Monday, October 31, 2016

Learning Cool And Useful Stuff

We have a dozen or so orange traffic cones on the playground, a collection we've had for over a decade. Predating those larger cones were a set of smaller red cones that a prior teacher purchased from a school supply catalog. I've been living with those small red cones for as long as I've been teaching. There were originally six of them, kept tidily on a shelf. I don't know how many we have now -- I'm guessing two or three -- and they're just kept out there where the kids leave them at the end of the day, part of the junkyard chic.

Last week, Solie ran up to me with one of the red cones as I sat on a table near the top of the playground space. "Teacher Tom, put this by your ear." He showed me how to do it, inserting the small end (which has broken off over the years) into his ear, leaving the open end toward the world. "Now aim it at me." I did as instructed, turning the open end his way. He then ran halfway across the space, turned, and spoke in his normal speaking voice, "Hey Teacher Tom, can you hear me?" I could! The cone allowed me to hear him quite clearly. Not only that, but I could even make out what the kids were saying all the way down at the workbench, which was twice as far away.

I said, "It's a spy thing!" Solie answered, "I is!" then ran off to his play. Without even thinking about what I was doing, I shared this discovery with the kids near me, using more or less the same words that Solie had used, "Put this by your ear," "Now aim it at me," then they, in turn, showed it to other kids.

It was only later that I recognized that I'd been part of a chain of "viral learning." I don't know if Solie had figured it out for himself or if someone had shown him, but what I do know is that once I had been exposed to his "discovery," I couldn't help myself: I made it my own and spontaneously paid it forward to whoever would listen, who likewise couldn't help sharing it with others. For most of human evolution, this is how learning has worked. Someone discovers cool or useful stuff, then it gets passed on from excited discoverer to excited discoverer until it's common knowledge. Sadly, the potential for this kind of viral learning has been squeezed out of modern schools in their quest for top-down, adult controlled education. Indeed, children are often punished for sharing what they know with their classmates. It's called cheating. We command kids "Do your own work," and "Eyes on your own paper," and "Keep your hands to yourself." It's as if we've intentionally tried to make learning as difficult as possible by removing one of the most important educational instincts: the urge to tell others about our cool or useful discoveries.

This is why we must at learn fight hard for more and longer recesses. For many school children, that's the only time that this sort of viral learning takes place.

Humans are clearly designed to share what we know with those around us. Most of us can't help ourselves. For the rest of the day, kids were experimenting with those cones. Some tried holding up two or even three cones in succession under the theory that if one was good, more would be better. Others tried looking through them. One girl even wondered if the cone could enhance her sense of smell. And then someone figured out that if he shouted into the narrow end, it amplified and directed his voice. Within minutes every one of his classmates knew it as well.

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Friday, October 28, 2016

Enduring Their Discomfort

For those of you unfamiliar with our neck of the woods, we have a sunny season during the summer then a rainy season that covers the other 11-and-a-half months. At least that's the joke. This autumn has felt like an especially wet one so far. Maybe it isn't any more so from an historic perspective, but we've sure played outdoors under some raging atmospheric rivers already this school year.

Kids who have grown up here know nothing else and are generally quite comfortable playing in the rain, with our without proper rain gear, but even the heartiest among us sometimes struggle with the  seasonal transition from warm and sunny to cool and wet.

Our four and five year olds start their days outside and one day last week that time coincided with torrential rain. As each kid arrived, they said to me, "It's raining," to which I answered, "It is!" Some of them were just making a statement of fact, while others were clearly presenting this information as a way to suggest that we might want to go inside. A few were even visibly upset, hunched forward, feeling uncomfortable. While most of the kids launched themselves into their play there was a largish group that just collected near the gate, milling around, engaged, it seemed, in the act of simply enduring their discomfort.

One boy repeatedly asked me, "When are you going to bang the drum?" which is the signal I use for transitions. It was his way to asking when we were going indoors. Each time, I checked my clock before answering, "Forty-five minutes," "Thirty-seven minutes," "Thirty-three minutes," and so on. I was tempted to start cajoling the kids, "Come on you guys, get to playing!" but instead I just did what I normally do, roaming, loitering with intent, telling jokes, and briefing my parent-teachers on what to expect for the day. 

Actually, that's not entirely true, I also moved away from the gate where I didn't have to keep checking my phone for the time because, honestly, it was raining so hard I was worried it would get water damaged, and I didn't want to spend the better part of an hour engaged in a slow motion countdown.

I kept an eye on those kids from afar, six or seven of them, who were simply enduring, letting the rain make them heavy and hang-dog, while the rest of the kids dug in the sand, splashed in the puddles, swung on the swings, and collaborated in games of heroism and housekeeping, more or less as they always do. Five minutes passed and they were still up there by the gate, doing nothing other than experiencing the deluge. Ten minutes passed. By now, they were as wet as they were ever going to be. If there were gaps in their rain gear, the water had found it. 

And then, the next time I checked, they were gone. They had reached the end of their tolerance for damp boredom and had joined the games around them. When I next found the boy who had been eager for me to bang the drum he was standing directly under a stream of rain water that drained from the top of the play house. I said, "We're going inside in five minutes," to which he replied, "Aw!"

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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Sewing Hope

Today I'm sharing a video with you that is just under six minutes long. I figure that's probably all the time you set aside for reading the blog, so just click on it before you read what comes below. And please don't stop watching after a couple minutes because you think you "get it," because you won't yet. This isn't just a great story, but it's well told and you need to see it to the end.

This is what genius looks like: he taught himself to master this skill, driven by a desire to help sick children be happier. He has clearly inspired everyone around him. I love the interview bits in which he makes his pure, simple, inarguably true points, then smiles and nods, creating space for us to do our own thinking. It's all genius.

My friend Candy Lawerence, educator and author of the terrific autism awareness children's book Being Friends With Bodie Finch, shared this video Facebook under the following provocative framing:

I want you to imagine this boy in early childhood . . . How would he have presented? Would we, as teachers, have tried to shape him into a 'normal' boy by encouraging him to be more active, more social, more outgoing? Would we have created an environment where his kindness an artistic interests could shine and not be ridiculed by his peers or other staff or other parents? . . . These children need us to be open-minded. There is no 'normal'. There is this individual, and that individual. We have to respond to the individual, not to what's 'normal'.

Campbell is not normal. Like all children, he is extraordinary. It's our job as teachers to find the extraordinary in each of the children we teach. It's not always possible, however; often their genius is still incubating or manifests in ways that we can't fully comprehend or even causes us to cringe or grind our teeth. As Candy says, our job is not to somehow push or shape or trick them into our preconceived ideas of normal (which is what I think people are telling me each time they insist that I must get kids "ready" for kindergarten), but rather to help them create their own extraordinary place in our community. We may never fully appreciate their genius until years later, but at the very least we must avoid squashing it because the world needs more people like Campbell.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Two Small Stories Of Compassion

Yesterday, a two-year-old girl wanted her mommy. She was standing by the door crying, trying to turn the knob. Her mother often sits out there in the hallway on a bench, catching up on email or whatever, wanting to give her daughter some experience with being out in the world without her, but also wanting to remain nearby for just these moments. When we opened the door, however, mommy wasn't there.

She had just run out to her car, but it was upsetting nevertheless. We looked for her for a couple minutes, then returned to the classroom. I sat on the floor. I offered my arms, I offered a hug, I offered to pick her up, but was rebuffed as the girl continued to cry and call out for mommy.

I was echoing things like, "You miss your mommy." The crying had attracted another two-year-old girl who had followed us into the hallway. She studied us for a moment, then gently took the crying girl by the shoulders, looked directly into her teary eyes, and said, "Mommies go bye-bye then they come back when we sing boom-boom." When the girl kept crying, she said it again with emphasis.

"Boom-boom" is a reference to the song we sing at the end of the day. It was one of the most wise and compassionate things I'd ever seen.

Later, I was on the playground with a couple of two-year-old boys playing with trucks. One of them lifted his truck and accidentally hit his playmate in the forehead. It didn't look like a serious bump, but the victim disagreed. His face wrinkled with pain as he cried. I don't know if the either boy knew what had caused the crying, it had all happened in a flash, but just as the girl had done earlier, a two-year-old saw a friend in pain and took responsibility for helping him, putting a hand on the injured boy's shoulder, stroking it, and sitting with him until the crying stopped.

I'm humbled that I get to spend my days with these people.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Simplest, Most Natural Thing In The World

I wish we could always just tell the truth about teaching, that it's really the simplest, most natural thing in the world.

I wish our profession wasn't in a fight for its life against deep pocket foes with a political or economic agenda, because this simplicity is really its beauty and joy.

For days, we'd been anticipating the wind and rain. Forecasters were sure of it: an atmospheric river was going to hit us and we were going to "swim" in it. And they were right, especially about the wind part. We took our parachute outside which is one of our favorite ways to play together with the wind.

We've learned to protect ourselves with an armor of jargon like every other profession as a way to sell ourselves in this sell-or-be-sold world.

At first we just held it together, feeling the wind's power, feeling it lift our arms and tear at our grips. When the gusts were particularly strong, everyone let go of their handles, leaving just me to hold it up in the wind as they danced under it. When I let go, the parachute flew over the fence and out into the street.

But teaching is not every other profession. I'm not even sure it is a profession as much as a calling. Because when we strip all that "professionalism" away, we see that the core of teaching is to love the children: every one of us knows that. And when you love, you listen. That's what teachers do.

It's when we listen with our ears and eyes and hearts that we can access not only their genius, but our own.

Again, they wanted to do it again, but by now the fabric was saturated, so when I let it go, the parachute failed to gain the height it needed to clear the fence and instead captured a line up of unsuspecting children in its cold, damp embrace. They screamed and laughed and I shouted, "Parachute attack!"

Teaching greatness is not a rare thing, I don't think, but it's hard for others to see because it takes place in intimate moments when we're down on our knees, face to face with the children, ears, eyes, and heart wide open. And then to try to talk about it after the fact, to try to satisfy the demands to make learning "transparent," we wind up wraping the moments of genius in words that detail techniques and strategies that describe only the surface manifestation of what happened because to say, "We connected," sounds too hippy dippy and namby pamby.

Again and again and again we did it. And when the wind died down, we shook our fists at the sky and cursed it for not giving us more.

Teaching is not a complicated thing, but it does take practice, lots of it, every day with lots of different kids, and even after ten or twenty years there's still a new thing to learn every day, its profundity often lost in its simplicity.

When we play with children, we engage them as they engage with their passions and curiosities, and when we listen with our whole selves, we notice instantly when that moment comes around, and then it's just a simple matter of making a statement of fact, or asking just the right question, or sitting quietly in the knowledge that that is what this child needs right now. How much better that is than to assume they are all ready for this particular knowledge at this particular time delivered in this particular manner by virtue of being more or less the same age -- what Ken Robinson calls their "manufacture date" -- then bang heads against the wall in frustration that many of them just don't get it.

To be a "gifted" teacher is really just possessing the knowledge that children are people and then proceeding to treat them like people, loving them, and listening.

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Monday, October 24, 2016

"So Everyone Thinks They're Just Fine"

For the past several years, our school's enrollment has been about 60-65 percent boys. A new parent recently asked me about that, wondering if that had to do with me being a male teacher. It does not. For the first decade or so of my tenure at Woodland Park, our enrollment was more like 60-65 percent girls. The main difference between then and now: a larger playground. Indeed, parents even told me that it had been the small playground at our old place that made them reluctant to enroll their sons. 

No one said that about their girls. In fact, when we re-imagined that small playground into a sort of mini-adventure playground, the mother of one girl, complaining about the mess and weather, said, "You know, the indoor curriculum was pretty good all by itself."

There's a sad "secret" that those of us who work in "alternative" or progressive schools don't often talk about. While our waiting lists often fill up with boy applicants, there are always spots available for girls. This doesn't happen at our school because we enroll on a first-come-first-serve basis with no attempt to balance for gender, hence the imbalance, but most schools do try and they all struggle with it. You see, many parents of boys tend to see our type of play-based, full-body, outdoor-focused eduction and recognize it as a perfect fit, while parents of girls too often feel it's nice, but their child doesn't "need" it. As the admissions director at a local progressive elementary school once told me: "It's a prejudice. Girls need this sort of education as much as boys, it's just that they're more likely look like they're sitting down and doing the work, so everyone thinks they're just fine wherever they are."

I've heard it myself from parents looking beyond preschool, saying exactly that, opining "She'll be fine," about their girls while saying, "My boy needs more time." I'm here to tell you that all children need more time if the next step is going to be sitting at desks, absorbing direct instruction, filling out worksheets, and taking tests. That's not good for anyone, let alone young children. The evidence is quite clear that the best educational foundation for children under seven, girls and boys, is play.

Perhaps it is true that boys tend to require a bit more opportunity to move their bodies, but the same holds true for many girls as well. All girls still need and deserve the same freedom to play, to explore, and to ask and answer their own questions. It's not good enough to be "fine."

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Friday, October 21, 2016

A Broken Toy

When the school year started last month, we had a Jack-in-the-box. Children played with it every day, several times a day, until, as inevitably happens when a toy designed for a bedroom finds its way into a classroom, it broke. Specifically, the little latch that holds the lid shut snapped off.

It still plays "All Around the Mulberry Bush" when you turn the crank, but "Jack" no longer surprises us when the tune gets to "Pop! goes the weasel." I figure it's time to chuck it, but as I often do with broken things, I'm waiting for the kids to tell me it's garbage. It's now been at least four weeks and that hasn't happened. In fact, the children still play with the broken toy every day.

Most of them know how it's supposed to work. I've watched child after child struggle to shove Jack into his box, tucking his arms and head all the way in, then closing the lid, only to have him pop out the moment they let go to start turning the crank. Some of them have complained, "It doesn't work," to which I've replied, "It's broken." That information doesn't stop most of them as they continue to make it work one way or another.

Most settle on holding the lid shut with one hand, while cranking with the other. Some have had friends or adults hold the lid for them. Some of them try to time their release with the tune, while others release the lid at random moments.

Whatever the case, they still laugh when Jack pops up, just as they did before the box was broken. And it's the laugh, not the latch, that makes it a worthwhile toy.

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Thursday, October 20, 2016

Black Lives Matter In Schools

Yesterday, more than 2000 Seattle Public School teachers wore t-shirts that read "Black Lives Matter/We Stand Together," an action that was unanimously supported by their union as well as dozens of prominent citizens and civic organizations. Thousands of parents and students joined their teachers in solidarity for "Black Lives Matter in Schools" rallies before classes. 

Last month, inspired by professional football player Colin Kaepernick, the entire Garfield High School volleyball and football teams began taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem in protest of discriminatory academic and police practices, an action that made national news and in turn inspired other high school students across the city to take similar action.

As Garfield history teacher and author Jesse Hagopian said, "You can only understand the Seattle educator's union unanimous vote for this action in the context of the Garfield High School football and girls' volleyball teams who are taking a knee for Black lives during the national anthem and helping to inspire people across the city and the country to take action against racial injustice." 

This is one of those remarkable moments when our youth are taking the lead. Needless to say, I'm extremely proud of the students and teachers in our city. Despite threats of violence, they are taking a leadership role in the non-violent movement to bring justice to our black and brown citizens. People often criticize me for injecting politics into this blog, but I don't see how I can not, especially when I see our children and their teachers taking such a prominent role in creating a better future for our country.

As I watched the final Presidential debate last night, it occurred to me that despite the high stakes, it was still a mere sideshow to what has been happening in Seattle schools and elsewhere around our nation. It's one thing to vote, but from where I sit, that is the bare minimum responsibility of citizenship. Too many Americans looked at Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump last night and believed that they were seeing one of the two people who will be the "leader" of the free world for the next four years, but they are wrong. We don't elect leaders in our country: we elect representatives. If they are behaving as leaders then we aren't doing our job as citizens.

These Seattle students, parents and teachers are showing us what democracy is meant to be about: speaking out, standing together, and taking the lead. And if our elected representatives are worth anything, they will join our parade or be left behind.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Our Stupid Questions

They say there's no such thing as a stupid question, but I beg to differ. We hear stupid questions almost every time adults and young children are together. 

For instance, a child is painting at an easel, exploring color, shape, and motion, experimenting with brushes, paper, and paint. There is an adult watching over her shoulder who points and asks, "What color is that?"

This is a stupid question. 

Here's another example: a child is playing with marbles, exploring gravity, motion and momentum. An adult picks up a handful of marbles and asks, "How many marbles do I have?"

The adult already knows the answer. The child probably does as well, in which case, the adult is distracting her from her deep and meaningful studies in order to reply to a banality. Or she doesn't know the answer, in which case the adult is distracting her from her deep and meaningful studies to play a guessing game.

In a moment, these stupid questions take a child who is engaged in testing her world, which is her proper role, and turns her into a test taker, forced to answer other people's questions rather than pursue the answers to her own.

If it's important that the child know these specific colors and numbers at this specific moment, and it probably isn't, then we should do the reasonable thing and simply tell her, "That's red," or "I have three marbles." If it's not new information, and it probably isn't, she's free to ignore you as she goes about her business of learning. If she didn't know, now she does, in context, as she goes about her business of learning.

This is probably the greatest crime we commit against children in our current educational climate of testing, testing, and more testing. We yank children away from their proper role as self-motivated scientists, testing their world by asking and answering their own questions, and instead force them to become test takers, occupying their brains with our stupid questions.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2016


I didn't see the time, I waited half my life away . . . Waiting for the miracle to come. ~Leonard Cohen

The weather forecasters had been telling us all week to expect a big storm on Saturday evening. It was going to hit right around dinner time and was to be the storm of the decade, if not beyond. It was the remnants of a typhoon that had made its way across the Pacific Ocean from Japan, winds were going to be in excess of 60 mph., and we were advised to make sure our emergency kits were up to date.

This was actually one of three major storms headed our way, a Friday, Saturday, Tuesday succession that I worried was going to impede the departure of folks who had travelled from Greece, Iceland, Australia, Canada, and the UK to take part in last week's International Play Iceland conference here in Seattle. Friday's storm hit us just as forecasted, a wet, wet atmospheric river that flowed through the city without much wind. It had been so wet that for the first time in Woodland Park history, we cut our outside time short by 15 minutes because some of our two-year-olds were so saturated they were shivering.

To be honest, I was looking forward to the big one on Saturday. Naturally, I didn't want anyone to be hurt and I wasn't rooting for major property damage, but I've always been drawn to nature's power. When visiting the Midwest for a family reunion, my daughter and I more than once rushed out into thunderstorms (a rare phenomenon in the Pacific NW), making the cousins think we were crazy. Sometimes we would dress from head to toe in our best rain gear and drive over to West Seattle to stand in a spot where storm waves could crash over us. My girl now off the college, my plan for this storm was to just sit in the living room and watch it through the windows.

The timing couldn't have been better for our international guests, all of whom either made it out ahead of the impending storm or weren't scheduled to leave until the following day. It was a successful conference, and I enjoyed helping to host, but as you might imagine, I had awoken on Friday feeling the full effects of the "let down" that often follows a much anticipated event. For weeks I'd been losing sleep over the duties and responsibilities of being the host of something like this. It wasn't as if there was a lot for me to do exactly, because the Play Iceland team was on top of things, but I had nevertheless become increasingly consumed with the process of waiting for the all those visitors to arrive for a week in my hometown.

On Saturday morning, the conference behind me, I stayed in my PJs until noon, a luxury I'd not had for several weeks, reveling in what I felt was well-earned exhaustion, but the whole time I was aware that the big storm was on its way, just as I'd been aware for weeks that the conference was on its way.  In the afternoon I pulled myself together and went to the store for bottled water, extra flashlight batteries, four kinds of cheese, a big box of crackers, cans of tuna, and a few other items that I felt would help my wife and I weather the storm should we lose power. We were being warned to be prepared for power outages that lasted days, not hours.

And then I sat in my living room and waited. I made sure our electronic devices were fully charged. I did a load of laundry. I ate some of our more perishable food for lunch. But mostly I sat in my living room anticipating the storm by following its progress on the internet. I watched impressive video of it hitting first the Oregon coast and then, moving northward, the Washington coast. Locally, things were still. Blue sky still occasionally peaked through the clouds. One forecaster said it was "the classic calm before the storm."

My wife was waiting with me. We began snacking from our storm supplies, especially the cheese. Those final hours were almost like a countdown. I could hear a few people outside going about their Saturday evening business. At 6:30 p.m., when the storm was supposed to hit, a few of the trees started moving a bit more animatedly and the sky darkened a bit -- of course, that might have been my imagination as well. I stood in the living room window for the next 15 minutes, watching for the storm, waiting for it. I began to worry that maybe we had eaten too much of our storm supplies. I wondered if I had time to rush back to the store to replace them. Fifteen more minutes passed and then it started.

Within seconds the winds went from nothing to a rage accompanied by driving, sideways rain that swept the street in waves. I saw a man on a bicycle struggling to ride into the wind before finally dismounting. A couple with an umbrella were pushed back across the street they were attempting to cross and blown into a doorway. How could they not have known about the storm? Didn't they know they might be stuck in that doorway for hours?

I stood in the open window, elbows on the sill, listening to the sound, feeling the intense, damp wind on my forearms. Within minutes the entire intersection below my apartment was several inches deep in water, a flood that caused brave/foolish pedestrians to detour nearly half a block to cross the street. This was what we had been promised. It's what I'd been waiting for this past week, this past day, these past few hours. Indeed, I realized as the storm raged, it was, at least in part, what I'd been living for.

And then, after 10 minutes, as suddenly as it had started, it was over. For awhile I figured that there must be another wave coming, that perhaps the storm was just turning and would rotate back over us in a few minutes, but wait as I might, it never came. After a half hour, I let myself believe it was over. The internet told me that part of the Eastlake neighborhood had lost power. When I went out to walk the dog an hour later, I found a couple of branches down, and the flooded intersection had already drained.

When as children we had wished it was Christmas morning, Mom would caution us, "Don't wish your life away." I thought of that in the mini-storm's aftermath, in the aftermath of my week as a host. What had I missed in my waiting? I could see in the clarity left behind after that short, dousing storm all the minutes, hours, and days I'd lost in the posture of waiting for the miracle to come, no doubt missing the unanticipated miracles that each moment holds.

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Monday, October 17, 2016

One Of The Secrets

Whenever I put a board game on a table, usually our blue table, children bunch together around it. Because we're a cooperative, I have the luxury of also putting an adult at that table, who can, should the need arise, read the rules and coach the kids on how to play it. Sometimes that's how it goes, but most of the time, the adult's job is to sit back and, at my request, "keep track of the pieces," while the kids make it up as they go.

Growing up, we were a family of five, and mom loved her board games, so we would often gather around the dining table for a round or two of Parcheesi or Life after dinner. Every year Santa would bring the family a new game that we played together on Christmas morning, a tradition that remains to this day. As a boy, I would sometimes get a hankering for spinning the spinner or rolling the dice when there was no one able or willing to play with me, so I would set the game up on my bedroom floor and play by myself, assuming control of all the pawns. I once spent several hours playing four hands of Monopoly keeping a running tally of which properties were landed on the most over the course of a full game. (For those interested, the top five in order were Illinois Ave., Indiana Ave., New York Ave., Kentucky Ave., and St. James Pl., which is why I always covet the red and orange properties.)

Parents often complain/boast that their child is into video games, but the more likely truth is that they are simply into games, it's just that most video games are designed to be played solo whereas board games, my own experience aside, really require others to bring out the most fun and that can be a difficult hurdle with smaller families and busier parents. But for any parents looking to get their kid to put down the iPad, I reckon a family game night would do the trick. 

The game in these pictures is one from my own boyhood, a game called Booby Trap. A big part of the attraction is the "gadget," a spring loaded bar that applies tension to those little discs. The object of the game is to carefully remove those discs one at a time without causing the bar to move. Sometimes the children play it that way, but last week, they made up their own turn-taking game that involved collecting your favorite color as fast as you can while squealing each time the bar snapped shut a bit more. At any given moment last week there were four or five heads bent over that game, bickering, negotiating, and agreeing.

It's gotten so I put a game on that table almost every day. Sometimes we play by the printed rules, but most of the time not. Indeed, the children have taught me that there is no wrong way to play a board game, just so as long as everyone agrees to the rules. And ultimately that may be their greatest attraction: they teach us to make it up as we go along in consultation with the other people, which is also, not coincidentally, one of the secrets to living a satisfying life.

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