Friday, April 29, 2022

Math As An Intellectual Pursuit Rather Than A Merely Academic One

The two-year-old had carried the plastic bears halfway across the room to show me. "Blue bears," he said, holding them in front of his own eyes.

I said, "Two blue bears."

He looked from one to the other, then pushed them a bit closer to me as if to say, Look at them. I said again, "Two blue bears." He looked from one to the other again, then held them closer together, right in front of his eyes. There was something else he wanted to say about these bears, but he was struggling to find the words.

"You are really looking at those bears."

He said, "Blue bears, " and pushed them toward my eyes as if asking me to really look as well. I really looked. I said, "You are showing me two blue bears. One of them is darker blue and one of them is lighter blue."

He looked at them, examining them, then shoved them toward me again. I said, "You are showing me two blue bears that are different shades of blue." That's when he smiled. "Different," he said, "Blue bears different." He then took them back with him halfway across the room.

I followed him to where the kids were playing with the little plastic bears, plastic baskets, and water. One boy held an empty basket. He picked up a bear as it floated past, putting it in his basket. He beamed at me as I knelt beside him, so I replied, "You put a bear in your basket." He put another bear in his basket, then another, each time, smiling at me. When he put the fourth bear in the basket he told me, "More." I answered, "You have more bears in your basket."

He then added another and another, each time telling me, "More," "More," "More."

Later, I was leaning over the top of some cabinets, watching the two-year-olds playing with our wooden trains. Children were queuing their train cars up, the way one does, one after another. A girl shouted, "Teacher Tom, look at my long train!" I looked at it. She connected another car and shouted, "Teacher Tom, my train is longer!" I nodded. She added another and another, each time proclaiming it longer until there were no more train cars in her immediate vicinity. She then announced, "It's the longest!"

I was still leaning across the shelves when another girl brought me one of the wooden trees that came with one of the intermixed train sets we own. She set it in front of me. I said, "You brought me a tree." She picked up another tree. I said, "Now I have two trees." Then another. "Now I have three threes." And another. "Now I have four trees." The trees were of different colors, shapes and manufactures, but they were all trees. Then she then added a small traffic sign. I looked at her in mock confusion and she laughed and laughed at the math prank she'd just pulled on me.

This is what preschool mathematics looks like in a play-based environment. It is not an academic pursuit, but rather a truly intellectual one, even a joyful one, something every child pursues as if it was coded into their genes. And indeed, it is.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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!
Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Give Them What They Want

Give them what they want. ~Winston Churchill

Some time ago, I shared a quite literate story by a four-year-old author. He wrote several other things as well, but after sharing that one in front of the whole group he subsequently declined, usually saying, "It's not finished yet." This is, of course, a valid choice for any writer. He loved the creative process, one where he sits in one-to-one intimacy with the adult taking dictation; the public performance wasn't his thing, at least for now. Maybe some day he'll be finished, but maybe not.

We have had other authors in our classes, however, who were very much interested in having their stories presented in front of the entire group. And then there are some who have mastered the art of writing for their audience, giving them what they want.

The following story is really a creative collaboration between a daughter and her mother, both of whom were aware from the beginning that this story was always destined to be read aloud to room full of four and five year olds:

"Once upon a time there was a
big monster who pooped
everywhere. And he was
But he just kept on
pooping. Poop, poop, poop
Poop, poop, poop, poop
Poop, poop, poop, poop.

"This is a big, big poop from that blue monster! And then it just kept on pooping! Poop, poop, poop, poop, poop, poop, poop, poop, poop, poop, poop, poop, poop, poop, poop, poop . . .

"This is a really big, big, buh-buh big poop!"

I had the honor of reading this masterpiece of its kind to the class. She had them rolling in the aisles, every last one of them.

(Update to yesterday's post: For those who read yesterday, my wife Jennifer is definitely on the mend. She has been walking around a bit and eating, although she still prefers a cool, quiet, dark room. Thank you for all of your support. It means a lot to both of us!)


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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!
Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

We Can, We Must, Count On Each Other

(A word of caution: This is a personal post -- not an education post -- that involves an immediate and graphic description of a head injury.)

I am currently with my wife Jennifer and daughter Josephine on Rhodes, one of the largest of the Greek islands. I'm on this side of the Atlantic to speak at the Play On Early Childhood Education Conference taking place in Athens in a few days. We chose Rhodes as a place for a pre-conference holiday because our best family friend lives on a nearby island and the plan was to spend this time with her and her son, all of us together just enjoying the pageantry of Greek Easter.

On Saturday, Easter eve, Jennifer lost her footing on the stairs of the house we are renting and fell, hard, headfirst, on the stone floor. I was drinking coffee at the kitchen table, beginning to write what ultimately became yesterday's post. It was a horrific moment, as I watched her stumble, then spin around, reaching out to grab a railing that wasn't there before plummeting. There was a moment when she was in free fall, her arms and legs and hair trailing her head and shoulders. Her shoulders hit the floor first, followed by her head snapping back, contacting the floor with a sickening crack.

I knew instantly that it was very bad. Rushing to her, I shouted to the house, "We need an ambulance!" then knelt beside her, calling her name. I cupped her head in my right hand. I felt blood trickling through my fingers, then saw it pooling on the slate gray stone tile. Our daughter was the next on the scene, followed by our friend. 

These are photos I took on my walk home from the hospital

Jennifer was unconscious, her limbs twitching. Then she fell completely still. Our daughter later told me that I shouted, "No, no, no, no!" At the time, I just wanted her to open her eyes, to show a sign of life. I continued to hold her head, thinking that maybe I could staunch the flow of blood. In that moment of complete despair, I still felt relieved when she started twitching again, then her eyelids fluttered, even as all I could see where the whites of her eyes. Hundreds of thoughts flashed through my head as I was aware that the others were shouting into their telephones, trying to tell the ambulance where to find us. Among those thoughts was that this was just the beginning of something long and hard and I doubted that I had the strength for it. 

Finally, our friend's son went out into the street and found a local woman to call the ambulance on our behalf. It turns out that we had the wrong address, that we were unsure of what number to call for emergencies, but among them they were resourceful enough to make it happen. Time stood still. All of this happened in seconds, but each of those seconds passed like an excruciating hour, each made of fear and pain, but not tears. Those would come later.

Then Jennifer began to talk. She asked, rolling her eyes at the timbered ceiling, my hand still under her head, "Where are we?"

"We're in our vacation house on the island of Rhodes in Greece."

"Where? Why are we here?"

At the time I simply answered her questions, keeping my voice steady, telling her the story of the past several days, of our travel, of our plans, and that she was surrounded by her most beloved people. She asked her questions over and over. I answered her over and over. Later she told me she had been entirely baffled. I don't think she was yet feeling the pain. At one point she tried to sit up, but we stopped her. Someone had the idea of replacing my hand under her head with a towel. I had the strange feeling that I'd been here before. I now know that it was my years of experience in caring for children who were suffering physical and emotional events. Nothing had ever been as horrific as this, but that is why I knew what to do.

After what seemed like hours, we heard the siren approaching. I was in my underwear and bathrobe. I felt the return of doubt as I realized that this was just the beginning of what was going to be required of me. An internal voice told me that I would want to be wearing pants. I left Jennifer with Josephine and our friend to run to the bedroom and pull on the pair of shorts I'd dropped to the floor the night before. I thought to grab my passport and proof of vaccination. I didn't know where Jennifer kept hers and felt I'd already been away for too long, so that's all I took.

When I returned, the paramedics where coming through the gate into the courtyard of the house. Thankfully, one of them spoke English. I'll never forget Jennifer saying, "Don't leave me," and I promised I wouldn't. She said, "I'm scared," and I answered, honestly, "So am I, but I'm here and you'll be okay."

Looking back, I recall the paramedic telling me that only one of us could accompany her in the ambulance, but nevertheless both Josephine and I wound up riding with her, taking up both seats, forcing the paramedic to remain standing, bracing himself against the turns and hills while also tending and testing Jennifer. By now, her memory was starting to come back accompanied by an awareness of extreme pain. It was both horrible and a relief: it seemed like a good sign even as I despaired about the pain over which we were all helpless.

As for me, the self-doubt came in waves, although I knew she needed me to get her through this and we were still just at the very beginning. The whole experience to this point felt like it had been happening for days, maybe even weeks, and we were not even to the hospital. I was already tired, already worn out, already feeling at the end. The truth, we have since calculated, is that the time from the fall to the arrival at the hospital was less than 45 minutes, even as it felt like a lifetime.

While our friend waited at the house, prepared to bring any of the things we needed, our daughter was required to remain in the waiting room of the emergency ward where she finally cried. She later told us that during the long hours she waited she saw the full spectrum of humanity pass through: pain and anguish, but also incredible kindness and compassion. For the next many hours Jennifer was treated and tested while I held her hand and tried to advocate for pain medication as her head throbbed. She was wheeled around the hospital by a kind young man receiving X-rays, a CT scans, an MRI, and an eye examination. In bits and pieces, we learned that she had fractured her skull in two places, that the wound on the back of her head did not need stitches, and that she had ligament damage in her shoulder. All the while, she told me she hurt and that she was afraid, repeatedly saying, "Don't leave me." I gave her what I had to give, which was my hand in hers, assurances that I was not going anywhere, and that she was surrounded by love.

Meanwhile, at every opportunity I kept Josephine and our friend apprised of what was happening. They supported me in ways I still cannot fully appreciate. They did things, took care of things, and made things happen that would have otherwise overwhelmed me.

Finally, we had the official word from a doctor that her brain seemed to be undamaged and an assurance that it was not as bad as it could have been. They wanted, however, to keep her the night for observation. They wheeled us to a room with four empty beds, provided the painkillers she needed, and she thankfully dozed off. Our friend arrived with Jennifer's passport and a collection of other things that we might need for an overnight stay. By the time our daughter and friend were in the room, Jennifer was awake enough to talk a little. She sounded weary, but like herself.

When she dozed off again, we taxied home, where I packed a bag and hurried back. 

Since the room was otherwise empty, perhaps because of the big Easter weekend, the nurses offered to allow me to stay overnight with her. Jennifer felt the room to be overly hot and stuffy so I opened the windows through which a steady, cooling Aegean breeze blew, ruffling the curtains that would be used to cordon off the separate beds during busier times. From what I could tell there was only one other patient in the entire wing. We were at the end of the hallway and in a moment, after all that had happened, we found ourselves together, alone, in a peaceful, yet still painful, place. The sound of sheep bells and bleating came from a nearby pasture. Dogs barked. Roosters crowed. From the window I could see the dome of an Orthodox church from which came the occasional music of Easter celebration bells. In the distance was the blue sea.

Rhodes is a city full of feral cats. Most of them scurry away from humans, but this one walked beside me for a time, keeping me company.

And there we were, alone in a foreign land, on the other side, or rather, through the worst, because I still knew there was a long way to go. As midnight approached, the Easter fireworks began, followed by a joyous cacophony of bells, and the riotous barking of the neighborhood dogs. There were songs in the air, human voices celebrating resurrection. It was all carried up to our fourth floor room on those Aegean winds.

The following day, Easter Sunday, we went for a second, precautionary CT scan. The doctor, a different one, came to tell us that we were cleared to leave whenever we wanted. By then it was late afternoon. Josephine and our friend came to fetch Jennifer in a taxi. It was a glorious day, warm and breezy. Having helped her into the taxi, in good hands, I decided to walk the 2.5 miles back to our house. I wanted to clear my head, to think, to process. From the moment the taxi pulled away from the curb I began to cry. They were tears of sadness and relief, of course, but also of joy and gratitude. I stopped halfway down the hill at a traditional taverna full of families enjoying an Easter Sunday repast and slowly ate souvlakia.

As I write this, it's only been a few hours since Jennifer ate her first food in three days. Our friend and her son have returned home. Our daughter is in there with her, on the bed, and they are giggling.

There is still a long way to go. We are supposed to fly to Athens tomorrow and Jennifer is yet to walk more than a few steps at a time, but she is ready to try; we are ready to try, if only because we were advised to consult with a specialist in the bigger city. I still doubt my own strength, even as I don't doubt Jennifer's. But, honestly, I never needed to count on myself. Our daughter, our friend, and her son were also there. There was the lady on the street who called the ambulance, the paramedics, the kind strangers in the waiting room who cared for our daughter, the nurses, the orderly, the technicians, the doctors, and all those people who sang outside our window in celebration. 

I might have doubted my strength, but never again will I doubt the strength that emerges from us

We can't do this alone. We can, we must, count on each other.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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!
Bookmark and Share

Monday, April 25, 2022


"Why, precisely, was I sitting in this classroom . . . The question was never answered. I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance." ~Ta-Nehisi Coates

Schools have rarely been concerned with curiosity. This has been true since the very beginning of this experiment of schooling. When European colonizers founded schools for the children of the indigenous people they had subjugated, they were explicit in their assertion that the goal was to make these wild, primitive children into productive workers, field hands and house servants. Perhaps they had "higher" aspirations for their own children, but the ultimate objective was the same: to tame them. They were unconcerned with curiosity. Indeed, they warned that "curiosity killed the cat."

It's a phrase that came into use alongside the development of schooling. The idiom emerged during the later part of the 1800's, at the tail end of the Industrial Revolution, a time when large capitalistic enterprises were on the rise, and the need for compliant workers was growing. Tragically, many who study these things believe that the phrase evolved from a much earlier, and more accurate, idiom "care killed a cat" found in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing (as well as similar expressions found in works from the late 16th century). In this case, however, the word "care" is used the way we today would use the word "worry," which is to say that the cat expression we use today is the exact opposite of its original meaning.

In her book Changing Our Minds, cognitive psychologist Naomi Fisher posits that for most of our history, we didn't try to school our youngest citizens, largely because we found them untamable. It is impossible to force three-year-olds to sit quietly, facing forward, affecting to listen, but today, cruelly, many are trying, drilling even our babies with phonics and counting and other abstractions which their forming minds are simply incapable of grasping. Preschoolers are about connecting with the world around them and academic things, almost by definition, are disconnections, steps taken back from life in order to gain a disconnected perspective. Life itself requires us to step into it. And the mechanism by which we step into life itself is curiosity.

Our schools are explicitly designed to kill curiosity because it's curiosity that makes us non-compliant. It's curiosity that causes us to challenge authority, to question the way things are done, and to become frustrated with the status quo. And when our curiosity is killed, the disconnection begins to kill us. Headlines in the US recently sounded this very alarm when a comprehensive, longitudinal study of Tennessee's highly academic preschool curriculum was found to be harming preschoolers. This and other studies have found, over and over, that these kinds of developmentally inappropriate practices (or rather malpractices) are causing anxiety and depression at rates never before seen in young children, which is exactly what one one would predict when curiosity, and therefore connection with life, is killed. 

I used the word malpractice above and I'll be using it here again and again because that is exactly what it is. Worse, it is intentional malpractice all in the name of compliance. Early childhood educators can no longer go along with this malpractice. We must reject it, forcefully, and we must use the word that names it precisely, which is "malpractice." Our gentle euphemisms like "developmentally inappropriate" are not enough. When we intentionally and systematically kill curiosity we are killing children. This is not a metaphor: anxiety and depression (or as Shakespeare had it, "care") are genuine killers.

Curiosity may not always be convenient for us, it may not prepare children to sit silently in their seats compliantly. In fact, it most certainly will not. But to intentionally kill curiosity with our rules, rigor, and "right" answers, especially in the name of the most inhuman thing of all, compliance, is malpractice. 

I know that this post will make some educators angry. That's fine with me. I'm drawing a line and I know on which side I stand. I stand on the side of play, autonomy, and curiosity. My hope is that there are other readers here who will take this as a call to action. We are unaccustomed in our profession to holding the power, but right now we do. If nothing else, they need us to make their economic system work. We can refuse to engage in malpractice in the name of compliance. If they fire us, there are other jobs that will welcome us, and the curiosity of children, with open arms, but to continue serving our schools concerned with compliance is malpractice.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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!
Bookmark and Share

Friday, April 22, 2022

"I Would Die For My Child"

"I would die for my child." 

Even if we've not said it, we've thought something along those lines: what would we do, how far would we go to protect our precious children? If it meant saving theirs, we would, we believe, be courageous enough to die for them.

For most of us, it will never come to that, even as we know it does for some parents. I'm thinking, of course, of parents in war-torn or famine ravaged places, but the heartfelt sentiment is there nevertheless.

Of course, our children do not ask this of us. No, they can't even consider it. They want us, they need us, to live for them.

Having known tens of thousands of parents in my life, I've encountered very few who have not at some level sacrificed something in what they considered to be the best interests of their child. Perhaps it has meant suspending a promising career or continuing to work at a job one despises. Some have sacrificed their health, or their looks, or their friends. We sacrifice our weekends and holidays. We sacrifice autonomy.

Naturally, every parent knows that the bright side can be bright indeed, but that doesn't mean there isn't sacrifice. Does it mean, therefore, that they need us to live for them?

The Italian writer and philosopher Natalia Ginzburg, in her essay The Little Virtues, a work I consider to be among the most important parenting texts ever written, asserts that among our primary responsibilities as parents is to help our children find what she calls their "vocation," which she essentially defines as purpose. We do this, by finding a vocation for ourselves. "This," she writes, "is perhaps the one real chance we have of giving them some kind of help in their search for a vocation -- to have a vocation ourselves, to know it, to love it and serve it passionately; because love of life begets a love of life."

In other words, our children do not need us to live or die for them: they just need us to live.

Yes, that's easier said than done, but that must be, when all is said and done, why we are here, to find our vocation, our purpose, to know it, to love it and serve it passionately so that our children will grow up knowing that this is how to love life.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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!
Bookmark and Share

Thursday, April 21, 2022

My Gripe With Adults

One could be excused if you were to come away from reading this blog with the idea that I'm not just pro-child, but also at least a little anti-adult. This is not true. After all, I am an adult myself. I like being an adult. In fact, if my fairy godmother presented me with a choice, I'd opt for adulthood in a heartbeat. There are certainly things I admire about children, like their boundless energy, short memories, and their ability to live for the moment, but I wouldn't trade away my adult advantages for any of it. Like I sometimes say to the kids, "The best thing about being an adult is that you get to eat ice cream whenever you want."

That's the part I would struggle with the most. As a young child, I was fairly sanguine, accepting for the most part the idea that grown-up got to be in charge because they knew more, were bigger, and had the money, but I could never go back, not from where I am now, a 60-year-old man who doesn't like to be told what to do. 

No, my gripe with adults, the one you find on these pages and the one that might lead readers to conclude that I'm down on grown-ups, is that I really have a problem with people who think it's in their purview to boss other people around, especially when those people are children. In many ways, this is why I write this blog in the first place, because I think a lot of this bossing around is of the unconscious, entitled variety: expectations of obediencelanguage full of commands, the imposition of punishments and rewards, the knee-jerk assumption that "mommy knows best," none of which I would accept if it were directed at the adult me. I write, I suppose, in the hope that I can help convince some adults, at least a little bit, that children might be inexperienced and smaller, but they are still fully formed human beings worthy of the same sort of respect due all fully formed human beings.

Awhile back, we were goofing around with Mo Willem's book Don't Let The Pigeon Drive the Bus, when we fell into a discussion about why it is that adults get to do all the driving, a complaint I picked up from William Steig's picture book entitled Grown-ups Get to do All the Driving. I was taking the side of childhood, insisting "It's not fair!" Some of the kids were on my bandwagon even as most of them were just playing along, understanding it as a joke. Others, however, pushed back:

"It would be too dangerous if kids drove cars. They would get into wrecks."

To which I argued, "Adults get in wrecks all the time! I think kids would be even more careful than grown-ups."

"Kids are too short. They can't see out the windows."

To which I argued, "Maybe kids could just sit on a stack of books!"

"But then they couldn't reach the brakes."

To which I argued, "Maybe they should just make kid-sized cars!"

"We don't know all the rules about driving."

To which I argued, "Don't you know what a red light means?"

"Stop!" they called out.

"Don't you know what green means?"


"Don't you know what yellow means?"

"Be careful!"

"Right," I argued, "it means be careful, but adults seem to think it means go faster because they always speed up when they see a yellow light. See? Kids know the rules better than the adults."

It went on like this for some time, a fun give-and-take, but I'll be honest, there was a part of me that was disappointed that more of the kids weren't taking my side. I suppose I should chalk it up to wisdom on their part because, after all, the last thing we need are a bunch of three-year-olds behind the wheel. Indeed, I reckon our world would be more livable if a bit of the kids' wisdom rubbed off on adults and lead more of them to abandon their vehicles, but that doesn't appear to be about to happen.

No, I like being an adult. I like that I can eat ice cream any time I want, even as I fully understand why loving adults sometimes feel they need to serve as a stand-in for a child's self-control. Still, we all know that the things we learn in childhood tend to stay with us as we grow into adults. Sometimes adults do have to say "No" or "Enough" or "I'm not going to let you drive the car," but my gripe is that we too often do it when it isn't necessaryexpecting obedience instead of seeking agreement, commanding instead of striving for understanding, punishing or rewarding instead of trusting in the more certain lessons of natural consequences, insisting on being right rather than taking the time to actually listen to these smaller people who often see the world more clearly than we do.

That is the way I want to be treated and it's the way I try to treat the rest of you, even if you are children.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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!
Bookmark and Share