Tuesday, April 23, 2024

"The Mind at Three Miles Per Hour"

"The Thinker," Auguste Rodin (The worst possible way to think?)

"(S)it as little as possible," writes German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, "do not believe any idea that was not born in the open air and of free movement."

Nietzsche was notorious walker and hiker, a man seemingly always on the go, yet he's known as a thinker, one of the most influential of the 19th century, a mustachioed ponderer of the big questions about life and the universe. 

He's not the only one of our great "brainiacs" to credit their bodies with their best thinking.

Essayist Rebecca Solnit, one of today's prominent thinker-walkers, writes in her book about walking, Wanderlust, under the inspired chapter title, The Mind at Three Miles Per Hour, "Children begin to walk to chase desires no one will fulfill for them: the desire for that which is out of reach, for freedom, for independence from the secure confines of the maternal Eden." 

"Exploring the world," she writes, "is one of the best ways of exploring the mind."

There are exceptions, of course, but humans, from Socrates to Virgina Woolf to Richard Feynman, have understood that brains work best while bodies are in motion. That is until our current era of schooling in which our children, despite their Devine urge to move, are trained from an early age that their thinking is best done while seated, assembly-line style, quietly, listening passively, and moving only when told, and then, only in approved ways. It defies everything we know about how human minds work, and an hour of PE is not going to fix what's wrong, although more recess -- a lot more recess -- might.

Neuroscientist Patrick House asserts that "the entire purpose of the brain is to make efficient movement from experience, and everything else, including consciousness, is downstream of these efforts."

We must be taught to sit quietly because it goes against the very nature of life itself. Our brains are a part of our bodies and bodies are meant to move, preferably at three miles per hour. It's even better when that movement happens outdoors. 

******

Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network 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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Monday, April 22, 2024

Our Schools Have a Boredom Problem


When I talk to adults about their years of schooling, they rarely talk about what they learned in math class. They talk about teachers. They talk about their social life. And at some point almost all of them talk about the boredom. 

Boredom researcher John Eastwood from York University in Canada defines boredom as "The aversive experience of wanting, but being unable to engage in satisfying activity." He and others have found that boredom is linked to, and in some circumstances potentially the cause of, depression and anger, pathological gambling, bad driving, sensation seeking and impulsivity, and lowered levels of self-actualization. This is unsurprising because, after all, the feeling of boredom is very similar to the symptoms of clinical depression -- emptiness, sadness, lack of focus, limited attention span, apathy, and lethargy.

Other researchers believe that boredom provides the important function of motivating people to engage in activities that they find more meaningful than those before them. It is a spur to creativity. This is the thinking behind those who urge parents to "let your kids get bored" over summer or holiday breaks.

So, it seems that some amount of boredom is a good thing, but too much is potentially harmful. This is an important thing to think about when it comes to standard schooling. Because teachers are charged with administering a particular curriculum to all children, whether they are interested or not, we too often place our children in a position of boredom from which there is no escape. If they try to engage in activities that are more meaningful, like fidgeting, goofing off, or trying to change the subject, which is apparently the evolutionary purpose behind boredom, we reprimand and punish them.

Many teachers go to great lengths to make the curriculum interesting in an attempt to curb boredom and many children ultimately figure out how to take an interest for the same reason. But for many children, the boredom begins to affect their mental health.

When I was a boy, adults would tell me, "Only boring people get bored" in an attempt to shame me out of my boredom. There's a lot of that in our society, this idea that experiencing boredom too often is some kind of character flaw. This is how we shift the blame onto individuals rather than admit that our schools have a boredom problem. And it's a problem for children when they have no way out.

This is a problem that self-directed learning (or play-based learning) will never have because when boredom arises, the children have options, as nature intended.

******

Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network 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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Friday, April 19, 2024

How to Raise Ethical, Caring Children


Most of us want to raise children who are ethical and caring. Indeed, when surveyed 96 percent of us say that this is a "very important, if not essential" parenting goal. I've not seen the numbers for teachers, but I would assume that a super majority of us feel likewise. If nothing else, we want the future to be populated with adults of character and we believe it begins with us, the adults responsible for the rearing and education of children.

Unfortunately, a full 80 percent of youth surveyed say that they are more concerned with "achievement" or "happiness" than with caring for others. Not only that, but eight in 10 also say that their parents and teachers feel the same way. And to put the cherry on this ugly cake, teachers, by the same percentage, perceive that the parents of their students value achievement over moral character. In other words, we are, as parents and educators, quite consistently sending our children a message we don't want to be sending.

Ironically, most research also shows that lack of caring for others leads to humans being less successful and less happy.

We are living in a time in which one in five children are suffering from a diagnosable mental illness. Our schools have become increasingly academic, where our children are being judged, daily, by their ability to pass tests and otherwise regurgitate facts on command, while their "free time" is being gobbled up by homework and resume-building extracurriculars. Our policymakers increasingly emphasize the economic importance of schooling, while ignoring the fundamental role education plays in building the character traits necessary to productively and cooperatively participate in the democratic process of self-governance. Despite our stated intentions, we are raising a generation of children who feel disconnected from their fellow citizens, who are pitted against one another at younger and younger ages, and who are urged to "race to the top," a metaphor that naturally places one's fellow humans a step below. 

I'm not the only one who has pointed this out, of course, and there are countless attempts underway to "teach" empathy, compassion, and caring. The Atlantic article to which I've linked here, quotes experts saying that parents and teachers ought to redouble their efforts to "give their children opportunities" to be helpful and caring, one even going so far as to encourage "repetition," the hallmark of the sort of rote learning that characterizes so much of our "achievement" focused educational systems, as if it is just another subject to be included in a pre-packaged curriculum.

We don't need any more curricula. We don't need any more subjects to be graded or judged by adults. Trying to "teach" caring for others is doomed to failure. I mean, think how most children feel about the "subjects" we already teach. Do we really think that we should teach caring the way we teach math or English?

The way children learn to care for others is through example and practice. If we truly want our children to help others, then we must role model it. They must see that we genuinely do prioritize caring over achievement because right now they clearly perceive we are just giving it lip service. 

Secondly, we must set children free to actually practice being helpful and caring which means we must stop pitting them against one another like combatants in some sort of reality TV program and leave them free to engage with the world as human beings rather than cogs in an achievement machine. Human beings are born to connect with one another through helping one anotherChildren as young as 14 months consistently demonstrate the drive to help others without the expectation of anything in return. Over the course of the past two decades, I've watched young children, through their play with one another, discovering the joy and intrinsic rewards that comes from caring deeply for one another, cooperating, and finding the joy of being not better than others, but rather a contributing member of a community.

Caring for others is not not something that can be "taught." It must be experienced. It must be discovered. If we really want our children to be ethical, empathetic, compassionate, and caring, we must step back from "teaching" and "parenting" and instead be the change we want in the world, while providing our children the freedom to be that change as well.

******

Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network 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, April 18, 2024

"As You Make-Believe, You Will Begin to Believe"


The three girls were in a sort of irritable stew. They were bickering with one another like it was a stereotypical family holiday dinner, moping, whining, and fussing.

Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not . . . Thus the sovereign voluntary path to cheerfulness, if our spontaneous cheerfulness be lost, is to sit up cheerfully, to look round cheerfully, and to act and speak as if cheerfulness were already there. If such conduct does not make you soon feel cheerful, nothing else on that occasion can. So to feel brave, act as if we were brave, use all our will to that end, and a courage-fit will very likely replace the fit of fear.  ~William James

One of them began to spin in circles, at first, it seemed, in frustration. The other two stepped back, wary, but still sparring. The spinning girl began to chant, "I'm having fun now . . . I'm having fun now . . . I'm having fun now . . ."

How do you get yourself to a point of believing? Start make-believing. Be like a child, and make-believe. Act as if you have it already. As you make-believe, you will begin to believe you have received. ~Rhonda Byrne

The other girls continued debating over some finer point of their play until one of them began to stomp away. As she did, she passed closely by her spinning friend who reached out and grabbed her arm. She stopped spinning for a moment to look into her face and say, "I'm having fun now." The two started to laugh, then spin together, their chant now altered to reflect a new reality: "We're having fun now . . . We're having fun now . . . We're having fun now . . ."

Men acquire a particular quality by acting a certain way. ~Aristotle

Now there were two girls spinning together, chanting feverishly, wildly. One girl was still holding on to her irritability, still trying to get the others to listen to her whinge, but they were too busy having fun to hear her. She stood outside the "fun" for a moment in silence. Then she made a choice; I saw it in her face, and she too began to to spin and chant, "We're having fun now . . . We're having fun now . . . We're having fun now . . ."

And they were.


******

Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network 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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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

"We're All Scientists"


A while back, I was chatting with an artist, a painter, at her studio and gallery, discussing her process. I always ask artists about their process because I'm forever trying to steal their ideas and figure out how to convert them into preschool art explorations.

When I told her I'm a preschool teacher, I added, "All our art is process art. It's really just science." And she replied, 'That's how every artist approaches their work. We're all scientists."

Whether an educator, parent, or just, you know, a human being, it pays to be curious about process.

For instance, some time ago, I came across this video:



My initial thoughts were, "Way cool" and "There is no way to make this into a manageable, affordable class room project." It was at about this time, however, that I received some shelving I'd ordered that came with far too much packaging. In fact I wound up with something like 60 pieces of perfectly good corrugated cardboard cut into nice 12" X 10" pieces that had been stuffed into the boxes to fill up the empty space. That's when it began to occur to me that if the "tall" part were short enough, the paint thick enough, and the pouring containers small enough, it just might work.


So I got to work with our "third teacher," the environment.

I had several pieces of scrap 2"X2" cedar around the school which I cut into 2" to 3" lengths. I then hot glued them to the center of the cardboard. I wanted to thicken up the tempera paint so it wouldn't run all over the place, plus reduce the cost, and white glue seemed like the perfect answer, so I pre-mixed roughly 3 parts glue to 1 part paint. And finally, to increase the odds that the "paint" wouldn't just run right off the cardboard and onto the floor as it dried, we used small specimen cups to control the quantity the children had for each pour. 

Then, "Go!"








The kids didn't always stick to pouring on top of the wood and, naturally, there was other kinds of experimenting, like mixing our own custom colors (primarily "preschool gray," which is what you get when you try to mix a "rainbow").


I'd removed all the chairs, thinking the kids would have better "aim" on their feet, but several chose to work sitting anyway. 

We were so engaged that we took the project outdoors and kept going.




I'd call this a success, even though the dried pieces, which we scattered around the classroom on every available horizontal surface, adhered themselves to the table tops in such a way there were only a few left to take home on the following day. But that's hardly the point. The kids were entranced by watching how their paint flowed, oozed, and mixed, and that's the point. They got to tinker with the idea which is where the learning takes place.




******

Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network 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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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

It's What Our Playing Children Know


Paleontologists now think that animal life first evolved on our planet 789 million years ago, although as the research continues it's likely that this oddly specific number will be supplanted. As most of us are aware, it was some time later than animals began to appear on land in the form of ancient "millipede." We currently believe that those early pioneers dragged themselves from their watery home more than 420 million years ago and there has been life on land ever since.

I like to think about the first animal to brave the land. What was it doing? Was it looking for food? Maybe. Maybe right there at the edge of the water there was, say, some particularly tasty fungi (which had already been around for some 1000 million years) or land plants (which had evolved 300 million years earlier). But why did this animal venture so close to shore in the first place? Maybe it was chased there by a predator, then, since it was already there in the shallows, something, some urge made it hunt around. Maybe there was some sort of decaying matter stuck to some rocks in the tidal zone that it followed from the water onto the land. Or, more likely, that early arthropod found itself on dry(er) land when the tide went out. The will to live then made it innovate the use of its multitude of tiny little fins to drag itself, painstakingly into a tidal pool where it bided its time, munching on land food, until the tide came back in.

Of course, there had likely been countless other animals that had, for whatever reason, come ashore, but this was the one who survived . . . And then, despite not have the lungs or legs for it, decided to try it again. I mean, this was a creature that had evolved to live out its life in the salty sea, but there was something about land that appealed to it. Maybe it was that there were no other animals out there seeking to eat it. A predator-free zone might have been just the ticket as the seas were becoming increasingly crowded with larger carnivorous beasts. Whatever the case, it came back, which was what set it apart from all the millipedes that came before it, and it brought some of its friends with it.

Evolutionary theory tells us that this isn't actually how it happened. My theoretical individual was, in reality, thousands, if not millions of generations of millipedes, but the metaphor, I think, is still worth considering. The first animals to emerge onto land may have found themselves there by some accident of fight-or-flight, or the pangs of hunger, but what made them come back, what made them press forward, what made them ultimately into the ancestors of humans (not to mention every other land species) was that once they'd escape the predators, once they'd sated their hunger, something made them fart around.

In yesterday's post, I mentioned science journalist David Toomey's new book Kingdom of Play. In it, he reminds us of Stanley Kubrick's own metaphor about ancient animals farting around: "(A) man-ape sits idly among a field of tapir bones. He has no evident purpose; he is only mildly interested in seeing what happens when bone strikes bone. He is playing. But then he discovers that when he brings a thigh bone down with enough force, it can break and shatter other bones. He has a sudden epiphany: the bone may be used as a weapon."

In the Grateful Dead's song Black Peter, Jerry Garcia sings, "I see now how everything leads up to this day." This is how we often understand evolution because looking back it all makes sense, but in reality, as it happens, the process of evolution has no sense at all. What amazes us, I think, and what makes many of us doubt evolution as a theory, is that it seems impossible that all of this (imagine me sweeping my arm to indicate the earth, mountains, sky, and all they contain) could have emerged without a plan or a guiding force with a plan. But to me, the vision of existence offered by evolution is even more amazing for it being, as Toomey points out in his book, entirely purposeless. What a wonderful, beautiful, thing to consider that all of this is the product of plants and animals farting around, which is to say playing.

Both evolution and play are, in the moment, purposeless, yet when we step back we see that they both serve as mechanisms through which life itself happens. The late great author Kurt Vonnegut asserts, "We're here on this earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different." Increasingly, it seems that this might stand among the most universal of truths.

There probably never was an individual millipede that farted around the seashore, used its fins as feet, then became a role model for its friends. And it's highly unlikely that a single vaguely curious man-ape invented weaponry. But there is little doubt that the stories we tell ourselves about "progress" or "learning" are really just accidents of our perspective, looking to the past to "seeing now how everything leads up to this day." But all of this, right now, is just farting around. It's what our playing children know if we would just let them show us.

******

Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network 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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Monday, April 15, 2024

Play Fighting


Like many modern parents, I'd not spent a lot of time around young children, as an adult, until our daughter was born. When she was two, we enrolled in a cooperative preschool, which for those who don't know, is a model in which parents attend alongside their children and serve as assistant teachers. This was my introduction, or re-introduction, to early childhood.

Of course, I had memories of my own childhood, but precious few, if any, from before I was four or five. So, when I remembered childhood, it was from the perspective of an older child, and many of those memories involved rough housing, or what we professionally call rough-and-tumble play.

My brother is only 20 months younger than me. Many of my childhood memories involve the two of us engaged in some version of play fighting. There was some real fighting too, but most of it was of the mutually agreed upon sort in which our physical competition was balanced over a fulcrum of cooperation.

For instance, since I was bigger and older, I tended to dominate when it came to traditional wrestling, so we came up with a version we called "kicky fight," in which we would lie on our backs and wildly kick at one another's legs. Often, when I would begin to overwhelm my younger brother, he would fall back into kicky fight mode, while I self-handicapped by trying to fight through his whirlwind of legs with my arms. One time he kicked out one of my teeth. But that was an accident, one that ended the play instantly. Hitting, or kicking, anything other than appendages, wasn't part of play fighting because the goal was not to hurt one another, but rather to, well, have fun.

Mom didn't intervene in our play fighting, other than to occasionally tell us to "keep it down." She insisted that if either of us got hurt we were to leave her out of it, although on those rare occasions when one of us did suffer pain, she was there to attend to us with minimal scolding. She had grown up with older brothers, so I imagine that's why she understood about play fighting.

There was very little play fighting at our cooperative preschool, or rather, whenever it erupted, the moment it erupted, an adult would step in to scuttle it. "No wrestling," we would say, or, "No fighting." It didn't strike me as particularly odd at the time. Of course, we don't want the kids fighting -- even play fighting. When, a few years later, I found myself as teacher of my own preschool class, I automatically carried on with "no fighting," although I'd learned to say it without the language of command, by making what I considered at the time to be a statement of fact, "Now is not the time for wrestling."

Whenever children began rolling around together, I'd say, "Now is not the time for wrestling," until one day a boy asked me in all eagerness, "When is wrestling time?" That's when it finally dawned on me that for some of these kids, especially those without siblings, it was never time for wrestling. 

Among the animals that play, and that includes all the mammals, birds, and reptiles ever studied and even some fish and insects, play fighting is the most common form of play. This should tell us something important about play fighting. There is no way that this particular behavior would be so universal if it wasn't an important adaptive trait. Indeed, play fighting's prevalence tells us that it has been evolutionarily selected as a behavior that supports survival and reproduction, yet here we are as early childhood educators systematically telling our young: "No fighting."

In his book Kingdom of Play, science journalist David Toomey writes: "Researchers have given little attention to a specific kind of rough-and-tumble play: play fighting . . . many recent textbooks on child development neglect the behavior, despite that it may represent nearly 20 percent of spontaneous play in school playgrounds, it seems remarkably similar across cultures, and so far as anyone can judge, it has changed little throughout history."

Cognitive psychologist Jaak Panksepp once conducted an experiment in which he showed adults video of rats engaged in play fighting. The adults all identified what they saw as real fighting. He then showed the video to four to seven-year-olds. They all accurately identified what they were looking at as "play." In other words, for whatever reason, adults in our society seem to be ill-equipped to understand and identify this sort of evolutionarily essential behavior for what it is. When I think back to my mother's attitude toward my own play fighting, I think I see an adult who was better able to see it. 

Where did we lose our ability to identify this kind of play? Is it because we've become so anti-violence that we see it even where it doesn't exist? Are we so worried about injury that we quash what appears to be a foundational behavior? Is it liability? Or are we just so concerned with controlling children that we simply cannot allow this rowdy, seemingly chaotic, behavior to exist?

I say "seemingly chaotic" because, as Toomey points out, those who have researched play fighting in animals find that there are indeed rules, often well-defined and ordered, "yet any play fighting may have moments during which one or both participants are uncertain of the other's intentions. These moments give both animals opportunities to practice theory of mind, to negotiate and to develop skills in general social competence and social assessment, skills necessary to forestall the escalation of actual fights and to avoid them to begin with." We've not done the requisite research into human play fighting, and we need to, but I think it's safe to say that what goes for our animal cousins, likewise goes for us. 

Toomey writes, "Although rough-and-tumble play can cause injury, it may endow the brain with a means to keep emotions in check. Play fighting in particular may provide training for the unexpected, and necessary practice in social skills. Children denied the opportunity to engage in play fighting may become adults deficient in the ability to emphasize, with little skill in negotiation and no notion of ambiguity. One can't help but wonder, Is it possible that some members of this generation of adults, politically polarized, with no ability to listen, let alone compromise, are this way because they did not play fight as children?"

Most importantly, however, is that those who have studied play fighting find that while animals are certainly competing, they are also cooperating. As Toomey puts it, "Play employs both competition and cooperation and holds them in a dynamic equilibrium." In this way, he says, play is like natural selection itself. "While natural selection certainly selects for better competitors . . . it also select for better cooperators." It's not a stretch to conclude that this is why play fighting is the most common, and therefore adaptive, type of play there is.

When I realized that for many of the children in my care it was never time to wrestle, I didn't have the benefit of knowing the research. I'd not thought of evolution or adaptive traits or the universality of play fighting. I only knew that play fighting was something good from my own childhood and I knew that it would be good for these kids. So I introduced "wrestling time" to our curriculum, which I've written about several times on this blog, including here.

Whenever we throw down the gym mats to wrestle, there is always a moment when I worry that it will all go wrong. That this time it will turn into violence or someone will be seriously injured or it will all spin out of control. But aside from the occasional bump or bruise, it never does because, as when my brother and I play fought, competition is always, beautifully, balanced over a fulcrum of cooperation, which is, at the end of the day, evolution at work.

******

Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network 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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Friday, April 12, 2024

An Unplanned (and Unimaginably Cruel) Cultural Experiment

A friend who works with young children recently texted me with questions about why I thought kids today seem more anxious than in the past.

There are a lot of theories. Some blame screen-based technology, especially smartphones. Some blame the media. Some blame bad parenting. Some environmental toxins. Some blame a society that has gone off the rails. One of the most credible theories, however, is that our children are suffering from a deficit of good, old-fashioned play, and anxiousness is a symptom.

Most of the leading thinkers on play (e.g., Peter Gray, Jonathan Haight, Lenore Skenazy, Stuart Brown, Alfie Kohn, Maggie Dent) are convinced that this documented decline in childhood play is a direct cause of this documented increasing childhood anxiety. At one level, this remains theoretical, however, because no one has ever conducted play-deprivation studies on our own species. It's been demonstrated in rats and other mammals -- less play leads to more anxiety. But since it would be an unimaginable cruelty to perform experiments of this type on human children (not that animal research isn't just as cruel), we don't have, and probably never will have, the kind of direct, experimental link to human behavior that we would like. 

As neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp says, however, "I do suspect we are currently in an unplanned cultural experiment of that kind."

So while we bicker around the edges about things like the impact of smartphones and video games (which may just as easily be a form of self-medication) we, as a society, performatively scratch our heads as our children find themselves in childhoods in which play has been replaced with longer school days, shorter recesses, homework, sports teams, and all manner of after school and weekend enrichment programs, all supervised and controlled by adults. Rare is the contemporary American child who plays even a fraction as much as children from past generations.

So why would lack of play lead to anxiety?

There are a large number of theories for the widespread existence of play throughout the animal kingdom, humans included: to burn off excess energy, to destress, to practice skills and train muscles that will be necessary for adulthood, to create social bonds, to spur cognitive or language or moral development, all of which are probably part of the answer to a big question: why did play evolve in mammals, birds, reptiles, and even insects? 

Of course, it's not a stretch to connect missing any of this to increased anxiousness, but it's probably best explained (and predicted) by what is referred to as "training for the unexpected," a hypothesis proposed by researchers Marek Spinka, Ruth Newberry, and Marc Bekoff. 

In his new book, Kingdom of Play, science writer David Toomey offers a number of examples of animals that seem to surrender control or self-handicap while playing. A prime example comes from the work of Newberry with piglets. "When the piglets played, they often ran about . . . Running had an obvious adaptive advantage: it would be good practice for escaping a predator. But at no particular time and for no apparent reason, one piglet would suddenly stop running and perform a flop-over." 

So how is this training for the unexpected? "(W)hile running, free-ranging animals are likely to stumble, slip, fall, or collide with something. Spinka, Newberry, and Bekoff knew that the piglet flop-over was not good practice for escaping a predator in an idealized environment. It might, though, be good practice for recovering from a fall in a real one. Natural selection might have developed a means for animals to learn to recover balance by evolving in them a desire to put themselves in situations where they will be thrown off-balance. "We hypothesize," they wrote, "that a major ancestral function of play is to rehearse behavior sequences in which animals lose full control of their locomotion, position, or sensory/spatial input and need to repair those faculties quickly." 

Spinka and his colleagues believe that this self-handicapping is not just an essential feature of play, but it's most essential feature. In other words, play has evolved to allow us to prepare for handling the unknown and unexpected slings and arrows of life itself. No wonder that children who have been deprived of play feel anxious. They've missed out on the training.

When we watch young children play, we see this self-handicapping all the time. I've often watched children, for no apparent reason, like those piglets, throw themselves onto the ground, only to get back up and keep running. Even while engaged in such mundane activities like moving from point-A to point-B children inject self-handicapping play into their efforts. They pause to swing on a tree branch. They spontaneously or run up or roll down a hill. They balance on curbs, skip, walk backwards, dance, and otherwise do all kinds of things to make the seemingly simple journey from here to there more difficult and unpredictable than it objectively needs to be. A child might choose to pretend to be a baby, temporarily sacrificing walking and talking. Costumes restrict movement. And self-regulated rough-and-tumble play (the most universal form of play throughout the animal kingdom) always includes self-handicapping of all kinds in order to ensure the safety and enjoyment of everyone no matter their age or ability.

It's from playing in this way, according to Spinka and his colleagues, that animals practice for surviving in an unpredictable world. This is why play is such a prevalent feature of life itself, and is likely why a lack of play leads to animals that are overly anxious about their ability to deal with a life of unknowns.

The evidence for play deprivation being at the root of increased childhood anxiety is far stronger than for, say, video games, yet we continue to subject children to our unplanned and cruel cultural experiment in human play deprivation. Instead of heeding the clear results, we're drugging our children and shaming them for their use of smartphones, because to blame a lack of opportunities to play would mean a major, and likely disruptive, re-evaluation of modern childhood, which is to say, all of society.

We are also, right now, as a society, wondering why so many young people are lonely and angry. Back in the 1960's clinical psychologist Stuart Brown was part of three studies into the backgrounds of violent men. "What struck our separate research teams as unexpected," he wrote, "was that normal play behavior was virtually absent throughout the lives of highly violent, anti-social men regardless of demography." Again, popular culture would have us blame smartphones, video games, and the internet. Dr. Brown was so alarmed by his findings that he devoted the next 50 years to the study of and advocacy for childhood play.

It's past time that the rest of us take play deprivation seriously. And the first step is to, right now, take the children in your life outside and leave them alone to flop and fight and run. No one knows what to expect from tomorrow. Play is how we get ready for that.

******

Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network 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, April 11, 2024

The Girl Team


Charlotte was one of those kids who had been coming to Woodland Park since before she was born, arriving first in our classroom in utero to drop off and pick up her older brother, then continuing on her own behalf until she was five. If I've ever known a student, it would be Charlotte, and among the many things I know is that she is not conflict averse: she will stand up for herself, and for righteousness in general, like few people I've ever known, whatever their age.


To say she knew her way around the place would be an understatement. When we began making our classroom agreements early in her third and final school year, she took the lead in creating a short, but very workable list, including the vital ones of "No hitting," "No kicking," "No biting," and "No taking things from other people." We would, of course, add to this list in the coming days and weeks, but we could in theory function as a community quite well with these dozen or so rules we had created to get started.


The following day, we played with our catapults. The kids fell on them enthusiastically. It was wild at first, although I was proud of how well the kids -- most of whom were just getting to know one another -- figured out how to share the five machines without any input from me. 


Naturally, they quickly began targeting one another with the ping pong balls. I was trying to stay out of the way, observing, and helping to retrieve balls that had gotten under furniture, waiting all the while for a signal from the kids that we needed to consider a new agreement: "No shooting other people with a catapult." It wasn't a problem yet, but I simply assumed that it would become one before too long and we'd soon have to figure out something else to "target," such as the alphabet blocks that I had handy for the purpose. This moment never came, at least not that day.



At one point, a group of four boys allied themselves as a team, "the boy team," leaving Charlotte all alone as "the girl team." She had her back against some shelves, in possession of one catapult, while the boys were arrayed with their catapults in an arc aimed toward her. The boys boasted to me about their potential fire power, talking about "doubles" and "triples." A couple balls were launched Charlotte's way, which she ducked, then grabbed before they bounced back to the boys. I checked in with her. While she didn't seem particularly happy, she also didn't seem upset. There was a determined look on her face. I asked, "Do you like this game?" She made it clear she didn't need me, so I went back to hunting for lost balls.



Moments later, however, she objected loudly, "Hey, no taking things!"


I asked, "Did someone take something? We all agreed: no taking things from other people." I pointed at where the freshly made list of rules hung on the wall and all eyes followed my finger.


That's when a boy complained, "But she has all the balls!" 



That's when I noticed that Charlotte indeed had a large collection of balls between her knees. Reluctantly abiding by our community agreement, the boys returned the one ball they'd snatched from her, this girl who'd figured out a way to even those apparently insurmountable odds. 


I couldn't help observing, "So you guys have all the catapults, and she has all the balls." 


While Charlotte sat upon her stash, the boys, still in their semi-circle, were dumbstruck, feeling, I suppose, how one feels when one has been checkmated. Maybe I should have kiboshed the boy-girl divide earlier. Perhaps I should have been more assertive in getting to the "No shooting each other" discussion. I could have handled it all differently, but at the same time, I really couldn't help but be proud of "the girl team." She had used her knowledge of the rules and her experience as a younger sister to masterfully work things around to a kind of victory that must have been satisfying to her. It sure was to me.



The stand-off lasted for several minutes, with the boys idly flipping their empty catapults while Charlotte stood her ground. A couple of the boys started hunting under furniture for balls, but without luck.


Finally, Archie crossed over to Charlotte and asked as politely as possible, "Could I please have one ball?"


With that Charlotte sat up and pushed the whole pile of balls toward the boys. Game over.


******


Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network 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!
Bookmark and Share