Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Small Black Chunks Of Ash

We went for a hike together on the Solheimajokull glacier here in Iceland, some 30 of us from all over the world, early childhood educators here for the Play Iceland conference. We've come together to reflect upon our practices, to think about the children we teach, to study a culture that does many things well, to be inspired, and to learn from one another.

Hiking on a glacier is a lot of work, but we're all accustomed to hard work. It takes us outside our comfort zone, but we're all accustomed to that as well. It requires full concentration, the dangers are real, the consequence of a false step dire, there is no place for our own petty worries as we find ourselves moving forward step over simple step, placing our feet firmly before focusing on the next, but this is how we spend our days anyway: it's what working with young children demands. And we must rely upon one another, sticking together, stopping to wait when someone tires or falls or struggles with unfamiliar equipment, we do it together or not at all, and that too is part of the life of an educator.

A glacier is really a river flowing in slow motion, this particular one moving at a rate of 2 centimeters per day, seeking its own level on its way to the sea, which is the destination of all rivers, shaping the landscape as it goes, eroding, creating a new the landscape over decades and centuries. But, of course, it doesn't stop there. Evaporation pulls the water back into the sky where it forms into clouds to be carried back to the tops of mountains where it falls as snow to once more begin its long, slow journey back to the sea.

Glaciers in Iceland are dusted in the black ash from the active volcanos here, gritty stuff that crunched under our clampons, the spiked footwear that made our trek possible. The ice itself was riddled with holes, most of them tiny, but many large enough to break a leg or even to swallow a whole body. Some have grown into caves. As we waited for the others to catch up, our guide pointed to a larger chunk of ash, about the size of a thumb, saying, "Do you see this rock? This is where a hole will form, maybe even becoming a cave." He explained that the small black rock will absorb more heat from the sun than the white ice that surrounds it, causing it to melt the ice beneath it, causing it to slowly drill into the ice. The hole will fill with water which will accelerate the melting, making the hole larger and larger, over decades, until it is a cave the size of the one we entered yesterday, one at a time to stand in awe and take our pictures.

All of us here for the conference are play-based early childhood educators, people who have looked at the research about how children learn, about how humans learn, and have committed ourselves to doing what is right for the children we teach. We've taken this week to stop hiking on our own glaciers in order to take a breath and examine our work from a new perspective, in the company of like-minded people. One of the big questions we ask ourselves is how do we help more people understand that this is the direction we must go? To demand it? Will we ever be able to convince policy-makers, opinion-leaders, parents, and other educators that if we care about raising a generation of humans with the critical thinking skills, the creativity, the self-motivation, and the ability to work together to solve the enormous problems our world faces, it must be through allowing them to ask and answer their own questions? Some of us have been wondering about this, and working on this, for decades, and it sometimes feels that we've not made any progress at all. It feels as if we are frozen, as we continue to institutionalize most our children in places that are frozen in a past that was created by nothing more than the habit of believing that adults must tell children what to learn, how to learn, and by when.

But then I think that maybe we are those small black chunks of ash, not much to look at, but perhaps slowly melting the ice, creating holes in the command-and-control model that grinds away at the natural curiosity of children, reducing them rather than lifting them up. I grow impatient. I worry about the all the children, even as I try to stay focused on the few that come my way, but I like to think that the circle of thaw around me is widening, growing. I hope that by joining my hole with those being created by like-minded others, we are carving out larger and larger places in which children can educate themselves the way they were designed to do it. Indeed, I have to believe that is what is happening because continuing to do the same thing we've been doing is obviously not working, not for the children, and not for any of us.

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