Tuesday, June 18, 2024

If It's Something Worth Knowing, it Will Go Viral

I don't know where the pogo sticks came from, but two appeared on day on the playground. I imagine that we had benefited from someone's garage or cellar purge. When I first spied them, I tried one out, something I've done a handful of times in my life. I didn't succeed in achieving a single bounce, although there have been times in my life when I've managed as many as a half dozen. 

I wondered if the children would even know what they were, but one of the cardinal rules of young children in groups is that if one child knows something, they all know it. So all it took was for one child to say, "It's a pogo stick," then explain how they had seen one work and the knowledge went viral.

The One Laptop Per Child organization demonstrated this phenomenon back in 2012 when they left boxes of tablet computers in remote Ethopian villages. Within four minutes, illiterate children had figured out, together, how to power them up. Within days, they were customizing their desktops. Within weeks, they were using the installed apps and singing along to videos. Within five months, they were hacking the Android software. All without instructions or teachers. This is how learning through play works and why few things impede learning more than the "keep your eyes on your own work" mentality the pervades standard schools: it makes children dependent upon the adults rather than one another, which is the most natural way for humans to learn new things.

Pogo sticks may or may not be more complex things to learn than those tablets, or maybe there are just more distractions on our playground in Seattle than in an Ethiopian village, but for several days, the kids, despite understanding the concept, still had not succeeded in even a single bounce. Then one day, a couple girls determined that they were going to figure it out. They knew they couldn't get started bouncing on their own, so they tried working together, with one holding the pogo stick upright for the other, but the weight was too much. They tried leaning the pogo stick against the wall of the playhouse to keep it upright as they climbed on, but this too failed. They tried rallying more children to help hold it upright, but then it was too crowded for anyone to climb on. They considered the mental experiment of digging a hole into which the pogo stick could be "planted," but recognized that it would be impossible to bounce properly in a hole.

"Maybe you could use this," suggested a boy, offering a length of rope. After considering it, the girls decided it was worth a try. I couldn't imagine how they would manage it, but that's not my job, so I moved along to loiter with intent elsewhere. When I later returned to the pogo stick experiments, they had tied one end of the rope to the top of the playhouse and another around the trunk of a lilac at the top of our concrete slide, with the pogo stick dangling, upright, in the middle. As one girl steadied the rope, another climbed onto the pogo stick and, Holy cow! She bounced four or five times before toppling over. 

By the end of the day, several of the children had discovered pogo stick success, using this training device invented by children for children. It's incredible hubris when adults to assume that children need us to teach them things. What they need most from us is freedom, time, and other children with whom to collaborate while the adults loiter with intent. And if it's something worth knowing, it will go viral.


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, June 17, 2024

The Story of Right Now

I was sitting on a table near the entry to our playground. It's a spot at the top of the hill that forms our outdoor space and serves as a nice perch from which to observe the entire playground. Usually, I try to just observe, to make a study of my fellow humans.

A two-year-old came up to look at me, perhaps to make a study of me, not smiling, not talking. I smiled at her, but echoed her own wordlessness. She then went to sit on a nearby flight of stairs. I began to tell her story aloud.

"C is sitting on the stairs."

She stood up. I said, "C is standing on the stairs." She sat down. I said, "C is sitting on the stairs." We did this for a few cycles. Soon, as always happens when we start narrating the stories around us, a couple of other kids wanted to also be protagonists in the story of right now.

"Y and S and C are sitting on the stairs."

"Y is standing up. S and C are still sitting."

"Now S and C are standing up."

"Now Y and S and C are all standing up. They are all smiling." The girls turned to one another, smiling.

We did this for awhile, with the girls delighting in the story they were making together. They began to lie down on the stairs. I said, "S is lying on the stairs. Y is lying on the stairs. C is lying on the stairs. All of the girls are lying on the stairs." They giggled together then stood up, then sat down, then lay down once more as I told their story. Others began to join us. Before long we were a story with a half dozen characters and almost as many observers.

Some of them starting running down the hill and back. Others began to sit or lie or stand in other places: on the ground, on the wheelbarrow handles, on a pile of wood chips. I told the story as I saw it unfolding, sticking as strictly as I could to observable facts, describing what their bodies were doing, using their names, and describing their expressions. They sometimes looked at me, but mostly they made studies of one another, their fellow humans.

The profession usually calls it "sportscasting" or "narrating," and I use those terms as well, but most of the time I just think of it as telling the story of the children as they create it. It's not my story or your story; it's our story, and it's the story of right now.


I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast . . . In this episode, Dr. Denisha Jones, director of Defending the Early Years and I discuss how schools tend to kill curiosity and how play-centered learning in preschool is the anecdote for all children. As Denisha says, "Play serves diversity because there is no one way to be or learn . . . Play is the embodiment of learning and development coming together." To listen to our full conversation, click here for Teacher Tom's Podcast, or find us wherever you like to download 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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Friday, June 14, 2024

True, But Not Useful

My wife's former business partner was fond of an expression that I've adopted because it covers so many things in life: "That's true, but not useful." 

In his case, it referred to anything, no matter how insightful or interesting, that could not be practically applied to challenges and opportunities at hand. It was an effective way to move things along, which is important in a business where time is money and all that. That said, I'm not a businessperson and while I value efficiency when it comes to things that I'd rather not be doing (e.g., folding laundry) if this blog proves anything about me it's that I very much enjoy thinking about ideas, and often the more "useless" the better. I will warn you before you read any farther that what follows is as useless as it gets.

Case in point: I've recently been thinking about the challenge of defining play, which is an important topic for anyone researching this universal urge, but not particularly useful for those of us who simply need to know play when we see it. On a day-to-day basis, when pressed, I might define play using some version of "self-selected exploration, discovery, and invention." This is inadequate, however, for someone attempting to put together a proper study or experiment. 

Psychologist and evolutionary biologist Gordon Burghardt, in his book The Genesis of Animal Play, proposes that a behavior can be called play when it meets the following five conditions: it must be "nonfunctional"; purely voluntary; clearly unlike the animal's typical behaviors; involve repeated behaviors, with modifications; and can only take place when the animal is safe, well-fed, and healthy.

There is plenty to quibble with here, but one thing I find particularly useless, and therefore worthy of idle speculation is the distinction he makes between "exploration" (which is part of my own knee-jerk definition) and "play." In a nutshell, Burghardt asserts that exploration is asking the question, "What is this?" Play asks the question, "What can I do with this?"

How can you separate the two? I mean, after all, isn't the process of answering the question "What can I do with this?" also one of trial-and-error exploration?

That said, ever since I came across this distinction I've found it creeping into my own thinking about play. For instance, even if we stipulate that exploration isn't play, but rather a precursor to play, we cannot also conclude that exploration leads inevitably to play. Sometimes the exploration leads to pain (e.g., pricking your finger on a rose thorn) or fear (e.g., a growling dog), which generally puts the kibosh on any subsequent play, at least in that particular area of exploration. I've witnessed countless children walk away from the workbench upon encountering the business end of a hot glue gun.

Indeed, pain and fear as a result of exploration means that the "animal" is not, in that moment, feeling particularly healthy or safe, which in turn means, according to Burghardt's definition, that it cannot be play. 

But how does risky play fit into this? After all, wrestling (or play fighting) is often identified by researchers as the most universal form of play, yet pain and even fear are inevitable aspects of that particular play activity. In fact, part of the allure of play fighting, or climbing to great heights, or achieving great speeds, or getting lost, or using potentially dangerous tools is testing oneself against pain and fear, risking it. Some children a lot of the time and all children some of the time, experience feeling unhealthy and unsafe while continuing to play in risky ways.

And that brings me to another condition of Burghardt's definition: it must be voluntary. Is it significant that the pain and fear that exists right at the edge of so much of what we call play (including social-emotional play) is there with the full knowledge of the player? A child might not know in advance that falling on pavement is painful the first time they do it, but by the tenth time, certainly they know that scraped knees and elbows are aspects of, say, running in the parking lot. The first fall might simply be exploration, but the rest of the falls, even by Burghardt's definition, are play: play undertaken with fear perched on their shoulder. So, if I were allowed to tweek his definition, I'd say that play can happen under conditions of being unsafe or unhealthy, but only if the risky behavior is entered into voluntarily.

I also wonder if play must be defined through observable behavior, or movement. I get why someone studying play in animals would want to make movement a defining characteristic because, after all, it isn't possible for us to base science on speculations about another species' internal state. That's hard enough when trying to understand humans who can, at least to a certain extent, self-report their thoughts, feelings, and motivations using language. But as someone who enjoys playing with ideas, I know that it's possible to play without exhibiting movements or behaviors that could be considered playful. I can't be the only one who likes to sit and just let my mind wander. Just this morning, I sat on my front porch as the sun rose. It was nonfunctional, voluntary, unlike what I do throughout the rest of my day, and I was well-fed, safe, and felt as healthy as a 62-year-old man can feel, but my movements as seen from the perspective of an outsider amounted to little more than turning my head, breathing more deeply, and occasionally tipping my coffee cup to my lips. Nevertheless, I feel like I was playing. I might not have been asking the question, "What can I do with this?" but I was definitely playing with the question, "What is the meaning of this?" Is that play or something else?

I'm likewise not so certain about the word "nonfunctional." As Burghardt uses it, he means behavior that does not obviously serve the animal's need to survive or reproduce. But given that play has been part of animal existence for, literally, billions of years, evolutionary orthodoxy would identify it as essential for survival, if not reproduction, even if we aren't entirely sure of the why or how.

Where I seem to be landing in this completely self-indulgent and not useful blog post (I'll leave it to you to assess whether or not there's any truth in it), is that play is voluntary (although I prefer the term "self-selected") and it is unlike what we normally do. The rest is open to interpretation.

I warned you at the top that this post would not be useful, but now that you're here at the bottom, having joined me for a few minutes, I have a question for you: Is it possible to define play as anything we choose to do that is true, but not useful


I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast . . . In this episode, Dr. Denisha Jones, director of Defending the Early Years and I discuss how schools tend to kill curiosity and how play-centered learning in preschool is the anecdote for all children. As Denisha says, "Play serves diversity because there is no one way to be or learn . . . Play is the embodiment of learning and development coming together." To listen to our full conversation, click here for Teacher Tom's Podcast, or find us wherever you like to download 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, June 13, 2024

Play Allows Us to Direct Our Own Evolution

Ethologists are zoologists who study the behavior of animals in their natural habitat. They study orcas in the ocean, not Sea World. They study cheetahs on the savannah, not in the zoo. This makes sense. When we study animals in captivity most of what we learn is how that species responds to captivity. As writer and filmmaker Carol Black points out in her brilliant essay
A Thousand Rivers, much of the data we collect on human learning has come from studies of children in schools, which is to say, children in captivity.

This question of "captivity" hangs over much, if not most, of the so-called science of learning. After all, virtually all of our children spend most of their lives in the captivity of schools. It's uncomfortable to think about, but it doesn't require a cynic to recognize that schools and prisons have a great deal in common. The inmates are under constant supervision by superiors who are empowered to punish them if they step too far out of line. Their daily schedules are proscribed. They spend most of their time indoors. They cannot leave or opt out or choose to do something other than what they're required to do.

We try to make ourselves feel better about it by telling ourselves the story that it's a benign captivity, one that is "for their own good," but there is no doubt that if left to their own devices, most of our children would choose to spend their time playing, preferably outdoors. In other words, they would choose the opposite of captivity, which is liberty. We all would.

From the perspective of ethology, the only way we will ever understand human learning is to study humans who are at liberty, which is to say, while at play.

There can be no doubt that this urge to play is an adaptive trait, one that is essential to human survival. As journalist David Toomey puts it in his new book Kingdom of Play:

At present, evolutionary biologists do not know that a master gene enabled and orchestrated play, much less which master gene. Neither do they know where or when play began. They have no map, no cladogram, depicting the evolution of all animal play. But they know that play has a history stretching back hundreds of millions of years, and that its roots, that hypothetical suite of master genes, may be older still. Play has endured the formation and reformation of continents, three ice ages, and two mass extinctions. So they — and we— can be certain of one aspect of play. Whatever its adaptive advantages, they are worth the trouble. Nature takes play seriously.

Since we have, for better or worse, chosen to raise our own young in captivity, if we are to likewise take play seriously, we are best served by turning to ethologists, who, as Toomey puts it, "believe that innovative play might be a means by which an animal gains a measure of control over its own evolution."

Evolution is generally thought about in terms of random genetic mutations and law of the jungle consequences, and that obviously still plays a significant role, but it seems that the existence of play allows us to consider evolution from a new perspective. Looked at this way, we see that evolution takes place as a process of living things playing with their environment. When they learn something from their play that enhances their life — e.g., makes it easier to get food, more likely to reproduce, or simply brings joy -- they then teach what they’ve learned to others through role modeling. Over time, natural selection favors those who are best able to take advantage of this learning, so they are the individuals whose genes are the ones that are more likely to be passed along to future generations. And those are the genes, whether or not we know exactly which ones they are, that favor play.

For anyone versed in classic evolutionary theory, this is a bit mind-blowing. After all, this means that animals, through play, are capable of liberating themselves from the forces of natural selection, and to at least some degree direct them. But this kind of liberty is not possible for an animal held in captivity.

Modern school thwarts play. Indeed it often punishes play. Schooling replaces our children's natural urge to direct their own learning through play with a curriculum that determines, in advance, what they will learn, how they will learn it, and according to what schedule. As Dr. Denisha Jones, director of Defending the Early Years, tells us in our conversation about "liberation pedagogy" on Teacher Tom's Podcast, "A system that determines what you will learn kills curiosity" and curiosity is the driving force behind play. And as Denisha tells us, "Play is freedom. Play is liberation."

In the early years, many of us strive to create programs that free children to play, to provide them with a natural habitat for learning. This means that we are in the vanguard of understanding human learning. We are the "ethologists" specializing in our own species because we are among the few who live amongst free humans. There is a societal tendency to pat us on the head and patronizingly praise us for doing "such important work," but what they mean, most of the time, is that they're glad we're willing to muck around amidst the pink eye, diaper changing, and temper tantrums, so they don't have to. But this is simply evidence of how little we, as a culture, understand about learning, and it explains why they're unwilling to listen to us when we tell them about play and liberation.

It's from this perspective that we can see that it's not just our children we keep in captivity, but also ourselves. We live in a world that doesn't understand play at all, that denigrates it, that commodifies it, that relegates it to recesses, weekends, and two-weeks of paid vacations.

When I'm with liberated children, however, I find myself, for a time at least, swimming with the orcas, running with the cheetahs, and playing with the children. I'm liberated. And I know that I am in my natural habitat. 


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

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

The Only Course of Study Worth Pursuing

The problem I have with machine learning (what technologists have arrogantly labeled artificial intelligence, or AI) is that much of what it's attempting to do for me is take over processes like writing, researching, and making art, things that I choose to do for pl
easure. As at least one wag on the internet has joked, I need AI that will do my laundry, windows and floors, so that I'll be freed up to write, research, and make art.

Machines are brilliant tools for doing mind-numbing, time-sucking projects like crunching large data sets or calculating with massive numbers. I'm going to assert that's what most of us want from machines. We want them to, without complaint or procrastination, handle the tedium and repetition so that we can get on with the stuff that makes us come alive. Educators worry about how their students are using AI in their school work. I would say that the very fact that mere machines can do the work they are assigning to kids, is more a critique of standard schooling than the kids, who are, after all, just using machines to do what they do best -- mind-numbing, time-sucking work.

Machines are designed to do our bidding, but human beings have evolved to their own bidding, their own thinking, their own learning.

Neuroscientist Patrick House writes, "Human infants have major learning advantages over robots as they age because they do not have to learn how to learn efficiently but come, in a sense, preprogrammed with all the rules needed to grow from a single cell into a denuded, smartly learning primate. You could call your lifetime of experience your age -- or you could call it your age plus three billion years." 

Theoretical physicist and philosopher Carlo Rovelli writes, "Scientific thinking makes good use of logical and mathematical rigidity." The same could be said about AI. "(B)ut this is only one of the two legs upon which its success has been built. The other is the creative liberty taken with conceptual structure, and this grows through analogy and recombination . . . An electromagnetic field is not a field of wheat; Einstein's slowing-down of time is not the one that we experience when bored; there is nobody pushing and pulling where Newton's forces act. But the analogies are manifest. Making an analogy involves taking an aspect of a concept and using it in another context, preserving something of its original meaning while letting something else go, in such a way that the resulting combination produces new and effective meaning. This is how the best science works . . . I think that this is also how the best art works. Science and art are about the continual reorganization of our conceptual space, of what we call meaning. What happens when we react to a work of art is not happening in the art object itself . . . it lies in the complexity of our brain, in the kaleidoscopic network of analogical relationships with which our neurons weave what we call meaning. We are involved, engaged . . ."

If educators really want children to "do their own work" we have to stop assigning them crap that mere machines can do, and probably do better at that. What our minds have evolved for over three billion years is to derive joy from creating "new and effective meaning," be that through art, science, or whatever. This is what play is all about. This is why children never tire of playing in varied and beautiful environments. Play is the urge to make connections, to discover, and to invent. Play is how we give ourselves purpose and life meaning. 

I was recently a speaker at a large education conference in Kazakhstan. The theme was AI. One morning I breakfasted with a fellow presenter who is a professor at a major US university. We began sharing stories about our respective undergraduate experiences and connected over how we had done our research in actual libraries with old-fashioned card catalogs. Today, research for most people is a sterile Google search, but this physical process of hunting for information in library stacks was a full-body experience. Just thinking about it, evokes the smell and sound of this kind of research. Sometimes the book you were looking for had been checked out, so you did the next best thing, which was to scan the shelves looking for something similar, something that you could connect to your pursuit. Often, after reading the specific article you'd sought out in a periodical, you would flip through the rest of the magazine, randomly accessing information that you didn't even know you wanted or needed. More often than not, this process, one completely divorced from the sort of mathematical and logical rigidity of machines, transformed my thinking about the topic I'd chosen to explore, sending me down avenues that at least felt like I was exploring something new under the sun. My heart would beat a little faster in these moments of creative liberty, of analogy, of recombination, as I created new and effective meaning.

The papers that resulted from this process might not have always received the highest grades. Of course, because I had done the research and constructed my own analogies, the work was nevertheless deeply and personally meaningful. A bad mark simply meant that the person doing the grading didn't get what I did. Even Einstein or Newton had their doubters at first.

Obviously, preschoolers aren't writing papers, but they are, as they play in varied and beautiful environments, researching in the real world, involved and engaged with their full bodies that house brains with three billion years of experience. They are engaged in the only course of study worth pursuing: the process of making the world personally meaningful. 

The rest I gladly leave to the machines.


I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast . . . In this episode, Dr. Denisha Jones, director of Defending the Early Years and I discuss how schools tend to kill curiosity and how play-centered learning in preschool is the anecdote for all children. As Denisha says, "Play serves diversity because there is no one way to be or learn . . . Play is the embodiment of learning and development coming together." To listen to our full conversation, click here for Teacher Tom's Podcast, or find us wherever you like to download 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

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Why Hazel Couldn't Sit Down for Circle Time

When we sat down for circle time, three-year-old Hazel didn't sit. Or rather, she would lower herself to her knees until she was moved to speak, whereupon she would leap to her feet and pace as she spoke. At first, some of the adults reacted to her like a distraction, urging her in whispers to "sit on her bottom." She would comply with a quizzical expression, but the moment it was her turn to talk, her body simply could not remain still.

One of the lessons of schooling is that children must learn to sit still. Indeed, this is one of the main things elementary schools want from preschools: children who are capable of sitting, eyes forward, listening. Quite often, this is the explicit reason parents give for holding their child back from kindergarten for an extra year: their child just isn't "ready" for all that stillness. 

Hazel was an important teacher for me. When we allowed her to pace, she was thoughtful and articulate, but on those rare occasions when we succeeded in getting her to remain seated, she simply couldn't participate beyond simple yes-or-no answers to direct questions, and even then her mind seemed like it was elsewhere.

A lot has been said about our brain's prefrontal cortex. This is the seat of our "executive function," which is the part of our brain that keeps our impulses (like popping to our feet) in check. It is also the part of the brain responsible for intellectual functions (like speaking articulately). I wasn't aware of this at the time, but obviously Hazel's prefrontal cortex was not up to simultaneously controlling her strong bodily impulse to pace while also sharing her ideas, opinions, and stories. Indeed, Hazel's urge to move was likely an important aspect of her intellectual process: she needed to move her body in order to think more clearly.

The school-ish myth that children must be still in order to concentrate is simply not supported by scientific evidence. In her book The Extended Mind, science journalist Annie Murphy Paul, writes, "(W)e believe there's something virtuous about controlling the impulse to move . . . What this attitude overlooks is that the capacity to regulate our attention and our behavior is a limited resource, and some of it is used up by suppressing the very natural urge to move."

Study and after study in recent years have clearly demonstrated that the human brain's capacity for thought is greatly enhanced by movement. "Parents and teachers often believe they have to get kids to stop moving around before they can focus and get down to work," says Paul, "(A) more constructive approach would be to allow kids to move around so that they can focus."

Like with most things that science "discovers," this is a truth that we've long known, and that our schools, in their abiding concern with control-over-learning, have straight-up ignored. By all accounts, the Ancient Greeks like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle did most of their teaching while strolling outdoors. Many of those we hold up as Western culture's greatest thinkers -- Einstein, Darwin, Woolf, Nietzsche, James -- were famous walkers. In her book Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit (a great thinker and walker in her own right) enthuses about the enhanced mental capacity of "the mind at three miles per hour." 

Embodied thinking isn't just for young children.

Paul writes about a study published in 2018: "(T)hey asked groups of volunteers to solve a set of math problems in their heads while staying still, while remaining relaxed "but without substantial movement," or while moving slightly in a rhythmic pattern. All the while, the participants' cognitive load -- how hard their brains were working -- was being measured . . . Subjects' cognitive load "considerably increased under the instruction 'not to move'" . . . Of the three conditions, the requirement to remain still produced the poorest performance on the math problems . . . "Sitting quietly," the researchers conclude, "is not necessarily the best condition for learning in school."

Or, I will assert, anywhere. My tendency to fidget in meetings used to embarrass me, but now I understand that when I bounce my leg or tap my fingers or play with my hair or doodle or repeatedly shift my weight, what I'm doing is enhancing my ability to concentrate. If it was socially acceptable, I would pace like Hazel.

At Woodland Park, we agreed to let Hazel pace during circle time. The control-freak caution that this would encourage all the other kids to imitate her proved partly true, but in a fascinating way. The main thing that bugged the other kids about her pacing was that she would often block their views. The kids decided that our circle time rug should have various zones. Up front, near me, was the "lying down zone." Next came the "sitting on bottoms zone," followed by the "knees zone," the "standing zone," and then, in the back, the "jumping up and down zone." It took a few days, but before long we had settled into a wonderfully active and intellectually profitable pattern, one quite suitable for the kind of embodied thinking that humans do best.

But, of course, in the very back there was a zone behind the jumpers for Hazel, who continued to pace, doing her best thinking at three miles per hour.


I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast . . . In this episode, Dr. Denisha Jones, director of Defending the Early Years and I discuss how schools tend to kill curiosity and how play-centered learning in preschool is the anecdote for all children. As Denisha says, "Play serves diversity because there is no one way to be or learn . . . Play is the embodiment of learning and development coming together." To listen to our full conversation, click here for Teacher Tom's Podcast, or find us wherever you like to download 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

Monday, June 10, 2024

"It's Not Child-Centered, It's Child-Driven"

I was watching the girl arrange her things, or rather, the things she had made hers by gathering them from around the playground. It was clear from her behavior that she had a plan, but since these were loose parts, anything could be anything to an outside observer. Only the girl knew what that length of rope represented or that battered saucepan. I could have asked her, of course, swooping in as the adult in charge, but I didn't want to interrupt. She was clearly thinking something through and when someone is so immersed in an activity that thought and action are merged, it's a sin to interfere unless life and limb are at stake, especially if I call myself an educator.

Moments like this are common enough when we are children, but as we get older it becomes increasingly difficult for our thoughts and actions to merge in this way, even as we pine for it, because we know, in our hearts at least, that it's in these moments that we are most ourselves. This girl was at one with her purpose, pursuing a flow of thought-action, connecting experience, theory, and ideas to make something new: to create meaning from meaninglessness, order from chaos.

The psychologist and philosopher Abraham Maslow defined what this girl was doing as being creative and creativity is how we self-actualize, which is the pinnacle of his famous hierarchy of needs. As I watched the girl, I knew that for this moment, our preschool environment had satisfied all her lower level needs, which is why she was free to come alive in this way.

As an educator, however, I had an interest in what she was thinking. I hoped that when she reached a moment of triumph or epiphany, she would seek me out to tell me what she had made or discovered or felt. I hoped that another child would join her game and I could construct my own understanding through overhearing their conversation. But until then, I was left with observation and reflection.

In my recent conversation with Dr. Denisha Jones on Teacher Tom's Podcast, she said she doesn't even like the word "guide" or "facilitator" to describe the adult role in a play-based environment. Our job, she says, is "to be present, to observe, to step back. It's not child-centered, it's child-driven."

Eleanor Duckworth, teacher, psychologist, and translator of pioneering developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, wrote in her book The Having of Wonderful Ideas that the process of thinking and the process of learning are indistinguishable from one another. It's a concept that stands at the heart of much of my work as an educator: I see my role as creating environments, both for children and adults, that prompt thinking. Not agreement, although that might happen. Not memorization, although that might become a part of it. Not enjoyment, although that might emerge. I don't know what anyone will learn, but if I have evidence that they are thinking, like I did with this girl, it makes my heart sing. I know I've done well when a child looks up from their play and says, "I have an idea." I know I've done my job when someone says, "I've been thinking about something you said," or "I've been wondering about that post you wrote." But most of the time, I'm left to patiently wait for hints and clues. Both Dr. Jones and Duckworth feel that our primary role as educators is to be researchers and this is what I was doing.

The girl began to sing a song to herself as she played. It wasn't a song that I had taught her. It wasn't a song I recognized. It sounded like a lullaby, the kind that caretakers croon to a baby as it drifts off to sleep. It seemed to me that it was a song that evoked fond and soothing memories. The other day I came across a quote from the philosopher William James: "The art of remembering is the art of thinking." 

The author Doris Lessing wrote: "That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you've understood all your life, but in a new way."

Thinking, remembering, understanding, creating, learning. It was all happening right here in this moment of thought and action merged into a singular creative purpose. This is the way humans are meant to live. It's when our lives are full of meaning and emptied of doubt. We spend our lives trying to recapture these moments of merged thought and action from our childhood. It would be a sin to scuttle this girl's play just so I could tick boxes on an assessment form. What she was doing was nothing less that living, right now, on point and on purpose, self-driven. It's always my hope that if we can allow children to fill their childhoods with authentic moments like this, one after another, day after day, it will become a well from which they can draw when they feel lost, to drink of that substance they have understood all their lives, understand it in a new way, learn it, and to continue to live with meaning and purpose until the day they die.


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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Friday, June 07, 2024

What Children Need and Love is Freedom

Recently, I found myself in the neighborhood of one of those plastic fantastic fun palaces. There was a mini-golf course complete with the classic windmills and castles, a go-cart track, and a warehouse full of carnival games that issue tickets that one can trade in for crappy prizes. It struck me as a bit depressing, run down and seedy, but based on the high pitched excitement going on around me, the kids disagreed.

This is a place designed to excite children: colorful, fast-paced, and with the promise of hands-on access to long metal sticks that are are to be swung, hard, colorful balls that are to be sent flying, petal-to-the-metal driving, and straight up gambling with someone else's money, not to mention cotton candy, popcorn, ice cream, hotdogs, and the full gambit of forbidden foods. It's a place where yelling, shrieking, laughing, and singing at the top of your lungs is not just permitted, but encouraged, as are running, jumping, and swinging from railings.

I stood watching the go-cart races for a time, or rather, the faces of the giddy, wide-eyed drivers as they zoomed past.

These were the faces of children who had been told "Yes."

It's not like children particularly like mini-golf, go-carts, carnival games, and junk food. I mean, those are fun activities and all, but I think those expressions of joy have far more to do with the fact that these things exist in what is explicitly a hands-on "Yes space." I've see that same wide-eyed giddiness on children playing on Woodland Park's junkyard playground. It's the expression children wear when church services are finally released and they get to run around on the lawn. It's there when children attend a bouncy-house birthday party or hike in the woods or play at a beach. 

It's not the mini-golf, go-carts, carnival games, and junk food that children love: it's the result of adults being distracted enough by their own pleasure to stop peppering them with "No" and "Hands off" and "Be careful" and "Mind your manners."

What children need and love is freedom, and there is far too little of that in our children's lives. It's not difficult to connect mini-golf, go-carts, carnival games, and junk food to adult futures in which freedom is packaged up and sold as vacations, fast cars, gambling, and weekends of brownies and booze. We all love freedom, and there is far too little of it in any of our lives. We take it where we can find it, even if that so-called freedom is sold to us as a gaudy packaged commodity. What would it take to create day-to-day "yes spaces" for not just for the children in your life, but yourself? 

Wherever we find freedom is where we hear "yes." In a world of "no" we need more "yes." It shouldn't be reserved for mini-golf, go-carts, carnival games, and junk food. 


Please join me on Teacher Tom's Podcast for my conversation with Dr. Denisha Jones, director of Defending the Early Years. In this episode we take this discussion even farther as we talk about making preschool into the kind of "yes space" in which children are liberated to gorge not on junk food, but rather to satisfy their own curiosity. As Denish says, "Play is freedom. Play is liberation." To listen to the full thing and to catch other episodes of Teacher Tom's Podcast, click here. You can also find us on Spotify, Apple, 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, June 06, 2024

"Children Helping Children, Not Competing"

"Teacher Tom, what does this say?"

The four-year-old was showing me a container that had once held some sort of plaything, but was now living on the playground as a bucket. The original instruction label that still clung to the side had caught his eye.

I was in the midst of something else. Instead of telling him to wait until I was free, I replied, "Wyatt knows how to read." We're a preschool. We don't teach reading at this age, but there are always a few children who have taught themselves and Wyatt was one of them.

"Good idea!" and he was off to find Wyatt.

Later, I came across Wyatt, encircled by classmates, as he sounded out words from a riddle book.

I occupied my hands with something as I listened from a short distance away. Occasionally, he would stop to sound out a word. "Why does the . . . furry man . . ." He paused, uncertain as he studied the letters, but the moment of struggle was short as an "illiterate" friend, who had not been watching the words, but rather the illustrations, helped him out, "Fireman." 

" . . . fireman wear red . . . sus . . ."

Several of his friends helped him with this word, "Suspenders."

I later learned that Wyatt had declared the bucket label "too boring," but had offered to read the riddle book instead.

In my recent conversation with Defending the Early Years Director Dr. Denisha Jones on Teacher Tom's Podcast, she asserts that liberation pedagogy in preschool (the subject of a book she is currently working on) means disposing of the competitive core of so much of contemporary schooling. In a standard school, for instance, Wyatt's precociousness with reading would likely land him on a pedestal, an example for the others, while efforts would be made to catch the other children up. And while we know that formal literacy instruction is developmentally inappropriate for most preschoolers, if word got out to the other parents that Wyatt could read, some of them would surly apply pressure to the teachers to get their own kids up to Wyatt's mark. Meanwhile, in the nature of competitive schooling, efforts would likely be made to "challenge" Wyatt with something other than this silly, simple riddle book -- something boring, like that bucket label.

Liberatory pedagogy, says, Denisha, "means children helping one another, not competing." 

As Wyatt read, not far way another group of children were constructing what they were alternatively calling a "bad guy trap" and a "bad guy hideout." They were commandeering loose parts from all over the playground, assembling them with precision and complexity, even if it might have looked to the uninitiated like a pile of junk. A girl was wrapping a long segment of rope around a log, but it wouldn't stay in place. After a few tries, she called out, "I need to tie this. Who can tie?" A classmate offered, "I can," then followed the girl's instructions as to exactly how this tying was to be done.

In a standard school, this child's knot tying ability would likely fly entirely under the radar. To anyone who knows about child development, however, this is a precociousness as rare as Wyatt's reading. And this is why, as Denisha says, that we are better served by viewing ourselves as child development specialists first and teachers second: from the perspective of development, we can more clearly see each child's unique and special strengths, whereas the teacher perspective tends to be about focusing on and fixing each child's perceived deficits. 

And as we know from every discipline from psychology to gardening, what we focus on grows.

When we rate, rank, and reward children based on the narrow range of competitive "events" that make up the academic Olympics, we teach the chosen few that they are champions, while the rest, those whose strengths lie outside the track-and-field disciplines of reading, writing, and arithmetic, are lumped together as perhaps promising, but deficient. We don't award medals for knot tying.

But this is one of the most inspiring beauties of play-centered learning. It honors the strengths, interests, and abilities of every child and, at its best, they are celebrated not by the approval of adults, but rather by the joy of contributing to their strength to the community, which is the greatest joy there is.


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