yet exist, but between the five of us young men we figured it out. I've not asked any of them, but I expect that the world is today populated by dozens of flappers that we have collectively replaced with our own ten hands.

I'm not a plumber, but I've learned repair a toilet. I can also snake drains, replace faucet handles, and know when to put my tools away and call in a professional. 

As a boy, I admired my elders' knowledge about the world. They knew how to fix things, cook meals, drive cars, grow vegetables, chop wood, fold laundry, and operate lawn mowers, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, and can openers. They inspired me to want to do those useful things myself.

Rudolf Steiner, the founding philosopher of the Waldorf school pedagogy, built his approach upon the idea that young children ought to be be immersed in environments in which they are surrounded by adults engaged in practical day-to-day activities and projects. Rather than assigning tasks to children, the adults' role is simply to go about their business of living, including children when they wish to be included and answering questions. Not only do children learn the basic skills of life in this way, but they also see that participating in practical day-to-day activities and projects are desirable acts of belonging, of community.

Parents often complain that their children refuse to tidy up their rooms or help out around the house, something most of them do, even eagerly, around our preschool classroom. I expect that's because we parents so often expect them to do it alone, which is unnatural, or we treat it like something undesirable, chores to be done grudgingly as an interruption to, rather than as a part of, our lives. 

As the great John Dewey wrote, "Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. Education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living." I'm happy to be an adult who can do things for himself, but that was never my goal, nor is it the goal of our youngest citizens. They are motivated by belonging and doing which is what makes life worth living.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right 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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Monday, March 20, 2023

Work And Hobbies

I enjoy cooking. I enjoy eating out as well, but the truth is that I'm always a little disappointed when 3 p.m. rolls around and I realize I won't get to make anything because we have a dinner invitation.

I have friends who dislike cooking. They say prayers of gratitude for delivery, take-out, and cold cereal.

And then there are those who feel trapped by cooking. These are often parents who feel the daily pressure to prepare three squares a day for the family. Sure, there may have been a time when they enjoyed cooking, and that day may return once the kids are fending for themselves, but they now find themselves on an endless, and often thankless, treadmill. 

For folks in the first two categories, cooking is either a hobby or something easily avoided. For those in the third category, however, cooking is work. I had a friend once tell me, "That's not cooking; it's meal prep." Long ago ago, I did a similar thing with gardening. I unconsciously began to label the things I enjoyed doing -- like tending the roses -- as gardening, while I considered everything else to be yard work.

As a culture, we value work. We demonize those who won't or don't work. We fret that our children won't embrace the work ethic. Many of us identify ourselves, at least in part, with our job title. There is a widely held belief that work has a moral benefit for both the individual and society and that hard work elevates us, even when it is obviously grinding us down. Indeed, we tell our children that they can be or do anything they want, just so long as they're willing to work for it.

At the same time, surveys of Americans regularly find that between 50 and 80 percent of us report that we are disengaged from, dislike, or outright hate our jobs. This isn't just a post-Covid or "great resignation" phenomenon. Indeed, both of those phenomena tend to be more about new opportunities for people to give up the old job and try something else. No, our dissatisfaction with work goes back decades, maybe centuries. It's not just "lazy kids" or creeping "socialism," but all of us, or at least more than half of us, who plug away only because we feel we must.

So many come to resent the work in our lives that the word work has become synonymous for feeling compelled to do things that you would rather not be doing. It's not hard work we resent, but rather the compulsion, the tedium, the repetition, the endlessness of it. There's always another damned meal to prepare. The weeds never stop growing. And we work ourselves into philosophical pretzels to convince ourselves that grimly sticking to it is a virtue. We might even grit our teeth and pronounce, despite it all, "I love my work!" because, after all, work is a moral good and resenting it is, therefore, a moral failing.

This isn't just a problem with what is insultingly called "unskilled labor." You can find this attitude toward work everywhere: people with their heads down, going through the motions, and feeling trapped, both by the work itself and by the morality we've built up around the mythology of the so-called work ethic, which in part contains the corollary of "don't complain."

I know a man who literally works in a coal mine, a job that is the very definition of hard, dirty work. He rarely talks about what goes on down in the mines because, as he says, "It's the same ol' same ol'," but one day he regaled us with a long, detailed, and exciting story about how he had figured out how to overcome an unexpected and challenging obstacle. He felt stimulated and proud. He didn't say, "That's why I love my work," but his whole attitude told that story.

It's not work we resent, but rather the mind-numbing, repetitive nature of so much of what we call work. When we get to use our critical thinking skills, when we get to make real decisions, when we get to see that our work makes a real difference: that's when we are truly elevated. It's not the work that's important, it's the knowledge that we are doing something meaningful, either personally or for the greater good.

I've spent most of my adult life amidst young humans who work as hard, if not harder, than anyone I've ever known. They don't do it for money. They don't do it because they've had tasks set for them. They don't do it because it's always joyful. On the contrary, every day involves conflict, pain, and tears. They do it because what they are doing, their play, is deeply meaningful. In everything they do, they see the difference they make in their world, for themselves and for others. They are thinking critically and making real decisions.

I understand how people might look at our play-based preschool and wonder how the children will ever learn about hard work. And I know that most of the children will move on to public schools that are all about learning the harsh lessons of the work-a-day world. Most of them will learn the lessons of feeling trapped, of dealing with it, of playing the mind-games required of the so-called work ethic, of pretending it's all gardening, when it's clearly nothing more than yard work. 

Yet still I persist in the radical idea that childhood is for play. The coal mine may be coming. The grindstone may be in their future. But I will not be the person to subject them to it because my hope and expectation is that the children who come my way will go on to live meaningful lives. I want them to know what it feels like to be self-motivated, to be lifelong learners, to be connected to the purpose behind what they spend their time doing. I want them to know that if they find themselves in jobs that don't provide that, then they can find hobbies that do and that it's perfectly okay for one's hobbies to stand at the center of one's life's work. 

The man who works in the coal mine builds motorcycles. He once found a photograph of a bike he admired, tacked it up on the wall of his garage, then spent his evenings and weekends building his own, perfect replica. He prides himself on doing it on a budget, which meant that he sourced parts from classified ads and junkyards that he then refurbished himself. And when he couldn't find the part, he literally manufactured it right there in his own garage, often taking months getting it just right. 

He is playing, just as the young children play: working hard, thinking critically and creatively, overcoming challenges, and learning. "We are here on this earth to fart around," writes Kurt Vonnegut, "don't let anyone tell you different." That is what I want the children to know. That is what I wish everyone knew.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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