Thursday, July 02, 2020

How Children Make 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!"


******

I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe thanks to my friends at Fafunia! It's also available in the US and Canada. If you want to go directly to the Fafunia page click here.  And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well.

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the foreseeable future due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below. 

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!
Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Curiosity Leads to Trouble


Curiosity leads to trouble.

The well-known idiom about it being deadly to cats notwithstanding, I don't believe I've ever encountered anyone who stands on principle against curiosity in themselves or others. It's one of those things that is, in theory, an unqualified good, the harbinger of an inquisitive mind bent on satisfying the world's mysteries. Curiosity is what leads to new things, be they facts, ideas, methods, systems, or products. Curiosity is what drives human being to discover and invent, which forms the foundation of our urge to educate ourselves.

Still, curiosity leads to trouble. If you have a dark secret, for instance, the last thing you want is curious people poking around. Curious people have a way of upsetting the apple cart by revealing hypocrisies, inequalities, and unfairness. Those with the most to lose are typically terrified of new ideas because they threaten the status quo upon which they've accumulated their wealth and power. Market leaders in every industry attempt to squelch promising competitors offering something better. Political establishments demonize populist movements that rabble rouse for systemic change. Counter-cultural attempts to create utopian communities are viewed with the kind of hostility that only comes from feeling threatened.

I'm currently in the midst of studying the raw footage that will comprise The Play First Summit, a free online conference that I am producing along with my partner Sally Haughey from Fairy Dust Teaching. In conversation after conversation, I'm learning from some of the world's leading experts on and proponents of play-based learning: the idea that education should be based on the curiosity of children rather than the status quo, which is for committees of adults to dictate curriculum. Obviously, the former is better for children because there is no better motivator than one's own curiosity. And it's better for educators as well who currently must expend massive amounts of effort motivating children who are not necessarily curious about curricula that are developed without any consideration for what they want. Play-based education is less expensive by every measure, so it's better for those of us paying tuitions and taxes. Not only that, but the research is unequivocal: self-directed education results in better educated, mentally healthier, happier citizens, yet somehow we find ourselves forever on the fringes. As Sonya Philip, the founder of Learning Matters in Delhi, India says in her conversation with Sally, "The words are there, but the practice is not." 

Educators know all this, yet except in a handful of instances, it doesn't move policymakers who have little interest in biting the hand of the status quo that feeds them. Oh sure, they often use the words, but it rarely finds its way into practice. They've built their empires on the foundation of top-down, adult-directed education and what we are proposing is the injection of pure, unadulterated curiosity into the system which, whether they can admit it or not, would be manna for children and educators, but toxic to the way things have always been done. 

I'm hearing some version of this dilemma in conversation after conversation with these thought-leaders, from Maggie Dent and Janet Lansbury to Kisha Reid and Lisa Murphy. Play-based education is hardly new, of course. Indeed it is the original educational system, one that served humans for millennia as researcher and author Peter Gray points out, but we find ourselves in a time when it is new again. And threatening. What if we did manage to convert the world to play-based education? What if we unleashed that much curiosity on the world? I imagine few things would stand before it as all the secrets, hypocrisies, inequalities, and unfairnesses are exposed by a generation free to pursue their own curiosity. It would mark a golden age for humanity, which necessitates the demise of the status quo.

Curiosity leads to trouble and that's why they fight us. This is one of our primary motivations for hosting The Play First Summit, we're not getting any younger and progress in transforming how we perceive education has been slow and spotty at best. That's why tens of thousands of curious people from around the will be coming together at this moment, to listen to stories from around the world, to learn, of course, but mostly to become inspired to fight for children and their curiosity. We don't know yet where this is going, but the idea is to create a movement, or provide impetus for one that already exists, a movement that must be lead by educators and parents like you. Please join us. Let's cause some trouble! I'm curious about what we can do together.

******

I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe thanks to my friends at Fafunia! It's also available in the US and Canada. If you want to go directly to the Fafunia page click here.  And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well.

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the foreseeable future due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below. 


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!
Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The Only Way We Learn About the Real World is to Live in It


One child is playing with a toy and another child also wants to play with it. It's a common scenario in preschool. For most of us, the ideal way for this to play out would be for the child who wants the toy to say something like, "I want to play with that toy." Then the child who is playing with the toy replies, "Let's share it." I've seen it happen more or less that way more often than the cynics of human nature would predict. In fact, some version of sharing might be the most common way for these types of circumstances to resolve themselves in classrooms in which children are creating their own culture through their play with one another.

Of course, as educators it might not feel that way because it's the conflicts that most reliably draw our attention, but in groups of children who are accustomed to interacting with one another without the constant intervention of adults it tends to be the day-to-day norm. Indeed, that happy hubbub that characterizes groups of young children at play is exactly that, children in the process of coming to agreements about the use of space and resources as they go about their projects, "sharing" in the broadest sense of that word.

The mistake too many adults make, however, is to cling to the utopian scenario I sketched out above. In our idealized world, we not only imagine spontaneous cooperation, but we imagine it being accompanied by unicorns and rainbows. The real process of cooperative play is often far from peaceful: there are disagreements, shouts, objections, and a general lack of common courtesy. This is where adults too often step in, shushing and scolding, taking charge, evoking rules, and generally scuttling their process in favor of our fantasy of how it should work. When we do this, we rob the children of the opportunity to come to their own agreements by imposing our artificial one from on high. The more this happens, the more a community of children will come to rely upon the adult stepping in and the less they get to practice the essential skill of negotiating their own peace. 

Naturally, there are times when we do need to step in, such as when violence erupts or when a pattern of bullying begins to emerge, but most of the time, I've found, if I stay out of it, even when things get intense, the children can find their own way through to agreement, which is, after all, the foundation of self-governance. Reality is rarely as pretty as the ideal, but children are not just driven to play with one another, they are driven to keep their play going, and that means finding ways to agree. There will be much bickering along the way, and many failures, but that's the real world and the only way we learn about the real world is to live in it.

*******

I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe thanks to my friends at Fafunia! It's also available in the US and Canada. If you want to go directly to the Fafunia page click here.  And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well.

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the foreseeable future due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below. 


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!
Bookmark and Share

Monday, June 29, 2020

Teaching Themselves to Stay Safe While Testing Their Limits


A dance instructor who had been teaching Woodland Park children for several years, once said to me, "I teach kids all over the city. The kids from here are the most physically coordinated children I've ever taught."


It wasn't exactly intended as a compliment, but I treated it like one, "Really? Thank you." Then, "I wonder why."


We were outdoors in the junkyard playground, children swarming around us. She kicked at the wood chips under her feet, "I think it's this playground. Look at it. There's not a flat surface out here."


The playground is built on a sloping, undulating surface. I'd considered that lack of a flat place as something of a detriment given that some activities are better suited for the flatlands, but I've also always valued the uneven surface. Indeed, I often remarked on the fact that for some of our two-year-olds, the youngest children we enroll, just walking from place to place was often a challenge. 


"And all these logs and tree stumps are out here," she continued. When we first built the place over a decade ago, a tree service had dropped off a tall cedar's worth of rounds instead of taking it to the chipper. We used them to create the borders of a large two-level pit that we filled with a dump truck's worth of sand. Sometime later, a parent had dropped off a stack of uncut firewood that the children sometimes used as building material or furniture or props in a game of pretend, but which more often than not just lived in the space, scattered about in a way that made at least one adult fret about "tripping hazards." The logs and tree stumps were a particular challenge for the youngest children, some of whom had to work mightily just to clamber into the sand pit, but the oldest kids spent their days leaping from stump to stump, jumping over logs, balancing their way from place to place, barely pausing to consider what they were doing.


"And that concrete slope." She was referring to what we call "the concrete slide," a slab poured generations ago to prevent erosions. It was such a steep, hard surface that when we first moved into the place we adults restricted access for fear of injuries. And, honestly, at first it was a bit of a hazard with scrapes and bruises occurring several times a day, but as the children practiced, they got better at it. Again, the youngest children continued to struggle, but as the years passed, it became a sort of rite of passage to be able to climb to the top to stand amongst the lilacs like the big kids. As the dance instructor and I stood there, children were using ropes which they had tied to the lilacs to haul themselves up, then once at the top, dropping to their seats to slide back to the bottom. Some were foregoing the ropes altogether having learned to get a running start, while others were using the "secrete ways" to ascend which involves using the exposed lilac roots as a kind of impromptu ladder.


"I mean, it's the whole place," she said. "The swings, the playhouse, the shipping pallets . . . And all the freedom to just go for it." I thought about all those two-year-olds who've come to us unsteady and uncertain, wobbling around the playground, spending almost as much time on their bottoms as on their feet. Those kids who then played here day after day for two, three, four years, adapting to the unevenness, the obstacles, and the quirks that make you play attention to what you're doing. I thought of all the extra scrapes and bruises that pop up whenever there were children playing with us who hadn't "grown up" there. 


Public playgrounds have to be designed with those kids in mind, the inexperienced ones, but a place like this (or a backyard playground) has a different purpose. Those other places are essentially for occasional use, physical entertainments intended for an hour or two, but playgrounds like Woodland Park's are a place to grow up, a place to test yourself day after day, a place for learning about your body moving in space over the span of years. Those public playgrounds must be made "safer," and therefore more mundane, because the children who play there generally don't have the sweep of time necessary to teach themselves, step-by-step, how to keep themselves safe while simultaneously testing their limits.

******

I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe thanks to my friends at Fafunia! It's also available in the US and Canada. If you want to go directly to the Fafunia page click here.  And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well.

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the foreseeable future due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below. 


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!
Bookmark and Share

Friday, June 26, 2020

Observing and Thinking Deeply: Where to Start When Talking With Young Children About Difficult Things


With everything going on in the world right now, we adults have a lot of explaining to do.

"Why is everybody wearing a mask?"

"Why can't I go to Marcus' house?"

"Why are those people shouting and blocking the street?"

"Why are people mad at the police?"

"Are you mad?"

"Are you afraid?"

"When do I get to go back to school?"

Children are driven to ask questions about the world around them. For some adults, the instinct is to shelter children under the notion that they are too young and innocent. The risk, of course, is a future child who, once the truth is known, will feel betrayed. Others reveal the whole unvarnished truth with the idea that it's the child's world too and they have the right to know. The risk here is a child who becomes overwhelmed with anxiety and fear. And then there's all that middle ground where most of us are trying to navigate, that gray area in which we conjure the ideas of developmentally or age "appropriate," where we strive to strike just the right balance between too much and not enough. We struggle with our own discomfort, our own mixed feelings, our own questions. We're torn between waiting for them to ask us and anticipating them. We worry about what we're going to say, then beat ourselves up about it having got it all wrong.

This is the work of being important adults in the lives of young children. When they experience things in the world that they can't figure out for themselves or that concern them, they turn to us, in trust, to ask their questions. It's a sacred trust, one we do well to take quite seriously, which is why there is so much discussion right now about how to talk to children about racism or pandemic or climate change. 

Talking to young children about ugly or frightening things is in the job description and it's not easy. 

The first thing is to know the child. This is why being a researcher is so much more important than being a "teacher." If you've been observing and thinking deeply about the children in your life, be it from the perspective of parent or educator, you should have a pretty good idea about a child's temperament and cognition, no matter what their age, and this will help shape your words for this particular child or group of children. If you've been observing and thinking about the world around you, you should have a pretty good idea about yourself, what you know and what you still don't know. From that you've formed opinions and beliefs that you may or may not want to share with children. Being clear with yourself, however, is essential, because otherwise your words will not ring true, they will not inform, and they will not comfort. Saying "I don't know," may seem like weak sauce, but it has the virtue of being true.

But more important than talking is listening, not just with our ears, but with our whole selves. Again, it's about the research, the observing and thinking deeply. Children tell us what they are thinking about, not just with words, but through their play. Play is how children process their world, how they strive to make sense of it, how they make peace, and how they pursue knowledge. To paraphrase an idiom that is often wrongly attributed to Plato, you can learn more about a child in an hour of play than a year of conversation. Listening in this way, with our whole selves to their whole selves, is how we come to a fuller understanding of the children in our lives and more than anything else it is this that should guide us.

******

I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe thanks to my friends at Fafunia! It's also available in the US and Canada. If you want to go directly to the Fafunia page click here.  And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well.

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the foreseeable future due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below. 

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!
Bookmark and Share

Thursday, June 25, 2020

"I'll Sit Here With You While You're Sad About Mommy Leaving"


The two-year-old was standing at the gate, his fingers through the slats, crying after his mommy who had left. The grandmother of another child was sitting with him. I wanted to go take her place, not because she was doing anything wrong, but because it was the first day of a summer session. I imagined the grandma was there to enjoy it with her own grandchild, and I saw it as a big part of my job to be with the kids when they struggled with the transition into their time with us. That said, there were some 30 other kids to be welcomed, along with their parents, and I had several other things to do to get things launched, so I left them there, knowing that at least the poor boy wasn't abandoned, even if he was feeling that way.

It took about 10 minutes in order to carve out the time to get to them. He was still crying. This was the first time we had spoken, other than my "I'm happy to see you" greeting when he first arrived in his mother's arms. I sat beside him on the steps, used his name, and asked by way of confirmation, "Are you sad because your mommy left?"

He nodded.

Several of my old friends had followed me, excited to see me after a break, wanting to be in my sphere for a bit to start their days. "Why is he crying?" "What's wrong?" "Teacher Tom, I want to show you that I learned to pump myself on the swings." I told them that I was going to talk to this boy for awhile, using his name again, letting them know that I would be with them shortly, saying, "We'll come find you when he's finished with his cry."

As I'd managed our space in this way, he had turned away from the gate, still whimpering, but obviously listening. When they had gone he turned his face back to the gate and resumed his cry.

I said, "You're sad your mommy left. It's okay to be sad about that. I'm going to be with you while you're sad, but I want you to know that mommies always come back. Your mommy will come back." I then verbally walked him through our daily schedule, ending with, "Then I'll read a story and mommy will come back." I had a passing thought about what I would do if this didn't "work," before remembering that the goal is not to end his crying, but rather to create a space in which he could finish his cry. Of course, it would "work," it always "works" when one person sits with another like this, calmly making statements of fact.

I asked if he wanted me to hold him. He nodded yes, but when I touched him, the recoil of his body said no. I asked if he wanted to sit beside me. He wanted to keep standing. I said, "Okay, then I'll sit here with you while you're sad about mommy leaving." After a couple minutes, one of my old friends raced up, demanding excitedly, "Teacher Tom, you have to come see our major overflow." "Major overflow" is the term the kids have coined for when they fill a 20 gallon tub with water using the the cast iron hand pump, then dump it down the hill, creating a river with a waterfall as it plunges from the upper level of the sandpit to the lower. I answered that I couldn't come right away because I was sitting with this boy who was missing his mommy. The older girl widened her eyes, looked at him, then said insistently, "He can come watch it too!"

I asked him if he wanted to see the major overflow. Still weeping, he nodded. I stood and said, "I will go with you. I can hold your hand." He took my proffered hand, and slowly we walked to the sandpit where we witnessed the promised event, which was accompanied by big kids cheering with the kind of joy that can only come from a collective accomplishment. "Did you see it, Teacher Tom?"

I answered that we had seen it, referring of course to the two-year-old who had, it seemed finished his cry. Soon, he was engaged with the water, probably still missing mommy, but no longer incapacitated by the feelings it evoked.

This is the job. We're not here to make things better, to end the crying, or to distract them from missing their mommies. We're not even there to soothe them any more than we're there to "good job" them: that is not the job. Becoming soothed is their job. Cheering for their own accomplishments is their job. Our job is to be with them when they're crying and when they're cheering, speaking truth, and creating space for them to feel exactly how they feel for as long as they need to feel it. It "works" every time.

******

I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe thanks to my friends at Fafunia! It's also available in the US and Canada. If you want to go directly to the Fafunia page click here.  And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well.

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the foreseeable future due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below. 


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!
Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

A New Better Normal


Whenever I hear someone talk about the "new normal," I find myself listening with a sense of foreboding, as if it's a phrase from Orwell's Newspeak lexicon. It's as if people are trying to put a positive spin on a world without live theater or lively bars; where human contact is largely limited to waves and winks; where everyone is working from basement offices with screens as their primary window on the world.

I instinctively push back. I don't want a new normal. People speak hopefully about human resilience, about how love and art and humanity will "find a way," but there is no guarantee that the new way will be an improvement, or even an adequate replacement, for the old. In fact, looking back on many of the new normals that have emerged in my lifetime, I have legitimate reason to worry. The fact that today's children have far less freedom than I did as a child is an appalling new normal, one woven from a "crisis" invented by the irrational fears of minds no less fevered than those of today. The new normal of high stakes standardized testing and curricular standardization and trying to force three-year-olds to read that emerged from the manufactured crisis of "falling behind" has lead to a new normal in which our youngest citizens are suffering from mental illnesses at rates unheard of in the older normal. And I'm far from convinced that our new normal of anonymous suburbs and cities is an improvement on the old normal of towns and villages where neighbors knew one another.

I understand the instinct to think positive, to anticipate rather than fret. I get it from a psychological perspective as well as a pragmatic one. After all, sometimes in the grand scheme of things a new normal is actually a new and better normal. So we can hope for that, but as important as hope is as a tool for thriving in the present, hope alone is no more a guarantee than a wish upon a star.

My point is that a new better normal won't happen on its own. A new normal is inevitable, it always is, especially on the other side of crisis, but a new better normal rarely emerges accidentally. If we want it to happen, we're going to have to work for it, even fight for it.

This pandemic caught everyone off guard. The only ones feeling smug right now are those prophets of doom who tried to warn us. Most of us are looking around and wondering how to plan anything at all. I'm thinking right now, for instance, of this class of high school graduates who have been eagerly anticipating the approach of their new independent lives and who are now faced, suddenly, with the prospect of taking their entire college experience online, or "gap years" with severely limited travel or job options. They aren't alone. Right now, few of us can really plan beyond the horizon of today, but that doesn't mean that no one is planning. Already those who seek to benefit from a specific kind of new normal are scheming and lobbying and promoting their visions for a new more profitable normal, one of their own creation. And we know from experience that profit is an unreliable incentive for creating a new better normal for most of us.

No, if we are to have a new better normal for our children and ourselves, we must start working and fighting to create it right now. This is one of the primary motivations behind The Play First Summit (July 20-24) which I am co-hosting with my partners at Fairy Dust Teaching. We have pulled together 20 early childhood thought-leaders from around the world, not to tell us what to do, but in the hopes of starting a global conversation about the new better normal we want for children and their families. Many have taken a look at our all-star line-up and asked, "But what are they going to talk about?" Frankly, we don't know and I imagine that most of them don't know either. My partner Sally Haughey of Fairy Dust is in the midst of interviewing them right now, and as I've been viewing the raw footage I'm struck by how these experts, people I admire and respect, are just beginning to articulate their own experiences, their concerns, their hopes, and their insights. And we're kind of all over the place in some ways, although every single one of us is focused like a laser on a new better normal for children. Our hope and plan is that this summit represents a beginning, a moment when we stop awaiting a new normal and start creating a new better normal. To do that we need you. Already our community Facebook group is bubbling with energy and passion. 

The world changes, but the real needs of children do not. One thing we all agree upon is that a new better normal means one in which no child is robbed of their childhood. How we fulfill that promise is up to all of us. Everyone talks about the "new normal." I'm only interested in a new better normal and that will take all of us talking and working together. Please join us.

******

I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe thanks to my friends at Fafunia! It's also available in the US and Canada. We're working to find our distributor for Australia and New Zealand. If you want to go directly to the Fafunia page click here.  And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well.

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below. 


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!
Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The Highest Use of This Moment


Our dog Stella has been having her best possible life during these days of quarantine. What more could she want? Our small pack is together all day long. We have little else to do other than take multiple walks a day, including regular visits to the neighborhood off-leash area. In fact, for these many months, the off-leash area has comprised the entirety of our family's social life. I can't remember the last time she was left home alone. Any nervous ticks or anxiousness she might have once had have disappeared as this already well-loved dog has found herself in a canine paradise, perpetually surrounded by loved ones, the smells of home cooking, and miles and miles of exercise in the springtime sun.

Friends with dogs are reporting the same thing. Our dogs can't understand why or how, but right now, all of the sudden, their dreams have come true. Those are happy, happy pets that we're playing with at the dog park. And I would assert that the people with whom we shout-speak across physically distanced space are the happiest of people. Our pets, in their happiness, are not just making this time tolerable, they are making it a time in which contentment is lying so close that we can feel its breath on our skin. It is a precious gift.

I can't imagine this time without Stella and the easy, sunny joy of her contentment. Back in March as we confronted the reality of no income for the foreseeable future, she was there to wedge her nose under my clenched hand, gently licking between my fingers the way she does, forcing me to relax, reminding me that we had lost nothing as long as we had this love. When I found myself grinding teeth over this restriction or that policy, she brought her toys to me one at a time, bouncing them off my shins, as if to remind me to count my blessings. Amidst the long, gray, sighing stretches of prone-on-the-sofa boredom she kiss-attacked my beard and nose until I giggled my dullness into submission. And on those sleepless nights of worry about our daughter living on the other side of the country or loved ones getting sick or whatever else haunted those wee hours, she was there, curled against my legs, snoring her soft message that these were the best of times.

Distraction has been hard to find. There are no sports, the movie theaters, restaurants, and music venues are closed. I've watched everything on Netflix. Outside is like life amongst bandits who have covered their faces to avoid being identified. Every conversation winds up on the same topic. And our screens bring nothing but reminders of a world turned upside down. Stella is the island, the one place the pandemic cannot go. It is in her that I find, each day, that the whole universe is this moment, the highest use of which is to turn toward whoever is at your side and to love them.

I planned to sit down this morning and write an ode to Stella, to fully express my gratitude, but looking back at these words here, I see that as flowery as they are, they come far short of what is in my heart. Right now, she's enjoying a final hour of sleep, having moved into my usual spot in the bed beside my wife Jennifer for a few extra cozy moments before she'll hop down, stretch her legs, then come out to sit sleepily beside me, offering her body to me for petting. She won't insist, she'll just sit there in case I need it. And I will need it. Then I'll scratch her jaw right where she likes it, feeling all the things for which my words are inadequate.

******

I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe thanks to my friends at Fafunia! It's also available in the US and Canada. We're working to find our distributor for Australia and New Zealand. If you want to go directly to the Fafunia page click here.  And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well.

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below. 

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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Monday, June 22, 2020

The Crying Chair


Wrestling was a regular feature of our curriculum at Woodland Park. Of course, it happened spontaneously, as it does in every preschool, but we would also sometimes throw down the gym mats and play in a pig pile. Before long, everyone who participated knew that crying was a part of wrestling, which is why we innovated the "crying chair." I would sometimes forget to set up the crying chair as we prepared to wrestle, but the children never did. The idea of the crying chair was that when someone got hurt, and someone always did, they could remove themselves from the action. The crying chair was the place to go until you were ready to return to the fray.


In some ways and for some children, the crying chair was the most important part of wrestling. Sometimes we had to set up a second or even third crying chair. Once we had an entire row of crying chairs while the gym mats were entirely vacated. This isn't to say there were a dozen kids crying. Some were, but others used the crying chair to stew in their anger. Others simply sat there looking sad. And there were always a few who used the crying chair to giggle and be silly. One girl who didn't like to wrestle would use the crying chair as a place to sit looking increasingly bored as she waited for her friends to be finished.

Over time, I began to see that the crying chair was being interpreted by the kids as a safe place to go and simply express emotions, whatever they were.

We all know that children tend to heal more quickly than adults. Their skin sometimes seems to mend as we watch. Even their bones heal far more rapidly. It's a blessing, of course, one for which we adults are required to compensate with experience, making us more capable and then, as we get older, more cautious when it comes to risk taking.


Indeed, children are master healers and not just when it comes to physical injury. We rightfully worry about the traumatic effects of certain impactful events on a child's life, but most children, most of the time, begin healing almost immediately if we leave them to their process. With our without a crying chair, they cry, they shout, they fully express their heartbreak or fear without holding back or, as we too often learn to do, stuffing it. As my friend Janet Lansbury (and presenter at our upcoming Play First Summit) points out, "Children are constantly healing themselves," which is how I came to view our crying chair: a place for self healing.

Of course, there are many exceptions to Janet's assertion, both in terms of physical as well as emotional injuries, but by and large, when given the time and space to express their feelings, and the loving support of adults who are there to listen, children are capable of healing themselves, often without scarring, and most assuredly with the result of having acquired wisdom. The sad truth is that as we age, our skin and bones change in ways that make healing a longer, more involved process. The same happens with our ability to heal emotionally, although I expect that this is more a matter of social conditioning than biology.


As a man, I know about stuffing my emotions. From a very young age, I began to learn the lesson that "big boys don't cry" even though I don't recall anyone saying those specific words to me. I doubt that many of the parents of the children I've taught at Woodland Park have said those words to their kids, but I see the beginnings of it as children approach four and five years old, when they begin to mask their emotions. For instance, there is no noticeable gender difference in infants when it comes to smiling, but by the time they are five, girls smile significantly more often than boys, an observation that is often used as an indicator of how young boys learn to suppress their negative emotions. But it's not just boys who learn to mask their feelings. Research indicates that preschool aged girls might smile more than their male peers, but often those smiles belie a "less acceptable" negative emotion underneath. In other words, we at least in part teach children of all genders, in both overt and subtle ways, to stop healing themselves emotionally.

Learning to express emotion is an important aspect of healthy social-emotional development. It is part of how we communicate, but also part of how we minimize the "scarring" that might result from social-emotional wounds. Few of us, however, are fully adept at emotional expression and this is probably why we struggle with it in our children, often shushing or bribing or shaming or otherwise discouraging "negative" emotions, because that is what we were taught -- even as we know intellectually they must express those feelings if they are to be emotionally healthy.

That said, even though we ourselves are not experts, it doesn't mean that we can't support our children. The best crying chair in the world is a loved one's lap and most of the time that is all they need to heal themselves.

******

I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe thanks to my friends at Fafunia! It's also available in the US and Canada. We're working to find our distributor for Australia and New Zealand. If you want to go directly to the Fafunia page click here.  And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well.

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below. 


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!
Bookmark and Share
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