Friday, May 31, 2024

Summer Reading

With days in the Northern Hemisphere lengthening into summer, my mind inevitably turns to reading. Reading books, especially fiction, was a habit I developed in my childhood when the local library or maybe an elementary school teacher would "challenge" children to read 20 books or some other arbitrary quantity. The titles were left up to us. I would keep two stacks of books in my room: those I'd not read and those I'd read. I enjoyed the summer-long process of moving those books from one stack to another, but also, particularly the process of returning to the books I'd read, holding them in my hands, studying the covers and reflecting on the worlds they contained. It was while doing this that I realized that one of the truly magical things about books was that not only did they take me places, they allowed me, for a time to be a different person.

Seeing the world, for instance, through the eyes of Frank and Joe Hardy, the mystery-solving boys written under the pen-name of Franklin W. Dixon, made me a courageous boy, resourceful enough to outwit adult criminals. It was a direct extension of my pretend play that typically involved me as a cowboy, soldier, Indian, or superhero (mostly Batman).

I'm sure there was some sort of reward involved for reading those 20 books, perhaps a coupon for a scoop of ice cream at a participating merchant, but I really don't recall. I knew even then that adults struggle to believe that children will read without some sort of extra inducement. But for me, at least, that was entirely beside the point, especially since the whole thing was being done on an honor system. You simply wrote down the books you'd read on a special mimeographed sheet the library provided. Even then I realized that it would be easy enough to simply cheat, and I was sure that some of the other kids did so in order to get that scoop, but it was those stacks of books, those stacks of lives, that motivated me.

My summer hobby has become a lifelong one. Today, the walls of my home are lined with books, thousands of them, some I've read, some waiting to be read. I read year-round, of course, but summer remains inextricably connected with books.

A week ago, I loaned a book to a new friend. She too is a reader and our conversation made me think of the author Rebecca Solnit who she had never read. I gave her my copy of The Faraway Nearby to take with her. Last night I saw her again. I don't like to pressure people about reading. Indeed, I don't even really expect people to read the books I loan them (honestly, I don't even expect to get them back), but she, on her own, began telling me about her impressions of the first couple chapters. It's been awhile since I've read this book. I recall it as a magical blend of memoir, philosophy, travelogue, essay, and literary discussion, particularly about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. I'd been inspired by Solnit's book to re-read Frankenstein, experiencing again, but from Solnit's perspective.

My new friend, however, kept talking about mirrors, an aspect of the book, I'd forgotten. When I looked at my reading notes (yes, I like to write down passages and ideas from my reading) I found this wonderful, heartbreaking passage about Solnit's mother: 

She thought of me as a mirror but she didn't like what she saw and blamed the mirror. When I was thirty, in one of the furious letters I sometimes composed and rarely sent, I wrote, "You want me to be some kind of mirror that will reflect back the self-image you want to see -- perfect mother, totally loved, always right -- but I am not a mirror, and the shortcomings you see are not my fault. And I can never get along with you as long as you continue demanding I perform miracles."


I've heard from many women over the years, of the mother who gave herself away to everyone or someone and tried to get herself back from a daughter. Early on, she assured me that she had measured me as a toddler, doubled my height, and deduced that I would be five foot two, seven inches shorter than her, when I grew up and that my hair -- white blond in my first years, lemon and then honey and then dirty blond streaked by the sun with gold as I grew older -- was going to turn brown at any moment . . . This short, brown-haired daughter she decided upon was not terrifying, and she envisioned a modest future for me and occasionally tried to keep me to it.

I'd obviously thought enough of these passages at the time to preserve them as notes, but my most enduring take-away from Solnit's book was the theme of storytelling, and particularly fairy tales.

Fairy tales are almost always the stories of the powerless, of youngest sons, abandoned children, orphans, of humans transformed into birds and beasts or otherwise enchanted away from their own selves and lives. Even the princesses are chattel to be disowned or sold by fathers, punished by stepmothers, or claimed by princes, though they often assert themselves in between and are rarely as passive as the cartoon versions. Fairly tales are children's stories not in who they were made for but in their focus on the early stages of life, when others have power over you and you have power over no one . . . In them, power is rarely the right tool for survival anyway. Rather the powerless thrive on alliances, often in the form of reciprocated acts of kindness -- from beehives that are not raided, birds that are not killed but set free or fed, old women who were saluted with respect. Kindness sown among the meek is harvested in crisis, in fairy tales and sometimes in actuality.

Delightfully, Solnit has in recent years applied her talents to reimagining classic fairy tales: Cinderella Liberator and Waking Beauty, both of which I have on my own shelves, books I've read but am now inspired to hold in my hands again. There is a line in Waking Beauty that has become something of a touchstone for me over the past couple years: The center of the universe is everywhere, and of course it always seems to be right where you are, so there are more centers than there are drops of rain in a rainstorm or stars in the sky when the rainclouds blow away or grains of sand under the sea.

In her notes at the end of the book Solnit writes: "Waking Beauty portrays a world in which each of us is at the center of our own story and all of us exist in a forest of others' stories. Becoming aware of that is part of developing social awareness and empathy (which some kids have instinctively and some adults lack alarmingly or have been taught to sabotage)."

School has a horrible habit of ruining reading for so many of us. The reading list, curated by adults, no matter how thoughtfully, is no match for the self-selected stack. To be tested on a book's contents, to be judged or graded or rewarded or punished robs us of the open-ended journey with its detours, crossroads, and unexpected vistas of a world through the eyes of a protagonist who we are privileged to become for a time. It is the only way I've found to explore those infinite centers of the universe. This is what reading is all about for me: every book, every perspective, every center makes my own life bigger. When I pick up a new book, my heart beats a little faster. I'm about to become another person.

"A reader lives a thousands lives before he dies," writes the author George R. R. Martin, "The man who never reads lives only one." 


Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! This is a clip from my incredible conversation with Lenore Skenazy, the founder of the the Free Range Parenting movement. If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversation with Lenore and other 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 here 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, May 30, 2024

America's Best Mom

"The real world consequences of imaginary dangers -- that's what I'm trying to fight." 

Lenore Skenazy, founder of the Free Range Kids movement and Let Grow, tells me on Teacher Tom's Podcast. She never planned to become a crusader for authentic childhood, but was rather thrust into her role as a leading anti-helicopter parenting crusader upon being labelled in the media as "America's Worst Mom" when she wrote about allowing her nine-year-old to ride the New York City subway alone.

Lenore and her husband had discussed it and decided together that this was a "risk" worth taking. It was a joint parenting decision, but I'm sure it doesn't surprise anyone that her husband wasn't labelled "America's Worst Dad." When it comes to young children women are always held to a higher standard than men. I see it myself as a male teacher. I've often been praised simply for making the effort, for showing up, while my female counterparts have to actually demonstrate they are skilled educators in order to receive the same kind of attention. Indeed, even after nearly two decades as a preschool teacher, parents would still tell me they picked our school simply because I am a man. As a stay-at-home father, people would regularly say, "Good for you" to me, patting me on the back for simply trying to fill the role of caretaker, letting me off the hook for my "failings," whereas no one says that sort of thing to stay-at-home mothers. Women have to actually demonstrate June Cleaver level parenting skills in order to be adjudged worthy of a compliment. 

Developmental psychologist and author Alison Gopnik, in her book The Carpenter and The Gardner, writes about how the word "parenting" is a relatively new phenomenon. She found that until about 1962, the word wasn't much used in the media, but from that time forward, its use exploded to the point that we now have an entire industry devoted to "parenting." Her point is that prior to that time, it was enough to simply be a parent, to have a loving relationship with your child, whereas today we've turned the relationship into a job that one must do to and for your children. She notes we've not done that with our other foundational relationships. We don't do wifing or friending or childing, but when it comes to being a parent, and especially a female parent, we've made it into a project. And not only that, it's a project upon which you're going to be judged. I don't think it's an accident that this happened right at the time that the Women's Liberation Movement was starting to take hold, making it possible for more and more women to consider assuming roles beyond wife and mother. It was the patriarchy asserting itself to keep women in their place by making them feel extra guilty for somehow neglecting their children. That's just my amateur assessment, but whatever the case, if fathers are judged as parents at all, they're given high marks just for making the effort. In other words, "parenting," as the concept is generally understood, applies to women far more than men.

Another of my podcast guests, Maggie Dent, likes to say, "You don't have to be a perfect parent." I like to tell young parents that if they can do the things the parenting experts say 30 percent of the time, they'll be the best parent on earth. That percentage is based on nothing more than my assessment of my own performance as a parent: I made all the "mistakes" one can make, yet today our daughter is an intelligent, talented, self-confident, self-motivated young woman who has good friends and works well with others. The only credit I take is that I always make sure she knows I love and support her. Beyond that, I'm not sure any of the "parenting" I did made a lick of difference one way or another. Indeed, Gopnik writes:

"(I)t is very difficult to find any reliable, empirical relation between the small variations in what parents do . . . and the resulting adult traits of their children. There is very little evidence that conscious decisions about co-sleeping or not, letting your children "cry it out" or holding them till they fall asleep, or forcing them to do extra homework or letting them play have reliable and predictable long-term effects on who those children become."

In contrast, we know that when children know they are loved and supported by the important adults in their lives, it forms a foundation from which they can learn to live life on their own terms, knowing that they are free to explore, to make mistakes, and to try again. Children deserve adults of all genders who love and trust them enough to let them make their own discoveries about themselves and the world around them. It's the relationship that matters, not the parenting, which is at best hit or miss even for the best of us.

Lenore tells us that when her son arrived home after his solo subway trip, he was aflame with the glow of his independent accomplishment. "There's a reason," says Lenore, "that self-confidence starts with the word self and not mommy . . . Step back," she says, "and you get the joy of watching your child blossom." 

I think that makes her "America's Best Mom" right alongside every other mother who loves her children and lets them know it. 


I've been writing about play-based learning almost every day for the past 14 years. I've recently gone back through the 4000+ blog posts(!) I've written since 2009. Here are my 10 favorite in a nifty free download. Click here to get yours.

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, May 29, 2024

Getting in on the Ground Floor of Emotion Construction

Pipilotte Rist

If a fortune-teller had told my 40-year-old self that I would one day be regularly traveling the world, standing at podiums, speaking into microphones, and addressing audiences of hundreds, even thousands, I would have dismissed them as a charlatan. Like most people, the idea of public speaking was a pretty hard no. Even speaking in front of preschoolers and their parents in our cooperative preschool made me nervous, so much so that it I avoided eye-contact with the adults in the room as spoke in front of the whole class. The result was that my first year performance reviews (conducted by the parents) almost universally praised me for my work with the kids, but found that I "need work" when it came to adults.

In this, I think, I'm like a lot of people. Surveys consistently show that public speaking is one of our greatest fears, rivaling even the fear of death.

Today, I feel nothing but excitement at the prospect of public speaking. What changed?

I still get sweaty palms. I still feel my racing heart. I still pace and fuss and giggle and show up way too early. I'm not exactly sure when it happened and it certainly wasn't conscious, but today the very same physiological conditions, the feelings, that I once identified as anxiety, I now identify as excitement.

The great William James, "The Father of American Psychology", well over a century ago wrote, "Common sense says, we lose our fortune, we are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike." But he insisted "the order of sequence is incorrect." It would be more accurate to say, "(W)e feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, and afraid because we tremble." (Italics are mine.)

Today, some of our leading neuroscientists, including Antonio Damasio (the David Dornsife Chair in Neuroscience, and professor of psychology, philosophy, and neurology at the University of Southern California, as well as author of the book Self Comes to Mind), believe that James was on to something. Experiments show that our thoughts and emotions originate, not in our brains, but in our physiological responses to what we perceive, and even more importantly that our bodies are capable of accessing more complex information, faster, and often more rationally than our brains, which are prone to cognitive biases, whereas our bodies are not.

As James says, our body trembles, our brains interpret that as fear, and then must decide what to do with that information. In James' construction we run from the bear, but if we've done any reading on what experts tell us to do when encountering a bear in the wild, our brains will know that running (flight) is the last thing we should do, because the bear can easily outrun us. Logic likewise tells us that we're not likely prevail in a fight with a bear, so that's off the table. Those of us who have tried to calm an agitated dog -- Good doggie -- might consider trying that (fawn), but good luck with that. What bear experts recommend is perhaps what our brains would consider the least logical, which is to, more or less, freeze, while throwing our hands up over our heads to create the impression that we are bigger than we are. If our bodies are to survive, our brains must overcome its urge to fight, flight, or fawn and let our bodies do what they are probably already doing: freeze!

In the case of a bear in the forest, the sweaty palms and pounding heart can quite obviously and rationally be identified as fear, but when it comes to speaking in front of an audience, especially an audience of early childhood educators who tend to be, as a group, the kindest, most supportive people on earth, I've figured out that my brain is flat out wrong to label my emotion as fear or anxiety. In this case, those very same physiological responses are the ones I felt on Christmas Eve as a boy: excitement. 

As science journalist Annie Murphy Paul writes in her book The Extended Mind, "(R)resilience is rooted in our awareness of our sensations that originate in our organs and extremities -- and the more alert we are to these inner signals, the more resilient we are able to be . . ."

I often think that my mother was a genius on par with William James. As a boy, our family moved often. By the time I was 12, we had lived in nine different homes in four different states and two countries. Moving house is considered one of the most stressful things one can do, yet at every step of the way my siblings and I were over-the-moon excited about each and every change in venue. Mom would start, months in advance, by telling us about our new home and all the things we would get to do, see, and experience. She didn't trying to calm or sooth us, but, on the contrary, she hyped it, helping us, and herself, interpret our physiological responses of sweaty palms and racing hearts as excitement or anticipation rather than fear or anxiety. She didn't know the neuroscience, nor was she pollyanna, but she did understand something quite profound: we were taking an active hand in constructing our own emotions.

Interoception is what scientists call our awareness of the inner state of the body. Just as we have sensors that take in information from the outside world (eyes, ears, noses, etc.), we have internal sensors that send our brains a constant, and constantly changing, flow of information. As Paul puts it, "(T)he greater our awareness of interoceptive sensations, the richer and more intense our experience of emotion can be . . . equipped with interoceptive awareness, we can get in on the ground floor of emotion construction; we can participate in creating the type of emotion we experience . . . Psychologists who study the construction of emotion call this practice 'cognitive reappraisal'. It involves sensing and labeling an interoceptive sensation . . . then 'reappraising' it -- reinterpreting it in an adaptive way. We can, for example, reappraise 
'nervousness' as 'excitement'."

Today, I recognize that this is what my mother, whether she knew it consciously or not, was teaching me to do.

We live in an era in which anxiety in young children is reaching alarming levels. We cast about for causes of this -- academic pressures at younger and younger ages, smartphones, the media, loss of childhood independence -- but I'm beginning to wonder if these things are as much effects as causes. Emotions like anxiety and depression tend to become self-perpetuating spirals, and the more into our "heads" we go, the more rapidly we spin. Meditation is one of the ways we can calm what the Buddha described as our mind's drunken monkeys. The reason meditation works is that when we quite our minds, we can better listen to our bodies, our interoceptive selves, which are, at the end of the day capable of more complex, more reliable, and more rational "thought" than are our brains. 

The modern world is one of hierarchies and we've mistakenly enthroned our brains at the top. In doing so, we neglect, ignore, and misunderstand what our bodies are telling us. And perhaps more importantly, we feel at the mercy of our emotions when, in fact, we are all capable of getting in on the ground floor of constructing them in ways that serve rather than hinder us.


I've been writing about play-based learning almost every day for the past 14 years. I've recently gone back through the 4000+ blog posts(!) I've written since 2009. Here are my 10 favorite in a nifty free download. Click here to get yours.

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, May 28, 2024

The Godlike Works of a Creator

We were messing around with pipe cleaners and tissue paper circles. It's a craft-ish project that most of the kids know, because I showed them. You can make nifty little flowers by sliding the thin disks of paper onto their bendy stems one at a time, giving each one a gentle "crush" as you go. I don't have any pictures of them, but it's a common enough preschool activity that I'm sure most of my readers know what I'm talking about. (But if you want a look, here's a version from my friend Deborah using squares instead of circles.)

Some of the kids do their own thing with the materials available, creating "space ships" and "spiders" and "decorations," but there are always a handful who really, really want to master the flowers. Sarah, I thought, was one of those kids. She plunked herself down at the art table and got to work, brow furrowed, her authoritative chatter letting us know she was on top of things. Since I'd already demonstrated my own technique, I moved on to other things, leaving the art station in the capable hands of a parent-teacher.

Later, while outdoors, I chatted with the parent-teacher, saying something like, "That art project was pretty popular today. Sarah seemed to really like it."

She answered, "It was, but you know, she didn't make a single flower. She couldn't figure out how to get the tissue paper on the stem without tearing it." A huge bouquet of flowers had been created at that table and Sarah had sat there, hands busy for a good half hour. How could it be possible that she hadn't produced a single flower?

"Nope, not one," was the answer, "But she worked really hard. Every time she tried to crush the tissue like you showed them, the paper came off."

I'd not been watching Sarah's production, but only, occasionally, her face and body language. Not once had I seen a sign of frustration or failure. No, the girl I'd seen was hard at work, concentrating, narrating her activities, deeply involved in what I assumed was a manufacturing process like that of the other kids around the table who were making one for "mom," one for "dad," one for "grandma," one for "my pet cat Simon . . ."

"I tried to help her, but she didn't want help. She told me she was already an expert flower maker."

I said, "I guess that means we'd better keep making flowers tomorrow."

The following day, I made the same materials available, not on the art table this time, but on another table, a place where there would be no dedicated parent-teacher. Sarah didn't go there right away, instead choosing a housekeeping game, but before long she was drawn in, taking up a spot, alone with the materials. I sat with her, taking up my own stem, not saying anything. I watched her slide a tissue paper circle onto her pipe cleaner, tearing a huge hole in it during the process. And as had happened the day before, when she crushed it, it came off the stem. This didn't seem to bother her at all as she tossed the wad of paper aside and reached for another. This time she worked more slowly, nudging it along carefully, still ripping the paper too much, but when she crushed it, it stayed, almost balanced in place. Gingerly, she added a second disk of paper, halfway up the stem, then a third. 

From an artistic perspective it was a pretty pathetic looking flower. She held it up, no extra pride in her expression, no sign that there was anything amiss. "That's just so beautiful," she said as she stuck it in the glass vase where we were displaying our finished pieces. She then got to work on another.

I put a piece of tissue paper on my stem and in my best imitation of the way she had done it, tore the hole a little too big, then crushing it to keep it precariously fixed in place. Sarah watched me from the corner of her eyes. "No, that's not the way," she said. "You have to do it more gently. Like this," then she showed me on her own flower.

I tried imitating her as best I could. "Good," she said, "That's right. Now, do another one." I followed her instructions.

She made a second flower as pathetic as the first and called it good. Before starting on a third, she watched me for a moment, growing frustrated with my attempts, although I was doing my best to imitate her. She snatched it from me, her voice infused with a false cheerfulness, "Here, let me just do that for you." In her rush, she caused all the tentatively fixed tissue to drop from my stem. "See?" she said, "That's what's supposed to happen. Now you can start over."

I didn't like the feeling of failure the exchange gave me, even as I knew I'd not failed. I knew because I'm an adult and I had practically invented this damn process, yet here I was with the tables turned. This is why I'm not a big fan of crafts in preschool: I worry that we put too many children in this situation. I said, reflexively, "I don't want to start over."

She sighed, "Okay, but you'll never figure it out if you give up."

"That's true." I got back to work, this time making a flower the way I'd initially shown the kids two days before, quickly pulling together a nice, tidy white carnation. Sarah watched me work without comment, then got back to her own stem. When she was finished with yet another pathetic flower, she said, "I think we should plant these in the garden."

I answered, "They would be pretty," then joking, "But, you know, they're not real flowers."

"I know that."

"I think the wind and rain would destroy them. The petals would all fall off."

"Real flowers always fall off," and even as she said it, one of her tissue paper wads fell from the stem she held. "Like that."

It was then that I understood Sarah's flowers. She was not making the perfect little imitation flowers the rest of us were making, but "real" flowers, the kind that bloom, live, then fall away when the winds blow. And in that flash, I was no longer in the presence of the pathetic attempts of a child, but rather what I saw before me were the godlike works of a creator.


I've been writing about play-based learning almost every day for the past 14 years. I've recently gone back through the 4000+ blog posts(!) I've written since 2009. Here are my 10 favorite in a nifty free download. Click here to get yours.

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, May 27, 2024

A Theory About Walls

For most of human history we spent most of our days outdoors, on and near savannas, under canopies, only retreating to our nooks and dens when darkness, weather, or predators drove us there. These are the conditions for which our minds evolved. Even later in the human story, once we begin constructing shelters, they were mostly one room affairs in which everyone spent their indoor time, cooking, eating, and sleeping together. I'm thinking of ancient Viking longhouses, for instance, in which entire villages resided under a single roof. Even medieval castles were built around a single great room in which most of the living was done, although by all accounts most people spent most of their days outdoors.

We've not shaken our need for spending time outside. Research consistently shows that our minds work better when we're outdoors, being outside makes us smarter, we tend to be more relaxed, more creative, and, generally, happier while freed from our ceilings and walls. Even having a view from one's office window, even just having some natural light, has been shown to be beneficial to our overall well-being, but nothing really tops being fully outside, preferably surrounded by nature.

It's hard to understand why we, as a species, at least in the developed world are increasingly opting for life indoors, when there are so many benefits to being outdoors. But I recently came across a theory that at least makes a little sense. The basic premise is that during most of our existence, survival was closely attached to the old "safety in numbers" idea. We stuck together because to be on your own put you in danger. The result of always being in proximity with others was that a great deal of our consciousness was taken up with keeping track of what the other people (and animals for that matter) were up to. When someone moves, we tend to watch to see where they are going. When they speak, we listen. When they tap out a rhythm we're likely to tap along. 

This was, for our evolutionary predecessors, what life was all about, but to us moderns, these are the sort of things that drive us crazy. Hey, I'm trying to concentrate here! What do we do to escape the "noise"? Some of us might go outside if we have access to a natural space, but it's almost as hard to concentrate out there because, well, Birds! Butterflies! Trees! Breeze! No, if the goal is to think abstractly we tend go into another room and shut the door. 

"Our distant ancestors could see each other at all times," maintains John Locke, professor of linguistics at Lehman College of the City University of New York, "which kept them safe but also imposed a huge cognitive cost . . . When  residential walls were erected, they eliminated the need to look around every few seconds to see what others were doing . . . freeing up many hours of undistracted time per day."

As science writer Annie Murphy Paul writes in her new book The Extended Mind, "Historically, society's demand for increasingly abstract thought combined with the growing density of human habitation to create a need for . . . walls. Walls became necessary as a way of relieving the mental strain that comes along with closely packed populations of unfamiliar others. For most of human history, after all, people lived with their family members in one-room dwellings. Everyone they knew lived not far from their front door, and it was useful to keep track of others' comings and goings." In the modern world, however, we need "spaces in which to read, think, and write -- alone."

In my practice as an early childhood educator, I've always strived to ensure that the children spend at least half of their days outdoors, no matter the weather. I've witnessed with my own eyes the cognitive and emotional benefits of removing the walls and ceilings. As my dearly departed friend and pioneer of the forest kindergarten movement Erin Kenny liked to say, "Children cannot bounce off the walls if we take away the walls." 

My instinct is to outright reject this theory about walls, but I try to have an open mind, especially since, whether I like it or not, more and more of us are opting for life in cities and contained by walls. An increasing percentage of us are spending entire days with minimal exposure to the sky. We must literally fight to get our children outdoors as we, as a society, turn more and more inward, more and more toward abstract thought. 

Currently our school rooms have a great deal in common with those Viking longhouses, with everyone spending their days all together in one big room. We are expecting these children to engage in abstract thought at younger and younger ages; even our preschoolers are being subjected to academic learning. Yet the mental strain of being in rooms packed with people (class size anyone?) means they will inevitably struggle to concentrate because every few seconds they must check into see what the others are doing. 

If this theory about walls is true, then are more walls the answer to encouraging more and better abstract thought? I sure hope not. Our schools are already too much like prisons and creating individual "concentration" cells won't help matters. The alternative, is to go outside, although that's an option that school-ish control freaks don't want to hear about because it sounds too much like setting the children free. But if more and more abstract thinking is really the future, then we have no choice but to get our children, and everyone, outdoors where most of us tend to do our best thinking.

The great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was famous for two things: his ability to engage in abstract thought and his enthusiasm for the outdoors. As he said, "Sit as little as possible; do not believe any idea that was not born in the open air and of free movement." He was a prolific walker and hiker, spending entire days afoot, usually in natural places. Indeed, as author Rebecca Solnit details in her book Wanderlust, many, if not most, of our greatest abstract thinkers were likewise great walkers. As she writes, "Exploring the world is one of the best ways of exploring the mind." Indeed, she points out, the human brain seems to work best while outdoors, moving "at three miles per hour."

My favorite days as an educator have always been walking field trips: taking the kids on a ramble around the neighborhood. We would curl our fingers through cyclone fencing to watch the construction workers, pick bouquets of dandelions, and generally just notice and discuss the world around us. We rarely make it up to three miles per hour because our legs are short and every block is dense with information that we need to process. The ancient Greeks like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle made the walk-and-talk central to their educational "system." 

It seems that we need a lot more of that in education.

I've been writing about play-based learning almost every day for the past 14 years. I've recently gone back through the 4000+ blog posts(!) I've written since 2009. Here are my 10 favorite in a nifty free download. Click here to get yours.

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, May 24, 2024

"You're Driving Me Crazy. Go Outside."

When I was a boy, even as young as four, mom would say, "You're driving me crazy. Go outside." She would then open the door, close it behind me, and not expect to hear from me for hours. That's how we all grew up back then. If I didn't see any other kids out there, I'd make my way up the street, knocking on the doors of houses where I knew kids lived, asking if they could come out and play. We played in one another's yards, garages, and crawl spaces. We played in the street, vacant lots, and the school yard. Once we learned to ride bikes, which most of us did around five or six, the entire neighborhood was ours.

Today we call it being "free-range kids," a phrase coined by Lenore Skenazy, the founder of the free-range parenting movement and recent guest on Teacher Tom's Podcast. She was was once dubbed "the world's worst mom" for letting her 9-year-old son ride the New York City subway on his own and writing about it. And while she was roundly pilloried, she at least wasn't charged with child neglect, endangerment or abuse as some parents have for simply allowing their kids to experience what was not long ago just called "childhood."

She was, however, shamed. As she tells me on the podcast, everyone who interviewed her back then would ask the same "gotcha" question about her son's adventure on the subway: "How would you feel if he didn't come home?" Of course, they knew the answer to that. She would have been devastated, but, as she says, the odds were overwhelmingly in favor of her son coming home. "They turned a tale of triumph into a hypothetical tragedy." And that's the attitude that seems to loom over parenting these days.

The real tragedy is that most children growing up in America today will spend their entire childhoods under adult supervision, never having the opportunities to experience the independence and freedom that characterized life for those of us who grew up in the 50's, 60's and 70's, what psychology researcher and play advocate Peter Gray calls the "Golden Age of Childhood." For whatever reason, we got scared as a nation, convinced there is a pedophile (or worse) behind every tree. According to the actual data, the world did not get more dangerous, but we came to perceive that it did and our children have suffered. Instead of saying, You're driving me crazy: go outside," parents were left with popping in a video or choosing between household chores and playing with the kids. Instead of kids organizing their own play the way we did, parents are on point for arranging supervised play-dates or driving junior to the playground or a class or some other "safe" facility under the ever-watchful eye of an adult. And children are suffering.

But, due in large part to the efforts of Lenore and her non-profit Let Grow, eight states have in recent years passed "reasonable childhood independence laws." In these states, parents can no longer be arrested for allowing her child to play alone at a playground or walk home from school. And Lenore tells me that there are several states with similar laws in the works. This is good news, but it still starkly illustrates the fact that normal childhood remains illegal in most places in the US.

Still, this is not just a win for both kids, but for parents, replacing irrational fear with common sense. Says Mica Hauley, Utah mother of five: "I can now make the decisions that are best for my children and not live in fear I am being judged and could be arrested. I trust that my kids can walk a short distance home from school. I may be looking out the window for them and praying for angels to be at their sides but I have to give them the freedom that will make them confident and independent adults."

To listen to my full interview with Lenore, check out Teacher Tom's Podcast. You can also download episodes from Spotify or wherever you like to listen to podcasts.


I've been writing about play-based learning almost every day for the past 14 years. I've recently gone back through the 4000+ blog posts(!) I've written since 2009. Here are my 10 favorite in a nifty free download. Click here to get yours.

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, May 23, 2024

How We Can Begin to Overcome Our Fears and Let Our Children Fail

In a recently publish paper a team of scientists and philosophers propose what they are calling the "Law of Increasing Functional Information." In a nutshell, they theorize that it's not just biological systems, but all complex systems -- from planets to atoms -- that operate according to the principles of evolution. This law is being suggested as a "missing" law of physics that, theoretically, could stand alongside the better known laws of motion, gravity, electromagnetism, and thermodynamics.

I'm sure that most physicists, biologists, and philosophers are skeptical, but, of course, skepticism is their job. The next step in the scientific process is for others to try to disprove all or parts of the proposed theory, followed by still others will try to fill in the holes that have been poked, then more skepticism, and so on, always approaching truth, but never fully getting there, which is why we call it a scientific "process."

But as a layperson considering this idea, it makes sense. Formally, the theory is expressed as: "The functional information of a system will increase (i.e., the system will evolve) if many different configurations of the system undergo selection for one or more functions." When I put this into my own words, this means that if any system, be it a planet or an atom, is to sustain itself, it must adapt. If it doesn't adapt, the system falls apart, just as a species will cease to exist if it fails to adapt. Put another way, when we look around us, we find a universe full of systems -- biological, geological, molecular, astronomical -- that exist because they have evolved to exist. What we don't see, what we can't see, are those systems that failed because, well, they don't exist.

In anthropomorphic terms, I often think of evolution as a process by which the universe says: "Given the circumstances, I'm going to do this."

Happy humans, humans who thrive, tend to be pretty good at this. We all suffer bumps, bruises, and blockades in life, we all suffer disappointment, fear, and pain. But, as the idiom urges us, the most life affirming response is to use those lemons to make lemonade. 

Learning this basic lesson is one of the primary functions of childhood. The process of learning to walk is one of falling down and getting back up over and over. The process of learning to talk is one of going from nonsense to sense. The process of learning to feed oneself begins with smashing food into our foreheads until we finally figure out how to target our mouths. When we see babies engaged in these processes, we see struggle, we see frustration, we see failure, but we all know that this is a natural part of learning to adapt and grow. And when our babies do finally succeed, we see their joy as they taste the sweet lemonade of their own efforts, which, in turn, inspires them to even more feats of independence.

If we hover over them in order to catch them before they fall, if we don't allow them their nonsense, if we insist on hand-feeding them in order to avoid the mess, we create circumstances in which the best way to adapt is to get others to do stuff for them -- to get others to make their lemonade for them. This is all well and good until they get a little older and find out that our world is a place where we must squeeze our own lemons.

Educators from preschool to college report their students are more fragile and less resilient than ever. We hear that they are entitled, that they are less likely to persevere in the face of difficulty, and that they equate feeling uncomfortable with being unsafe. Alarmingly, we are currently experiencing rates of childhood anxiety and depression at the highest levels ever seen (based on methodologies that have been used since at least the middle of the last century).

In my recent conversation with Lenore Skenazy on Teacher Tom's Podcast, we discuss the psychological principle (which I believe was first proposed by the great psychologist William James) that behavioral change is the most effect way to affect cognitive change. Which is to say, the way to help our children overcome their anxiety, depression, and passiveness is to, gently, remove the crutch of helicoptering adults, and allow them to genuinely experience frustrations, difficulties, and even, at least to a degree, risk. To allow them to confront challenging circumstances and to, on their own, struggle to adapt. As Lenore says, the definition of anxiety is the feeling of "I can't handle this." It's only through childhood independence, that we actually learn that we can handle this.

Yesterday, I wrote about a recent University of Michigan study that found that most adults, at least at some level, understand the value of childhood independence, but largely fail at providing their children opportunities to experience it, most of whom don't even allow their elementary-aged children to make their own snacks or to go down an aisle alone while grocery shopping.

It's obviously due to a culture of fear. Fear for our children's safety, yes, but also fear that if we do allow our children to, say, walk to school or to a neighborhood playground on their own, we will be judged or even arrested for "endangering" our children.

The goal of Lenore's non-profit, Let Grow, which she founded in partnership with social psychologist and best-selling author Jonathan Haidt (The Anxious Generation), is to make childhood independence easy so that parents, and other adults, can begin to see what their children are truly capable of doing. Let Grow partners with schools in many ways, but the first step is a homework assignment: To go home and do something new -- with your grownups' permission -- but without your grownup. "It's liberating for both kids and their parents," Lenore says.

Lenore tells us that many of the participants in Let Grow's homework assignment, both children and adults, are at first skeptical. She says that she has been struck by how many of the kids, when reporting on, say, baking cookies for the first time say something like, "I was afraid I was going to burn down the house." 

This is a first step in larger project of pulling back from this debilitating habit of catastrophic thinking, in which we see even the tiniest possibility of risk as too much risk; every potential danger, no matter how remote, as too much danger; and that every failure will result in, well, burning down the house.

"Given the circumstances, I'm going to do this." Whether or not the "Law of Increasing Functional Information" turns out to be a true "missing" law of physics, there is no doubt that happy humans, humans who thrive, are the ones who have learned this approach to life's challenges. 


People who want to embrace play-based learning are constantly asking me which of my 4,000+ posts to start with, so I reread all of them and curated my 10 favorites for you! To download my free booklet featuring by Top 10 Posts About the Power of Play-Based Learning, click here. It's my present to you. I hope you find it inspiring.

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, May 22, 2024

As Children Grow in Courage, So Too Grow Their Parents

From the day our children are born, they are destined to become independent from us. Not only do we know this is inevitable, but according to a recent University of Michigan survey 74 percent of parents with children between 5-8 report they "make a point" to have their children do things for themselves, while nearly 85 percent of parents with 9-11 year olds agree that their children benefit from unsupervised free time.

And they're not wrong. Research consistently shows that experience with real independence fosters self-confidence, resilience, problem-solving, and good mental health. Most of us also tend to agree with the idea of allowing our children more and more independence, gradually, with the expectation that by the time they're 18 or 21 or whatever that they will be fully capable of thriving on their own. 

My mother used to say, "You want them to be independent, then you're terrified when they are." She isn't alone. While most parents in the survey voice opinions in favor of childhood independence, far fewer, the survey finds, follow through with actually permitting it.

"Most parents endorse the idea that children benefit from free time without parent supervision, and say they allow their child to do things themselves. But parents' descriptions of what their child actually does independently suggests a sizable gap between parent attitudes and actions. Less than half of parents said their child 5-8 years old regularly engages in independent activities under their parent's direction, such as answering questions at a doctor's appointment, placing an order at a restaurant or other places of business, or fixing their own snack. This suggests some parents may be missing opportunities to guide their children in these "building block" tasks of autonomy. This pattern continues for older children (9-11 years old), where relatively few parents reported that their child stays home for a short period or spends time with friends without adult direction . . . This (poll) suggest parents may be unintentionally restricting their child's path to independence."

The survey identifies parental fear as the primary cause of this disconnect. 

There are undoubtedly neighborhoods in the US in which you wouldn't want your child walking the streets unsupervised, but the truth is that most of us live in places that are safe enough for at least some childhood independence. But even if we aren't about to start sending our four-year-olds into the streets willy-nilly, this fear seems to seep into places where it's entirely unwarranted. Awhile back, I spoke with an admissions representative from a major university. She told me that over the past couple decades, they have had to introduce basic life skills courses because too many of their incoming freshmen didn't know how to do such basic things as use a can opener, operate a washing machine, or prepare a basic meal for themselves. Not to mention how crippling it can be to not have experience interacting independently with adults. 

This poll likewise found that not only are American parents afraid for their children's safety, but are equally afraid that they will be judged if they do allow their young children independence, and are especially concerned about being criticized should something happen to them while exercising that independence. This is reinforced by the fact that some municipalities enforce criminal penalties against parents who leave their children without "adequate supervision," a vague criteria at best.

All of this harms our children, contributing, no doubt, to the surge in mental health challenges like anxiety and depression we've seen in recent decades, as well as the lack of self-confidence, resilience, and the ability to solve problems that inevitably go with this loss of childhood independence.

Lenore Skenazy, founder of the Free Range Kids movement and director of Let Grow, an organization committed to making it "easy, normal and legal to give kids back some independence," was recently my guest on Teacher Tom's Podcast. She told me that the way forward is baby steps. Parents can start, for instance, by showing their children how to do basic things for themselves, like operating a can opener or washing machine or preparing their own snack, then stepping back as they struggle, perhaps even leaving the room. This might mean returning to the occasional mess, maybe even a minor injury, but this is all part of learning to be independent. 

Over time, as parents practice stepping back, the miracle is their children are revealed to be not only competent and conscientious, but also increasingly courageous about tackling even more independence. And as Lenore points out, as the children grow in courage, so too grow their parents.

I'm a big fan of Lenore and her work. She's insightful, intelligent, committed and funny. To get a taste of my talk with Lenore, here's a snippet:

I'd really love for you to listen to my full conversation with Lenore. Head on over to Teacher Tom's World where you will also find this episode as well as my other podcast dialogs with early childhood thought leaders. If you prefer, you can also always download this and other episodes of Teacher Tom's Podcast on Spotify or wherever you like to listen to podcasts.


People who want to embrace play-based learning are constantly asking me which of my 4,000+ posts to start with, so I reread all of them and curated my 10 favorites for you! To download my free booklet featuring by Top 10 Posts About the Power of Play-Based Learning, click here. It's my present to you. I hope you find it inspiring.

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