Wednesday, July 29, 2020

All We Have to Do is Open the Doors

My earliest memories are of playing outdoors and barefoot. I remember walking to the end of my driveway, a concrete slab that held warmth, but not heat, stepping gingerly onto the blazing asphalt street, running on my tippy toes to the other side, then stepping thankfully into the cool of a neighbor's lawn where I slowed down to let my soles be soothed by the tickle of grassy blades. You had to watch out for "stickers," which is what we called the thorny blackberry rhizomes that encroached into even the best maintained lawns. Stepping on a pinecone was more painful, but avoiding them was simply a matter of keeping an eye out, while the only real defense against the camouflaged stickers was to develop a nice, thick callous on the bottoms of our feet.

Mud oozing between our toes.

Sand eroding from beneath our feet as a wave draws back from the beach.

The slippery, weedy bottom of a road side drainage ditch.

The rough security of granite as we grip it with our toes.

Speaking at The Play First Summit, Marghanita Hughes says that being barefoot outdoors in nature connects us to the earth. It reminds us that we are not separate from nature, but rather a part of it. "Today," she says, "we have, sadly, a disconnection." Prisoners in maximum security prisons spend more time outdoors than the average American child; half of all children worldwide spend less than an hour a day outdoors. This is a genuine deprivation, one that impoverishes all of us.

I don't think anyone doubts that this is a tragedy. The research is clear, overwhelming, and irrefutable. All of us, and especially children, need hours of outdoor time every day. It's a boon to the mind, body, heart, and soul. It makes us smarter, stronger, and happier. Indeed, it's so obvious that I almost feel foolish for pointing it out, yet once again we're faced with an enormous gap between what we know children need and what we provide for them.

Of course, this has become par for the course when it comes to our youngest citizens. The scientific evidence tells us that children need play, and lots of it, in order to thrive, yet they are spending more and more time at younger and younger ages bent over the rote "desk work" assigned to them from on high. The evidence tells us that, in Marghanita's words, "Creativity blooms in the soil of freedom," yet our children spend more time confined than our prisoners. We know that children need to move their bodies, that they need to breathe fresh air. Of course, of course, of course . . . Everyone knows these things, yet worldwide we are heading in the opposite direction. Why?

Caring for children is the central project of every civilization that has ever existed. Being outdoors is irrefutably in the "best and highest interest of children." It's easy to make happen. All we have to do is open the doors. It's cheap. In fact, it's free. It's plentiful. And in this era of pandemic, it's important to point out that viral transmissions are less likely when outside. Everything tells us that we need to open the doors, take off our shoes -- or bundle up, or slather on the sun screen -- and send the children outside.

In conversation after conversation, the experts and thought-leaders that came together at the summit spoke of the need for early childhood educators to become activists on behalf of children. I know it makes many of us uncomfortable. As Lisa Murphy points out, "What makes us really good caregivers, makes us horrible advocates." Our profession attracts the kindest of hearts. We're at our best while immersed in this moment, serving and supporting children. This is our greatest strength and greatest weakness. But we don't need to march in the streets to be good advocates. We can just open our doors more often. We can be inspired by Marghanita and make art in the woods or on the playground. When we do this, even for an extra hour, or even an extra half hour, a day, we are standing up for the children in our care. And once we've done that, we can take another half hour, then another, slowly inching our way forward.

Maybe activism doesn't always have to involve boisterous chants and fists in the air. Sometimes it can be as quiet and subversive as children tiptoeing silently across a lawn. We just need to open the door.


Although the summit is over, you can still join the dialog. Go to The Play First Summit page, register for free, then choose the all-access pass that is right for you. You will then have unlimited lifetime access to our conversations with twenty of the world's top early childhood and parenting thought leaders, including Janet Lansbury, Peter Gray, Lisa Murphy, Ijumaa Jordan, Maggie Dent, and Cheng Xuequin (Anji Play). This is not just another series of lectures, but rather a collection of conversations about our challenging times, how they are impacting young children and families, what we can do about it, and how we might seize this moment to transform the early years into what they ought to be for children everywhere. 

Also, 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.

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