Friday, September 29, 2023

"Slice Me Up For Dinner, Dearie"

Three girls were playing together on the outdoor stage. I approached just as a fourth girl asked them, "Can I play with you?"

This is tricky question to ask around a preschool because the knee-jerk answer is most often "No." Normally, I advise kids struggling to enter into an established play group to start by asking, "What are you playing?" or to simply state, "I'm going to play with you," or best of all, to simply drop to your knees and start playing. It still doesn't always work, of course, but I've noticed that kids who approach others like this are far more likely to have success.

In this case, however, one of the girls answered, "Sure, if you want to be an evil unicorn."

"I'll be an evil unicorn."

The girls then continued where they left off with both me and the newcomer listening on.

"Okay, pretend I'm on the bridge and you come along and push me off."

From what I could gather, the girl asking to be pushed off was a good unicorn. For the most part, she was directing the evil unicorns in how to torment her. They pretended to push her off the planks of wood they had arranged as a bridge, then she said, "Okay, now pretend you're going to roast me for dinner."

There was an old bicycle tire on the stage. The good unicorn knelt down inside its circle. One of the evil unicorns held a couple of florist marbles. She put them on the good unicorn's back, saying, "These are so you'll taste better when we eat you."

"I'm already going to taste good."

"Yes you will, dearie, but these jewels will make you taste even better."

The evil unicorns went through some motions around their roast while the newest evil unicorn looked on, still studying the game before leaping in.

After a few seconds, the roast popped up, "I'm done now. Now you have to wash me off." She retrieved a faucet set up (a spigot with hot and cold knobs mounted on a board) that had appeared on the playground some weeks earlier. The evil unicorns used it like a hose. Then the good unicorn said, "Pretend the bridge is the table and you're going to slice me up." She walked out on the bridge again and curled up under the spigot, repeating, "Now slice me up for dinner, dearie."

At first, the good unicorns used the sides of their hands to pantomime slicing, then one of them said, "Pretend I'm going to slice you with my staff," referring to the large stick she had been wielding. They were interrupted by the newcomer who finally joined the game by calling out, "I don't want to be an evil unicorn. I want to be a good unicorn!"

"Okay, if you're a good unicorn then we're going to have to roast you for dinner. Get in the oven." The newly be-monikered good unicorn dutifully took her spot within the circle of the bicycle tire.

"But first you have to eat me," insisted the other good unicorn.

"Don't worry, dearie, we'll eat you first."

Then the newest good unicorn called out, "And eat me too!"

"Of course, dearie, of course."

(Fairy tales) tell children what they unconsciously know -- that human nature is not innately good, that conflict is real, that life is harsh before it is happy -- and thereby reassure them about their own fears and their own sense of self. ~Arthur Schlesinger


"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

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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! 

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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