Thursday, September 28, 2023

Together We're A Genius

"I'm gonna try this."

"You're gonna get hurt."

"I can't get on. Everybody hold it."

"Was that funny?"

"My turn."

"I want a turn."

"You can go after me."

"I'm next."

"Okay, so guys, after me it's you, then it's you."

"Then I'm after you."

"We each get four turns."

"I'm gonna try the wagon."

"Somebody, help me. I'm stuck."

"I'll push you."

"Settle down."

"After my turn, it's your turn."

"I never had a turn."

"Get in a line. We're in a line."

"Let's go together!"

"Don't push."

"Wait! I'm going to get something. Everybody wait."

"While you're gone, we're gonna go."

"Are you okay?"

"Will you help me?"


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

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Wednesday, September 27, 2023

The Only Real Success

More often than not in our culture, when someone is talking about "success" we assume they are referring to either material wealth or the result of someone having achieved some sort of victory or prize. And often they are. Most of us are less superficial in how we define our own successes. Oh, we'll take the cash and the laurels, but our drive to success tends to be motivated by more personally meaningful measures like a sense of satisfaction about a job well-done or having good relationships with family and friends or an overall feeling of contentment. 

As educators, we're widely viewed as agents for the success of the children in our care. Over the weekend, for instance, the parent of one of my former preschool students wrote to me about how her daughter, now a third grader, had boldly stood up to a child who had been excluding her from a game. "She told her how it made her feel and said, 'I don't like that.' And the other girl apologized and started including her. That's all because of you Teacher Tom." Success! 

Parents want their children to be successful and most want to see us as allies in making their children successful. Taking a step back, we see that our policymakers have similar ideas about our role in society in that most of them cast us in the role of getting children "college and career ready," which is widely viewed as the surest pathway to worldly success. 

The problem is that our obsession with success too often clashes with the far more important goal of education, which is to support children in creating a meaningful life.

In her book The Power of Meaning, Emily Esfahani Smith proposes four pillars of meaning: belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence. The more connected we feel to our family, friends, and community (belonging), the more we are motivated by positive long-term goals (purpose), the more adeptly we can make a narrative from the threads of our life (storytelling) and the more we concentrate our energies on something larger than ourselves (transcendent), the more meaningful our lives are.

It all begins with belonging, which is the only curriculum with which I've ever really concerned myself. It's within the context of community that we flourish. Community is an active living thing, something that requires the contributions of everyone. Success is inclusion. When that girl stood up for herself, she was asserting her place in her community. When the other girl listened, apologized, then included her, she was likewise doing the work of belonging. In many ways, this is the only work there is. It's not easy. And it's almost impossible in an educational system that focuses on individual achievement and competition, which is to say, division. The world doesn't need more division.

Living a meaningful life is the only real success. The only way to get there is through belonging. 


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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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

The Emotion Of Growth Is Joy

We never had a teeter totter (i.e., seesaw) on our playground, but the children often made their own, usually by pivoting a plank of wood over a log. Sometimes they would put the plank of over one of our swings and call it a "teeter swing." The contraptions could also easily evolve into "catapults" (by placing objects on one end, then jumping onto the other to launch it into the air) or "diving boards" (by having an adult stand on one end while the kids inched out to the other end to bounce off). 

As has happened with other classic playground equipment like swings, metal slides, and merry-go-rounds, manufactured teeter totters have more or less disappeared due to fear of litigation. Some will say it's due to injuries, but they simply won't be able to provide any reliable data showing that children's playground injury rates are any higher when teeter totters are present. Indeed, there is very little actual data at all about playground injuries, and what I have seen tends to place the risk of injury on a playground about equal to a child playing indoors at home.

I've never noticed the teeter totter to be a particularly dangerous plaything, if played with as intended. After all, the script is an oscillation of up-and-down, up-and-down, up-and-down, a fine metaphor that can be applied to the ebbs and flows of life, but I never found it particularly exciting as a plaything unless, of course, you went off its one-dimensional script.

For me, the most fun one could have on a teeter totter was at the extremes: the bump as you hit the ground, then the bump as you reached the top. From this, my playmates and I would typically make it into a game of extremes rather than balance. We would send one another into hysterics by trying with all our might to launch one another into the air by allowing our end to crash to the ground with as much force as possible. You held on tight at the top because if the person on the other side was a "big kid" it could feel like you were about to flip into the air. It was probably this sort of play that caused adults with catastrophic imaginations to ban teeter totters, although as wild as our play got, I don't recall anyone ever getting hurt.

A second way we added spice to our teeter totter play was to walk or run across the plank. We would start on the end that was resting on the ground, then balance up the ramp until we got to the pivot point. Stepping across that point caused the raised end to descend to the ground so that you could complete your crossing. Again, in the spirit of challenging ourselves on this otherwise tedious playground contraption, we would increase our speed until we were essentially doing it pell mell.

A third off-script game was to try to balance in the center. It was fun for about 30 seconds, easily mastered. Every now and then we would count to see who could balance the longest, but we quickly realized that we could maintain the position indefinitely. Doing so was the most dull thing of all: standing in one place while micro-flexing your leg and torso muscles in order to stay in place.

Truth be told, teeter totters on the playgrounds of my youth were widely left alone. There was already enough tedium in school and if the teachers were going to scold us for attempting to add a bit of challenge and risk to our play then we would just do something else.

Many of us have become familiar with the concept of neuroplasticity over the past couple decades. Even as recently as twenty years ago, experts were telling us that humans didn't grow any new brain cells after about the age of 25, and that most of the cells we were ever going to have were grown during the first few years of life. We now know that this isn't true. What led scientists to suspect that we didn't continue to produce new neurons were studies done on apes in cages: when they began to look at apes who had been freed from their cages, they discovered that neuroplasticity was a lifelong phenomenon. 

And as psychotherapist and author Christine Caldwell writes in her book Bodyfulness, "While the definition of this term (neuroplasticity) restricts itself to nerve cells (neurons), the principle of plastic change likely occurs throughout the body as well. Change and even growth occur constantly and normally throughout our lives."

This lifetime of growth, however, is not a given. When we find ourselves in cages, metaphorical or real, like those apes did, cellular growth slows down or stops. That's because our brains and our bodies need self-selected challenges and self-identified novelty in order to grow new cells. As Caldwell puts it, "While we operate within genetic limitations, we are less limited than we previously thought. To a certain extent we can directly influence how many new cells we produce. We now know that we can learn new things during our entire life spans and retain capacities longer, even into our advanced years. Our daily experiences determine how fully we can operate within these expanded genetic limits. How can we influence our capacity to continue to change and grow? The key word here is challenge. In order to change something, we must challenge the status quo."

This is knowledge that children have that we, as adults in our society, tend to unlearn as we age. When a child goes off-script with a toy, when a child adds challenge or risk to an otherwise dull or previously mastered activity, when a child spins in a swing or goes up the slide or uses the teeter totter in "unauthorized" ways, they are doing exactly what they need to do to stimulate cell growth in both the brain and the body. They are challenging the status quo.

Of course, the children are not thinking about neuroscience, but rather following their education instinct, which is to seek out novelty and challenge.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately as I'm now a man in his 60's and more and more of the people in my life are retiring or thinking about retiring. They generally talk of a life of low stress, contentment, even happiness. But when I try to put myself in their shoes, I wonder about the lessons I've learned from young children. As essayist Rebecca Solnit writes in her book Owell's Roses, the state we call "(h)appiness seems to require having a well-ordered life avoiding difficulty or discord." It sounds a bit like the nowhere game of balancing on the middle of the teeter totter. She distinguishes it from joy which "can and does show up anywhere, often unexpectedly. In their book Joyful Militancy Carla Bergman and Nick Montgomery draw the distinction thus: 'Joy remakes people through combat with forces of subjection (i.e., subjugation). Joy is a desubjectifying process, an unfixing, an intensification of life itself. It is a process of coming alive and coming apart. Whereas happiness is used as a numbing anesthetic that induces dependence, joy is the growth of people's capacity to do and feel new things in ways that can break this dependence.'"

In other words, joy is the emotion of growth and it comes from "combat" or challenging ourselves in new ways. As children play, especially as they concentrate on the challenges they are engaging, it would be impossible to describe them as happy. Indeed, happiness, especially as defined above, is not the natural state of the playground, but regular burst of joy are indeed a big part of it.

I worry that as adults too many of us seek that dull state of "balance" and avoid the bumps at the bottom and top. We so often attempt to sacrifice joy for the sake of happiness and growth for the sake of the status quo. Even worse, I fear that we sometimes try to impose this on the children, robbing them of joy and stunting their growth.


"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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Monday, September 25, 2023

That's When We Finally Come Alive

My wife and I keep a notepad on the kitchen counter on which we write our grocery list, adding one item at a time as it occurs to us. Even before I eat the last handful of pistachios, I’ll add them to the list lest I forget in the next second. I could, I’m sure, learn to keep the list in my head. After all, the ancient Greeks were capable of committing the entirety of Homer's epic poems to memory. Certainly, I could, if so moved, remember, “Peanut butter, toilet paper, mayonnaise, lettuce, cilantro . . .” But I don’t want to use my mind in that way, nor do I need to. I can externalize this task of memory to a notepad on the kitchen counter.

Writing isn’t the only way I externalize my mind. It drives my wife crazy, but I will often leave, say, a book I want to read on the coffee table where I will regularly see it, and each time I do, I remember, “That’s right, I want to read that book.” If someone asks me what I’m reading, I will answer them with the title that currently holds my bookmark, but I’ll also “see” that book on the coffee table where I’ve stored that piece of my mind. However, this process of externalizing my mind is something I do far more often unconsciously. I find bits of it everywhere. A certain chair might hold the memory of a dinner guest. This painting is where I’ve stored the memory of an afternoon. That fragrance is where I keep the lyrics of a song. And don’t get me started on photographs.

The other day, my wife was telling a story from our mutual past. At one point, she got stuck for a detail. She looked me in the eye for a moment, as if counting on me to help her out, but before I could say anything, it clicked and she continued with the story. That particular aspect of that particular part of her mind had been externalized to me.

When my father-in-law died several years ago after decades of marriage, it became clear to me that a large part of my mother-in-law died with him. For a few days, she seemed to continue functioning as the strong, opinionated, get-it-done woman we’d always known, but it quickly became apparent that she was no longer all there. She was grieving, of course, but looking back, we see that when her husband of many decades died, he took a large part of her mind with him. We determined that she couldn’t continue living alone in that big house with lots of stairs and an aging body, so we moved her to an apartment around the corner from us. We genuinely thought it was the right thing to do, but, again in hindsight, it’s obvious that when she moved, she once more left another big part of her mind behind. We surrounded her with familiar items and photographs, but it was as if her shopping lists had been erased. She died of dementia. Maybe we did everything right, maybe there was nothing we could do to prevent her mind from disintegrating, but I can’t help but feel that if we had let her remain in her home, despite the physical risk, her mental decline would not have been so precipitous and frightening.

We tend to think of our minds as contained within us, but in reality, so much of our consciousness actually exists beyond the container of our bodies. It makes sense from an evolutionary point of view. Thinking is very energy intensive. Our brains only represent about two percent of our body weight, but accounts for 20 percent of our energy use. By off-loading things like memories and knowledge to the external world, we are free to focus our mental energy on things that cannot be externalized. That’s what we do with books, for instance, and now the internet, technologies that have allowed us to more efficiently and effectively connect our minds to the external world.

Indeed, we are fully engaged in the computer age, these machines that have become extensions of our minds. As I write on this screen in front of me, I’m externalizing, to the best of my ability given the limitations of language, my thoughts, through my fingers, where they now exist in this machine. Periodically, as I write, I lose track of where I’m going, so I scroll back to the top to remind myself of where I’ve started and to remember the flow from there to here. Below this point on my screen, I’ve pasted some notes thumbed into my phone a few days ago as a prompt for this piece, again, an externalization of my mind, freeing it up then to do other things until I was ready to return to it.

If you’re interested, here is the note from which I’ve been working:

When I make a “to do” list, I’m externalizing my mind. When we make machines that think for us, we are doing the same thing. People have been complaining about “too much information” for as long as there has been information. Our thinking machines are able to process all the information — crap and not crap; true and not true; rational and irrational. The only thing machines have to work with are the things that we have externalized from our minds: what they will always be missing are the parts we cannot externalize. Are those things emotions? Are those aspects sensory? What are the parts of our minds that cannot be externalized? Pat really lost her mind when we moved her away from her home and stuff — she had externalized so much of her mind into it and now it’s gone.

What are the parts of a mind that cannot be externalized? Those are the parts that machines, no matter how smart, will ever be able to mimic, unless, of course, we actually manage, like Dr. Frankenstein, to create life. They will then, I assume, no longer be machines, but rather sentient beings that can think (as opposed to simply rapid-fire data crunching), create, ask and answer its own questions for its own edification, feel emotions, and, because it is life, it will seek to conserve, or more efficiently use, its energy, by externalizing its own mind. I can’t get myself worked up to worry about this happening because if it happens, it will be so far into the future that I can’t imagine that Homo sapiens won’t either be extinct or will have evolved into whatever is next. No, the concerns I have are not about artificial intelligence, but rather around the very real possibility that our machines will be used to create artificial realities that will lead us to behave in harmful, destructive, and downright ignorant ways.

At this point, I’ve scrolled up to the parts of my mind that I’ve previously externalized to see that I’ve gotten off track. The future of AI is neither here nor there as far as this little think-piece goes.

Now, I think about you, the theoretical reader that I imagine based upon what I’ve learned about over the past 14 years of writing under the promise of “teaching and learning from preschoolers.” You, in my mind, are a person interested in early childhood education and development. So, what does all this mean for the children in our lives?

For me it means that when we give permission for children to play, which is to say, engage the world through their curiosity, choosing what is worthy of their attention, and asking and answering their own questions, we are allowing them to develop their full minds. They are born to connect, through physical contact, through suckling, through vocalizing, all of which are ways in which they are externalizing this strange experience of awareness, of being a mind and being part of a mind. They do this with all of their senses, with their full bodies, and by engaging with other living things that are likewise externalizing their minds in a give and take that belies the myth of individuality. When we make the mistake of directing them to look in this direction, to memorize that bit of trivia, to learn according to our schedule, we are robbing them of the opportunity to develop their own unique and vital connection to the world. It’s only when we do this that we finally come fully alive, because it's only then that we know that we are doing what we are meant to do.

The more I think about this idea of externalizing my own mind, the more I see it, and the more I come to understand that when children play, they are, from moment to moment, making their metaphorical shopping lists, not on bits of paper, but rather on the world itself and the people they find there.


"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!
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Friday, September 22, 2023

We Could be Using Our Power to Demand Evidence-Based Childhoods for All

Woodland Park is a first-come-first-served school. This means that the first families in line when registration opens are the ones who get in, the only exception being that our charter allows us to move alumni families to the front of the line.

When I first started teaching, this was a literal line. The 40 or so cooperative preschools that operate under the auspices of North Seattle College would set up tables in a large room on the designated morning, then the doors would be thrown open at 9 a.m. and the race was on. Generally, we would have filled our 65 spots by 9:30. In more recent years, the process has moved online, but it is still something of a cut-throat affair as people sit with their phones dialing over and over until they get through.

We were a popular preschool, meaning that we would wind up with a waiting list that we shared with our sister schools. For most of my two decades with the North Seattle system, there was always a spot somewhere for a family interested in coop, just not always in their first choice school. This continues to be true because half day programs that require hours a week of parent involvement, including in the classroom, isn’t for everyone.

Most American families are looking for full-day, drop-off preschool or daycare and in recent years that has become increasingly scarce. Right across the country there are too many children from the spots available. This has long been a problem, but with some 10 percent of centers closing permanently during the pandemic and the nationwide “worker shortage,” the situation has gotten much worse. 

From a purely economic point of view, it’s a miracle that more preschools and child care programs didn’t succumb. I mean, it’s never been a particularly profitable business for entrepreneurial-minded people. From a purely economic point of view, I’m often shocked that anyone remains in the profession. These are among the lowest paid jobs that require a college degree with the average annual salary of a little over $30,000, which is the equivalent of a minimum wage job, without benefits, in many places. With tuitions so high that they severely strain the budgets of even upper middle class families, it’s no wonder that US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen calls ours “a textbook example of a broken market.”

Of course, none of us got into this profession to get rich. For most of us, teaching and caring is more a calling than a vocation. Most of us would still do it even if we were paid less. We would do it even if our working conditions were worse. We would show up every day no matter what. We do it for the children. We do it for the families. And yes, we do it because there is nothing more richly rewarding when you consider non-economic measures.

It’s wonderful, but it’s also a problem. It’s this attitude, I believe, that makes it possible for us to continue to be underpaid and underappreciated. It’s this attitude that causes us to succumb to the pressure to engage in developmentally inappropriate practices like formal literacy instruction for three-year-olds. We know that young children should be playing, but I can’t tell you how often educators have agreed with me only to  complain that “the parents” demand preschool academics, so they have no choice but to accommodate them. Really? Maybe we need to be saying, “I will not harm your child.”

As “broken” as things are, we find ourselves in a position of power. I know that’s an uncomfortable place to be for many of us. We don’t, generally speaking, seek power, nor are we eager to wield it, but here we are. We are in a position, each of us, to use this power to empower the next generation.

If the world learned anything from the pandemic it’s that preschools and child care are the foundations of our economy. That’s right, the principle project of every civilization that has ever existed is to care for the children. If that doesn’t happen, then nothing else happens. When parents don’t have a safe, loving place for their children, they stay home from work. When they stay home from work, the economy grinds to a halt. When we accommodate the system by accepting low and lower pay, we are, in essence, carrying the entire system on our backs. I used to ask people to perform the mental experiment of imagining what would happen to the world if we all went on strike. The pandemic forced us to more or less try that experiment in the real world.

But as we know, most of us aren’t in this for the money, although I think we all can agree that we deserve to earn at least as much as public school teachers. We’re not asking to get rich; we’re asking for a living wage. Collectively, right now, we have the power to demand this. 

Where will the money come from? That’s the kind of question that caring people ask because we fear that it will have to come from the families who are already struggling. It’s also not a question for us to answer. We are preschool teachers and caregivers. What we do is foundational, not just to the economy, but civilization itself. Fixing a “broken market” is a job for economists and policymakers. But I will mention that as a non-economist it certainly seems like employers, especially big employers, should be the ones stepping up. We’re in an era of extremely high corporate profits. Shouldn’t that be where the money comes from? I mean, without us, their enterprises simply can’t function.

More importantly, however, I want to see us using our power to bring play back into the center of the lives of young children. One of the most bizarre things about our “broken” profession is that those few young people who are still enrolling in early childhood university programs are being taught the latest evidence-based, developmentally-appropriate practices, only to graduate into a real world where most schools simply, harmfully, do the opposite. According to psychologist and researcher Peter Gray, we have never seen such high levels of anxiety and depression in our young children and much of that can be directly linked to the dramatic decline in childhood play over the past couple generations. We have the power to reverse this. We have the power to say, “I’ll do this job, but only if we are going to do what is best for young children according to the evidence.” 

We could be using our power to demand evidence-based childhoods for all. We could be doing that right now.


"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!
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