Friday, June 30, 2023

Trying Out Material

"Oh brother, not again." They were words I would normally expect from a grown man from another era, but here was a four-year-old saying them while slapping his forehead and grinning ear-to-ear, looking around, apparently for some sort of response.

I was the only one in the vicinity so I asked, "What not again?"

Without missing a beat, he replied, while rolling his eyes, "You don't want to know."

"But I do want to know!"

"Oh man, get with the times!"

Hey, that was one of my lines. The boy was trying out material, like a comedian. I parried, "Oh, believe me, I'm with the times."

He tipped his head, comically peering at me from under his brow, "I wouldn't be so sure about that."

It was like conversing with one of those overly precocious kids from a sitcom of my youth, stringing together cliched phrases that no "real" kid would ever say. Except right now, of course. "Hmm, what should I be sure about?"

He paused, then looked at the sky as if for relief, "Why me!"

That's when I lost it. We laughed together. He was satisfied with himself. Superficial good humor had been his goal. It's a disguise we all put on at times, almost as a courtesy to our fellow humans. Well that's two minutes of my life I'll never get back. Another day in paradise. It's five o'clock somewhere. You don't want to know. They are superficial, slightly sarcastic remarks, said to the room, often spoken in moments of collective tension or concern. They can land badly, seeming callous if spoken at the wrong moment, but often corny levity is just what the moment needs: a reminder to chuckle, to not sweat the small stuff.

This boy was doing what children have always done, imitating the adults in his life, trying out material. He wasn't telling jokes, but rather injecting a kind of we're-all-in-this-together humor, a subtle, complex difference that he was working on understanding.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices

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!

Thursday, June 29, 2023

Why We Must Demand Play-Based Early Childhood Education

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the World Economic Forum, and Unicef (and according to the dubious measurement of standardized test scores) Finland has the best schools in the world. They have achieved this status by building their educational system on evidence. The US languishes around the middle of the pack, often falling into the bottom half according to some measures. We have achieved this lack of success by relying upon the busy-body guesswork of policy makers, billionaire dilettantes, and administrators who listen to them.

It shouldn't be surprising that the system based on evidence, on research, on reality, would outperform the one based on the fantasies and feelings of people who are not professional educators. In Finland, they do not try to teach kindergarteners to read because the evidence tells us that formal literacy instruction should not start until at least the age of seven and that children who are compelled into it too early often suffer emotionally and academically in the long run. In the US we are forcing kindergartners, and even preschoolers, to learn to read. There is no, as in zero, research that finds longterm gains from teaching to read in kindergarten. In fact, the research that has been done tends to find early instruction reduces literacy in later years.

The evidence tells us that early childhood education should focus on equity, happiness, well-being and joy in learning. This is what Finland has done by basing their educational model on childhood play, which is, again according to the overwhelming preponderance of research, the gold standard. The US has based its early childhood education on standardized testing, increased "instructional time," bottoms-in-your-seats carrot-and-stick standardization, and an ever-narrowing focus on literacy and math despite the evidence that it causes longterm harm to children, because people in power who know nothing about education think that sounds good to them.

We are through the looking glass here. We are doing harm to our children. We are subjecting them to decades of "education" that is, again according to the evidence, doing them far more harm than good, while children in other countries are being provided the best education available because the adults are adult enough to look at reality and act accordingly.

This is not my feeling. This is not my opinion. This is not my philosophy. These are the facts as far as we can currently determine them. It is cruel, even abusive, to base our educational system on other people's feelings and fantasies, even if they are rich and powerful. For the sake of our children, we must demand play-based education because, damn it, that's what the evidence tells us.

(Please click the links in this post. Most of them take you to articles, research, and papers that provide even further links into the evidence.)


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!

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

What Would Young Children Vote For?

Children are rarely surveyed or polled about anything important. Oh sure, you can find plenty of "data" on what they want to be when they grow up and I imagine there is quite a bit of marketing research out there in private hands, but when it comes to what children really want from their lives, especially preschoolers, we have little more than anecdotes.

The few surveys I've seen, however, tell us that what children seem to want most is more time with their families. This is obviously not true for children with toxic home lives, and teenagers might be more focused on their friends, but this result rings true, at least when it comes to the young children I've known. 

If you want to stir people up, say at a dinner party, try suggesting that voting should be the right of every citizen from the moment of birth. Most will assume you're joking, but I've found that even the most open-minded of adults scoff at the idea. They're too immature. They're too irrational. They're too emotional. They can't comprehend the complexities. They're too easily manipulated. They're too frivolous. You know, the same arguments that were used to argue against enfranchising women and racial minorities. If our current political situation has taught us anything it's that immaturity, irrationality, and emotionalism aren't the exclusive domain of children. It's obvious that adult voters are also confused, easily manipulated, and frivolous. Those are not childish traits -- they're human traits.

But, I'm not here to argue for giving children the right to vote (although there are interesting arguments to be made), I'm only pointing out that if they could vote, they would likely be on the side of social and economic policies that allow their parents and other loving adults to spend more time with them. 

I imagine they would vote for parks, libraries, and other places where they could hang out with their families. 

They would likely vote for shorter and more flexible work hours, more paid time off, and child care right there where their parents work. 

The young children in my life know that the solution to homelessness is to give people homes; the solution to hunger is to give people food; and the solution to poverty is to give people a living wage. 

They would vote to take smartphones away from their parents and other loving adults during family time. 

They would vote for any policy that caused their parents to worry less so that they could live more in the moment.

In short, I'm confident that children, if left to vote in their own best interest (without manipulative adults inserting themselves with their "pragmatic" objections or kooky economic theories) would vote for the most family-friendly agenda in history. They would vote to spend more time with their families and they would want that for other kids as well.

Is that immature? Irrational? Not to me and I expect not to you. 

Of course, I don't expect that we will be giving children the right to vote any time soon, but I sure like the idea of a political movement based on the premise of more family time.


"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
If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 

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!

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

What Happens When We Turn Thinking Over To Machines?

I used to keep both city and state maps in my car along with a national road atlas, just in case. Whenever I was going to spend more than a day or two in a new place, I'd pull into a gas station for a local map. They were often free with a fill up. Before going anywhere for the first time, I'd spread the appropriate map out on the hood of the car and plot my route. Better was to have a travel companion to serve as navigator. 

I grew up in a household of paper maps. My father was a civil engineer who would come home from work with rolls of old transportation maps for my brother and me. We would spread them out on the floor, study them, color them, and imagine ourselves traversing this mountain pass, crossing that bridge, or swimming in those lakes. When the National Geographic arrived each month, the first thing I'd do is make a study of the maps of exotic places. One of the most enjoyable classes I took in college was a course in orienteering where we would have to find our way around the woods using only a compass and a map.

Today, of course, the GPS on our smartphones has replaced paper maps. And rightfully so. I mean, unless you find yourself in a cellular dead zone, and those are becoming increasingly rare, it's impossible to get lost. GPS is an improvement over the old spread-the-map-on-the-hood approach to way finding. I no longer feel compelled to memorize my route when wandering a strange place. I can't remember the last time I got that urgent, panicky feeling that comes from realizing that I'm lost in the world, or the frustration that comes from thinking you're in the right place, but not knowing for sure. And then there is all the time I save by being able to go directly to my destination without all the dead ends and course corrections. GPS does the job more accurately and efficiently than I ever could on my own.

Of course, I've noticed that I'm slowly losing my sense of myself in space. As a younger man, I was always aware of north-south-east-west. Today, I have to think about it. And then there were the times that good things happened while I was lost. In Australia I came across a clutch of wild koalas when I turned down the wrong lane. While trying to find my way in Paris I stumbled across a magnificent cathedral that I later learned was Notre Dame. And I can't tell you how many incredible hole-in-the-wall restaurants, shops, and artworks I've "discovered" while lost. The experience of being lost summons forth resources you didn't know you had. It makes you ask questions of strangers, look for clues, and, at least for a time, live by your wits in a way that GPS has made impossible. Sometimes when I'm in a strange town I try to recreate the experience by just setting out to explore, but no matter how much I twist and turn, I can't recreate that feeling of being at sea in the world because I know, ultimately, that I have a machine in my pocket that knows the way.

The phonograph was introduced to the world in the late 1880's. It was a machine that brought recorded music to the masses. Up until then, if you wanted to hear music, you had to leave your home and seek out a live performance. If you wanted music in your home, you could either hire musicians -- which was cost prohibitive, not to mention a pain in the neck -- or you could learn to make music yourself. American composer John Philip Sousa was not a fan of the phonograph. He worried that once anyone could have music on demand, they would no longer learn to make it for themselves. And he proved to be right. I know there are still people who spend their evenings gathered around pianos or campfires raising their voices together in harmony, but it has become exceedingly rare. Far fewer of us average folks are proficient on musical instruments than during the Victorian era. Sure, most of us sing along with our favorite recording artists from time to time, but churches are one of the last bastions of true amateur sing-alongs. 

I'm not giving up the ability to listen to Stevie Wonder at the touch of a button, but Sousa's concern was prescient: by turning music over to a machine, something that was once central to our humanity has been, if not lost, at least transformed.

Of course, that's the whole point of machines, isn't it? Whenever we make a machine that can do something better than we can, we invariably turn that activity over to the machine. Cars replace walking. Washing machines replace wash tubs. GPS is replacing paper maps. Of course, on the flip side, we now have treadmills and stationary cycles, machines designed to make up for the exercise we lost when we stopped walking and doing physically taxing housework. We have karaoke machines to bring communal music-making back into our lives. I wonder if the popularity of "escape rooms" isn't in some way a response to what we lost when we stopped actually getting lost.

They tell us that we will soon have machines that can think better than us. 

We've already turned some of our thinking over to the machines. Outside of classrooms, few of us do our own math any more. We have machines for that. When we have research to do, we turn to machines. Likewise, machines perform humanly impossible feats of data analysis, and increasingly, people are using machines for routine writing (think ChatGPT). And honestly, I'm happy to have machines doing those kinds of things for me, even as I wonder about what we are losing.

Socrates was famously suspicious of the new technology of the phonetic alphabet. We only know about him today because his student Plato used that very alphabet it to record his mentor's teachings. Like with Sousa, Socrates was worried about the human cost of this new technology. He worried that once all our thoughts and ideas could be set in writing, they would no longer live in our minds:

"You know, Phaedrus, writing shares a strange feature with painting. The offspring of painting stand there as if they are alive, but if anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent. The same is true of written words. You would think they were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever. When it has once been written down, every discourse roams about everywhere, reaching indiscriminately those with understanding no less than those who have no business with it, and it doesn't know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not. And when it is faulted and attacked unfairly, it always needs its father's support; alone, it can neither defend itself nor come to its own support."

In Socrates' day, it was not uncommon for even every day people to be able to recite the entirety of the epic poems of Homer. Today, at best, we have a few pop songs committed to memory. Socrates, like Sousa, was not wrong. By turning activities over to machines (or technology) we always lose something along the way. I imagine when our earliest ancestors turned over the opening of shellfish to rock tools, there was something of our past selves that got left behind.

Our history as a species tells us that as we make thinking machines we will increasingly turn our thinking over to machines, just as we've been doing since the dawn of time. If the machine can do it better, the machine does it. The question today isn't whether or not this is a good idea, that ship has sailed, but rather how far we should go. Personally, I don't think we will ever create machines that can do all of our thinking for us -- the human mind is simply far too vast, complex, and unknowable for that -- but many thinkers I respect are sounding alarm bells. Some are predicting that our machines will inevitably take over and that the only question is whether or not they will allow us to survive. Maybe they'll keep us around as precocious pets. The alarmists might be right, but I imagine that their objections will likely only survive into the future the way the concerns of Socrates and Sousa have survived. They will be proven right, but by the time we realize it, we will no longer be capable of seeing what the fuss was about.

It reminds me of the transformative process of becoming a parent. Before I knew I wanted a child, it all looked like stinky diapers, tantrums, and sleepless nights. Who needs it? Once I became a father, however, once I'd been transformed by the experience, those things remained part of it, but they didn't matter so much. This is the way most of us are about recorded music and literacy today: we're able to recognize what we've lost, but with a shrug of shoulders instead of the shaking of fists. Meanwhile, most of us willingly, even eagerly, are turning over more and more of our thinking to machines. We joke, "I can't go anywhere any more without my GPS," acknowledging that the machine has taken over even as we recall there was a time when we could do it, imperfectly and with greater labor, for ourselves.

As our machines take over more and more of our thinking, with our blessing, our schools tend to be hold outs, expecting our children to spend decades learning to do things like memorizing and ciphering that in the real world are being done by machines. Today, schools are concerned about the ability of machines to write papers for students, even research papers, complete with citations. Educators are now trying to bust kids for simply doing what they will be doing for the rest of their lives. Maybe it would be better to acknowledge the real world and instead give assignments that require kids to do things that machines cannot. I don't exactly know what that is, but I will say when I asked ChatGPT to write a blog post on play-based learning in the style of Teacher Tom, it produced absolute crap. What if our schools embraced the boon of our machine world and instead of forcing kids to do things that machines can do better, free them up to discover what it is they can do, what they can think, what they can create, that machines cannot?

I'm not entirely certain how that would look as an educational system, but as I watch children play together without the constant intervention of adults, I see humans doing all manner of things that no machine will ever be able to do. As long as we make machines that can do things better than we can, the machines will take over those particular things. They always have. But humans are so much bigger than machines. There is so much more for us to learn about being human. Our potential is barely tapped. It seems to me that the best way forward, the human way forward, is to play, or as Kurt Vonnegut puts it, to "fart around." That's a place GPS will never be capable of finding for us.


"This inspiring book is essential reading for every family choosing a preschool, every teacher working with young children, and every citizen who wonders how we can raise children who will make the world a better place." ~Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids
If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here!

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!

Monday, June 26, 2023

"Whoever Gets It Gets It!"

I was explaining to some of our school's families how "sharing" works at Woodland Park: if a kid is using something that another kid wants to use, we coach the kids to say, "I want that when you're finished" or, in the true language of childhood, "Next!" We don't compel the first child to give up their plaything either right away or according to a timer, but rather permit them to continue using it until they're finished, however long that takes, albeit with the information that there are other children awaiting a turn.

In my description, I was particularly enthusiastic over the power of calling "Next!" which is how we did it when I was a boy growing up on a suburban cul-de-sac. I don't recall being taught to call "Next!": it's one of those things I always knew, copied, I'm sure, from the older children I played with in whatever backyard we found ourselves that day. If the swings were occupied, "Next!" was as close to a sacred agreement as one can have. If anyone tried to jump your claim, you'd say, "Hey, I called it!" and they had to step aside. Indeed, it wouldn't have occurred to any of us to talk about sharing in this context: it was all about who called it first, just as we would shout "Shotgun!" when we were older to claim the front passenger seat in the car.

One of the parents stopped me to say, "But these children are too young and innocent for 'Next!' They don't have the kind of experiences you had growing up." She wasn't arguing against the concept, just the short-cut, which she felt lacked the courteousness she wished for her child. And indeed, "Next!" isn't particularly polite. It's a word from "the street," where children played unsupervised, and in all honesty, most preschoolers today are being raised in parlors where their street instincts get blunted by constant supervision, so her point is not without validity.

That said, I like to think of our school as a vacant lot. Adults are supervising, of course, but my expectation is that we all step back and trust the children to create a community of their own, one that may not always fit our adult notions of niceness, but that functions for them nevertheless. As preschoolers, the older ones are about the age I was when mom first started sending me "outside," closing the door behind me, leaving me in a world of neighborhood children to figure things out. It wasn't always peachy, of course, but most of the time we solved our dilemmas of limited resources by calling "Next!" or "Shotgun!" or "Me first!" and if we started "innocent," it didn't last long.

For several weeks there had been a single tennis ball on the playground. I don't know how it got there, but it had become one of the most sought after items. There was in particular a group of our three and four-year-olds for whom that ball has become a sort of grail, with some of them forgoing their jackets in the rush to get outside and find that ball each day. In the beginning, whoever got the ball would then walk around clutching it as others danced about him, pleading and bargaining for a turn. There was quite a bit of unproductive arguing at first, especially since the person with the ball wasn't particularly inclined to relent.

Of course, the great truth about balls is they're really no fun if you just hold them. At some point they must be thrown or rolled or bounced, and once that happened, all bets were off, which meant that, at intervals, we had a mad dash of bumping bodies chasing after the ball, followed by several minutes of negotiating over who was "next" before another free-for-all that did not necessarily produce results that matched the outcome of those negotiations, instead tending to favor the fleet of foot and sharp of elbow. There was anger and tears and even the threat of hitting. It was not easy to stay out of it to be honest and it did occur to me to just get a few more tennis balls out of the shed, but I managed to stay back in the hope that they would work it out for themselves.

And I was rewarded, although only after things devolved into a back-and-forth of angry pushing. As I moved near to nip the violence in the bud, I heard the boy with the ball shout, "Hey, no pushing!"

"But it's my turn!"

"No, it's not! I got it!"

"But it's my turn!"

Then, before I could do anything, he had his moment of genius, "It's no body's turn! Whoever gets it gets it!"

A friend agreed, "Yeah, whoever gets it gets it!" There were several more echoes of agreement, including from the boy who had only moments before insisted it was his turn. "Whoever gets it gets it!"

With that, the ball was hurled over their heads toward an empty part of the playground and the scrum was on, children shouting, "Whoever gets it gets it!" as they jostled one another, their argument ended with an agreement that would not pass muster in a parlor, but was just perfect for this moment on the playground.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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!

Friday, June 23, 2023

Collecting Perspectives

Last week, while on one of our regular trips to New York City to visit our daughter, my wife and I went with her to the world premiere of our friend Rob Epstein's new documentary about the 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist live performance of Taylor Mac's 24-Decade History of Popular Music.

The biggest challenge for Rob and his co-director Jeffery Friedman was to take the hundreds of hours of footage from this one-time-only 24-hour performance during which Mac sang 246 songs, covering the span of American history from 1776 to 2016, and somehow condense it into two hours while still conveying the thought-provoking beauty of this unique performance. The film is currently wrapping up a short tour of large screens before premiering in its permanent home on HBO Max where it will be available for streaming as of June 27.

Going in, all I knew about Taylor Mac was that he is a well-regarded NYC actor, playwright, performance artist, director, producer, and singer-songwriter who has won numerous prizes and honors throughout his career including a MacArthur Genius Grant. Most people, however, would probably first and foremost label him as a drag queen. I also knew going in that he uses the word judy as a gender pronoun. I was going to have the opportunity to meet him after the premier and even practiced using judy, but found that everyone else, including his spouse, was using the traditional male pronouns, so that's what I did.

If what you've read so far plugs you in, I'm assuming you'll skip the documentary, although I urge you not to because you'll miss out on something extraordinary. 

History, they say, is told by the winners. And it's true to the extent that most of us learn the stories as told from the perspective of the majority, which in the case of American history tends to be white, male, and straight. As a straight, white male, I've seen myself at the center of the American story for most of my life, but for the past few decades I've found myself craving every alternative perspective I can get my hands on. American history as told from the perspective of a Native American tells different stories in different ways than the ones I grew up with. Black and brown people show me stories through perspectives that have always been there but are new to me. The stories told by women bring yet more depth and, again, perspective. The perspective presented by Taylor Mac is an unapologetically queer one. His choice to present it through the history of popular music, starting with Yankee Doodle Dandy (which we learn was originally sung by the British as an insult to Americans), shows us that much of our history's beauty and horror has always hidden in plain sight (or sound) through songs we've known and loved.

As Mac sang a popular sea chanty from the early 1800's, a song about the teamwork of hoisting a sail, we see the beauty of Americans pulling together to get things done. When he pauses to explain that the lyrics tell us that when they are done they will go together to rape enslaved women, we are crushed by the causal horror with which many of our fellow Americans have always lived. I was reminded of the song Jump Jim Joe that we sang for years in preschool, not knowing its history in racist minstrel shows during the 1820's. When I learned this historical fact about our beloved song, one that I'd sometimes referred to as our school's anthem, I was at first reluctant to stop singing it. After all, the children didn't know. But now I knew and knowing meant it had to go. Mac says to his audience that he understands why someone might not want to give up something, anything, that builds community and brings people together. "I get it," he says. But when the core of that unity is "evil" we are morally obliged to rid ourselves of it.

This is exactly why I crave new perspectives, not just on history, but everything. The older I get, the more I understand that my understanding of the world, even things that I felt were firmly established, is always incomplete. There is always another perspective. As an Ojibwe educator named Hopi Martin once told me, even if you've talked with all the humans, you then have to start asking the animals and plants.

I was recently accused of "indoctrinating" children: first by an insulting neighbor, then, after posting here about it, by "readers" who may or may not have actually read my post about it. The basic gist of their collective objections was that, as parents, they and only they had the right to decide what, when, and how their children should be exposed to history, gender, sexuality, and race. In other words, they objected to the very idea of offering their children any perspective other than their own.

I get it. 

The perspectives of people who experience the world in ways other than we do force us to rethink everything, even some of the things we hold sacred. That can be upsetting, frightening, and, perhaps most importantly, it can make us feel that the things that hold our beloved community together are being threatened. It's upsetting to learn that our anthems are rooted in evil. The state song of Kentucky, as Mac tells us, originally included the racial slur "darkies." It was only changed, after a great deal of controversy, to "people" in the 1970's. People of Kentucky, that cosmetic change does not erase the evil.

But I get it. Allowing ourselves to see through the eyes of others always contains the prospect of transforming our world in both large and small ways. That can obviously be upsetting. No one wants to be shown their own evil, but true evil, I've found, comes from knowing better and not doing better. My discovery, however, is that most of what I learn from exposing myself to new perspectives does not take anything away from me, but rather adds to, and even multiplies, me. To put it selfishly, the more perspectives I collect, the bigger I become.

Viewing Taylor Mac's masterpiece as condensed for the screen in this documentary, caused me to squirm at times. I didn't always like how it made me feel. But it did make me bigger, which is what education is always all about. As the author Doris Lessing wrote, "People who love literature have at least part of their minds immune from indoctrination. If you read, you can learn to think for yourself." In other words, our strongest defense against being indoctrinated, which is to say avoid being trapped by one narrow perspective, is to get out there, collect perspectives, and think for ourselves. The more perspectives we've understood, the easier it is to think for ourselves. No one possesses the whole truth, but together, sharing and listening, we might be able to come close.

I cried during my viewing of the documentary of Taylor Mac's 24-Decade History of Popular Music. It overwhelmed me as Mac urged the entire live audience of some 600 people to engage in a slow-motion fist fight with one another. It was both painful and joyful to see all those people, strangers brought together for a 24-hour theater experience, going through the motions of a fistfight, slapping, punching, and kicking, while simultaneously smiling, laughing, and creating. Together. 

To quote Lessing again, "That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you've understood all your life, but in a new way."


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices

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!

Thursday, June 22, 2023

"That's A Lot Of Glue"

During my first year teaching preschool, I was appalled at the amount of glue kids were squirting from our little Nancy bottles. It just seemed so wasteful. Committed to not bossing kids around, I tried using informative statements like, "That's a lot of glue," "It only takes a dot of glue to hold a googly eye," and "I think that's too much," but to no avail. I attempted role modeling and narrating my own "proper" glue usage with similar results. I even purchased new bottles, snipping the tips to create extra tiny holes in the hopes of limiting the flow. The kids just handed the bottles back to me saying it was "too hard," causing me to make the holes a little larger and little larger until the good white stuff was flowing freely again.

It was only after many months that I finally gave up my obsession with waste, introduced the glue table, and started just buying gallons of the least expensive glue I could find. I no longer think of glue as an adhesive, but rather as a stand-alone art medium.

This was the beginning of my journey into the deep philosophy that waste is in the eye of the beholder. It's not just glue. All kids some of the time, and some kids all of the time, will use the materials at hand to what adults perceive as excess, sometimes with spectacular results (bubble printing is a classic example), but more often with spectacular messes, both of which are valid results of a trial-and-error scientific process.

One of my favorite lines from all of literature is this one from Johann Wolfgang Goethe:

In limitations he first shows himself the master.

More often than not, we interpret this to mean the limitations imposed from above or without, forgetting that most of our limitations in life are of the self-imposed variety. Playing with extremes is how we learn about self-limitation, which is at the heart of self-regulation or self-control. When we're not permitted the opportunity to explore limits, it means we are under the control of others, leaving us with two choices: rebellion (the natural human response to external control) or obedience (the unnatural one), neither of which tend to contribute much positive to our self-identity or our ability to think for ourselves.

I've often boasted that our school runs upon garbage, using for one last time those things heading off to the landfills and recycling centers, not using stuff as much as finishing using stuff. The fact that this is good for the environment is truly an unintended consequence: it really came about because we value managing our budget and value exploring the extremes. You just can't waste stuff that is already waste. Garbage and cheap materials are one of the ways we accommodate these seemingly opposing values.

This is why when a child dumps an entire bowl of googly eyes into a lake of glue then empties a shaker of bio-degradable glitter onto it, I no longer see waste. I see a true artist at work. And I know they are using just the right amount.


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.

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Wednesday, June 21, 2023

The Feeling Of Freedom

I must have been four or five when I started playing with my first "best friend" Pheobe. She lived several houses down the street from us, on the other side of the street. Nearly every morning of that summer of 1966 or '67, I would  cross the street, then cut across several neighbors' lawns to meet her in her own front yard. I know it was summer because I would wear nothing but a pair of shorts. She would great me as Tarzan, then we would spend the morning, or the day, playing together. The only time we went indoors was to use a bathroom. Occasionally, our younger brothers joined us.

There was a military base nearby which inspired us to play soldier. We contrived sports based on our collective sketchy knowledge of actual sports. We created or found forts in shrubbery or amongst pine branches that neighbors had pruned, then piled along the curb for the city truck that removed large yard waste every few weeks. Sometimes we would cut through the Mitchell's yard to explore Christopher Street, a virtually identical cul-de-sac to our own Wembley Street, but with the savor of a foreign land complete with foreign children who were sometimes our friends and sometimes our rivals. There was an undeveloped suburban lot on Christopher that contained the vestiges of the pine forest that had recently grown from the land on which we played. This was a setting for games in which we became explorers, cowboys, settlers, and animals of all kinds. 

I'm 62 years old now. Casting my gaze back over my life, this period of time stands out, which is why I've so often written about it here on the blog over the past 24 years. It doesn't live with me as a continuous memory, but rather as a series of moments tied together by a feeling that I've come to recognize as freedom. I didn't think about it as freedom as I lived it, of course. I didn't know that my future held so much school and work. I didn't know that my time and space were soon to become less mine, less ours. As children of that time and place, we were simply living life itself.

I tend to reflect on that freedom in terms of play, which suggests for most of us a sense of joy, fun, and abandon, but that's a trick of unreliable memory and the slippery meaning of words. There was joy and fun, but I also know that this freedom, this play, taught me that life is unfair, that there is pain and heartbreak, that conflict threatens whenever people come together. Likewise, childhood freedom taught me to value fairness, that wounds heal although they often leave scars, and that most of that treasured thing called friendship is an ongoing process of coming to agreements. Ultimately, freedom taught me that I am capable, a lesson learned through the trial and error that stands at the heart of play. Through both success and failure, I learned that I could do things for myself, that I could solve my own problems, and that I could make my own decisions as well as inherit the consequences of those decisions. In short, freedom taught me to be confident in my own ability to engage, on my own terms, with life itself.

Most of us who were children in the 1960's and 70's, or before, have memories of this sort of freedom.

Over the course of the past decade or so, psychologists have noted an alarming increase in mental illness like anxiety and depression in children, even very young children, compared to past generations. Writing in the Journal of Pediatrics, Drs. Peter Gray, David Lancy, and David Bjorklund point out that this is actually just the continuation of a trend that covers the last half century. 

Their thesis, which they support with a comprehensive survey of the available data and research, is that the rise in childhood mental disorders is primarily caused by "a decline over decades in opportunities for children and teens to play, roam, and engage in other activities independent of direct oversight and control by adults. Such independent activities . . . promote mental well-being through both immediate effects, as a direct source of satisfaction, and long-term effects, by building mental characteristics that provide a foundation for dealing effectively with the stresses of life." 

As children have lost their freedom, they have likewise lost out on the lessons that freedom teaches, leaving them increasingly in a world without the skills, habits, and experience that humans need to thrive. No wonder so many of our youngest citizens are plagued with depression and anxiety.

I've held the position of "teacher." The children with whom I've spent the bulk of my adult life have called me Teacher Tom. But that title is really nothing but an honorific because I've spent very, very little of my decades actually instructing children. Instead, I've simply tried to give very young children, 2-5 year olds, the opportunity to know what it means to be free, even if I know that most of them will spend their entire childhoods under adult supervision. I'm not under the illusion that they will, as adults, remember the specifics of their time with me, but I pray that the feeling of freedom and confidence will be something they grow up to recognize in themselves. 

Over the past half century adults have come to increasingly seen our role as ever-present teachers and protectors, which means that we are charged with constantly "doing" things to and for the kids in one way or another. What children need, however, are adults who allow them to feel what it means to be free. To do things to and for themselves. This is how we most effectively empower (i.e., give power to) and encourage (i.e., give courage to) them. It's only when we do this, that we can hope to reverse this decades long deterioration in childhood mental well-being.


"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
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, June 20, 2023

The Right Place At The Right Time With The Right People

FOMO: the fear of missing out. 

We didn't have an acronym for it when I was teen, but we felt it. It stood at the icky, insecure core of my high school social life in fact, one that was comprised of going to house parties where we all asked one another if we'd heard about the other, presumedly cooler, party that was raging in a cooler house with cooler music and included the coolest people. People so cool, that we had never even heard of them even though we were in a two high school town in which everyone already knew everyone.

Up though middle school, I'd not experienced much of the icky, insecure FOMO. Oh sure, there were times I missed out on something or other, but it didn't plague me the way it did when I was 15, 16, and 17 when I would brace myself every Monday morning: not because of school, but because I knew I would hear about all the very cool things I'd missed over the weekend. 

As a freshman at the University of Oregon, I was invited to an off-campus party. There were old people there. And by that I mean people over 30, but there were even some people older than that. There was a live band of old men playing familiar music (I later learned that one of the members of this pick up group was Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir). There was another very old man, past 50, who spent the entire party ignoring the rest of us to play with a couple of children in the living room. He seemed so peaceful, so happy, so "at home." He was in the right place, at the right time, with the right people. It turned out that he was author Ken Kesey. 

I sometimes think that this was when the seed was planted that has grown, though twisted and turned, into Teacher Tom.

Shortly after the experience of that party, I vowed that I wasn't going to let the thing we today call FOMO get to me any more. Whenever I felt the urge rising, I'd think of Ken Kesey there on the floor at peace with the children. I'd say to myself, "I'm in the coolest place doing the coolest thing with the coolest people." I would even sometimes say it aloud to those cool people who were with me and they would always agree, often with cheers. 

Cognitive psychology tells us that every time we recall something from our past, we alter it and that the more often we recall a specific moment the less our memory has in common with the reality of what actually happened. People say you can't change the past, but we do it all the time. The past stays alive only through the stories we tell about it and it's those stories, not the actual events, that inform the present. It's how those moments made us feel that doesn't change. 

As the Chief says in Kesey's novel One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, ". . . it's the truth even if it didn't happen." To this day, I regularly recall Ken Kesey on the floor playing with children, although it shows up for me more in the form of a pictogram or hieroglyph than a full-blown story: an image that makes me feel the peace and joy of being in the right place at the right time with the right people. No one feels less icky, insecure FOMO than a preschooler. After decades with them, I realize that the children's innate wisdom is a big part of how I've been able to keep that young man's vow to myself. 

I've often written here on the blog about the cruelty of standard schools fomenting the entirely unscientific notion of children "falling behind." (Here is the post I wrote last week.) Whenever I write about it, I find myself emotional, angry, righteous, like a protector or champion. I've recently had the epiphany that the ultimate cruelty of "falling behind" is that it viciously injects FOMO into the garden of early childhood. The kids may be immune to the icky, insecure FOMO, but their parents sure aren't. They are made to feel that their child will somehow miss out on straight A's, prestigious grad schools, and lucrative careers if they don't live up to their arbitrary standards and norms. It's icky, insecure FOMO by proxy. So these parents, in turn, pressure and fret over their babies, instead of simply getting down on the floor and playing with them. And when they do that, they miss out on the one thing that really matters: the joy of being in the right place at the right time with the right people.


"This inspiring book is essential reading for every family choosing a preschool, every teacher working with young children, and every citizen who wonders how we can raise children who will make the world a better place." ~Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids
If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here!

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!

Monday, June 19, 2023

From The Garden

A parent pointed out that her son was eating raw kale that he had picked from the playground garden. "He won't touch it at home, but here, he devours it!"

This wasn't the first we've heard of this phenomenon at Woodland Park. In fact, we see it almost every day. I once mentioned to one of the parent-teachers that we needed to polish off the kale and lettuce growing in one of our raised beds in order to make way for different crops. I wanted her to urge the kids in that direction, but instead, she harvested the leaves herself, then took them to the snack table where she arranged them artistically, like a fan, on a plate. The children were avoiding it like it was the plague.

I told her, "If you want them to eat it, try taking it back into the garden." She doubted me, but moments later I spied children queueing up in the garden for their own leaf to munch. When she said, "You were right!" I wasn't surprised because I've seen it so often I no longer doubt it's true.

Children are notoriously picky eaters, especially when it comes to vegetables served to them at the dinner table, yet time and again we've seen that most kids, most days, are eager to eat pretty much anything from the garden. No one is surprised when kids fall on the berries, but our chives are almost as popular. We eat green beans straight from the vine, the seed pods of radishes that have bolted, and green tomatoes because we are so eager we pick them before they're ready. A pair of boys once ate an entire crop of immature beets straight out of the ground causing their parents to panic when they later produced red urine. We've eaten a whole eggplant, raw. And when they are done, they beg for more. Occasionally, a parent will report that this new adventurousness about vegetables has carried over to home, but more often than not it doesn't: they'll eat the kale from the garden, but not off a plate.

I recognize that there is a lot at play in food pickiness, including power dynamics, but I've begun to suspect that this reluctance to trust unknown or unusual food is at least in part an aspect of ancient wisdom, an evolutionary trait that helps to insure survival. I mean, it makes sense to be instinctively suspicious of new food that just appears on your plate, that was previously displayed at a supermarket, after having been transported on a truck or a train or a plane from a different state or even another country. It's adaptive, I think, to want to know where your food comes from, to have seen it grow, to have watered it, and then to have picked it yourself. I wonder if the pickiness of children around vegetables isn't due in part to our modern system of producing and distributing food. We like to know where it came from and there is no surer way to know than to grow it yourself.

Of course, this doesn't explain the popularity of hamburgers and chicken fingers, because, honestly, if children knew how those things are made, they would likely swear off them forever. Still, it seems like a plausible theory when it comes to veggies and is an argument for every child having access to a vegetable garden.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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!