Friday, November 29, 2019

Learning And Loving Go Hand In Hand

When we enrolled our daughter Josephine in cooperative preschool, I explained how it worked to a friend, telling her that there was one professional teacher in the room and a dozen assistant teachers in the form of parents. She freaked out saying, “How can you let amateurs teach your child? I only want professional teachers near my child.” She feared that the parents of other children would somehow damage her child’s educational prospects. So while Josephine spent her 3 years in co-op, my friend's son attended a preschool in which parents were not allowed into the classroom, even to observe.

I could no more have made her decision than she could have, apparently, made mine. Even as a new parent who had no inkling that teaching was in my future, I knew I wanted to be there with Josephine as much as possible, and when I wasn’t I wanted her to be surrounded by the love of a community. I didn’t care about her having a teacher who could teach her how to “read” or identify Norway on map before she was 3, like some kind of circus trick, I wanted her to be in a place where she simply got to play with friends and be guided by loving neighbors.

The more I taught, the better I felt about my decision.

What parents may lack as pedagogues (and, indeed, many of them are masters) they more than make up for by bringing love into a co-op classroom. And as Mister Rogers puts it:

Learning and loving go hand in hand. My grandfather was one of those people who loved to live and loved to teach. Every time I was with him, he’d show me something about the world or something about myself that I hadn’t even thought of yet. He’d help me find something wonderful in the smallest of things, and ever so carefully, he helped me understand the enormous worth of every human being. My grandfather was not a professional teacher, but the way he treated me (the way he loved me) and the things he did with me, served me as well as any teacher I’ve ever known.

My friend also thought that our co-op sounded too much like “play school.” She wanted her child to go to “real school.” Again, as a new parent, my thoughts on the subject were not well-enough formed to answer her with logical argument (not that it would have done any good), but I just knew she was wrong. Today, I know that to undervalue the importance of play for young children is to make a tragic mistake. Frankly, I think that goes for older children and adults as well. The times in life when my mind has been the most shut down are those times when I felt compelled to do “work” prescribed by others. When I've been playing, however, even if dressed up as hard work, I've learned the most about myself and the world.

Again, from Mister Rogers:

Play does seem to open up another part of the mind that is always there, but that, since childhood, may have become closed off and hard to reach. When we treat children’s play as seriously as it deserves, we are helping them feel the joy that’s to be found in the creative spirit. We’re helping ourselves stay in touch with that spirit, too. It’s the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives. 

It’s love and play that form the foundation of a good education. Without that, the rest is worse than useless, it's meaningless.

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Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Problem With "Loose Parts"

I suppose I'm happy that the concept of "loose parts" play has taken the early childhood world by storm these past few years. It seems like not a day goes by that I don't discover a website dedicated to loose parts play, or a loose parts workshop for teachers, or a new book that will help us better understand it. Of course, it's an idea that's been around since the advent of children, one that was once just implied in the standard understanding of play: when left to their own devices kids tend to pick up whatever is at hand and goof around with it. Then, over the course of modernization and commercialization, we came to understand the idea of "toys" manufactured specifically for children's play, and many of us adopted those things as the hub around which play necessarily revolved.

Children, of course, still continued to play with loose parts, some of which were these toys, broken, modified, or otherwise, but we adults lost sight of that amidst the bright colors, flashing lights, and annoying noises of those objects that came from toy stores. And as toys became cheaper and more prevalent and better marketed our homes and classrooms have come to be overwhelmed with them. But even then, children continued their loose parts play. Who among us, for instance, hasn't joked that our kids prefer the boxes the toys came in over the toys themselves?

So yes, I'm please that there is a renewed focus on the open-endedness of things like rocks and sticks and pinecones, of toilet paper tubes and mint tins and yoghurt containers, of old tires and planks of wood and house gutters, but I worry that we are on the edge of turning those into just another commodity to be bought and sold. I worry that in our embrace of loose parts play we are concentrating far too much on the loose parts and not enough on the play. I worry when I hear teachers fussing about their "loose parts" collection, hovering over the children lest they damage or misuse or lose their precious loose parts.

The children at Woodland Park have been engaged in loose parts play for as long as I've been the teacher, but you'll rarely hear me use the term. I usually just call it "junk," or in the case of items that come from nature like leaves or sticks, I might refer to it as "debris." Whatever it's called, the key element is that we didn't pay for it and I have no concerns that it will be damaged, misused, or lost. That's one of the things that makes loose parts play so engaging for: the adults aren't fretting. Most of what you'll find on our playground came either from the earth itself or from the garages, attics, and recycling bins of the families who have enrolled their children. I often say that one of the functions of preschools isn't to use stuff, but to finish using it. We still have toys around, but most of them are broken in some way -- the cars have lost wheels, the dolls have lost their heads, and the balls have lost their shape. When we do spend money it's not on toys or loose parts, but rather on tools and furniture, things that need to be sturdy.

So while I'm pleased that more and more of us are discussing the value of loose parts play, I guess my caution is that we don't lose sight of the fact that you don't need to go shopping for these things and you don't need to "teach" the children how to play with them. Your world is already abundant with loose parts. Your recycling bin is full of them, your cellar is choc-a-bloc, and a broken toy is often much better than a new one. Our main job is simply make junk available and to step out of the way. The kids, as they always have, know what to do with it.

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Tuesday, November 26, 2019

"I'm Doing This For Your Own Good"

When someone says, "I'm doing this for your own good," rest assured it is not for your own good. Or at least it's not in your best interest, according to your own judgement, in this particular moment, and usually it is decidedly against your best interest by any measure. It's the end argument for those who would compel, deceive, or censor, not always perhaps, but often enough that no one should be expected to accept it at face value, not even young children. As John Holt writes, "We cannot assume, just because we hear someone say, 'I'm doing this to help you,' that what he does will be good."

This is not to say that as a parent, teacher, or other adult responsible for the well-being of a child, that we shouldn't compel a child when their imminent safety or the safety of others is involved. No, that's our paramount responsibility, to keep the children safe, right now, and sometimes compulsion is necessary. But claims of doing it for someone's "own good" are rarely about imminent danger, but rather some danger, real or imagined, that will come, or not, in the future. And quite often the so-called danger is simply an excuse to assume control over other humans.

Dictators always rest their case on doing it "for your own good." Cult leaders are notorious for it. It's a phrase parents traditionally have used while administering corporal punishment, probably to assuage their own sense of guilt, as if hitting a child can ever result in anything good, let alone their own. Atrocities are always cloaked in the thin disguise of the powerful doing "good" to or for the weak.

If a child is about to walk into a band saw, we grab their arm and pull them away. If they ask us why, we answer, "Because you were about to walk into a band saw." We only say, "This is for your own good" when we don't really want them to know, when our motivation is for them to simply obey or relent. It is an exceedingly rare circumstance in which compulsion or deception or censorship is done for someone else's own good. If honesty is not enough, if the "truth" is so easily rejected that it must be hidden, if it is not compelling enough in its own right, then one must doubt that "truth."

I want children to develop a healthy suspicion of those who would, unsolicited, "help" them. I want them to know that just because someone says, "I'm doing this to help you," that what they plan to do may not be good. And it starts with the adults they already trust, their parents and teachers, who are responsible for keeping them safe, not by wielding our power, not by declaring, "I'm doing this for your own good," but by being honest and transparent in our good intentions, rather than hiding behind the language of compulsion. This is part how children will learn the difference between those they can trust and those they cannot. This is how they will come to trust their own judgement and to know for themselves what is good for themselves and what is not.

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Monday, November 25, 2019

The Meaning Of Life

Every human society that has ever existed was built around the biological imperative to care for the children.

"Figuring out why being a parent is worthwhile isn't just a personal or biological question, but a social and political one, too. Caring for children has never, in all of human history, just been the role of the biological mothers and fathers. From the very beginning it's been a central project for any community of human beings. This is still true. Education, for example, is simply caring for children broadly conceived. ~Alison Gopnik

All "higher order" animals must care for their young, but none are born as helpless and for as long as human babies. From a purely evolutionary perspective the species won't survive if the children don't survive so we must care for them. The question for every society is "How?"

As a boy, I was raised during the Cold War, and was subject to a great deal of propaganda around the evils of Soviet Union style communism. One of the things we were told was that Russian mothers had their babies taken from them shortly after birth so that they could get back to work, and that those babies were institutionalized to be raised not by their parents but by "the state." I don't know if this was true or not, but when I look around and see how many American babies are today being primarily raised by paid caregivers in places that could certainly be characterized as institutions, I don't find it unimaginable.

Having been, in my way, a professional caregiver for a good part of my adult life, having known thousands of others, and having spent time in hundreds of these "institutions," I am not necessarily here to criticize how our society is answering the central "How?" other than to point out that if this is the way we're going to do it, we need more and less expensive options. Of course, I have my opinions and I have my ideas for reform, which is what underpins the 3000+ posts in this blog's decade long history. And you have your opinions and ideas. One of the strengths of the way we have chosen to answer "How?" is that "the state" has, for the most part, left that to be answered by individuals. One of the weaknesses of our answer to "How?" is that our economy is organized in such a way that it all too often leaves individuals, especially lower income individuals, with little choice.

I think it's safe to say that there are very few parents who are entirely happy with the way we are answering "How?" either societally or individually. Yes, I know some parents who are joyfully homeschooling, for instance, unconcerned about the economic or career consequences. I know other loving parents who are thrilled with their child's paid caregivers, institutional or otherwise, confident that their child is being sufficiently nurtured in their absence. And I imagine there are some who simply accept things the way they are, like, we were told, those Russian mothers, who were resigned to reality. But most of us are torn. Most of us know that there must be a better way to answer the question of "How?"

I don't think that there is any doubt that caring for children is the central project of humanity, yet when I look around it's clear that we, as a society, treat it as almost an afterthought. Our political parties do not seek to build society around this central project. Our economic entities do not. When people ask what we do, only the lowly paid caregivers speak of caring for the children. And while there are plenty of stay-at-home parents who proudly assert our role, we all know that the "good for you" lip-service that people give us in response is a slightly embarrassed admission of our low status.

I wonder what would happen if we could somehow find the courage to step back and acknowledge that caring for children is the central project of every community. We complain that we're disconnected. Mental illness is at near-plague levels. We crave something more meaningful, deeper, better, and we know we won't find it in more stuff, inebriation, or working harder, even as we continue to search for it there. We're showing the symptoms of a society that has forgotten why we are here: we are here to care for children. The rest is in support of that.

And at the core of caring for children is love. We are reminded of this each time a child cries when they are left:

"But it isn't absence that causes sorrow. It is affection and love. Without affection, without love, such absences would cause us no pain. For this reason, even the pain caused by absence is, in the end, something good and even beautiful, because it feeds on that which gives meaning to life." ~Carlo Rovelli

Caring for children is the central project of humankind. And at the center of that is love, which is the meaning of life.

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Friday, November 22, 2019

"You Want Your Children To Be Independent, Then It Terrifies You When They Are"

My mother once told me, "You want your children to be independent, then it terrifies you when they are." I was a teenager at the time, and while I don't recall the exact circumstances, I'm sure I'd just done something that had terrified her. At the time, I took it in as information, something that was perhaps true, although not particularly useful, but now, having been a parent and having been around thousands of parents, I know she was expressing something that comes pretty close to being universal.

If there is anything we wish for our children it is that they grow up to be their own people, free, capable, autonomous, and independent. In the counterbalance, however, there are the other things we value on their behalf, traits like empathy (with the ability to draw boundaries), courtesy (albeit not servility), thriftiness (stopping short of stinginess), caution (without timidity), outgoingness (but with a well-adjusted social filter), industriousness (with an understanding of balance), and kindness (without being a pushover). The list is long and complicated and all of us at one time or another have found ourselves attempting to instill these kinds of traits in our children, even if we ourselves are still finding our own way.

The truth is that independence is a pure good even if it doesn't necessarily lead to pure good. But without it, without the freedom to make mistakes, to learn the often hard lessons that lead to the internalization of traits like courtesy and caution and thrift, children are left to learn them later in life, as teenagers or young adults, when the consequences of their inevitable mistakes are likely to be far more dire than they would have been had the mistakes been made, had the learning happened, when they were children.

We've all heard people express the sentiment that kids can't be trusted with freedom and autonomy, that without our adult vigilance and control, they will use any freedom and autonomy they have to do "stupid things." And, indeed, these critics can point to any number of examples from the real world, usually of teenagers making bad choices. But that is a faulty conclusion.

I would counter with the assertion that those bad choices are, in fact, a direct result of having had limited experience with freedom and autonomy up to that point. Too many teens and young adults have spent their childhoods being controlled by our institutions and our parenting, being told where to go and what to do. In those rare moments when allowed a bit of freedom, they of course make mistakes. Mistakes that are necessary to learning how to live with freedom. All too often, we see these mistakes, these bad choices, as confirmation that they simply cannot be trusted with freedom, but the truth is that they are merely a sign of inexperience.

Better, I think, if we really want our children to grow up to be their own people, free, capable, autonomous, and independent, we must allow them to experience freedom from an early age, to be allowed to make the mistakes necessary for learning what freedom is really all about. We must let them fall down and to be there to pick them back up, because that is the single most important lesson we can learn through freedom: independence means nothing unless it's balanced with interdependence.

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Thursday, November 21, 2019

With My Bucket Full

"Teacher Tom, look how many jewels I have."

I peered into her bucket, responding, "That's a lot of jewels." The word "jewels" referred to the colorful florist marbles that she had collected from the playground.

Her friend in turn held her bucket out to me. "Look at my jewels, Teacher Tom."

I replied, "You have jewels too."

The girls were playing a semi-competitive game, hunting as a team until a jewel was spotted. Then it became a mad dash as the girls ran, dove, elbowed, and pushed in order to secure the sparkling bit of glass treasure for their own hoard. They had been playing the game all afternoon, side-by-side. Occasionally, one would complain, "Hey, you're getting all of them," or mope, "I'm not getting any," but their words were directed to one another, not adults, which meant it was none of my business.

As they stood beside me with their buckets, one of the girls boasted, "I have more than you."

"You do not!" her friend answered hotly before continuing in a more downcast voice, "I want more."

She replied dismissively, "Well, I guess you're going to have to find more."

Her friend didn't answer, remaining glumly silent with her head down in an exaggerated show of emotion. Her friend studied her for a moment, then chirped, "I know! I could give you some of mine!" She grabbed a fistful from her bucket and dropped them into her friend's bucket, instantly cheering them both up.

"Hey, Teacher Tom, do you want to play with us?" Before I could respond she ran off, returning with an empty bucket for me.

I looked into my empty bucket and said matter-of-factly, "My bucket is empty."

They looked into my bucket. They looked into their own buckets, which now contained roughly the same number of jewels. "I know! I could give you one of mine!"

"And I can give you one of mine!"

They took turns then, adding to my bucket one jewel at a time, until I said, "Now I have enough jewels. Thank you." With that, they ran off to play their game of hunting, running, and elbowing, leaving me with my bucket full.

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Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Children Do Not Need Toys To Have A Playful Childhood

It's difficult for most of us to imagine a space for children that doesn't include toys and lots of them. Classrooms, playrooms, even entire homes are taken over by these mostly plastic, mostly brightly colored things. Even teachers and parents who seek to impose limits, often find themselves awash in toys. They come in like waves upon the shore, borne by well-intended relatives and other benefactors seeking the favor of children or a new home for a toy that was "barely used." It's so bad that regular toys purges are required.

It's a phenomenon that emerged during the second half of the 20th century when manufacturers began to increasingly employ modern marketing methods to target children, and through them their parents. It's been such a successful enterprise that most of us consider it perfectly natural that if children are present there must be toys. In fact, many families travel suitcases stuffed with toys because they cannot imagine their children without them. This, of course, has not always been the case. For most of human history children didn't play with toys at all, but rather the real things they found in their world and from what I've observed over the years, when left without toys, most children, perhaps after a period of adjustment, don't miss them. Indeed, forest and nature school educators report that children in environments without toys to distract them engage more deeply and explore more fully.

If you place a toy lawn mower alongside a real lawn mower, we all know that the toy will be ignored in favor of the real thing. Real hammers are always preferred over toy ones. I once purchased a clutch of chid-sized brooms for the classroom, but the adult-sized brooms were always preferred. We often think of childhood as a time apart from the adult world, but children have other ideas as they are forever ignoring their toys in favor of the real world of boxes, sticks, and the pots and pans they pull from the kitchen cabinets. They will always prefer the fort they have made from their bedsheets over the manufactured playhouse. They will always choose your real telephone over the hollow plastic one.

This isn't to begrudge children all their toys. There is always a place for a few well-curated balls and dolls, some puzzles and board games. Building blocks of some sort are likewise welcome as are costumes. And although I classify them as transportation more than toys, wagons and trikes are fine things. It's not toys as much as the mountains of toys that's the problem, the ubiquitousness of them, the garish, plastic chaos. Children do not need toys to have a playful childhood. The long history of humanity shows us that. What they do need is a safe, lovely place in which they are free to make their own "toys" of the real world.

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Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Instead Of Warning Children To "Be Careful"

Some time ago, I riffed on what is popularly called "risky play," what author and consultant Arthur Battram argues we should call "challenging play," what I want to re-label "safety play," and what one reader pointed out used to just be called "play."

Whatever we call it, most people who read here agree that we need to give children more space to engage in their self-selected pursuits, even if they sometimes make us adults nervous. At the same time, it can be difficult it is to break the habit of constantly cautioning children with "Be careful!"

Adult warnings to "be careful" are redundant at best and, at worst, become focal points for rebellion (which, in turn, can lead to truly hazardous behavior) or a sense that the world is full of unperceived dangers that only the all-knowing adult can see (which, in turn, can lead to the sort of unspecified anxiety we see so much of these days). Every time we say "be careful" we express, quite clearly, our lack of faith in our children's judgement, which too often becomes the foundation for self-doubt.

Sometimes people ask me about alternatives, such as saying, "pay attention to your body." For me, "pay attention" has the same flaws as "be careful." They are both commands that give children only two choices -- obey or disobey. On top of that, they are both quite vague. Better, I think, are simple statements of fact that allow children to think for themselves; specific information that supports them in performing their own risk assessment. This reminds me of the "good job" or "well done" habit many of us adults have acquired, in that we know we ought not do it, but can't help ourselves. So, in the spirit in which I offered suggestions for things we can say instead of "good job",  here are some ideas for things to say instead of "be careful."

"That's a skinny branch. If it breaks you'll fall on the concrete."

"I'm going to move away from you guys. I don't want to get poked in the eye."

"That would be a long way to fall."

"When people are swinging high, they can't stop themselves and might hit you."

"That looks like it might fall down."

"Tools are very powerful. They can hurt people."

"I always check to make sure things are stable before I walk on them."

"Sometimes ladders tip over."

"You're all crowded together up there. It would be a long way to fall if someone got pushed."

"When you jump on people, it might hurt them."

"You are testing those planks before you walk on them."

"That's a steep hill. I wonder how you're going to steer that thing."

When we turn our commands into informational statements, we leave a space in which children can think for themselves, rather than simply react, and that, ultimately, is what will help children keep themselves safe throughout their lives.

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Monday, November 18, 2019

Considering The World As Others See It

The modern novel as an art form gained a toe-hold the early 1700's, with novels like Robinson Crusoe reaching a mass audience. They advanced gradually as a source of entertainment through that century as works like Pamela and Tom Jones became popular. But the novel really found its stride when writers like Jane Austen picked up their pens in the early decades of the 19th century, reaching a climax in the Victorian era with authors like Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, and the Bronte sisters, not to mention Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Flaubert and Balzac, Hawthorne and Melville. Looking back, one can hardly imagine a greater artistic flowering, yet the novel was widely regarded as a "rot." Not the necessarily the works of the authors I've mentioned, which were begrudgingly considered to have merit, but novels in general, the kinds the masses were consuming, especially young women. They were condemned as, at best, a waste of time, and at worst the gateway to mental illness. Well-intended parents were known to forbid their daughter novels while the girls predictably sought to hide their "dirty" habit.

Most parents today would be thrilled if their children were "addicted" to novels. We can think of few things more wholesome and educational. In contrast to our Victorian counterparts, we even lecture our children on the importance of reading books, any books, indeed anything, except, of course, the reading they really want to do, which is the rot found on the internet.

Scientists now tell us that we're right and the Victorians were wrong. Reading novels is good for us. Novel reading is an important socializing influence in that fiction readers have been found to be better able to understand and empathize with their fellow humans. Although we're wrong in the sense that all reading is not equal, at least when it comes to acquiring these social and emotional benefits: those who read genre fiction or non-fiction showed no improved capabilities in this area. It must be literacy fiction, which tends to focus more on the psychology of it's characters, rather than just exciting plots or the conveyance of facts and opinions (not to suggest that these sorts of reading are not valuable in other ways).

Preschool aged children, of course, do not read novels, but their dramatic play serves the same function as reading literary fiction does for adults. As they try on new costumes, they are trying on new personas, which helps them explore and better understand other people's minds, one of the most important skills we can have as social animals. Fiction, theater, or dramatic play allows us to consider the world as others see it, to put ourselves in shoes that are not our own. It's one of the ways we come to understand one another and is an avenue toward considering how the world could be different, which is always the first step in changing it. And ultimately, it's only through a better understanding others that we come to better understand ourselves.

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