Sunday, July 23, 2017

"I Want To Remind You . . ."



When I first started teaching my own class of 3-5 year olds, I had this idea that the children should make their own rules. I'm sure I'm not the first to have had this idea, and I had probably heard about other classrooms that had done it, but when I set about turning this important project over to the children I only had a vague idea about how it would work. Indeed, I'd not really even thought about the process, nor the consequences: I just started with the idea that it was the right thing to do.

You see, I didn't want to spend my days bossing other people around, telling them "Don't hit," or "Don't run in the hallway." I didn't want to be forever chirping, "We don't hit our friends," or "We use walking feet indoors," statements that may have the virtue of sounding gentler, but are still commands (coupled with a kind of lie because, quite clearly "we" do hit and run or there would be no need to say anything). 

You can read here for a more step-by-step description of how we do it, but we start our year in an official state of anarchy. Typically within the first few days someone has complained, "She hit me!" or "He took that from me!" That is when I say, "It sounds like you don't like that. Does anyone like to be hit?" The answer is always a universal "no," so I respond, "Well then we all agree, no hitting. I'm going to write that down so we can all remember." Then I ceremoniously tear off a long sheet of butcher paper and hang it on the wall, writing "No hitting" with a Sharpie marker that I've been carrying in my back pocket expressly for this purpose. That usually opens the flood gates and we quickly compile a list of agreements about how we are going to treat one another, one that we will be adding to throughout the year. I'm trying really hard to refer to them as "agreements," but we continue to mostly call them "rules."

The longer I've taught, the more I've come to see these agreements as one of the cornerstones of what we do together. As for me, instead of saying, "Don't hit!" I'm saying, "We all agreed, no hitting." It might sound like a difference without a distinction, but what you can't see without being there is how the children so often turn to look at that piece of butcher paper, this reminder of the sacred agreements they made with their friends. They can't read it, of course, but they know it's there, because they put in there themselves via my hand. Many stand looking at our list in a kind of reverence, which indeed it deserves, because after all, what is more sacred than the agreements free people make with one another?

Many years ago my pal Henry was a two-year-old and he often found the noise and chaos of our full, robust classroom to be a bit overwhelming, so he spent many of his days huddled up with one of his favorite adults in a corner under our loft reading books. As a three-year-old, however, he began to take a strong interest in our agreements, partaking fully in the ongoing process. He had a passion for men in uniforms and frequently pretended to be a fire fighter or soldier. One day I spied him roaming the room with his hands over his head, rapidly flexing his fingers open and closed. I asked him what he was doing and he replied "I'm the police," with his hands representing the lights atop his squad car.

I asked, "Oh, are you giving out tickets?"

He looked at me blankly for a moment, then said, "No, I'm reminding kids when they break the rules." And sure enough, that's what he was doing, sidling up to his classmates to say, "I want to remind you, we all agreed, no pushing," and "I want to remind you, we all agreed, no taking things from other people," echoing the words he had heard me use. The difference was that when I do it, they tend to then look at the butcher paper, but when Henry did it, they looked right back at him, peer-to-peer, some of them even saying, "Thank you," but all of them reacting to his reminder by changing their behavior, reminded of their agreement.

As I watched him "police" the room, moving calmly from place to place I was moved by the thought that this is how he was making order from chaos; that this is how we were making order from chaos, our sacred agreements at the core of who we are.



Hey friends! I'm currently in Australia where I'm appearing in venues around the country. I'd love to meet you! A few of the events are sold out, but there is still room in others. If you're interested, click here for details about my "tour."

Also . . .


I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!



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, July 20, 2017

Is ADHD A Fraud?


According to the American Psychiatric Association, 11 percent of American kids (over 6 million of them) have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder). I'm not a psychiatrist, but I know the symptoms (inattention, hyperactivity, impulsivity) and I can honestly say that of the hundreds of children that have passed my way over the past couple decades, I've never met one upon whom I would hang that label.

Now, I admit to be completely unqualified to make that diagnosis, but you would think that by now I would have run across at least one child who set off my alarm bells. Or perhaps there is something about our school that attracts non-ADHD kids, or maybe I'm looking right at the symptoms and just see normal behavior, or it could be that the folks performing the diagnoses are wrong more often than they are right.


Well-regarded Harvard psychologist Jerome Kegan tends to think that ADHD is largely a fraud foisted upon us by pharmaceutical companies seeking to move their merchandise. I certainly can see that: the profit motive, when applied to things like healthcare and education, endeavors that simply can't be measured by dollars and cents, tends to warp things. For instance, there is an entire industry of for-profit "education corporations" (e.g., Pearson) that make their money by providing education-ish products like high stakes standardized tests and test prep materials and other nonsense that have little to do with learning and everything to do with returning dividends to their investors. It doesn't take a cynic to see that for-profit pharmaceutical companies don't the same thing, not always (or even rarely) placing health outcomes ahead of their bottom line.

That said, I know there are good, loving parents out there who insist that not only has their child "suffered" from ADHD, but that drugs have saved them. And, of course, folks like Dr. Kegan, no matter how well regarded, and there are those who consider him a modern day Carl Jung, are in a small minority. After all, ADHD has been included in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) since 1968. If it's a complete fraud then it runs broad and deep.


So, the odds are against it being a total fraud, but I still have my question: why have I never seen it? I've spotted autism. I've identified sensory issues. I've even seen bi-polarity (although I wasn't quite sure what it was) but I've not once thought to myself, "That kid has ADHD." It may be for any of the reasons I've listed above, but I think the most likely explanation is that the behaviors that define it simply don't show up as a "problem" in a play-based curriculum, while inattentive, hyperactive, and impulsive children are a problem in traditional schools where adults determine what, how, and when a child should do things, where teachers are responsible for herding large groups of children through material that may or may not be interesting to them. Traditional schools emphasize paying attention, sitting still, and concentrating on one thing at a time and children who struggle with that simply show up as a problem. I mean, that's tough for any kid, let alone one with a highly energetic brain and body. In contrast, when we don't place those artificial expectations on kids, like in a play-based curriculum, the "problem" disappears.

No, I suspect that for the most part, ADHD is mental health disorder that largely only exists under certain, unnatural circumstances, namely in traditional schools or when adults try to make a living at a temperamentally unsuitable careers. Indeed, I figure that the thing we call ADHD might well be, as author Thom Hartmann argues, an important aspect of human evolution. Like so many things we call "disorders" in children it's time we started considering that we aren't looking at a problem with the kids, but rather a problem with us and what we unfairly, and perhaps even cruelly, expect of them.


Hey friends! I'm currently in Australia where I'm appearing in venues around the country. I'd love to meet you! A few of the events are sold out, but there is still room in others. If you're interested, click here for details about my "tour."

Also . . .


I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!


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, July 19, 2017

Protecting Their Hidden Treasure


Without exaggeration, there must be 10,000 of those glass florist marbles scattered about our playground, most of which are buried in the sand pit or lost under layers of wood chips, but it doesn't take much hunting to find them. Typically, I can spy with my trained eye at least one from where ever I happen to be standing, and a kick in the dust usually reveals more. We call them "jewels" or "gems" or "treasures" and at any given moment someone is seeking after them.


Despite their prevalence, they have great value. I find stashes of them hidden in every corner of the place and they frequently go home in pockets only to be shame-facedly returned some days later when discovered by mom or dad complete with an apology to Teacher Tom for having taken something that doesn't belong to them. If one believes economic theorists the fact that they are so plentiful should make them virtually valueless, and indeed that's the theory I've been working on as I "re-seed" the playground on an regular basis, but the laws of supply and demand don't apply to jewels. If there is one object other than our swings over which fights regularly erupt it's these bits of colorful glass.

Not long ago a group of kids were earnestly shoveling wet sand onto what we call the "concrete slide," a slope poured there generations ago for the purpose of erosion control. It's a popular place to play, with children forever running up and down it, experimenting with their bodies in the pull of gravity, rolling things down it, and, with the help of ropes, pulling things up it, not to mention sliding. The damp sand was adhering to the concrete, where the children then smoothed it out with the backs of their shovels until they had covered the surface, or at least that was the plan. Other children were simultaneously attempting to remove the sand, objecting to their classmates project. While some brushed at the sand from the bottom, others carried buckets of water to the top and poured it down, washing away strips of sand that were then quickly covered back up.


There was a lot of bickering, with both sides complaining about the other. It started as a sort of good-natured rivalry, but soon devolved into genuine anger on both sides:

"Stop it! We're trying to put sand on there!"

"We don't want sand on there!"

"We do!"

"We don't!"

"Stop it!"

I'd been watching from a distance, but moved closer as the tensions mounted and even closer when shovels were wielded in a threatening manner. The clean-the-sand-away team was the calmer of the two, probably because it was not their project that was being washed away, but it was nevertheless a classic schoolyard conflict, the sort that erupts almost daily. I had drawn nearer for the purposes of being in position to intervene should violence erupt, but that didn't seem to be in the offing despite the apparent threats.


After several minutes, things were at a logger head, with both sides asserting "We do!" or "We don't!" in an increasingly loud and fierce manner. Perhaps I should have continued to stay out of it, but I thought I had information that might help things along so I said to the kids with the shovels, "I think those kids don't like the sand on there because it makes it too slippery. They're worried they'll fall on the concrete."

There was a moment of silence which I took as a sign that they were thinking about what I'd said, considering their friends and the potential consequences of falling on concrete. And in a way they were.

"We know that, Teacher Tom. That's why we're putting the sand on. We want it to be slippery because we hid our treasure up there and we don't want anyone to get it."

After that was clear, the conflict came to a sudden end as they all became pirates, working together now to completely cover the concrete slide with sand, protecting their bits of glass from imaginary bad guys.



Hey friends! I'm currently in Australia where I'm appearing in venues around the country. I'd love to meet you! A few of the events are sold out, but there is still room in others. If you're interested, click here for details about my "tour."

Also . . .


I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!


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, July 18, 2017

What It's Supposed To Do





I've written here often that I'm not all that concerned about what the children learn. From among the infinite bits of trivia that comprise our existence, who am I to choose what becomes permanently stuck in their brains and what has to be looked up later in life on the internet? No, my primary concern is that they develop the habits of inquiry and exploration: not that they learn, so much as that they think.


Making my job so much easier is the great truth that they all come to me with those habits, imbued by nature via the urge to play, so I find that most of my job is largely just getting out of the way.


For instance I've had these three air pumps in the storage room forever. Two of them are the hand operated kind you carry on your bike, the third is a foot pump model with a nice big air pressure gauge mounted on it. I put them on a table in our room, along with some other gadgets. 

Several adults asked what the pumps were for. None of the kids did.


Of course, two and three-year-olds seem to always know what to do with long stick-like things: pick them up, hold them at eye level, and swing them around while walking through crowded spaces. I'm exaggerating, of course, but it does seem to be the case. The shiny, red one was the most popular for this purpose. After we persuaded a couple of the kids that their friends were worried they would get their eyes poked out by this behavior, they got down to figuring out what else they could do.


A few of the kids tried to operate the foot pump, but it became quickly evident to me that none of them were being physically assertive enough to depress the foot pedal with their hands, which is what they were trying to do, probably since I'd put it on a table. The hand pumps, however, made their way from hand to hand, being put through their paces, being bones of contention, being the subject of intermittent conversation.


"They're light sabers."

"This one's a machine."

"Hey, you're blowing air on me!"

"It's my turn now."


At some point, probably through either frustration or by way of clearing the decks, the foot pump wound up on the floor. One boy stumbled on it, stopped, put a hand on the table to steady himself, then jumped on it, successfully depressing the pedal, causing the pump to issue an impressive hiss of air. Soon we had a line of kids wanting to try it out.


As you can see from the pictures, the pumps later found their way to the sensory table where we were playing with river rocks, plastic sea creatures, and water. We discovered they could be used to make bubbles.

Or rather, we learned that the silver hand pump and the foot pump could make bubbles, while the red one couldn't. I passed my grown-up judgement, "That one's broken."


I've never seen so many blank stares. I tried again, "No bubbles means no air is coming out of this one."

They looked at the pumps, confused. Then boy finally replied, "Yeah, no bubbles . . . but it's not broken. See?" He proceeded to demonstrate that the piston still slid quite smoothly in and out. "That's what a light saber is supposed to do." And he was right.


Hey friends! I'm currently in Australia where I'm appearing in venues around the country. I'd love to meet you! A few of the events are sold out, but there is still room in others. If you're interested, click here for details about my "tour."

Also . . .


I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!



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, July 17, 2017

Setting Limits



































In limitations he first shows himself the master. ~Goethe

It can be very frightening for a child not to have limits. Not only can the world outside be frightening, but the world inside, the world of feelings, can also be scary when you're not sure you can manage those feelings by yourself. ~Mister Rogers 


I once wrote a post about a boy who regularly peeked at a collection of cars that we keep on a shelf behind a piece of fabric. Each time he did so, I reminded him, "That's closed," before gently leading him away. He was not the first nor the last two-year-old to peek longingly behind the curtains and want to learn about what he sees there.


That particular post was about the challenge he faced, and how we dealt with it, when the cars were finally "open." A few commenters chided me for not just letting the boy play with those cars when he first showed an interest, one writing, "You stood in the way of his curiosity."

Like many preschool classrooms, much of our storage is inside the classroom, and we have a lot of stuff crammed onto those shelves: for better or worse, this is a reality of our environment. I've been doing this for a long time. I know, from experience, what happens when everything is "open." I'll never forget finding a neophyte parent-teacher who I'd apparently not properly briefed on the concept of "open" and "closed," sitting on the floor surrounded by a dozen board game boxes, puzzle boxes, and other storage containers, the contents of which were strewn about her. Two-year-olds were struggling to walk, stumbling, kicking, and breaking things underfoot; a couple kids were crying, while others were manically pulling more things off the "closed" shelves.

The parent was aware that something had gone wrong. "I thought I was just letting them play the way you always talk about," she said to me as we stayed together after class to tackle the gargantuan sorting process. And it's true, I do talk an awful lot about the importance of children playing freely.


Awhile back, I wrote another post about how I planned an art project by, essentially, choosing what things to which the children would have access and pre-programming others in the hopes that it would lead to the children discovering a new way to use common materials. I don't always think through projects in such detail like this, which is why I wrote about this one, although I always have at least some idea about how I expect the children will engage with the materials I've provided. In this case, amazingly, it worked the way I'd envisioned, which is rare. A reader detected hypocrisy (my word, not his) in the juxtaposition of this kind of environmental management on the teacher's part and my bedrock assertion that children learn best when they play freely.


Underpinning both of those posts, and in fact just about every post I write here, is the idea of "environmental management," which is, after all, one of the primary roles of a teacher in a play-based curriculum. In fact, I often say that my main responsibility is to set things up; to prepare the space. Once the kids arrive, the work of learning is up to them. My job, in other words, is to set the limits within which the children, for that day at least, will play freely: to coordinate with what the Reggio Emilia educational approach refers to as "the third teacher." This is true for everything we do at Woodland Park. We, in effect, "open" some materials/spaces and "close" others. Sometimes we have ideas about where our set up might guide the children, although truthfully, more often than not it doesn't go the way we expect, as the children, within the additional limits of the rules we have democratically established together, experiment with the materials/spaces as best serves their individual and collective curiosities. And this is as it should be. The goal is not to satisfy the teacher's expectations (although it's pretty cool when that happens), but rather their own curiosity.


It is within these environmental and social limits that free play happens. It is within these limits that we strive to avoid the "language of command," which means that there is no one there telling kids things like, "Do it like this," or "Today we're making flowers." Instead, we we make informative statements like, "We have scissors, tape, construction paper . . ." or "This is what Suzy made," then leave them to do their own thinking. This is what I mean when I talk about playing freely.

In working with our "third teacher" (the first and second being parents and classroom teachers) I am not working all on my own even if I am the one responsible for setting things up. Every classroom set up is, in reality a collaboration between me, the changeable and fixed aspects of our environment, parents, and, the children themselves. It is my job to interpret the feedback I receive on a daily basis from my educational partners then to manage the environment in such a way that we are, together, free to pursue our collective and individual interests, questions, and passions.

That is largely what I'm doing as the children play: collecting this feedback by listening and observing, then responding to it. When it seems that the children are "bouncing off the walls," for instance, it often means I've set the limits too narrowly for this particular group of kids on this particular day. When the children seem aimless, stumbling, kicking things, breaking things, and crying, it tells me that I may have set the limits too broadly for this particular group of kids on this particular day. When children completely ignore one of our classroom invitations, it's a sign I need to rethink the materials/space (after giving it a couple days) because it clearly is not serving their pursuit of knowledge. When children fall on something en masse it tells me that I should consider finding ways to expand the limits.


In a broader sense, we know that limits are vital to young children. As Dr. Laura Markham writes in her book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids:

. . . (K)ids who never need to "manage" themselves to accommodate limits and rise to expectations have a harder time developing self-discipline . . . Limits keep our children safe and healthy and support them in learning social norms so that they can function happily in society. And if we set limits empathically, kids are more likely to internalize the ability to set limits for themselves, which is otherwise known as self-discipline.

Dr. Markham is talking about parenting and behavior here, but the principle of limits is also, obviously, applicable to the classroom.

When I've listened and observed well, our environment fully engages most of the kids, inviting them to play freely, but there are always a few who peek behind the curtains, children curious about the limits we've set for them, and what lies just beyond. That too is as it should be.



Hey friends! I'm currently in Australia where I'm appearing in venues around the country. I'd love to meet you! A few of the events are sold out, but there is still room in others. If you're interested, click here for details about my "tour."

Also . . .


I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!



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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Sunday, July 16, 2017

That's What I Want For All Children


We often discuss teaching as a profession, and it certainly is a field populated by professionals, but the longer I do this the more I come to understand that what we do falls much more precisely under the heading of a "calling." I've never met a preschool teacher who went into it for the money: everyone knows it stands among the lowest paying careers out there. No, we're in it for the purpose of doing good, for making the lives of young children and their families better. Whether or not we succeed is another story, of course, and I'm quite certain that there are some who have ulterior motives, but most of us feel called to our work for the highest purposes. I know that's true for me because, honestly, I could probably make more money as a barista and I would probably be less tired at the end of the day were I to be a jack hammer operator.

That said, there are those who are hellbent on turning education into a business, one that is measured, as all businesses are, by the singular measure of profit. That's how capitalism works: the bottomline is all that matters. Indeed, courts have found that stockholders of corporations have grounds for suing a company that chooses "public good" over profit. The United States Supreme Court itself has ruled that corporations count, for the purposes of free speech, as "people." People who place money before the good of others are called sociopaths.

So this is where we stand as the corporate education reformers, from Microsoft's education dilettante Bill Gates to Amway heir and US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, seek to shape our schools according to free market principles, where survival of the fittest competition stands at the center and actual education takes a distant second place to capitalistic ideology. This is where they expect our children to spend their days, in a system that is, by design, fueled not by the quality of the education they provide, but rather by scores they can deliver on high stakes standardized tests, the results of which not only determine the child's future but also that of their teachers, the administrators, entire school districts, state budgets, and the bottom line of any number of for-profit education corporations whose investors expect their dividends. Is it any wonder that there is an epidemic of stress out kids sweeping the globe?

These are human beings, not human resources. To ask a question first asked by the late, great Utah Phillips, "Have you ever seen what they do to valuable natural resources?"

I was recently speaking to an audience of early childhood educators, people who were there because they've been "called" to help young children to have actual childhoods full of play and wonder. I'd not planned to go there, but one of the participants asked a question, and the discussion turned to the topic of the corporatization of education. We all agreed that what is happening is nothing less than the theft of childhood. We ranted a bit, sharing stories about how we are increasingly finding ourselves in a position of having to defend our charges, being forced, for instance, to provide "evidence" that playing with other children is actually good for them, while the side of capitalistic ideology has no such onus to "prove it." Indeed, the evidence quite clearly shows that their drill-and-kill methods are damaging children, causing their brains to literally shrink which is one of the results of too much stress, while there is a mountain of research demonstrating the power of play-based learning to result in happy, healthy, well-adjusted adults.

And then, as always, the question came, "What can we do?" It's an important question because in many respects we are the last line of defense against the encroachment of the childhood stealers.

We might not have entered the profession as to be "warriors," but that often becomes part of any "calling." First and foremost we must make sure we are educated ourselves, that we not only know the evidence, but are likewise prepared to cite it when challenged. In a past life, I worked in public relations and one of the things we would tell clients is to develop an "elevator pitch," those four or five sentences that convey the essence of your message, one that can be delivered concisely during a quick ride in a lift. Everyone's will be different, but mine goes something like this:

"All the research shows that 'successful' people have three common traits: they are self-motivated, they work well with others, and they are sociable. This is exactly what is fostered through a play-based education, while corporate-style education is based on carrot-and-stick motivation, rewards selfishness, and leaves social skill development to playground bullies. If we want our kids to be successful, we will let them spend their childhoods playing. That's what the evidence tells us about success."

But when I have a bit more time, I've found that the most powerfully persuasive technique we have at our disposal is to simply help doubtful adults to connect to their own childhoods by asking them about their memories of play. Invariably, you see them relax as they fondly recall playing outdoors (and it's almost always outdoors), with friends, with few toys, lots of time, and little supervision. They will tell you of rocks and sticks and water. They will tell you of forts and conflict and fantasy. They will tell you of risk and mess and failure. They will in a matter of minutes tell you of all the things that a childhood of play has done for them. I ask questions, inquire after details, and wonder how they felt and even what lessons they learned. Then, when the time is ripe, I simply say, "That's what I want for all children."

We have been called to this and today we are called to do more than we might have expected.


Hey friends! I'm currently in Australia where I'll be presenting in venues around the country. I'd love to meet you! A few of the events are sold out, but there is still room in others. If you're interested, click here for details about my "tour."

Also . . .



I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!



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
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Thursday, July 13, 2017

If Our Goal Is Well-Adjusted, "Successful" Citizens



We don't have a huge set of big wooden blocks, which is okay because we don't really have enough space for more and besides, if the kids are going to play with them, they generally need to find a way to play with them together, which is what our school is all about.

The kids in our 4-5's class had been playing a lot of "super heroes." It was mostly boys, but they hadn't been particularly exclusionary, with several of the girls regularly joining them, often making up their own hero names like "Super Cat" due to the lack of female characters of the type in our popular culture. This in turn inspired some of the boys to make up their own hero names like "Super Dog" and "Falcon," along with their own super powers. And although there had been a few instances of someone declaring, "We already have enough super heroes," in an attempt to close the door behind them, most of the time, the prerequisite for joining the play was to simply declare yourself a super hero, pick a super hero name, and then hang around with them boasting about your great might, creating hideouts, and bickering over nuance.


At one point, however, a break-away group began playing, alternatively, Paw Patrol and Pokemon, which looked to me like essentially the same game with new characters. One day, some boys playing Paw Patrol used all of the big wooden blocks to create their "house," complete with beds and blankets. A girl who was often right in the middle of the super hero play wanted to join them, but when they asked, "Who are you?" she objected to being a Paw Patrol character at all. Indeed, she wanted to play with them and with the blocks they were using, but the rub was that she didn't want to play their game.

After some back and forth during which the Paw Patrol kids tried to find a way for her to be included, they offered her a few of their blocks to play with on her own, then went back to the game.

She arranged her blocks, then sat on them, glaring at the boys. They ignored her. I was sitting nearby watching as her face slowly dissolved from one of anger to tears. An adult tried to console her, but was more or less told to back off. I waited a few minutes, then sat on the floor beside her, saying, "You're crying."

She answered, "I need more blocks." I nodded. She added, "They have all the blocks."

I replied, "They are using most of the blocks and you have a few of the blocks."

"They won't give me any more blocks."

I asked, "Have you asked them for more blocks?"

Wiping at her tears she shook her head, "No."

"They probably don't know you want more blocks."

She called out, "Can I have some more blocks?"

The boys stopped playing briefly, one of them saying, "We're using them!" then another added, "You can have them when we're done," which is our classroom mantra around "sharing."

She went back to crying, looking at me as if to say, See?

I said, "They said you can use them when they're done . . . Earlier I heard them say you could play Paw Patrol with them."

"I don't want to play Paw Patrol. I just want to build."

I sat with her as the boys leapt and laughed and lurched. I pointed out that there was a small building set that wasn't being used in another part of the room, but she rejected that, saying, "I want to build with these blocks."


I nodded, saying, "I guess we'll just have to wait until they're done." That made her cry some more.

This is hard stuff we're working on here in preschool. And, for the most part, that's pretty much all we do at Woodland Park: figuring out how to get along with the other people. Most days aren't so hard, but there are moments in every day when things don't go the way we want or expect them to and then, on top of getting along with the other people, there are our own emotions with which we must deal. Academic types call it something like "social-emotional functioning," but I think of it as the work of creating a community.

It's a tragedy that policymakers are pushing more and more "academics" into the early years because it's getting in the way of this very real, very important work the children need to do if they are going to lead satisfying, successful lives. In our ignorant fearfulness about Johnny "falling behind" we are increasingly neglecting what the research tells us about early learning. From a CNN.com story about a study conducted by researchers from Penn State and Duke Universities:

Teachers evaluated the kids based on factors such as whether they listened to others, shared materials, resolved problems with their peers and were helpful. Each student was then given an overall score to rate their positive skills and behavior, with zero representing the lowest level and four for students who demonstrated the highest level of social skill and behavior . . . Researchers then analyzed what happened to the children in young adulthood, taking a look at whether they completed high school and college and held a full-time job, and whether they had any criminal justice, substance abuse or mental problems . . . For every one-point increase in a child's social competency score in kindergarten, they were twice as likely to obtain a college degree and 46% more likely to have a full-time job by age 25 . . . For every one-point decrease in a child's social skill score in kindergarten, he or she had a 67% higher chance of having been arrested in early adulthood, a 52% higher rate of binge drinking and an 82% higher chance of being in or on a waiting list for public housing.

Here is a link to the actual study. And this is far from the only research that has produced these and similar results, just the most recent one.


If our goal is well-adjusted, "successful" citizens, we know what we need to do. In the early years, it isn't about reading or math. It's not about learning to sit in desks or filling out work sheets or queuing up for this or that. If we are really committed to our children, we will recognize that their futures are not dependent upon any of that stuff, but rather this really hard, messy, emotional work we do every day as we play with our fellow citizens.


Hey friends! I'm currently in Australia where I'll be presenting in venues around the country. I'd love to meet you! A few of the events are sold out, but there is still room in others. If you're interested, click here for details about my "tour."

Also . . .



I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!


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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Finding Balance


My father was athletic in his youth and has continued to maintain his fitness throughout his adult life. He has never "exercised," but he did do all of his own yard work. He would take the stairs instead of the elevator. He would park the car in the farthest corner of the parking lot and walk briskly to the store. His theory, one that seems to have worked well for him, is that there are plenty of opportunities for fitness in the course of one's day-to-day life, if only one makes the extra effort, and most of that effort involved avoiding modern conveniences.

Life today is more convenient than ever before. There are times at the supermarket when I realize that most of my fellow shoppers are shopping on behalf of someone else, putting together bags for delivery or pick up. Indeed there are professionals poised to perform just about any of our day-to-day tasks, from housekeeping and yard work, to filling out forms and folding laundry. Of course, these conveniences have always existed for those possessing the wherewithal, but they are increasingly becoming available to the rest of us.

Indeed, that's the purpose of most technology, to make life more convenient. For the lion's share of human history, for instance, if one wanted to convey information to another person, it had to happen face-to-face, then came letter writing, then telephones, and now texting. For most of human history, if one wanted to go somewhere, one had to walk, then came horseback riding, then trains, then individually owned automobiles. We all take advantage of these conveniences, of course. Right now, as I write this, I'm employing a convenience that replaced handwriting, by way of typewriting. When I hit the "publish" button, I'll be using a convenience that replaced calligraphy, which replaced the printing press. And to get this to you, my reader, I've used a convenience that is replacing book stores and news stands.

But as convenient as these conveniences are, there is, as my father recognized, a dark side. We are becoming increasingly sedentary people, so much so that many find that the only way to maintain their fitness is to set aside parts of their day to be not sedentary, to go for a run or a bike ride or head to the gym for an hour on, literally, a treadmill. And for every one person who does this, I think it's safe to say there are two who feel like they should be doing it, not to mention the millions who don't see the problem with their conveniences, many of whom are young children.

It's not uncommon to spy children old enough to be in elementary school still being pushed in those tank-like strollers, sucking on sippy cups, munching on "wholesome" crackers or fortified "food" bars, and playing games on mom's (or perhaps even their own) smart phones, everything they could ever want conveniently at their finger tips, without having to rise from the seat of their mobile lounge chair. They wear shoes fastened with the convenience of velcro instead of laces, their parents arrange their playdates for them, and their favorite TV show is on demand. It's become cliche to moan about childhood obesity, and our culture of convenience certainly feeds it, but it's about more than just physical fitness. Being sedentary is as bad for the brain as it is the body, but I'm not telling anyone reading this anything they don't already know, which is why our kids are also on soccer teams and enrolled in dance classes, the childhood version of exercising on treadmills.

One of the most uplifting things about humanity is how interconnected we are. There is no other species as reliant upon one another as modern humans. If other species are thirsty, for instance, they must individually go to the source for a drink, while we just turn on the tap, which is only possible because of the work of hundreds, if not thousands of other humans. If other species are hungry they must go on a hunt, whereas we need only step into the nearest restaurant which only exists because of the work of hundreds, if not thousands of other humans. Nearly everything we do is only possible because of our fellow humans, working together, perhaps without even knowing it: harvesting the raw materials, manufacturing, shipping, refining, discovering, adapting, delivering, serving, inventing, selling, re-inventing. We are a global network operating in many respects as a single being. It's awe-inspiring. It's beautiful.

And it all tends toward making life more convenient. That is the yin and yang of it. It's what we humans do, we continually make life more convenient for ourselves and others. It's been our greatest adaptive advantage, far more important than our opposable thumbs, and it threatens, always, to be the source of our undoing. Practitioners of the Tao have long understood that it is always about finding a balance. I cannot tell you, nor you me, where that is. Each of us must come to our own understanding of that balance. For me, I find myself increasingly joining my father in avoiding some of the modern conveniences that the rest of you provide for me, those that negatively impact my physical or mental well-being, but your balance point will not only be different than mine, but also change, as will mine, over time.

There are no right or wrong answers here, just a reminder to remain conscious and to make that consciousness visible to the children in your life so that they will grow up knowing that they too must find their balance.



(I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!)



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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