Friday, June 11, 2021

"No Way. The Hundred is There"


"The material world is a language for a child," says Roberta Pucci, atelierista, art therapist, founder of Roberta Pucci Lab Consultancy, and presenter at the fast-approaching Teacher Tom's Play Summit.

She talks about the "grammar of matter," meaning that every material contains within it a set of specific characteristics and qualities that define its limits and potential as well as its range of possible transformations.

I find this notion thought-provoking, both as an early childhood educator and as a writer. When I consider "grammar" as it applies to literacy, I mostly think of rules, arbitrary really, but rules nevertheless, that dictate the order of the words, the location of punctuation, and proper capitalization. Art, on the other hand, and especially art as practiced by young children, should be "free" from the kind of rules associated with grammar. Shouldn't it?

Then I observe a child at an easel, a brush in each hand, applying paint in frantic swirls: yellow, blue, and red, just using those primary colors, covering the page in whirlpools of pigment. Purple appears for a time, also orange and green, but they inevitably disappear into gray until the paper gives way. Eventually, unless they stop themselves, they will be applying paint directly to the easel itself. 

Whenever these particular materials are available to children, at least one of them engages in their own version of this process, this "dialog" as Roberta calls it. It is in the nature of these tempera paints, when mixed together, to become this color of preschool gray. It is in the nature of paper to become increasingly fragile as more and more wet matter is applied to it. And it is in the nature of brushes, when used in this assertive way to eventually tear the paper.


This grammar is embedded within the materials and tools, and they reveal themselves as children play with them. 

Some children repeat their dialog over and over like reading a familiar storybook, not expecting different results, I don't think, but rather by way of confirming that this is how this particular story goes. 

I often send these children home with a stack of these gray pages, torn and drab, dried to a crisp. These aren't usually the paintings that parents tack up on their kitchen walls. Indeed, I often discover them later in the parking lot dumpster, where a parent has stealthily disposed of them in order to avoid curating them at home. The child, for their part, rarely misses them because what is important about those paintings is already within the child.

Is this really art? Are these really rules? Does it matter? I don't think so. What I find most important is the metaphor itself: that a child's play with the material world is a language, one they learn in much the same way they learn a spoken language, through trial and error, through mixing all the colors until the paper disintegrates under the pressure of the brushes. Roberta is playing with the philosophy of Loris Malagucci, the father of the Reggio Emilia approach, which is contained in its entirely in his famous poem:

The child
is made of one hundred.
The child has a hundred languages
a hundred hands
a hundred thoughts
a hundred ways of thinking
of playing, of speaking,
A hundred always a hundred
ways of listening
of marveling of loving
a hundred joys
for singing and understanding
a hundred worlds
to discover
a hundred worlds
to dream.
The child has
a hundred languages
(and a hundred hundred hundred more)
but they steal ninety-nine.

The school and the culture
separate the head from the body.
They tell the child:
to think without hands
to do without head
to listen and not to speak
to understand without joy
to love and to marvel
only at Easter and Christmas.
They tell the child:
to discover the world already there
and of the hundred
they steal ninety-nine.
They tell the child:
that work and play
reality and fantasy
science and imagination
sky and earth
reason and dream
are things
that do not belong together.

And thus they tell the child
that the hundred is not there.
The child says:
No way. The hundred is there.

******

To watch my entire interview with Roberta, please join us at Teacher Tom's Play Summit. What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Teacher Tom's Play Summit  is a free, online conference that takes place June 20-25. Click here to get your free pass to all 24 of our incredible sessions with early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders from around the world. Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "Turn this world around!" 

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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Thursday, June 10, 2021

How Children Learn Emotional Buoyancy


One of my earliest memories is of a small, plastic mouse figurine. I remember it as yellowish, but otherwise not cartoonish at all, about the size of an adult thumb, hollow, molded from the sort of thin, brittle plastic that characterized "Made in Japan" trinkets of the day. In other words, it wasn't a valuable item, but my love for it, made it precious. 

I carried it in my pocket most days, fingering it throughout the day, sometimes bringing it out to share my meals or to have a little chat in the squeaky voice with which I'd imbued it. One day I carried it out of the house with me. I walked up the Beale's driveway, then cut through the Saine's backyard to get to my friend Jeff's house, who lived one block over on Winston Street. I showed Jeff my mouse, who I'd named, obviously, "Squeaky," and being a good friend he played along with me, finding the charms in it that only lived in my own mind.

Jeff had this cool set of paint pots that I'd seen advertised on television. They were designed to be "spill-proof," a feature that was meant to appeal to parents, but that we considered a "modern marvel," like waterproof watches and push button telephones. At one point, in a moment of whimsy I threw the yellow spill-proof paint pot into Jeff's lawn. He ran after it, returning to show me, angrily, that it had gotten dirty. "There's dirt in it!" he growled. I had placed Squeaky beside where we had been painting on the patio table. Jeff snatched it up, dropped it to the ground, and stomped on it, crushing it to tiny yellow shards.

Memories from before five-years-old are notoriously foggy, but I still remember that moment of disappointment and violation as if it were yesterday. I can still summon up that image of Squeaky in pieces on the pine needle bestrewn slab of patio concrete. The tears were instant. I ran. I ran across Jeff's lawn, through the Saine's backyard. I ran up the Beale's driveway, across the street and through my own front door, bawling all the way. I honestly don't remember whether or not I told my mother what had happened. I must have, but the rest of my memory of that day involved feeling that sense of loss and disappointment,  living with it. I don't remember being angry at Jeff at all. Instead I thought about my own culpability. I'd let myself down and Squeaky had paid the price. 

I have no idea how long it took me to "get over it," although the fact that I can write about it today, more than a half century later, tells me that it will always be with me. That feeling was sharp and painful. It overwhelmed me at first, but slowly, over the course of the rest of the day and into the next, it became more and more bearable until, by the end of that second day, I was once more back on Jeff's patio sharing his spill-proof paint pots.

My feelings are something with which everyone can identify, but my experience of processing it, of contextualizing and learning from it, is something that I fear many children today miss out on. Adults today are far more ever-present than they were when I was young. For many, an emotional moment like this would have been hijacked by a concerned adult, naturally upset that their child is upset. They strive to distract them, to help them, to hurry the process along. These kinds of things too often result in protective-defensive conversations between respective adults with the prospect of punishment or at least a good scolding up for consideration. All of this robs children of essential learning about themselves and their emotions: that I will and can get beyond it. The feeling must be felt, of course, but it will diminish, and I will come out on the other side, knowing more about myself and how to deal with disappointment.


As parent educator and author Maggie Dent tells me at Teacher Tom's Play Summit, "If you overprotect children from these moments they do not learn the emotional buoyancy or the fact that this a feeling that does pass. They learn it's wrong."

Of course, we hug them. Of course, we stroke their foreheads and speak soothing words. As Maggie says, we validate the feeling. We might say things like "Doesn't it suck, sweetheart?" or "Doesn't it feel really yucky inside?" But beyond that, it isn't our job to take the pain away. It isn't our job to hurry them through the important and vital process. This, says Maggie, is how they learn that they will and can bounce back.

"Under five is a great time to practice being disappointed," says Maggie. "That's why I really believe you need to marinate in them at times, in these opportunities, because you actually get better at dealing with it when it's not made to be wrong, and it's made to be a normal part of being a feeling human. I think when parents try to step in to avoid their child falling or they only celebrate when they win, we put too much pressure on a developing child."

"Children can learn that a poor choice is a poor choice, and they're going to make lots of them. But when they're shamed," which is often the unintended result of our interventions, "they learn there's something wrong with me . . . The children that struggle the most in teen years are the ones who've been shamed deeply in their early childhood."

Too often, we adults believe that we're making things better when we insert ourselves into a child's emotional life. As Maggie points out, so often in our overprotectiveness, the message we send is that there is something wrong and naturally the child will come to believe that the thing that what is wrong is their feeling. When we understand that our children's emotions are not our emotions, when we are there to comfort them, to be with them, but not to "solve" or "fix" anything, that's when we give them the space to do this essential emotional learning that it will pass and I will be wiser for it.

******

To watch my entire interview with John, please join us at Teacher Tom's Play Summit. What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Teacher Tom's Play Summit  is a free, online conference that takes place June 20-25. Click here to get your free pass to all 24 of our incredible sessions with early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders from around the world. Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "Turn this world around!"

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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Wednesday, June 09, 2021

How Children Take Ownership of Their Lives


As far as playthings go, toys, at least as we tend to think of them, are newcomers. In fact, almost any human born before, say, 1950 or so probably didn't play with toys much at all. Oh sure, a few lucky kids had dolls, and balls were generally part of a child's world, but the overflowing toy box wasn't a thing. That's because it hadn't yet occurred to anyone to use the power of television to advertise toys year-round.

Then one afternoon in October, 1955, the Mattel Toy Company aired a commercial for The Thunder Burp Machine Gun on an episode of the The Mickey Mouse Club.


"(T)he Thunder burp . . . according to Howard Chudacoff, a cultural historian at Brown University, was a kind of historical watershed. Almost overnight, children's play became focused, as never before, on things -- the toys themselves. 'It's interesting to me that when we talk about play today, the first thing the comes to mind are toys," says Chudacoff. "Whereas when I would think of play in the 19th century, I would think of activity rather than an object.'"

By the time I was out of diapers, the big budget marketing of toys was in full swing. I doubt there are many of us born in the second half of the 20th century who can't fondly sing a full collection of toy commercial jingles. This product, and this commercial, in many ways marks the beginning of the commercialization of childhood and the co-optation of play. 

What did children play with before toys? The same things they play with today when they are allowed to interact with the real world. I've often urged educators and parents to consider this mental experiment. Imagine you have a shiny new toy lawnmower on your playground and you set it beside a real lawnmower. Which one will the children play with? The real lawnmower, of course. That's because clever advertising and packaging might make a child beg for this toy or that, but at the end of the day, their real interests lie in the real world. It's not an accident that young children so often have more fun playing with the boxes the toys came in than they do the toys themselves.


Founder of the Dorothy Snot preschool and kindergarten in Athens, Greece, and presenter at the upcoming Teacher Tom's Play Summit, John Yiannoudis says, "What children really need is to discover the world." Indeed, they are driven to it. That's why they want to work with the tools you are working with, to help with the laundry, to get involved in the cooking. This is why their toys so often lie abandoned while they play with the vacuum cleaner or try flushing things down the toilet. They know that the real world is their future and that toys, once the newness wears off, have nothing at all to do with it. As John says, "For some reason, we took our children out of reality."

This is in part why John and his wife Daniella have created a curriculum around what he calls, "life-derived learning." 

"Life-derived learning is something very simple," says John, "Sometimes I feel that it's like I'm going back  to the 60s and 70s when I was finishing elementary school and I was going to assist my dad in his grocery store." He says that instead of separating our children from life itself and replacing it with meaningless things like, English lessons or toys, he strives to allow children to "take ownership" of their lives by putting meaningful activity at the center of their play. "(If you) let a child from early on get involved in all those magic things, they become very autonomous, very confident, very independent." John makes a very old idea new. A century ago, Maria Montessori, John Dewey, Rudolph Steiner and others were merely rediscovering wisdom about children, learning, and play that had been supplanted by Industrial Revolution (i.e., assembly line) style schooling, which systematically separates children from life rather than connecting them to it.

The great John Dewey famously wrote, "Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself." Children are not born craving toys or other abstractions. No, they are born with the natural urge to engage in the real world they find around them. It is, as John puts it, how they "take ownership of their lives."

******

To watch my entire interview with John, please join us at Teacher Tom's Play Summit. What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Teacher Tom's Play Summit  is a free, online conference that takes place June 20-25. Click here to get your free pass to all 24 of our incredible sessions with early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders from around the world. Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "Turn this world around!"

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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Tuesday, June 08, 2021

"We Enroll the Family, Not the Child"

Sofia Minson

When it was time for our daughter to go to kindergarten, my wife and I were in a position to consider alternatives to our neighborhood public school. I was an involved parent, to say the least. Having been enrolled in a cooperative preschool for the preceding three years, I'd been attending school alongside our child, serving, as did all the parents at our school, as an assistant teacher. I'd also, by that point, decided to pursue my own course as a professional educator, so I made it a kind of hobby to tour the multitude of kindergarten options in Seattle, educating myself about models and theories while looking for the "right fit."

My number one priority was "fit." My earliest mentor, Chris David, a veteran preschool teacher, advised me, "Look for a place where your whole family feels comfortable." Her rationale was that most kindergartens came attached to elementary schools, so it wasn't really a decision of a single school year, but rather one that required us to look forward, in most cases, six years. Parent involvement, she reminded me, was the single most decisive factor in whether or not a child thrived in any school, so she suggested that I prioritize a place that encouraged parent involvement. Chris said, "Make sure to talk to the parents of the children already enrolled. Get to know some of them if you can. If you can imagine yourself socializing with them then you're probably in the right place."

It was genius piece of advice, one that I've paid forward again and again over the past couple decades as parents have asked me for counsel. 

I opted out of the one-on-one school tours, choosing instead to fill my schedule with open houses where I made a point of being social with any parent volunteer I could find. As we chatted, I would imagine myself having coffee with this person as the kids played in the garden, or trading child-minding with that person. My focus was on what kind of community this school fostered rather than what kind of curriculum they followed. 

Of course, every school gave lip service to parent involvement. One well-regarded school in particular touted their active parent community, but when I got to talking to one of the actual parents I learned, to my horror, that the school policy was that parents weren't ever allowed to pass beyond the main entrance lobby during the school day. When I asked the head of the school about this, she replied, "We've found that having parents in the classroom is just too distracting." They were the most upfront about it, but I discovered that this was at least the unofficial policy of most of the schools I visited. For these schools, "parent involvement" meant supporting fundraising efforts and serving as chaperones on field trips. That's it. Some of them even sanctimoniously defended their exclusion of families by asserting, "This is the children's place" and "We seek to foster independence."


But children, especially very young ones, don't come to us as individuals, but rather as members of families. As co-author of the latest update of New Zealand's highly-regarded national early childhood curriculum, Te Whāriki, and Teacher Tom's Play Summit presenter Brenda Soutar says to me, "As Māori we enroll the family, not the child, and that child comes with their ancestors surrounding them." She speaks of school, not as an institution, but as a family, and she tells us that the smallest Māori family unit is 70-80 individuals, and that includes ancestors both past, present, and future. The goal, she says, is not independence, but rather to foster interdependence.

As an American, "independence," has been drilled into me, but the older I get, the longer I've worked with young children, and, frankly, the more divided our world has become, the more I find myself seeing the deeper wisdom of interdependence. At some point, Western society decided that the children were in the way until we arrive at our modern world in which the vast majority of our children spend their days isolated in their walled-off corner of the world that we call school. Our adults, in turn, spend their days in their own walled-off corner that we call work. Not only that, but our grandparents find themselves equally walled-off by geographic distance or simply being left alone outside the walled-off areas, until our "family units" are often as small as two or three individuals that are only really together for a couple rushed hours in the evenings or on holidays. That's not right.

Brenda tells us that a Māori family would be mortified by this. And, honestly, after talking with her, I find myself mortified as well. What would it be like if our preschools adopted the Māori approach of enrolling entire families, let alone making space for ancestors? What if we didn't hurry "independence," but rather allowed it to emerge from the richer, deeper soil of interdependence? What if we prioritized the lessons of connection, listening, and community?

I can think of nothing more transformative for our world than to bring children back into the center of our lives. What a difference it would make if our children grew up knowing that they were always surrounded by their great big interrelated family. What a difference it would make if all children could feel at home. As Brenda tells us, "Your ability to appreciate and open your heart to others comes from your feeling at home with who you are." And that, I think, is a world changing idea, one that can start with us.

******

To hear my entire interview with Brenda, please join us at Teacher Tom's Play Summit. What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Teacher Tom's Play Summit  is a free, online conference that takes place June 20-25. Click here to get your free pass to all 24 of our incredible sessions with early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders from around the world. Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "Turn this world around!"

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 07, 2021

"Yes, and . . ."


I met this four-year-old boy because he had been forced to leave his previous preschool. Apparently, he had taken to hitting, biting, kicking, and otherwise abusing the adults around him. From what I'd been told, and I didn't quite buy it, he got along well with other kids, it was just the adults. Whatever the case, I would know the truth soon enough. As he glared at me from under his bangs, I knew we were starting out from a place of distrust.

I said, "Good morning" to him without any extra enthusiasm, then let him go about his business. My original plan might have been to spend the morning getting him on my bandwagon, but that was out the window with his very clear signals to back off, so plan B was to observe him from afar. And sure enough, he began making friends right away. His father had told me that he was a "big fan" of Legos, so I'd dumped our entire collection of plastic bricks into the sensory table and that's where he spent most of his morning, talking constantly about the cool things he was making. He positioned his body as far away from the adult as possible without leaving the table entirely.

I've known kids who were suspicious of me before, who found my personality a little too big, my voice a little too loud, my presence a little too overwhelming. I get that, but I'd never met a kid who kept his distance from all adults, his own parents, of course, excluded. His father had told me that he felt the problem in his previous school was that the teacher "kept getting in power struggles" and "he always wins power struggles."

The boy had a spectacular morning, frankly. He was charming and engaged, eventually moving away from the Lego table, making a little art, checking out the cabinets in the home center, playing a round of a board game. He even sought me out at one point to show me the Batmobile he had created from Lego. The family, in consultation with an occupational therapist who had found nothing "diagnosable" in her time with the boy, had come to Woodland Park in the spirit of getting a new start.

It wasn't until we hit clean up time that his glare returned. "I'm not going to clean up!" he shouted at me when I passed where he sat, sulkily against a wall. "Fair enough," I answered, "Maybe you want to read a book or something." This is my standard response to a child who opts out and wants me to know about it.

Later as we gathered for circle time, he said, "I'm not coming to circle time." Again, I answered, "Fair enough," adding, "Sometimes kids like to spend circle time in the loft where it's quiet. If you change your mind, you can always join us."


I was employing a technique, whether I knew it or not, that founder of Transform Challenging Behavior, Inc. and Teacher Tom's Play Summit presenter Barb O'Neill describes as "Yes, and . . ." Too often, I think, important adults in the lives of children become so focused on controlling a child's behavior that, as Barb says, we forget that our primary role is to help children get their needs met. When we find a way to tell a child "Yes, and . . ." we are letting them know that we are on their side, that we are not "opposition," but rather an ally. What we say after the word "and" is a suggestion for an alternative to conflict.

That first day, the boy simply glared at us from his stance of opting out, although he did take my suggestion to look at books as the rest of us tidied and took refuge in the loft during circle time. And he made those choices the following day and the day after that, as the rest of us went about the business of our community, tidying up, singing songs, and talking about important things. 

On his fourth day with us, however, our circle time conversation turned to superheroes. One of the kids asserted, "I like Batman because he can fly to the clouds." I'd noted that the boy had been listening to us from afar and this was something he clearly couldn't let stand. "No he can't!" We all turned as he came down from the loft to tell us, "Batman doesn't fly. He swings on a rope and drives a Batmobile."

As the other children took up further debate, he slowly made his way across the room, drawn in by the manifest importance of this conversation. He had chosen to join us, a choice he continued to make from that time forward.

He never lost his knee-jerk opposition to adults who would presume to tell him what to do. It would come out whenever we forgot that his healthy need to think for himself must first be met. Of course, all children have this need, but in this boy it was particularly pronounced. It's an instinct that might frustrate future teachers who don't know that "challenging behaviors" are almost always best addressed by examining ourselves and our environment. As Barb says, the key is "transforming how we think, how we feel, and how we talk about children who exhibit challenging behavior." And more often than not, this starts with stepping back from our urge to command and control to take a long hard look at what needs are not being met.

This is often a difficult thing to do. Our culture tells us that it is in the job description of any adult who works with children to "control" them, to make them behave, to insist upon obedience, to walk them in single file lines, to make them do their fair share. This attitude is reenforced everywhere. As classroom teachers we are often, first and foremost, judged for our "classroom management" skills, which is really just fancy jargon for compelling obedience. Parents are often judged by how appropriately their children behave and when they misbehave it's the parents who have "lost control." In other words, we, as a society, expect young children to instantly and without objection set aside their own needs, always, and upon command, in favor of the needs expressed by the adult, be it for quiet, stillness, tidying up, or whatever. No wonder some children, like this boy, rebel. Indeed, I worry most about the children who simply go along with whatever they are told to do.

When we see our role as helping children get their needs met, rather than controlling them, much of what we label as "challenging behavior" is transformed. By not engaging in power struggles with this boy, I discovered that he had a strong need for autonomy, to make his own decisions, a healthy, natural thing. When I offered, "Yes, and . . . ," I let him know that he was heard and, even more importantly, trusted.

******

To hear my entire interview with Barb, please join us at Teacher Tom's Play Summit. What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Teacher Tom's Play Summit  is a free, online conference that takes place June 20-25. Click here to get your free pass to all 24 of our incredible sessions with early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders from around the world. Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "Turn this world around!"

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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Friday, June 04, 2021

The Worst Idea We've Ever Had


As a species, we humans have certainly had our moments. The domestication of dogs, for one. I mean, we literally created love machines. Good on us. But it often seems as if we are doomed, as a species, to try out every damned thing that comes into our great big brains, no matter how horrifying: tossing virgins into volcanos, colonialism, racism, torture, unfettered capitalism, rape, white supremacy, genocide, slavery, pedophilia. We've even turned our love machines into brutal fighting machines. I suppose it's possible that humans have had even worse ideas that have not been adopted by an entire civilization, but if history is any guide it's only a matter of time.

Don't get me wrong. I've worked with young children long enough to know, for a fact, that humans are essentially good. We are born listening to the angel on our shoulder. Researchers have found that children as young as 14 months old will pitch in to help, unprompted, even giving up fun activities in order to do so. Babies consistently demonstrate what psychologists, economists, and anthropologists call "inequality aversion," nearly always choosing fairness even when they could otherwise have an advantage. 

Indeed, according to Rutger Bregman, author of the book Humankind, it is this urge to "goodness," toward cooperation and agreement, that ultimately causes us to be led astray. We can be convinced that what we are doing, no matter how evil, is actually for the betterment of all. Our urge to cooperate and get along is so powerful that it makes it very, very difficult to stand up to the group, even if that group is doing something awful.

As Director of the Art of Teaching Program at Sarah Lawrence College and Teacher Tom's Play Summit presenter Denisha Jones tells us, "A lot of racism is enacted from good intentions." And we know from history that there were a lot of otherwise "good" people who went along with the Holocaust, slavery, and, I imagine, human sacrifice.

In other words, most of us, at heart, are fine people, but we are too easily duped. We are prone to just go with the flow because we don't want to rock the boat and that is just the opening evil needs.

One of techniques used to get us to go along with atrocities is to simply not talk about them. We've all heard interviews with average German citizens who didn't ask about what went on behind the concentration camp fences despite their suspicions, or the myths about the kindly slave master. Today, in many circles, it's impolite to talk about things like racism or sexism or the brutality of the police. To question the cruelties of capitalism or colonialism or pedophilia is not proper subject matter for dining tables or preschools. Right now, as I write this, there are powerful people trying to prevent public schools in America from talking about our history of racism and colonization.

This, perhaps, is the worst idea we've ever had as a species: to not talk about certain things.


As author, kindergarten teacher, and summit presenter Laleña Garcia tells us, "If we don't talk about racism then we can't fix it. If we don't talk about class then we can't do anything about inequity. If we just say, 'This is how it is,' then how do we say, 'I don't think that's okay and I have these other ideas.' I think that's what we've been taught by capitalism, by white supremacy, by misogyny . . . And that's definitely one of the facets of white supremacist culture: that we're just not going to talk about it. We're going to avoid conflict. We're just going to be nice and polite. And nobody's feelings will be hurt."

Evil can only thrive in the dark. Talking is the disinfecting light. It's not young children who are uncomfortable talking about these issues -- it's adults. As Laleña tells us, the children she teaches find conversations about race, consent, gender, and equity to be no more difficult than conversations about the A-B-C's, healthy eating, or the native plants of North America. It's our adult discomfort that should tell us we need to talk -- and listen -- especially to those whose feelings (and bodies) are hurt by the very things we won't talk about. There are many of my fellow white people who cringe, or are even angered, by the mere mention of white supremacy. That alone should tell us that we need to be talking and listening.

As Laleña told me stories from her classroom, I once more saw the essential goodness of humans. They so easily and readily understand the basic concepts of fairness and equity while naturally rejecting unfairness and inequity. Time and again, I've found that when children are told the truth, when they are free to think for themselves, they always listen to the angel on their shoulder. It's only when we are kept in the dark that the devil's whispers are heard.

If we are to fully unleash the potential of human goodness, we must talk and listen, and when a subject is off limits, there, we must know, is where evil hides.

******

To hear my entire interview with Laleña and to join us in talking about what she calls these "big ideas," please join us at Teacher Tom's Play Summit. What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Teacher Tom's Play Summit  is a free, online conference that takes place June 20-25. Click here to get your free pass to all 24 of our incredible sessions with early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders from around the world. Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "Turn this world around!"

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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Thursday, June 03, 2021

"What Would It Be Like to Have a Society That Honored Its Young?"


The business and political types were rubbing their hands in anticipation. With the pandemic finally winding down here in the US, they were expecting as many as a million people to return to the work force, a surge in employment that they expected to supercharge the economy, which they tend to see as the beating heart of the American dream. When the April 2021 jobs report came out, however, they were dismayed to find that the rest of us weren't so eager. Only about 260,000 of us opted to jump back into the rat race, 75 percent fewer than many had projected.

Some are calling this a "worker shortage." Some are rushing to put an end to any pandemic-related benefits we might be receiving, as if what we really need is the threat of starvation and homelessness to get us off our lazy bums. Others are countering that if only employers would boost pay we would come running, as if we are, spontaneously, enmasse, executing the largest general strike in history. 

But what if these business and political types are wrong. What if, instead of a worker shortage, we are experiencing the beginnings of a mass awakening, one in which the economic carrots and sticks no longer work as well as they once did. Researcher and author Peter Gray tells me in our conversation at Teacher Tom's Play Summit that there is growing evidence that many parents have discovered during the pandemic that they actually like being home with their families and the past 18 months have given them the respite they needed to figure out how to make that happen. Perhaps what we are seeing is a generation of parents who have discovered that life is better when we place our children at the center of it.


Summit presenter Raffi Cavoukian, the Grammy nominated and platinum record producing children's troubadour asks, "What would it be like to have a society that honored its young?" It's a question he's dedicated himself to pursuing. "What would it be like to live in a world fit for children?" From this has emerged his vision to "re-design society for the greatest good by meeting the priority needs of the very young," a philosophy he calls Child Honouring.

"When you meet the priority needs of the very young you are growing a healthy society," he tells me. He describes Child Honouring as a unique social change revolution, one with the child at its heart. It is a positive vision that holds the primacy of early years as key to activating the powerful potential of our species. I know he's right. I know that if we can, as a species, remember that our principle project is to protect and care for our youngest citizens, if we can bring them back from the pink collor ghettos into which we tend to stash them away during the day, and instead honor our "future elders," as Aboriginal educator Jackie Bennett so beautifully puts it, we will create lives motivated by relationships and connection rather than carrots and sticks.


"What would it be like to have a society that honored its young?" As early childhood educators and parents, we stand in a unique position to make this vision into a reality. We are the ones who are, in many ways, already living in child-centered worlds. We have already traded in our mere jobs for lives of purpose, connection, and meaning. I've always said that I don't have a job, but rather a calling, and I feel called to join Raffi in this beautiful, "mind blowing" vision.

As with every great movement, the business and political types will be the last to join us so we can't look there. Raffi tells us that "Children keep teaching us how to teach them," a great truth that those of us who work with young children already know. Children have taught me to delight in Mother Earth, to make connections, to exercise my faculty for wonder and play. "That's the job of a five-year-old," Raffi says, but I ask myself why only five-year-olds? Why not me? Why not us? The answer seems clear, especially when I consider the alternative, which is to live my life as a human resource to be exploited by business and political types.

What if instead of a worker shortage we are experiencing an awakening? What would it be like to have a society that honored its young? Why not me? Why not us? These are the big questions we will be considering at Teacher Tom's Play Summit. Please join us. Together we can turn this world around.


******

To hear my entire interview with Raffi and to join us in considering these big questions, please join us at Teacher Tom's Play Summit. What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Teacher Tom's Play Summit  is a free, online conference that takes place June 20-25. Click here to get your free pass to all 24 of our incredible sessions with early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders from around the world. Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "Turn this world around!"

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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Wednesday, June 02, 2021

Baby Tarzan


Children often bring their own toys to school. There was a time when I strongly discouraged this practice, mainly because these toys too often became bones of contention, with the owners forever asserting their ownership while the non-owners evoked our classroom ethic about community property: You can use it when I'm done with it. Today, I'm a fence-sitter. I mean, after all, I bring my own private property to school every day and I'm certainly not going to give the kids turns playing with, say, my phone. I'm going to insist upon my ownership rights. At the same time, if you're going to leave an attractive toy lying around the place, you can hardly expect that your fellow preschoolers aren't going to want to lay hands on it.

So now we sort of play it by ear. You are welcome to bring your toy from home, but you are cautioned that other kids are going to want to play with it, and it's possible it will become lost or broken, and if you are worried about that, you can put it in your personal cubby for safe-keeping. Most kids, most days, opt to store their beloved treasure safely in their cubby, visiting it throughout the day.

There are some kids, however, who have no qualms about sharing their toys from home. Indeed, some have even said to me, "I brought this to share with the other kids," and they do seem to take joy in watching their friends play with them. Some time ago, one of these generous spirits brought a naked action figure to school and set him free. Before long, it had become a part of our playground. Most of the older kids, and their parents, seemed to know it was Tarzan, although I kept calling him Hercules because, honestly, without the loincloth, they kind of all look the same. At one point, one of the younger children adopted it as her baby, carrying it around against her chest, soothing it, stroking it, and feeding it the way one does. It's a silly sight to my eyes, this be-muscled tough guy being mothered so gently, but as she explained, "He's little and he's naked. He's a baby."

We were discussing baby Tarzan in a group, when the subject of his gender came up. "He's a boy baby."

"I don't think he's a boy. He doesn't have a penis."

The group studied the figure for a moment. One of them said, pointing to his groin, "That's his penis," Several other children responded, however, that they didn't see a penis although they all agreed that this is where it would be found if there was one.

"But I don't see a vulva either."

"And he has daddy breasts. Mommy breasts are bumpy."

We were silent for some time, studying this anatomically incorrect doll.

"She has long hair like a girl."

"Teacher Tom has long hair and he's a boy."

We were silent again, a moment that was finally interrupted with a bright idea, "Maybe it can be a boy or a girl or whatever you want it to be!"

That decided, there was a murmur of agreement as the group broke up to go its separate ways. Left alone with her baby once more, the "mommy" looked her baby up and down, then asked, "Are you a boy baby or a girl baby?" Then she hugged it to her chest without waiting for an answer.

******

What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Registration is now open for Teacher Tom's Play Summit , a free, online conference that takes place June 20-25. Click here to get your free pass to all 24 of our incredible sessions with early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders from around the world. Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. Please share this far and wide. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "Turn this world around!"

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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Tuesday, June 01, 2021

To Err Is Human, To Repair Divine


He had pushed his friend so hard that he had fallen to the ground and now he stood over his victim as he cried. An adult rushed in to console the crying child.

I was several feet away. The boy who had pushed his friend remained there as the adult and child embraced and wept. His expression wavered between the anger that had compelled him to violence and horror at what he had done. His face then crumpled and he too began to cry. I know that feeling.

We all know that feeling.

"To err is human," as the poet Alexander Pope wrote, but he was looking at it from the other side, adding, "to forgive divine." As I watched that boy I knew he felt, at some level helpless, at sea with the consequences of his worst impulses. To err is human, indeed, but where is the divinity for him? 

The boy began to blubber, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," but his friend wasn't in a position to hear him, let alone offer forgiveness.

I've stood in that boy's shoes, having hurt more people in my life than I care to remember. 

"You will need to do repair all the time if you're a human," says clinical psychologist, parenting coach, and author, Dr. Laura Markham in our interview for Teacher Tom's Play Summit. "Repair is our most important skill."


"Say you're sorry." It's a command that most of us have given a child at one point or another, but an apology offered under compulsion is no apology at all and everyone knows it. No, repair begins with a genuine apology, like the one the boy was offering through his tears. Apology comes from the heart and it is only the first step in the process of repair.

"I'm sorry I pushed you!" The boy was almost yelling in his desperation to be forgiven. He dropped to his knees and forced his face into that of his friend's, saying, "I'm sorry I pushed you!" The victim turned his face away, burying it into the adult who held him. She whispered, "He's not ready to talk to you right now."

I saw a boy who knew, at a deep level, that there was repair work to do. I recall this moment because it is rare. Usually, I have to coach kids through the process. We've been raised to be so ashamed of our mistakes that we deny them, often hiding behind self-righteousness or the victim-blaming excuse that "They had it coming."

The boy whose apology had been rebuffed, tears still streaming down his face, began to bring toys to his friend, offerings at the alter of repair. He brought him a toy truck. He brought him a shovel from the sandpit. He brought him a ball. As each item was ignored, he placed it on the ground and went in search of something else. But the boy who had been pushed began to take notice. The truck was a favorite. The two friends had often bickered over it. He picked it up.

"You can have that truck every day," his friend said, eager for the repair to begin. 

His friend smiled. "I'll let you use it sometimes too."

I felt the boy's relief and delight as if it were my own.

To err is human, to repair divine.

******

To hear my entire interview with Dr. Laura Markham, please join us at Teacher Tom's Play Summit. What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Teacher Tom's Play Summit  is a free, online conference that takes place June 20-25. Click here to get your free pass to all 24 of our incredible sessions with early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders from around the world. Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "Turn this world around!"

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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