Monday, December 21, 2015


Whenever I write about the technology of treating children as fully formed human beings like I did last week, there are some who complain that the technology doesn't work for them or, more specifically, that it doesn't work all the time or that they don't like the way it works when it does. I'm here to tell you that it always works, albeit if near term peace and joy is your measuring stick, it will almost always appear to come up short. It's a technology that works over the long haul, but how it get there isn't always pretty.

I think one disservice I do here on the blog is that I tend to focus on examples that demonstrate the moments of "success," those times when light bulbs have gone off, when a child who has struggled finally "gets it," even if only for a moment. What I don't spend a lot of time on is the day-after-day struggle, which is, after all, where we spend a good deal of our time and where most important learning takes place. Like with all things in a play-based curriculum, this technology is more about progress than product.

I've written before that the longer I do this, the more I come to the understanding that much of what we call "play" looks for all the world like bickering. And often that bickering explodes into full on conflict with yelling, tears, and even physical violence. This is when we adults tend to step in, often quite emotional ourselves, either on our own account because we have some sort of vested emotional interest in the conflict or because we empathize so strongly with the emotions of the children. We strive to quite the yelling, sooth the crying, and stop the violence, and we generally succeed in doing that, but rarely without feeling that things got out of hand, that we have somehow failed, that the technology is not working. But this is the way it's designed to work.

This treating children as fully formed humans is a technology, not a magic trick. It's not a manufacturing technology, one designed to repeat the same process over and over along an assembly line, because each fully formed human is different from the next. It's not a computer technology in which one can program everything to come out in a predictable manner. It's not a transportation technology that reliably takes us from one place to another in a straight line or upon a set schedule. No, this is the technology of how to support other people through their struggles and there is no button to push to make that happen.

It's important to keep in mind that not every child experiences a play-based curriculum in the same way. Some children, for instance, are blessed with more easy-going temperaments which permits them to better shrug off the slings and arrows of the day, while others feel every prick, bump or social slight as a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare. My own daughter came home from her play-based preschool in tears several days a week for a time, sobbing over her perception of being excluded or rejected. Some experience genuine fear over the rowdier kids and their games of weapons and bad guys. These are real, emotional struggles, clashes between temperaments and the real world, and sometimes it can feel like too much for both the child and the adults. I understood when my children insisted that she didn't want to go to school. I even had to fight down my own sense of outrage about the behavior of the "mean girls" who tormented her, but I also knew that the one way we were going to learn about this was to struggle with it, and struggle, by its very nature, is uncomfortable. So we got up each day and went to school to continue our struggle, one that carried on in one form of another far beyond those preschool years.

The alternative, of course, is to shield our children from conflict, to help them withdraw when they are sad or frightened. To seek out environments for them that are kept calm, quiet, and relatively conflict free through the command and control of adults, with our rules and our schedules so chock-a-block that the kids don't have the time for conflict. Of course, then they get little practice in anything other than compliance and withdrawal, tactics that rarely leads to longterm satisfaction.

This is the mentality of those teachers who object to longer recess time for kids because anything longer than 15 minutes leads to "fights." And they are right: free play always leads to conflict. Freedom itself always leads to conflict, and if we expect our children to grow up to be free human beings they are going to need lots of practice in order to figure out their own way to deal with it. We can't do it for them: it's their struggle, not ours. For some, it seems to come as second nature, while for others it takes years to find their own way through to a place among the other humans they can call their own.

As adults we help them by putting hard stops to physical violence when it crops up, being with them empathetically as they cry, turning them toward one another as they argue, and supporting them in their efforts to adhere to the agreements they've made with one another. It's a messy business, this learning to get along with the other people, and I'm sorry that I sometimes make it seem like magic here on these pages by highlighting those moments of epiphany.

The reality is that it's a struggle for everyone, some more than others, and it goes on for a lifetime. 

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1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing Tom, it's a daily challenge for me to get out of the way because of the many things we feel/think/perceive we "should" be doing... and then I see those "ah ha" moments when they work it out for themselves and it makes it all worthwhile.