Tuesday, September 27, 2016

No Translation Required

The father of one of our students recently drew my attention to this WNYC podcast on how video games, rather than being "just an escape," can actually be good for you.

He wrote:

Interesting listen. The opposite of play is not work indeed! . . . (L)ots of research seems to be done on this topic, but not necessarily on the non-virtual version of play, as it's tough to put a kid on a swingset into an fMRI machine. Both version are part of our future of course, but take the same podcast and substitute "play" for "video game play" and I imagine similar benefits result.

I tried his mental experiment on the text synopsis of the podcast and it worked quite well (bold represents where I replaced "game" or "video game" with the word "play"):

  • "After wading through tons of research, she found that play is a wonderland of possibilities to make us smarter, happier, and more creative people."
  • "So play isn't just an escape? Nope, it doesn't have to be. Jane says that the key to finding positive emotions and empowerment is to ground your play in real life."
  • "In fact, play can help cope with depression and combat anxiety . . ."

As a type of play, of course, it makes sense. Research on any kind of play finds these benefits and more. The key difference is that we need no "dosage" warnings when it comes to the swingset. And that's where we need caution when it comes to our children and video games: you simply can't overdose on swings, like one can with video games.

Even this article in praise of video games draws a distinction between video game play and other types of play:

So when you're trapped in Minecraft, don't give up and walk away, trudge on. Fight. Or use creative problem-solving to get to the next level. Those skills or resources will spill out from the virtual world and into the real one.

The key difference being, of course, that the child on a swingset is already developing those "skills or resources" in the "real world," no translation from the "virtual world" is required.

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Monday, September 26, 2016

Helpers In A Crisis

He was having a prickly day. Things were not going his way. He'd been in tears or enraged several times already, the toys with which he wanted to play were already being used, the other kids weren't doing what he wanted them to do, and the adults were failing in their attempts to make it all better.

He sulked up to the swings where he could be alone, hanging limply in one of them, using his feet to get a little momentum going, but without vigor.

I'd made various forays in pursuit of bucking him up: a hand on his back; chit-chat about the makes and models of cars, his hobby; an inside joke. I'd managed to get him to smile a couple times, to lean into me, to take me up on my offers of friendship, but we already like each other so it might have just been out of politeness. Right now, as he swung, I was keeping my distance, watching him deal with his prickly day in his own way.

After a few minutes of just hanging there, he tossed back his head and without volume or urgency, to no one at all, called, "Help."

I didn't move, nor did anyone else, and he didn't look around for a response either, lolling his head back to look up into the trees, tugging a little with his arms as if trying to get the swing going like that. Then louder, "Help!"

Still, I was the only one who heard him. The other adults were busy in other parts of the outdoor classroom. His closest friends were engaged in canal building in the lower half of our sand pit, an activity that for them usually involves lots of shouting out to one another, which makes it hard to hear cries of help from all the way at the top of the hill.

"Help! Help! Help!"

As his cry became more insistent I moved closer. I said, "You're calling for help."

"I want someone to push me." He wasn't asking me to do it. All the kids know I don't push kids in swings.

I nodded, "Like those kids over there?"

Sourly, "I don't care. I just want someone to push." Then, "Help!"

"I think you'll have to be louder."


That's when someone other than me finally heard him. 

"Oh no, someone needs a rescue!"

"Who is it?"

"To the swings!"

Most of the kids dropped their shovels as they swarmed in pursuit of his cries, "Help!"

Once there, they didn't need to be told what he needed. They got to work, helpers in a crisis, pushing their classmate who was now grinning ear-to-ear, still saying "Help," but with a laugh, the first I'd heard from him all day.

After awhile of being twisted, turned, pushed and pulled, all of which delighted him, he said, "Okay, okay, that's enough." When the kids ran back to their canal digging project, he ran with them.

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Friday, September 23, 2016

The Lifecycle Of Loose Parts

Earlier this week I wrote about dismantling one of our old shipping pallets so that it would fit in the dumpster. Yesterday we did the same to a second one. All this deconstruction was done because we've recently received four fresh new pallets and it was time to dispose of the old, rotting ones. Coincidentally, I recently came across four lengths of 2X4 in a "free" pile at a construction site near the school.

On Monday, Teacher Rachel and I, while goofing around with the new loose parts, discovered that if you stand a pair of shipping pallets on their sides and slide a couple 2X4's between the slates of one pallet and then another, you create stable, opposing walls. The kids immediately called our creation "the house," and have been clambering on it and adding to it all week.

These pallets are much heavier than the ones we usually have around the place and I was a little worried that they would be too much for the kids, but they proved me wrong. We've learned that it takes at least six kids to shift one, which means there's been a lot of, "We need help!" being shouted from the vicinity of the house.

One child, one day, experimented with the exclusionary statement, "This is my house," attempting to bar the door with his body, but the other kids simply said, "No it's not" and overwhelmed him much the way the flying monkeys did Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.

The house has emerged up near the swings because that's where the pallets had been delivered. One afternoon, a team of four-year-olds used the house as a fort to protect themselves from a second team who were swinging on their bellies, scooping fists full of wood chips, and hurling them at the ramparts.

One wall of the house is called the "tippy part" or "teeter wall." A long plank of wood was inserted through the pallet slats at an angle. When the kids stand on the end inside the house, the wall remains firmly in place. When they climb out onto the end outside the house, the wall tips outward by a foot or so before the maze of 2X4's holding the structure together provide a stop, preventing the wall from falling all the way to the ground.

Yesterday, as I was leaving, I discovered that one corner of the house is being used to stash a hoard of "jewels" (florist marbles).

Sooner or later an enterprising team of children will take it upon themselves to remove some of the 2X4's, perhaps as materials for another project, but most likely motivated by the proposition, "Let's see if we can," then the house will collapse and its parts will be commandeered for other purposes. Then one day a few years from now we will drag the pallets down to the workbench and dismantle them.

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Thursday, September 22, 2016


I've been trying to think about whether or not I've ever experience true joy while all alone. I've certainly had happy moments: feeling satisfied upon completing some laborious or challenging task, experiencing elation upon learning that my sports team was victorious, opening the mail to find I've been accepted or approved.

But joy? If I've ever experienced joy while all alone it was either too fleeting to remember or I was compelled to immediately take my good news or epiphany or whatever into the company of others.

Of course, there can be great peace in being alone and we've all felt pride in our solitary achievements, but true joy, I think, is something that requires our fellow humans. As adults we may think that children come to school to learn things, and they do, but I've found that the reason most children want to come to school is to experience joy. I see it every day.

Some children are naturals. They arrive, embrace their friends, sometimes literally, laugh, and proceed to revel in their joy. Others are not so quick to warm. They possess a constitutional caution, one that causes them to be wary of strong emotion or that makes them suspicious of their fellow man, at least until the ice is broken. It may take these children longer to get there, they may not want to come to school because as introverts (and I use this term in the original Jungian sense), they find the other people exhausting, and they aren't always convinced they're up to the challenge. But if allowed their time and space they are always driven toward the joy that can only be found in the other people.

As an introvert myself, I understand the struggle. For decades, I sought to find joy in solitary pursuits, but I've finally come to the place where I know I need the rest of you, every day, if I am going to find it.

Here at the beginning of the school year, there are still many children who are uncertain about the rest of us. Perhaps we are too noisy or too unpredictable or simply too much for them. Some of them would rather be somewhere else. It's not our job to hurry them. They already know about joy, of course: they've already found it within their families, in those moments when time stands still and there is nothing left but the connection we feel with one another. They've known it exists for their entire lives, but now, here at school, amongst the strangers, the pathway to finding it is not so readily apparent. I cannot hurry them because the journey to joy is an individual one we each must take at our own pace and in our own time.

Yesterday, a girl I've known for two years, one who has never been happy about her mother leaving her at school, or anywhere for that matter, a girl who has rarely even spoken to her classmates, opting instead for me or another adult to help her endure her time without mommy, finally found it. She was on the swing as a friend pushed her. They were laughing together, chatting, the rest of the world beside the point, their faces flush with the joy of connection, a glimpse of things to come and, finally, a reason to come back tomorrow.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Necessary Work

Our old shipping pallets were looking a little shabby. They weren't yet hazardous, but a few of the boards were cracked and I judged that it wouldn't be long before rusty nails would be exposed. A parent had access to some fairly new, solid, clean heat treated pallets and delivered them over the weekend. This meant was time to get rid of the old ones.

They were too bulky to fit into the dumpster, so they would need to be dismantled, a project I had neither the time or inclination to undertake. From my time as the communications manager at the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, I learned from the great consultant "Honkin'" Bill Oncken that this is called a "monkey," it was on my back, and the first priority of a good manager is to try to get it off your back by delegating it to someone else. Now you would think, being a cooperative with lots of parent-teachers around the place that my first thought would be to find an adult to do the work, but when it comes to getting necessary projects done around the school I've trained myself to first think, "Can the kids do it?"

I thought, with adult support, that the kids in the 4-5's class might be up to it, so I dragged one of them down to the workbench, got out our box of hammers and got to work. The first thing I realized was that the pallet was in much better shape than I thought and it wasn't going to be easy to pry all those boards apart, but by then there were already a half dozen kids going at it.

A couple of them spent some time figuring out how the thing was put together, realizing that the claw-end of their tools were going to be their best friends, but most of the kids just got busy sort of randomly hammering the wood. I turned my attention to supporting the claw-end workers. There were a few loose spots where we could get under the wood for prying, but mostly we found that the wood was too tightly nailed together. After some effort, I managed to work my tool into a few spots, and with great effort, got something going, which I then turned over to the kids who primarily used their many hands to complete the job.

Right away, we noticed the long, sharp rusty nails that came out with the boards we removed. We decided that we should be careful and that it sure was "lucky" that the little kids weren't around to get hurt on them.

We struggled like this for a time, then in frustration, I decided to try using one hammer to pound the claw-end of a second hammer under a tight joint. It worked, leaving us with a hammer handle lever upon which the kids could now more effectively apply their brute force. By now we were down to a core group of four workers. They all wanted me to hammer their hammers into tight joints and working both independently and together we managed to use this technique to pry off most of the boards on one side, leaving the boards on the other side exposed.

As we worked, the kids, many of whom had started off tentatively and without clear purpose, had now become more assertive and purposeful with their tools, using them in an increasingly meaningful way.

The prying mostly done, we now returned to hammering away at the bottom boards. As each board came off, a kid would carefully walk it away from where we worked, making sure to not hit anyone, keeping a close eye on those exposed, rusty nails, and deposited it in the trash can. Occasionally, a friend would approach the workbench, often with a toy in hand or some other invitation to play, but the workers warned them off, echoing the words I've often used to create a climate of caution and respect around the workbench: "We're working here," "There are hammers and rusty nails here," "No toys at the workbench." To which I added, "If you want to help, there are hammers and eye protection right over there."

Just as the two-year-olds had worked together to do the necessary work of putting chairs around the art table last week, these older kids worked together to do the necessary work of dismantling the old pallet. This is what it means to be part of a community, voluntarily pitching in, working hard, thinking about the little kids and the hazards, discussing, debating, struggling, and figuring things out. This is how we make a community our community.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Trying To Make Water Flow Uphill

A drinking glass holds water, but only if you hold it the right way. Tip it too much one way or another and you lose control of it as it spills onto the floor. A bucket also holds water in much the same way, but if I take it by the handle and swing it with enough velocity, the centrifugal force created will hold the water in place. I know that a sponge can hold water too, at least until I squeeze it. Same goes for paper towels. If I put water in a bottle and screw the lid on tightly I can make the water swirl and wave without losing a drop. I can direct the flow of water, at least for a time, by building channels and understanding that it moves according to gravity. I don't even try any more to make it flow up hill. I can't hold water in my hand for long unless I freeze it, and even then it eventually leaks through my fingers. I can turn it into steam with heat and use its energy to drive machinery. I can add salt to it so that things float more buoyantly on its surface.

Every adult human knows these things about controlling water. It's the stuff of universal knowledge. Water behaves the same everywhere, throughout history, without variance. We can make reliable predictions about water, including that water will always ultimately defy our efforts to control it, leaking out, evaporating, or changing course as it follows the much larger arc of mother nature's purposes. But as far as human time is concerned, we can "own" water and make it do our bidding.

From the wider perspective, of course, it's water that controls us. We've evolved as animals, at least in part, according to its demands. It does this by being utterly unchangeable; a condition of life that we must accept. Water has nothing more to learn. Water has always existed in its final, perfected state.

We living beings, however, have always been and always will be in progress, our perfected state anticipated by religion perhaps, but it always takes death to achieve it. Philosophers and poets often compare this progressive feature of humanity to the flow of a river, and while that metaphor may reveal important things about ourselves, we are really nothing at all like water. For one thing we're nearly impossible to predict and control. That's because it's in our nature to learn, and to do that we must play, a process that is defined in part by its unpredictability.

Scientific American discusses the phenomenon of how, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, preschools are increasingly trying to control children's learning through more lectures, flash cards, and tests, teaching them tricks to impress their parents, and putting these same children at much higher risk for long-term mental health problems:

Perhaps most disturbing is the potential for the early exposure to academics to physiologically damage developing brains. Although the brain continues to change throughout life in response to learning, young children undergo a number of sensitive periods critical to healthy development; learning to speak a language and responding to social cues are two such domains. Appropriate experiences can hone neural pathways that will help the child during life; by the same token, stressful experiences can change the brain's architecture to make children significantly more susceptible to problems later in life, including depression, anxiety disorders -- even cardiovascular disease and diabetes . . . asking children to handle material that their brain is not yet equipped for can cause frustration. Perceiving a lack of control is a major trigger of toxic stress, which can damage the hippocampus, a brain area crucial to learning and memory.

Despite this, preschools are increasingly ditching their play-based curriculums in favor of this kind of toxic direct instruction.

"Scientists are baffled," says Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley. "The more serious science we do, the more it comes out that very young children are not designed to do focused, goal-directed behavior . . . but are to a phenomenal degree very sophisticated about learning from the things and the people around them."

I'm not particularly baffled. The more I read about these corporate education "reform" efforts, the more I come to understand that this is about inexperienced people and their craving for control. Lurking in there is the crazy idea that if we treat education like a predicable, mechanistic system of some sort, we'll be able to manufacture brilliant little minds, all filled up with the names of the countries in Asia or the various species of whales. That if we just put them in the right containers, direct them into the proper channels, or boil them at just the right temperature, we'll have a generation of little knowledge machines ready to set loose on the world. In this vision, teachers need only be technicians, or perhaps mere factory workers, trained to adjust the dials and read the gauges.

This, of course, is like trying to make water flow uphill, with the added sickening bonus that you risk damaging their brains. I think it's because these otherwise intelligent people have so little experience with the process of education that they don't understand the basic principles of how young children actually learn. They don't have the experience to know that the method and the order in which children learn things, the process of learning, is far more important than any trivia you try to cram into their heads. They are trying to push this water up hill because they've not played with it enough to understand that it's simply not in water's nature to flow up hill. In this way, they are showing themselves to be very poorly educated, at least on the topic of education.

It's as if these people are working from the perfected template of a theoretical child, one that they can predict and control the way they might water, a concept they've developed after spending a few hours observing children through one-way glass. Classroom teachers, those of us who have spent years and decades immersed in children's learning, know that they come to us ready to learn everything they need to know, in fact learning it already, usually in spite of us. Experienced teachers know that they spend most of their days racing to just keep up with their charge's natural inclinations and curiosities that carry them in directions often entirely unpredictable and uncontrollable. Much of what I do after making sure they don't kill themselves or one another is to get out of the way. That's much of what teaching is.

The puzzles in the accompanying photos always been moderately popular with our 4-5 year olds. I'd had them out earlier in the year and they kids had been frustrated with them, many being reduced to tears, despite the fact the the official label on the box said they were for "3 and up." Many of the kids had needed a lot of adult coaching to get through them, which is a sure sign that they're not ready for them. I predicted, however, that while many of them still aren't natural puzzlers, enough of them had advanced enough in their puzzling skills by now that at least if help was needed they could help one another. And sure enough, that's how it went. Instead of struggling with the puzzles one-on-one, the children, with no adult instruction, paired up to coach one another.

So there you have it, education "reformers," free of charge, a genuine predictable outcome that took me ten years to finally learn to anticipate. It didn't teach them anything about the nations of Asia or the species of whales in the ocean, but the children did spend a lot of time talking, sharing space, strategizing, taking turns, and generally "just playing," learning from the things and people around them as they are "designed" to do. 

These results are valid until the next time we get out these puzzles with an entirely different set of children, who may or may not take it where this group did. And guess what? No risk of brain damage.

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Monday, September 19, 2016

Making It Their School

On the first day of school, our 2-year-olds have no idea what to expect. Sure, some of them have met me, some have visited the school, but none of them have ever been part of a full morning at Woodland Park, which is why many of them are nervous even with their parent attending school with them as parents do in a cooperative. Most kids won't be comfortable at school until they've internalized the schedule. Indeed, the curriculum for our first several weeks is essentially learning about the routines and procedures that underpin our days together.

As many of you know, I use a drum to signal transitions. Last week, I used it to signal "clean up time." Being the first day of class, it was a signal for the parents to start packing things away, to clean paint brushes, to drain the water from the sensory table, although as time goes on I know the children will start hearing it as a signal for themselves. Of course, many of the kids participated anyway, imitating the adults as they put blocks on the shelves, collected small items into storage bins, and put play dough into plastic bags, but most milled about knowing that something was happening, but not exactly what. 

Our large easels needed to be moved so I made a show of it, "I need strong muscles to help me move these easels!" A couple of kids joined me as we slid the first one across the floor. Four children helped me move the second one. Now it was time to move the big green-topped table into its place. When the easels are part of the classroom set-up, I stash the art table on its side against the radiator. A half dozen kids joined me in wrangling the big table, still on its side, to its spot where the easels previously resided.

As we pulled the table I named my helpers, one at a time, saying things like, "This is our school and we're taking care of it together."

When we got the table into place, I said, "Okay, now we need to push the green side," and as they pushed I gently lowered the table onto it's legs, my team now up to a half dozen kids.

I finished by saying, "Now we need some chairs around the table," then turned my attentions to other matters.

Several minutes later, the blocks put away, I turned to survey the room to make sure we were ready to head outside, when I spotted our art table. The kids had not put some chairs around it, they had put all the chairs around it. On the first day of school these 2-year-olds had continued working on the project on their own, making it their own, with no guidance or prompting from the adults, working until it was done to their satisfaction.

They had already made this their school and were already taking care of it together.

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