The Magic of Kids on Trains

The start of this morning commute felt normal. Like the other fifty people in my train car, I sat down, put in my headphones and hoped there would be no delays. We stared at our phones, or buried our faces in a book, pretending as hard as we could that there was no one else around. Just like most other commutes, the insularity was tangible. And most of us were used to it.

Two stops into my trip, the doors opened and in walked a boy no older than five, and his parents. They sat down across from me. The boy pulls something out of his mother’s purse. I recognized it immediately from my childhood– it looked like a pack of gum, but when you pulled out the gum, a spring snapped on your finger. From the way this boy smiled, I could tell that he found pride and joy in this magic trick. He turned to the stranger next to him, “Would you like a piece of gum?” he asked. The stranger smiled politely as she pulled out the gum, and then laughed as the snap landed on her finger.

This boy went to every person on the train, his giant smiled plastered on his face. At each stop, new passengers entered. And this boy boldly went up to each new person. He talked to every single person on the train, regardless of their gender, age, language, income level, or general vibe. And the most remarkable transition happened. Everyone on the train watched him, their smiles growing every time the boy tricked a new person. Because of this young child, the dry insularity of the commute began to melt. Strangers were laughing to themselves, and even smiling at one another. This boy single-handedly turned these commuters into a community.

This is not the first time I have seen something like this. I love watching the power young children have in public places. Often, a toddler, looking for engagement, will reach out from his or her stroller, and grab the closest thing: usually the strap of a stranger’s purse, or the back of someone’s pants. The stranger almost always reacts the same way. First, they are startled at the touch. Then, they look down and see the big playful eyes of the child. Their eyes soften as they share a moment of connection with the child. The moment ends, and the stranger looks away. But, that playful smile lingers on both child and adult. Both people are reminded of the way love can blossom out of isolation.

Part of me wants to suggest that everyone should work to find moments of playful connection with the strangers they encounter. But, I have lived in the city long enough to know that too often adults respond to strangers with discomfort rather than warmth. So for now, I’m going to celebrate the amazing power young children have over even the toughest New Yorker. It’s magic.

-“I don’t remember who said this, but there really are places in your heart you don’t know exist until you love a child.” -Anne Lamott

Dance=Play

Sometimes, people ask me why I work with children. I struggle with finding an articulate answer. Working with children is so much ingrained in my identity that I feel like if I didn’t work with children, I wouldn’t be myself.

I am inspired by young children because I, too, have an internal drive to play. Play is how children grow. Through play, children learn almost everything they need to know, from how to solve social problems, to how to participate in their cultural practices. Playing literally builds the brain. As a teacher, I am constantly finding ways to guide their play to be as powerful and positive as it can be.

I believe in the strength of play because I have lived it, and I am living it still. Throughout my whole life, I have relied on play to teach me, support me, and engage me. Of course, the ways I’ve played have changed, but my devotion to it has not.

At this stage in my life, my strongest form of play is contra dancing. This is something I first picked up as a hobby in college. Even during my first night of dancing, I knew that this would be a great way for me to play. I felt immediately present in my body. Time no longer mattered, I was in the moment.

I do not dance with the intention of becoming the best dancer ever, and then stopping. I dance for the experience. Yet, just like a young child spending hours building with blocks, I learn valuable skills without even realizing it. Contra has taught me skills that I use in every context of my life. I have become more physically coordinated. I have learned how to connect and respond to another person. Dancing has taught me how to communicate through non-verbal cues, and how to establish boundaries. And the beautiful thing is that I am not done learning these things and more. Because, I am not done dancing.

I have also found that dancing is the best thing for my mental health. When I am dancing with good people to good music, I can almost instantaneously feel my stress levels decreasing. My self-confidence rises, and my spirit soars. I know that everyone feels better after a strong bout of play, I have seen it in my classroom, and I have felt it while dancing. Even though I know I cannot (or rather should not) dance forever, after I have had a nourishing dance experience, I am able to return to my work with a renewed strength of spirit.

I am writing this post from a huge dance festival, called DanceFlurry. On the drive up here, I was a tad anxious. I was still carrying some of the stress from a long week of teaching and studying. I had never been to this festival before, so I was feeling nervous about the novelty. But, in the short span of time it took me to walk from the entrance to the check-in table, I ran into nine different people that I knew and deeply loved. Nine of my playmates. This bond of community continued as I walked onto the dance floor. As we held hands in long lines, I knew that these were my people, ready to play with me. And ready to support me, even when I make mistakes.

This is the way I like my classroom to be. Children walk in, sometimes carrying the stress of their home life. Immediately they are greeted by their friends who tell them (through words, expressions, or gestures), “I love you for who you are. Let’s play.” New relationships are built quickly and easily. Children learn how to adapt their interaction to accommodate to a new play style, just like I change my dancing to adapt to my partner. Children are pushed within their ability to develop skills they can take with them for the rest of their lives. But really, they are caught up in the thrill of play.

I know that as I grow, my way of playing might change. And that’s OK. Because the beauty of play is that it is not defined by what you are doing. It is defined by your state of mind, guided by where you need to grow. And for right now, I need to dance. I need to teach. I need to play. It’s who I am.

-“‘Can I just ask you, Billy, what does it feel like when you’re dancing?’…’I suppose it’s like forgetting, losing who you are. And at the same time, something makes you whole.” -Billy Elliot the Musical

Saying Goodbye

Attachment has been on my mind a lot recently. Maybe it’s because I just completed my first grad school paper on sociocultural challenges to the dyadic attachment framework. Maybe because it’s the beginning of the school year, when young children have to start to attach to a new teacher and new peers. And maybe my interest in attachment stems from the fact that I, too, am trying to navigate new friendships and supports.

Anyone who has worked with young children can tell you how tough morning drop-off can be, particularly at the beginning of the year. Many young children are reluctant to come to school, and even more resistant to have their caregiver leave them at this new, unfamiliar place. They feel completely comfortable with their current routines and relationships at home. They see absolutely no reason to abandon those whom they deeply love. Yet, it’s not a choice. For reasons that they cannot fully understand, they have to say goodbye to the world they love and start new routines and relationships. Many young children have simply not had enough life experience to fully know that their loved ones will return. Every morning’s goodbye is done with a lot of grief and some blind faith. It’s incredibly hard work.

I watch the drop-off of one of my three year olds. He comes in with his Dad. He puts his coat and bag away, then starts to play with his friends. But, he is always looking out the corner of his eye to make sure his Dad is still there. Eventually, it’s time for his Dad to say goodbye. He resists verbally and physically, grabbing his Dad’s leg as he yells “No!” As his Dad leaves, there are sometimes tears, and a teacher comes to comfort him.

I look at the tears in his eyes, and I completely get it. Two months ago, I was perfectly content with my current routines and relationships. I was in love with everything in my life, and felt no need for anything different. Yet, I knew something was calling me away from these attachments to pursue further life experiences. So I moved 700 miles away, leaving behind my work, my friends, and my life. I have had my own ways of trying to hold onto those beloved attachments, to return to what was safe and warm. And, I have also had my fair share of tears, when I realize that my loved ones really are gone.

But, here’s the amazing thing. The child eventually blinks away his tears, hops off the teacher’s lap, and joins his peers in their play. Within minutes, he is engaged in an activity. He spends the rest of the day playing with people he hasn’t known for more than a few months. Slowly, he is falling in love with this group of people.

It’s not always easy. Sometimes, he will intentionally use aggressive behaviors, or cause a disturbance to disrupt the play of a peer. I wonder if he’s saying, “I’m mad that I have to be away from the people I love the most.” When he is hurt, tired, or hungry, he will call out for the one that makes him feel secure when he is vulnerable. Over time, I expect that these emotional outbursts will diminish in frequency and he will start to see this community as one full of love and security.

But for now, the best I can do is hug him for as long as he needs, and tell him, “I know how you feel. It’s all going to be OK. I love you.”

Little does he realize that he is slowly repaying the favor.

-“‘If you become a bird and fly away from me,’ said his mother, ‘I will become the tree that you come home to.'”- The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown

My Love Story

I’m going to tell a love story. It’s not one of those cheesy story where one person miraculously finds another, and they adjust their lives to accommodate for their new, beautiful relationship. It’s a story about a group of people, and the beautiful ways each person expresses pure, genuine love for every single person in the community. This is a story about how lucky I am to have seen and felt love in my classroom.

Recently, I have seen a shift in my role as a teacher. There have been days when my children are so in love with the world that they become their own teachers. They are in love with the materials in our classroom, so they are delightfully engaged in play all day. They are in love with the quest for knowledge, always eager to construct more truths about the world. When they ask questions, their hearts are so open, so ready to fall more deeply in love with the world they live in. And they’re answering questions for each other, eager to share what they know with those they love.

They are so in love with each other. Full days have gone by where I have not had to mediate a single conflict. When conflicts have come up, my children would tackle the solution together. It is a beautiful thing to watch three and four year olds realize a problem, acknowledge the deep importance of it, and then work together to negotiate a solution. If the conflicted parties were unable to resolve the issue themselves, there was always another friend to help out. My children were so full of love for their friends that they would stop everything to offer their support. It’s a beautiful thing.

These expressions of love are part of what I expected when I started teaching. I knew that an unwritten implication of my job description was to encourage acts of love with everything I do. What I did not expect was that I, too, would be the recipient of love.

For some time now, I have planned to move from Asheville to New York City for graduate school. To help myself process my feelings around this transition, I directly addressed my emotions around the move. The first time I talked about it, I told them that I was sad to leave all my friends. I told them that there was not much nature in NYC, and that I would miss the mountains and hiking trails. I told them that there were lots of trains in the city, and I was excited to ride the train everywhere.

During this first conversation, I was not sure who was listening, or what they were processing. But that next morning, I had a number of parents tell me that their child had talked to them about me moving away. I watched as some of my children started taking frequent pretend train trips to New York City. One of my boys brought in his book about the subway system. These gestures might seem small, but they meant the world to me. My children were telling me, “You are so important to me that I want to be part of your transition.”

As my last day in the classroom got closer, my children continued to bring themselves into my transition. They asked me lots of those opened-heart questions (When was I going to come back? Would I miss them? Was I bringing my cat?) and they gave me tons of extra-long hugs. One of my boys kept telling me that he would miss his friends when he went to the beach. I knew what he was telling me. This was his way of empathizing. He, too, knew what it would feel like to be away from those he loved. He was assuring me that it was OK to be sad, and that I do have some wonderful people who love me no matter where I am.

This is a love story that has one of those sad, but beautiful endings. My last day in the classroom has passed, and I do miss my children and coworkers terribly. I am moving in a matter of weeks. Even though I know some of these goodbyes are permanent, I am lucky enough to have felt the love from these children. My transition will be easier because I know I have their love in my heart. And I know these children will continue to love in beautiful and unexpected ways. This love story will continue for the rest of their lives.

-“But of course it isn’t really goodbye, because the Forest will always be there… and anybody who is Friendly with Bears can find it.”- A. A Milne, A House at Pooh Corner

Can I Play with You?

Sometimes, when I think about all the conflicts in the world, I like to think about what I would do if the people involved were all young children in my classroom. I know that conflict is an inescapable part of life, but I wonder what would happen if well all stayed in touch with that child-like sense of play.

Let me tell you a story: About halfway through the school year, we got a new child. He was significantly younger than most of the other children in our class, and he had some initial challenges connecting with his peers. For the first few months he was in our room, he would watch children building with blocks, then he would storm in and knock down what they had just built. Our room would erupt with screams and tears, and this child would run away.

When he did this same thing almost every day for weeks, sometimes my temptation was to forbid this child from going to block center when other children were playing there. It felt easier. I would no longer be faced with this occasional chaos. But, my children helped me to see that there was a greater conflict here. One that involved considerable more work and patience.

I could tell that this child, like ever child I’ve ever met, wanted to play with his peers. Obviously destroying their buildings was not the way to do it. But, I’m not sure he could think of another way. When I saw this child begin to approach the block center, I would prep him, “I see you want to play with these children. Let’s go ask them, ‘can I play with you?'” He would follow my instructions, and I remained close to help him integrate into their play.

It was hard work. For all of us. This little boy had to use all the impulse control he could muster, and sometimes he remembered to control himself a little too late. My co-teacher and I had to constantly supervise this child. There were days when I felt like my sole responsibility was to follow him around, helping him resolve conflict after conflict. And the other children had to give him the space to practice being a friend. They had to say, “yes you can play.” They had to accept the fact that sometimes he would still knock down their blocks.

But here’s the amazing thing: they let him play. When he knocked down their blocks, they would cry, then they would ask him to help build it up again. And they would keep playing. Together.

A few weeks ago, I watched as one of my girls turned to this boy and asked, “Do you want to build a hotel.” They went to block center and started building. They played all morning. That afternoon, I rubbed her back as she settled down for nap. This same little boy, who months earlier would knock down everything she built, sat down on my lap and started rubbing her back. He sweetly whispered to me, “I love her. She’s my friend.”

This is not the only time I’ve seen this friendship transformation in the classroom. Children seem to have an innate sense of forgiveness for the sake of friendship. Even the ones that tend to use the most challenging behaviors always find at least one person to play with them.

Why can’t we, as adults, hold onto this same capacity for friendship? Maybe we forget how to ask to play. Maybe we are too committed to playing in a specific way with specific people, and cannot make space for another peer. I sometimes catch myself completely avoiding those whom I come in contact with– akin to forbidding them to go to block center. It takes time and energy to play with someone who has really wronged you. But, in the end, what’s more powerful than being able to say, “I love her. She’s my friend”?

-“Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It’s an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and right now.” -Mr. Rogers

The truth about birds

A few months back, while playing a game at the lunch table, I discovered that a number of my children believed that butterflies were actually birds. I immediately began questioning this classification. “Birds can sing. Can butterflies?” Some children said yes without hesitation (one even sang like a butterfly). Others explained, “Birds don’t have to sing if they don’t want to.” I tried again, “Birds have feathers. Do butterflies have feathers?” Again, some children said yes. Others were quick to explain, “Not all birds have feathers. Lightning bugs don’t either, and they’re birds.” It was clear that I was fighting a losing battle.

My children were absorbed with the romance of spring: it had been months since they heard birds singing for them in the morning, and butterflies drinking from flowers. Birds and butterflies both appear to fly effortlessly. They did not care about the difference between scales and feathers, or metamorphosis. In order to help my children get to the truth about birds, I had to let go of a lot of my personal beliefs about truths. I worked hard for my A in high school Biology, and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that butterflies were insects and not birds. But, the biological classification did not matter to them. They had a different understanding of the truth.

In order for my children to experience this truth, they needed to fully explore birds. They watched birds come to the feeder right outside our window. They listened for bird songs on hikes. They searched for nests. They sang like birds. They read books about birds, and told stories about birds. They made a nest, dressed up like birds, and escaped into their imaginative birdland.

Now, when I ask them if butterflies are birds, most of them say no. I claim no responsibility for this shift in understanding. Only through their play did they really understand what a bird is. Additionally, they now understand what it feels like to be a bird. (Something that I never learned in my biology class…)

Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the Emergent Inquiry Approach from Reggio Emilia, Italy, wrote a powerful poem about the way children acquire knowledge. He recognizes that children are born into the world without established truths. In order to eventually develop truths about the world, children need to explore. They need to engage their senses, ask questions, and have time to pretend. By allowing them to keep their sense of wonder, we are not only encouraging them to arrive at truths about the world, we are empowering them to make up their own truths.

On Wednesday, one of our boys brought his chicken, Sunnyside, to our classroom. Our children were quite taken with her. They got to feed her dried mealworms and chase her around the playground. The next day, we had chicken for lunch. I asked about the connection between yesterday’s guest and today’s lunch. I watched the gears turn as one of my children explained, “You take off the feathers and put them in the oven. That’s what we eat.” The rest of our children were satisfied with this answer, but that boy kept thinking. Eventually, he realized that the bird might have to die in order for us to eat it. I asked him if that meant we had to eat Sunnyside. He thought for a long time. Then, he smiled and said, “Nah, I’m just kidding! We eat the feathers.”

The only way we can get to an understanding about the world is through developing a relationship with the things that confuse us. Sometimes, we just have to play with these ideas. We have to submerge ourselves in full-body explorations of concepts to find the truth. At other times, the truth can be too scary, and it’s OK to accept an alternate reality. The truth will emerge when we’re ready to realize it. The most important thing is that we take the time to wrestle, to explore, and to marvel. Truths only matter when we have a relationship with them

-“Before he is told he cannot invent the world, he will explain everything.” -Vivian Paley, Wally’s Stories

The Emotions of a Toilet

When my children’s interest in dinosaurs began to wind down, my co-teacher and I started listening.  We listened for what questions they were asking about the world.  We listened for the stories they were telling each other through play.  We listened for clues to what emotions they were feeling, and for ways we could help them grow.   We were ready to embark on another exploration, we just needed to figure out what would captivate their interests and tap into their feelings.  

I was expecting that our exploration would be something relatively generic:  Outer Space, maybe.  Or trains.  Interests that are shared among most preschool classrooms.  But what seemed to capture my children’s interests the most was toilets and plumbing.  They began to tell stories about clogs.  The long cardboard tubes that had been our dinosaur’s trees were now plungers.  

I’ve discovered this gem from NPR.  This author suggests that children are interested in toilets because they are natural scientist.  I saw this to be true:  my children were fascinated when we looked inside the ceramic tank of our toilets.  They loved understanding the mechanics behind this apparatus that they use every day.

 In addition to the scientific inquiry, I believe that another reason my children were fascinated with toilets was the way toilets allowed them to tap into some pretty deep emotions.  When young children play and explore their interests, they have the opportunity to discover more about themselves.  They can create a pretend scenario where they feel silly, scared, or powerful.  Pretending opens up a safe space to release real emotions.  But, they are in complete control of the situation.  When the emotion becomes too intense, they can stop or change the play scenario, in a way they cannot do when they are in the adult world.  I was grateful that toilets were able to give them this opportunity.  

I think their interests initiated from a feeling of joy and silliness.  I wonder if anyone has done research on the universality of potty humor, but it seems pretty pervasive among people young and old.  Throughout this exploration, our three year old plumbers unclogged food, toys, other children from toilets, sinks, and bathtubs.  They wrote stories about clogging someone’s mouth.  They pretended to be honking toilets.  Our class continually bubbled with a healthy dose of laughter.  

Not only did this allow my children to feel the amazing emotion of joy, but it allowed them to connect with their peers.   It is empowering for a young child to realize that something he or she did or said was significant enough that it elicited a genuine laugh from a peer.  I strongly believe that humor is one of the most powerful tools in making friends.  When people can laugh together, they are connecting with each other.  They are sharing an intense emotion in a safe space. 

The toilet can provide powerful moment of fascination and humor, but it also triggers moments of fear and sadness.  For the young child, toilets can be terrifying.  Here is a fixture that is almost as big as they are.  It makes a loud noise as it sucks down something that CAME OUT OF THEM.  It sounds like most of my children have had the unfortunate experience of flushing a favorite toy, which they may or may not ever see again.  In the beginning of our exploration, there were moments when the levity would stop, and a wide-eyed child would ask me if a kid could ever get flushed down the toilet and get stuck in the pipes.  Young children are innately sensitive to the feelings of loss.  Losing a favorite toy can be traumatic, and they do not yet understand the limitations of what can and cannot disappear.  They can imagine what it would be like to lose someone they love the same way they lost their toys.

I take that wide-eyed child on my lap and we talk about how sad it would be to lose someone in the pipes, or be lost himself.  I assure him that water pipes are too small to fit any person, even a small one.  We also discuss why toilets make such a loud noise.  We bring in a plumber who teaches my children how to remove things stuck in pipes.  We work together to target this feeling of fear and vulnerability.  They pretend to be plumbers. As they use plungers to unclog the pretend toilet in dramatic play, they are realizing that things that are lost can be found again.  They are now able to feel another powerful emotion– hope.

I learned a lot from this exploration.  Not only do I now have a greater awareness of water pipes, I also have a greater respect for my children.  They found a way to turn something mundane into something therapeutic.  With this single exploration, they were able to discover new ways to build relationships and to handle their fears.  I hope that as they grow, they will continue to see the greater significance in commonplace experiences.  And I hope that us grownups can keep encouraging them to pretend, even when their interests are unusual.

-“Pretend you are a lost baby, a frantic mother, a heroic sister:  feel the pain, celebrate the rescue.” -Vivian Paley, The Kindness of Children