Monday, April 30, 2018

This Is True Every Time We Do Things Together

In every community of children with whom I've been associated, there are always at least one or two who are driven to engage the world through constructive play. I'm not saying it's the only way they go about asking and answering their own question, but when I want to find them I usually look first where something is being built. This year, however, we have more than just a few builders in our 4-5's class. Everywhere I look there is a fort or a nest or a house or a something or other being constructed from the junk we keep around the place.

"Our house"

I've written a couple times this year about our "bad guy trap" (here, here, and here, for instance) a by now semi-permanent installation on our playground, a large and elaborate structure that is being continually re-built and re-modeled, mostly by a pair of children, but increasingly by a team working together. This has been the epicenter of our building boom.

"Bad guy trap"

As I walked around the playground last week, I counted more than a half dozen major construction projects under way, collaborative efforts that in many ways reflect our city of Seattle which has been booming under a skyline of tower cranes these past few years. Maybe that's what has inspired these children to build. Most of them have never known a time when their home town wasn't tearing down and building up. It's part of who we are: people who build, and the children are simply, through their play, preparing as children always do, for their future.

Structure of unknown purpose

Often it starts with just one or two kids, but as they get to work, others are drawn in, first observing, then asking questions, trying to understand the "story" of this interesting thing they see happening, much the way they do when we stop while out on field trips to watch actual construction sites around the school. And there is always a story being told when people come together to create something that is too big for one person to do on their own. If nothing else, humans are driven to be a part of the story of "us."

"Evil volcano"

Everywhere I turn, I see these children huddled together, striving together, creating together, talking, talking, talking, each of them contributing to their story, a collaborative construction in its own right.

"Christmas tree"

A few weeks ago, I took a self tour of one end of a major Seattle construction project, one that involved building the world's largest underground boring machine, Bertha, to create a new underground roadway along the waterfront. As I tried to make sense of how it was ultimately going to resurface onto Aurora Avenue, a man in a hardhat approached me, eager to answer my questions, and if I had none, to simply share with me what it was about being a part of this major undertaking that inspired him. As I listened, I couldn't help but reflect on the fact that this is exactly what the children do when I stop to admire their work. "Teacher Tom, this is our house!" "This is our Christmas tree!" "This is our volcano!" And then they go on to tell me the story of what they have done and what they are going to do, just as this excited engineer did.


These are the physical manifestations of the story we are telling about ourselves. They include our collective dreams, our hopes, and our fears, much the way ancient myths do. This is true every time we do things together.

"My home"

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Friday, April 27, 2018

Too Many "Tripping Hazards"

A while back, a concerned person took a look at our junkyard playground, tsk-tsk-ed, and handed me a brochure on playground safety. Her leading objection was that our space presented too many "tripping hazards," as if the world is not one giant tripping hazard. I did take the brochure seriously enough to track down the citations, which ultimately lead me to a concerned parents group from back in the 1980's that, without concerning itself with any studies, data, or research, had come up with a set of playground safety standards that had grown from their ability to imagine the worst case scenario. What I normally refer to as catastrophic thinking.

I ultimately accommodated this person by agreeing to ask a parent to kick loose things off the walkways at the end of the day.

We've been playing on our junkyard playground (for more photos and information click here and here) for a long time now. I don't know if it qualifies as a proper "adventure playground" or not, but I tend think of it as a preschool version of one. We've had some bumped heads and skinned knees of course, but we've only once sent a kid to the doctor's office. Indeed, the boy had tripped, but it was over his own feet, and one of his teeth pierced his upper lip requiring stitches. According to the child's mother, the doctor who attended him called it "a very common childhood injury."

Tim Gill has a post up on his Rethinking Childhood website that takes a look at a tiny, but fascinating study (an actual study, not just catastrophic thinking) in which a private school in Texas decided to compare the injury rates between its conventional playground with its out-of-the-box, up-to-standards play structures, and its adventure playground, the one with "timber structures, tools, junk materials, and skilled workers." They found what those of us who have watched children play in both kinds of places have always observed: despite the apparent "tripping hazards," there were fewer injuries on the adventure playground. Here's a link to the study itself.

Now in fairness, neither playground was particularly dangerous. As Gill points out, the injury rate on the standard issue playground was about the same as a child playing at home, while the rate of injury on the adventure playground was similar to playing ping pong. Still, it's nice to have some actual data to support what those of us in the business already suspect, which is always better than relying upon someone else's catastrophic thinking.

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Thursday, April 26, 2018

"We Don't Hit People"

"We don't hit people."

"We don't run in the hallways."

"We don't take things from other people."

I strive to be honest with children, yet I lie to them, or at least tell them these sorts of falsehoods almost every day, and I'm not the only one.

I hear it in our classroom and on playgrounds: many of us have fallen into the habit of "correcting" children with sentences like the ones above, "we" sentences, that are objectively false statements. Of course, I understand that "We don't hit people" is spoken in the spirit of aspiration, in the sense that we hope to one day be a place where no one hits anyone, but since we almost always say it in the immediate aftermath of someone indeed being hit, it's simply not true that "we don't hit people" and everyone knows it. If "we" don't hit people, then why does my nose hurt?

"I don't want you to hit my friends." Now that has the virtue of being true. 

"She's crying because you hurt her." True. 

"I can't let you hit people." Safety is part of my job, so yes, this is true, and not only that but I'm role modeling being responsible.

And because of the way the children make their own rules at Woodland Park, I can even say, "We all agreed, no hitting," perhaps the most powerful true statement I can make in that circumstance because it includes the unity of "we" with the virtue of truth.

It might sound like a little thing this trading out one set of words for another, and in a way it is, but the foundation upon which we build the future is always made of little things, one atop the other. And whenever we can replace false with true in life, it's never a small thing.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

"We Need To Take Those Jewels"

We've made rules in our classroom, together, by consensus, and among the first agreements we made with one another was, "No taking things from other people," an echo of the Biblical commandment to not steal. There are anthropologists who argue that prior to the advent of the Agricultural Revolution around 10,000 BC there was no such thing as "stealing" because there was no such thing as property, but, I expect, the urge to snatch some rare or special thing from the hands of another, if only to take a closer look, was still an urge with which our hunter-gatherer ancestors needed to deal. And that's really what we're usually talking about in preschool. Stealing implies taking something with the intention of illicitly and selfishly transferring ownership while snatching falls more into the category of uncontrollable curiosity.

Whatever the case, in our modern world these two distinct urges get lumped together, especially in the minds of young children who, through their play, are forever attempting to tease out both personal and social meaning. Yesterday, a group of boys were huddled together in a corner of the playground they have "built" for themselves.

"Guys, guys, I got a plan. We need to take those jewels."

"What jewels?"

"Those guys, over there, they have a bucket of treasure and we need it for our team."

They were referring to their friends, boys with whom they often play, but who were on this day playing separately. They had spent the past half hour or so collecting small shiny objects in a bucket. They were bits and bobs that anyone can pick up from the ground around our place -- florist marbles, beads, pieces of toy jewelry -- but they had named it "treasure" and now it was this treasure that these other boys were scheming to make their own.

There were a few moments of intense conversation, quiet, secretive. I couldn't hear their words, but their intentions were clear: they were planning an incursion to wrest control of that bucket, which they were going to hide and hoard somewhere in their hideout. Before long they attacked running toward the boys with the treasure, whooping, making fierce faces, wielding sticks like weapons.

The boys with the treasure looked confused at first, backing away a bit.

"We're going to take your treasure!"

"No, you're not! It's our treasure!"

The moment was tense as the two sides stood face to face. These guys have often played fighting games together, but I know these children, I've taught most of them for three years. Physical violence wasn't in the offing even as their bodies, tense and aggressively posed, seemed to indicate it. It was a moment both real and pretend, this stand-off above the sand pit. I recall moments like this from my own childhood. I knew their hearts were racing. I know that some of them at least were feeling that they were now in over their heads, that they didn't really want to "steal," but just to snatch, to see and feel and hold the treasure that these other boys had made from debris that had always been there.

It lasted a few seconds as everyone stood posed, then one of the attackers dropped to his knees, dropping out, and began running his fingers through the sand. Then one of the defenders backed away, turning his back. One by one by one I saw their shoulders drop as the tension left their bodies, leaving only two boys still standing in opposition to one another, while the others milled around no longer part of the game.

"We're using this treasure!" the defender said forcefully. "You can use it when we're finished!"

"Okay!" his friend answered from under his glowering brow as if making a threat, "We will!"

And then it was over, the aspiring robbers returning to their base, apparently satisfied with waiting for their booty and the treasure collectors once more scouring the ground for sparkling items to add to their cache.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

All Human Problems And All Human Glories

Marcus was working on a cardboard block tower. Lilyanna was helping.

They built it as high as they could, arriving at a point when they struggled to reach the top. It was really quite beautiful, these two-year-olds spontaneously coming together in common cause like this, not talking, just doing. It takes a combination of concentration and speed to build something that tall, with another person, in a crowded classroom where everything is being continually jostled. But when they arrived at that point where their bodies were not tall enough to reach, their agenda's diverged. Marcus clearly wanted to pursue the challenge of continuing to make it even taller, while Lilyanna joyfully pretended to fall, intentionally pulling the building down with her, where she lay on the floor laughing as the blocks rained down on her.

Marcus reacted by lowering his eyebrows, appearing irritated and slightly aghast, I think not at Lilyanna, but rather, if I had to guess, at the lost opportunity. He'd perhaps been planning to find a chair or something else to stand on, to reach even higher. He then went back to rebuilding, with Lilyanna once more pitching in. They went through this full cycle six times, each go around reaching that point where their agendas diverged and the walls came tumbling down.

The general ethic of our classroom is that if you build it, only you can knock it down, but we don't really have a way to deal with this, when they build it together toward different purposes. I suppose I could have, after a couple repetitions, suggested that each child build her own building, but I didn't, mainly because Marcus didn't seem particularly upset (in fact, he appeared rather philosophical) and usually when young children repeat a play pattern over and over I interpret that as a sign that they are trying to learn something that is personally important.

It's impossible to have a judgement here, to side with one child or another. Each was pursuing his own perfectly legitimate, viable agenda. It was incredible when they merged, and that they merged for so long. Together, for a time, they built higher and faster than either could have alone. I even expect that had Lilyanna been able to hold off just few minutes longer, those agendas would have re-converged and they could have knocked it down together, because that is always the destiny of block towers, but that is the way life with the other people sometimes works.

All human problems and all human glories result from the great truth that we go about our individual lives working our own unique agendas. From our first cries, using our only tool for connecting with the other humans, we seek out sensations, connections, and even objects that in some way satisfy those agendas, and we pursue them relentlessly. We have our conscious agendas and our unconscious agendas, overt and covert, ones we announce proudly and those we shamefully leave unspoken. And these agendas shape how we engage with the world. There are so many agendas working at so many purposes at any given time, that it seems a miracle that we ever get together on anything at all.

This is a big part of why we're in preschool, to learn to work our agendas together; to learn how to find where they match, because together we can do things that we can't alone, but also to learn how to deal with those inevitable times when they diverge and the building comes crashing down around us. 

There are some hard, complicated lessons to learn about agendas. There are times, of course, when we must stand and fight, but we also must learn to pick our battles. There are times when we must step aside. Sometimes we must conclude, as Marcus finally did, that we will not be able to complete our agenda today, and learn when to walk away, hopefully to return another day. Most often we need to talk, to compromise, to find a way to alter our agendas in order for them to imperfectly merge in order to achieve a kind of "second best" result that leaves all parties both satisfied and dissatisfied. And, naturally, the more people, the more agendas that must be included, the more difficult it gets. This whole business of living with the other people is an emotional tangle, full of pointy parts to navigate, made even more challenging as we begin to understand that those other people are navigating too. But as difficult as it is, it's important because it's exactly the process of picking our way through this jumble of agendas that teaches us empathy, which is just another complication in this complicated business.

Some days I have no idea how any towers ever get built in the world. It all seems so impossible.

Yet we keep doing it, throughout our lives, re-engaging in this difficult business of other people.

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Monday, April 23, 2018

A Journey Without End

I've done a lot of traveling lately. In the past three weeks I've been to eastern British Columbia, Vietnam, and Sandusky, Ohio, where I keynoted the OAEYC conference. It's an honor and a thrill to have been invited to those places to meet like-minded colleagues and share our stories. It's been both a whirlwind and a grind, the way modern travel always is: I've been on 11 planes, eaten countless restaurant meals, and only slept in my own bed four nights during that span. I've stood in front of an audience of over 2000, but more often been all alone, an island of anonymity in a sea of strangers. Needless to say, I've had ample opportunity to reflect on journeys, both actual and metaphorical.

If you had told me ten years ago that I'd be doing this, winging my way around the globe to stand in front of audiences of strangers, I'd have accused you of wishing a curse upon me. I'm fairly introverted by nature, a man who needs his time alone in order to re-charge his batteries, and the idea of public speaking was a terror to me. During my first year as a teacher, I couldn't even bring myself to make eye-contact with parents of the children I taught as I sang and danced with the children, a fact that resulted in several performance reviews that read, "He's great with the kids, but needs to work on his communication with adults." Looking back from where I stand this morning, I can see that I've come a long way, even if I still have a long way to go.

I've been writing here on this blog since 2009, doing so conscious that I was setting out on a kind of journey, one with no particular destination in mind, but one that I expected to take me somewhere nevertheless. I've been hyper-aware over the past few weeks of regular life interrupted of how important this daily ritual of sitting in my darkened living room to write these posts has become to not just my practice as a preschool teacher, but also as a human living in this world of other humans. I would be lying were I to say that I didn't want people to read what I'd written, or else otherwise I'd have just jotted notes in a private journal, but I didn't really expect anyone to take note other than the families of the children I teach. I can't express how flattering and uplifting it is to have educators and parents approach me in far-away places to tell me they've been reading this blog, sometimes for years, letting me know that I've found fellow travelers, moments of meeting and recognition that are the greatest rewards of having put myself out there, one foot in front of another on this journey. I feel almost like I'm finding long lost sisters.

Sometimes when I go back and have a look at some of the things I wrote nearly a decade ago, some of the things I've believed and thought, I'm embarrassed beyond belief, so much so that I've considered deleting them. But I've stopped myself because those posts, as flawed as they are, are evidence of my own journey, reminders that I've not always been where and who I am today. It would be easy to call them missteps, but I'd rather look at them as necessary way stations without which I'd never have gone anywhere at all. As I've meet all these other travelers spread across states, provinces, territories, nations, and continents, I've become conscious of their journeys as well, and even if we don't always see eye-to-eye, I can't judge them, nor should I attempt to hurry them along their way. If they ask, I can point them in a direction, but the journey, for each of us, is our own, and we must be free to pursue it, even if it somethings takes us through places that we will later look back upon with regret. I fully expect to look back on the things I'm writing here today from the perspective of where I find myself ten years hence, and cringe at my ignorance. That's in the nature of a journey.

But we can't dwell there for long, because it is in the nature of a journey to look forward, to put our regrets on our shoulder alongside our worries and to take that next step in anticipation of something higher, clearer, and better.

Last week, we visited the local fire station with the kids. It's an easy 10 minute walk, just up the hill, and across a few streets, but I allowed 45 minutes because it's spring and the flowers are blooming, the birds are singing, and the temperatures are mild. Young children, like the rest of us, are better served when we don't hurry along our way, when given the time to pick some flowers, even if we are only going a short distance from here to there. We might start out with a destination in mind, although that's not essential, because as cliched as it is, it's our journey that comprises our life, and every destination is nothing more than a place to catch our breath before choosing a direction and continuing on, a journey without end.

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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