Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Our Catastrophic Imaginations

Awhile back, I was watching a boy playing around under the swings as a classmate was swinging. It wasn't a particularly risky activity in my view. I mean, I was standing right there, taking pictures, discussing it with him, and it didn't set off any alarm bells for me in the moment, although after the fact, while going through the photos, it occurred to me that it was something that would be scuttled in other settings. My lack of concern probably stems from the fact that it's far from the first time this sort of thing has happened:

In fact, I think what caught my attention about it was that it was the first time I'd seen a kid do more than just lie there giggling. Of course, many schools have removed their swings altogether, so maybe the very existence of swings is shocking to some. 

I imagine that in some dystopian future we'll become notorious for being the only school left with a swing set, let alone for not having a set of rules about how the kids can use them. That's because, in our six years with swings, since our move to the Center of the Universe, we've not found a need for safety rules, because the kids, the ones that live in the world outside our catastrophic imaginations, haven't shown a particular propensity to hurt themselves or one another.

Oh sure they get hurt like all kids do, like all people, but most of the injuries don't come from what people call "risky play," but rather from day-to-day activities, things you would think children had mastered. For instance, the worst injury we've seen during my 16 year tenure at Woodland Park came when a boy fell on his chin while walking on a flat, dry, linoleum floor. He needed a couple stitches. Another boy wound up with stitches when he fell while walking in the sandpit. 

Increasingly, I find myself bristling when I hear folks talk about "risky play," even when it's framed positively. From my experience, this sort of play is objectively not risky, in the sense that those activities like swinging or climbing or playing with long sticks, those things that tend to wear the label of "risky" are more properly viewed as "safety play," because that's exactly what the kids are doing: practicing keeping themselves and others safe. It's almost as if they are engaging in their own, self-correcting safety drills.

When a group of four and five year olds load up the pallet swing with junk, then work together to wind it up higher and higher, then, on the count of three, let it go, ducking away as they do it, creating distance between themselves and this rapidly spinning flat of wood that they've learned is libel to release it's contents in random directions, they are practicing keeping themselves and others safe. They don't need adults there telling them to "be careful" or to impose rules based on our fears because those things are so manifestly necessary to this sort of thing that they are an unspoken part of the play.

When children pick up long sticks and start employing them as light sabers, swinging them at one another, they are practicing keeping themselves and others safe. The safety is built into it.

When children wrestle they are practicing caring for themselves and their friends.

When preschoolers are provided with carving tools and a pumpkin they automatically include their own safety and that of others into their play. Adult warnings to "be careful" are redundant at best and, at worst, become focal points for rebellion (which, in turn, can lead to truly risky behavior) or a sense that the world is full of unperceived dangers that only the all-knowing adults can see (which, in turn, can lead to the sort of unspecified anxiety we see so much of these days). Every time we say "be careful" we express, quite clearly, our lack of faith in our children's judgement, which too often becomes the foundation of self-doubt.

The truth is that they already are being careful. The instinct for self-preservation is quite strong in humans. It's a pity that we feel we must teach them to live within our catastrophic imaginations.

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Monday, October 30, 2017

Cognitive Bias

It's relatively easy to spot someone else's cognitive biases, those beliefs that cause humans to behave in irrational ways. For instance, we've all known people who are so entrenched in their belief system that they are immune to facts that tend to disprove their views, choosing instead to seek out information that supports what they already believe, ignoring the rest, a phenomenon called "confirmation bias." Or as Stephen Colbert famously said about one of our presidents, "He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened on Tuesday."

These guys explored these rusty remains of a barrel.

What's not so easy is identifying our own biases. I like to think of myself as a rational man, one who draws conclusions from the facts at hand, but one of those facts is that I'm a human, carrying around a brain that evolved over hundreds of thousands if not millions of years and that brain has hundreds of identifiable cognitive biases baked into it.

This broken plastic tub was repeatedly filled with things then thrown off the rocks.

I shared some pictures last week of some Icelandic preschoolers playing on a characteristic lava rock and spongy moss landscape. I showed you pictures that showed the place at its "best," as I wanted you to see it: strange and magical, a place of alien beauty. Indeed, that is what I saw as I stood their watching the children climb and explore. It was all so different that what I was accustomed to, that my eyes didn't really know where to focus. It was all bizarre and visually striking.

A shredded woven plastic bag.

But that wasn't the case for the kids who have grown up playing in such a place. They instead found what was truly bizarre and visually striking: the human garbage. They did play with the rocks and plants they found there, but mostly they were drawn to things that didn't "belong" there. A pair of boys, for instance spent a lot of time moving and bending an old, rusty barrel. Some girls found a shredded bag that had once held cement or gravel and used it to alternately tie things up and adorn themselves. Several of the children found lengths of lumber which they used as dramatic play props, levers, and weapons.

The children found chunks of styrofoam that they collected in one place.

As I watched them be drawn toward what I identified as garbage, I recognized that I was witnessing an ancient cognitive bias at work. One of the ways we've evolved to sort out information in an information rich environment is to be drawn to those things that stick-out, that don't belong, that we find as beautiful or funny or strange or anthromorphic. That's what this garbage represented out here on the moss and lava. I also recognized that I have a knee-jerk bias in favor of what we tend to call "nature," which generally means those things that are not man-made, and expect that children will most likely be drawn to natural things because that's part of how I view children.

There are no trees out here on the lava (nor indeed anywhere in Iceland), so when the children found any sort of "stick" it became a treasure.

If I believe, as I do, that children will naturally gravitate toward those things, and play with those things, from which they perceive they have the most to learn, then in this case, at least, it's wrong of me to place "nature" over garbage. Back home now in Seattle, with what I often call our "junkyard playground," I'll be seeing our environment in a new way, looking to see what it is that stands out for the children I teach here in our urban environment. And, of course, I'll continue to strive to fight the losing battle against my own cognitive biases.

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Friday, October 27, 2017

Not So Innocent Fun

I was being a tourist, sauntering along Laugavegur, the main shopping street of downtown Reykjavik, Iceland. As I paused in front of a shop window, I noticed a pair of boys I judged to be around eight-years-old. They stood out to me first and foremost because they were apparently unescorted by an adult, a sight I rarely see in the US, even in smaller towns, and while Reykjavik isn't a huge city, it's still a place full of traffic and strangers and other urban "dangers."

These boys (not the same as those in this story) had paused to giggle at a sign that read, "Go ahead and breastfeed. We like both babies and bodies."

I was also struck by the fact that they were being sneaky, keeping to a wall, knees bent, up on their toes as if trying to stay quietly out of sight, perhaps creeping up on someone they planned to startle. They were alive and alert, focused, not paying any mind to the American tourist who was watching them. As they came out into the open they slowed and crouched even more. Then with a quick synchronized motion, they tossed what looked to be small pebbles through the doorway of a shop entrance that stood open at the top of a short flight a stairs. Then they ran. They bolted toward an alleyway, scrambled over a high fence, and they were gone, probably giggling together with red faced excitement. I waited for someone to emerge from the shop to scold them, but apparently their naughtiness was noticed only by me.

These are not the only unsupervised children I've seen in Reykjavik. Indeed it's quite common to spy groups of girls and boys out and about in the world, a sight that takes me back to my own childhood. Most of them were not attempting to get into trouble, of course, but that's definitely always a possibility when there are no stern grown-ups around to stop them with their scolding: that's always one of the possibilities of freedom.

I've been there myself, running away, leaping fences, ducking around corners, hiding, giggling in the face of the danger of escape. Without going into my own particular offenses, I can tell you that I would not be who I am today without those moments of "crime" committed simply for the thrill of avoiding punishment. And I didn't always avoid punishment of either the natural or unnatural variety.

It's in the nature of childhood to experiment with danger, be it heights or speed or being lost. We are designed to test our boundaries including social ones, and that requires being out from under the watchful eye of adults.

I felt a thrill at witnessing these impish boys having their not so innocent fun. It carried me back to those vital times that I recall with the sharp clarity that accompanies having done something that affected you deeply. I lament that American children are missing out on this type of danger play even as I know they are still doing it whenever and wherever they find a crack in parental surveillance. And even if a parent somehow manages to keep their child under lock and key, I know that when the day finally comes that they are free, they will play catch up, often in ways far more dangerous than tossing stones through shop doorways.

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Thursday, October 26, 2017

How Good Ideas Get Big

A parent asked me if we could use medical feeding bags, the kind used in hospitals for patients who can't feed themselves. I knew what she was talking about, but had never given them much thought, let alone wanted one for the preschool. My rule of thumb, however, is that if anyone wants to contribute 20 or more of anything we'll take them. She had 30 so I had no choice but to say "Yes."

They came in two large boxes, one of which I put on the workbench along with a couple of old tempera paint jugs full of water and for the rest of the afternoon we roamed the playground experimenting with them.

The kids who play at Woodland Park are already experts on water and gravity, so it wasn't long before one of them figured out that the water only ran through the hose when the nozzle was lower than the bag of water. This knowledge went viral the way knowledge does in a play-based curriculum, where the children mostly teach one another.

As I watched the play unfold, I began to think of the virality of knowledge. In this age of the internet, we all know about videos and articles that "go viral" through the democratic process of sharing, but this, what the children were doing with the feeding bags, has always been with us. As I heard children urge one another with invitations like "Try this!" or "Look what I did!" I recognized that this is how humans have always educated ourselves, with one person discovering something, then excitedly sharing it with others.

In 1439, when Johannes Guttenberg invented the printing press, very few people could read. In fact, if I understand my history correctly, it was primarily the domain of the clergy who needed the skill to read and create Bibles. But the printing press suddenly made printed matter widely available. With no notion of formal literacy education, Europeans were left to learn to read on their own, passing on the knowledge from one person to the next, from one generation to the next. 

Literacy rates steadily climbed for a couple hundred years, then surged around the time of the American Revolution when Thomas Payne's pamphlet Common Sense became a runaway hit, selling over half a million copies and 25 printings in it's first year. It's estimated that 2.5 million colonists read it, an astronomical number for the time. Historians credit this viral document with inspiring the 13 American colonies to ultimately declare their independence from British rule.

People wanted to read, they needed to read, so they learned to read. A similar thing has happened, albeit at a faster pace, with computer technology. I have a distinct memory of Dad buying an Apple II+, a machine that came with no software. Instead it came with thick instruction manuals that taught us how to write our own programs. You could take classes on "how to work your computer." Today, our two-year-olds are teaching themselves as these technology skills have gone viral. The idea of a computer class today is laughable, just as a reading class would have been laughable in 1776. 

As I watched the kids figure out how to use those feeding bags, teaching one another, I thought of other kids who are sitting at their desks over worksheets or tests or homework. There is no virality there. In fact, we call it cheating and you're reprimanded if you share your answers or peek over someone else's shoulder. That's why this sort of learning is so hard.

It's too bad because sharing is how good ideas get big.

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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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