Friday, April 12, 2024

An Unplanned (and Unimaginably Cruel) Cultural Experiment

A friend who works with young children recently texted me with questions about why I thought kids today seem more anxious than in the past.

There are a lot of theories. Some blame screen-based technology, especially smartphones. Some blame the media. Some blame bad parenting. Some environmental toxins. Some blame a society that has gone off the rails. One of the most credible theories, however, is that our children are suffering from a deficit of good, old-fashioned play, and anxiousness is a symptom.

Most of the leading thinkers on play (e.g., Peter Gray, Jonathan Haight, Lenore Skenazy, Stuart Brown, Alfie Kohn, Maggie Dent) are convinced that this documented decline in childhood play is a direct cause of this documented increasing childhood anxiety. At one level, this remains theoretical, however, because no one has ever conducted play-deprivation studies on our own species. It's been demonstrated in rats and other mammals -- less play leads to more anxiety. But since it would be an unimaginable cruelty to perform experiments of this type on human children (not that animal research isn't just as cruel), we don't have, and probably never will have, the kind of direct, experimental link to human behavior that we would like. 

As neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp says, however, "I do suspect we are currently in an unplanned cultural experiment of that kind."

So while we bicker around the edges about things like the impact of smartphones and video games (which may just as easily be a form of self-medication) we, as a society, performatively scratch our heads as our children find themselves in childhoods in which play has been replaced with longer school days, shorter recesses, homework, sports teams, and all manner of after school and weekend enrichment programs, all supervised and controlled by adults. Rare is the contemporary American child who plays even a fraction as much as children from past generations.

So why would lack of play lead to anxiety?

There are a large number of theories for the widespread existence of play throughout the animal kingdom, humans included: to burn off excess energy, to destress, to practice skills and train muscles that will be necessary for adulthood, to create social bonds, to spur cognitive or language or moral development, all of which are probably part of the answer to a big question: why did play evolve in mammals, birds, reptiles, and even insects? 

Of course, it's not a stretch to connect missing any of this to increased anxiousness, but it's probably best explained (and predicted) by what is referred to as "training for the unexpected," a hypothesis proposed by researchers Marek Spinka, Ruth Newberry, and Marc Bekoff. 

In his new book, Kingdom of Play, science writer David Toomey offers a number of examples of animals that seem to surrender control or self-handicap while playing. A prime example comes from the work of Newberry with piglets. "When the piglets played, they often ran about . . . Running had an obvious adaptive advantage: it would be good practice for escaping a predator. But at no particular time and for no apparent reason, one piglet would suddenly stop running and perform a flop-over." 

So how is this training for the unexpected? "(W)hile running, free-ranging animals are likely to stumble, slip, fall, or collide with something. Spinka, Newberry, and Bekoff knew that the piglet flop-over was not good practice for escaping a predator in an idealized environment. It might, though, be good practice for recovering from a fall in a real one. Natural selection might have developed a means for animals to learn to recover balance by evolving in them a desire to put themselves in situations where they will be thrown off-balance. "We hypothesize," they wrote, "that a major ancestral function of play is to rehearse behavior sequences in which animals lose full control of their locomotion, position, or sensory/spatial input and need to repair those faculties quickly." 

Spinka and his colleagues believe that this self-handicapping is not just an essential feature of play, but it's most essential feature. In other words, play has evolved to allow us to prepare for handling the unknown and unexpected slings and arrows of life itself. No wonder that children who have been deprived of play feel anxious. They've missed out on the training.

When we watch young children play, we see this self-handicapping all the time. I've often watched children, for no apparent reason, like those piglets, throw themselves onto the ground, only to get back up and keep running. Even while engaged in such mundane activities like moving from point-A to point-B children inject self-handicapping play into their efforts. They pause to swing on a tree branch. They spontaneously or run up or roll down a hill. They balance on curbs, skip, walk backwards, dance, and otherwise do all kinds of things to make the seemingly simple journey from here to there more difficult and unpredictable than it objectively needs to be. A child might choose to pretend to be a baby, temporarily sacrificing walking and talking. Costumes restrict movement. And self-regulated rough-and-tumble play (the most universal form of play throughout the animal kingdom) always includes self-handicapping of all kinds in order to ensure the safety and enjoyment of everyone no matter their age or ability.

It's from playing in this way, according to Spinka and his colleagues, that animals practice for surviving in an unpredictable world. This is why play is such a prevalent feature of life itself, and is likely why a lack of play leads to animals that are overly anxious about their ability to deal with a life of unknowns.

The evidence for play deprivation being at the root of increased childhood anxiety is far stronger than for, say, video games, yet we continue to subject children to our unplanned and cruel cultural experiment in human play deprivation. Instead of heeding the clear results, we're drugging our children and shaming them for their use of smartphones, because to blame a lack of opportunities to play would mean a major, and likely disruptive, re-evaluation of modern childhood, which is to say, all of society.

We are also, right now, as a society, wondering why so many young people are lonely and angry. Back in the 1960's clinical psychologist Stuart Brown was part of three studies into the backgrounds of violent men. "What struck our separate research teams as unexpected," he wrote, "was that normal play behavior was virtually absent throughout the lives of highly violent, anti-social men regardless of demography." Again, popular culture would have us blame smartphones, video games, and the internet. Dr. Brown was so alarmed by his findings that he devoted the next 50 years to the study of and advocacy for childhood play.

It's past time that the rest of us take play deprivation seriously. And the first step is to, right now, take the children in your life outside and leave them alone to flop and fight and run. No one knows what to expect from tomorrow. Play is how we get ready for that.

******

Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network or anywhere you download your podcasts.


I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Thursday, April 11, 2024

The Girl Team


Charlotte was one of those kids who had been coming to Woodland Park since before she was born, arriving first in our classroom in utero to drop off and pick up her older brother, then continuing on her own behalf until she was five. If I've ever known a student, it would be Charlotte, and among the many things I know is that she is not conflict averse: she will stand up for herself, and for righteousness in general, like few people I've ever known, whatever their age.


To say she knew her way around the place would be an understatement. When we began making our classroom agreements early in her third and final school year, she took the lead in creating a short, but very workable list, including the vital ones of "No hitting," "No kicking," "No biting," and "No taking things from other people." We would, of course, add to this list in the coming days and weeks, but we could in theory function as a community quite well with these dozen or so rules we had created to get started.


The following day, we played with our catapults. The kids fell on them enthusiastically. It was wild at first, although I was proud of how well the kids -- most of whom were just getting to know one another -- figured out how to share the five machines without any input from me. 


Naturally, they quickly began targeting one another with the ping pong balls. I was trying to stay out of the way, observing, and helping to retrieve balls that had gotten under furniture, waiting all the while for a signal from the kids that we needed to consider a new agreement: "No shooting other people with a catapult." It wasn't a problem yet, but I simply assumed that it would become one before too long and we'd soon have to figure out something else to "target," such as the alphabet blocks that I had handy for the purpose. This moment never came, at least not that day.



At one point, a group of four boys allied themselves as a team, "the boy team," leaving Charlotte all alone as "the girl team." She had her back against some shelves, in possession of one catapult, while the boys were arrayed with their catapults in an arc aimed toward her. The boys boasted to me about their potential fire power, talking about "doubles" and "triples." A couple balls were launched Charlotte's way, which she ducked, then grabbed before they bounced back to the boys. I checked in with her. While she didn't seem particularly happy, she also didn't seem upset. There was a determined look on her face. I asked, "Do you like this game?" She made it clear she didn't need me, so I went back to hunting for lost balls.



Moments later, however, she objected loudly, "Hey, no taking things!"


I asked, "Did someone take something? We all agreed: no taking things from other people." I pointed at where the freshly made list of rules hung on the wall and all eyes followed my finger.


That's when a boy complained, "But she has all the balls!" 



That's when I noticed that Charlotte indeed had a large collection of balls between her knees. Reluctantly abiding by our community agreement, the boys returned the one ball they'd snatched from her, this girl who'd figured out a way to even those apparently insurmountable odds. 


I couldn't help observing, "So you guys have all the catapults, and she has all the balls." 


While Charlotte sat upon her stash, the boys, still in their semi-circle, were dumbstruck, feeling, I suppose, how one feels when one has been checkmated. Maybe I should have kiboshed the boy-girl divide earlier. Perhaps I should have been more assertive in getting to the "No shooting each other" discussion. I could have handled it all differently, but at the same time, I really couldn't help but be proud of "the girl team." She had used her knowledge of the rules and her experience as a younger sister to masterfully work things around to a kind of victory that must have been satisfying to her. It sure was to me.



The stand-off lasted for several minutes, with the boys idly flipping their empty catapults while Charlotte stood her ground. A couple of the boys started hunting under furniture for balls, but without luck.


Finally, Archie crossed over to Charlotte and asked as politely as possible, "Could I please have one ball?"


With that Charlotte sat up and pushed the whole pile of balls toward the boys. Game over.


******


Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network or anywhere you download your podcasts.


I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Wednesday, April 10, 2024

To Listen With Our Entire Self


"Your wish is my command."

It's a phrase that originates in the Arabic folk tale Aladdin and the Magic Lamp. It's what the genii said to the boy who conjured him. It is meant as a declaration of gratitude for having been released from the prison of the lamp, one that the genii makes in earnest. He will, up to the limit of three wishes, obey the boy. 

Today, more often than not, when we use the phrase we mean it sarcastically, as a way of indicating that someone has us over a barrel. As autonomous modern humans, most of us have learned to be uncomfortable with ceding our behavior to the whims of others and to feel resentful when circumstances conspire to place us in the control of others. And even when we say or hear "Your wish is my command" spoken with the earnestness of the genii, we know that there are limits to any obedience, even if a great debt is owed.

I've written often here about the widely-accepted cultural notion that children should, at least when it comes to "important" things, obey the adults in their life. In my view, this is a dangerous thing to teach children because we know that the lessons learned in our youth have a way of carrying forward into adulthood and adults who have learned obedience are not adults who are well-equipped to make their own decisions. They tend to be people who look to others to do their thinking for them because, at the end of the day, that is what obedience is all about: it is about making another person's wish into our own command. Obedient people can be more easily made to do things against their own judgment or best interests, which makes them dangerous to themselves and others, and easy targets for bad actors.

I was surprised, therefore, to recently learn that linguists believe that the words "hear" and "obey" most likely originated as the same word. In Latin, the word obedire translates as "obey," which is the composite of ob + audire, which means to hear while facing someone. This is true for Greek, Hebrew, French, German, and Russian, as well as English.

Of course, meanings change over time and through usage, but I recognize that in my own life, hearing, and especially listening, is a kind of obedience.

As Julian Jaynes puts it: "Consider what it is to listen and understand someone speaking to us. In a certain sense we have to become the other person; or rather, we let him become part of us for a brief second. We suspend our own identities, after which we come back to ourselves and accept or reject what he has said. But that brief second of dawdling identity is the nature of understanding language; and if that language is a command, the identification of understanding becomes the obedience."

Jaynes is writing about understanding language specifically, but I think this goes for the entirety of interpersonal communication, which includes both verbal and non-verbal listening.

Not all of what we call "listening" falls into this category. Many of us, especially when we are in positions of power, as when we are adults with young children, merely perform a show of listening while we construct our response, or, as is too often the case when a child tells us a long-winded story, simply as a polite cover for the fact that we are merely waiting for them to come to an end, and lacking that, a space in which we can interrupt. But when we honestly listen, when we, as Eleanor Duckworth says, "listen with our entire self" it is an act of putting ourselves completely at the service of others.

The act of understanding another person is, however briefly, a necessary and voluntary act of obedience because (Duckworth again) ". . . we cannot assume that an experience whose meaning seems clear to us will have the same meaning for someone else."

Our profession as early childhood educators is too often wrapped up in the language and practice of adults controlling, dictating, telling, and "teaching," but the true art, the true practice of an educator is listening, to hear their wishes and make understanding them our command. 

As Mister Rogers writes, "I think the most important part about communication is the listening we do beforehand."

******

Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network or anywhere you download your podcasts.


I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Tuesday, April 09, 2024

Agreeing on Rainbow


We were making a rocket ship to use as a prop for a play the older kids had decided they wanted to stage for the last day of school. I'd procured a long cardboard box that the kids agreed would punch the ticket, but before we started, we needed to discuss exactly what kind of rocket ship this was going to be.

"Black!"

"No, purple!"

"Yellow and green!"

I was writing their nominations on a sheet of butcher paper. By the time we'd completed the list, there was no overlap. Each of the dozen or so kids had suggested a unique color or color combination. I read the list to them, finishing by asking, "How are we going to decide?"

Over the course of their years at Woodland Park, we had sometimes made group decisions by voting so it wasn't a surprise when someone suggested, "Let's vote!" Yes, they all wanted a vote, so I went down their list asking for a show of hands. Each option received, as one might predict, one vote. It was a tie. There was some discussion around this, including some persuasion and negotiation, then a call for a second vote. We were able to eliminate a few, but were still left with a half dozen options.

Of course, that's when someone had an idea: "Let's paint it rainbow!"

This wasn't the first time I'd facilitated a process like this and it was far from the first time that children had hit on the compromise of "rainbow." Indeed, I'm sure it's happened somewhere, but I've never personally witnessed a group of preschoolers who did not opt for rainbow under these circumstances. The conventional wisdom is that a good compromise is one about which no one is entirely happy, but in the case of rainbow, it always seems to delight everyone. Oh, there might still those who would prefer an all pink rocket ship, but the manifest fairness of rainbow, the epiphany of rainbow, the way the children celebrate when they've arrived at this collective decision, tells me that agreement, at least in this case, supersedes individual opinions.


Philosopher John Rawls' "veil of ignorance" is one of the best known thought experiments of the 20th century. He asked, essentially, what kind of social structure would we would want to create if no one knew in advance what position they were going to occupy?

It's fascinating to think about. Like with the children, most of us would wish for a social structure in which fairness was its hallmark. Some of us might opt for fairness out of a selfish fear of awakening to discover we've been randomly assigned to a position of disadvantage, but most of us, I hope, are like these preschoolers: we choose fairness because, well, it's only fair.

Before painting anything rainbow, I've learned to ask the children to do their own thought experiment: what happens when you mix all the colors together? Gray, maybe brown. No preschooler ever wants gray or brown. (Although, interestingly, I've been part of several adult groups charged with deciding on a color for, say, a classroom, or church hallway, or an apartment building lobby, and the compromise is almost always some version of gray or brown.) So then we must discuss how we are going to ensure we get a rainbow and not some version of mud. In the case of the rocket ship, we decided that each kid would choose a color and a section to paint. Then, in agreement, we got to work.

As I watched the rocket ship take its colorful shape, I saw the kind of social structure for which I would wish. Here we were, shoulder-to-shoulder toward a common end, each with space for their own color while making space for the colors of others, taking joy not in getting our own way, but in that together we were magnificent enough to agree.

******

Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network or anywhere you download your podcasts.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Monday, April 08, 2024

Training for the Unexpected


In science journalist David Toomey's new book Kingdom of Play, he writes about an animal geneticist and ethologist named David Wood-Gush who established the "Edinburgh Pig Park," a place where domesticated animals were allowed to roam freely. The idea was that they could live as closely to their natural state as possible, yet still be easily studied by scientists. It was known at the time that pigs that played more tended to healthier, so Wood-Gush and his colleague Ruth Newberry decided that understanding more about pig play would lead to more humane treatment of pigs.

Like many mammals, one of the forms of pig play is to run around. This makes sense to scientists because, according to one of the major theories about the function of play in animals is that it allows us to practice skills we might need in the future. Running is obviously a good way to avoid future predators. One thing that surprised the researchers, however, was that periodically, while in the midst of running, piglets would, for no apparent reason, fling themselves upon the ground, scramble back to their feet, then continue running. This seemed like a less adaptive behavior. Indeed, it seemed like a good way to wind up as lunch.

Newberry continued to pursue this question and, along with colleagues in the US, came up with an idea they called "training for the unexpected." In the real world, an animal is running in natural terrain, which means it's littered with tripping and slipping hazards. The pig flop-over, they speculated, was in fact practice for the real possibility of having to recover from a fall while being pursued. "We hypothesize that a major ancestral function of play is to rehearse behavioral sequences in which animals lose full control of their locomotion, position, or sensory/spatial input and need to repair their faculties quickly."

There is no agreed upon definition of what play is among scientists, but this notion of "training for the unexpected" has become central to our current efforts to understand what play is all about. Evidence of this phenomenon is all around us. Young children are famous for putting themselves into disorienting positions. I've watched countless children doing their own version of the piglet flop. Children spin on swings, roll down hills, and diverge from almost every straight-and-narrow path in order to clamber or climb. Often their "flops" are objectively risky behaviors. And we all know that once is rarely enough, they must do it again and again and again, which is the hallmark of practice or training.

It doesn't make much of a stretch to see that their dramatic play is likewise an aspect of this phenomenon. By pretending to be someone or something they are not, they are preparing themselves to respond to the surprises that life will inevitably offer them. In contrast, so much of what we call schooling is focused on the knowable, the predictable, the standard, and planning for the future, but we all know that much of life as it's lived, perhaps most of it, is about how we respond to the unexpected, the tripping and slipping. As the Yiddish adage has it, "Man plans and God laughs." Play is, in this context, how animals prepare to get the last laugh: we may fall, our plans may go awry, but because we played, we know how to get back up and keep going.

We are currently experiencing an alarming spike in childhood anxiety, with children as young as three being treated for it. This is not true of all anxiety, but much of it manifests as fear of the future, and specifically a fear that we will not be up to the unexpected challenges that lie ahead. It's not a coincidence that the incidence of childhood anxiety is peaking at the same time that children are experiencing a deficit of play. As psychologist and retired professor of research Peter Gray writes, "Over the same decades that children's play has been declining, childhood mental disorders have been increasing . . . the rise in mental disorders among children is largely the result of the decline in children's freedom." In a world in which children are not free to play, in which they are over-protected and over-managed, in which they are forever being groomed exclusively for the expected and shielded from the unexpected, we are robbing them of opportunities to prepare themselves for the unexpected. No wonder they're anxious.

When an individual piglet flops, of course, it doesn't know it's training for the unexpected. It's doing it because it's fun thing to do. It's so fun that they do it again and again. Porcine play, like human play, like the play of animals ranging from bees to octopuses to elephants, has evolved as an almost universal adaptation to world in which man plans and God laughs. We are meant to do fun things, even if they are a bit risky. As the German philosopher and psychologist wrote in his groundbreaking 1896 book The Play of Animals, "The animal does not play because he is young. He has a period of youth because he must play."

******

Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network or anywhere you download your podcasts.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

Friday, April 05, 2024

"I Do It!"


The boy had shed his jacket onto the floor, leaving it in a heap right in the middle of the room. Under normal circumstances I would have said something like, "Your coat is on the floor; it belongs on a hook," then waited for him to think things through. But this was his first day and he was only two, so I instead picked it up with the intention of hanging it for him.

He rushed at me, screaming something that didn't sound like Nooooooo! but clearly meant it. He snatched his coat from my hands. "I do it!"

I said, "The hooks are over there." It took some doing, but he finally managed it.

Later that morning, he was playing with a small wooden ball that escaped him and rolled under some shelves. I happened to be sitting right there so I automatically reached for the ball, but again he stopped me, "I do it!" And he did.

When he sat down for a snack, the adult who was there tried to help him wash his hands, but he refused. "I do it!" When she tried to serve him carrot sticks and grapes, he put them back on the serving platter one at a time, saying, yet again, "I do it!"

He was firm with us, if a bit fussy, as if he was accustomed to adults putting up a fight. His mother had laughed that he was a "willful" child, rolling her eyes as if to say "Good luck!" Of course, she wasn't talking about his willfulness manifesting as it had so far at school, a boy clearly wanting to do it for himself. She was talking about those times when it resulted in digging in his heels about things like baths or leaving the playground.

But it's the same instinct. As unpleasant and annoying as it might be for us adults, willfulness in a child tells us that they are willing to take responsibility for their own lives. It's the kind of thing that we aren't always good at recognizing in young children. Indeed, our schools and parenting books are full of tips and advice on how to motivate children to do exactly that: take responsibility for themselves, for cleaning their rooms, for learning their lessons, for controlling their emotions. Sadly, we've become so addicted to the behaviorist ideas of rewards and punishments that even the best of us, like a bad habit, resort to them.

"If you get in the car, I'll give you a cookie." "If you don't get in the car, you won't get a cookie." 

The problem is that all the research done on these sorts of external motivators is that they simply don't work (see Alfie Kohn's Punished by Rewards). Oh sure, if the carrot is sweet enough or the stick painful enough, a child can be made to do almost anything, but if it is to work a second or third or fourth time, it will require increasingly sweet rewards and increasingly painful punishments. Not only that, but the entire process sucks any sense of joy or satisfaction right out of the activity itself until the only reason the child, or anyone, continues behaving in a certain way is to receive the reward or to avoid the punishment. 

This explains why so many kids don't see a problem with cheating. If the goal is a good grade (external motivation), then copying a friend's homework makes sense, while if learning (intrinsic motivation) is the goal, then copying someone else's work is counterproductive. On the flip side, the consequence of getting caught cheating isn't a bad conscience, but rather that the adults in your life will take away something about which you are intrinsically motivated, like recess or hanging out with your friends at the mall.

Study after study has shown that rewards and punishments have a negative effect on self-motivation. Even previously pleasurable things, things we do willingly, can be ruined by the introduction of rewards and punishments. 

Like with many things, our schools have it backwards. They tend to operate under the misguided theory that children need to first be extrinsically motivated, and only then, as time goes by will they develop intrinsic motivation. This is completely unsupported by any science. It is the same method Pavlov used to make his dogs salivate.

At the same time adults, both educators and parents, tend to set ourselves up as the arbiters of what a child should be doing or learning. Had I commanded that two-year-old boy, "Hang up your coat," I'm quite confident that he would have responded "willfully," perhaps reluctantly hanging up his coat because I was an authority figure, but more likely, knowing the boy, he would have refused altogether, whining, sulking, or shrieking.

So what are we to do? Well, first of all, we need to stop bossing kids around so much. Researchers have found that some 80 percent of the sentences adults say to children are commands and no one responds well to being told what to do, no matter what our age. 

Secondly, we can learn to trust a child's intrinsic motivations. This isn't an easy thing in standard schools because, obviously, each child is going to be motivated in different ways, about different things, and on different schedules, while teachers are expected to march all the kids through the same things on the same schedule. If we are going to do what the science tells us, however, we will create interesting and varied environments for children in which they have the freedom to manipulate, explore, discover, and invent, in the company of others or all alone, at their own pace. 

We will drop grading and testing, those carrots and sticks that put so much focus deficits, and replace them with something like Learning Stories, in which educators observe the children, then write the story of what the child is doing and learning. These stories would be written to the children themselves, and their families, creating a record of the child's intrinsically motivated learning journey, a truly useful "permanent record" that is entirely focused on the strengths of each child. Because, as my friend and proponent of Learning Stories Wendy Lee told me, "What we focus on grows."

When would teachers have time to write these Learning Stories? Removing direct instruction, grading, lesson planning, and classroom management from an educator's responsibilities should leave plenty of time to focus on the actual learning.

None of this means a child will no longer be willful. Indeed, it frees all children to be powerfully, happily willful, which is to say, it frees them to take responsibility for their own lives, and that, in the end, is the purpose of all true education. 

"I do it!"

******

Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network or anywhere you download your podcasts.



I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Thursday, April 04, 2024

Play Isn't Silly At All




You'd think that people would've had enough of silly love songs
But I look around me and I see it isn't so
Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs
And what's wrong with that?
I'd like to know
'Cause here I go again.
                          ~Wings (Paul McCartney)

Yesterday, I listened to BeyoncĂ©'s new album Cowboy Carter on which she covers and updates Dolly Parton's heart wrenching classic Jolene. Whereas the original is about a woman in love begging for mercy from a rival who has set her sights on her man, this new version is about a woman in love threatening that same woman. As Parton said about the new version, "BeyoncĂ© is giving that girl some trouble and she deserves it!"

If an alien from another planet were to try to understand "love" by listening to our love songs, it would likely conclude that we don't know what we're talking about. Love is kind. Love is a battle field. Love is blind. Love is a second hand emotion. Love saves. Love is a lie. Even more confusing, I imagine, would be to realize that these songs are mostly about romantic love: that there is also parental love, the love of a child for a parent, spiritual love, and love as a universal, unifying force. We love our cereal. We love that love song. Love makes the world go 'round. People die for love. And for the same reason that we will never run out of love songs, our alien researcher would never reach the end of a definition because there is always something else or someone else or some way else to experience that crazy little thing called love.

Just as there is no agreed upon definition for "love" there is no agreed upon definition for "play." Defining play is every bit as elusive as defining love, probably because it includes emotion, intelligence, and behavior that is universal in terms of both time and space. The best we can hope for, for all practical purposes, is to identify characteristics or conditions, that when they exist, would indicate that a person is playing, but an all inclusive definition is far beyond us.

And that's fine, because on a day-to-day basis, none of us need a definition of play. We know it when we see it, or feel it, and that's enough, which is likewise true for love. I mean, if you've got it in your life, why mess around trying to pick it apart, right? Both tend to disappear when looked at too closely, so the best plan is to use it or lose it.

Unfortunately, that's exactly what scientists do, pick things apart in order to understand them, and in our modern world, if science can't explain it, if there is no data to discuss, then it's nearly impossible to get policymakers, for instance, to take it seriously. Without an agreed upon definition, play, like love, appears to the hardheaded decision-makers as silly.

I think this is why we've had so much difficultly creating a body of research to support play-based learning. If you can't define what you are studying, the tools of the scientific method, like creating replicable experiments, won't work.

In his book The Genesis of Animal Play, evolutionary biologist Gordon Burghardt proposes five characteristics that must exist in order for us to call behavior play: 1) It must be nonfunctional (at least not obviously connected to survival or reproduction), 2) It must be purely voluntary and not forced by external influence, 3) It must be distinct from the animal's other behaviors, 4) It must involve repeated movements, but with variations and modifications, and 5) It can only occur when the animal is well-fed, safe, and healthy.

Of course, not all scientists agree with Burghardt. Indeed, I imagine that many of the play-based practitioners reading this have quibbles, and therein lies the challenge we face, I think. If we are to get policymakers, administrators, parents, and others to understand the power and centrality of childhood play, our modern world demands a robust body of research that "proves" it.

Over the decades I've tried to share the science and data about play, but the current state of affairs is that it's all over the place, often unconnected and contradictory, usually because each study seems to start with a different idea of what constitutes play. There is over a century of play research out there, but it doesn't feel like we are any closer to understanding play within the context of human evolution and learning than we were 100 years ago. 

Perhaps that's because play, like love, is always in the eye of the beholder.

Love doesn't come in a minute
Sometimes it doesn't come at all
I only know that when I'm in it
It isn't silly, love isn't silly
Love isn't silly at all.

******

Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network or anywhere you download your podcasts.

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Wednesday, April 03, 2024

Are Joy and Delight the Meaning of Life?


The boys were playing together on and around the swings. One of them was pumping himself higher and higher while the other, laughing wildly, was lying on the ground beneath his friend. With each pass of the swing, the boy on the ground barely escaped being kicked, a fact that clearly thrilled him.

I wasn't worried about their play. It was clear that they were both hyper-focused on no one getting hurt, yet as I stood nearby chatting with them and snapping photos it occurred to me that this was exactly the sort of behavior that causes some adults to conclude that young children, without the firm, guiding control of adults, will, in their careless ignorance, kill themselves. Or at least severely injure themselves by engaging in what appears, for all intents and purposes, to be pointless, reckless behavior.

The Theory of Evolution would seem to suggest that pointless, reckless behavior reduces an individual's chances of survival, which means they will ultimately be less likely to procreate and pass along the pointless-reckless genes. As I watched these boys joyfully engaged in this game that would be banned on most other playgrounds, I knew I was watching them play, which is, by definition, pointless (at least in the moment) and often hazardous. As I cast my eyes around the rest of the playground, I spied a half dozen other kids engaged in pointless, if not hazardous, pursuits. How did this apparently non-adaptive, entirely voluntary behavior, play, survive in the evolutionary sense? 

And it's not just humans. Dogs and cats play. All mammals play. Birds play. Reptiles play. Even octopuses, a phyla that diverged from our own some 670 million years ago, are known to play. Indeed, it seems that the drive to play may be as universal as reproduction and respiration. So even though purposeless, open-ended, sometimes reckless behavior seems to indicate that play would be non-adaptive, the long arc of evolution suggests otherwise.

Charles Darwin, the first evolutionary biologist wrote, "Natural selection is . . . purposeless. It has no intention, and no objective . . . (it) includes no necessary and universal law of advancement or development." In the concluding paragraph of On the Origin of Species, he writes that all life forms are even now "being evolved," which is to say that evolution is open-ended. As science journalist David Toomey puts it in his new book Kingdom of Play, "(I)f you could distill the process of natural selection into a single behavior, that behavior would be play. Alternatively, if you were to choose an evolutionary theory or view of nature for which play might seem to be a model, it would be natural selection . . . Life itself, in the most fundamental sense, is playful."

Different species play in different ways, of course, but among the most commonly found forms of play is exactly what these boys were doing: putting oneself in awkward or precarious situations and then recovering from it. Play fighting is the classic, nearly universal, example, but things like this, lying under a swing, escaping the danger, then doing it again, is found in every vertebrate and even, as octopuses could attest, at least some invertebrates. In the end, it would not surprise me at all if some day we were to conclude that play is a characteristic of all life, perhaps even including the kingdom of plants. (And if you think this is a bridge too far, I point you to Robin Wall Kimmerer's magnificent Braiding Sweetgrass or Peter Wholleben's book The Hidden Life of Trees.)

There is a great deal of speculation, but we are far from fully understanding why play -- purposeless, open-ended, and voluntary -- is so essential to life itself, but watching these boys, I see joy, I see delight, I see animals engaged fully in this moment in time. And it makes me wonder if the reason play has not just survived, but continues to thrive, over billions of years of evolution, is exactly this: joy and delight. One might even conclude that this is the purpose, if not the meaning, of life.

******

Last chance to join the 2024 cohort for my 6-week course, Creating a Natural Habitat for Learning. This course is designed to help you figure out how to transform your classroom, home, or playground into the kind of open-ended, child-led environment that puts curiosity, self-motivation, and teamwork at the center of learning. In my decades as an early childhood educator, I've found that nothing improves my teaching and the children's learning experience more than a supportive classroom, both indoors and out. This course is for educators, parents, and directors. Group discounts are available. You don't want to miss this chance to make your "third teacher" (the learning environment) the best it can be. Registration is closing at midnight tonight (April 3). I hope you join us! To learn more and register, click here.


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