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. 

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