Tuesday, January 18, 2022

The Only Way To Learn To Make Decisions Is Practice



My dog was the first to spy the two rabbits. They were grazing on something tasty in my neighbor's lawn. They seemed at peace until we got close, then suddenly dashed into the shrubbery. The dog wanted to go after them, but I held the leash tightly and we walked on by. When I looked back over my shoulder, the rabbits were back out there on the lawn, munching away.

Most animals experience what we call fear. It's the basic instinctual emotion that tells them to either run, hide, or be prepared to fight. When the cause for fear is removed, say the predator has prowled off after less well-hidden prey, the fear goes away as well. At least that's what animal behaviorists tell us.

There is an assumption in scientific circles that when early Homo sapiens appeared some 300,000 years ago, we shared this instinctive fear response with other species, responding in more or less the same way as other animals to objects of fear. Being afraid was essential to our survival, and that ancient feeling of fear is still with us, even if we don't always respond by dashing into shrubbery, although we might feel like it.

Humans experience fear as other animals do, but over the course of our continued evolution as a species, our brains have evolved the capacity to use our conscious judgement to override the fight-or-flight instinct, replacing it with reasoning (which is not the same as saying "logic"). Some of us, for instance, have a deathly fear of dogs just as those rabbits do. When we spy them, our hearts beat harder, we might break into a sweat, our muscles tense up, but our reasoning tells us that the dog is on a leash, it isn't behaving aggressively, and so we override our urge to run away in the face of this feeling of fear.

Here's the thing: With those rabbits, the feeling of fear disappeared once the cause of their fear (my dog) was removed -- they were back on that lawn the moment the coast was clear. But for humans, the feeling of fear remains in our uniquely conscious minds long after the danger has passed. We retain a memory, not necessarily of the danger, but of the fear. It stays with us as anxiety. We stew on it. We begin to worry that there will be a dog around the next corner and the next. Our minds race through all the possible dangers: the next dog will slip its collar and it will "get" me; there will be a rabid stray around the corner; a malicious owner will actively sic their trained throat-dog on us. Our reasoning might tell us that none of these things are likely to happen, but for many of us, that does nothing to quell the unresolvable feeling of fear. 

Fear is not the only animal instinct that our conscious minds struggle with. The feeling of sadness we feel over some sort of loss is turned into depression. Feelings about mistakes are turned into guilt. Our ability to recognize patterns and predict results turns to worry. Indeed, many of the ailments and tribulations of modern life can be blamed on the fact that we've evolved conscious minds. Instead of simply responding to the dictates of our instincts in order to survive and procreate, we now must learn to use reasoning to make decisions about everything. And decision-making is stressful.

Making our own decisions is perhaps the single most important thing we must learn, because we can no longer count on our instincts. And the only way to learn this is through practice. The more experience we have with decision-making, the better we get at it. This is why we say that making mistakes, the result of poorly reasoned decisions, is so important, especially for young children. We must learn to apply past experiences to new ones by tapping into our memories. We must learn to apply our ability to anticipate the future based on our experiences. And, hardest of all for many of us, we must learn to live with our emotions on our shoulder because they alone are no longer the best guide to behavior.

There are those who say that is this, the evolution of the conscious mind, is the fall from grace found in so many creation myths.

Unfortunately, school for most children is about adults making all their decisions for them. They don't have to decide such basic things as where they will go, when they are to eat or defecate, what they are to know, and how they are to come to know it. They are taught, both explicitly and implicitly, that important decisions, those that cause the most stress, are best left up to the grown-ups. And then, after decades of having learned to depend on others for the stressful project of decision-making, we expect these children to suddenly start making their own decisions about nothing less than "the rest of their lives." 

We take consciousness so much for granted that we often don't recognize that it is the first tool that we must learn to use. A childhood full of self-directed play is how humans are meant to learn to use the magnificent blessing, and horrible curse, of consciousness. When we play in a safe enough environment, we practice applying what we already know about the world to reason and make decisions. The inevitable mistakes are how we hone this tool. Asking and answering our own questions, trail-and-error science, applying memories, and learning to recognize patterns all emerge from our play, and are essential because the more conscious we become, the less reasonable it becomes to dash into shrubbery at every fright.

Children with playful childhoods tend to grow into adults who know themselves, who are self-motivated, and who are better able to handle their inevitable bouts with anxiety, depression, and the other illnesses of a conscious mind. 

What we tend to forget is that the human mind continues to evolve. Consciousness itself is evolving, just as it has evolved over the past 300,000 years. We might dream of a return to the garden, that place where we dashed into the shrubbery when something frightened us, then returned calmly to the lawn when that frightful thing moved on. But we are now forever outcasts from the Eden of instinct, stuck instead with the stress of making our own decisions about every damned thing. 

The only way to learn to live with the irrepressible stress of decision-making is practice. 

And the best practice is play.

******

If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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Monday, January 17, 2022

"The Triple Evils"


And one day we must ask the question, "Why are there forty million poor people in America?" And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. ~MLK

What I'm saying to you this morning is that Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the Kingdom of Brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of Communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now, when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated. ~MLK

And I say to you, I have also decided to stick to love. For I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind's problems. And I'm going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn't popular to talk about it in some circles today. I'm not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love, I'm talking about a strong, demanding love. ~MLK


On this Martin Luther King Day many of us will listen to snippets, perhaps all, of his great "I Have A Dream" speech, and we should, but civil rights was not the only cause this great American championed, and it is not the only reason we celebrate his life today. He was also a great advocate for ending the war in Vietnam and on August 16, 1967 he gave what many consider his finest speech on poverty in America at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta.

Usually entitled "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos Or Community?" this is long, powerful, and to this day controversial speech that reminds us that almost nothing has changed when it comes to poverty. Millions of our citizens of all races remain poor, but people of color bear the greatest burden. One in five black children lives in poverty. And while the powerful in our nation are engaged in a misguided, punitive approach to reforming our educational system, they are turning a blind eye to the core issue with education in America: poverty. Let this speech be a reminder that whatever we do in the classroom, until we address the "triple evils" of racism, poverty, and war, we will, as a nation, ultimately fail.

This is a magnificent, thoughtful and inspiring speech, one that taken in its entirety is guaranteed to make you think, make you sad, and may even make you angry. MLK calls here, for instance, for a "guaranteed national income." I know that's a non-starter for many people, but so was civil rights, so were at one time most of the great things humans have ever done. One reason we celebrate this man today is that so much of what he stood for has proven to be prophetic. If nothing else, we must think about what he has to teach us.

I urge you to find an hour today to listen and think, and even to dream, because when it comes right down to it, nothing will change until we have a dream.


******

If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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, January 14, 2022

Just Beyond The Limits


Yesterday morning as I sipped my morning coffee a five-year-old girl emerged from the house next-door, walking a puppy. 
My neighbor's son, his wife, and their two children have been visiting her for the past couple weeks and the kids have taken over dog-walking duties, although this is the first time I'd seen the girl walking the dog without her older brother.

You don't often see preschool aged children out and about alone, even in our quiet area, so I anticipated that I would next see the boy running to catch her up, but when, after several minutes, he didn't appear, I began to wonder if maybe the girl had slipped out without telling anyone.

It's the kind of thing a young child might do, one who feels she's being treated as a "baby," one who feels the urge to taste independence, who wants to prove her competence to herself. I've noticed that her ten-year-old brother tends to "mother" her a little, earnestly instructing and correcting her when he's the responsible one. Maybe she was attempting to escape that.

I wasn't worried because, after all, I had eyes on her, but I imagined that her parents probably would be rather frantic if they should find her missing.

A five-year-old out walking the dog alone would have only been unusual in my childhood neighborhood because back then we didn't feel the need to put our dogs on leashes. Not coincidentally, it was also a time when dogs were often, sadly, killed by cars. Our family lost two beloved pets that way. Parents would often warn us about the dangers of traffic as they shooed us out the door, even as they, perhaps contradictorily, allowed us to play in the street. They warned us about other potential dangers as well, like rattlesnakes and rabid dogs. I never came across either in my day-to-day play, but I still experience a shadow of fear about snakes and stray dogs. I don't recall being warned about strangers, maybe because we knew and trusted our neighbors, and strangers rarely turned up on our quiet suburban cul-de-sac, and also because the media hadn't yet begun to make the rare horrors seem so imminent. 

I once more live in a place where the neighbors all know one another, where rattlesnakes and rabid dogs are not an issue, and while there might be traffic, the path upon which the girl was walking the dog is one that winds through a greenbelt, not adjacent to traffic.

As the girl receded farther along the walkway, I wondered how far she would go. As a boy, we often roamed just beyond the limits that our parents had imposed. When I was this girl's age, we were expected to stay on our street, but often stepped just beyond that limit, hearts pounding. That's where the adventure was and it called us despite our parents' admonitions. For instance, there was a new house being constructed one street over. How could we resist the lure of a partially constructed house? Today, it would be called an "attractive nuisance," but as a kid, these unfenced sites were impromptu playgrounds. The best places always seemed to be just beyond the limits.

There is a point where the greenbelt walkway turns. Would the girl take the corner? If she did, she would have been out of sight. When she got to there, however, she stopped, waited for the dog to relieve itself, then started heading back. It was at this moment that her father emerged. He stepped cautiously from the door, craning to look along the walkway, peering toward his daughter. Then suddenly he hopped back out of sight, obviously not wanting her to see him.

My heart melted for him. I expect the girl had argued for the right to walk the dog "all by myself." I imagine she had negotiated this adventure, agreeing to go no farther than the corner. I also imagined how the father was feeling, fluttery, nervous, his baby out there on her own in the world. He hadn't been able to stop himself from checking on her, but he also knew not to rob her of her moment, which is why he hid before she spotted him. I imagine my own mother would watch us from the windows, feeling at times as this father did. As she said to me when our daughter was born, "You want them to be independent, then you worry when they are."

As the girl headed back toward home, she walked briskly, then broke into a full on run, the tiny dog struggling to keep up. She cut across my lawn, shortening the distance to home. Her face was flush and full of joy.

******

If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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, January 13, 2022

Playing Within The Context Of Community


Here's a simple, yet fascinating experiment you can try at home.

Ask someone to sit across from you and say words, pausing after each word to give you time to write them down. Whenever they say a plural noun (like "dogs" or "children") reply "good" or smile or repeat the word in a pleasant voice. Before long, the frequency of plural nouns will increase significantly.

There are a number of basic psychology 101 experiments like this. If half of a class is secretly asked to compliment anyone wearing blue, before long their classroom will be a sea of blue. If an entire class conspires to pay rapt attention to their professor only when they are, say, on the right side of their lectern, the professor will begin to spend all their time to the right of their lectern.

These are examples of unconscious learning or what is more often called "training." This can be used for benign purposes, like in the examples above, but it can also be used by bad actors, like con artists, to cause people into doing certain things or feeling in certain ways. 

It's tempting to view this phenomenon in a negative light, and when it is consciously employed as a training technique or as a way to manipulate others perhaps it belongs there. But the truth is that we are all, every day, in every conversation, unconsciously training and being trained by one another. Indeed, the sheer volume of what we learn from our fellow humans in this way far outstrips the relative drips and drops that we acquire through the kind of conscious learning we place front and center in our schools.

We all know that the kind of remote learning that we've been forced to pursue due to the pandemic is inferior to in-person learning and I would assert that this is largely why. It is much, much more difficult to "read" one another through a screen which means that most of the learning we do on a day-to-day basis is lost. We unconsciously miss our unconscious two-way street of connection were most of our person-to-person learning happens. This is why we get bored so easily, why we struggle to pay attention, and why we find it so exhausting.

Most of us learn best within the context of community because this is how our species has evolved to learn, which is to say it is an adaptation that has made us more fit for survival. The important feature of this phenomenon of unconscious learning is that it is a two-way street in which we are all "teaching" each other and while I've worried about the impact of remote learning on our youngest citizens over the past couple years, I'm far more worried about the one-way educational method we, as a society, have adopted toward them. The evidence seems to be that we learn best in the context of colleagues, peers and equals, yet we persist in shaping our schools as hierarchies. And it is in the nature of hierarchies to train and manipulate.

Our ability to learn from one another in this unconscious way is perhaps our greatest superpower as a species, yet we, at best, squander it in our current educational environment. Playing within the context of community, however, is how we unleash this superpower. Imagine what we could do if everyone understood this.

******

If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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, January 12, 2022

This is Not Every Other Profession


I wish we could all tell the truth about education, that it's really the simplest, most natural thing in the world.


I wish our profession wasn't in a fight for its life against deep pocket foes with a political or economic agenda, because this simplicity is really its beauty and joy.


We've learned to protect ourselves with an armor of jargon like every other profession as a way to sell ourselves in this sell-or-be-sold world.


But this is not every other profession. I'm not even sure it is a profession as much as a calling. Because when we strip all that "professionalism" away, we see that the core of what we do is to love the children: every one of us knows that. And when you love, you listen. That's what we do.

It's when we listen with our ears and eyes and hearts that we can access not only their genius, but our own.


Professional greatness is not a rare thing, I don't think, but it's hard for others to see because it takes place in intimate moments when we're down on our knees, face to face with the children, ears, eyes, and heart wide open. And then to try to talk about it after the fact, to try to satisfy the demands to make learning "transparent," we wind up wrapping the moments of genius in words that detail techniques and strategies that describe only the surface manifestation of what happened because to say, "We connected," sounds too hippy-dippy and namby-pamby.


This is not a complicated thing, but it does take practice, lots of it, every day with lots of different kids, and even after ten or twenty years there's still a new thing to learn every day, its profundity often lost in its simplicity.


When we play with children, we engage them as they engage with their passions and curiosities, and when we listen with our whole selves, we notice instantly when that moment comes around, and then it's just a simple matter of making a statement of fact, or asking just the right question, or sitting quietly in the knowledge that that is what this child needs right now. How much better that is than to assume they are all ready for this particular knowledge at this particular time delivered in this particular manner by virtue of being more or less the same age -- what Ken Robinson calls their "manufacture date" -- then bang heads against the wall in frustration that many of them just don't get it.


To be a "gifted" educator is really just possessing the knowledge that children are people and proceeding to treat them like people, loving them and listening.

******

If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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, January 11, 2022

"This Vested Interest In The Children's Incompetence"



As a child, there were certain adults who I instantly liked, whereas there were others for whom I would take an immediate dislike. It generally came down to how they treated me. If they looked me in the eye, spoke in their normal voice, laughed at my jokes, not my mistakes, and refrained from such intrusive things as patting me on the head, pinching my cheeks, or picking me up without my consent, then they were one of the "good guys."


Most adults in mixed-age social settings would just ignore me, which was fine, because I would likewise ignore them, preferring the company of my fellow children, but there were always some who would loom at me, smiling too widely, speaking too loudly, sometimes even descending into a kind of baby talk. They might have been well-intended, but I resented their insipid, prying questions, questions they would never dare ask an adult they didn't know: "What are you going to be when you grow up?" or "Are you a good boy for your teacher?" They would look around at the other adults as I obediently replied beaming condescendingly as if they were a confederacy of superior beings deigning to include the cute, precious, innocent child for a moment.

To this day, there are few things more certain to set this early childhood educator's teeth on edge than adults who condescend to children. As a boy, the irritation was with their obvious phoniness and their clear, insulting assumption that I was some kind of baby. Now, however, I understand that it is even worse. These are adults, and there are more of them now than ever, who see children not as an individual humans, but rather as an idea, a stereotype. They don't see actual people, but rather their concept of children as incomplete adults -- simple, unformed, incompetent, and so so so charmingly innocent. It is okay to command or control them, to even lie to them, just so long as they can convince themselves that it's "for their own good."


Many of these people are in charge of schools and curriculum. Many are teachers. There are even parents who start off with this attitude only to spend the next couple decades mourning the loss of their vision of what a child is as their own child proves to be an actual human being. These are the parents who think they are doing their child a service by protecting them from learning about sex or racism because they are too tender and dear to be exposed to such things.

John Holt writes, "It is condescending when we respond to qualities that enable us to feel superior to the child. It is sentimental when we respond to qualities that do not exist in the child but only in some vision or theory that we have about children . . . Children do not like being incompetent any more than they like being ignorant. They want to learn to do, and do well, the things they see being done by bigger people around them. This is why they soon find school such a disappointment; they so seldom get a chance to learn anything important or do anything real. But many of the defenders of childhood, in or out of school, seem to have this vested interest in the children's incompetence, which they often call 'letting the child be a child.'"


We are born into the shock of light, cold, and sound, then must spend our first days learning to live with it. From the moment we come into this world, we are fully aware that there is pain, fear, and that life is often unfair. We are never innocent in this life: the idea of childhood innocence is really just adults romanticizing ignorance. Our children do not need to be protected from the hard lessons of life, even if that were possible. They do not benefit from our theories about what children are and are not. They are here on this earth, like all of us, to learn what it means to be alive and our responsibility as important adults in their lives is to be fellow travelers, consoling them when the lessons are hard, helping them when the tasks are difficult, but most of all loving them as the capable, competent humans they are.

******

If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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, January 10, 2022

Play-Based Educators Are In The Business Of Learning, Not Teaching


As play-based educators, we are in the business of learning. Many of us interpret that to mean "teaching," but the longer I've been in this profession, the more I've distanced myself from that because I've found that it very often gets in the way of the learning.

Oh sure, if I choose the subject (or have a subject determined for me by a pre-packaged curriculum) then lecture, explain, demonstrate, and assign in just the right mixture, I can compel this or that child to repeat what I consider to be the correct answers on a test, and this is a kind of learning, I suppose. It is learning that relies on lower level cognitive processes like repetition, memorization, and pleasing an authority figure. And because I've imposed correct answers and test scores on the children as objectives, most of this learning will be of the short-term variety, because it is unconnected to the child's life outside the confines of school. Of course, a good teacher will strive to make the subject matter relevant to this or that child by causing them to somehow experience it, but because that manufactured experience is an abstraction from life (as is most of what we call school), it's a hit or miss (mostly miss) process.

In this model, we see the active adults choosing, compelling, imposing, and causing, while the child is seen as a passive receptacle.

This approach is, to my mind, completely backwards. As an educator, I've found that if I focus on the actual thinking, creating, and understanding, when the child is the active one, the one doing the choosing, compelling, imposing, and causing, we find ourselves in an environment in which higher level learning can take place.

This is the kind of learning that involves the actual thinking, which, as Eleanor Duckworth points out, is indistinguishable from learning. "The development of intelligence is a matter of having wonderful ideas." Rarely does a wonderful idea emerge from "teaching," except perhaps as an act of rebellion, because wonderful ideas are the product of higher level thinking.

And thinking is the process of trying to understand.

When we observe children at play, which is to say choosing their own course of "study," we are witnessing  self-motivated learners engaged in thinking about relevant subject matter. We see that thinking is not merely a process of the brain, but rather one that is so fully engaging that it involves the entire body. There is no need for adults to "get" the kids to do things or to "impose" or "cause" things to happen, but rather to be alongside the child, observing, researching, and supporting them, minimally. An educator, as opposed to a teacher, trusts the child's natural instinct to think and understand, not what the adult wants them to know, but whatever is relevant to that child.

But then they will only learn what they want to learn. What about all the stuff that they need to learn? 

Setting aside the hubris in this question, I would assert that a child who has been free to think, to understand, and to pursue their own answers to their own questions, will be well-equipped to learn those things when and if the need actually arises. In other words, when this or that trivia becomes relevant, when not knowing stands in the way of knowing, the child will have the self-motivation and skills to more readily learn it.

Literacy, the Holy Grail of the adult-directed model of learning, is a classic example of this. Increasingly, we are "teaching" two-year-olds how to read. Then we teach them when they are three, then four, then five, then six, then seven when, for many of them, they finally learn it. The self-directed model requires that we wait until the child themself recognizes that reading is relevant to them, which for most kids is around seven or eight years old (although it obviously varies by child). In other words, all that "teaching" was, at best, a waste of time (although research shows that children who receive formal literacy in preschool tend to become teenagers who read less for pleasure and with lower comprehension). When the child is the active agent in the learning, self-motivation and actual understanding make reading a task of a few months rather than years. 

But what if they think "wrong" thoughts? What if they are "teaching" themselves things that are not true?

Play-based educators know that learning is not about correct answers, but rather the thinking, which is indistinguishable from learning. When we are free to think our own thoughts, to follow our own curiosity, and to strive to understand, we will, like any scientist, develop theories that we must test, through our self-selected activities. This might involve living with a "wrong answer" for a long time before it becomes relevant to reassess.

Generations ago the right answer to understanding a thunderstorm was that all that rumbling was the sound of superhuman gods at battle. Now, most of us reduce these storms to concepts like friction, sparks, vacuums, and imagined banks of burly air smashing together to make the noises. Neither of these conceptions are, in fact, the correct answer to what is a thunderstorm. In both cases, we're thinking in metaphors that feel familiar, which is to say, that make us feel as if we understand.

Educators know that correct answers are a moving target, changing as our metaphors change, and those metaphors are the product of thinking, often with our whole bodies . . . Which is indistinguishable from learning.

And play-based educators are in the business of learning, not teaching. 

******

If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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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