Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Helping Them As They Play

Humans are born knowing how to learn. It's called play. And when left to their own devices, young children are unsurpassed in understanding what they need to learn. That's evident in how they choose to play. I'm there for when they can't reach things, when they require something from the storage room, when we need to purchase something, when they are searching for the right word or concept or perspective. I'm there for when their emotions get too big or their conflict too intense. In other words, my job as a teacher in a play-based preschool is not to help children learn, but rather to help them as they learn.

I have long recognized that I am my best self when helping others, which shouldn't be a surprise because helping others is a foundational tenant of every major religion or philosophy. It's not really help, however, when I'm imposing myself on others, offering unsolicited advice, for instance, or using whatever authority I have as a teacher or as an adult to insist that my help be accepted "for your own good." Far too much of what passes for teaching in a child's world amounts to this sort of paternalistic approach to helping, which isn't really helping at all.

The common idea that the teacher's job is to help children to learn very often falls into that category. It suggests a top-down power dynamic, one that only works when the child is sufficiently obedient, sufficiently docile, sufficiently distracted from their own interests. To make it "work," children must stop playing (that is, stop learning) in order to pay attention to what the adult has decided they must know, whether they want to know it or not.

This pushing water up hill model of education is not about helping others: it is about controlling others. When I make the mistake of turning down that path, when I make up my mind about what I want the kids to learn, then set out to teach it, I invariably spend my day scolding, coaxing, and commanding. At the end of the day I always look back to see that I've not been my best self. In contrast, on those days when I remain focused helping the children as they learn, as they play, I am the person I want to be: a true helper.

Humans are born knowing how to learn. It's call play. And my job is to help them as they play.

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