Sunday, April 18, 2010

Keep Spreading The Word!

One of the fine lines I try to walk as a teacher is the balancing act between teaching children the way I know they ought to be taught and preparing them for the realities of public school kindergarten.

For instance, we spend the bulk of our days engaged in some version of what I call "discovery time" (others call it "choice" or "free play"). We might be indoors or outdoors, but the principle is the same: the child choses where he will play, how long he will play there, and (within the confines of safety and respect for others) how he will play with who and what he finds there. The only part of our day during which I expect the children to sit is during our circle time -- our daily community meeting -- and that is on the carpet and only for the time during which we aren't on our feet doing the Hokey Pokey or singing Jump Jim Joe. And my definition of "sitting" includes lounging, reclining, and lying, just so long as you're not up on your knees blocking the view of others.

This isn't to say that children don't take advantage of our classroom chairs, sitting down in them to work puzzles, squish play dough or make art, but there are always some for whom a chair appears to be a device of cruelty. Even when they do give it a go, it's with legs curled under their bottoms, or leaning back on two legs, or rocking from side to side as they engage in their activity. I'll never forget helping out in my daughter's kindergarten class. The kids were sitting in chairs at tables, working on math. There was Caleb, a certifiable math prodigy, his legs in perpetual motion, the four legs of his chair not once during the entire 15 minutes I watched him touching the floor at the same time. He spent nearly as much time untangling his own legs from the chair as he did working on his math assignment. He finished working on his paper, the first one to do so, while straddling a chair that was lying on its back. Not once did his bottom actually touch the seat of the chair.

Some of us, possibly most of us, need to move our bodies in order to think clearly. Scientists are proving it and not just when it comes to preschoolers.

In an era when our public schools are reducing or even eliminating physical education from their curricula, researchers are discovering direct connections between moving our bodies and our ability to learn and think creatively. According to Dr. John Ratey, author of the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Education and the Brain, "Movement is really connected to our brain. It stimulates the brain to wake up. Exercise almost immediately helps to increase the attention (and it) improves the motivation."

I wish I could embed this terrific "Good Morning America" piece from a week ago that talks about how some schools are getting it, providing their students with swinging foot rests, replacing their chairs with stability balls, or just taking 10-minute breaks for dancing, all to great success both academically and behaviorally.  And while you're over there, take a look at this ABC World News report about a high school that is bucking the national trend by not just emphasizing PE, but by scheduling it as the first period of the day for students who are struggling in school with dramatic results.

I hate that I feel compelled to give my Pre-K kids experience with increased "bottom time" during their final year with us in order to get them at least a little bit ready for the realities of their next year of school. It's so hard for some of these perfectly normal kids to sit for 20-30 minutes at a stretch, but that's what they're going to need to be able to do. And while I sometimes think I should just give it up and let their kindergarten teachers deal with it, at the same time I don't want them to suffer the complete ice-water-in-the-face shock of moving from a place where they are encouraged to move their bodies to a place where their fidgeting and "squirrely-ness" are "behavior problems." I've already had at least two kids (that I know of) get tagged with the ADHD label by his public school, at least one of whom was forced onto medication in order to retain his place in the school.

Our bodies and brains are clearly part of a single system and each one of us employs them in different proportions in order to get the most out of that system. It's incredibly encouraging to me to learn that there are public schools that are figuring this out. And it's perhaps even more exciting to find that a mainstream media outlet like ABC News seems to have it on its radar. Kudos to them! Keep spreading the word!

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Linda Setlik Horner said...

This is so true!
I think maybe in some schools anyway they are pushing the organized sports over just plain activity. When I was a kid I played all kinds of sports at home with my siblings. I could dribble the ball, do lay ups, hit and catch the baseball, and drop kick a ball over the garage. What a rude awakening I had when I entered school. It was no longer about having fun. Everyone played for blood. It was win or die trying. When I missed a catch, struck out or didn't run fast enough, you'd think the world had come to an end. I was chewed out and made fun of by the 'jocks' to the point where I did everything possible to avoid physical activity. I even offered to stay in at recess and help the teacher so I wouldn't have to play the game.
I wonder how much schools are looking at organized sports thinking that is enough for the students and not considering the importance of non competitive physical activity.

Ms Debbie said...

Tom, Thanks for posting this today. I struggle with this all the time. When talking with other FCC providers that are "worksheet natzi's " I use the analogy of driving. Do we stick a 6 year old behind the wheel of a car to get him " ready " to drive? NO, that would be crazy. So, why do we push 3 -5 year olds to learn in a way that is not DAP for them just to " get them ready " for school? And what is ready? I think it is different for all children. This is a battle I fight with myself everyday.

Lindsey said...

I have no idea if you've seen this, but if you haven't then I think you'll enjoy it.

Jenny said...

Thanks for sharing the positive stuff here too. I tend to get caught up in the negatives too much and I'm glad to be reminded that things are moving forward.

As a first grade teacher I find myself doing things to get the kids ready for the upper grades (giving homework, introducing the idea of tests - things I don't believe in). As a fourth and fifth grade teacher I did things to get the kids ready for middle school. Does it ever end?

Sue said...

The ONLY, and honestly the only thing I ever disagree with you about, is the "sitting on their bottoms and raising their hands" thing. Of course we can't have mayhem at group time (don't like calling it "circle" time either) but there is something in between, that's magic. And what about the kids that need to be on the periphery during group time?
Sue, in Bloomington Indiana- I teach twenty 3-5 year olds on IU's campus. I, like you, found my calling relativley late too. 9Am 58 now and have been doing this since I was 43.

Karen said...

This is a good reminder that kids need movement. I agree with your definition of sitting-- I think any teacher who makes the kids sit "criss cross applesauce" the entire time should try it themselves & see how (un)comfortable it is.

Deborah Stewart said...

I have been sitting on my knees my entire life:) I recently talked with a friend of mine who teaches 4th grade at a local public school and was shocked to find out that they only have 12 minutes of recess. I wandered what was the point - by the time they get on coats and gloves it is time to go back inside. We do need more schools to swing this around and put playground time or PE back on as a priority.

I worry too that if children go straight from an all play environment to the structure of a kindergarten or 1st grade environment. I try to balance my classroom with some structure so the children are prepared for this new environment.

Let the Children Play said...

Tom, your program always sounds so much like ours - right down to the definition of 'sitting'!

We don't have anytime during the day where the kids are expected to sit all at the same time. Group experiences are all on a "join in if you choose to" basis - we just try to make it so irresistible that they will choose to. And if they don't on a Monday, then they will the next day or the day after that.

Once they do choose to join in a big group time, they are expected to be able to stay within the zone; take turns; participate etc

We find that this way the kids that are there really truly want to be, and get so much out of it without being disturbed by a few that are feeling disgruntled because they were in the midst of some other absorbing activity.

I take a bit of a different tack to some of the comments - I think that there is plenty of time to learn to sit in a circle when they get to school. They have so many years ahead of them of 'towing the line' that I love for childhood to be all about play.

I'm fairly confident that teachers in the first year of school give their little charges lots of leeway and time to get familiar with new routines, so I don't think we are disadvantaging our kids.

Where my boys go to school (a progressive one) you walk into a classroom and kids are doing their work lounging all over the floor or leaning on the stairs or up in the loft - or sitting at chairs at the desk. I think that by giving the kids the choice of where they will work best you get the best work out of the kids.

Play for Life said...

We run an indoor / outdoor program where the children are free to choose where they play and for how long they stay. We also have free snack time where the children eat when they are hungry. Here, they must sit at the snack table and not swing on the chairs or flip flop on the table but other than that they can choose to sit or stand at any of the activities we offer and we love it when they move things down onto the floor.

I must admit we do things a little differently to you during story time Tom ... We prefer our children to sit on their bottoms, either cross legged or with legs out in front .. we discourage sitting on knees (sorry Deborah) or 'W' sitting as we have been advised this is bad for the children's hips and knees. We find that the children who lounge around tend to roll on top of others, often leading to (friendly) wrestling or accidental kicking of others and it becomes very disruptive to the other children. Those who cannot sit still for a story are invited to move to the perimeter of the mat or away to a different area. Like Jenny once they join in we expect them to show respect to the other children by listening and participating. Having said that rarely does this happen and rarely do we have a child not wanting to join into any larger group activity ... we do however try to keep these times short!

And aren't we preparing our children for life? ... With kindergarten (preschool) the now part of life and school a future part ... By allowing our children freedom of choice now, to make decisions for themselves now, teaching them independence now and encouraging their interest now ... once they hit school they'll be ready to learn the ways of school and as all schools are so different aren't we best to focus on the now... knowing that just like the children learned the ways of kinder (preschool), they WILL learn the ways of school.

Donna :) :)

Launa Hall said...

Another great post, Tom. I'm deeply encouraged by the public schools that are trying some new (but really old) ideas to incorporate movement into a normal school day. Thank you for this link!

Launa Hall said...

Oh, and this book recommendation! It's on my reading list. Thanks!

Ms. L said...

As I read this blog and the comments, I realize again that I had a unique public school experience. My public school was offered an alternative (as in different, not as in discipline problems) program. Parents volunteered in the classroom, and that allowed our teachers to set up various activities that were going on around the classroom. My father and my best friend's father built a loft for the classroom, and we were allowed to slip up there to read quietly, if we wished. We were encouraged to learn by trying out ideas and rarely by being "neat and sweet and in their seats."

I am really intrigued by the idea that activity and learning are linked. I teach community college students, and I wonder if this idea of motion/learning connection applies all the way up to college.

And as the mother of a 1-year-old, I hope my daughter will have a preschool teacher like Tom someday.