Friday, September 30, 2016

Striving In That Direction

A common characteristic of play-based schools are policies discouraging adults from helping children with things they can do for themselves. This goes for everyday personal care things like putting on jackets and using the toilet, as well as physical challenges like climbing to the top of the playhouse or using the swings.

Ideally, we step back as they engage their struggles. When they begin to get frustrated, we might support them with narrative statements like, "You've put your arm in the sleeve," or perhaps helpful informative statements like, "Your other sleeve is behind you." When it's something necessary like dressing appropriately for outdoors or peeing in the potty, we then might step in with actual assistance when it appears the challenge is still too much for them, but only after giving each child a chance to do what he can for himself. When it's something with which the child is challenging herself, like climbing a tree, we might move closer and offer words of encouragement, or say things like, "I won't help you, but I won't let you get hurt."

Competence is built upon perseverance and these struggles with meaningful, real-world challenges (as opposed to the manufactured challenges of tests and homework) are the foundations upon which confident, self-motivated humans are built.

As a cooperative preschool in which parents work in the classroom as assistant teachers, this is one of the most important and difficult lessons some parents learn. Teachers who have never worked in a cooperative often ask me if parents "get in the way" or intervene too much or too quickly, and my answer is, "Yes, they do." When families arrive at our school with their two-year-olds, many are still brand new to the parenting game, primarily experienced in caring for infants who need so much done for them. For first time parents, that is the only parent-child relationship they know, and while there was a time when it frustrated me, I've come to realize that part of my job is to recognize where they are on their journey and to be there as they, and their child, transition into this new phase.

In other words, we don't always live up to our ideal, but rather, as is the case with any ideal, we always strive in that direction. 

The "unicycle merry-go-round" is one of the features of our outdoor classroom. It's made to sit on a paved surface, which we had when we acquired it, but it's now installed on sloped, wood chip covered ground. There's a "track" upon which the wheels are meant to turn, but it's almost always blocked with wood chips and other debris making it nearly impossible for children to peddle. At the beginning of the school year, in our 2's class in particular, there is almost always an adult bent to the task of pushing the children.

But as the months pass, it will be satisfying to watch the evidence of the progress we make along our journey. The adults will stand back without my encouragement, as children struggle with the apparatus. The kids will identify the wood chip problem themselves. They'll find the brooms to sweep the track. Some will chose to be "riders" while others will be the "motors," pushing one another around and around, taking turns by an unspoken system of their own devices, while the adults stand back, not helping, all of us striving toward our ideal.

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Thursday, September 29, 2016

"Let's Bust Them"

"These ghosts are annoying me."

"Yeah, let's bust them."

The boys were walking and talking, carrying their chosen ghost busting tools.

"Do you have a ghost, Teacher Tom?"

"I do, and it's annoying me."

"We'll bust it."

"Yeah, we'll bust it."

"Where is it?"

I pointed to a spot a few feet away. They busted it.

"Thanks, it was annoying me."

"Come on, let's look for ghosts up here."

One of the boys climbed the ladder and crossed the top of the monkey bars while his ghost busting buddy stuck to the ground. Their game had attracted the attention of a third party, "Why are you getting the ghosts. Maybe they're trying to be nice."

Both boys now back together on the ground, they looked at one another for a second, thinking together, then one of them replied, "We're only busting bad ghosts."

"Yeah, they took our candy so we're busting them."

"Maybe you could just share the candy. Maybe they don't want to get busted."

They thought together again, musing over this moral dilemma before one of them responded as if speaking for both, "They don't even like candy. They just throw it in the trash."

"Yeah, they throw it in the trash."

"So we bust them."

Their ghost busting tools still in hand, these boys who I'd never before seen play together despite having been classmates for more than a year continued on their way, heads together, expertly employing the power of the friendship invitation "Let's . . ."

"These ghosts are so annoying."

"Let's bust them!"


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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Until The Children Are Finished

Our pallet house was built in the middle of the main walkway between our gate and the school's main entry. Not only that, but it's close enough to the swings that adults wanting to pass by must time it so that they don't get kicked by a swinger.

I know that I could exercise my executive power and simply dismantle the thing on my own one morning before the children arrive. I've even picked out a "better" spot to reassemble it. But, as I mentioned in the post about deconstructing our old pallets, when there's work to be done around the place, I'd really like for the kids to do it.

Unfortunately, the kids, for the most part, are satisfied with the current location. I've spoken to them individually and in groups about my desire to "move the house" because it's blocking the way. They listen to me, usually agreeing that it's been built in an awkward spot, but when it comes to moving it, they've pretty much universally given me some version of "maybe later."

Meanwhile, the play in and around the pallet house has continued to evolve, which probably explains the children's reluctance to mess with it. They're obviously still using it in it's present location to ask and answer their own questions. They're just not yet finished with it.

For instance, the long slope that usually serves as our walkway, and which is now blocked by the pallet house, is also an inviting grade down which to roll tires. The challenge has always been that such a long, well-used slope makes it highly likely that one of those runaway tires will run down a friend. This has usually meant that before rolling tires, the kids have had to erect some sort of barrier or recruit an adult to stand at the bottom of the hill to warn unwary children away and/or actually catch the tire before it mows someone down. The new pallet house, we've discovered, serves quite well for stopping the tires. The children playing inside the house when the tires strike it are calling the effect "earthquakes."

The pallet house is also being used for increasingly complicated dramatic play games that require not only social skills, but also an physical ability to move and play in a tight space. During these games, the children continue to "enlarge" the structure, adding parts (traffic cones, tires, wooden boards) as their games dictate.

And then there are a few children who still find the pallet house a worthy venue in which to challenge themselves physically, climbing onto the ramparts and jumping off, for example, often striving for dramatic landings that either evoke some sort of superhero-warrior or that are done for comedic effect.

At any given moment there are children exploring it and while many agree it should be moved, and even agree with my plans for where to move it, they are feeling no urge to actually undertake the project, even with my help.

There will come a day, maybe today, maybe a month from now, when the children will be finished using the pallet house for their educational purposes and then it will truly just be in the way. On that day, I expect, there will be a team motivated enough to re-locate it, but for now it's going to stand in the way until the children are finished answering their questions.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

No Translation Required

The father of one of our students recently drew my attention to this WNYC podcast on how video games, rather than being "just an escape," can actually be good for you.

He wrote:

Interesting listen. The opposite of play is not work indeed! . . . (L)ots of research seems to be done on this topic, but not necessarily on the non-virtual version of play, as it's tough to put a kid on a swingset into an fMRI machine. Both version are part of our future of course, but take the same podcast and substitute "play" for "video game play" and I imagine similar benefits result.

I tried his mental experiment on the text synopsis of the podcast and it worked quite well (bold represents where I replaced "game" or "video game" with the word "play"):

  • "After wading through tons of research, she found that play is a wonderland of possibilities to make us smarter, happier, and more creative people."
  • "So play isn't just an escape? Nope, it doesn't have to be. Jane says that the key to finding positive emotions and empowerment is to ground your play in real life."
  • "In fact, play can help cope with depression and combat anxiety . . ."

As a type of play, of course, it makes sense. Research on any kind of play finds these benefits and more. The key difference is that we need no "dosage" warnings when it comes to the swingset. And that's where we need caution when it comes to our children and video games: you simply can't overdose on swings, like one can with video games.

Even this article in praise of video games draws a distinction between video game play and other types of play:

So when you're trapped in Minecraft, don't give up and walk away, trudge on. Fight. Or use creative problem-solving to get to the next level. Those skills or resources will spill out from the virtual world and into the real one.

The key difference being, of course, that the child on a swingset is already developing those "skills or resources" in the "real world," no translation from the "virtual world" is required.

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Monday, September 26, 2016

Helpers In A Crisis

He was having a prickly day. Things were not going his way. He'd been in tears or enraged several times already, the toys with which he wanted to play were already being used, the other kids weren't doing what he wanted them to do, and the adults were failing in their attempts to make it all better.

He sulked up to the swings where he could be alone, hanging limply in one of them, using his feet to get a little momentum going, but without vigor.

I'd made various forays in pursuit of bucking him up: a hand on his back; chit-chat about the makes and models of cars, his hobby; an inside joke. I'd managed to get him to smile a couple times, to lean into me, to take me up on my offers of friendship, but we already like each other so it might have just been out of politeness. Right now, as he swung, I was keeping my distance, watching him deal with his prickly day in his own way.

After a few minutes of just hanging there, he tossed back his head and without volume or urgency, to no one at all, called, "Help."

I didn't move, nor did anyone else, and he didn't look around for a response either, lolling his head back to look up into the trees, tugging a little with his arms as if trying to get the swing going like that. Then louder, "Help!"

Still, I was the only one who heard him. The other adults were busy in other parts of the outdoor classroom. His closest friends were engaged in canal building in the lower half of our sand pit, an activity that for them usually involves lots of shouting out to one another, which makes it hard to hear cries of help from all the way at the top of the hill.

"Help! Help! Help!"

As his cry became more insistent I moved closer. I said, "You're calling for help."

"I want someone to push me." He wasn't asking me to do it. All the kids know I don't push kids in swings.

I nodded, "Like those kids over there?"

Sourly, "I don't care. I just want someone to push." Then, "Help!"

"I think you'll have to be louder."


That's when someone other than me finally heard him. 

"Oh no, someone needs a rescue!"

"Who is it?"

"To the swings!"

Most of the kids dropped their shovels as they swarmed in pursuit of his cries, "Help!"

Once there, they didn't need to be told what he needed. They got to work, helpers in a crisis, pushing their classmate who was now grinning ear-to-ear, still saying "Help," but with a laugh, the first I'd heard from him all day.

After awhile of being twisted, turned, pushed and pulled, all of which delighted him, he said, "Okay, okay, that's enough." When the kids ran back to their canal digging project, he ran with them.

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Friday, September 23, 2016

The Lifecycle Of Loose Parts

Earlier this week I wrote about dismantling one of our old shipping pallets so that it would fit in the dumpster. Yesterday we did the same to a second one. All this deconstruction was done because we've recently received four fresh new pallets and it was time to dispose of the old, rotting ones. Coincidentally, I recently came across four lengths of 2X4 in a "free" pile at a construction site near the school.

On Monday, Teacher Rachel and I, while goofing around with the new loose parts, discovered that if you stand a pair of shipping pallets on their sides and slide a couple 2X4's between the slates of one pallet and then another, you create stable, opposing walls. The kids immediately called our creation "the house," and have been clambering on it and adding to it all week.

These pallets are much heavier than the ones we usually have around the place and I was a little worried that they would be too much for the kids, but they proved me wrong. We've learned that it takes at least six kids to shift one, which means there's been a lot of, "We need help!" being shouted from the vicinity of the house.

One child, one day, experimented with the exclusionary statement, "This is my house," attempting to bar the door with his body, but the other kids simply said, "No it's not" and overwhelmed him much the way the flying monkeys did Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.

The house has emerged up near the swings because that's where the pallets had been delivered. One afternoon, a team of four-year-olds used the house as a fort to protect themselves from a second team who were swinging on their bellies, scooping fists full of wood chips, and hurling them at the ramparts.

One wall of the house is called the "tippy part" or "teeter wall." A long plank of wood was inserted through the pallet slats at an angle. When the kids stand on the end inside the house, the wall remains firmly in place. When they climb out onto the end outside the house, the wall tips outward by a foot or so before the maze of 2X4's holding the structure together provide a stop, preventing the wall from falling all the way to the ground.

Yesterday, as I was leaving, I discovered that one corner of the house is being used to stash a hoard of "jewels" (florist marbles).

Sooner or later an enterprising team of children will take it upon themselves to remove some of the 2X4's, perhaps as materials for another project, but most likely motivated by the proposition, "Let's see if we can," then the house will collapse and its parts will be commandeered for other purposes. Then one day a few years from now we will drag the pallets down to the workbench and dismantle them.

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Thursday, September 22, 2016


I've been trying to think about whether or not I've ever experience true joy while all alone. I've certainly had happy moments: feeling satisfied upon completing some laborious or challenging task, experiencing elation upon learning that my sports team was victorious, opening the mail to find I've been accepted or approved.

But joy? If I've ever experienced joy while all alone it was either too fleeting to remember or I was compelled to immediately take my good news or epiphany or whatever into the company of others.

Of course, there can be great peace in being alone and we've all felt pride in our solitary achievements, but true joy, I think, is something that requires our fellow humans. As adults we may think that children come to school to learn things, and they do, but I've found that the reason most children want to come to school is to experience joy. I see it every day.

Some children are naturals. They arrive, embrace their friends, sometimes literally, laugh, and proceed to revel in their joy. Others are not so quick to warm. They possess a constitutional caution, one that causes them to be wary of strong emotion or that makes them suspicious of their fellow man, at least until the ice is broken. It may take these children longer to get there, they may not want to come to school because as introverts (and I use this term in the original Jungian sense), they find the other people exhausting, and they aren't always convinced they're up to the challenge. But if allowed their time and space they are always driven toward the joy that can only be found in the other people.

As an introvert myself, I understand the struggle. For decades, I sought to find joy in solitary pursuits, but I've finally come to the place where I know I need the rest of you, every day, if I am going to find it.

Here at the beginning of the school year, there are still many children who are uncertain about the rest of us. Perhaps we are too noisy or too unpredictable or simply too much for them. Some of them would rather be somewhere else. It's not our job to hurry them. They already know about joy, of course: they've already found it within their families, in those moments when time stands still and there is nothing left but the connection we feel with one another. They've known it exists for their entire lives, but now, here at school, amongst the strangers, the pathway to finding it is not so readily apparent. I cannot hurry them because the journey to joy is an individual one we each must take at our own pace and in our own time.

Yesterday, a girl I've known for two years, one who has never been happy about her mother leaving her at school, or anywhere for that matter, a girl who has rarely even spoken to her classmates, opting instead for me or another adult to help her endure her time without mommy, finally found it. She was on the swing as a friend pushed her. They were laughing together, chatting, the rest of the world beside the point, their faces flush with the joy of connection, a glimpse of things to come and, finally, a reason to come back tomorrow.

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