Tuesday, July 02, 2024

Freedom of Movement

When visiting Woodland Park for the first time, and especially our playground, many adults at first feel disoriented.  Not only are there dozens of children racing about, shouting, bickering, and laughing, but at first blush the space -- so unlike adult-oriented spaces like offices, museums, and libraries -- seems disorderly, even chaotic. Those who value a tidy, well-organized home, often find themselves at sea amidst the loose parts, art supplies, sensory materials, and a ground scattered with evidence of children at play.

As a cooperative preschool, the parents work in the classroom as assistant teachers. More than one parent opted to enroll their child elsewhere, not because they didn't have flexibility to spend a few hours a week with us, not because they didn't think their child would thrive, but because they didn't feel that they could handle the "mess." 

I get it. I tend to live tidily. I like my books organized alphabetically. I pick up my clothes, hang up my towels, keep up with the laundry, and stack my dishes neatly on their shelves. My own home, for me, is the opposite of disorienting -- it's literally orienting. Indeed, anyone who has lived in one place for any length of time, have homes that orient them. Knowing where to find things (e.g., keys in the bowl by the door), knowing where particular activities are best done (e.g., tooth brushing happens in the bathroom), and understanding how it all goes together (e.g., this light switch connects to that porch light) is part of the definition of home. Beyond that, our homes and other familiar places, are orienting in the sense that they have become extensions of our minds.

For instance, I keep a notepad on the kitchen counter. It's always in the same place. Each time I think of something we need, instead of relying on memory, I jot it down, delegating the responsibility for remembering to a shopping list. Over the weekend, we had a small dinner party. As part of buffing the place up for guests, my wife swept that pad of paper into a drawer. The following day when it wasn't where I expected to find it, I was disoriented, so much so that the first time I looked in the drawer I couldn't see that pad of paper. I had briefly, and literally, lost my mind, or at least that part of it.

But it goes beyond that. We also externalize our minds into all kinds of familiar spaces, storing ideas, emotions, and memories in every nook and cranny. That book evokes a conversation I had with my father-in-law. This coffee mug takes me back to a golden sunrise. The stain in the carpet, the dent in the trash can, the sound of a squeaky hinge are all landmarks on both the physical and mental maps of my home. In many ways, this is what learning is: connecting our minds to our mental map of the world.

Our ancient ancestors evolved the capacity to find their way around. Knowing where to find food and shelter, remembering where the predators lurked, recalling hazards, and being able to return to places of inspiration were absolutely essential to survival. In the modern world, we use our built-in navigational system not only for getting around in the physical world, but also for comprehending the metaphorical "landscape" of abstract ideas and emotions.

"This repurposing of our sense of physical place to navigate through purely mental structures is reflected in the language we use every day," writes science journalist Annie Murphy Paul in her book The Extended Mind. "(W)e say the future lies "up ahead," while the past is "behind" us; we endeavor to stay "on top of things" and not to get "out of our depth"; we "reach" for a lofty goal or "stoop" low to commit a disreputable act. These are not merely figures of speech but revealing evidence of how we habitually understand and interact with the world around us."

As adults, we've created a universe of mental maps and typically it only takes a couple weeks for new parents to orient themselves in our classroom and on our playground. They begin to understand the lay of the land, where things are, and how it goes together. Their minds become integrated with the environment, which makes it less disorienting even as the space itself remains the same. It's a natural process, one we've all gone through countless times, moving from disorientation to orientation.

This, of course, is what happens with the children as well, although they don't have the experience their parents have, which is why they must be free to move their bodies. From the moment they walk into our classrooms or onto our playgrounds, they begin the human process of creating mental maps and that requires them to move their bodies around the space. There's a lot of intimidating talk these days about thinking machines, about how they are, or will soon be, so much "smarter" than us, their creators. And it's true that machines are much more capable of handling massive amounts of abstract information than are individual humans. Our brains aren't well-equipped for "thinking" about mountains of mind-numbing minutia, let alone at the rate of millions of calculations per second. No, our brains have evolved to be distracted, to be on the go, to be constantly creating relationships with the people, places, and things we encounter and using them as intellectual and emotional landmarks in which to store details for future reference. This is what children are learning to do when we allow them to move.

There was a time, not so long ago, when we understood that young children needed to move and move a lot, but unfortunately and increasingly, we are subjecting them to the school-ish practice of sitting still to process abstract information and it's harming them. What their brains need, what their bodies need, is to move in order to find their way around and remember where they've been. If we're serious about learning, we must allow our youngest citizens to move. By freeing children to exercise their brain's navigational system in physical space we allow them to prepare for future mental maps of landscapes comprised of abstract concepts and ideas. 

Indeed, in many ways, this is what learning is: the process of moving from disorientation to orientation. And the foundation of that process is the freedom to move.


One of the things we lose when we prevent children from moving is the natural and healthy risk-taking that goes with it. 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.

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