Tuesday, May 22, 2018

"Ready, Guys?"

There are four wheelbarrows on our playground. Yesterday, a boy climbed into the bed of one, leaned a bit too far toward the front and found himself dumped onto the ground. He thought that was hilarious and did it again, then again. After a time, his friends noticed and they crowded around, asking for a turn. He obliged.

Soon, they had mastered the solo tip-and-fall, so began experimenting with two, then three kids per barrow dump. Once they had played the challenge out of that, they explored how they could dump themselves over the sides, a technique that required someone on the outside managing the handles, "Ready, guys?"

When they tried dumping one another toward the handles, they discovered a kind of equilibrium, a sort of wheelbarrow teeter totter with one kid in the bed, while the other put his weight to the handles. The boy in the bed found that he had to shift his weight back and forth for it to work.

After a while, the wheelbarrow wound up fully upside down. They tried sitting on the wheel facing toward the handles. The tried it with two bodies. One boy then turned around to face the wheel, using the wheelbarrow leg supports to support his weight while rapidly spinning the wheel with his feet. Everybody then needed to try that. As they awaited their turns, they found other things to do, such as squeezing under the overturned wheelbarrow bed through the tiny crack between it and the ground.

"Hey guys, look! I'm a turtle with a wheelbarrow shell!"

I laughed at his joke, but no one else did, because by now the rest of them were out of earshot, finished with the wheelbarrow, having moved on to a game involving a small trampoline that was missing three of its six legs.

Someone had installed a stick pony as a lever and as they took turns stepping on the trampoline, he would put his weight to the lever causing them to fall onto the ground. They had crowded around, asking for a turn, and he had obliged.

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Monday, May 21, 2018

Discovering What The Other People Are For

Both of the boys have older sisters and one of them has a twin brother, so they have lifetimes of experience in living in a world with other children. I know they love their siblings, these people who are raising them as much as their parents are, but those have always been "arranged marriages," so to speak, people with whom they have by the circumstances of their lives been thrust. It's not the same as getting to chose a person, the way we do when someone becomes our friend.

When I first began teaching two-year-olds, parent educator Kate Kincaid told me, "They're all independent suns around whom the universe revolves," and while I might today be more inclined to compare this stage of their lives to one of those two star solar systems in which mother and child orbit one another, I've found the metaphor to be largely apt. At the beginning of the school year they don't typically view the other kids as potential playmates, let alone potential friends, but over the course of the year it begins to happen.

On Friday, as I sat across the playground, I saw one of these boys take the other by the wrist. It looked to me like he was attempting to pull him along against his will. There was a moment during which they tugged against one another, one boy resistant to being pulled, the other insistent on doing so. I began moving closer in anticipation of a conflict, but before I'd taken more than a few steps, the boy being pulled managed to calmly pry those fingers from his wrist. Words I couldn't hear were exchanged, before they then took one another's hands properly, as equals, as friends, and began to walk together.

At first they just walked about the space, neither pushing nor pulling one another, following the contours of the playground. When one stepped up, he waited while the other stepped up. When one stopped, the other stopped. They were accommodating one another, working together, pointing, occasionally exchanging words that I was still too far away to hear.

Eventually, they came to the bottom of the concrete slide and opted for an ascent. They tried to do it while continuing to hold hands but the surfaces were too steep and slippery, so they freed their hands for scrambling and one after another climbed to the top. Once up there, they exchanged more words, gesturing, then apparently agreed to slide back down. The first one waited for the other and they slid down side-by-side, looking into one another's faces, beaming, as they did so. They agreed to do it again and again. Sometimes they agreed to take another track up or down. By now I was close enough to hear them. They were saying, "Let's . . ." the most magic of words.

These aren't the first butterflies to emerge from their chrysalid. We have witnessed the miracle of several first friendships over the past few months, but each time it's a wonder, these first steps in the journey of discovering what the other people are really for.

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Friday, May 18, 2018

"Okay, Now Pretend You're Going To Roast Me For Dinner"

Three girls were playing together on the outdoor stage. I approached just as a fourth girl asked them, "Can I play with you?"

This is tricky question to ask around a preschool because the knee-jerk answer is most often "No." Normally, I advise kids struggling to enter into an established play group to start by asking, "What are you playing?" or to simply state, "I'm going to play with you," or best of all, to simply drop to your knees and start playing. It still doesn't always work, of course, but I've noticed that kids who approach others like this are far more likely to have success.

In this case, however, one of the girls answered, "Sure, if you want to be an evil unicorn."

"I'll be an evil unicorn."

The girls then continued where they left off with both me and the newcomer listening on.

"Okay, pretend I'm on the bridge and you come along and push me off."

From what I could gather, the girl asking to be pushed off was a good unicorn. For the most part, she was directing the evil unicorns in how to torment her. They pretended to push her off the planks of wood they had arranged as a bridge, then she said, "Okay, now pretend you're going to roast me for dinner."

There was an old bicycle tire on the stage. The good unicorn knelt down in it. One of the evil unicorns held a couple of florist marbles. She put them on the good unicorn's back, saying, "These are so you'll taste better when we eat you."

"I'm already going to taste good."

"Yes you will, dearie, but these jewels will make you taste even better."

The evil unicorns went through some motions around their roast while the newest evil unicorn looked on, still studying the game before leaping in.

After a few seconds, the roast popped up, "I'm done now. Now you have to wash me off." She retrieved a faucet set up (a spigot with hot and cold knobs mounted on a board) that has somehow appeared on the playground this year. The evil unicorns used it like a hose. Then the good unicorn said, "Pretend the bridge is the table and you're going to slice me up." She walked out on the bridge again and curled up under the spigot, repeating, "Now slice me up for dinner, dearie."

At first, the good unicorns used the sides of their hands to pantomime slicing, then one of them said, "Pretend I'm going to slice you with my staff," referring to the large stick she had been wielding. They were interrupted by the newcomer calling out, "I don't want to be an evil unicorn. I want to be a good unicorn!"

"Okay, if you're a good unicorn then we're going to have to roast you for dinner. Get in the oven." The newly be-monikered good unicorn dutifully took her spot within the circle of the bicycle tire.

"But first you have to eat me," insisted the other good unicorn.

"Don't worry, dearie, we'll eat you first."

Then the newest good unicorn called out, "And eat me too!"

"Of course, dearie, of course."

(Fairy tales) tell children what they unconsciously know -- that human nature is not innately good, that conflict is real, that life is harsh before it is happy -- and thereby reassure them about their own fears and their own sense of self. ~Arthur Schlesinger

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Thursday, May 17, 2018

Playing With Garbage

Last week, we made what we've come to call "San Francisco kites." All you need is a breezy day, one of those thin plastic shopping bags, a piece of string, and you're in business.

In 2012, the city of Seattle has banned the use of those plastic bags that once littered our streets and filled the branches of our trees. It was an inconvenience at first, remembering to bring your own re-useable bags to the supermarket, but now it's second nature, like putting on a seatbelt or wearing a bicycle helmet. I continue to support the measure. I can see the difference it has made, but one of the unintended consequences is that they are no longer so easily accessible for us to use around the preschool for things like our simple kites or making rope with our homemade rope-making machine.

Across Lake Washington, for better or worse, the city of Bellevue where my parents live, continues to permit the use of these bags, so I've taken to illicitly importing them, like a smuggler during prohibition. Mom collects them for me and sends me home with several dozen every time I visit. I reckon it won't be long before Bellevue follows suit and then those bags won't be so easy to come by any longer.

In the meantime, we'll enjoy our simple pleasures, these wonderful kites made from garbage, this thumb in the eye of those who manufacture toys and craft supplies and curriculum materials to sell to preschools, making simple, joyful things complicated and complicit in the commodification of everything. A good childhood does not need to be purchased. It comes naturally in the form of things the rest of society has cast-off, like toilet paper tubes and scrap paper and old car tires and bits of wood left over from construction projects. It's such a cliche that it hardly bears repeating, but everyone knows that children have more fun playing with the box the Christmas toy came in than the toy itself.

So we will fly our kites as long as we can, joyfully, and when they are gone we won't weep but rather find some other garbage with which to play because we know there will always be garbage and playing with it, making it new again, is what children have always done.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Secret To Making It There Or Anywhere

Our daughter Josephine is a 21-year-old who found her passion by the time she was an eight-year-old and who has now pursued that passion to New York City, a place about which Sinatra sings, "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere." And from where I sit, it seems she is making it: pulling down the best grades of her life, earning money, landing internships, and finding plenty of time to play with her cool friends. As I recently shared a story about her, someone who has never met her interrupted to ask if she had been "gifted" as a child. I think she is gifted, of course, but not in the sense that is usually meant by the term. By most measures I'd say she has always presented as a fairly typical kid, good at some things (usually the things she enjoyed) and not so good at others (usually the things she didn't enjoy) which is more or less the way I'd describe myself.

We tried not to pressure her about school. We let her quit extracurricular activities when she wanted to quit. Finding something "boring" was more than good enough for me. And with few exceptions we didn't make her do things she didn't want to do. Of course, people warned that we were setting her up, saying things like, "How will she ever learn about perseverance?" They would caution that success only comes from putting our noses to the grindstone, while young, doing the things we don't want to do, every day as a matter of course, painting a portrait of life as relentless, competitive, and exceedingly difficult, at least if the goal was to "make it." It was easy for me to ignore them because I'd already figured out, even 21 years ago, that what they were saying was pretty much pure BS, the kind of BS that is spread by tightly wound people who take life way, way, way to seriously.

There is entirely too much of this kind of BS out there and its impact is compounded by the fact that it passes for wisdom in too many circles. Most of the time it's just BS, but it can also be toxic, like when parents worry that their five-year-old is "falling behind," a fear that too often drives well-meaning adults to expect junior to strive to be a champion at everything, just in case. And that's BS.

I've never had an instinct to lead children. My driving interest is to play with them, to listen to them, to make jokes, make art, make math, make engineering, to just make things, together. There's no "behind" because it's about learning in the wild, about the world, ourselves, and what it means to be ourselves in that world. That's the fundamental question we live to answer. Everything beyond that is BS.

There was a time when I would entertain myself with the cocktail party game of asking people if there was anything their parents forced them to do that they still do today. Most people couldn't think of anything and those that did always, always, cited piano lessons. Not violin lessons, not regularly attending church, not making their bed, not putting their nose to the grindstone. Indeed, it seemed that for most people, the moment their parents stopped compelling them, they ran like the wind. Yes, I'm sure that everyone can come up with exceptions to this rule, but you have to admit, it's largely true.

Putting one's nose to a grindstone is a waste of youth. Even thinking about the grindstone is an abuse. If there are grindstones in their future, and my own life is a testament that it is not inevitable, then they will learn how to deal with them soon enough, tragically. No, if there is a best time for making mistakes, for chasing dreams, for indulging one's passions, for just goofing around, it's in our youth.

As I watch the children I teach play, I see them making mistakes, chasing dreams, indulging their passions and goofing around. I don't wish wealth or fame or power or "success" on any of them. No, my hope is that they get to keep playing, throughout their lives, every day, doing those things that bring them peace and joy and love. Of course, there's crap they'll have to get through, but don't you think kids already know that? Everything they do is accompanied by pain and disappointment and conflict and fear. That's life. But when children play, when no one is harping on them about "success," but rather leaving them free to pursue their passions, it never becomes a slog. There are no grindstones. From where I sit, the only losers in life are the ones who waste it at the grindstone.

As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, "We are here on this earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different." Kids already know this. They show us that no one works harder, or perseveres more, than those who are farting around. And they also know to call BS when they see it. That is the secret to making it there or anywhere.

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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