Friday, June 28, 2024

The Only Happy Ending

Last week on my social media pages, I asked for readers to describe the summer breaks of their childhood.

It's a question I've asked adults in various forms over the course of the last couple decades, sometimes asking it as "What are your fondest memories of childhood? or "Describe a beautiful moment from your childhood." Sometimes I've even asked it as "What from your own childhood do you wish the children in your life could experience."

"We were feral children," replied one commenter, going on to describe summers during which she would ride her bike "much farther" than her mother allowed, going to shops, getting to know the neighbors, exploring a "haunted house," mucking about in drainage ditches, and generally getting up to mischief.

"Our only instructions were to stay out of trouble and be home before the street lights came on," wrote another. "We drank out of garden hoses and used library, park & rec bathrooms or even peed under a tree!"

And yet another wrote, "(I) spent my summers in the woods of Maine with a large group of cousins. We were allowed to be in the house when it rained and when we ate. The rest of the time we were outside."

Nearly every response involved being outside, unsupervised by adults, with other children, and sweeps of time during which to play. Bicycles featured prominently. Aside from that, the only toys that came up with any frequency were dolls and balls. And almost everyone who went into any detail mentioned doing things of which the adults would have disapproved, often involving risk . . . Outdoors, unsupervised, in the company of other children, with lots of time, few toys, and risk: this is the stuff of our beautiful childhood moments, our summers.

Yes, there were a number of broken bones and other injuries mentioned, even "crimes" (breaking into an abandoned -- "haunted" -- house). A few people said that they were expected to work during the summer months, either to supplement the family income or because their parents felt that summer jobs built character and fostered independence. Many described going elsewhere, spending weeks or months with relatives on farms, at the shore, in the woods, or other "wild places." Others fondly recall reading "lots of books" of their own choosing, making things with their own hands, and growing and eating vegetables and fruits that they then ate right from the garden.

Many responders took the opportunity to bemoan the plight of today's children who have virtually no opportunity for unsupervised play, let alone outdoors, who are heavily scheduled,  and who have never experienced going up and down the street knocking on doors to see who else could come out to play. We blame the economy. We blame screens. We blame fear -- of injury, liability, and crime. Several readers would let their children roam more freely, but are afraid that the authorities will crack down on them. More fear.

At the same time, there is a mountain of evidence that what children need more than anything else -- for their mental, physical, and intellectual health -- is exactly what our summer memories revealed: lots of unstructured time, outdoors, with other children, and yes, risk. These are not just "beautiful" experiences we are recalling, but rather formative ones. This is where we learned resilience and independence, where we developed confidence, and how we came to respect what parent educator and Teacher Tom's Podcast guest Maggie Dent calls "natural consequences." It is simply not an accident that today's children are facing, simultaneously, both a mental and physical health crisis. Childhood anxiety, depression, and obesity are the "natural consequences" of this accidental experiment we are performing on a whole generation. The lessons learned by these kinds of formative experiences are passivity, dependence, insecurity, and a general disconnect from the real world of cause-and-effect.

In a nutshell, we've gone from a world in which adults said, "You're driving me crazy, go outside," to one in which they say, "You're driving me crazy, go watch a show."

I'm encouraged by the number of responders who said they were doing everything they could to provide their own children with at least modicum of independence and risk. It's still possible, even if it isn't the same.

Next week, we will be opening registration for the 2024 cohort for my 6-week course, Teacher Tom's Risky Play, which could have just as easily been called Teacher Tom's Summer Play. In this course, we explore how to negotiate the modern world, its fears and challenges, and still provide the children in our lives with the kind of formative experiences they need for mind, body, and soul. This is for educators and parents. When we offered this course last year, several groups took it together as a way to spark conversations in their community (school, neighborhood) about why and how more risk and independence is good for kids, even if it does mean an uptick in mischief.

Author Ray Bradbury is mostly known as a writer of science fiction, but his book Dandelion Wine is one of the most realistic, even if fictionalized, memoirs I've ever read. It takes place during an idyllic, small town summer in the 1950's, centering around independent children living in their world. The adults are present, sometimes important, but mostly on the periphery. It's amber-ized, of course, nostalgic in the way memories become as we reach a certain age, but Bradbury parts the curtain to glimpses of danger, even horror, failure, disappointment, and sorrow, which are all part of the beautiful whole of childhood. It's an evocation of the kind of authentic childhood in which resilience, confidence, compassion, and heartbreak, not mere endless, joyful days, are the result.

As we Americans head into our Independence Day celebrations, I'll leave you with words from Bradbury's protagonist Douglas giving the advice of his experience to his younger brother: "You just won't admit you like crying too. You cry just so long and everything's fine. And there's your happy ending. And you're ready to go back out and walk around with folks again." This is the lesson of resilience that cannot be learned without the freedom to take risks, experience failure, then figuring out how to get back up to walk around with folks again. At the end of the day, that is the only happy ending.


 In my 6-week course Teacher Tom's Risky Play, we will take a deep-dive into what means to trust children, to stand back, and explore what tools we need to keep children safe while also setting them free to become the kind of resilient people the world needs. This course is about us as adults as much as the children. We will begin registration for the 2024 cohort for this course in the coming days. To learn more and to get on the waitlist, click here.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Thursday, June 27, 2024

Emissaries of the Gods

On a recent episode of Teacher Tom's Podcast, parent educator Maggie Dent tells the story of sheltering from a storm under a tree with one of her grandchildren. In this small, dim place the toddler went immediately to work, exploring the confines with all his senses, investigating "fronds," testing them, lining them up, picking them apart. As educators, we recognize this as curiosity-driven learning, but in Maggie's telling of the story we find that much of the learning, perhaps most of it, is her own.

At one point or another, anyone who has spent time with young children has realized that "our children are our greatest teachers." In preparing to write this post, I sought out a source for this quote, but it's been said or written or thought so many times by so many people in so many eras in so many cultures, that I've concluded that it's universal wisdom, even if it's easily forgotten in the rush and crush of day-to-day life.

In her strange and beautiful novel Briefing for a Decent into Hell, Doris Lessing, creates a mythology in which all of us are sent to Earth as emissaries of the gods, sent to fix what ails humanity, to teach, to inspire, and to bring our species back into harmony with the universe. Tragically, in her myth, we've created a world in which these emissaries, babies, are inconvenient to most of us most of the time: they don't sleep when we want them to sleep; they are loud when we want them to be quiet; they are energetic, active, and into everything; they ask too many questions, take risks, and generally behave in ways that are very unlike what we expect from our fellow humans. As one of the novel's characters says to a lecture hall of adults concerned with education, "Everybody in this room believes, without knowing it, or perhaps without formulating it, or at least behaves as if he believes -- that children up to the age of seven or eight are of a different species from ourselves."

In Lessing's myth, "society," instead of listening to these emissaries of the gods, does everything in it's power to shape them into proper humans, ones who sleep the proper amount and at the proper times; who control their energy, ask fewer question, and learn to value caution over courage. 

But this audience of parents and educators is more enlightened than that. "We see children as creatures about to be trapped and corrupted by what trapped and corrupted ourselves. We speak of them, treat them, as if it were possible to make happen events which are almost unimaginable. We speak of them as beings who could grow up into a race together superior to ourselves. And this feeling is in everyone. It is why the field of education is always so bitter and embattled, and why no one ever, in any country, is satisfied with what is offered to children . . . "

I certainly see myself in this and I know that many of you who read here at least sometimes feel this bitterness and embattlement. None of us is entirely, or even mostly, satisfied with what is offered to children.

"For it should be enough to teach the young of a species to survive, to approximate the skills of its elders, to acquire current technical skills. Yet every generation seems to give out a bellow of anguish at some point, as if it had been betrayed, sold out, sold short."

I know I've bellowed, especially as a young teen, the age at which traditional cultures around the world have considered their children to be officially adults with all the rights and responsibilities. Our daughter, like most Jewish children, became a "woman" when she had her bat mitzvah at 12, yet few of us really believe that any longer. Yet this is a crucial moment, in the spirit of Lessing's myth, one that was understood by the ancients, but almost entirely forgotten today: this is exactly when we ought to most devotedly listen to our children, learn from them, but instead we rant about "kids these days," even punishing them as they struggle to convey the message they were sent to deliver. It's a message that we crave, yet also fear. No wonder they feel betrayed, no wonder they become surly and rebellious: they are still, on the cusp of adulthood, striving desperately to fulfill their purpose as emissaries. 

And let's be honest, we know they're right, yet we feel helpless because we ourselves have long ago been forced to abandon the mission for which we were sent.

"Every generation dreams of something better for its young, every generation greets the emergence of its young into adulthood with a profound and secret disappointment, even if these children are in every way paragons from society's point of view. This is due to the strong but unacknowledged belief that something better than oneself is possible."

I believe this. Something better than myself is possible. Maybe you believe this as well.

"Who has not at least once looked into a young child's eyes and seen the criticism there, a hostility, the sullen knowledgeable look of a prisoner? This happens very young, before the young child is forced to become like the parents, before its own individuality is covered over by what the parents say he is. Their 'this is right, that is wrong, see things my way.'"

But we know that something better than oneself is possible. We know this because when we do what Maggie did with her grandson, when we get down on our knees with young children, not as instructors, but as students, even as disciples, and acknowledge them as the emissaries of the gods that they are, that is when we find ourselves finally in harmony with the universe, fully immersed in "fronds."

"Education means only this -- that the lively alert fearless curiosity of children must be fed, must be kept alive. That is education."

It's their fearless curiosity that frightens us, not you and me perhaps, but the larger us. We worry that without our adult wisdom and control the children cannot survive, but at a less conscious level, we are terrified that what they have been sent here to teach us will reveal that all we've accomplished, despite our so-called wisdom, is survival. 

Leonard Cohen sang, "It doesn't matter how you worship, as long as you're down on your knees." When we fall to our knees with young children, under trees or sky, with no agenda but to listen with our whole selves, we are finally in a place to receive the message from these emissaries of the gods. And to be reminded that we are likewise emissaries and it's never too late to deliver the message of harmony with which we are also entrusted.


Listening to children like this is how we begin to really trust them, to understand that while they may have not been sent here by "the gods," their fearless curiosity is central to how they, and we, must engage with life itself. And there will be risk-taking! In my 6-week course Teacher Tom's Risky Play, we will take a deep-dive into what means to trust children, to stand back, and explore what tools we need to keep children safe while also setting them free to be the "emissaries" the world needs. This course is about us as adults as much as the children. We will begin registration for the 2024 cohort for this course in the coming days. To learn more and to get on the waitlist, click here.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Some Examples of Children Assessing Their Own Risk

When those of us in the play-based world think of "risky play" we too often think only of the muscle, bones and blood of the playground, sometimes glamorizing the daredevils we've taught. I know I've often made the mistake of noticing the child who is climbing a little "too high," while ignoring the day-to-day risk taking going on all around me. It's not the degree of risk that's important to learning, but rather, like everything else we do, it's the process that matters.

For instance, for weeks this boy called me over to look at him climb this tree. I perceive no danger in him being less than a foot in the air, but that's unimportant because he did. He worked his way up from having not climbed the tree at all. And while I may not have been "inspired" by his efforts, someone else was, using both his example and body to support herself.

Perhaps, tomorrow they would climb higher, but for today, they had found their "just right" level of risk.

Our pallet swing is a perfect example of risk as process. Many children, especially our two-year-olds, would start by simply pushing it, their own two feet on the ground. It didn't occur to them to want to climb aboard. Others chose to sit, then stand, then share the space with others. It's a process that some children work through in a matter of minutes while others may take years.

With my own daughter, I often couldn't resist the call of my parenting ego to urge or cajole her into riskier play, but I learned to respect her risk assessment process. It's when we compel or help children into situations not of their own making that we most often place them in the greatest danger.

Parents sometimes push their children on our swings, higher and higher. I don't tell them to stop, but I do point out that the only children who have ever been injured on our swings are the ones being pushed by a parent or those knocked over by a child being swung to heights she could never achieve under her own power.

The process of risk is, in fact, risk assessment. Too often, adults attempt to usurp the role of risk assessment with meaningless warnings of "be careful." A better way to support our children as they explore their physical capabilities, as they challenge themselves, is to move a little closer and wait for them to request assistance. And even then, my response is often along the lines of, "I won't help you, but I won't let you get hurt."

The red-shirted boy in these photos wanted to reach the trapeze bar. Instead of asking me to lift him up, he wrangled a table into position, climbed on it, then stood there for a long time holding the bar. I think it could have gone either way. Twice he released the bar as if to climb back down, but finally, after much thought, he let himself go, swinging wildly for a moment, then letting himself drop to the ground in triumph.

Feeling courageous, he then made his way to the edge of the sandpit where someone had abandoned a broken plank of wood.

When he stepped on the raised end of the plank, his weight caused the lower end to rise from the ground. He spent several minutes experimenting with this, understanding it, figuring out with both his mind and body how it felt. Finally, slowly, he edged his way down, until his weight caused the raised end to dip suddenly downward. When it did, he ran the few steps to the bottom, where he turned around and, after testing the board a few more times, went back up.

I had witnessed the exact same process a few days earlier with an older boy who had found our homemade ladder suspended over the sandpit boat.

Children do take risks, but when left to their own devices, when allowed to freely explore their world, they also perform their own risk assessment along the way and it's more than just an individual process. Often risk assessment takes a village, going "viral" as one child is inspired by and learns from another.

A two-year-old, after many careful experiments that were not tainted any adults warning that he was going to hurt himself, discovered that he could clip a clothespin to his finger. Moments later, his friends were trying it too. He said, "I thought it would hurt but it only hurts a little."

That very afternoon we witnessed this sort of community risk assessment at its highest level.

I had placed a plank of wood across two tires as a sort of prompt. The younger children more or less ignored it, but when the older kids arrived in the afternoon, their first order of business was to raise one end by adding a tire.

There was much caution at first. The first few children to attempt it dropped to their knees and even their bellies. The ones who stayed on their feet edged their way slowly, often choosing to jump off before getting to the end.

When the third tire was added, some of the children moved on to other things. Two had been enough for this day.

The process here was similar, with children learning from one another, advising one another, and supporting one another.

They figured out that if you went to the very top, your weight would cause the lower end to kick up making it "scary," so they began to hold the lower end down for one another.

There was quite a bit of discussion about what might happen if you did fall from the top. They figured they didn't want to fall into the tires.

As time when on the play evolved, becoming objectively more risky, yet the process remained the same.

There were onlookers, many of whom took on the role of kibitzing, sometimes helpful, sometimes not. At one point a boy said, "The first one to the top gets this flag." The children heard him, paused for a moment, then continued their play as before. External motivation is irrelevant. The process of risk is it's own reward.


We live in a world of fear around allowing children even a modicum of independence and risk in their play and this often prevents us from stepping back and really looking at what's happening. This 6-week course will help you develop the tools, knowledge, and mindset to overcome a fearful world and offer the children in your life an authentic childhood, in which they learn resilience and courage through their independent play. If this sounds like something you want for the children in your life, get on the waitlist for the 2024 cohort for Teacher Tom's Risky Play. Together, we will explore how we can, even in today's fearful world, offer children the kind of playfully risky childhood's they need and deserve. To learn more and to get on the waitlist, click here.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Monday, June 24, 2024

Learning to Be Courageous

The children were rowdily queuing up to take turns jumping from the impromptu "diving board" they had created from a plank of wood that they had rigged up. The distance from springboard to the ground was less than two feet. A few leapt fearlessly, hurling their bodies into the air with abandon, but most were more cautious, some exceedingly cautious, and many remained on the sidelines, watching.

This was, in the eyes of most of the children, risky business. They didn't need adults hanging around cautioning them. They most definitely didn't need anyone commanding them to "be careful." They were all, clearly, approaching this self-created, self-selected challenge with the knowledge that pain was a possible consequence and were taking due measures.

One of my wife's relatives, a man who had made pediatric orthopedic devices for a living, was famous within the family for having regularly joked that "Kids are always trying to kill themselves" which was in large measure, he claimed, why he remained in business. It was an edgy joke, one I'm sure he rarely made in front of the families he served, but it echoes an attitude that many of us carry with us about young children: they may not be trying to get hurt, but they are certainly too ignorant, innocent, careless, and foolhardy to be trusted with their own assessment of risk.

Our first responsibility as adults working with young children is safety. We tend to define a "safe environment" for children as one in which injuries are rare. All preschools and child care centers have safety protocols. Hazards are identified and removed. Rules are made to prevent children from engaging in activities the adults deem too risky. Educators are often called to the carpet, fired, or even sued when a child is injured on their watch. Yet we all know, just as did the children lining up for this diving board (which would likely be banned in many settings), that complete certainty and safety in life is impossible.

And I think most of us also know, or at least we should know, that if we ever managed to create a completely certain and safe environment, it would be a kind of hell on earth. Novels of dystopia are written about futures in which the only freedom is the freedom from risk. Recent Teacher Tom's Podcast guest Lenore Skenazy's Free Range Kids movement emerged from the recognition that in our extreme efforts to keep children safe we are inadvertently teaching our children (and parents) to be incompetent and fearful. Gever Tulley's book Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do) is a stark reminder of how our culture's anxious embrace of safety at all costs is a very recent phenomenon, one that robs children of an authentic childhood.

I won't to go into the research about the benefits, indeed necessity, for children to engage in risky play, but if that's what you're looking for, Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter is one of the pre-eminent researchers and scholars in the area and you'll find everything you're looking for in her blog.

In another recent conversation on the podast with Australian parent educator Maggie Dent, we discuss how this cultural fear of risk and independence has become a kind of self-perpetuating spiral for both children and their parents. "The fundamental needs of children haven't changed," she tells us, "but the world has," in both real and imaginary ways. We're not likely to go back to a world in which one parent stayed home with the kids, for instance, but we can do something about the over-abundance of scripted toys which Maggie says tend to limit creative thinking and problem solving. But more importantly, we can do something about these untethered fears of children "killing themselves" through their own ignorance or being harmed by skulking strangers that has lead to a generation of children (and parents) that is more passive and anxious than children in the past. They are less resilient, have poorer self-regulation, and are struggling with both fine and gross motor skills. Independent play, including risky play, Maggie tells us, is the cure. 

At least once a day, someone writes or says to me that they genuinely want to offer their kids more independence and the opportunity for risk, but say they are stopped by their own fears. What I want to share here is some of the thinking that helped me both as a parent and early childhood educator to get my mind around the more philosophical and psychological side of risk and especially how it promotes the often forgotten virtue of courage.

Not only is life without risk impossible, but a life without it is no life at all, which is to say the only absolute certainty and safety is death itself. The great American psychologist William James wrote: "It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all." One of the great problems, according to James, is that life is full of decisions and most of the time we're forced to decide even when the evidence is less than fully persuasive either way. In other words, no matter how scientifically we approach our decisions, no matter how carefully we analyze the data, no matter how orderly our row of ducks, at the end of the day every important decision we make first requires us to make a decision about what to believe.

In our scientific age, however, deciding what to believe is a kind of sacrilege. It calls into question the very concept of truth. It requires faith that takes us outside of the realm of evidence. When those children edged out to the end of the diving board, contemplated, then leapt, they were not thinking about educating their vestibular systems or developing their pre-frontal cortexes, they were choosing to believe that they would land safely. And those who turned around and edged back to the security of the solid ground were choosing to believe that they would not . . . At least not today.

We worry about the kid who leaps, but we should be at least equally worried, perhaps more so, about the child who never chooses to leap. 

Courage is the ancient virtue that is called forth when we choose to believe, then act. And courage only comes to those who practice. Indeed, the more we practice behaving courageously, as these children were doing, the more courageous we become. This is how we reverse the spiral of fear, by creating a counter-spiral of courage. 

As I stood watching the children, I saw them grow, before my eyes, more courageous with each effort. Before long, those who chose to believe, were believing more and more courageous things about themselves: leaping higher, farther, and faster until they had played the risk out of this game and were ready for another. And, as the game went on, many of those who at first chose not to believe began to.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that "action is character" an assertion that is supported by both neuroscience and social research. The more people engage in day-to-day acts of courage, which is choosing to believe that they will stick their landings, the more courageous they become. Having the courage to act in the face of uncertainty is the very definition of human freedom. 

It takes courage to step back and watch our children step off into the unknown based on nothing more than faith, but when we as adults find the courage within ourselves to let go, we find, one small step a time that we can reverse the spiral of fear into which we have, as a culture, fallen. At the end of the day, practicing courage is not just the antidote to fear, but it is also the only path to freedom. 


We live in a world of fear around allowing children even a modicum of independence and risk in their play. This 6-week course will help you develop the tools, knowledge, and mindset to overcome a fearful world and offer the children in your life an authentic childhood, in which they learn resilience and courage through their independent play. If this sounds like something you want for the children in your life, get on the waitlist for the 2024 cohort for Teacher Tom's Risky Play. Together, we will explore how we can, even in today's fearful world, offer children the kind of playfully risky childhood's they need and deserve. To learn more and to get on the waitlist, click here.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Friday, June 21, 2024

You Know . . . Like Life Itself

Awhile back, a friend texted me a word with a definition. It was a word I'd never heard before, one that applies, in particular, to early childhood education. It was a delicious, juicy word full of meaning and nuance. I fully intended to use it here on the blog, but now I can't find the message and, of course, I don't remember the word at all. It might have started with the letter "e".

I'll bet, however, that I'd recall it this morning had he spoken it to me instead of texting it, especially had it been part of a face-to-face interaction, used in a sentence, delivered with hand gestures. 

In human development, gesture known to precede language. For instance, long before a baby can talk, they have already learned to, say, point at an object, to which the loving adults in their lives respond by naming the object. They point at a dog and we say, "That's a doggie!" Those who study these things say that when we do this, we greatly increase the likelihood that this word will enter the child's vocabulary. 

Before the development of the Phoenician alphabet which was the first to assign specific sounds to specific symbols, there were hieroglyphics or pictograms. These were likewise used to convey and preserve information, but they weren't necessarily read in a linear fashion, nor did each symbol represent a sound as much as a complex of ideas. "Reading" pictograms is not an exact science, but rather a process of interpretation. One of the most famous poems in history is Wang Wei's "Deer Park," written in ancient Chinese pictograms some time in the 700s CE. This is one translation by Gary Snyder:

Empty mountains;
no one to be seen.
Yet -- hear --
human sounds and echoes.
Returning sunlight
enters the dark woods;
Again shining
on the free moss, above

But there are thousands of "translations" out there, some of which create entirely different meanings and moods and perspectives because each of the pictograms used in the poem have a multitude of ways to interpret them . . . You know, like life itself. 

Whereas our phonetic alphabet strives for concrete and narrow meanings, with as little room as possible for equivocation, this type of alphabet is more impressionistic and holistic, allowing room for interpretation, or, if you will, perspective. Pictograms convey a fuller sense of how things feel and move, opening things up where our alphabet is an attempt to lock things down. The Phoenicians were great traders and commerce was boosted by the precision of their invention, but the adoption of it for everyday uses, eventually killed off these older ways of writing.

When I consider human gesture, especially hand gestures, I like to think I'm getting a glimpse into the minds of pre-phonetic alphabet humans and they look a lot like the minds of our pre-literate children. Gesture is also impressionistic and holistic. When we say the word "water," for instance, we convey the thing itself, but when we accompany that word with a hand gesture -- making waves, for instance -- we evoke the thing itself more fully. When a baby points, we often interpret that as "What is that?" but we know, that a point may simultaneously mean, "Look at that!" and "I see that," and "I want that," and "Why is that?" and "I'm delighted by that!" and "I'm in the world with that," and, really, an infinite number of things that can't be put into words . . . You know, like life itself.

In her book The Extended Mind, science writer Annie Murphy Paul urges us to take gesture more seriously, that it's not just "hapless 'hand waving'," but rather a vital part of how we know and learn. Just as a baby's pointing comes before language, "people's newest and most advanced ideas often show up first in their gestures; moreover, individuals signal their readiness to learn when their gestures begin to diverge from their speech. In our single-minded focus on spoken language, however, we may miss the clues conveyed in the other mode. Research finds that even experienced teachers pick up on less than a third of the information contained in students' hand movements."

She goes on to write that this suggests "the startling notion that our hands 'know' what we're going to say before our conscious minds do, and in fact this if often the case. Gesture can mentally prime a word so that the right term comes to our lips. When people are prevented from gesturing, they talk less fluently; their speech becomes halting because their hands are no longer able to supply them with the next word, and the next. Not being able to gesture has other deleterious effects; without gesture to help our mental processes along, we remember less useful information, we solve problems less well, and we are less able to explain our thinking. Far from tagging along as speech's clumsy companion, gesture represents the leading edge of our thought."

Like hieroglyphics and pictograms, gesture encompasses so much more than mere words. I'm convinced that literacy as we narrowly define it, has made it impossible for most of us to fully appreciate the fuller, deeper communication that happens through gesture. In the process of learning one thing, we left another way of understanding our world, something wonderful, behind. But it still lives in our pre-literate children. Through them, we have access to this original way of being in the world, a way of being, in fact, that is shared by the rest of the animal, and perhaps plant, kingdom. I worry that in our current rush and crush to force literacy on children at younger and younger ages, we are not only robbing our children of seeing the world in this impressionistic and holistic way, but we are preventing ourselves from "remembering" that it is all too magnificent to be put into mere words . . . you know, like life itself.


We live in a world of fear around allowing children even a modicum of risk in their play. If you're interested in providing the children in your life a summer of outdoor play (and beyond), please consider joining the 2024 cohort for my 6-week course Teacher Tom's Risky Play. In it this course, we will explore how we can, even in today's fearful world, offer children the kind of playfully risky childhood's they need and deserve. To learn more and to get on the waitlist, click here.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Thursday, June 20, 2024

If You Go Outside You'll Find that Today is a Day of Awe and Wonder

With each passing generation, we are spending less and less time outdoors. There was a time, not very long ago, that we all understood that we needed, every day, for many hours a day, to step out from under our ceilings, to be free of our walls, to escape from the straight lines imposed upon the world by humans, and bathe in the undulations and curves of the natural world.

At the same time, the world is demanding that we engage in more and more abstract thought. The gathering and hunting lifestyle for which we've evolved called for what those who study these things call "passive attention." As we move through nature (without our devices, of course), our attention is more easily brought into the present, where our thoughts tend to drift easily from object to object and from topic to topic in an effortless way. This makes perfect sense because our ancestors needed to remain aware of their surroundings: to become lost in thought while, say, in a jungle or savannah greatly increased the odds of becoming a predator's meal. Engaging in, say, mental mathematics meant missing out on those berries or nuts. In other words, Homo sapiens that were unable to allow their thoughts to attend to the sounds, scents, and sights of the world around them, to enter a state of what psychologists call "soft fascination", did not tend to survive long enough to procreate. In other words, except in certain, relatively rare circumstances, too much abstract through could be deadly.

This is why we tend to grow restless and increasingly distracted when we've spent too much time indoors. Multiple studies have shown the mental benefits of getting outdoors. Doctors in South Korea, the UK, and other places are prescribing "forest bathing" to their patients. A twenty-minute walk in a park has been shown to improve children's concentration and impulse control (both of which are required for engaging in abstract thought) as much as a dose of Ritalin.

Anyone who has spent time with young children have seen the effects of moving from indoors to outdoors. It's like pushing a mental reset button. And by now, everyone in our field, even those who continue to, misguidedly, impose academics on young children, should be well-aware of the mountains of data telling us to get children outdoors, preferably in natural spaces.

In my conversation with author and parent educator Maggie Dent on Teacher Tom's Podcast we discuss the current mental health crisis that is impacting even in our youngest citizens. She asserts that a big part, perhaps the most important part, of any cure must be getting our children playing in the natural world. In nature their play becomes more imaginative. It's while playing in nature that they most naturally practice being resilient, where they develop their fine and gross motor abilities, and where they most easily enter into that state of soft fascination which is what science journalist Annie Murphy Paul refers to as the brain's "default mode network."

But what stuck me most in my conversation with Maggie was her assertion that "nature offers awe and wonder."

Psychologist and author Dacher Keltner has studied awe and wonder. His bestseller is called AWE: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and how it Can Transform Your Life. He tells us that the experience of awe is like pushing a reset button for the brain. It makes us more curious and more likely to rethink what we thought we already knew. When we find ourselves in the presence of something bigger than ourselves we become less self-centered and more inclined to feel connected to other people and the world, which is, at the end of the day, what stands at the core of mental health: connection.

And while I'm sure that it's possible, under just the right conditions, to experience awe while indoors, the most reliable source of awe is nature. Maggie tells the story of ducking under a tree with her grandson to escape a sudden rain storm and how he spent 45 minutes immersed in a self-directed, free-form study of "fronds." The word awe tends to evoke mighty mountains, vast oceans, and the night time sky, but it is also found in fronds and twigs and pebbles. It's located in birds and bees. It's there, just awaiting our passive fascination to be struck by it in the wind, the rain, and the clouds. Indeed, what is more awe-inspiring than an hour lying in the grass, eyes closed, just listening?

Today, June 20, 2024 is the summer solstice, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, the longest day of the year. It is an event that has awed us since at least the Neolithic era, but probably even predates that. Humans have expressed our awe in celebrations and monuments. Just because science has explained it, doesn't mean it isn't any less awe-inspiring today, although most modern humans will spend this day, this day of days, indoors, completely unaware of this magnificent, brain-enhancing thing. No wonder so many of us, including our children, feel so disconnected.

The solstice officially occurs at 1:50 p.m. PST. I plan to be outdoors at that very moment. Perhaps you'll join me.


Another thing Maggie and I discuss is the vital importance of risky play to the development of young minds and bodies. Nature is not only the source of awe, but also offers many of the "just right" risk taking opportunities they need to develop into curious, resilient, and courageous humans. Sadly, as Maggie points out, we live in a world of fear around allowing children even a modicum of risk in their play. If you are interested in providing the children in your life a summer of outdoor play (and beyond), please consider joining the 2024 cohort for my 6-week course Teacher Tom's Risky Play. In it this course, we will explore how we can, even in today's fearful world, offer children the kind of playfully risky childhood's they need and deserve. To learn more and to get on the waitlist, click here.

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