Thursday, May 31, 2018

How To Talk To Fully Formed Human Beings

I remember my first formal exposure to the "technology" of treating children like fully formed human beings -- and I often do think of it as a kind of technology in that it's the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes. I'd previously been exposed to this technology via my daughter's preschool teacher, with whom I'd been working as a cooperative classroom parent for many months, but, as technology often does for the uninitiated, it just looked like magic, something Teacher Chris was able to do because she was Teacher Chris.

I was in one of Tom Drummond's classes at North Seattle College and he began to explain the ultimate ineffectiveness of "directive" statements. You know the kind, "Sit over here," "Stand there," "Pick that up," the sorts of adult communications with which most of our childhoods were filled. I had a small epiphany as he explained our assignment to us, which was to simply keep track of the number of directive statements we made during our next classroom day. And even as I had the epiphany that this was a part of Teacher Chris' magic trick, I doubted that it could really work, at least not all time, not for all kids, not for all ages. It was good that our assignment was simply about ourselves, about listening to our words, practicing using this new technology, not being burdened with the complications of having to make judgments about how the children were responding, just focusing on ourselves and the words we were using.

It felt incredibly awkward, then, replacing my directive statements with informative ones. For instance, instead of saying, "Pick up that block," I would try to make the more cumbersome informative statement, "I see a block on the floor and it's clean up time." One of the basic ideas, Tom explained, was that unlike directive statements which tend to shut things down, informative statements create a space in which the kids get to do their own thinking, make their own decisions about their own behavior, instead of merely engaging in the power struggle that inevitably emerges from being bossed around. It made sense to me even while it felt strange and artificial. It was true, I couldn't help but notice, that when I took the time to be informative, children were far less likely to push back rebelliously, and instead take a beat (which, I've learned means they are taking a moment to process the information you've given them) then pick up that block and put it away. 

I discovered, on my own, the truth of Tom's assertion that the ultimate weakness of relying upon directive statements is that, over time, they need to be escalated in intensity. I recall standing in our school's parking lot with a much more experienced parent as she yelled angrily after her kids, "Get your butts over here!" only to have them giggle and scamper away. When she grumbled, "I never thought I'd be the kind of parent who spanked her kids, but I'm almost there," I saw a glimpse of a place I didn't want to go.

And I still had doubts, even as I began to practice with my own preschooler, who soon detected the change in my approach and began to object to it as "teacher talk." I felt a little guilty, like a magician letting the public in on my trick, as I explained to her what I was trying to do. I remember my five-year-old agreeing that it sounded like a good idea. She especially appreciated that I wouldn't be bossing her around, even suggesting she would be happy to help me by pointing out when I slipped up. I thought for sure that I'd ruined everything by letting the cat out of the bag, but if anything, the opposite happened. She became my ally in making "teacher talk" a more natural part of my day-to-day language until I've arrived at a point in my life when parents refer to "Teacher Tom magic." 

And still, despite all the evidence, despite all my ever-increasing expertise in using it, I was suspicious that the technology of treating children as fully formed human beings would stop working as they got older and more sophisticated. 

The father of one of my daughter's classmates was a high school teacher, a good one by all accounts; jovial, casual, humorous. I think I would have liked being in his class. As our kids approached middle school he explained his philosophy of dealing with teens to me: "Oh, I'm their best friend until they cross the line, then Bam! I come down like a house of bricks." By this time, I'd become quite confident in the use of my "teacher talk" technology when it came to preschoolers, had seen its effectiveness with my own eyes, had even customized it for my own use, but listening to this guy who everyone admired, I wondered if maybe I was, at least as a parent, going to need to adopt some of this "house of bricks" technique as my own. Well, here I am today, the parent of an adult child, a kid who capably navigated all the regular high school stuff we worry about, and I never felt the need to "come down" like a house of bricks. In fact, just as I did when she was five, I found it much more productive to lay it all out for her as honestly and informatively as possible, revealing my emotions, my dilemma as a parent, my concerns for her safety or her morals or her future or her reputation or whatever. No one makes great decisions all the time, but she's had a lifetime of practice, and most of the time she comes up with perfectly reasonable solutions.

None of this is magic. Like all technology it still works, often even better, when everyone knows how it works.

I've now come to a point at which I have complete trust in the technology of treating children like fully formed human beings. Indeed, it's a technology that works on all fully formed human beings no matter what their age and it starts with the assumption that I can never, whatever your age, command you into doing anything. My primary responsibility is to speak informatively, and to leave a space in which thinking can take place.

And still people say to me, "You're lucky. You teach privileged children," often insisting that there are some children out there who are so "damaged," who have had so little love or attention or whatever in their lives that they are somehow not ready to be treated as fully formed humans, that they need commands and punishment; that they need to learn obedience. I'm left with nothing to say, of course, because they're right in the sense that I teach the children I teach, and without a classroom of older, more damaged kids with whom to experiment, I have nothing but "Sez you!" on which to fall back. Still, I will say that much of the damage probably comes from being either abused or neglected, neither of which will be repaired by being bossed around.

This brings me around to an old article I want to share with you, especially those who doubt this technology, who tend to dismiss it as "namby pamby" or "weenie," even if they are just shadows of words that haunt you when things aren't going well with the fully formed human beings with whom you are interacting. This is a long article about a high school that its principal describes as "the dumping ground," one that was once run by gangs. It's a story about how "punishing misbehavior just doesn't work. You're simply adding trauma to an already traumatized kid." It's the story of how magically this technology is working when applied to poor, disadvantaged, abused, and neglected kids.

The first time that principal Jim Sporleder tried the New Approach to Student Discipline at Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA, he was blown away. Because it worked. In fact, it worked so well that he never when back to the the Old Approach to Student Discipline.

If you have any doubts, and even if you don't, this is the article to read. There's a lot great information in here; science about how and why the technology works, even on the most "hardened" kids. If you're already a devotee of this technology, it's still worth the time. This is not written to tug at the heartstrings, but it did mine. I found myself tearing up over and over at the epiphanies of teachers and students, at how they had to overcome a lifetime of believing in the myth of "tough love" and "punishment with dignity," at how the "magic trick" is being revealed to the kids themselves making them experts in their own "recovery." It's a story of teachers and children learning to use this technology together to change their lives, one they all say "is just the beginning." It's my story as well.

I am currently in Australia. If you're interested in attending one of my events, please see the events page at Inspired EC. Hope to see you in person!

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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

This Is Evil

Last week, I like many Americans, learned that hundreds of immigrant children have been separated from their parents at the US border in recent months. Contrary to what the president has said, there is no "law" requiring this to happen. This, however, is the policy of our federal government: to take children, babies even, from their mothers, often with no indication of where they are being taken and when or how they can be reunited.

There is evidence that many are placed in what can only be described as prison camps (some of these facilities are even run by the same companies that run for-profit prisons). The president's chief of staff has been quoted as callously saying that the children will ultimately placed in "foster care or whatever." The attorney general has ordered border officers to separate children from their parents as a "deterrent," seemingly taking no notice of the fact that many of these people are fleeing "situations of extraordinary violence," according to Jennifer Nagda, policy director at the Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights, the organization that, by law, is appointed as the independent child advocate for vulnerable children crossing the border. Nagda says they have been "overwhelmed" by the increase of children being forcibly separated from their parents.

This is evil. There is no reason to do this other than to inflict pain on others, both the parents and their kids, who are being damaged emotionally, socially, and physically. We know this. Everyone knows this. This is what totalitarian dictators have always done to the vulnerable. It is every parent's worst nightmare and it must stop. The people advocating for this -- John Kelly, Jeff Sessions, and despite his protestations, the president himself -- are attempting to hide behind "law and order," the favorite hiding place of vicious, heartless villains. What they are doing is a well-known form of state terror.

As Nagda says, "(T)here's nothing illegal about coming to our border and asking for asylum. These families are not necessarily trying to sneak in. They are coming to our border, they are presenting themselves to border officials, and they are asking for help." Indeed, my America has always been a place where we opened our arms to those in distress. I do not want to live in a place that tears crying infants from the arms of their mothers.

I don't know what to do about this aside from raising holy, moral hell. Please join me. There can be no partisanship about this.

(Note: There are, simultaneously, stories in the media of some 1,500 immigrant children who have been "lost" by authorities. This appears to be a hyperbolic headline. These children are likely not missing and there are many immigration experts who are warning that it could endanger these children if we continue to conflate these two separate issues. There is evil happening at our southern border. It is real and horrifying, but we have, thankfully not lost 1,500 children.)

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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Hamlet Isn't Dead

When our daughter Josephine was in second grade, her school hosted a "summer camp fair." We attended mostly because it was a chance to socialize with the parents of her classmates, but while there we became engaged with a charming teenager who was manning the table for something called Camp Bill, a two week program for elementary school-aged kids offered by the Seattle Shakespeare Company. A fondness for Shakespeare has always been a common bond between my wife and me: she grew up in a theater family, her mother's second husband was a Shakespeare scholar, and I had fallen in love with his work while studying for my English minor at university. As a young married coupled we traveled to Shakespeare festivals from Ashland to Stratford and attended dozens of performances together.

That part of our lives was put on hold with the birth of our child, but this Camp Bill seemed like an opportunity to expose her to something that was important to both of us, so we rallied the parents of a couple of her best friends and signed them all up. The kids were enthusiastic about spending those two weeks together, although none of them were particularly excited about Shakespeare. Indeed, when the first day of camp rolled around, Josephine balked enough that we wound up agreeing that if she hated it on the first day, we would eat the fees and not make her go back.

The rest is history. She came home afire, retelling every detail of that first day, demonstrating what she had learned, reciting favorite lines, and anticipating tomorrow. It's what all parents want for their child: to discover something in the world that inspires them to the core. Of course, I had no way of knowing that this was to be the beginning of her life's work.

From Camp Bill she went on to "Short Shakes," another Seattle Shakespeare program in which kids up to 18-years-old rehearsed and performed whatever was being produced on the professional stage. She did three shows a year all the way through middle school, a period of time during which her expertise surpassed that of both of her parents. It was these years that solidified her ambition to become a Shakespearian actor when she grew up, as if she wasn't one already. By the time she was a 14-year-old eighth grader she declared that she had done her research and that she would be attending the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU since, as she put it, "That's the best Shakespeare acting program in the country." She then spent her high school years performing in every show her school produced, preparing herself for the life she envisioned.

She had always been something of an indifferent student, managing decent if uneven grades. We all knew that she could likely do "better" if she would just apply herself, something her teachers regularly told us, but getting the highest marks was never the goal for any of us. No, what was important was that she had discovered her passion. That is what gave us confidence that our kid was alright.

She is now a rising senior at NYU, and if anything her passion for both Shakespeare and acting has grown. I'm her father so I really can't be looked to as a judge of her talent, but she receives plenty of praise from others and what I can say with confidence is that she is no longer an indifferent student: she is still that seven-year-old, afire.

There is no greater satisfaction as a parent than to see that flame blazing in one's child. As parents, we could have sought to "make" her more well-rounded, to mold her, insisting that she apply herself more rigorously, even to those things that deadened her soul, but to what end? To hedge her bets? No, it's much better I think when young people are free to pursue their dreams . . . And that doesn't just go for young people.

This summer, Josephine is remaining in the big city, working her "day job" in a restaurant while tackling no less than three internships, two of which are with Shakespeare companies while the other is a more "corporate" position with a large record company. She has done this on her own, through her passion, through following her dream.

She has rarely spoken of alternative career paths, back-up plans, but she once said that if the whole theater thing doesn't work out that she would consider following in my footsteps as a preschool teacher, which is why she has taken a few child development courses these past three years, classes she has said were made fairly easy by the fact that her childhood was spent alongside me as I "grew up" as a teacher. I love that she found herself often disagreeing with her professors.

Particularly gratifying for me is that one of her summer gigs is with a young theater company called Hamlet Isn't Dead, where she will be working as the program director for a project called ShakesPreK, an initiative that takes Shakespeare into preschool classrooms. It's hard not to feel as if she has come full circle. When she tells me about the work she is doing with the program, about how the children light up, she is again afire. Right now the program is focused on schools in the NYC area, but they are interested in exploring how their program can be expanded into other parts of the country. So, if you or someone you know is interested in introducing preschoolers to Shakespeare for a day or longer, especially in the New York area, email Josephine at To learn more click here.)

To say I'm proud is an understatement. To say I feel "vindicated" in our approach to parenting goes without saying. We're born to pursue our dreams, all of us: we're born to be afire. Our job as an important adult in a child's life is to ignite that flame. That is all. The rest is up to them.

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Monday, May 28, 2018

How Children Make The Rest Of The World Meaningful

"Help! I've fallen!"

"Don't worry, dear, I'll help you!"

"I can't reach, dear!"

"Oh dear, let me reach farther!"

"Thank you, dear, you've saved me!"

"Are you okay, dear?"

"Yes, dear, I'm not hurt."

It was a cyclical game of turn taking with each of them "falling" to the bottom by running pell mell down the concrete slide, then the other two performing as rescuers, reaching out to take a hand and pull.

It was a game of relationships. Sometimes they were sisters and sometimes mothers and daughters.

It was a game of helpfulness, manners, and concern.

And it was a game of heroism.

They were so deeply engrossed in their game that they didn't even notice when I climbed up to stand with them.

Dramatic play is the thread that is woven through everything we do in our preschool. Our paintings, block buildings, and sensory play are vehicles for telling stories. When we're younger we play our stories alone, but as we reach four and five we tell our stories to and with our friends, building upon one another's imaginations, negotiating, insisting, compromising, dreaming.

This dramatic play is surrounded then by science, literacy, math, physical education, the arts and humanities, tools we take from the shelf as we need them, learning to use them at the level at which we comprehend them in the context of the story we are telling together. These "academic subjects" don't stand at the center of what we do at school, but rather exist to support us as we explore worlds of our own creation, practicing the relationships, manners, and courage that we need to live a fulfilling life.

When we turn that on its head, when we place the "subjects" at the center and push the stories to the side the way normal schools do, we render that knowledge and those skills meaningless. Dramatic play is how children make the rest of the world meaningful and it's from there that the rest flows.

"I'll save you, dear!"

"You can do it, dear!"

"Oh dears, we did it!"

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Friday, May 25, 2018

What We Do Best Together

Yesterday, I wrote about the play that our five-year-olds wrote and performed to end our school year. This was followed by pizza on the playground with their parents, grandparents, and siblings, then a "bridge ceremony" in which each one "crossed over" from preschool to kindergarten. It was a big emotional day, but it wasn't our last day of school together. I like for our real final day to be as normal as possible because, after all, that's what we do best together.

And it was. We gathered yesterday on the playground as usual, played, bickered, and settled our differences. We invited one another with sentences beginning with "Let's . . . ," played games about superheroes and baby tigers, and mixed up potions we called "toxic."

The only thing that really set this day aside from all the others is that I planned to take a moment to tell them that I have loved being their teacher, to say that I would miss them, to wish them well, and to thank them for being my best friends. As we gathered on the checkerboard rug for what we call circle time, I held my copy of Eve Bunting's Little Bear's Little Boat, the book I traditionally read to children before sending them home as newly minted kindergarteners. I had read it the day before and I intended to use it as a jumping off point for my message. For those who don't know the story, the central metaphor is a bear cub who loves taking his little boat out on the lake to row and fish and dream, but, as is a little bear's destiny, he grows too big for his little boat and must finally give his boat to a littler bear. The story ends with big bear building a bigger boat for himself.

The children clustered on the rug as usual, sitting where and how they will. Before I could begin my remarks, however, one of the girls said, "I want to try sitting in an actual circle today. We call it circle time, but we never sit in a circle."

The kids decided to give it a go and they all scooted to the edges of the rug. There was some discussion about whether we had formed a circle or a square, then I said, "I read this book to you yesterday . . ."

I was interrupted, "Hey Teacher Tom, I figured that book out! You're the little boat and we're the little bears!"

Someone else chimed in, "No, this school is the little boat and kindergarten is the big boat."

We spent a few minutes talking about the metaphor around the inward facing circle we had formed, talking to one another like best friends do, taking turns, sometimes raising hands, sometimes not.

After a time, I took the moment for my message, referring to the metaphor that they all seemed to grasp. I thanked them and told them I'd miss them.

A boy raised his hand in response, "I'm sad that I won't see my friends at school any more. I wish I could come back to this school."

"Me too."

"Me too."

They sat looking around the circle at one another for a few seconds. In all my years of sending children off to the rest of their lives, I'd never experienced anything quite like this. There are always one or two sentimentalists in every group, but in this case the moment seemed to have impacted them all.

One girl broke the silence, announcing, "I'm going to invite all of you to my birthday party."

We then went around the circle as they declared their intentions to invite one another to birthdays and playdates, essentially swearing to be friends forever. One boy suggested, "I think we should meet in a park one day and do our play again," an idea to which everyone agreed. I've often gotten emotional at this time of year and there are always teary-eyed parents, but this is the first time I've ever witnessed a group of five-year-olds well up like this.

Then, just when I was expecting them to break into a collective sob, a girl shouted out, "But there's good news! We all get to go to new schools. My school is really big! A lot bigger than this school!"

There was an explosion of cross-talk then as the kids all began excitedly telling us about their kindergarten plans.

Finally, by way of wrapping things up, I said, "So, we're all a little sad to be leaving our little boat behind for the little kids to use, but we're also excited about our new big boats. We made plans to keep being friends and to keep playing with each other and to go to each other's birthdays. I also want to invite all of you to come back and visit this little boat any time you want. Just tell your moms and dads and I'm sure they'll bring to you to visit. I'll be so happy if you do."

There was a pause then before a girl answered me, "But Teacher Tom, you're invited to my birthday too." And then I received invitations to all their birthday parties, forever, before we went back to playing together, doing the thing we do best.

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Thursday, May 24, 2018

"I Don't Know"

Our most enduring tradition at Woodland Park is that the oldest kids, the five-year-olds who are moving on, stage a play. I introduce the idea in January, telling them that those who came before them have written and performed a play, and for the past 17 years, the children have agreed they wanted to follow in their footsteps.

We begin by choosing what characters we want to be, making a list that is destined to change on a week to week basis, then launch into the process of writing the script. For the next couple months, I take dictation from the kids, sometimes one-on-one, sometimes in groups. Occasionally, I read the work-in-progress to them when we're gathered on the checker board rug so we can take stock, together, of where we are in our process. Almost always, we decide it is "too short" and that we need more pages.

This year, we declared the script finished in early March. They likely would have kept writing it forever had I not held out the carrot of getting on the actual stage to try it out. And then we rehearsed, usually once a week, sometimes more, rewriting the script on the fly. It's an experience I've had 17 times, this amorphous, messy, child-led process of producing a play. At the end of each rehearsal we gather together to discuss how we felt it went.

"It's too short."

"I want more to do."

"I liked it."

"Let's do it again."

To the adult eye, these rehearsals appear as pure chaos: kids running around, goofing off, cracking jokes, and "hiding" under chairs as I read the script in my role as narrator/director. Sure, some of them take it seriously, but most are there to play with their friends which is as it should be. This is their play, not mine, and I have learned over the years to dis-invest my own ego from both the process and the end result.

Meanwhile, we created our sets and props, then last week we worked on costumes. Some kids brought things from home, but many created theirs from our massive collection of costume parts. On Tuesday, we had our dress rehearsal. It was like all the other rehearsals, except in fancy dress. The kids chattered amongst themselves, missed their cues, spontaneously ran around the room at intervals, and ad-libbed entirely new plot lines. One boy chose to lie on the floor to roll on and off the stage. More than one good natured wrestling match broke out.

Yesterday was the big day. Parents took days off work and siblings played hooky from school. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and special friends came. I had set up 50 chairs for our audience, but we almost doubled that number.

Then, after all that work, performed our play, which we had entitled I Don't Know, as apt a title as there has ever been. And for the first time in all our months of preparation, the kids performed their play exactly as they had written it: very little backstage chatter, no one missed a cue, no spontaneous running around the room, and only one brief attempt at ad-libbing. The boy who had rolled instead ran. There was no wrestling. Indeed, it was as professional a performance as any preschoolers have ever staged. I had prepared our community for an hour long show, privately expecting it to run over, but we were so efficient that we went from beginning to end in a brilliantly efficient half hour.

When I read, "The end," the audience erupted as it should and the children took their bows like seasoned vets.

I've been doing this for 17 years, guiding children through a play of their own creation and this has been the experience every time. And even so, it's always a kind of miracle to me. I know it's coming, this smashing success, but I'm always expecting it to be a roomful of adults watching kids run around in their costumes, which would be fine, but obviously the children, collectively, expect more from themselves and, collectively, they nail it. Whereas I once viewed the running around and goofing off as distractions, I've come to understand them as essential parts of how they make it their own.

Honestly, I think this is how all early childhood education should be. It doesn't always look the way we adults expect learning to look, but they are learning: this goofing around, this chaos, this messy process. But the proof is there when the time is right. I see it every single year.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

How We Become Wiser, Gentler People

It happened in a flash. He wanted to dump the bowl of "jewels" (florist marbles) that he had collected into the mud. She wanted them to remain clean. He dump the jewels. There were loud voices and when I looked from across the sand pit I saw her push his face, then storm off.

Both children were upset. The boy's mother was nearby and after checking to make sure he wasn't hurt, engaged him in a discussion, so I followed the girl whose body was tense with rage. She marched this way and that for a moment, jaws locked in anger. As I approached, she turned her back on me, so I stopped in my tracks.

What was I going to say to her? Maybe I was going to remind her of the rules we had all agreed to some weeks ago, specifically mentioning the one that goes, "No pushing." I might have been preparing to say something like, "When you pushed his face, you hurt him." She walked slowly away from me, her shoulders hunched forward. When she got to a corner formed by a railing and a random cart that has found its way onto our playground, she knelt on her knees, nose in the corner.

I looked back at the boy who was now chatting easily with his mom as he bent down to the mud handling the jewels he had dumped there.

I didn't say anything to the girl because, frankly, there was nothing to say. Or rather, anything I said would be redundant at best. There was no question that she was already feeling remorse, regretting her action, mulling it over in the quiet of the corner she had found for herself. I stepped away and left her to her conscience. After a couple minutes, she moved herself into a more distant corner, although this time she faced outward, her face a study of sorrow, staring into the ground.

Again, I began contemplating words I might say to her. Maybe I could comment on her emotional state. Or perhaps there was something I could say to help her understand the cause and effect of the affair. But again I realized that anything I said just then would be a mere distraction from the important work she was doing, sitting alone, calming down, and painfully reflecting.

Moments later the boy approached her, hand outstretched. In it was a jewel. He offered it to her saying, "I cleaned this one for you."

She took the jewel and held it in the palm of her hand. The boy shifted from foot to foot as if waiting for her to say something. When she didn't, I softly said, "That was a kind thing to do." He went away then, back to his play. The girl watched him go then looked back at the jewel in her hand, contemplating it for a moment before clutching in her fist. She stayed that way, thinking and feeling, until she was ready to return to her own play. It's from these moments that we become wiser, gentler people.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

"Ready, Guys?"

There are four wheelbarrows on our playground. Yesterday, a boy climbed into the bed of one, leaned a bit too far toward the front and found himself dumped onto the ground. He thought that was hilarious and did it again, then again. After a time, his friends noticed and they crowded around, asking for a turn. He obliged.

Soon, they had mastered the solo tip-and-fall, so began experimenting with two, then three kids per barrow dump. Once they had played the challenge out of that, they explored how they could dump themselves over the sides, a technique that required someone on the outside managing the handles, "Ready, guys?"

When they tried dumping one another toward the handles, they discovered a kind of equilibrium, a sort of wheelbarrow teeter totter with one kid in the bed, while the other put his weight to the handles. The boy in the bed found that he had to shift his weight back and forth for it to work.

After a while, the wheelbarrow wound up fully upside down. They tried sitting on the wheel facing toward the handles. The tried it with two bodies. One boy then turned around to face the wheel, using the wheelbarrow leg supports to support his weight while rapidly spinning the wheel with his feet. Everybody then needed to try that. As they awaited their turns, they found other things to do, such as squeezing under the overturned wheelbarrow bed through the tiny crack between it and the ground.

"Hey guys, look! I'm a turtle with a wheelbarrow shell!"

I laughed at his joke, but no one else did, because by now the rest of them were out of earshot, finished with the wheelbarrow, having moved on to a game involving a small trampoline that was missing three of its six legs.

Someone had installed a stick pony as a lever and as they took turns stepping on the trampoline, he would put his weight to the lever causing them to fall onto the ground. They had crowded around, asking for a turn, and he had obliged.

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