Friday, July 29, 2022

I'm Not The Boss Of These People


I'm not the boss of these people. 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.


In the end, a hermit helps 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 seniority, 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 a teacher 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 going through life in a state of what psychologist and Teacher Tom's Play Summit presenter Naomi Fisher calls "alert awareness," playing, learning, figuring things out. And as teachers we travel alongside them, helping. It is for that purpose alone that humans 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.


******

When I scan the the tiled faces in the above photo of the incredible people who are taking part in this year's Teacher Tom's Play Summit, I can't tell you how excited I am to share their wisdom and insights with you. They have inspired, informed, and challenged me over the months of putting this together. They'll do the same for you. Please join us August 13-17. Click here to get your free pass and learn more about all 20 of our incredible sessions with early childhood experts and thought-leaders from around the world. Professional development certificates are available and you can upgrade to unlimited access. Please share this far and wide. Let's link arms to change the world by helping the children, the most necessary people.

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, July 28, 2022

"She Spoke My Future"





We live in a time when the art of prophecy is practiced everywhere and respected no where.

Prophets were foundational in most major religions and prominent in most ancient societies. Perhaps the best known prophets is The Pythia, or Oracle of Delphi, who was connected to the Greek god Apollo. Prophets, we believe, have a direct line of communication with higher powers and what they are best known for is predicting the future. 

In this age of science, prophecy is not revered as it once was, even as prophecy is everywhere. Of course, there are still religious prophets as well as fortune tellers, astrologists, and psychics, although we tend to view them as cult leaders, charlatans, kooks, or entertainers in the vein of magicians. We tend to take today's secular prophets -- like political pundits, economists, and investment gurus -- more seriously, maybe because we are suspicious of those who assert a connection to the spiritual world, while being at least a little more trusting of those who base their predictions on "systems" and "science." But even so, most of us remain suspicious of these prophets as well, perhaps largely because you can pretty much find someone who has and will predict anything and everything. 

Indeed, prophecy has become so democratized that we all dabble in it as we strive to "read the signs" and "do my own research" and cherry pick from the plethora of prophecies around us, cobbling together our own predictions or expectations for the future. I imagine life was a lot less stressful when people let the Oracles of Delphi do the prognosticating. "Hey, she told me to sacrifice the goat, so I have no choice, right? Who am I to go against the prophet?"

Why am I writing about prophecy on this blog? Because as adults with young children in our lives, we are surrounded by it. You can't turn around without being faced with someone predicting the future for our children, from parenting and education prophets (like me), to scientists, journalists, and titans of industry, all eager to assert their "take" on what the future may hold depending on which "goat" you sacrifice today. 

Monique Gray Smith is a successful Indigenous Canadian author who writes everything from picture books, to young adult titles, to novels, and she spoke with me for the upcoming Teacher Tom's Play Summit. She told me that she never set out to be an author. It wasn't even on her radar until one day a stranger who had just met her said, "I look forward to reading your book one day." Monique says that at first she didn't think the woman could possibly be talking to her, but as it turns out, "She spoke my future."


Prophecy isn't some rare and mystical thing, but rather a sacred power that each of us possess. Monique told me that this is one of the great gifts we have to offer one another. Too often, however, our schools are based on the prophecy of deficit. When we focus on the "gaps" and weaknesses and challenges of children those deficits can easily become damaging self-fulfilling prophecies. She urges us to instead concern ourselves with the question, "What are the gifts that your child is blessed with?" It's only when we focus on gifts and blessings of children that we can truly "see" each child's path beyond the challenges of today, the one that leads to their best and brightest destiny.

That woman who foretold Monique's future may have forgotten her prophecy moments later, but it remains with Monique today. We all possess this ability to speak the future. It is an awesome power that comes with great responsibility, especially when it comes to young children. Monique tells us that prior to colonization, Indigenous education was guided by the "North Star" of love and joy rather than deficit. "When our heart is light," she tells us, it changes how we raise our children. It causes us to focus on their gifts and blessings. And when we do that we are more likely to plant the seeds that will grow into a future of gifts and blessings.

******


To watch my full interviews with Monique, please join us August 13-17 for Teacher Tom's Play Summit. Click here to get your free pass and learn more about all 20 of our incredible sessions with early childhood experts and thought-leaders from around the world. You will be inspired, informed, and challenged. Professional development certificates are available and you can upgrade to unlimited access. Please share this far and wide. Let's speak a bold and beautiful future together!

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, July 27, 2022

"Good Parenting"


Up until about the end of the Victorian era, the leading theory for why humans play was that it is a mechanism by which we release excess energy. Over the next few decades, however, people like John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, and Lev Vygotsky began to take play seriously. Particularly important, although largely forgotten today, was a German psychologist named Karl Groos, a researcher who primarily studied play in animals. He was among the very first to investigate the usefulness of play, proposing that play had evolved as an instinct that allows animals to "practice" the skills they will need to thrive.

"The very existence of youth is due in part to the necessity for play; the animal does not play because he is young, he has a period of youth because he must play."

While we still hear echoes of the Victorian idea today (e.g., "The kids just need to burn off some energy"), those of us who work with children, and in particular those of us enrolling our children and teaching in play-based preschools have come to embrace not just the "necessity for play," but even the primacy of play as the most effective and efficient mechanism for learning. In other words, we take play seriously.


The downside for many of us, however, is that we take play seriously. Seriously.


Recent decades have seen a ramping up of the idea of "good parenting." The bookshelves and blogs are chock-a-block with advice and counsel, much of it contradictory. Intentions are nobel, of course -- Who doesn't want to be a good parent? But at the same time we've been left with as many questions as answers. I often wonder if this phenomenon doesn't have something to do with our contemporary habit of dispersing families far and wide: rare is the child whose grandparents live in the same zip code. Whereas prior generations of parents primarily relied on their own parents for day-to-day guidance and support, there is now a disconnect between generations, leaving a void for the books and blogs to fill, which is simply a less personal and more confusing way to learn anything.


I wonder too if the trend toward smaller families isn't partly in play here as well. There was a time when parents relied on older children to take on some of the basic childcare responsibilities, allowing them the opportunity to develop some of the foundational skills and habits of caring for the smaller humans. And I reckon the era of mass media, followed by our current one of social media, is also a factor in that we now know there is always something to worry about.


Whatever the case, it seems that there are too many of us who, in the quest to provide our children with an authentic play-centric childhood, worry that somehow we're doing it wrong. Are we hovering too much? Are we being negligent? Do we have too many toys or not enough or the wrong kinds? Are we over-scheduled or is my child missing out on opportunities? How do screens fit in? Do I play with my child and how? There are no play-based schools where I live, what can I do? Do I homeschool, unschool, become a pain in the side of the teacher or school board? How can I protect my kids' childhood?


In other words, we take play very seriously and it's making us crazy. It seems like almost every day I receive a missive from someone seeking my counsel. I do my best to help, but listen, I'm just making it up as I go along just like you. Indeed, it's all any of us are doing on any given day: it's the beauty of life. Anything else would be rote and we'd all die of boredom.


If there was one secret I would pass along about being with children it would be to just treat them like people without forgetting that you are a person too. Attend to their needs and feelings and ideas, but attend to yours as well. Relax, you can't fail, and if one day they wind up in therapy, pat yourself on the back; knowing when and how to ask for help is itself a sign of good mental health. At the same time you'll do it wrong no matter what you do, so just do it the way you do it. Play with them when you feel like it. Teach them the games you like to play or the hobbies in which you love to immerse yourself. If you don't have a hobby then for god's sake, find one. Tell them you don't have time when you don't have time, but don't be a jerk about it. As Kahlil Gibran wrote, "Your children are not your children," they are rather fellow human beings with whom you are journeying for a time. They are special because they are people, not because they are kids. Tell them you love them because as the French proverb says, "It's not enough to love, you must say it."


"So you run yourself ragged," says psychologist and Teacher Tom's Play Summit presenter Vanessa LaPointe. "You twist yourself into a pretzel trying to make it all be just so, which is completely impossible." Our job isn't to make our children happy, it is, as Vanessa says, simply to "allow our children to grow into the fullest version of self so that they can then be happy." Or as another psychologist, Alison Gopnik frames it, we are not carpenters assigned the task of manufacturing children, but rather gardeners who know that our job is to provide nourishment and safety, while it's the seed's job to grow.


Play is serious business, but it's like love or happiness: it goes away when we take it too seriously. It's the work of childhood, but it's their work, not yours. Leave them to it, join them as a person, not a parent, and only when you feel compelled. When you have any questions about life, take some time to simply observe them in their play. That's where you'll find your answers. And most of all, know that the greatness of play is that it works whatever you do.

******

To watch my full interviews with Vanessa, please join us August 13-17 for Teacher Tom's Play Summit. Click here to get your free pass and learn more about all 20 of our incredible sessions with early childhood experts and thought-leaders from around the world. You will be inspired, informed, and challenged. Professional development certificates are available and you can upgrade to unlimited access. Please share this far and wide. It's not our job to make our children happy -- it's our job to let them be happy!

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, July 26, 2022

Nature? Nurture? Who cares? It's Respect That Matters


As a new parent, I was convinced that our daughter would grow up to be a sports playing, hammer wielding tomboy. After all, I was playing the role of stay-at-home-parent in our family, and I just assumed that my male influence would make it so. We didn't exactly try to raise her in a non-gender specific way, but her mom was the one heading off to the office, while her dad handled childcare, cooking, and cleaning. Not only that, but we both preferred her in short hair and overalls, and for the first couple years of her life, whenever she was out with me, everyone just assumed she was a little boy, a mistake I didn't always correct. If anyone was raising a child outside the cultural expectations for little girls, it was us.

When she was around two-years-old she came across a bejeweled crown in a toy store, put in on her head, looked me in the eye and said, "You don't know what girls do." She then proceeded to wear a crown, princess dresses, tutus, and sparkles every day for the next three years.

I wasn't disappointed, exactly, but I was surprised. After all, the mainstream debates over gender back then tended to be of the nature v. nurture variety and I was convinced that our nurturing would, of course, result in a girl who was not so, well, girly. I began to wonder if maybe nature had, indeed, won out. It was around this time that the two-year-old daughter of one of our friends began to dress herself in her brother's "boy clothes" and insist that the rest of us call her Joe. It wasn't a "phase" and today, 20 years later, we all know him as a young man. Was this even more evidence for nature? Or was it nurture?

Who cares? I mean, I'm sure there are scientists out there trying to figure it all out, and I'm convinced that they will continue find that it's some combination of both, but as a parent or educator in the real world, my responsibility is to stay out of it. If the child says they're a girl, they're a girl, even if it's only for a day or a week, and even if they aren't choosing frilly dresses. If they say they're a boy, they're a boy, even it it's only for a day or a week and even if they aren't choosing overalls. And if they don't want to be forced to pick a gender, it's not my job to push them one way or another. 

I know that for many, our attempts to raise children in a gender neutral way seems like a radical concept, simultaneously dangerous and silly. "Dangerous" because they fear our nurturing will result in forcing something on their children and "silly" because they expect that in-born gender wiring will win out. But "gender-neutral" only means that we seek to be neutral, which is to say we strive to take their word for it.

We do it because we respect children and there is nothing dangerous or silly about that.

In my interview with Australian early childhood expert Maggie Dent for the upcoming Teacher Tom's Play Summit she tells us that she continues to have to "heal the wounds" she has suffered due to gender expectations and stereotypes. Even though her gender identity matches her biology, she was, as she tells it, a loud, physical "tomboy" who was forever being told to quiet down, know her place, not get to big for her boots, and, above all, to be compliant, because girls are expected to be "people pleasers." She tells of an old family photo in which she is wearing an expression of "rage and disgust" over being forced to wear a fancy dress.


She's not the only woman to object to being shoved into the "woman box" even as she identifies as a woman. I can tell you that as a man, I resent being shoved into the "man box." We are all more and bigger than the stereotypes. Maggie talks of Australian fathers who are upset when their boys come home from school wearing nail polish fearing that it will somehow turn them gay or female, which is as silly as thinking that a stay-at-home father will turn daughters into macho men. As for the argument that children will be somehow confused if we don't stick with their "biological" gender, I ask you to consider how confusing it must have been for little Joe who knew, even at a very young age, that he was a boy even as the rest of the world was telling him he was wrong. 

Everything is confusing until it is not. That's what learning is all about. Humans can deal with confusing. It's lack of respect that wounds us.

We are born with genitals, but the rest is a social construct enforced by expectations and stereotypes that serve no one but those who would shove others into boxes. I might continue to struggle with things like gender neutral pronouns. I have 60 years of social conditioning to overcome. But I'm working on it, not because it's politically correct, but because I want to show my fellow humans, even if they are young children, the same sort of respect that I want for myself.

******

To watch my full interviews with Maggie, please join us August 13-17 for Teacher Tom's Play Summit. Click here to get your free pass and learn more about all 20 of our incredible sessions with early childhood experts and thought-leaders from around the world. You will be inspired, informed, and challenged. Professional development certificates are available and you can upgrade to unlimited access. Please share this far and wide. When we respect children we begin to heal the world!

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, July 25, 2022

"Play Can Save Humanity"


Yesterday, I listened to Pink Floyd's masterpiece The Wall as I showered. The album came out in 1979. I was a high school senior and on my way to university the following year. For those unfamiliar with it, the album was conceived as a rock opera and is the story of an alienated young man who responds to the slings and arrows of his life by building a metaphorical wall around himself ("All in all it's just an other brick in the wall"). 

At the time, I appreciated it as a work of art that showed me a person struggling with mental health, who had suffered at the hands of society, and who was undergoing a kind of ongoing existential crisis. Although I didn't necessarily identify with it, I knew that there were many kids around me who did, who had not had the kind of privilege that I had lucked into. I was a relatively well-adjusted youth with decent grades, plenty of friends and lots to look forward to in life. That doesn't mean I wasn't inspired to "try on" the affectations of youthful alienation and angst, but it was never really me, even as I found myself romanticizing the moodiness.

The record came back into my life when our daughter Josephine was 12. The entire 6th grade was given the assignment to create some sort of artistic response to The Wall. It was a project that took weeks, so once more the album regularly played in our home. By now, I was an educator and the story seemed more tragic than it had when I was younger. I didn't think that I was one of the adults who contributed bricks to the wall. I certainly didn't want to be that adult. I wanted to be a person who tore walls down, both for my child as well as the children I taught.

Perhaps the best known song from the album is the anthemic "Another Brick in the Wall," with its unforgettable lines:

We don't need no education
We don't need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teacher! leave them kids alone
Hey, teacher! Leave them kids alone.

At one point, a chorus of children take over singing it. Yesterday, as those young voices shouted, "Hey, teacher! Leave us kids alone," I began sobbing uncontrollably.

I've been involved with education for a long time now. I've always strived to do it the right way by placing children at the center, by not commanding or controlling or shaming them. I've tried, to the best of my ability at any given moment, to allow children to be free to do and be what they want to do and be. I've made plenty of mistakes. I've even made some children cry. But, all in all, I don't believe that I've ever been a brick in anyone's wall.

That said, there are still too many children for whom school does not work, who do not have the advantages that I had. Over the years, I've come to understand that for many kids, school is and was a kind of hell. We don't do anyone a favor when we ignore this fact. And we are especially irresponsible when we try to blame the kids themselves, or their parents, who are, in most cases products of this very same school system that manufactures at least as much alienation as it does education.

Part of what made me cry yesterday was when those children shouted, "Teachers!" I imagined them pointing their little fingers, their faces stony with anger. I'm aware that there are some awful human beings in our profession, as in any profession, but all in all most of the teachers I've known are likewise not to blame for the alienation. Indeed, teachers are the heroes of our schools because we are the ones who inject humanity into what would otherwise be a hollow behavioristic system of carrots and sticks. From where I sit, any successes our school system can point to are the direct results of teachers who find it in their hearts to mitigate the harm.

Teacher-activist, author, and Teacher Tom's Play Summit presenter Jesse Hagopian tells us that school taught him that he wasn't smart. He had been labeled by standardized tests as being "below" some arbitrary standard and it wasn't until "years later" that he came to understand his own intelligence. Likewise, Kisha Reid, another summit presenter and one of the world's leading experts on play-based learning, tells us, "Play taught me I was smart . . . It wasn't until I went to school that I started to doubt myself."


We tell ourselves that education is our society's great equalizer, that education will allow us to rise above and grow beyond, but for far too many of us, that is a myth. The world is full of people like Jesse and Kisha who have risen above the harmful tendencies of our system of mandatory schooling, with its relentless focus on deficits, but for every Jesse or Kisha, there are dozens, if not hundreds, who experience "education" as a wall to overcome or escape or, tragically, behind which to remain forever entrapped.

I cried yesterday, because I've been trying for decades, like Jesse and Kisha, to do my part to be the change I want to see in the world, but the central facts behind those lyrics remain. It was only a couple of years ago, that my friend and colleague John Yiannoudis blared that song into the streets of Athens, Greece to attract a crowd of hundreds to listen to me and others as we discussed our dreams for what education could be. More than 40 years later, those lyrics, those angry children, remain relevant.

But I remain unalienated, as does Jesse, as does Kisha. Jesse has built an inspiring career from "struggle" against the injustices of school and society, sprinkling his stories with the words "joyous" and "beautiful." Kisha has created a "circle of love" in which robust, authentic, play teaches generations of children and their parents that not only are they smart, but that they can do and achieve anything their hearts desire. "Play," she assures us, "can save humanity."

This is why I am once more hosting Teacher Tom's Play Summit. It is why I am committed to offering it for free and why we are inviting everyone who cares about children and education to take part. The last thing our world needs is more schooling, more curriculum, more testing, and more homework. What we need are more educators like Jesse and Kisha, who stand up boldly and who, as Kisha puts it, "Step into our positions as professionals." It means educators like you who know what is right for children, who love children, and who are committed to tearing down the walls.

******

To watch my full interviews with Jesse and Kisha, please join us August 13-17 for Teacher Tom's Play Summit. Click here to get your free pass and learn more about all 20 of our incredible sessions with early childhood experts and thought-leaders from around the world. You will be inspired, informed, and challenged. Professional development certificates are available and you can upgrade to unlimited access. Please share this far and wide. Let's tear down those walls . . . Or even better, not build them in the first place!

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, July 22, 2022

United In Struggle


Teacher Jesse Hagopian had no choice but to become an activist. As he tells his story at the upcoming Teacher Tom's Play Summit, he arrived at school on a Monday morning to find his Washington, DC classroom flooded and his students' projects, ones they had been working on for weeks, destroyed. The cause had been a simple rainstorm and a hole in the ceiling that he had been trying get repaired for months.

It was the era of 9/11 and military mobilization. As our government found billions to spend on unnecessary war, there was nothing in the budget to fix his classroom ceiling. As he tells it, the injustice of it made him understand that if he was going to truly serve children and their families, he had no choice but to stand up and, in his words, "struggle."

Jesse's conversation is riddled with the word struggle. For instance, when he talks about the fight against high stakes standardized testing in Seattle's public schools, he says it was "the scariest and most joyous struggle" with which he's ever been involved. It was scary because he and his colleagues were threatened with punishment and termination. It was joyous because "teachers, parents, and students linked arms" to work together.

I was in Seattle in 2013 during that struggle against what is called the MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) test. The teachers at Garfield High School were fed up with the testing regimen that had come to dominate school life. "We found that the average Seattle public school student was taking an average of 112 high stakes standardized tests during their K-12 career," says Jesse. High stakes testing had come to dominate the lives of both teachers and children. It was getting in the way of learning and instruction, it was unnecessarily stressing the kids out, it was an objectively unfair way to evaluate schools and educators, and, perhaps worst of all, the teachers all agreed that the test provided them with no useful information at all. As they dug, they discovered that a key school board member was heavily invested in the company that created the MAP test, an appearance of corruption at the very least.

At first, the district attempted to push forward with the test despite the teachers' unified resistance, threatening the teachers, but then the solitary kicked in as a majority of students refused, or in some cases outright sabotaged the test. Then the parent association threw its support behind the struggle. The rest is history. As I spoke with Jesse about the Seattle boycott that sparked boycotts across the country, I could see nothing but joy in his face. I could hear nothing but pride in his voice. 

There is no force on earth that can stand in the way of teachers, parents, and students united.


Jesse would subsequently take a lead role in the successful "Lunch and Recess Matter" struggle in response to the fact that far too many elementary school kids were getting less than 20 minutes a day for a combined lunch/recess, a phenomenon driven by the very same standardized testing regimen. The district again fought the teachers, but today, Seattle schools are mandated to provide a minimum of 45 minutes of recess to all children, still far too little, but at least movement in the right direction. Again, it was the story of teachers, parents, and students linking arms, united in struggle.

The same phenomenon, Jesse tells us, is happening with the Black Lives Matter at School movement, a struggle that again finds Jesse at the forefront, both as an activist and as well as co-editor of the namesake book Black Lives Matter at School

As Jesse puts it, "Parents come to see that our struggles as teachers are also struggles for their kids. That's why they join us."

All of these struggles, Jesse points out, are ongoing.

Talking with Jesse is inspiring. In his mouth, the word "struggle" loses its negative connotations because time and again it involves a linking arms, of people working together, shoulder-to-shoulder, on behalf of our children.

Perhaps we don't all have the courage of Jesse Hagopian to step out and take the lead, but listening to his stories convinces me that as adults who care deeply about children, it's incumbent upon us to always be prepared to link arms with one another. As Jesse's career as an activist shows, it might be frightening, but together, united in struggle, nothing can stand in our way.

******

To watch my inspiring full interview with Jesse please join us August 13-17 for Teacher Tom's Play Summit. Click here to get your free pass and learn more about all 20 of our incredible sessions with early childhood experts and thought-leaders from around the world. Professional development certificates are available and you can upgrade to unlimited access. Please share this far and wide. Let's link arms to change the world!


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, July 21, 2022

I Don't Know What The Children Are Learning As They Play, But I Do Know They Are Learning


I was recently asked how I go about explaining to skeptical parents what their child is learning as she plays. It's a common enough question, one I rarely needed to address in my day-to-day life as a teacher, largely because the Woodland Park Cooperative School's reputation as a play-based school precedes it, mostly only attracting families who are seeking what we have to offer -- the opportunity for their children to play with other kids in a safe enough, loving, interesting environment -- so I didn't often have to deal with skeptics. The families of the children I teach tend to view play as a pure good, like love, one that needs no other supporting evidence.

When I see children on the floor, say, building with blocks, I know they are learning, because that's what play is: it's children setting about asking and answering their own questions. Can I stack this block atop that one? Can I make it even higher? Add a roof? Create a room? A zoo? Can I persuade this other person to join me in my vision? Can I join them in theirs? They aren't saying these things aloud or even in their heads, but it's quite clear that when humans play, when we freely choose an activity, that is what we are doing, testing the world, performing experiments, seeking answers to questions we ourselves pose. Play is how our instinct to become educated manifests itself, a concept that is supported by more than a century of research and observation performed by the brightest names in education, from Dewey and Piaget to Montessori and Vygotsky.

But as to the question of "what" children are learning at any given moment, the only one who could possibly know is the person who is playing, and the moment we interrupt them to ask, the moment we test them, we forever change it. It's a version of what in physics is called the "observer effect." As humans play, they are unconsciously asking and answering questions as they emerge, pursuing trains of thought, playing with variables, theorizing, making connections between one thing and another. The moment another person steps in with his own questions, that pursuit stops, and when the questioner is in a position of authority, like a teacher or parent, those questions become an imperative. The child must end their learning to explain it, to prove it, to translate it, and to invariably narrow it down to a sentence or two that can only, at best, provide a glimpse of a glimpse of what is actually being learned. 

Experienced play-based teachers know all of this, of course. We tend rather to stand back and instead of testing the children we attempt to closely observe, then make educated guesses about what we imagine that child is learning. When they attempt to stack one block atop another, for instance, we might guess they are learning about balance. When the building falls we might surmise they are learning about gravity. When they invite another child to play with them, we say they are learning important social or emotional skills. But at bottom, it's all just guesswork and imagination, and even if we are correct at one level, we are invariably wrong about much of it, both specifically and through omission.

The great truth is that no one can ever know what another person is learning unless they directly tell us of their own accord: "Guess what I learned? . . ." And this is especially true of young children who likely don't even have the vocabulary or experience to put their insights into words capable of communicating the depth and texture of their moments of Eureka!

I rarely attempt to answer the question of what a child is learning at any given moment, even as I spend much of my day wondering about it. I can say, when asked, "I see her building with blocks," "I see her attempting to balance one atop another," "I see her building falling down," those are the things I know to be true; observable facts. But to suggest that I can know with any precision what she is learning is to ask me to read another person's mind. There is no test capable of answering that and our guesses are simply that, guesses, and they can only, at best, get at a very narrow sliver of truth.

But I do know my fellow humans are learning when they play and that has to be enough.

******

 Teacher Tom's Play Summit is free, online and takes place August 13-17. Click here to get your free pass and learn more about all 20 of our incredible sessions with early childhood experts and thought-leaders from around the world. Professional development certificates are available and you can upgrade to unlimited access. Please share this far and wide. Play is what the world needs right now!

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Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Real Pretend


"I'm a fairy," she told me. I guess I didn't respond as she was hoping, so she widened her eyes and raised her voice, "A real fairy!"

As she flitted away, I believed her. "Real pretend" isn't a term I've ever taught children, but it regularly emerges from children as they engage in dramatic play.

"I not really dead," a child once told me when I checked on him as he was lying on the ground. "But I'm real pretend dead."

Most children, most of the time, know the line. If an adult presses them, they'll tell you they're children pretending to be dinosaurs or snow leopards or Elsas or Batmen, but from within their games, it's all real. Some of the most intense preschool arguments I've ever encountered are over real pretend things. "I'm shooting webs from my fingers!" "No you're not! Spiderman shoots webs from his wrists!" "Fingers!" "Wrists!"

As the adult, we might be tempted to find it silly, to step in by telling them that Spiderman isn't real, but that is entirely beside the point. The kids already know that Spiderman is pretend, but the story they are creating together is real.

Actress, New York City Children's Theater educator, and Teacher Tom's Play Summit presenter Caitlyn McCain describes acting as the process of "trying on" what it might mean to be another person. "Young people do it literally when they try on costumes," she points out. The worst thing you can do, she tells us, is to form judgments about a character prior to "trying on." For instance, even if she knows from the script that the character she's playing is the villain, she has to set that aside because, this real pretend person, no matter how heinously they behave on stage, does not necessarily view themself as evil. There is a reason they act as they do and it is the actor's job to find an answer the question of "Why?"


It's easy to see the connection between what actors do when they truly embody their characters and what children do. Both are seeking to understand, from the inside, what it means to be another person. "We would all be better off," Caitlyn says, "if we made a habit of 'trying on' before forming our judgments."

When children try on costumes, when they step inside another person, they are engaged in radical curiosity. What does it mean to be this person, to think like this person, to experience the world as this person? How does it make me feel? How does it make others feel? We've all heard actors talk about the research they do in order to better understand their characters. Young children do their research from within the characters they embody. 

This, I think, is at least part of what children mean when they say it's real pretend. The "real" refers to the learning.

******

To watch my full interview with Caitlyn please join us August 13-17 for Teacher Tom's Play Summit. Click here to get your free pass and learn more about all 20 of our incredible sessions with early childhood experts and thought-leaders from around the world. Professional development certificates are available and you can upgrade to unlimited access. Please share this far and wide. Radical curiosity might be just what we need to change the world!

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, July 19, 2022

The Heart Of All True Learning


Imagine a specific color you've never seen before. When I try, I can't do it. I know that there are colors I've never seen, such as those that exist beyond the visible spectrum. Indeed, scientists tell us that many animals that rely on vision, like sighted insects, can see ultra-violet light, which means there is an entire spectrum of color that exist that we cannot see. Likewise, scientists talk of dimensions beyond the three we perceive yet we cannot even conceive of space with four or more.

Our perceptions have evolved to keep us alive long enough to reproduce, which is not the same as saying that they allow us to see the world as it really is. What we perceive is really just a distillation, a simplification, of a far more complex reality into the essentials we require to trigger the instincts, emotions, and thoughts that will, in turn, produce behaviors that are most likely to lead to our survival. We have, for instance, evolved to see tigers as bright red-orange contrasted with black, making them highly visible, warning us to steer clear. To other animals, like those that tend to become their prey, tigers are well camouflaged amidst the greens and shadows of the jungle.

"The mind," writes priest and philosopher Nicholas Malebranche, "does not pay equal attention to everything it perceives. For it applies itself infinitely more to those things that affect it, that modify it, and that penetrate it, than to those that are present to it but do to affect it." In other words, our minds are highly alert to the the orange and black stripes, whereas we, at best, catch the merest glimpse of the spectacular, and irrelevant, neon rainbow that is the hummingbird's plumage.

Our perceptions are our window on the world, but they are also our prisons. And this phenomenon is not limited to the long, slow operations of evolution. Culture also quite effectively blinds us to realities that other cultures perceive quite clearly. The same is true for race or social status or neurotype. As a middle-aged, middle-class, White, neurotypical American male, there are many realities about our world that I simply cannot perceive without making the effort to see the world from the perspective of others who are not like me. What we call privilege is both a window through which I perceive the world, but also a prison that prevents me from fully experiencing life.

Several years ago, I was part of a group of people who were called "liberal White supremacists" by a young Black woman. No, I immediately thought, she is wrong. That's not me. But I kept thinking about what she had said. A few days later I was speaking with teacher-activist, writer, and Teacher Tom's Play Summit presenter Jesse Hagopian. I told him the story then asked, "Am I a liberal White supremacist?" He paused for a moment, considering my perspective, my feelings, but also wanting to honor me with the truth from his perspective as a Black man. He finally replied, "Well, I wouldn't have put it that way." I will likely never be able to see ultra-violet light or four dimensions, but I can now see what this young woman sees. When I share this story with White people, many take offense, but I want them to know that the experience has released me, at least a little, from the prison of my perceptions.


Another play summit presenter Mónica Guzmán, journalist and author of the book I Never Thought of it That Way, proposes "radical curiosity" as the key to the prisons of our perceptions. According to Guzmán, the way to escape our divided world is for each of us to practice turning our judgments into questions and to then listen with the goal of understanding rather than of responding or correcting or arguing. 

This is what stands at the heart of all true learning.

From the time we are born, it's our curiosity, and only our curiosity, that can free us from the prisons of our narrow, incomplete, and limiting perceptions. Of course, there will always be new locked doors to encounter, new limitations to our perceptions, new vistas of emotions and ideas to be opened to us. We will always be searching for keys to our cages, and that, I would assert, is what makes life worth living.

******
To watch my full interviews with Jesse and Mónica please join us August 13-17 for Teacher Tom's Play Summit. Click here to get your free pass and learn more about all 20 of our incredible sessions with early childhood experts and thought-leaders from around the world. Professional development certificates are available and you can upgrade to unlimited access. Please share this far and wide. Radical curiosity might be just what we need to change the world!


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