Wednesday, February 28, 2018

If Only We Could Find A Way To Not Un-Learn It

When the children don't need me, which is most of the time, I sometimes unobtrusively putter about the classroom. I'll pick puzzle pieces or play dough off the floor or right an overturned chair, but only once I'm sure the things are genuinely discarded and not actually "in use." Often I will find popular items abandoned in out-of-the-way places and I return them to their expected places so that the children who are looking for them will know where to find them.

Yesterday, I discovered that one of our two-year-olds had dumped the tray of plastic cutlery into the basin of our pretend kitchen sink. These are daily use items and while they hadn't travelled far from their usual place, I figured I'd return them to where they live.

Usually, the children ignore me as I tidy up, but in this case one girl took an interest.

"What are you doing?" she asked so softly that I almost couldn't hear her.

"I'm just putting the forks and knives and spoons back into the tray."

Without a word, she began to help me. In fact, I just stepped back as she shouldered the responsibility as her own. One-by-one, she carefully lay the individual pieces of cutlery side-by-side in the tray, taking a care that I'd not have taken to make sure they were all facing the same direction. Indeed, I don't know her system, but she seemed to hesitate before placing each piece, deciding purposefully among the three sections of the tray. When she was done, she picked up the tray and put it on the shelf where it belongs. She didn't turn to me for approval or even acknowledge me in any way as she then went about her business.

Later on the playground, I was talking with an adult visitor to our school. We were standing near the swings where several children played. Few of these young children have figured out how to "pump" so they were mostly just hanging there, kicking at the ground to create a little momentum. I mentioned to the guest that our general policy is that adults don't push kids on the swings. As we observed, one girl approached another who was sitting on our tire swing. She stood looking for a moment regarding at her classmate just hanging there, sizing up the situation, then, without a word, took her position and began to push the swing in a gentle back-and-forth arc. It was the same sort of wordless shouldering of responsibility that I'd experienced earlier with the cutlery.

The more I've learned to stay out of the children's play, the more I trust not just their competence, but their ability to unselfishly regard the other people and to seek to help them. I'm reminded of Jon Muth's picture book The Three Questions, which is based upon a short story of the same name by Leo Tolstoy, which I've previously written about here. From the conclusion of Tolstoy's philosophical story about a king seeking truth:

Remember then: there is only one time that is important -- Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary man is he which whom you are . . . and the most important affair is to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!

It's a truth that I feel in my own heart, even if I often struggle to live it, but the more time I've spent with young children, the more I stay out of their way, the more I see that they are the ones who truly understand it, not intellectually of course, but by simply living in the "Now," regarding their fellow humans in their toils or trails, and making a decision to help them. This is why I can never consider adults as more intelligent than children. This is why I do not see "development" as a one-way street. There are things we learn as we gain experience, but I know that we simultaneously lose an equal amount wisdom, wisdom that would serve us all if only we could find a way to not un-learn it.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Rituals That Connect Us

As a boy, my family attended church every Sunday morning. We moved around a lot, so there isn't any specific church that I can look back on and call my childhood church, but each time we found ourselves in a new place one of the first things we did was join a Lutheran church, and if there wasn't one around, we found something else, like the non-denominational church to which we belonged during our years in Athens, Greece. We went to church for the sake of our souls, of course, but we were also there for the fellowship. Our churches were a way to connect with our fellow humans who gathered together week after week to lift our voices together in song and to engaged in meaningful ritual and ceremony (and, of course, to play cat-and-mouse chasing games after services while the adults conversed over coffee).

Yesterday, during our class meeting, circle time, we sang:

I have a little turtle,
His name is Tiny Tim,
I put him in the bathtub
To see if he could swim.
He drank up all the water,
He ate up all the soap,
And now my little turtle
Has a bubble in his throat.

It's a common enough song, one that is sung in preschools everywhere I reckon, but as with most of these "common songs," we have over the years, made it our own. Upon finishing the song, at least one of the children, usually several, shout out, "Faster!" and so we sing it faster. Then the call rises up again, "Faster!" so we sing it as fast as we can. But, of course, they call for even faster, so this time, always, I express concern, "We can try it, but I'm worried we'll hurt ourselves, so we're going to have to warm up." Then we "loosen up our rotator cuffs" by rotating our shoulders backward, then foreward, followed by stretches "up high," "to the side," "to the other side," "to the front," "to the back." And finally we rub our hands together to warm them up.

We've done it a million times before and nearly everyone, every time, participates. We all know what to do. It's a long set-up for a punchline we all know is coming. We finally get our turtles ready (hands opening and closing rapidly like a snapping mouth), we take a moment to admire how fast they are. I say, "Ready . . ." then together we all say, "Bloop!" finishing the song before we've even started. The fastest song in the universe, even faster than the speed of light.

We've welcomed a few new students at Woodland Park over the past few weeks. Yesterday, as we sang the song, I was watching those new faces experiencing us through fresh eyes. Most of the children I teach are with us for three or four years. They don't remember a time when they didn't take part in this joke we tell together, but for these new kids, even if they already knew the basic song from their previous preschools, it was just a song, an engaging one perhaps, but they had no idea we were leading up to our specific, ceremonial payoff. As the "old" kids enthusiastically performed their parts, singing and shouting "faster" on cue, I was reminded of my experience of attending church as a boy, singing the familiar songs, chanting the familiar chants, lighting the familiar candles. This isn't the only song we sing together that has become an important bonding ritual for the children of Woodland Park, one that connects us as a community not just now, but over the years and even generations.

It occurred to me as we sang that as we have made these songs our own, they have become important rituals in the highest sense. As we have made them, they have also been part of making us. That is the power and importance of ritual and ceremony not just for communities of young children, but for every community if it is to be worthy of the name.

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Monday, February 26, 2018

Not Knowing We Are Happy

"Sorry, I didn't mean to."

"I'll work up here. You work down there."

"We have to have water everywhere on the playground, right?"

"What are you doing?"

"I want to make the water stop."

"My turn. I want to have a turn."

"After me?"


"Are you trying to make the water go or stop?"

"Guys! Come on!"

It's like a poem if you just let it be one, the conversations of children at play.

"Hurry, the bad guys are coming!"

"That's the wrong way."

"Hold on! I'll pull you up."

"Okay, I'll come with you."

"Why are we standing here? That's silly."

"It's silly standing everywhere!"

"Everything is silly, especially my dad."

"We need more leaves for our soup."

"It's not soup it's stew."

"Stupid soup!"

They sing it like a round almost, the way their sentences overlap one another, creating an ode to now, to being together right now.

"Let's get buckets."

"I want it when you're done."

"I'm done right now."

"Where are we going?"

"This looks super strong. Doesn't it look super strong?"

"I don't even know."

"Actually, I was going to clean the playhouse floor."

"We need more sand."

"I'll get it in my shovel."

"Over here! Over here!"

They are mostly happy as they play, but they, of course, don't know it because no one ever knows when they are happy until it's in the past. Adults stop too often to ask themselves, "Am I happy?" and when we do, even if we are, it goes away until the next time we are simply doing and not knowing we are happy.

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Friday, February 23, 2018

Creating Meaning And, Godlike, Laughing As He Did It

"Teacher Tom, this is fluid."

"This?" I asked, pointing at the container of muddy water at his feet.

"Yes, it's called fluid."

"What are these other things?"

"That one is solid. And that one is gas."

"Ah," I said, "Solid, gas and liquid."

"No!" he responded with some urgency, "It's solid, gas, fluid!"

I'd noticed him down in the corner of the playground working on this demonstration for some time. Somewhere, probably at home, maybe from a parent, he had encountered the three states of matter and was now, through his play, recreating it for himself the way children do with things that interest them. It was almost as if he was intuitively following the surgeon's maxim, "see one, do one, teach one." He was now teaching me, using models of his own creation.

I explained, "Liquid is another word for fluid."

He thought about that for a moment, then as if correcting a particularly dense pupil, "A fluid is something like water . . . No! It's like pee!" He was delighted by this and I laughed with him, both because it was true and because of the word "pee." 

"And Teacher Tom, the solid is poop!" Again we laughed together. Then, without missing a beat he added, "And the gas is a fart!"

One might recoil at his crudeness, but that would be to ignore the beautiful genius of a young brain applying abstract concepts to his concrete world, creating meaning and, godlike, laughing as he did it.

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Thursday, February 22, 2018

"Don't Play With Your Food!"

When we were young, adults would threaten, "You'll eat it and you'll like it," when children recoiled at a meal, to which we learned to respond, "I'll eat it, but I won't like it." Sometimes an adult would remind us that there were children starving in China (it was always China), to which we learned to respond by offering to mail our uneaten food to those starving children. I was never a particularly picky eater, but many of my friends were, so these are conversations I mostly heard around their dinner tables. There was, however, an expectation in my family that we clean our plates, the rationale being that to do otherwise was wasteful.

Perhaps the most common adult caution around food, however, was the universal scold, "Don't play with your food!" And it's true, I and most kids I knew, played with our food. Eating corn on the cob, for instance, was a kind of game in which some of us ate it round-and-round in a spiral, while others went side. We would eat faces into our pancakes. Spitting watermelon seeds was almost a sport. Orange peel smiles have never gone out of vogue. And spaghetti was an endless amusement with all the twirling and slurping and pretending they were worms or brains or hair.

And the adults would say, "Don't play with your food!"

At Woodland Park, our sensory table is often filled with rice or beans or seeds or corn meal. We have play dough available almost every day, we use paper mache paste, and the food that grows in our gardens is as likely to be used as a plaything as it is to be eaten. Some programs have banned food play. Their reasoning varies, but from what I can tell, most of it boils down the same basic idea that children somewhere are starving and to play with food is a kind of insensitivity to their suffering. I'm as concerned about starving children as the next person, but this food we play with, just as the food we left on our dinner plates uneaten, is not food we are taking from their mouths and it is a lie, albeit well-intended, when we tell children otherwise. I understand that the goal is to cause children to think about those who are less fortunate, but to hold their own good fortune out as something about which to feel guilt or shame, is something I think we ought not to do to children. Most kids have enough innate empathy to feel for the plight of starving children without these sorts of ham-fisted attempts to drive the point home through guilt and shame.

Indeed, from where I sit, children must play with their food, just as they must play with everything that is a part of their lives. Playing with the "stuff" with which they are surrounded is how children deepen their understanding of their world, and to forbid their inquiries is akin to commanding them to stop asking questions.

The preschoolers I teach don't eat meals at school, but we do offer snacks in the form of fruits and vegetables. The snack table is like any other "station" in our classroom, one of the places a child may opt to play. Most of their play around food involves the joy of simply sitting around the table together, dining, chatting, joking, and generally enjoying the company of others in the spirit of eat, drink, and be merry. But, you know, sometimes we have to put olives on the ends of each of our fingers before eating them one-by-one. Sometimes the food on our plate does look like a face. Sometimes a banana peel must be worn as a hat. Sometimes food is better used for something other than eating.

And those orange peel smiles are still, as always, a joy to behold.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

"Play With A Purpose"

A few years back, I was watching a boy named Henry carry a yellow traffic pylon across the playground. He carefully placed it on the ground, not on it's base, but on it's side, taking care to get it "just so," before climbing atop an old packing crate. He stood poised atop the crate for a moment then launched himself, coming down on the pylon. Crack! I heard the sound of the pylon breaking from across the yard.

Stupidly, I asked him, "Henry, why did you do that?"

Without missing a beat he replied, "I wanted to see if I could break it." Duh.

We had a brief conversation about property after that, although in hindsight I think that "property" has a somewhat different meaning when we spend our time on a junkyard playground like ours, but I keep this episode in mind whenever people begin to talk about "play with a purpose," a mantra for those who have accepted the importance of play while clinging to the hubristic notion that children need adults to "make" it educational. Here was a boy with a question, one of his own devising, and therefore one in which he had a genuine interest. He was motivated by his curiosity, Can I break this? and set up an experiment in which he discovered his answer.

The standard definitions of play frame it as "for enjoyment" or "recreation," which can clearly both be aspects of play, but those of us who spend our lives observing children going about the business of actually playing know that there is always a question behind what they do, even if it's not one that can be stated as clearly as Henry's. The purpose of the player isn't always evident to the observer, but there is always, beneath the enjoyment or recreation, an inquiry of some sort at work, one that might not always lead to a definitive answer as Henry's experiment did, but is an exploration of oneself, the other people, and both the physical and psychological environment in which the child finds himself. Play is how our instinct to educate ourselves manifests.

When it comes to education, play is enough: it contains within it all the important questions and answers. We don't need adults commanding, coaxing, coaching, or cajoling the children in order for it to be purposeful. When I hear people use the phrase "play with a purpose" (or something similar) I cringe because no matter how well intended, I know that these are people who don't trust the children's natural instincts and so feel compelled, however gently, to turn their self-directed learning into yet another adult-directed activity that may or may not lead children to answers that are important to them.

Not long ago, I watched a teacher attempt to compel a group of five-year-olds through a type of relay race she had designed to help the children "deepen" their understanding of the autumn leaves they had collected, matching like-with-like and so on. The teacher's enthusiasm and the children's curiosity about this "game" she was describing was enough to keep them interested for a few minutes as they waited in queues for their turn to race from one end of the room to the other, but it wasn't long before there were children exploring under tables, chatting with friends, and, in the case of one boy, simply moping against the wall. The teacher started by trying to cheerfully coax them all back into the game, but it didn't take. She tried to ignore the rebellions to focus on the children who were still engaged in her play-with-a-purpose game, although it seemed to me that most of them were doing it by way of pleasing their teacher more than because the game held their interest. I sympathized with the teacher as I watched her jaw twitch because I have experienced similar episodes in my own teaching past, but the bottom line is that she had managed to turn their natural interest in things like collecting fall leaves and running into a chore from which none of them were learning much other than perhaps a lesson in obedience and disobedience.

Children's play is always purposeful even if we can't tell what that purpose is and it's always educational even if we don't know what they are learning. The moment the adult imposes her own agenda, play comes to an end no matter how playful their top-down agenda tries to be. Children will always lose interest because the questions are not their own and without interest "learning" becomes a chore for everyone.

Play is a pure good, like love or happiness, and, like love or happiness, it tends to disappear when we overthink it.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Mister Roger's Neighborhood

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the airing of the first episode of Mister Roger's Neighborhood. I didn't want to let it pass without acknowledging that milestone.

I have always wanted to have a neighbor
Just like you!
I’ve always wanted to live in a
Neighborhood with you.
So let’s make the most of this beautiful day;
Since we’re together we might as well say.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?

When Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood debuted in 1968, the day before I turned 6-years-old, I was already a kindergartner, on the upper edge of the show’s wheelhouse demographic. I had been a Captain Kangaroo kid, but this new guy on the TV after school drew my attention and I watched him during those first couple of seasons.

I loved the Neighborhood of Make Believe best, of course. The little electric trolley would take you through the tunnel and into the puppet land of King Friday, Henrietta (“Meow, meow”) Pussycat, Donkey Hodie, and the always forgiven antagonist, Lady Elaine Fairchild. I’d usually watch with Sam, my 20-month younger brother.

I was re-introduced to the series in the mid-70’s when my 7-year younger sister watched it. Mister Rogers still sang, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? at the top of the show, while attiring himself in cardigan and sneakers. He still fed his fish. He still had sincere conversations directly with his audience, addressed emotions frankly, and made you feel like you really mattered. (The only thing that had changed was he’d replaced the song Tomorrow with It’s Such A Good Feeling at the end of the show.)

I make no secret of my admiration for Mister Rogers, an opinion based not least of all upon his steadfast consistency. You could count on your half hour in the neighborhood. Mister Rogers was always happy to see you, he always sang with you, he took your feelings seriously, and he stayed on schedule. As the longest running program in PBS history, for 895 episodes, over the course of over 40 years, he did those things in which he most deeply believed.

“I’m happy to see you”
Deep within us – no matter who we are – there lives a feeling of wanting to be lovable, of wanting to be the kind of person that others like to be with. And the greatest thing we can do is to let people know that they are loved and capable of loving.

I’ve been greeting children at Woodland Park with, “I’m happy to see you,” since the first day of my first year teaching. It isn’t something I thought about in advance. It just came to me upon the arrival of my very first student. It came to me because it was true – I really was happy that my first student had arrived! And it remains true today as I greet the children. I am happy to see each of them.

We all, always, wherever we go, want to be warmly welcomed. I was always welcome in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Whether I was 6 or 10, boy or girl, wild or quiet, willing or unwilling, Mr. Rogers made it clear that rejection was impossible. That is how I want the children to feel each morning as they come through the door and find me waiting there.

I often think that if this feeling were the only thing a child takes away from Woodland Park, it would be enough.

Music is the one art we all have inside. We may not be able to play an instrument, but we can sing along or clap or tap our feet. Have you ever seen a baby bouncing up and down in the crib in time to some music? When you think of it, some of that baby’s first messages from his or her parents may have been lullabies, or at least the music of their speaking voices. All of us have had the experience of hearing a tune from childhood and having that melody evoke a memory or a feeling. The music we hear early on tends to stay with us all our lives.

At Woodland Park, we sing the same songs, over and over, year after year. I tell myself that change is good, and I sincerely try to add 2-3 new songs every year, but it’s the old songs, in a very real sense, that form the foundation of our community: Jump Jim Joe, Uncle Jessie, The Baby Chant . . . We sing them at Circle Time, we sing them as we play, we make up new verses to make them fit our day.

Mister Rogers’ neighborhood was a place to sing. Songs like Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and It’s Such a Good Feeling were songs we sang over and over, year after year, their messages of undying friendship and sunrise optimism framed a show in which it was as natural to sing as to speak. To this day I find myself humming these songs.

Our Feelings
All our lives, we rework the things from our childhood, like feeling good about ourselves, managing our angry feelings, being able to say good-bye to people we love.
People have said, “Don’t cry” to other people for years and years, and all it has ever meant is, “I’m too uncomfortable when you show your feelings. Don’t cry.” I’d rather have them say, “Go ahead and cry. I’m here to be with you.”
There is no “should” or “should not” when it comes to having feelings. They’re part of who we are and their origins are beyond our control. When we can believe that, we may find it easier to make constructive choices about what to do with those feelings.

Mister Rogers spoke and sang constantly about feelings, without judgment and largely without trying to offer any advice. Just talking about emotions was enough.

Our emotions come upon us for whatever reason and we must feel them. We want our children to learn that there are no bad feelings, no shameful feelings. Our emotions are real and true and part of us. Only we know how we feel. As a parent, it’s hard not to hear our child’s cries or tantrums as pleas for help and that we must somehow “fix” the problem. But feelings are not problems and they will never be fixed. They must run their course if they are to be any good to us at all.

When a child is frustrated, sad or angry, when his emotions overwhelm him, our first job is to make sure he doesn’t hurt himself or others. Beyond that our role is to sit beside him and hold or stroke him if he’ll allow it. This is how we teach about feelings.

Discipline is a teaching-learning kind of relationship as the similarity of the word disciple suggests. By helping our children learn to be self-disciplined, we are also helping them learn how to become independent of us as, sooner or later, they must. And we are helping them learn how to be loving parents to children of their own.

A visit to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was always a reliable, predictable, disciplined experience. There were the songs, the stoplight, and the visits to Make Believe. And Mister Rogers was always the same as well: warm, earnest, loving.

By the time children come to Woodland Park, they are already experts on their own home and family. They know the daily rituals and routines. They have figured out where things go, when to do things, and how far they can push the boundaries. Mom and Dad too, with all their emotional complexity, are as reliable as the rising sun. Preschool is their first regular foray into the larger world and we want them develop the same kind of trust and comfort as they have at home.

Sticking to our daily schedule is where it all begins. There is flexibility, of course, within our schedule, but the framework stays the same, day after day, year after year. Within a few weeks of the start of school, 2-year-olds begin informing me that it’s “clean up time” and they’re usually right to within a few minutes. Graduates who return to visit for a day, and who have since learned the new routines of their new schools, always fall confidently and joyfully into the old, familiar routines of preschool.

It’s all about building trust. It’s impossible to develop confidence or self-discipline in a world that is unpredictable.

It's Such A Good Feeling

I will never be Mister Rogers. Where he was quiet and gentle, I tend toward boisterous. Where he was a straight-arrow, I’m a very silly man. But I like to think that I bring a part of him into the classroom every day. I strive to make sure each child knows that I want her to be my neighbor. I sing, often badly, but I sing the songs we know. We let our feelings flourish, and try get on with our life of doing. And we try to do this within our four-walls of consistency and comfort – a place where each child can confidently thrive.

That, I hope, is our neighborhood.
It's such a good feeling to know you're alive.
It's such a happy feeling: You're growing inside.
And when you wake up ready to say,
'I think I'll make a snappy new day.'
It's such a good feeling, a very good feeling,
The feeling you know that we're friends.

And I'll be back
When the day is new
And I'll have more ideas for you.
And you'll have things you'll want to talk about.
I will too.

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

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Monday, February 19, 2018

"Only Little Dinosaurs Can Come Into Our House"

Our three-year-olds were playing with our regulation issue wooden unit blocks and our full collection of dinosaurs, both large and small scale. The idea, of course, is that the kids will build things and find ways to incorporate the dinos, but from the moment class started a group of rowdy boys took over the area and the game they chose was to empty the block shelves, dump the dino box, and race around kicking whatever was on the floor. It was a loud game, with lots of wild laughing, periodic shrieking, and occasional forays into wrestling or variations on the wrestling theme. Their play was interrupted regularly by angry flare-ups that sometimes included hitting, pushing, and tears, only to revert to form moments later.

It was the sort of thing that had been happening almost daily and it kept the adults busy. On the one hand, we are a play-based school, which means the children lead, and it's not our place to put the kibosh on their self-selected pursuits. On the other hand, we're also responsible for their safety, both physical and emotional, so we were performing a balancing act between letting them do what they need to do while preventing them from killing one another or someone else.

This is important play for these kids. I see it for what it is: young boys enthusiastically reaching out to other young boys in friendship. As they get older, they'll have "better" ideas for how to play together, but for now it's exciting enough to just be together and to get a little crazy. It's enough to kick through the blocks and dinos, looking into one another's faces, and laugh like The Joker. Indeed, the excitement of being together is so palpable, so present among them on days like this, that it's probably all they can do. Their love for one another is overwhelming.

That said, when they engage in this sort of play, they effectively shut-down a part of the classroom to the other kids who are more inclined to, say, build things and find ways to incorporate the dinos. On this particular day, I was sitting on a bench supporting a parent-teacher in monitoring the rowdy play when I was joined by L and J, a couple of girls who have older brothers. They sat with me on the bench, watching the boys.

L said, "Those boys are too dangerous. They're too crazy." She wasn't saying it as a complaint as much as a bemused observation.

I answered, "That's why I'm sitting over here. I don't want to get hit by a block."

Meanwhile, J jumped off the bench and retrieved a couple stray dinos. "This is a mommy and a baby," she told us. L waited until she saw a break in the action, dashed in for her own mommy and baby, then dashed back out, literally ducking her head. It didn't seem right that they had to risk their own safety (even if they only perceived they were at risk) to play with the toys in their own classroom. For better or worse, I decided to take action.

I retrieved my own mommy and baby, then said, "I've got an idea. Let's build a house for our dinosaurs!"

They liked the idea, so I gathered up a few blocks, then sprawled my large adult body on the carpet, sort of commandeering about of a quarter of the area, creating a space for our building. I loudly declared, "We're building a house for our dinosaurs." When the rowdy play got near us, I said things like, "Hey! You almost hit me with that block," or "This is our dinosaur house!" Before long the boys' had figured out the new boundaries for their game. And shortly thereafter, we were joined by a pair of kids, a boy and a girl, who do not have older siblings at home, kids who had previously been too intimidated by the rowdy play to even come as close as the bench on which we'd been sitting. Soon we had a nice little game of dino housekeeping underway.

In fact, our play began to attract the attention of the rowdy boys, one of whom knelt down with us, his two large T-Rex models poised, it appeared, to "stomp" our house. I said, "This is our house. We're not playing a stomping game. We're playing a quiet, gentle game."

He looked at me with a face full of the genuineness of his question, "Why?"

"I guess we just don't want to be rowdy." This seemed to completely perplex him. Then he asked, "Can my dinosaurs come into your house?"

S said, "No, they're too big. They'll smash it down."

J added, "Yeah, only little dinosaurs can come into our house."

He backed off a bit, unwilling to relinquish his big dinos, but remained where he could watch us. It wasn't long before he was joined by first one, then two more of his buddies, all holding their large dinosaurs. They formed an outer circle of kibitzers around our inside core of "gentle" players. It was as if we had a bubble around us. As we played, both the inner and outer groups grew, with more and more kids dropping down to join us, either contributing to our building or our dino family, while one at a time the rowdy players came to watch, all of them two-fisting larger dinosaurs.

As new kids joined us, I repeated, "This is our house. We're not playing a stomping game," a mantra that was taken up by S and J. After a few minutes, I slowly extracted myself, leaving behind a corner of space for building things and incorporating the dinos. On the following day, the quiet, gentle corner emerged all on its own.

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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Friday, February 16, 2018

It's Why We Laugh When We Play

Most of the actual work I do is in preparing for the arrival of the kids, and by "work" I mean the kinds of things I'd rather not be doing: the stuff for which I'd wave a magic wand if I could. Once the kids arrive on the scene, however, it's pretty much all play for me, the part of my day I'd not wish away for anything. 

Indeed, sometimes we adults need to deal with certain aspects of cleaning or snack prep or bodily functions that we might identify as "work," but really, if we're going to be a play-based classroom worth its salt, everyone in the room should be playing, children and adults. A roomful of shoulder-to-shoulder learners is one of the key features of our play-based curriculum.

Much of what play-based learning is about is making connections, discoveries that come from putting things together then comparing the results to the things we thought we already knew. This is why the exact same environment, the exact same classroom set-up, serves as a learning environment for humans of all ages. We might be starting with the same stuff, but we're not all starting from the same place. A tool, a shovel for instance, may be used by a 2-year-old to make discoveries about the properties of corn starch mixed with water. That same tool may be used by an adult to make discoveries about the properties of that child or children in general or interactions between children and herself in relation to them.

As a child struggles to pull, say, a dinosaur from a cornstarch and water muck, she's experiencing adhesion, leverage, angles, emulsion, tension, moisture, suction, and the flexing of muscles. This is like the mud she found in the same place last week -- damp, gooey, possessing properties attributable to both liquids and solids -- but different as well. And as she plays, connecting what she knows with what she doesn't yet know, the adult makes her own connections between this child and the others she's known. This is like the child she found in the same place a few minutes ago -- persevering, testing, talking -- but different as well. And these connections, these examinations of similarities and differences, the interplay between what is known and unknown, shake the foundations of our metaphors, creating new ones, opening our eyes to mysterious places within ourselves, other people, and the physical world.

We discover there are always new connections to be made: that the more we know, the more there is to know.

When a child crosses the ground from the art table where he's been driving cars through paint and down ramps, hands slimy with red, he shows us all a newly connected world, opening up avenues into the very things we just thought we'd figured out. And as children begin to run back and forth to carry their own fists full of paint to where we're playing, we adults laugh with them from the joy of our own epiphanies, wondering at their wonder. They, the adults, look up at me, their eyes sometimes more than the children alight with the joy of connection, of discovery, "He made pink! We're making pink! Now the dinos are pink!"

And the kids are saying, "Ghost dinos! Pink ghost dinos!" as metaphors take shape, new scaffolding erected, the world changing before our very eyes.

Then someone else comes over from the work bench, still clutching the Duplos he found over there, drawn by the sounds of discovery, and from that curiosity, we then all learn what happens when we drop a block in the pink goo.

I think about connections as I go through the "work" part of my day, trying to anticipate the paths it will take, and every now and then I get to experience the euphoria of being right, of having my best guesses proven in the real world of play-based learning. But that's a rare treat, one I enjoy, but no more so than the ones we all share when we play here together, connecting. Discovery is always unexpected. It's why we laugh when we play.

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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