Thursday, April 01, 2021

Paying It Forward

One five-year-old boy frequently brought a toy from home to school with him: a truck, an action figure, a play set of some sort. His father cautioned his son each morning while dropping him off, "It might get lost." "It might get broken." He would offer, "I can take it with me. I'll keep it in the car so you can have it as soon as school is over." But the boy resisted. He wanted the toy he had selected for that day with him at school.

The boy well knew that his father's warnings weren't empty: some of his toys had been broken already and a couple had even gone missing. For most kids this would have been a problem involving repair attempts, all-hands-on-deck searches, and tears, but this boy's typical response was a shrug. Even more interesting was that when the lost toys turned up again, be it days or weeks later, he would be delighted, remind everyone that the toy was his, then promptly lose track of it again.

The boy's father really didn't care about the toys one way or another either. They were mostly gifts, he told me, from his mother-in-law, who regularly cared for the boy during the week. The grandmother was a little more possessive about the toys, often asking the boy to help her find them when she was on point for the end-of-day pick up. Often he would refuse to help, leaving her to her own search, although typically there would be other kids who were more than willing to engage in a game of search. 

As for me, there had been a time when I would have cared about those toys. I held with the now-debunked theory that toys from home were distractions that too often lead to conflict or tears. I didn't like having to help the child keep track of their personal items and urged them to keep them in their cubbies, but had come around in recent years to the realization that many adults felt better bringing their own personal items (like phones or purses) into the classroom, so why shouldn't the kids be allowed to have their own toys if it made them feel better? And how can I, an advocate for self-directed learning, rob children of the opportunity to learn about bringing personal items out in to the world?

I found that most children readily learned the lessons I'd previously, foolishly, tried to instill through coaxing and nagging: if you bring your personal items with you, no matter how special, there are risks. Not only was there the prospect of the toy being lost or broken, as the father warned, but there was the real possibility that other kids would want to play with it, which for many children stirs up strong emotions. There is a great deal of social learning involved as children figure out this real life scenario for themselves.

There was one boy, for instance, who insisted that he had brought his new robot-dinosaur to "share" with everyone. Of course, such a glamorous toy immediately placed him in the midst of a swarm of children clamoring for a turn. At first he was delighted with the attention, taking pleasure in detailing the "rules" for playing with it. "You can only hold if for one minute," he said. "You can't take off the head because it's really hard to put back on." "No throwing it or breaking it." And so on. He seemed confident, in charge. I got the feeling he had thought this scenario through, planned for it, perhaps with the help of his mother. When he finally got around to handing the toy over to a classmate, he did so cautiously. His fingers seemed to cling, even as he intended to let go. Then I watched his expression melt from beaming confidence to anguish when faced with the reality of another child handling his special thing. "I want it back!" he shouted. "It's one minute! Give it back!" Toy back in hand, he turned to me on the spot and shouted, "I want to put it in my cubby!" How's that for documentation of learning?

It takes most children a little longer to figure out that the best place for their special personal items was in their cubby or, if small, their pockets. Either that, or they have to keep it clutched in-hand throughout the day, which greatly impedes their play. But this one five-year-old boy was unique in his indifference to the fate of his personal affects, even brand new things. I remarked on it to his father, who shared that he was biting his tongue about his mother-in-law's toy-buying habit. "I never wanted our house to be a toy box disaster. He doesn't play with them anyway. He begs her for them in the store, then throws them under his bed when he's home."

This information in mind, I began to notice the boy's pattern. He would arrive at school with something special, show it off by demonstrating what it "can do," share some stories about how "cool" it is, then hand it over to the first kid who asked. Maybe he wasn't sharing the toy at all. Maybe he was sharing the feelings the toy had evoked in him when it was in the store, before it was his. As I watched this play out over the following weeks and months, I became increasingly convinced that he was playing the role of his grandmother, being the person who "gives." He was sharing more than an object; he was sharing a whole experience. I would sometimes catch him watching the other children play with his toys with a look I read as "satisfaction" on his face.

One day, I explained my theory with his grandmother who was shaking her head over yet another lost toy. At first she looked at me like I was crazy, but as we stood shoulder-to-shoulder watching him running around with a blade of asperagus he had plucked to use as his sword, she was smiling. He picked up a plank of wood and announced to the nearby kids that it was his skateboard. He demonstrated how it worked and said, "It's so cool." Soon all the children around him had found their own "skateboards." There was one girl who couldn't find a plank, so he gave her his. The grandmother said, "You know, maybe you're right. Maybe he's paying it forward."

It's a lesson I've learned over and over while working with young children: they pay everything forward, one way or another.


This story is one that emerged from the Woodland Park "village," one that could not have been told without the parent, grandparent, and educator working together. As preschool educators, we don't just educate children, but their families as well. For the past 20 years, I've been working in a place that puts the tri-cornered relationship of child-parent-educator at the center, and over that time I've learned a great deal about how to work with families to create the kind of village every child needs and deserves. I'm proud to announce that I've assembled what I've learned into a 6-part e-course called Partnering With Parents in which I share my best thinking on how educators can and should make allies of the parents of the children we teach. (Click this link to register and to learn more.) Register now to receive early bird pricing. Discounts are available for groups.

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