The Village and the Child

Over the past year, my children have had some unusual interests.  In the summer, they were fascinated with slugs and snails.  The past few months, it has been garbage trucks and dinosaurs.  My children want to fully explore these ideas.  They enter the world of pretend: crawling around the floor like a slug, carrying garbage to the dump, protecting their nest of dinosaur eggs.  They play endlessly.  And, like the good scientists they are, there is a significant amount of inquiry in their imagination.  When my children are fully engaged, I am bombarded with questions.  I knew I was faced with someone beyond my abilities when one of my girls asked, “I know snails come from eggs, but what do they DO in the eggs?”

Here’s where I feel indebted to my community.  I contacted a biology professor from my Alma Mater to come in and field some of these questions.  He graciously agreed, and my children spent days preparing for the visit from the “Slug Scientist.”  He brought Petri dishes and magnifying glasses, so our children could see body parts of the slugs that I never knew existed.  He had the children lie on the floor and showed them how slugs move.  My children achieved a level of fascination I have never seen before.

I did similar things with garbage trucks and dinosaurs.  One of my good buddies is a garbage man.  I had him come in after work one day to speak to my children.  He answered their questions about safety, he told about going to the dump, he gave us a pair of unused gloves and an extra safety vest.  These toys became a hot commodity for our class, because they were the “real thing.” 

The moment I found out that another one of my buddies was an amateur paleontologist, I knew that he needed to pay a visit to preschool.  When my children started incorporating dinosaurs into their pretending, the door was open.  My friend came in with his backpack full of dinosaur bones, ready to face the queries of the three-year old brain.  He taught them the word “fragile,” which has since been one of their favorite new words.  He let them hold the bones, showing them what body part they were.  He patiently explained to them why dinosaurs died. 

First and foremost, I have to be one of the luckiest preschool teachers out there.  I have the coolest friends.  Recently, whenever I meet someone with a preschool-oriented skill, the skill becomes my reference point for them.  In addition to my “Garbage Man Friend” and “Paleontologist Friend,” I also have,  my “Tree-Cutter Friend,” my “Ice Cream Man Friend,” my “Artist Friend,” and numerous “Scientist Friends.”

I hope my friends understand that when I speak about them to my children, I do it because I deeply value their work.  I firmly adhere to the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.”  I know I am biased, but I believe that one of the biggest impacts someone can make is to use their strengths to build a relationship with a child. 

Inviting my friends into the classroom has great benefits from my children.  They get official answers to their deepest questions.  They also get validation for their interests.  They learn that there are experts in the world who devote their time and energy to their same interests.  With the expertise of a paleontologist, dinosaurs are no longer some abstract animal that smashes things.  They have heavy bones, they had giant teeth and footprints.  My children don’t have to rely on me to tell them why safety is important for a garbage collector.  They have a real garbage man in their classroom to tell them first-hand stories.  What’s more, they have a real garbage man who will sit next to them at the table and eat snack.  Now they, too, have a really cool friend!

Sometimes I wonder if it also takes a child to raise a village.  When I first met my friend who works in an ice cream store, he did not seem very proud of his work, even when I told him that he smelled like ice cream.   Ever since I gave him a story that one of my children had written about an ice cream man getting stuck in a tree, I’ve noticed that he has a bit more pride when I inquire about his work.  Maybe he’s realizing that even though he doesn’t get much enjoyment from his work, there are people out there who think he’s the coolest. 

I know that there is something in the way you live your life that will fascinate a child.  It might be that you have a silly cat, or that you once rebuilt a car engine.  Whatever it is, I challenge you to find it.  It will help enrich the life of a young child.  And, you just might find that the way the child hangs onto your every word is just the encouragement you need to continue doing your important work. 

Speaking of important work:  does anyone know an astronaut? 

– “Now the world becomes our classroom and the potential to teach and learn is found everywhere.” -Parker Palmer

Embracing the ‘And’ in ‘Love’

Children make mistakes. And that’s OK.  The brain of a small child has is not developed enough to be able to control strong emotions and impulses.  Sometimes children use behaviors that are not acceptable, which opens the door for learning experiences for them, and loving experiences for the rest of us. 

My school encourages love-oriented discipline.  When a child hurts someone else, ignores or defies directions, or otherwise deviates from acceptable behavior, we teachers have an opportunity to use our relationship with the child as a way to understand the gravity of their actions.  I used to tell my children, “I love you so much, but it is not OK to hurt your friend.”  The children and I would find this effective, but I found increased effectiveness when I changed just one word.

I recently realized that I tend to view things as ‘but’s rather than ‘and’s.  I have been telling myself things like, “I am excited to go to graduate school, but I don’t want to leave the life I have here.”  There are obvious limitations to this way of thinking; it promotes exclusion.  When I incorporated this into my teaching, I noticed a shift.  I started telling my children, “I love you AND it is not OK to hurt your friend.” 

As I mention frequently, young children are constantly learning new things about the world.  They are continually expanding their existing schemas, and creating new schemas to gain understanding about the world.  It is the role of the adults in their live to help them build these schemas.  When I said, “I love you BUT…”, I was defining love through something it is not.  These negative definitions are confusing for children (and the rest of us), and makes the concept even more abstract.  By using ‘and,’ I am giving them a quality of love.  A quality they can feel. 

Another reason this practice is powerful is because it illuminates just how powerful genuine love is.   It is important for my children to understand that they will not just be loved when they are controlling their impulses, using kind words, and happy.  They are loved all the time.  Even when they hurt their friends.  Even when they feel disappointed in their choices.  They are not perfect and that’s OK.  I will love them just the way they are.  No matter what.  When I am reflecting with a child about an incident, I often tell him or her, “There is nothing you can do to make me stop loving you.” 

I have seen this really work.  When a child really gets it, he or she transforms.  I notice the child seems more relaxed, less anxious that my love will go stop with one misstep.  Often, the frequency of challenging behaviors decreases because the child feels my love.  He or she is less likely to test my limits because the child knows that my love has no limits.  The children who feel the love are the ones that can reciprocate it.  They are the ones who show concern for a friend who is upset or angry.  They are the ones who love me, even when I am cranky. 

This shift in discipline has been enlightening for me too.  This has been an opportunity to challenge my own unintentional limits of love.   have found more opportunity for self-affirmation.  I am now telling myself, “I am so excited for graduate school AND I don’t want to leave the life I have here.  And that’s OK.”  I can embrace and accept each emotion for what it is. 

What about you?  Do you ever find yourself saying or thinking, “I love you, but….”? I wonder what it would look like for everyone to open up their love and use more ‘and’s.  I’ll admit that it is a challenge for me to think things like, “I love the people in the world AND sometimes some people make choices that hurt my heart.”  By thinking this, I am sending love to those who are hurting my heart.  Maybe they can start to feel the love and stop testing the limits of those around them.  Maybe they can start to reciprocate limitless love. 

-” ‘How do you spell “love”?’ asks Piglet.  ‘You don’t spell it…you feel it.’ replies Pooh.”  -A.A. Milne

Dinosaurs and Garbage Trucks

Our classroom window looks out over the driveway to our school.  Every Thursday morning, around 9:35, the big blue garbage truck drives past our window.  After our first experience of pressing our noses against the window and listening to the garbage truck back down the drive, my children were hooked.  They immediately started drawing pictures of garbage trucks.  They went “beep beep beep” as they drove their bikes backwards on the playground.  They would come to school in the morning bursting with exciting news. They would scream, “I just saw two garbage trucks!”

My co-teacher and I recognized this passion, so we started arranging our classroom to accommodate for it.  We changed our dramatic play center into a “waste management facility,” with hard hats, work gloves, a computer, and trash cans with real trash.  We acquired 4 plastic garbage trucks.  We scoured the library for every single book about garbage collection.  We put recycled materials in our art center.  Our children were engrossed.

Lately, their interests have shifted a bit.  They have started chasing each other on the playground, growling and stomping.  They are digging in the sand, looking for dinosaur bones.  They are telling stories now that begin, “Once upon a time, there was a dinosaur driving a garbage truck…”

It’s clear from both of these interests that my children are thinking about some big things. We had the opportunity to see our garbage truck up close, and we realized just how big it actually is.  The wheels alone were bigger than many of my children.   A friend of mine is a paleontologist, and he brought in some of his dinosaur bones to show us.  These bones were big.  And heavy.  If one rib bone is big and heavy, dinosaurs themselves must be colossal.

What is this about?  Why have we spent almost two months exploring big things?  As I have mentioned in other posts, I have noticed my children have a profound interest in the small and subtle things around them: the mica in the creek, a dead bumblebee, a small bird visiting our bird feeder.  Those tiny things really seem to speak to them.  So, why aren’t they spending more time exploring bugs, flowers, or sparrows?

Last week, I asked my children, “What is the biggest thing you can think of?”  Many said “A Dinosaur,” or “A Garbage Truck.”  But answers also included, “A Kangaroo,” “A Hippo,”  “A Big Grownup,” and “My Mom and Dad.” These big things are powerful.  A garbage truck can carry garbage that weighs as much as an elephant. Dinosaurs were so strong that they could tear up their prey with their teeth.   Young children are also keenly aware of the power of the grown-ups in their lives.  They feel the way their parents have influence over them.  They sense the power of the boundaries at home, and also the power of love.

It’s completely understandable that power would be so enticing for young children.  Our world is so full with big things. As an adult, I am often humbled by the size of the mountains around me, or the amount of damage a black bear can do to a garbage can. Young children are surrounded by big things. They are always looking up towards the adults in their lives. They have to climb into their cars. Their little legs make a marathon out of trekking through a field of grass. They realize that they are so small compared to the world around them. There are many things that they do not yet have power over.  No one is born with the ability to fully control our bodies, emotions, or community.  We have to learn these things.  And sometimes it’s tough.

This is where play comes in.  When a child is pretending to compact garbage in his truck, he is powerful.  She can choose the route to the dump.  He can carry something the size of an elephant.  She can use tools to fix the wheels of the truck.  Same with dinosaurs.   As dinosaurs, children can grow 20 times their size.  They take up a significant amount of space, and have the power to smash things.

My job as a teacher is to allow them to keep their power.  I facilitate activities that are loud, big, and messy. I let them play with the garbage trucks as long as they need to.   I observe their play, careful not to steal their power.  When conflict arises, I help them talk through the scenario so they can regain a healthy level of power in their play.

I’ve noticed that when they have opportunity to feel big and powerful in their pretend play, they will feel more in control in other areas of their lives.  They clean up when asked.  They are less defiant.  They throw fewer tantrums.  They do not have such a strong urge to engage in a power struggle, because they know that at times, they are powerful enough to lift a dumpster.

I believe that in the grown-up world, at times we also struggle with not feeling powerful. Sufficient control aids in general well-being. It’s not difficult to find examples of misuse of power in the media, and in our personal lives. These are the times that we throw temper tantrums. We try to micromanage other people, or we say or do hurtful things. Anything to help us feel like we are in control.

How can we harness our playfulness and still feel in control? The great thing about play is that there are a plethora of different, valid answers. Some people find pleasure and solace in cleaning their house, others in playing music, dancing, or playing sports. Whatever the activity, playfulness is key. Through play, we are powerful. We are reminded of what we can do, and who we can be. We are as big as dinosaurs and as strong as garbage trucks.

– “And [the wild things] were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all and made him king of all the wild things. ‘And now,’ cried Max, ‘let the wild rumpus start!'” -Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are

The Thesaurus– My new favorite toy

My intention for this weekend was to begin writing some of my application essays for graduate school.  However, due to the unusual presence of caffeine in my possession, my brain appears to have taken a vacation from its usual focus and drive, so my essay draft looks more like an explosion of thoughts.  Ultimately, I think I unveiled something that will provide some meaningful insight that I can put into my essays.

For now, I’m embracing my brain divergence.  I hope to be writing about the importance of play in my life.  I will address its personal meaning as a child, as an adult, as a teacher, and as a peacemaker.  Right now, I’m gathering basic information about play, others’ experiences of play, memories of my own play, research about play. I’m taking time to sit with each thought,  weighing the ultimate meaning and my own reaction.  It’s turning into therapeutic introspection. 

 Without expecting to find much, I pulled up the thesaurus and typed in playful.  I have a feeling that most people do not find a greater meaning in thesaurus results, but I found this experience enlightening.  What struck me most was the antonyms.  Some of them can be combated with some healthy play, some of them make space for a different kind of play.  Words like apathetic, depressed, dispirited, inactive, lifeless embody the hurt and struggle that is so present in the world.  It’s normal to have these experiences. When hurtful thing happen, it’s important to slow down and grieve.  Play is there to pick you back up.

When I watch my children playing, I can see where their work counterbalances these emotions.  Whatever the play scenario, they are fully engaged.  Their spirit oozes from every pore of their play.  Their emotions are genuine, their thought process obvious.  This week we turned our dramatic play center into a waste management facility, so our children could explore what it feels like to be a garbage collector.  My children loved putting on hard hats, work gloves, and safety vests as they repeatedly filled and emptied garbage cans, called their boss on the phone, and worked on the “computer.”  I took a picture of one of my girls hard at work.  She was wearing a yellow hard hat, holding a phone between her ear and her shoulder, and typing on the computer keyboard.  There was such a look of focus on her face.  Her play was full of investment, full of spirit, and fully of life.  She was far away from a world of apathy.

The other antonyms that stood out for me were the words with slightly less of a negative connotation:  behaved, serious, working. These traits do not automatically exclude play.  As I mentioned in my last post, sometimes play needs to be loud and big.  Sometimes I need to realize that my “shhhh”s and “please clean that up” are useless and futile.  I need to release my notions of control and appropriate behavior, and just let the play spiral into merriment.

Other times, we need to play seriously.  We need times to process our dispirit.  Play provides a safe space to do so.  I’m reminded of the book Dibs in Search of Self by Virginia Axline.  The story follows a young boy who is withdrawn from life.  His teachers are concerned, and his mother has given up on him.  He begins play therapy, where in his own serious way, he grapples with the meaning of what he knows about the world.  By the end of the book, he is able to find flourish in his life.  His play therapist provided him the safe space to invest in his own work.  He is not one of the squealing, effervescent players that I know all too well. He is struggling, he is breaking down.  But, he is still playing.

I think it’s time to start playing with those antonyms.  Losing spirit is part of the life process.  Sometimes even the best players feels apathetic.  I wonder what would happen if we established the space to play with what’s troubling us.  I think this would involve two things.  The first, an antonym space.  A safe space to play in our own way.  To work through what it means to have dysfunctional relationships, to introspect, and to be OK with dwelling in our hurt.  The second is exposure to those synonyms.  To at least watch, if not participate, in exuberance.  To remind ourselves that there are people out there who are rich with the creative spirit.  And to hope that we, too, can catch the spirit. 

Looking for a place to start?  Read over the synonyms for playful and for play.  I can’t help but smile when I read word like frolic, rejoice, vivacious, and lighthearted.  I laughed when I noticed that the very first synonym for play is dance. At this point in my life,  I am dancing constantly.  I contra dance at least once a week.  I dance with my children daily.  I dance while I’m cleaning my bathroom.  It’s my most meaningful form of play.  I’m not going to stop dancing. I’m not going to stop playing.  Even when it’s hard.

– “Perhaps there is more understanding and beauty in life when the glaring sunlight is softened by the patterns of shadows”  – Virginia Axline, Dibs in Search of Self

Quiet Things

One of the reason I love children is that sometimes when they are so excited, they can’t contain it.  Sometimes, children just have to squeal, sing, yell, scream.  They need the world to know their extremes.  Children are loud.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.  But, there is something really special to be said for those other moments. 

One such moment happened yesterday, completely unplanned.  During lunch, we noticed that a bird was visiting the birdfeeder right outside our window.  My children watched in awe as it landed in the feeder, picked up a few seeds, and then flew away.  It did this over and over. 

After a while, I suggested that we open the door to our porch and figure out if we could hear these birds.  As soon as I opened the door, the room became quiet.  Like, naptime-after-a-hike silent.  The children continued to eat their lunch, but had somehow found a way to harness their inner-stealth.  It was clear that their focus was completely on the external. We only heard one bird tweet.  But, that didn’t matter.  These children understood that there was something extraordinary out there.

A guest speaker in one of my college courses told us once, “If you ever need children to be quiet, involve an animal.”  I just have to smile at how true I have found those words to be.  Last year, my coteacher brought in her daughter’s guinea pigs to visit our boisterous, often rambunctious group of children. When instructing them on how to handle the guinea pigs, these children listened and followed the directions in a way I had never seen before.  After the morning of playing with the guinea pigs, we put the pigs in the closet and sent the children outside.  When they came in from the playground, we told them, “the guinea pigs are trying to rest.” Just like with my current class and the birds, these children found a quietness in themselves that I had never seen.

So, what’s this about?  Why can the presence of animals transform the atmosphere of a classroom like nothing else?  I wonder if they see themselves in the animals.   I wonder if they are remembering what it feels like to be something small, unfamiliar, and vulnerable.  They know what it is like to be surrounded by loud and large people.  They know what it is like to be scared.  They understand that in new situations, it is crucial that the environment feels calm, quiet, and still.

I wonder if this is an expression of power for my children.  Not the kind of power that can lead to aggression.  But that power that’s in the still, small voice in the story of Elijah.  The kind of power that comes from stillness.  The power that many grown-ups only find after years of a strict meditation practice.  Maybe these children understand that when they quiet themselves, they open up room for new experiences, a way to connect with the world at large. 

Whatever the reason, these experiences are really special.  For all of us:  the children, the teachers, the animals.  I am constantly humbled in my expectations.  When I proposed opening the door yesterday, I never thought this reaction was possible.  But, in fact it was so powerful for the children that one of them asked me, “Can we keep the door open so we can hear the birds during naptime?” 

I strongly believe that our world needs loudness.  We need drum sets, fire trucks, and belly laughs.  We need the energy of a child so excited that all she can do is scream.  But there are those moments when the absence of those loud things can fuel the soul in new ways.  There is power in those quiet times.  Our children know it.  It’s my time to fall back in love with the quiet.

– “At quiet times, young children give us glances of some things that are eternal.” -Mr. Rogers (quoted in Letters to a Young Teacher, by Jonathan Kozol)

What the world needs now is… play sweet play

Today, you don’t have to delve too far into current events without finding evidence of crisis.  It seems like the political and social systems we have relied on for decades are just not working anymore.  Some people are taking advantage of power, and many, many others are getting hurt.  Many systems right now are in a state of disequilibrium.  Needless to say, this is not a sustainable pattern and something needs to be done.  I don’t know about you, but this makes me want to play!

As a preschool teacher, I immerse myself in play all day, every day.  I couldn’t be happier. One of the reasons I love play so much is that it is so innate.  It is pervasive in the animal kingdom.  Scientists have found evidence of play in everything from dogs and bears to octopi and ants.   Children rarely need to be taught how to play.  As Maria Montessori said, “Play is the work of a child.”  It is how they make sense of the world.  During play, they are involved in an activity that is inherently motivating, enjoyable, and transcends time.  They are challenged, but not intimidated.  Their brain is working as they absorb the world.

As I watch my children play, I am continually inspired by their use of imagination.  While playing, my children can figure out what it is like to be someone whom they are not, in a place where they are not.  They can solve problems.  They can decrease their stress levels   They can take charge of a situation in a new way.  They can build new relationships.

During play, children have the amazing power to abandon who they are and really become someone else.  Already, my children this year have experienced what it would be like to take care of crying babies, teach a nest-full of baby birds how to fly, be a mud jeep,  design a city for crickets, and be a purple camel. I have one child this year who frequently decides that he is Superman.  I love watching him as Superman.  His face lights up in a new way as he runs around the playground.  He offers to help his peers in need.  He will help me clean up to show me how strong Superman is.  He runs around the playground faster than I have ever seen him move.  As Superman, he is invincible. He reminds me of a quotation by sociocultural psychologist Lev Vygotsky:  “In play, a child is above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself.”

While playing, my children are solving problems.  Last week, three girls were playing in our dramatic play area.  They were busy making dinner and patting the backs of their baby dolls, when two boys approach them.  “Let’s get on the airplane,” demands one of the boys.  “I’m the dog,” asserts the others.  I saw the apprehension in the girls’ faces as they process these home-intruders.  “Shh,” says one girl, “My baby is sleeping.”  But then, one of the other girls grabs a backpack and says, “I’ll drive to the airport.”  She puts the dinner in the backpack, tucks her baby under her arm, and tells everyone to put on their seat belts.  The five of them happily continue playing together for the rest of the morning.

In the adult world, I see an extreme resistance to imagination.   It seems like it is all too easy for us to be absorbed in reality.   We are too focused on “the way things work” and “who we are”.  When new situations arise, when someone tells us to get on an airplane, we are too quick to push them away because the baby is sleeping.  Really, it is our imaginations that are sleeping.  I believe that this obsession with the present reality that has put our societal systems in crisis.

What would happen if we woke up our imaginations?   Would we be able to find a synergistic level of problem-solving?  Would we be able to abandon our previous plans and go explore new places?  Would we be able grow a head-taller?  Would we be able to harness powers that we never knew we had and run faster than we ever have before?  I would love to find out.  Who’s with me?

-“Play is the answer to how anything new comes about.” -Jean Piaget, Swiss developmental psychologist

Embracing Preoperations

These past two weeks, my co-teacher and I have been adjusting to our new group of children.  A month ago, the majority of our children were five years old, recognizing most of their letters and numbers, solving social problems independently, and excelling in simple logic questions (Is it possible for a four year old to be taller than a five year old?). As is the reality in teaching, these children went to Kindergarten, and we embarked on our new teaching adventure:  young three year olds.  I have felt like I’ve been rewinding my understanding of child development as I re-orient to this new way of thinking.

I absolutely love the way three year olds think. Most of what they know concretely about the world, they have experienced through their own interactions.  They relate everything to their own direct experience.  On our hike this week, I was walking down a hill with one of my boys.  He was watching the mountains in the horizon, noticing that they appeared to be moving.  He delightfully told me, “Hey, I’m making the mountains move!” 

Jean Piaget, a Swiss developmental psychologist, calls this developmental stage the Preoperational stage.  During this time, children develop meaning about the world based on their own experiences, whether these experiences are generally true or not.  During this stage, young children can really only focus on one characteristic of concept or item at a time.  My children are pretty certain that all five year olds are taller than all four year olds.  Preoperational children are constantly expanding their understanding of the world.  Piaget calls this accommodation of schemas.  As young children have new experiences, they adjust their rules about the world to regain cognitive equilibrium. 

Another thing I cherish about children this age is their newly discovered utilization of questions.  I recently read an article saying that mothers of young children are asked 23 questions an hour.  I have never read or conducted objective research to validate that study, but from my experiences, it seems spot on.  I often feel like I spend the majority of my day answering questions.  I answer everything from, “When is my mommy going to pick me up?” to “Where does milk come from before it comes out of the cow?”  These children  are operating from a profound sense of wonder.  They have figured out that there is so much to know about the world, and asking questions is a great way to learn more.  These questions initiate from their own experiences, and they end up influencing my experiences.  Asking questions is also a great way for them to establish a relationship.  They see me, and other caregivers, as a resource.  They trust that I will validate their curiosity by listening to their questions.  They feel comfortable enough with me to let me in on their journey towards understanding.  I feel so honored to answer their questions that my co-teacher and I intentionally organize our day around discovery experiences. 

I wonder what would happen if we all harnessed our inner three year old.  Piaget, and other developmental psychologists, suggest that children grow out of this stage, eventually gaining greater mastery of understanding.  Part of me believes that in many ways the preoperational stage is always with us.  As hard as we may try not to, we base our understanding of the world on our own personal experiences.  It is a challenge for most people to hold multiple characteristics of something in our minds.  The media takes advantage of this cognitive pattern by villainizing certain people, or focusing on only side of a conflict. With intentional practice, it is possible for us to accommodate our understanding of the systems of the world, and regain a broader equilibrium. 

Let’s embrace it.  Let’s really analyze our own personal experiences, and find a realm of meaning that works for us.  Let’s ask those questions that really get to the heart of the issue.  There are seven billion people on this Earth who have developed at least seven billion different schemas.  What would happen if we took the time to build trust in each other by asking tough questions? Maybe we would come to a new understanding and a peaceful equilibrium.  Maybe we really could move mountains. 

-“No single logic is strong enough to support the total construction of human knowledge.”-Jean Piaget