Monday, March 19, 2018

"Always Be Closing"

Last week, a parent began to ask me, "Can you use . . ." and I answered "Yes" before she had finished. In this case it turned out to be a box full of a dozen retired office phones and some computer keyboards, junk that has been sitting in a garage or storeroom or cellar for weeks or months or years. We run our school on garbage like this, accepting it to finish using before it is finally swept up in the endless flow of waste headed toward the landfill or recycling center or toxic waste dump.

I arranged the phones around our red table and the keyboards on the blue table before the kids arrived, knowing that despite a roomful of blocks, stuffed animals, and other toys, that they would make a beeline for them the moment they entered the room. And sure enough, that's where the kids collected as they arrived, knowing without being told to lift the receivers to their ears and begin mashing buttons. Few of them have these sorts of phones at their homes, the kind with coiled cords connecting them to a console, yet they have somehow absorbed enough information about the recent past to know that these large, awkward, desk-bound things are telephones.

As they stood around the table, pretending to phone one another, we adults joked that we were getting them ready for their future jobs working in call centers, evoking the famous line from the play Glengarry Glen Ross, "Always be closing." The kids took to the keyboards in the same way, often shushing us adults when we tried to play along with a curt, "I'm working on my computer right now." We joked, but the truth was that these kids, as kids always do, really were preparing themselves for their futures, not necessarily as high pressure salespeople, but as grown-ups in a world of technology.

Children have always been attracted to "real things" over toys. If I put a toy lawnmower side-by-side with a real one, most children, most of the time, will opt for the real one. We used to have small brooms around the classroom for the kids, but they used those as light sabers or ponies or baseball bats. When it came to actually sweeping up, they always wanted the "real," adult-sized brooms. Same goes for hand tools or kitchen utensils or anything else in a child's world: they are attracted to the real stuff because they are, invariably, driven to prepare themselves for the future they see for themselves: a real world full of real stuff and not the multi-colored plastic replicas we so often foist upon them.

When you make a study of children's play, their self-selected activities, one can almost always understand it in the context of preparing for the real world they see before them, practicing skills or behaviors or habits that they perceive they need in the world. Often, the connection is obvious, like with these retired telephones, but sometimes, especially when their play behavior is confusing or upsetting, it's less obvious, but it's there. When I find myself stumped as to the cause of problematic behavior, I often ask myself, For what part of the future is this child preparing? and my answer is often as much a revelation about our adult society as it is an insight into the behavior of children.

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