Tuesday, July 31, 2012

They Will Grow Into Gentle, Loving Men

(A while back I posted my Greatest Hits as determined by readership statistics, which then got me thinking about older posts that I wish more people had read, which has now become a sort of irregular series. When I wrote this post we were in the midst of a "raw" time in our school's history. Due to a quirk in demographics, all 9 of our oldest children were boys and while none of them were doing anything out of the ordinary or "bad," all of them together created an intensity that was challenging for many of us. As we tried to walk the balance between the needs of our older children and the fears and frustrations of some of the parents, we had a lot of important discussions about what to "do." This was originally published in January, 2011 under the title "This Is A Complicated Thing." At the bottom of the post you'll find links to others in this series of posts I wish more people had read.)

I've written about this before, but I really do want to know why male primates show a strong preference for toy cars when it comes to choosing with what to play, but no one knows. I haven't even seen a credible sounding theory. Why wheeled vehicles? It doesn't make sense. What did caveman boys play with before the invention of the wheel? Whatever the case, I'm sure the wheel was invented by a tinkering child long before it was adapted for "useful" purposes. 

The universality of play among children across all cultures throughout human history, and indeed across mammal and bird species, indicates that a period of play is adaptive and necessary. That it's the primary way by which we learn in our youth is really, ultimately, why the so-called "education reformers" will fail in their efforts to turn learning into work (although that doesn't mean they can't damage an entire generation of children if parents and teachers don't continue to push back). As the great psychologist Karl Groos wrote:

The very existence of youth is due in part to the necessity for play; the animal does not play because he is young, he has a period of youth because he must play.

Through a quirk of demographics, I've wound up this year with a Pre-K class (my oldest group) of all boys: nine of them. Some are more motivated by cars than others, but they all share to one degree or another their vervet and rheus brothers' preference for playing with cars. If play is essential and cars are universal, then the boys are clearly learning something very important from this kind of play. I can only assume that the survival of our species is dependent upon these boys learning the basic concepts of motion, density, gravity, friction, and momentum, and naturally, they are learning important social skills when they play together, practicing for adult roles when they engage in dramatic play, and bonding as friends over their shared passion, all of which are clearly important.

In the series of photos with which I've illustrated this post, you can see I've used their interest in cars to extend our MLK color mixing experiments from the prior week. Boys aren't always interested in sit-down art projects, but this wasn't one of those times. (I buy a lot of these plain wooden cars from Discount School Supply. I find them useful for all kinds of purposes.)

I don't need to know why, but do want to know.

What I really need to know these days, however, is why boys are so prone to be attracted to violent play. The standard explanation is that they are socialized into it, although I've seen surveys and studies that show gun play and other forms of violet play among boys is pretty universal (although I know of nothing that shows it crossing into the animal kingdom). I'm also not generally disturbed by boys who play superheroes, or soldiers, or pirates, but our 9 boys together, our oldest students, the guys who are looked up to, have begun to feed off one another in a way that is starting to make even me feel like we need to take some action to re-direct their play. It can get pretty intense and, at times, overwhelm some of the younger children who find themselves caught up in it.

It's a delicate balance we need to walk, I think. None of these boys, of course, are actually violent. They are not doing anything "bad" or wrong. In fact, it reminds me very much of my own boyhood when we used to play the same games, big and little boys together, "shooting" and "punching" and saving the world. I also remember it becoming too intense for me at times. I'd come home scared, nervous, and full of disturbing ideas. I'd revert for a few days of playing with my cars or stuffed animals or coloring books, but ultimately I'd always go back.

On Tuesday, we revisited MLK, the great man of peace. I retold them the story, going back to slavery, emphasizing how angry it made people feel and how many of them turned to violence. Then, as I showed them a particularly heroic and patriotic illustration of MLK, I explained how he taught us to fight with words not fists, with love not hate. I then brought up my concerns, emphasizing that some of the younger children, sometimes, were feeling afraid at preschool. They all agreed that they didn't want their friends to feel afraid.

I tried to let them direct the conversation from there as we discussed ways to deal with "bad guys" which quickly became a discussion of Batman, Star Wars, and other fictional depictions of good vs. evil. I responded, each time, "But that's not real, Martin Luther King was real," pointing to the picture I still held. "In the real world," I said, "Words are better than fists."

I'm not sharing this as an example of the right thing to do, but it is what came to me in the moment. And some of the boys even pushed back, insisting that indeed "Star Wars is real. I saw it." (The media is clearly a very potent drug in this question; one we as adults in children's lives must strive to counteract.) But they were engaged. They were sitting together, eyes forward, hands off one another. Most of them said, "Pretend," when I listed examples of popular heros, asking, "Is that real or pretend?" Charlie L. suggested that we could hug or stroke people instead of hitting them. 

I don't want to lecture kids -- that never works -- and I certainly don't want to make them ashamed. It's about empathy, I guess, a notoriously challenging thing to teach young children. I don't want them to stop fantasizing about these heroic figures, but rather to be aware of how their play, especially when it's all 9 of these virtual brothers together, is impacting others. I don't expect them to suddenly become a classroom full of MLKs, but I do want them to understand that in the real world we don't solve our problems with fists or guns.

I suspect that this tendency toward what we label violent play, like the proneness of males to choose to play with cars, is an adaptive trait with roots deeply sunk into our evolutionary past. And just like we don't really know the source of the attraction to wheels, we don't understand the source of the attraction to "violent" play. I know I barely made a dent last Tuesday, but we have 4 more months together. This is a time when they need our adult helping hands.

At the end of the day on Tuesday, about 15 minutes after we'd wrapped up our conversation, I sang our "goodbye song." As parents chatted, some of the boys began to thrust their hands at one another, violently, shouting, "Shock!" They were excited, beaming, alive. It looked like a lot of fun. I've known these boys for a long time. They don't want their classmates to feel afraid. They are gentle, loving boys. They are going to grow into gentle, loving men. 

This is a complicated thing.

UPDATE:  I'm not writing here about aggressiveness or actual violence, but rather pretend violence as part of dramatic play. Labeling preschoolers as aggressive or violent is name-calling and is not acceptable for any adult. If you'd like to read how I really get this point "off my chest," click through to this post: "Aggressive And Violent." You wouldn't call a preschool girl "sexy" or "bitchy." Please do not call boys "aggressive" or "violent."

Other posts I wish more people had read:

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Monday, July 30, 2012

This Commitment To "Normalcy"

In a comment on Facebook about yesterday's post, reader Donna shared that her son is on medication that could make even a run-of-the-mill childhood injury into a life-threatening one. 

I have a 4-year-old boy who has been on blood thinners since he was 2. Fortunately, we have a good cardiologist who told me to let him be a boy! How would he ever learn to be careful if I completely took away all risk of physical harm? He has learned to be careful, but still climbs trees, rides a scooter, still plays out in the backyard with sticks, rocks, and all sorts of things. You can't just keep them in a protective bubble, it is not good for them and they don't learn anything.

What a challenge that would be for a parent. What a temptation it would be to attempt to enclose your child in a "protective bubble." And what bravery it must take, every day, for parents like Donna to let their children freely engage the world.

Many years ago, I taught a boy with hemophilia, a condition that prevents blood from clotting properly. I can tell you that I spent my first several months in the classroom with him on the edge of panic lest he encounter even the mildest bump or bruise, so I can imagine what it must have been like to be his parents. Like Donna, however, they arrived on day one wanting me to be aware of the situation, but urging me to not coddle him, to allow him to run, jump, and otherwise play with his classmates. He was not a daredevil by nature, thank God, but he was a typically bright, inquisitive boy who could throw his body around with the best of them.

His father Joe told me that the greatest danger wasn't the blood we could see, but rather the blood we couldn't see: internal bleeding, which might result from even apparently insignificant impacts, something that is always a minute-to-minute possibility in a preschool classroom. Joe said, "If he seems woozy or dizzy, that's a sign, but he'll probably let you know if he's having a bleed. He knows what it feels like." This at an age when many kids aren't even self-aware enough to know when they're hungry, tired, or need to go potty.

Cooperatives are a natural choice, I think, for parents in these circumstances. I can imagine it would be awfully hard to simply turn over the care of a child in Conail's situation for the first time to a traditional school. In the beginning, his parents chose not to leave him alone at school, which is a choice many parents make during the first few months at Woodland Park, especially in our Pre-3's class. I put them to work as I would any other parent-teacher. This gave us all -- myself and the other parent-teachers -- the opportunity to observe how they interacted with him, how they reacted to his occasional mishaps, how much they hovered or didn't hover. This period of role-modeling was a valuable education for all of us, especially on the day when this 2-year-old boy told his dad Joe, "I'm having a bleed." No amount of abstract "training" could have better prepared me for being on the "front lines" than to be there as Joe calmly and lovingly took Conail into his care and got him off to the doctor, two "men" (and Conail was truly his father's peer in this) dealing with a problem without hysteria.

By Conail's Pre-K year, most of us didn't really think about his hemophilia on a day-to-day basis, although we were reminded each Tuesday afternoon, when Joe would arrive to administer his "factor," a clotting agent that needed to be administered on a schedule. At first it was something for which they left the room, but at some point, not wanting to miss a moment of school, Conail started just removing his shirt right there where we sat together on our circle time rug, showing us the shunt a doctor had installed in his chest, puffing out his chest while Joe injected the factor. By the end of the year, this process was a regular part of our circle time routine: sing a song, talk about our science experiment, give Conail his factor, read a book . . . That's just how we rolled with our super hero friend.

This is Alex, a girl who lost an eye to cancer, wearing her super hero cape in the hospital.

Over the years, I and our parent community have learned all kinds of "medical" skills, from administering Epi-pens and insulin injections to replacing a glass eye. In every case, we were dealing with children who are at one level wise beyond their years, with advanced self-awareness and self-care abilities, kids who had in their own ways learned to "be careful," but who were otherwise just "normal" kids with very brave parents, who must every day fight that urge to inflate a "protective bubble" around their babies. 

This commitment to "normalcy" is an inspiration. In a very real sense these brave children with hemophilia or severe allergies or diabetes or cancer, and their brave parents, are reality-checks to the rest of us and our media-inflamed fears of boogy men, eyes getting poked out, and heads being split open. It is through them that we can appreciate what a gift the bumps and bruises of a normal childhood truly are.

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Sunday, July 29, 2012

A "Dangerous" Tire Swing

First there was the ladder swing, hanging there between our two traditional playground swings, then we tried out swinging on a rope a la Tarzan on his vines. Last week we decided to try out a tire swing. Lucky for us we have an old tire lying around.

We hung up a tire swing last summer as well, which was a process focused mostly on picking out the proper rope and location, with an emphasis on risk assessment as we were working our way through Gever Tulley's Fifty Dangerous Thing (You Should Let Your Children Do). We've done most of the same "dangerous" activities this summer (such as throwing spears,  licking 9-volt batteries, breaking glass, attempting to master the perfect somersaulthammering nailsthrowing rocksmaking bombs in bags, and deconstructing appliances), but without the emphasis on the book because last time one family withdrew from the school before even setting foot through the door because they worried, from afar, that everything was too "dangerous" (forget the fact that Tulley's book is all about safety). This alone wouldn't have bothered me so much, because I'd rather be transparent enough that people self-select if our curriculum makes them uncomfortable, but then another person -- someone who isn't even part of the school -- wrote an "anonymous" letter trying to get me fired. Seriously. So, anyhoooo . . . I still completely endorse the work of Tulley, but haven't wanted to deal with the hassles that come with the word "dangerous."

We ran through some basic risk assessment, agreeing that our rope seemed strong enough and that the swing set superstructure was the logical place from which to hang it, but our biggest challenge was when it came to the tire itself. You see, the tire has spent the past several months in the sandpit, serving as a sort of focal point for digging games, as a table base, or, most recently, as a target for the water that flows along a length of gutter from the hand pump

This meant it was wet and sandy. We tried brushing off some of the sand with our hands, but then Makea had the idea of using a broom. That worked better, but there was still all the water that had collected inside. We stood the tire on its edge and contemplated the water.

Charlotte suggested, "Let's turn it over and dump it out." Good idea, but if you've ever tried to get water out of a tire, you know that it's easier said than done as the water merely follows the dictates of gravity, defying efforts to just dump it out. We rolled it around a bit, but with no luck.

Luella said, "Scoop it out!"  Another great idea. We scrounged around the outdoor classroom for containers we could use for scooping, but the large ones were too large to fit in the opening and we quickly realized that the small ones would take forever one table spoon at a time.

I can't remember who suggested that we try to "bounce it out." Now that might work.  The girls (and it was a group of girls who had elected to work on this project) backed off a few steps as I lifted it over my head and dropped it. A good amount splashed out onto my sandals. This was going to more or less work, but it never sits well with me when the kids are just standing back watching me do something. Our sandpit is raised a couple feet off the ground and in the spot in which we are working there is a short wooden stairway and a short ladder that the kids can use to ascend and descend: we wondered if we could bounce water out by rolling the tire down them. 

So we took turns sending the tire down those bumpy paths, each time splashing a bit more water out. After about 5 minutes of this, taking turns, we still had some stubborn water in there, but decided we didn't mind getting "a little wet," and declared the tire ready.

I tied the rope to the crossbar then I asked, "Does that look safe?" Makea decided that as the "biggest kid," she would test it. It held her weight. Then I tested it with my weight, just to make sure. Next we tied on the tire, going through the testing process again.

By the time we were done there must have been half a dozen kids wanting to try it out, so we needed a system for taking turns. A line seemed logical to us, but with so many 2 and young 3-year-olds around, the concept of a line was a tough sell. That's when we had the idea of laying down a plank. Then when a kid wanted a turn, we could say, "stand on the plank," which has the benefit of being a far more concrete concept than "stand in a line," or go to the "back of the line," both of which are rather amorphous concepts. Maybe others have come up with this idea before us, but I think it's a little piece of genius.

There is no proper way to swing on a tire swing, although none of them chose to sit inside the circle, probably because the whole thing wound up being only a few inches off the ground. Some of them didn't want a push, others did. Since we'd moved the other swings out of the way, I gave them an option of swinging "straight" or "in a circle." Some figured out how to use their bodies to keep the momentum going. Others just hung on for dear life, then ran back to the plank for another turn.

It's impossible to come up with a definition for play that does not include risk. Preventing risk is not the job of adults; it is rather to help children learn to take their risks with eyes wide open. The only thing truly dangerous is not allowing them to learn to make these judgments for themselves.

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Saturday, July 28, 2012

In Praise Of The Outdoor Sensory Table

I hadn't planned on using the new outdoor sensory table every day. I mean, we have a huge, two-level sand pit, year-round water and mud play in the form of a hand pump and Seattle's famous rain puddles, a worm/compost bin, not to mention that it's the outside, you know, the biggest sensory table of all: leaves and trees and grasses and air of different temperatures. No, I'd wrestled our big, heavy wood and galvanized steel table down the hallway and through several narrow doorways into the outdoor classroom, and back, a handful of times last year, and talked myself out of doing it perhaps a dozen times more, due to the fact that it was a big, heavy wood and galvanized steel table. So, at most, I figured we'd use this new table 4-5 times a month -- otherwise I was looking forward to keeping the cover on it and deploying it as an extra table of the non-sensory variety.

But that's not how it's worked out so far this summer. We're using it every day. It's been a sink, it's held bubble solution, it's served as a dolly bathtub, it's been a baking soda and vinegar experiment station, and it's several times started as a water table only to be transformed into a soup or potion or poison or a trap by adding, well, whatever was at hand.

Recently we used it as a giant paint container: one side holding red paint, while the other held white. We then went to town using toilet plungers, fly swatters, and our patented "long paint brushes" (regular chubby brushes duct taped to lengths of garden bamboo stakes), making lots of big, messy pink paintings.

When we were done, we just dumped a few buckets of water through the basins, making some nice stomping puddles on the ground and we were good to go for the next day.

The outdoor sensory table might turn out to be as versatile as our wooden boxes, and versatility is important when it comes to big equipment in a preschool.

No more heavy lifting, no more long hallways, no more narrow doorways. Yes! Hooray for the outdoor sensory table! What's next?

(And since every time I show you guys our outdoor sensory table, someone asks where we got it, here it is.)

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Friday, July 27, 2012

"With Lifts And Everything"

This from The Stranger:

At the recent Totally '80s Sing-Along Encore to the Maxx! at Central Cinema, the final song/video was Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings," which was lifted from fatal sogginess by a couple of sing-along attendees: a man and woman who came together at the front of the house to perform a song-length interpretive dance, "with lifts and everything," says an eyewitness. "The whole crowd sat and watched, and when the dance ended, the applause was insane. Then -- THEN -- the man and woman parted ways and sat back down on opposite sides of the theater, suggesting THEY DID NOT KNOW EACH OTHER. It was magical, and that it was occurring at roughly the same time as the Aurora massacre makes it even more so."

The homicide rate in the US is as low today as it was the day I was born in 1962 and has been in dramatic decline since 1991 when it reached its all time high.  Events like the recent Colorado movie theater mass murder, however, with their attendant wall-to-wall media coverage, are on the rise causing many of us to perceive that the world is a more dangerous place than ever before, when, in fact, it's pretty much like it was during the nostalgic idyl of the 1950s.

That said, all of us must deal with tragedies like this, even if it's just making our brains not think about it. I know I'm not the only one who felt first horrified, then angry, then sad, all the while scanning the news, websites, Twitter, and blogs for a "reason." Was this politically motivated? Racially motivated? A result of abuse, neglect, or bullying? I'm still waiting for a credible timeline of his life because, I guess, I want to scour it for clues as to what could bring a person to this point, how a person could fall through the cracks like this, and what perhaps we could all do to prevent it from ever happening again.

In the aftermath of Seattle's recent grisly tragedy involving a mentally ill person with a gun, I focused on our criminally lax gun laws, and this event only strengthens my conviction that we need much stricter regulations on guns and gun ownership, especially when it comes to the kinds of military assault style weapons used in Colorado, weapons specifically designed to kill human beings enmasse, all of which were purchased legally by the killer. I doubt it's an accident that the number of these senseless mass murders of innocents has increased alongside the de-regulation of guns during the past couple decades.

But as gun advocates are quick to point out, a person bent on doing a horrible thing will still be able to acquire guns illegally or turn to other methods of killing, and I can't deny that: bombs can be made from fertilizer and cars can careen into crowded squares.  I've not done the research, but I suspect there have always been mass murderers, men who snap (and it's most often men who psychologists tell us are more likely to turn their sadness outward in anger, while women are more likely to turn it self-destructively inward), and to use the vernacular, go nuts. It's what happens to some probably predictable percentage of humans when they become disconnected from their tethers, just as we know there will be more earthquakes in California.

But I don't want to turn this post into a debate about guns. I'd rather think about those strangers who came together at the Central Cinema to dance while being serenaded by one of the schmaltziest songs of all time, uplifting a theater full of people, who themselves had come together for a sing-along. The most newsworthy part of this story, I think, is that it was reported in a newspaper. It's the kind of everyday interaction between humans that we tend to take for granted, that we overlook in the rush and crush and worries of our day-to-day lives. But they are happening all the time. They happen as tornados rip houses off their foundations. They happen as earthquakes shake the Earth. They happen as hurricanes and tsunamis and droughts and floods and mass murders ravage lives.

And they happen even as we wonder what we can do to mitigate these natural disasters in the future. They happen as we build stronger levees and better warning systems and contemplate stricter gun control laws. Strangers are dancing with one another all the time. That is what sane people do. That is what our children crave every second of every day: to connect, to connect, to connect. Connecting with the other people is the surest sign of mental health.

Yesterday, as I was cycling home from the Center of the Universe, I ran into my friend Tiberio, who I've not seen in quite some time. We stopped our bikes in the middle of a sunny parking lot and caught up with one another. A lot's gone on since last we spoke, up, down and sideways. At one point after telling me of a failed business venture, he said, "You know what I've started to do? I've started looking in the eyes of everyone I pass and smiling at them. Some of them look away and some of them must think I'm crazy, but some of them look into my eyes and smile back." He paused to draw in a deep breath holding his hands in front of him for emphasis. "I get so full of love that it almost makes me cry."

So yes, we can go back to our debates and planning and worrying, but man, let me tell you, the answer to it all is to dance with strangers, "with lifts and everything."

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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Something That Needed To Get Done

I can't remember where I saw this idea, but I feel quite certain that someone who reads this will know and pass that knowledge along so that I can rewrite this sentence to give credit where credit is due.

The basic idea is to use shaving cream as mortar for building blocks. The set up for this was minimal. We just got out a half dozen cans of the least expensive stuff we can find, some wooden blocks, our collection of masonry tools, and turned them loose. 

In attempting to track down where it was I saw this idea, I learned something shocking: there are preschool classrooms in which shaving cream -- soap -- has been banned. Apparently, there is a fear that children will eat it? I'm putting a question mark on that last sentence because I'd be too embarrassed to let that stand as a statement on this blog. The only "danger" I've ever come across with shaving cream is that sometimes a kid will get some in his eyes, which stings, but come on: you wash it out and from then on they know to be more careful.

Those who praise shaving cream play, me being one of them, most often talk about it being "messy," and it is, but that's not how the kids looked at this project. I'd "sold" it as a building activity and the children who "bought" it were there to build, the mess being incidental. I'm sure if this had run longer than it did, we would have wound up with more of the up-to-the-elbows-and-beyond kind of play, but we only worked it for about 30 minutes, and the kids most likely to seek out a sensory experience were engaged in water play elsewhere for most of that time. 

This building group, in fact, was constantly wiping off their fingers, Meyra and Daphne doing it after each block placement, in order to enhance their precision, using the tools to move the shaving cream. Fergus mostly just deployed it directly from the cans onto the blocks.

Just look at all those clean hand.

Our parent-teachers work hard at Woodland Park, and when I can, I try to find ways to make things easier. We were outdoors and there was rain in the forecast, so when it was time to move up the hill for our closing circle, I suggested we just leave the blocks on the tables and let Mother Nature do the work. It would be imperfect, of course, but good enough for preschool.

Of course, it didn't rain and I returned the following morning to a pile of blocks and tools covered in dried shaving cream. Rats. I separated out the tools and gave them a run through the sink, but didn't have time for the blocks, scooping them into a tub and setting them inside for later attention. 

And there they sat for the next week, a box of crusty blocks that was always in the way, and a teacher who never left himself the time or energy to deal with them and who, in the ebb and flow of the day never remembered to ask for help.

Yesterday, I finally just filled a tub with warm water, took it outside, and got to work washing them off with sponges in a quiet corner of the outdoor classroom while the kids played. Before long Duncan stopped by.

"I'm washing these blocks."

Without comment, he picked up a sponge and got to work.

Soon Betsy came to see what we were doing. "We're washing these blocks. Want to help?"


And then Isaac joined us.

I'd set up an old window screen on a couple logs as a place for the blocks to drip dry and soon the four of us were in a nice flow, a 2, 3 and 4-year-old, with me, chatting together about the shapes of our blocks, the colors, the potential for mold and mildew if we left them wet, cleaning those blocks. It took us about 15 minutes to get through the small batch I'd brought out with me, just sitting there in the midst of all those other kids who were taking apart machines at the workbench, painting prayer flags at the art table, riding the unicycle merry-go-round, digging in the sand, making bubbles, swinging, sliding, running, climbing and playing with water. 

These were not the children who had made the blocks messy: those were kids from our last 2-week summer session. We were not doing this with the mentality that we were cleaning up after a mess we had made, we were simply cleaning those blocks because it was work that needed to get done, heads together, no complaints, no one urging or cajoling or lecturing a lesson about responsibility. 

We were cleaning those blocks because it was something that needed to get done. 

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