Monday, September 18, 2023

Effortlessly and Without Prompting

The four and five year olds started their days on the playground. Some would take a moment to greet me, but most barely paused to shed their backpacks and jackets before plunging into their play. That might mean manning a position at the cast iron water pump, digging in the sand, swinging, racing up and down the concrete slide, hunting out a favorite loose part, or gathering with friends to plot and plan together, inviting one another with the most beautiful sentences in the human language, the one's that start with the contraction, "Let's . . ."

"Let's pretend we're pilots!"

"Let's all be baby animals!"

"Let's go over there!"

Most of the four and five year olds I ever taught had been together in school for a couple of years already. They knew me, they knew the other kids, they knew the environment, and they knew how to derive satisfaction from playing together. They did it effortlessly and without prompting. This was life as they knew it, a formula of their own collective and ongoing distillation. Of course, they knew there would be conflict, even pain, because they had already learned from experience that the permission to learn from pleasure always includes the possibility of pain. That's perhaps the lesson of life, not this artificial pain that is imposed by schools in the name of teaching children the harsh lessons of the workplace: do what you're told even when it's mind-numbing and soul-crushing.

In our school, the children knew that they were free to pursue, both individually and together, a life in which their work was their play and vice versa. 

"(M)ost individuals today are born into serfdom to Factory Earth," writes historian Peter Stearns in his book From Alienation to Addiction. "With factory industry, most people, for the first time in human history outside of some forms of slavery, could never aspire to work without direct supervision."

The adults at Woodland Park performed their ancient role of caretakers, protectors, and occasional advisors, because the goal of education as we saw it is to allow young humans to seek their one true path, the one they follow, for a day or a week or a lifetime, out of curiosity. In our way of doing it, curiosity stands in the stead of the factory floor boss.

What do you do that is as effortless and unprompted as the four and five year olds playing together at Woodland Park? What is it that you do that doesn't need to be put on a "to do" list because you will do it anyway? As adults, many of us have forgotten what it means to live in this way, looking inward and asking ourselves what would give us permission to play-work-live like these children? People often envy these young children who are, quite frankly, living a life of abundance and purpose. It still surprises me how many feel they need to put a stop to it, "for their own good." They can't just go through life doing what they want. It's the grim view of life as a factory. A place where no one has ever found abundance and purpose. As the Greek philosopher Epicurus wrote, "Not what we have, but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance." 

But life can't just be about enjoyment! If it feels good, it must be bad. If we do it just to satisfy our curiosity, it must be a waste of time. Curiosity kills the cat. What's good must be hard and painful. Pleasure is only a dessert, something to be limited and saved for last. 

The novelist Edith Wharton asks, "Why do we call all our generous ideas illusions, and the mean ones truths?" Why indeed.

I've spent my adult life trying to learn the lessons of humans for whom pleasure and curiosity stand as the pure goods that they are. These are the people who are living, not happy lives, but abundant ones. At the end of life, no one wishes they had worked harder. If they have any regrets it's that they didn't love and play more. Why is it that we only seem to understand this central truth at the Alpha and Omega of life, whereas during the journey in between we treat it as, at best, a hinderance and at worst a devil that must be kept down lest we . . . What? Find purpose in life before it's all over? Sounds pretty good to me.

I know why, of course. It's fear and doubt. We've been taught by years of schooling, both curricular and extracurricular, that the floor bosses know best, that we are here to serve Factory Earth, and that anything that makes our hearts sing is a secret evil. It's reinforced every time a child is reprimanded for daydreaming and not paying attention. It's taught each time children are scolded for chatting amongst themselves instead to listening to the teacher's instructions. We've been made to feel afraid of ourselves and our own desires because they have no place in the factory.

As I spent my days amidst these self-directed humans who had permission to work-play-live, I knew that they would inevitably leave Woodland Park where they would begin their training for Factory Earth. Soon enough they would come across those who would direct them "for their own good" and make them feel guilt or shame over those things that bring them joy, and pride in doing the things against which their souls rebelled. I found my joy in the moment; the now of this community of children. I will always have the satisfaction in knowing that for a time, on that playground, the four and five year olds knew they had permission to live abundantly in a world in which "Let's . . ." was the sacred a call to live together with a purpose all our own.

I can dream that one day we will come to understand that this should stand at the center of education. Until then, I'll just live it.


"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
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