Thursday, February 28, 2019

It Always Takes A Village

"We're sisters." The girls had dressed themselves up in the silky robes from our costume rack and had taken up residence in the top of our loft with all of our everyday babies.

I said, "You have a lot of babies."

"We're waiting for them to find mommies and daddies."

"They don't have mommies and daddies?" I repeated feigning sadness.

"It's okay because we're taking care of them."

"We're taking care of them, but we're only 12-years-old . . . Well, I'm 12-years-old, I'm the big sister, and she's 8-years-old, she's the little sister." They both affected wee and pitiful faces; almost tragic.

I said, "That's awfully young to take care of so many babies."

"That's why we're helping them find mommies and daddies. We're only teenagers."

"We're not teenagers. Teenagers have to be older than us."

There was short debate on the topic of teenagers and whether or not that was old enough to be a mommy or daddy. They finally agreed they were not teenagers, allowing them to set aside their questions about the propriety of teenage parents.

That settled, I asked, "Could I be the daddy of one of those babies?"

"Sure, do you want a boy baby or a girl baby?"

"Hmm, I think I'll take one of each."

The girls looked at one another as if searching for a silent agreement before answering, then, "You can only have one. We have to save some for the other daddies."

"Yeah, you can only have one."

"Okay, well I guess I'd like a girl baby."

The girls began checking our anatomically correct dolls, "This one has a boy bottom. Boy bottom . . . Here's a girl bottom." They handed me my baby.

It was about at this time that a group of boys marched into the lower level of the loft, acting as if their intent was to crowd into the small space where the girls had set up their adoption agency. I wanted the boys to recognize that there was already a game taking place in the space, so I summarized, "These are sisters. They have a lot of babies looking for mommies and daddies. This is the baby they gave me. I'm the daddy." Then to the girls, "How do I take care of a baby?"

They looked at one another again, then, "You have to already know how to take care of a baby. You have to feed it and change its diapers and hold it."

"That sounds like a lot of work."

She shrugged, "Babies also cry a lot and you have to give them stuffed animals and rattles."

I said, "But what if I don't have any stuffed animals and rattles?"

At this point, without saying a word, the boys climbed back down from the loft, leaving us to our conversation. As we began to approach the realization that perhaps Teacher Tom was not equipped to take care of a baby, the boys returned, this time with their arms full of stuffed animals. "These are for the babies."

Before long, all of our classroom stuffed animals were in the top of the loft. The girls arranged them around the babies.

As I continued talking with the girls, I heard the boys behind me:

"There aren't any more stuffed animals."

"The babies need rattles."

"There aren't any rattles."

"We'll have to make them."

That morning, we were playing with the cardboard rings left over from spent masking tape rolls. The boys figured out how to slip one inside another, creating a kind of sphere. These were the rattles.

As I continued talking with the girls, both discovering and helping to create this world of sisters with too many babies, the boys came and went in a steady stream, delivering rattles to the top of the loft.

When I walked away, the rattles had given way to plastic food from our play kitchen, as the village had taken on the task of raising all those babies who didn't have mommies or daddies.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Leaving Me In The Dust

This is balloon cage week at the preschool, a tradition that goes back some 18 years when I figured that my four-year-old self would have loved to play in a room full of balloons. It turned out that young children tend to like the idea so we always turn a corner of the classroom over to balloons in February, usually during a week adjacent to my birthday.

It's can get a bit wild, especially with the floor padded with gym mats and it's not unusual for older kids to spontaneously start wrestling. And sure enough, as if on cue, a pair of guys got into it yesterday afternoon. We aren't opposed to wrestling at Woodland Park, but this sort of rough and tumble play does have a tendency to sometimes impact the non-wrestling majority in the room so I like to keep an eye on the play in case they need me to help negotiate with one another or with classmates.

The wrestling appeared fairly intense with two evenly matched friends taking things right to the edge. At one point their faces wore expressions of such ferocity that I interrupted to make sure they were both having fun, but I was otherwise staying out of it because the other kids were ignoring them, having their own fun with the balloons. That is, all the children were ignoring their play with the exception of one boy who seemed to be experiencing conflicting emotions about it all. Sometimes he appeared to be joining in, laying is hands on the wrestling boys with apparent intent, while alternatively shouting out, "Stop!" or "Time out!" His expression matched those of the wrestlers.

This boy has been working on the balance between real and pretend violence all year, exploring the boundary through his imaginary play, often finding himself overwhelmed when things got too real. It was fascinating watching him swing back and forth in the balloon cage. He seemed to be right on the line, balancing almost, doing a kind of high wire act. I felt that his shouts were directed more at himself than the other boys, as if his internal debate was being aired in public. Indeed, of the three boys, he appeared to be the one experiencing the strongest emotions.

I was outside the cage looking in while one of our parent-teachers was engaged inside, which was her classroom job for the day. I had other responsibilities, but I kept checking in, expecting that she might need my support if things went too far. At some point she removed herself from the midst of things to get a drink of water. I spoke with her about the wrestling, complimenting her for her restraint in allowing things to proceed as long as no one was complaining. Then I mentioned the boy and his balancing act, wondering if she, being closer to the action had any insights into what I saw as a fascinating insight into the inner workers of a child in the throes of learning something big and, for him at least, complicated. I shared a little of my thinking with her.

She replied, "Oh, maybe . . . He told us that he was the referee. That's why he keeps shouting, 'Time out!'" I felt like a dunce. Of course, that's what he was doing. I saw it clearly now: he wasn't at all confused about the lines, he wasn't balancing. To the contrary, he was assuming of role of mastery and authority, there not to explore the blurry lines, but to make them crystal clear. He had moved beyond his confusion into a state of understanding. He had learned it and now was taking it upon himself to teach it. And it had happened so quickly that he had left me, his dithering teacher, in his dust.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2019

They Are Here To Teach Us

Last week, I wrote about some of the myths by which we we live. The greatest of all is the myth that time exists. Physicists and philosophers now tell us that the illusion of time's flow is a prejudice of our unique perspective as human beings. Indeed, time is something we have invented, a myth to help us make sense of the universe. Time even has an evolutionary history. For most of our existence on the planet, especially during our long pre-history as hunter-gatherers, everyone knew that the thing we've come to call time was subjective. Our lives were governed by cycles of light and dark, cold and warmth, rain and drought: measures that varied from moment to moment, from individual to individual, location to location. It really wasn't until the first Agricultural Revolution that time began to move toward the rigid tick-tick-tick that we know today. Clocks were invented that measured time in somewhat more regular manners, but it was during the Enlightenment that scientists like Isaac Newton and others began to theorize that time was a universal measure that was the same everywhere for everyone, and that's when our modern conception of time really took shape.

Human babies are born without this modern conception, this human invention, this myth we tell to explain phenomena that we are, because of our perceptual limitations, so far incapable of truly comprehending. Yet here we are, born with a perfect knowledge of time, and then must be taught the agreed upon myth.

As parents we complain that our schedules are thrown out the window when a newborn comes into our lives, to be replaced by cycles of hunger and satiation, discomfort and contentment. And we begin right there to teach them about time, striving to create a kind of clockwork order from our lives, to get things under control. We find them lost in the study of motes, meditating, and believe that by somehow engaging them we are showing them a better "use" for their time. We are frustrated when our toddlers don't share our urgency about getting ready, about getting places on time, about meeting deadlines as they exist according to the real nature of time rather than the myth we've created around it. They are living in time (whatever that is) the way it truly exists while we, "educated" humans, are living in time the way we have invented it.

Even if we are not capable of fully comprehend this thing we call time, we have all experienced it as the flexible, personal thing it is. No matter what the clock tells me, an hour stuck on the tarmac in a delayed jet is much longer than an hour spent chatting with an old friend. When I am actively engaged in life, time flows faster and when I'm idle the hours drag, yet in hindsight the opposite is true. Time is an infinitely malleable thing it turns out. Sure, I can pull out a clock by way of "proving" that time is a rigid tick-tick-tick, but it doesn't reflect reality, just the myth we tell about time.

I have no illusion that society is ever going to give up on the myth of time, but as adults who share our lives with young children, I think we miss an opportunity when we don't take advantage of their superior perceptions while we can, to live with them in the reality of time, a place where clocks lose their meaning. Sometimes I succeed. Those are the moments just before I'm shocked to realize that it's time for the children to go home. Those are the moments when time doesn't flow, but rather, just is. The true nature of time reveals itself through our children: it's wisdom they are here to teach us if we'll only let them.

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Monday, February 25, 2019

Learning The Lessons Of Youth

Seattle's light rail trains run through downtown and points north in an underground tunnel that is shared with certain bus routes. Over the weekend I was waiting for a train to take me to the University of Washington to watch the surprising Huskies play Colorado. I've waited on this platform quite often. Across the way, as is typical, there is another platform for passengers heading south. The road dividing the two platforms is pretty much like any other road except that it is a couple feet lower than where I stood and has tracks imbedded in it.

Typically, there are always at least a couple buses pulling up to the high curbs, but on this night there was a long lull during which the tunnel station was left to those of us waiting. Then suddenly, a teenaged boy was dashing toward me from the opposite side, followed more trepidatiously by a girl. The boy attained safety, then waited for his girlfriend. They giggled as they fell into one another's arms, breathing hard from the excitement more than the exertion, they kissed the way only teenagers can before ducking around a corner where they continued their public displays of affection in a slightly less public area.

I'd never seen anyone try this maneuver at any train stop anywhere. It was a dangerous and stupid thing to do. I even considered being the one to scold them, to tell them that they could have been killed, but thought better of it. I would have looked to them like a crabby old man shaking is fist at rain clouds. The roadway had been entirely clear, it was still entirely clear, they had made it safely. The proof was in the pudding. I was surprised actually that there were no security officers on the scene. The tunnel is usually full of them, but, I figured, the kids had included that in their calculations: road clear, no yellow vests, let's go!

As they cuddled away behind me, I reflected on the times that I'd realized I was on the wrong platform and had even, briefly, contemplated the same thing. It is tempting when the alternative is one that will surly cause you to miss your train. I would never actually do it, of course, but then again I have a fully developed adult brain. Those kids have teenaged brains, which means that the part that calculates risk (i.e., executive function) is still some years away from completion. I did dangerous and stupid things when I was a teenager as well -- not this specific thing, but things equally, perhaps even more, dangerous and stupid. Most teens do.

In fact, I was even a bit envious of them, their lust for life, their lust for one another, all those giddy feelings filling them right up. Then I saw them coming. A pair of security officers were headed our way. The kids, who had hidden themselves around a corner, were oblivious. Several concerned citizens stopped the men to rat out the teens, but I could tell by the men's body language that they were already on the case. Those kids were going to get it.

In a second he was in their space, "I was just wondering which one of you is going to pay the $10,000 fine for the stupid thing you just did." (I can't imagine the fine is that high, but that's beside the point.) He went on to scold them. "Everything in this tunnel is on camera." He was firm, but didn't raise his voice. It was obvious to me from the start that he had no intention of issuing them a citation, but the kids couldn't have known that. They looked afraid. He went on for a couple minutes, a span that probably felt ten times longer to the kids who at least affected expressions of contrition.

A few minutes later, the train pulled in. The teens boarded with me, giggling again, this time, I expect, out of relief. They had, in fact, gotten away with it, although, I hope, with the lesson learned to not do it again. As we rode I tried to ignore them, the way one does with PDAs. Then it hit me: I was on the train headed in the wrong direction. At the next stop I got off. I stood looking at the platform across the way, the one I needed to be on, not contemplating a dash as much as remembering my own teenage brain, the one that might well have calculated the risk as one worth taking. Then I went the long way around, up the long escalator, across the upstairs lobby, then down the other side the way 57-year-old men do because we have already, hopefully, learned the lessons of youth.

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Friday, February 22, 2019


The other day a friend complimented me, calling me fearless. "You're not afraid to let them figure it out." That feels good. I like the idea of being a fearless teacher. I like that it shows. And I find it's an apt description of where I am professionally: I genuinely have no fear when it comes to the sort of progressive, play-based, child-led program we offer at the Woodland Park Cooperative School. If I ever had doubts, nagging fears that I wasn't doing enough as their teacher, they fell away long ago. I've been thinking about this for a couple days and while I have plenty of fears in other areas of my life, my professional relationship with the children I teach isn't one of them. So it's true that I'm fearless.

I been teaching this way, in this place, for a long time now. I've seen with my own eyes, over decades, how self-directed learning works and I'm fully convinced. The community of families that choose our school know what they're getting into. I have nothing to hide, I get to spend my days being myself as the children get to be themselves. It's a pretty good set up to be fearless. This isn't to say that there isn't room for growth and improvement, there always is, which is one of the primary reasons I write on this blog almost every day, but fear doesn't enter into it.

This isn't true for many preschool educators, however. Most schools, even those that purport to be play-based still expect their teachers to go about their days imposing themselves upon the children's play, steering, controlling, "scaffolding," and leading. They still expect their teachers to write and following lesson plans. They still want the teachers to "Have the children . . . " do this and that, to work on adult-directed projects, toward adult-imposed learning objectives, while producing adult-expected results. I meet these teachers everywhere I go, people who have listened to me talk or read what I write and tell me, "I agree with you and I do what I can," but they're afraid that if they rock the boat too much they'll be in trouble, maybe even fired. I talk to school directors who wish they could fully embrace play-based education, but they're afraid that families will leave their school in droves in search of more "academic" programs.

I may be fearless, but what these educators do is, to me, more impressive. They live with this fear on their shoulders every day, as they do what they can to push the boundaries, allowing their charges a little more time and space to play. They risk being called to the carpet. They risk being accused of not doing enough, of being lazy, of being too radical. It shouldn't be this way, of course, but most children spend their time in these sorts of schools and I deeply respect teachers who know what is right, who know there is a better way, and who find ways to do the right thing even if it means doing it within the cracks and crevices. They don't have the luxury of being fearless.

Fearlessness is a good thing, a worthy goal, but being afraid and doing the right thing anyway, that is a much more admirable thing. Thank you, teachers, for your courage. I hope that one day, you too, will find your way to fearlessness.

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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Thursday, February 21, 2019

Strive To Be The Person You Want Them To Be

When people complain, "He doesn't listen to me" what they really mean is that their kid doesn't do what they want them to do when they want them to do it. Believe me: they are listening to you. They are almost always listening to you. You just disagree with what they opted to do, or continued to do, after listening to your words.

Of course, some of the time, they simply don't understand us, they're not ready to "get" what we're saying to them, like when I talk to young two-year-olds about knocking down other people's block constructions, but more often than not they are listening, then choosing something else.

We know they're listening because our own words come back to us, channelled through them, often days or weeks or even months later. I remember when my own daughter first cursed traffic from her carseat. We know they're listening because they repeat word-for-word, usually at a holiday party right in front of everyone, the catty comment we made about the harvest of hair growing from Aunt Millie's nose. I know a child's been listening when she can repeat, word for word, the argument her parents had that morning over a piece of dropped toast.

We know they are listening when they insist on wearing their unicorn bicycle helmet ice skating, like a four-year-old once did, saying, "I'm going to wear my helmet because I might really fall instead of almost."

We know they are listening when they turn to us and say, like a three-year-old did a few weeks ago, "When someone does something mean to me I talk to them to stop."

We know they are listening when they are courteous to their friends, like a two-year-old was earlier this week when he said, "Hello Anna. My name is Elliott. Let's play!"

And we know they are listening when they put their arm around a sobbing friend, like one two-year-old year old did to another, saying softly into his ear, "You're crying about something. I'll take care of you."

They are always listening. Not just to the words we say to them, but those we say in their presence to others. That is their real classroom. When we adults take that seriously, that's when our children begin to make us better people, the kind who think about the words they say and the tones we use with the people in our lives. They make us work to become the people we've always wanted to be if only because that's the sort of person we want them to be.

Children don't learn anything from obedience other than how to command and obey, a dubious education at best. They learn everything else by listening (and watching, of course). Real learning requires processing, repetition, time, and experience to fully comprehend. It takes place on their schedule, not yours, which is why it can seem as if they are not listening. But they are, know it, and strive to be the person you want them to be. That's the real work of teaching.

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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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Becoming Our Own Unique, Quirky Selves

In the last couple weeks, I've traveled to speak at early childhood education conferences in Virginia, Florida, and Ohio. For whatever reason, I'm more often invited to speak in other countries, so it's been a treat to find myself among my fellow American citizens talking about values like education, freedom, democracy, and play.

I can't tell you how thrilling it is to mix and mingle with these dedicated, passionate educators, people who are not doing this to get rich, famous, or, even (in some cases) respected. It's clear to me that for most of us, what we are doing isn't a job as much as a calling. Indeed, while I do believe that teachers deserve to be paid more for the important work we do, I'm also aware that if, by some miracle, our average salaries were raised to the level of, say, lawyers, the profession would begin to attract those whose motivation is more monetary, and we would all suffer for that.

I'm at these conferences to share the stories from our progressive, play-based cooperative school located in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle. There is no other place like it in the world and I like to think that our school, our Fremont school, reflects this unique, quirky community. It's the Center of the Universe where we sometimes dance naked in the streets; where we gather annually to light up and sing Festivus carols around a 16-foot tall, seven-ton cast bronze statue of Vladimir Lenin; where we celebrate the Halloween birthday of a giant, VW devouring troll who lives under a bridge; where we brew beer, create art, make chocolate and go about our day-to-day lives in a place where you are officially advised to set your watch ahead five minutes upon crossing our borders. Not all of our families live within the physical limits of the neighborhood, but since being a Fremonster is a state-of-mind, we are all citizens of the Artist Republic of Fremont. This is where we are choosing to raise our children, this is our community, and our school strives to reflect the values and spirit of this special place.

That said, there are things we do at the Woodland Park Cooperative School that other schools cannot and, indeed, should not do. Every community is special, every neighborhood has its own character, its own reason for being, and if there is any message I want to convey at these conferences it's that our preschools must reflect the community in which they exist. We might be inspired by the schools of Reggio Emilia or Roseville or Framingham or Fremont, but at the end of the day every school is at it's best when it acknowledges and embraces the place the children themselves call home. Woodland Park could not exist in Richmond or Ft. Lauderdale or Columbus, just as the schools I visited in those places could not exist in Fremont. And that's the way it ought to be.

As education author Alfie Kohn wrote, "Progressive education is marinated in community." For 99.9 percent of human existence, humans have lived in hunter-gatherer societies, small communities that create and were created by a unique set of values, history, and geography. It is from within these types of communities that we learn most readily. It is within the context of community and through the process of play that humans have evolved to learn, especially in the early years.

I do not write this blog to tell anyone how to do early childhood education, just as I do not speak at conferences to provide a blueprint for how to do it. No, my hope is only that I can provide food for thought, that by telling our stories I can help others to reflect upon their own stories. I don't expect anyone to agree with everything. In fact, I hope no one does. No, what I strive to do is to make my own reflective practice and journey transparent, to share it with my colleagues and peers, and hope that in some small way I can help others build their own unique, quirky community, and in that way provide a place in which the children can become their best, unique and quirky selves.

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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Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Myth, Science, And Persuasion

I think some of us believe we live in a post-mythology world, but we couldn't be more wrong. Some time back, for instance, I wrote about the "myth of boot straps," the notion that everyone can just pull themselves up by their own if they would only apply themselves or work harder. It's part of the larger "myth of the self-made man." What people have forgotten in this neo-Calvinist framing, to pull one's self up by one's boot straps is an impossible task, an absurdity, just as is the notion of someone being self-made. Everyone needs help, no amount of boot strap pulling can extract us from the mud; asking for help is a vital life skill, but our mythology treats it as a sign of shame and weakness.

This is far from the only myth that guides our daily lives: things are not true objectively, but due to our human tendency toward confirmation bias, we repeatedly head down that tunnel with no cheese. In education, we're living through that right now as schools continue to believe, without evidence, but rather based upon the stories told by our myth-makers, that what children really need is longer school hours, more homework, and more challenging tests. The research is firmly on the side of the sort of emergent, play-based, child-lead education that schools like mine offer, yet the myth persists that we must drill-and-kill them. I can't tell you how many teachers I speak with who tell me that they are fully on board with what the science tells them, but they are stuck bending their charges noses to the grindstone because of pressure from policy makers, administrators and parents, die hard worshipers at the alter of myth.

Myths are persistent things: humans have a hard time rising above them, and those of us who do are usually labelled as misfits or radicals, when, in fact, we are the ones pointing out that we've climbed to the top of Olympus and found only snow. This isn't to say that I am not also influenced by certain mythologies. All you have to do is go back and read some of the things I was writing a decade ago on this blog to see some of the myths inside which I once lived. And this also isn't to say that myths are, on their face, bad things. They share with science the desire to explain the unexplainable, but because stories are more powerful than science for many humans, we haven't developed the scientist’s trait of tossing away old ideas when more true ones are discovered. Indeed, we live in an era in which myth seems to be acendent with more and more science doubters trusting their stories over the scientific method in all areas of life.

And I’m not saying we should never doubt what scientists tell us. Some of what passes for scientific knowledge these days is actually bought-and-paid-for industry propaganda filtered through a media that is not always unbiased, so it pays to not take everything at face value. It pays to dig deeper, but at bottom, we as a society must always chose science over myth. If we are to live in a fair and just society, we must always be prepared for our myths to be disproven just as we are with scientific theory because they are in many ways the same thing: attempts to explain how the world works. Indeed, in many ways scientific progress is the process of our old ideas, no matter how much we loved them, turning from truth into myth.

Many of us in the worldwide community of play-based educators find ourselves in the position of having moved beyond the old myths of boot straps and “academic rigor” into a world where science informs us that play is the highest use of our time, at least when it comes to educating young children. Yet, all around us is a world where old stories continue to hold their own: our administrators, our regulators, our licensers, our policy makers, and even the parents of the children we teach continue to cling to the old myths of play as a waste of time, a relief from learning rather than the mechanism by which humans most effectively and efficiently learn.

We want them to change their minds, to see the light, yet despite our best efforts they cling to their myths the way people always do, doubling down, not able to hear the manifest logic in our arguments. It frustrates us as we strive to do what is best for the children we teach even as we must continue to, in many cases, pay homage to their ancient myths, complying with their standards, administering their tests, adhering to their learning objectives, adjusting to their catrophic imaginations. We do these things for their myths even as we ourselves have moved beyond them. We do it because above all else we care for the children we teach.

No one has ever changed the mind of another person and a part of that is because myths are always “science” until they are not. No matter how much we argue, they stick to their beliefs. In the end, people must change their own minds. I’ve pretty much given up on trying to show others how wrong they are through argument. If I want someone to come toward the light, the first and most important thing I can do is simply show them how much I care; not about the science or being right, but about the children. It’s only through our caring that we can bring others to question their myths by asking why, which is the first step toward changing one’s own mind. And it is through making our caring evident that we will ultimately transform education.

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 18, 2019

“Teacher Tom, You Should Teach Us Things”

He said, "Teacher Tom, you should teach us things. You never teach us anything, just silly things."

I answered, "What do you mean? I teach you stuff all the time."

"No, you don't. You just teach us silly things."

"Okay, so what do you want me to teach you about?"

"I don't know."

This is a boy who enjoys knowing things. He has previously informed us that he knows everything about spiders, likewise volcanoes, and has followed that up by lecturing us with his impressive store of knowledge. Every preschool classroom has children like this, those who pursue their narrow passions, absorbing everything they can comprehend through the repeated watching of videos and library books and asking questions. It's self-directed learning at its most obvious. 

Of course, every child is in the process of learning "everything" about something, it's just that their passions don't always fall so nicely into one of the "academic" categories like biology or geology. Some, for instance, might be going deep on their friendship skills or drawing the perfect butterfly or Star Wars. And some simply aren't specialists in life, at least not yet, opting instead, as my own daughter did to be more of a generalist, dabbling in lots of different pots, exploring the breadth of the world instead of its depth. That's also what self-directed learning is about.

I said, "Okay, how about I teach you everything about trees?"


"Then I could teach you everything about buildings."


"What about cheetahs?"

"No." By now he was grinning as if he has suddenly understood a joke I was telling, as if he somehow realized that it was up to him, not me, to pick the subject, and that I was being silly yet again in even suggesting otherwise.

"Tell you what, when you think of something you want me to teach you, just tell me and I'll teach you."

"No, I'll teach me! You just teach silly things." 

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 15, 2019

Play Tends To Disappear When We Overthink It

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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