Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Anarchists, In The Best Sense Of That Word

In yesterday's post, I wrote about how a group of preschoolers opened my eyes to a "new" kind of fairness, one that in many way one-upped my adult notions of justice. I was expecting everyone to share in the task of tidying up equally while the kids, it turned out, were perfectly satisfied when everyone simply fulfilled a role, whether or not the labor was divided evenly.

Now, in all honesty, children can also take the point of view that something is "unfair" because things don't go their way. We've all heard kids complain, "It's not fair!" when they're told they must, for instance, wait their turn or share their cupcake with a sibling, but I would assert that the unfairness they perceive has more to do with the adults compelling them to wait or share than the actual waiting or sharing. It's our knee-jerk adult idea that selfishness is the default setting that prevents us from seeing that.

When I sit down at our play dough table, there are often a half dozen kids playing with this limited resource. One of them almost invariably has the lion's share. When subsequent children approach, they often say, "I need some play dough." If the adults don't intervene, I've noticed that nine times out of ten, the child with excess will pinch off a handful and hand it over, expecting neither praise nor thanks. They might not do it as quickly as the adult would like, but that's because they are not reacting to a command, but rather considering a request. Adults too often label that pause as selfish reluctance, when in reality it's time spent in the process of thinking: She wants some play dough. I have a lot of play dough. I could give her some of my play dough.

When a child is using the swing and another child says, "I want a turn," if the adults don't intervene with their ideas about fairness, like "setting a timer" or "counting," the child on the swing almost always gives way within a matter of minutes: He wants a turn on the swing. I have been swinging for awhile. I could give him a turn.

I often wonder how we adults got this way, lacking faith in our fellow humans to share, take turns, and generally behave fairly without commands or rules or systems. Indeed, we act as if selfishness is baked into humans, as if our natural condition is "every man for himself," each vying against the other for advantages. But we're wrong. Anthropologists tell us that there is little evidence that our hunter-gatherer ancestors (95 percent of human existence) viewed fairness as something that needed to be imposed and because of that there was no need for any sort of hierarchy to control the behavior of others. Indeed, their social contract with one another seems to have operated more along the lines of what we today would call "anarchy," in the best sense of that word.

It wasn't until we gave up our hunter-gatherer ways in favor of the settled agrarian life that we invented the notion of "ownership" and discovered the need for commands, rules, and systems. Ownership was something that must be protected and others must be made, one way or another, to labor for the benefit of the owner. In the process of inventing property, we also invented selfishness.

Young children are born as hunter-gatherer style anarchists which is why they have no problem with defining justness in ways other than we do as adults. They know in their genes that it's unjust when those with more do not share with those who have less. They know that it is unjust when one person enslaves another be it with chains or wages. They know that it is unjust when one person gets to "use" the labor of another. They know it is unjust when one person gets to tell another person what to do. Of course, they can't put this into words, but I've seen it time and again in how they treat one another when left to think for themselves.

We then teach them to be selfish, because it's only through selfishness that our commands, rules, and systems make any sense at all. Meanwhile, when left to their own devices, children play together as anarchists, in the best sense of that word.

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Tuesday, January 30, 2018

My Adult Sense Of Justice

When I was a new parent, my mother told me, "All young children want from adults is attention. They don't care if it's positive or negative so you might as well give them the attention you want to give them, because otherwise they'll take it from you and you're not going to like how they do that."

A few years ago, a boy named River was just milling around while most of his classmates were busy putting Duplos into their plastic tubs. On any given day, there are always one or two kids who opt out of the project of tidying up the classroom. With my mom's advice in mind, I tried to ignore him, focusing my attention instead on the children who were engaged. There was a time when I might have made the effort to try to coax or cajole him into participating, but I'd learned through experience that if that's where I put my attention, that's where the rest of the kids would want to be, so instead I tried to ignore him even as his non-involvement offended my adult sense of justice.

Whenever I write about how we handle clean-up time at Woodland Park like I did yesterday, readers write to ask what we do about those who decline to participate. The short answer is nothing. I tend to let them go about their business as long as they aren't impeding those of us who are taking care of the classroom. That's what I did in River's case, asking him to move when he got in someone's way, but otherwise staying relentlessly focused on the children putting those Duplos into the boxes.

"Robert is putting away the Duplos super fast."

"Missy is looking under the cabinets for Duplos."

"Pat and Owen are are working together."

"This is our school and we're taking care of it."

Before long, the first of the plastic tubs was filled. That's when River sprang into action, leaping in from the sidelines to assertively snap a lid on the box, then snatching it away from the others to carrying it to its shelf. Again, my adult sense of justice was roused. That's not fair, I thought, The other kids did all the work and he stole their glory. None of the kids complained, but it irked me. Then, the following day, he did the same thing, so, in the interest of "protecting" the rights of the other kids, the ones who had done all the work, I decided I was going to try to prevent another repeat. So on the following day when I saw him once more avoiding the "hard work," I engaged him quietly off to the side, hoping to give the other kids the opportunity to experience the satisfaction of snapping the lids onto the boxes they had diligently filled.

As I whispered to him, we were interrupted by one of the other kids who insisted upon handing River the lid to the tub. I looked up to see the rest of the kids standing around it waiting for him to do the honors.

You see, instead of being resentful of River, they had come to accept that it was his clear and proper job to snap the lids onto the full boxes. It was my adult sense of justice that caused me to think something was wrong, whereas the kids harbored no ill-feelings. Indeed, they saw him as essential.

So yes, on any given day, there are two or three kids who don't pull their own weight, but it's not been a problem since I've learned to set aside my adult sense of justice and simply ignore them while focusing my attention on those who do. Perhaps the kids will one day develop this adult idea of justice, but I sort of hope not. In many ways, their concept of fairness is much more evolved than ours.

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Monday, January 29, 2018

Putting Away The Blocks

We don't tell the children at Woodland Park that they must take part when it's time to tidy up the place, but most of them, most days, do.

I signal that it's clean-up time by banging my drum, then the adults start making informative statements:

"It's clean-up time."

"The blocks go in these orange boxes."

"I see a block on the floor."

The power of informational statements is that instead of commanding children (e.g., "Pick up the blocks," "Put them in the orange box," "Stop playing, please"), we create a space in which children can think for themselves instead of just react: It's clean-up time, there's a block on the floor, I can pick it up and put it away. When we command, even if we add the word "please" at the end, we leave children with only two choices, obey or disobey, while when we simply make statements of fact we greatly increase the odds that any individual child will make their own decision to participate.

The most powerful of the informative statements, I've learned, is to start naming names:

"I see Claudio putting away a long block."

"Sara and Monica are carrying a block together."

"Wow, Arnold is carrying five blocks!"

On Friday, I was making these sorts of informative statements as the two-year-olds were putting away our builder boards. One of the children was carrying a block atop her head. I said, "Amy is carrying a block on top of her head." Within seconds, nearly all her classmates had their own blocks atop their heads, each making eye contact with me as they passed me on the way to the orange boxes where we are temporary storing the blocks, waiting to hear their own name, so I obliged: "Claudio is carrying a long block on his head, "Sara is carrying a small block on her head," "Monica is carrying a medium block on her head," "Arnold is carrying five blocks on his head . . ."

It was not the most efficient way to put away the blocks, but that's hardly the point. When we were done with the blocks they then turned to the stuffed animals of their own accord, eager to keep carrying stuff on their heads, so I just went right on narrating the story of "us" I saw unfolding before me.

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Friday, January 26, 2018

Rolling In The Aisles

I probably shouldn't post this, but it was just so perfect and, I suspect, it's something almost every teacher my age has at one time or another been tempted to do.

It's been a fun week, but a long one, made even longer by the cold, wet weather. The kids have been cooped up more than usual, not at school, but in the rest of their lives, naturally. It shows up at school as the need to move, to shout, to rough house, and to laugh. It also means more conflict, more hurt feelings, and a general intensification of our time together. These are days when adults joke about there being a "full moon."

Yesterday afternoon, following a week during which we lived on the edge from moment to moment, terrific days, but intense ones full of big feelings, big bumps, and big weather, we assembled on the checker board rug to end our final day this week with a story. Some of the kids got hung up in the mud room, removing soiled boots and whatnot, so I was just goofing around with the baker's dozen who had made it through the obstacle course of door matts, sinks, toilets, and parents just arrived to to pick them up.

The kids were rowdy. One girl danced back and forth at the back of the room while the rest yucked it up over what I expect was the word "poop." There was a general almost out-of-control vibe.

I was suddenly 12-years-old again, a boy in a library study carol at the American Community School in Athens, Greece. It had finally been my turn to check out the Cheech & Chong comedy album. There were turntables in these special nooks and my friends and I, one-by-one, took our turns sitting alone and listening to what may not qualify as classic comedy, but nevertheless had a big impact on the younger me.

For better or worse, I began to channel the Sister Mary Elephant bit, the one where she says, starting meekly then ending with an all caps roar: "Class . . . Class . . . Class . . . SHUT UP!"

I said, "Class . . ." in a falsetto which drew their attention, something that it did not do for Sister Mary Elephant. I was so pleased with the effect that I said it again, "Class . . ." This time they laughed. Great, I thought, we can do this until the rest of the kids assemble. "Class . . ." Even more laughter.

Kids were trickling in as we played the game, meaning that each time I said the word "class" in that high pitched voice, the volume of their response rose.

Then by way of explanation, I said, "When I was a boy, there was a funny teacher named Sister Mary Elephant and she always said, 'Class . . . Class . . . Class . . .'" More laughter. They were all there by now, eyes on me. I was, for better or worse, doing a show so I went with it: "Class . . . Class . . . Class . . . SHUT UP!" The crowd went freaking wild. They wanted an encore, so I did it again. Then again. Then again. They were laughing from the bottoms of their bellies, looking into one another's eyes, laughing into one another's mouths, connecting through their collective joy.

Figuring that if I was going to be fired, this would be the way I'd want to go, we did it again and again and again. My throat is still sore. Next time, if there is a next time, I'll remember to finish with the polite, "Thank you," the way Sister Mary Elephant did. They'll be rolling in the aisles.

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Thursday, January 25, 2018

A Nooks And Crannies Solution

We're an urban school in one of the most densely populated cities in America. This is where our families are raising their children so I feel it's important that the school reflect that, just as every school should reflect the community in which is located.

In our case, that means that we must learn to live in close proximity with the other people, often bumping up against them whether we like it or not, learning to share both space and resources in ways that children from suburban or rural areas do not. It makes a blessing of the fact that our physical space tends to be compact and crowded, both with children and adults, continually accommodating and being accommodated. It means we have to talk to each other, a lot, as we negotiate and navigate, but it also means that we must also become expert at reading facial expressions and body language because living densely means always being conscious that there is someone else who may or may not be okay with what you are doing.

Of course, these are skills that all children must learn, but there is a special onus upon us because not only do we live in a place where we choose to live closely together, but we are also a community that values inclusion, cooperation, immigration, civil rights, science, and our natural environment, all of which are likewise values of our school. This means that we tend to take the posture of a community with open arms, always seeking to include everyone who seeks inclusion.

These are not just my values, but rather values we as a community talk about, both in the classroom and in how we seek to operate as a non-profit cooperative enterprise. We don't always succeed, but we at least strive in that direction in everything we do.

All this density and talking means that we can be quite noisy both auditorily and visually, a feature of urban living that we all deal with daily. Many of us, over time, become used to it. I, for instance, find it difficult to sleep without the hubbub of street sounds. Others must find techniques or strategies for carving out a bit of solitude amidst the din. For instance, the girl in these pictures accompanying this post really wanted to build with our Duplos unmolested so she dragged a box into the midst of the din and set up shop, hopping in and out as she needed more blocks, talking quietly to herself, contentedly, as she worked.

It's the sort of nooks and crannies solution that emerges from living closely with the other people, all the other people, the way we must at Woodland Park.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Our Queen

Yesterday it rained hard as we convened on the playground. Most days I try to role model playing in the rain, but this was quite a bit beyond our normal misty drizzle, so I ducked into the playhouse along with a clutch of four and five-year-olds. Someone suggested we play "family." Two kids chose to be "baby princesses" and one agree to be their mother, the queen. I said that I would be the "servant."

Our queen, a girl I've known for her entire life, commanded me, "Wash this plate." It was a joke.

I played along, "As you wish, madam" and pantomimed washing the plastic plate she had handed me.

She appreciated my turn of phrase.

"And cook the dinner!"

"Right away madam." My emphasis on the word made everyone laugh, our queen included. There was some hubbub as other children tried to bring their crime fighting game into the play house. I stepped out of character for a moment to explain what we were doing: "She is the queen, they are the baby princesses, and I'm the servant."

Someone asked, "What's a servant?"

I answered, "That means I have to do whatever the queen wants."

"That's right," agreed our queen, then turning to me, she demonstrated, "Wash that table!"

By now, she had fully adopted her role as imperious queen. I said, "As you wish, madam," again evoking general mirth, even from the crime fighters.

Someone found a large scrub brush among the debris that inhabits our space and our queen handed it to me, commanding me again, but this time fiercely, "Use this! Now clean the floor!"

"Right away, madam!"

We were interrupted again as others sought to join our game. I said, "She's the queen, they are the baby princesses, and I am the servant."

"What's a servant?"

"That means I have to do whatever the queen wants."

One of them asked, "Can I be a servant too?" We all agreed, sure, so now we were a staff of two. Our queen handed a plate to the newcomer, commanding, "Wash this plate!"

"I don't want to."

"Wash this plate!"

"I don't want to."

Our queen was going to try one more command, but stopped herself, instead handing the plate to me, saying, "Wash this plate!"

"As you wish, madam!"

Our queen, paused to appreciate that hilarious word, madam, then stepped up to me until her face was only inches from my own. She screamed, "Cook the dinner!" It was an act, a good act, informed I assume by the movies she's seen with mean queens bullying meek protagonists.

I said, "At once, madam!"

Then she announced, "Everyone to the roof!"

I replied, "Very good, madam!"

As the rest of us once more enjoyed the silliness of that word, our queen clambered the ladder to the upper deck. I was willing to follow her, but by now I was hemmed in by children either playing our game or watching our game. I can barely fit through the child-sized ladder hole so I have to ascend to the top by climbing the exterior of the structure. I was expecting at least some of the kids to follow her, clearing a pathway for me to do so as well, but not one of them budged.

Our queen called down to us, "Come up at once!" When no one responded, she shouted, "I command you to come up!"

One of the baby princesses said, "Madam," and everyone laughed. As we enjoyed the joke, our queen climbed back down, then as if nothing had happened she handed me a plate and said, "Wash this plate!"

"As you wish, madam!"

I don't expect or even want obedience from the children I teach. Indeed, I genuinely don't understand why anyone would ever want it from anyone, except perhaps by way of making things run more efficiently, like trains keeping to their schedule, the long suit of many dictators. I reckon that some of the kids come from families that expect at least a little obedience at times, although I'm confident that none of them regularly scream at their children like our domineering queen, even if they've had their moments, because impatience and frustration, as our queen demonstrated, is the natural state of one who would insist that others, even children, obey them. We had just been playing a game, but even then, I'm pleased that the baby princesses and others simply refused to be commanded. I'm pleased that our queen, throughout, despite the ferocity and screaming, was merely acting, playing a part she found comical.

Still, I think, it was a great experiment, playing with "tools" I hope the children I teach will never seek to pick up in the world beyond our little kingdom of pretend.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The More Time Your Child Spends Playing Outdoors, The Smarter She Will Be

At the beginning of the 2015 school year Seattle's Public School teachers were on strike. They had a list of demands, most of which were ultimately met, including the requirement that all elementary school children receive a minimum of 30 minutes a day on the playground. As pathetic as that victory might sound to those of us who live and work in the world of play-based education, some schools were limiting their charges to 15 minutes of recess over a school day. This is not an uncommon phenomenon in America and indeed many other parts of the world.

As heartlessly cruel as this sounds, it's the result of administrators and teachers who have bought into the entirely unsupported myth that more "instruction time" will result in "better results," and that every moment of free play, especially outdoors, is a waste of time. Meanwhile, 17 million children worldwide have been prescribed addictive stimulants (like Ritalin), antidepressants and other mind-altering drugs for "educational" and behavioral problems, over half of them in the US. Already one in ten American students are on these drugs and the fastest growing segment are children five and under.

And now this from the UK
Tests to assess . . . children's physical development at the start of the first school year found that almost a third to be "of concern" for lack of motor skills and reflexes. Almost 90 per cent of children demonstrated some degree of movement difficulty for their age . . . The tests suggest up to 30 per cent of children are starting school with symptoms typically associated with dyslexia, dyspraxia, and ADHD -- conditions which can be improved with correct levels of physical activity, experts say.

What's to blame? Lack of physical play is a big part of it, but there's more. According researcher Dr. Rebecca Duncombe:

"Young children have access to iPads and are much more likely to be sat in car seats or chairs . . . But the problem can also be attributed to competitive parenting -- parents who want they children to walk as soon as possible risk letting them miss out on key mobility developments which help a child to find their strength and balance."

And why do we have competitive parenting: because our schools, indeed our entire educational environment, is built around the idea of competition; around the cruel caution that "You don't want your child to fall behind." Bill Gates and his ilk have succeeded in "unleashing powerful market forces" on our children and this is the result. Because we have to get them ready for the "competitive job market of tomorrow," we've herded them indoors, where they spend their days locked in being force-fed "knowledge" like it's some sort of factory farm. It's so bad that we have to drug them. It's so bad that 90 percent of our four-year-olds aren't even getting the opportunity to learn how to move their bodies properly. The only other human institutions of which I'm aware that regularly drug and confine people are prisons and mental wards.

Instead of understanding the truth about young children -- that they need to move their bodies, a lot, and preferably outdoors -- we have created a very, very narrow range of "normal" into which we are forcing our children. This is outrageous. It's malpractice. And it's on all of us for letting it happen.

I usually try to end these posts on a positive or hopeful note, but the best I can do right now is to say that at least Seattle's Public School kids are getting their 30 minutes outdoors this year . . . Unless, of course, they are being punished, because taking away recess is one of the more common "consequences" for children who can't sit still and focus. And if they fail too often, we drug them.

Parents: the more time your child spends outdoors, playing, the smarter she will be. Create it at home and demand if from our schools. Teachers: the more time your students spend outdoors, playing, the smarter they will be. Create it at school and demand more of it from your administrators. This is the science. This is what we know about children. What's happening now is nothing short of institutionalized child abuse and we're all a part of permitting it to happen.

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