Monday, July 26, 2021

Running Away From Home

As a boy, someone read me a story about a boy like me who had run away from home. The joke was that he hadn't actually run away from home, but had rather pretended to by hiding himself under the dining room table. In the story, his mother had regularly checked on him, bringing him snacks and what not. It sounded fun, so I tried it, announcing to my mother that I was going to run away from home. She said she would miss me, helped me pack a parcel of crackers and cheese, filled a canteen with water, and set me "free."

I played the game for a couple of hours, found it far duller than had the boy in the story, then emerged to announce that I had come back home. 

It seems like the subject of "running way from home" came up often when I was a boy, in storybooks, movies, and as a topic of conversation amongst my neighborhood playmates. And while I never met anyone who had actually followed through with it, I recall many games that involved packing up as if we were going run away or hiding out somewhere imagining that we had. There were still some undeveloped parcels of land in our suburban neighborhood, which were the remaining scraps of what had once been an extensive pine forest. These were "the woods" where we often played these games of being on our own in the world.

No one told us that actual run-aways were typically trying to escape from abusive or neglectful home lives. The stories we knew were of adventures. Even the story of the boy who had run away to under the dining room table had adventures. As a preschool aged child, I continued to play at being lost. I once hid behind the ironing board in the hallway closet for so long that my mother started looking for me at the neighbors' houses. Under the bed was another good place to disappear. As an older boy with a bicycle, getting lost in the world became a regular thing, as we roamed farther and wider. And we did have adventures. We would be chased by strange dogs. We found pools of standing water with tadpoles and mosquito larvae. We dared one another to step onto "Hampton's Land," where it was rumored that old man Hampton roamed the woods with a gun to chase off trespassers. It was particularly exciting when we met kids who we didn't know. We often framed them in our games as "enemies," hiding from them, running from them, or even taunting them if they didn't seem too threatening.

We once ran into a clutch of "enemies" in one of those scraps of woods. We were far from home and they began to insult us, so we insulted them back. Before long the kids had run off, leaving us the apparent victors. Moments later, however, we spied them returning with a stern looking adult. We'd never ridden our bikes so fast as we made our escape from the scolding we had probably earned. I didn't feel safe until I was back at home, bike stored (hidden really) in the garage.

In both fiction and in life, the story always ended with returning home. Like Max in the Maurice Sendak classic Where the Wild Things Are, there comes a time, no matter how wild the rumpus, when one misses home. We didn't identify with the runaway Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn't grow up, nearly as much as we did with Wendy, John, and Michael, the runaways who would eventually return to their home. As for the Lost Boys, they were the saddest of all having fallen from their "perambulators" to find themselves in a kind of purgatory with no future and no past.

In our current age of "safety" and hyper-vigilance I worry sometimes that our obsession with having our eyes on the kids at all times, robs them of the opportunity to "run away" or "get lost." Researcher and author Peter Gray asserts that the current generation's fascination with video games and online platforms is at least in part due to this urge to "get away" and experience life without the constant mitigation of adults. This is important play, even as it might disturb us, especially when the children have hidden too well (as I did behind the ironing board) or explore concepts like "running away from home." Children know that their destiny is to fly the nest, a daunting idea, especially for a very young child. These games  are how children begin to explore both the world and themselves in the world without an adult forever at their side. 

We live in a world, however, in which many of the freedoms that past generations enjoyed have been lost. For many kids, the internet is the neighborhood in which we once got lost, which is to my way of thinking a poor substitute and, frankly, in many ways far more dangerous than "the streets." Our preschools and child cares are often so focused on "safety" that we have forgotten that children need opportunities to explore this type of play, to find themselves "in the world" and "on their own." Obviously, we can't let preschoolers roam the neighborhood, but we can provide boxes and nooks, corners where adults don't tread, and other opportunities for "getting lost," for hiding, and for adventure. Sometimes we must turn our backs as the children play, leaving them to solve their own problems, to figure in out, and yes, as in all the stories, to have their hearts broken, to be frightened, and to find their way back home.

We have designed this sort of play out of childhood in recent decades with the result being that today's children are growing up under full-time adult supervision, not a healthy situation for children or, for that matter, adults. 


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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Friday, July 23, 2021

Young Children Are People Who Still Know The Value Of Things

I must have been five or six when I decided I wanted a wristwatch. I was fascinated by my father's watch with its beautiful stainless steel and elastic band. When he came home from work, he put it in his dresser top valet tray alongside the coins and keys from his pockets. I didn't care about the money, but the watch, with that amazing band, was irresistible. I'd try it on for size, but mostly I stretched and twisted that band, marveling at how it always returned to its original shape, enjoying the smooth metal between my fingers as it slid from chaos to order. It was a deeply gratifying, beautiful thing.

So, it was really a watchband I wanted, but not knowing how to ask for it, I instead told my parents I wanted a watch. They said it was too expensive, but that maybe I could save my own money and buy one for myself. Of course, being five or six, I had no regular source of income, so my parents offered me the opportunity of doing little jobs around the house, like polishing Dad's shoes or picking up the pinecones that littered our lawn. With the help of Mom, I picked out a Timex brand watch from the Sears catalog "Wish Book" and began to save my pennies. I counted my coins daily, asking, "Do I have enough yet?"

I don't recall the specific numbers, but apparently the total wasn't mounting up as quickly as my parents had anticipated, or perhaps they were simply moved by my perseverance in the face of coming up short day-after-day, but at some point they declared that I was "halfway there." They were so proud of me that they offered to make up the difference, so we ordered the wristwatch.

The watch itself, when it arrived, was a bit of a disappointment. First of all, it was much smaller than Dad's, the face about the size of a nickel, but more significantly, it came with a simple leather band. I hadn't known that it was possible for wristwatches to not have a stainless steel and elastic band. When I complained, they told me I could save up more money.

It was money, it seemed, that stood between me and my heart's desire. When I investigated Dad's stuff at the end of the day, I no longer played with his watch, but rather counted his coins. It didn't occur to me to take them, but I did covet them. I imagined adding his money to my own. When I flipped through the "Wish Book" I now focused like a laser on what things cost. It didn't matter what it was, a pair of sandals or a baseball bat, I dismissed those things I could afford and resented the things I could not. Ostensibly, I was saving for a watchband, but when I achieved that goal, the band no longer seemed worth the price.

I understand my parent's purpose. It's the goal that many parents have for their children. They wanted me to learn the lessons of thrift, but I can't help but think about how money, for me, for a time at least, became more valuable than beauty. Indeed, when I finally forked over the cash to pay for the watchband that I'd previously craved, it was with a sinking heart. I felt a loss that stayed with me even after Dad replaced my old leather band with my new stainless steel one.

The lesson that I've carried with me into adulthood is that money has a tendency to destroy the purity of joy. I could not keep my hands off my father's watchband until money came into the equation. Money was a middleman who took a bit from both sides, delaying my gratification by putting precious things just out of reach, while simultaneously dimming the experience of finally holding the desired object in my hand. My own watch, even with its new stainless steel elastic band, was rendered less beautiful by what it cost me.

Maybe this is a lesson we all must learn. Maybe there is no such thing as pure joy or unadulterated beauty. Maybe money is simply the yin to life's yang. I've had people tell that I've got it wrong, that money is neutral, that it is like the blood that flows through the body of our society, a necessity. Others have gotten quite angry with me, scolding me for not paying money sufficient respect by hoarding it in the way they consider responsible. But what value is money if it can't be exchanged for joy or beauty without tainting or eroding it? The idiom is that "money can't buy happiness," but that's exactly what we try to do as we thumb through our Wish Books with our eyes on the prices while counting and re-counting our coins.

As far as the education of children is concerned, I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; not shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but a love of one's neighbor and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know.  ~Natalia Ginzburg

My real lessons in thrift came over a decade later as I moved out into the world on my own and had no choice but to wrestle with money, but I've never forgotten the evil that money did to joy and beauty.

Yesterday, I made an off-hand comment about something being too expensive and a five-year-old offered me all of the $12 that he had in his piggy bank. This spurred other children to likewise offer the contents of their own piggy banks. These are people, to my mind, who still know the value of things. Why are adults in such a rush to destroy that?


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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Thursday, July 22, 2021

It's The Thinking That Matters

The kids had queued up to take turns on our impromptu "diving board." As they waited, they talked.

"I've five-years-old."

"I'm five too!"

"Me too!"

I chimed in, "Me too!"

"You're not five, Teacher Tom!"

"How do you know?"

"I can look at you and you're a grown-up."

"Yes, a five-year-old grown-up."

"Grown-ups aren't five-years-old."

There was a discussion about the age that marks adulthood. Some of them thought it started when one became a teenager. Others thought it must be older, based on the teenagers they knew. One boy finally declared the dividing line to be 18.

"You're a baby, Teacher Tom!" It wasn't meant as an insult, but rather as a joke in the same vein as my claim to be five.

"I am a baby," I answered, "I can even do baby talk: goo-goo, gaa-gaa."

"You're a little baby!"

"Pick me up," I said, receiving laughter for the absurdity.

A child took it to the next level, "You're so little that you're still in your mommy's tummy!"

I feigned deep thought, "Hmm, that would be pretty cozy. I think I would like being in a mommy's tummy."

"Me too!"

"I don't! My mommy eats yucky food. When you're a baby in a tummy you have to eat everything your mommy eats."

"No, that's wrong. Babies drink mommy milk."

"There's no milk on the inside. You have to be outside a mommy to get milk."

"Maybe she drinks milk and then the baby can get it."

There are some adults, I know, who would see it as their job to correct the errors in conversations like these, to teach facts to the children, to disabuse them of their notions. But when you understand that learning and thinking are one and the same, you come to value these kinds of dialogs as rare insights into how children are putting their world together. It's the thinking that matters because that's where learning happens.

The children discussed what they knew about the life of babies in utero. They agreed it would be dark, wet, and snuggly, but the question of how the baby gets nutrition was where they differed. I could have told them about umbilical cords and placentas, but to do so would be to be to interrupt their flow, to force my way into their own process of inquiry. When you understand that learning and thinking are a process, you come to avoid interrupting them with "facts," because the moment you do, you bring an end to the active thinking and replaced it with passive direct instruction. 

"If you're a baby inside a mommy, you have to poop and pee inside your mommy." There was a round of disgust expressed at this thought, then one girl said, "No, that's not right!"

And another girl added, "Yeah, babies are inside of eggs."

"Do they poop inside of the eggs?"

"I guess so."

"And they pee inside of their egg too!"

As they squealed and giggled their revulsion, one boy was thoughtful. "I don't think people are in eggs. Chickens are in eggs."

"Babies are in eggs. Teeny-tiny, little eggs." She showed us with her fingers.

This boy has a newborn at home, "I don't think so because when babies are born they don't have shells. They just come out regular."

"Then where do they poop and pee?"

He thought for a moment, "They poop and pee inside their mommy's tummy, then their mommy poops and pees it out for them."

There was a great deal of nodding as the children thought about it. It's the thinking that matters.


"This book is truly a gift for both parents and teachers alike." ~Angela Hanscom. 
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Wednesday, July 21, 2021

"The More Something Is Shared, The Greater Its Value Becomes"

I picked up a small stone and performed some slight-of-hand for the children. I then handed the stone to a girl, saying, "I'm giving this to you." Our playground is bestrewn with stones and pebbles. Anyone of them would have served my purposes, but I'd selected this one. Now this girl had it. The other children gathered around her, requesting a turn with this "special" stone.

"It's funny how the nature of an object . . . is so changed by the way it has come into your hands, as a gift or a commodity," writes Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book Braiding Sweetgrass. This stone was just a stone until I picked it up, then gave it to someone else. Now it's a treasure.

After trying to make it "disappear" several times, in imitation of me, she passed it along to a playmate, who squealed. The first girl had not squealed when I gave it to her. It had become even more valuable as children jockeyed to be next. 

"The more something is shared, the greater its value becomes," writes Kimmerer.

The stone passed from hand-to-hand over the course of the next half hour or so. Some held if for a few seconds before passing it along. Others took time to cherishing it. But they all paid it forward. There was no adult coaxing them or praising them. They knew exactly what to do.

"Many of our ancient teachings counsel that whatever we have been given is supposed to be given away again."

Eventually, the last child took his turn with the stone. He had waited a long time. Only he could say if it was worth it, but he seemed as pleased as the others. 

"From the viewpoint of a private property economy, the "gift" is deemed to be "free" because we obtain it free of charge, at no cost. But in the gift economy, gifts are not free. The essence of the gift is that it creates a set of relationships." And the obligation to give it away again.

I figured the game was now done, but I was wrong. After several minutes the boy began to look around until he spied me. It had started as a stone like all the others, but as it passed from person-to-person as a gift, it had become a talisman, a symbol, and a ceremony. He completed the circle by handing the stone to me. And I returned it to the earth, who had given it to me.


"This book is truly a gift for both parents and teachers alike." ~Angela Hanscom. 
If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 

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Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The Most Necessary Person

I'm not the boss of these people I teach. I don't have the right, or even the ability, to tell them what to do.

I am responsible for them: for their safety; for inviting them to play with things, with me, and with one another; for answering their questions as honestly as I can; for listening to what they are telling me with their mouths and bodies; for helping them understand their emotions, their successes and failures, and how to get along with the other people; and for getting out of their way so that they can get about the business of learning.

In Leo Tolstoy's short story Three Questions, a king searches his kingdom for answers to his three important questions:

(H)e had it proclaimed throughout his kingdom that he would give a great reward to anyone who would teach him what was the right time for every action, and who were the most necessary people, and how he might know what was the most important thing to do.

And in the end, a hermit helped him to his answers:

Remember then: there is only one time that is important -- Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary man is he with whom you are . . . and the most important affair is to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!"

If a teacher rightly has any power at all, it is the power of Now. It isn't the power of hierarchy, of being right, of being in charge. Now is the ultimate power of seizing an opportunity. The children with whom I work already understand this power much more fully than do I; they are, in fact, in a process of un-learning it so that, in the usual turnings of life, newer children can one day re-teach them. Now is the natural habitat of the very young and it is where teachers must go if we are to be any good at all. That is where the power is.

And once we are there in the Now, that's where we find the children, the most necessary people; not miniature or incomplete adults, but fully formed human beings for whom we are responsible, not because they are little and we are big, but because they are the ones with whom we are.

And what do we do with these most necessary people? How do we exert our power? We help them with what we find them doing. And what they are already doing is playing, learning, figuring things out. Those are the garden beds they are digging. It's with that a teacher helps. It is for that purpose alone that we are sent into this life.

I'm not the boss of these people I teach. I don't have the right, or even the power, to tell them what to do even if I'm the king.


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Monday, July 19, 2021

What It Means To Be A Gifted Teacher

I wish we could all tell the truth about teaching, that it's really the simplest, most natural thing in the world.

I wish our profession wasn't in a fight for its life against deep pocket foes with a political or economic agenda, because this simplicity is really its beauty and joy.

We've learned to protect ourselves with an armor of jargon like every other profession as a way to sell ourselves in this sell-or-be-sold world.

But teaching is not every other profession. I'm not even sure it is a profession as much as a calling. Because when we strip all that "professionalism" away, we see that the core of teaching is to love the children: every one of us knows that. And when you love, you listen. That's what teachers do.

It's when we listen with our ears and eyes and hearts that we can access not only their genius, but our own.

Teaching greatness is not a rare thing, I don't think, but it's hard for others to see because it takes place in intimate moments when we're down on our knees, face to face with the children, ears, eyes, and heart wide open. And then to try to talk about it after the fact, to try to satisfy the demands to make learning "transparent," we wind up wrapping the moments of genius in words that detail techniques and strategies that describe only the surface manifestation of what happened because to say, "We connected," sounds too hippy-dippy and namby-pamby.

Teaching is not a complicated thing, but it does take practice, lots of it, every day with lots of different kids, and even after ten or twenty years there's still a new thing to learn every day, its profundity often lost in its simplicity.

When we play with children, we engage them as they engage with their passions and curiosities, and when we listen with our whole selves, we notice instantly when that moment comes around, and then it's just a simple matter of making a statement of fact, or asking just the right question, or sitting quietly in the knowledge that that is what this child needs right now. How much better that is than to assume they are all ready for this particular knowledge at this particular time delivered in this particular manner by virtue of being more or less the same age -- what Ken Robinson calls their "manufacture date" -- then grind our teeth in frustration that so many of them just don't get it.

To be a "gifted" teacher is really just possessing the knowledge that children are people and then proceeding to treat them like people, loving them, and listening.


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Friday, July 16, 2021

What Makes the Reward So Sweet

It was born as a whicker picnic basket complete with plates, cups and cutlery, but was converted a decade ago into the container in which we store a collection of dolls along with their wardrobe. They aren't particularly popular dolls as playthings go, but I continue to trot them out a couple times a year because there is occasionally a kid or two who will drop everything else they're doing to engage in the challenge of dressing and undressing those dolls.

The basket is held closed by a pair of leather straps secured by metal clasps that operate in a manner that most preschoolers haven't before encountered. I had put the basket on a table with the straps fastened, which I intended as a sort of invitation, figuring that few kids would be able to walk past without wanting to solve the mystery of what was inside. And sure enough, as the kids began to arrive, my invitation was accepted as a cluster gathered around the table, asking, "What's in here?" their fingers prying at the edges of the lid, struggling to get it to open.

I was standing a distance away, watching, even a little excited to see how the children would solve the challenge of those clasps. That's when an adult stepped in and opened the clasps for them. The kids said, "Dolls," then stood looking at them unenthusiastically for a moment before moving on to something else. It's the sort of thing caring adults too often do: the kids were working together to solve a kind of puzzle, but they were robbed of an opportunity for independence, collaboration, and perhaps even epiphany by a well-intended adult. I was determined that the same thing wouldn't happen with the afternoon class.

This time, I gave specific instructions to the appropriate adult to not help. She asked, "What if they ask me?" I answered, "Play dumb."

Sure enough, a group of kids gathered around the basket as they had in the morning, asking the classroom at large, "What's inside?" The first attempts to open the box involved force, but soon they discovered the clasps. They tried pushing the mechanism; they tried sliding it. One boy thought that maybe the leather straps needed to be cut, but others were sure that the solution involved those clasps. After several minutes of hive minded teamwork, they managed it. As they opened the lid to reveal the dolls, they squealed, "Dolls!" "Cool!" "This one has a baseball hat!" Never before had this particular collection of dolls received so much enthusiastic attention.

It's quite possible that the kids would have responded this way even if one of us adults had "helped" them with the clasps, but I tend to believe that the dolls' newfound popularity, something that endured into mid-week, had a lot to do with the kids' common struggle with those clasps: it's the struggle, especially the common struggle, that makes the reward so sweet.

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