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.

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