Won’t they get hurt?

“Do you think she’ll get hurt?”

As her daughter runs to join a snowball fight, a worried mom asks her companion in the movie The Bishop’s Wife. Dudley, played by Cary Grant smiles and says,

“Probably, but she’ll love it.”

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 We sometimes forget that the risk of getting hurt isn’t an excuse to not try something.

 

I recently visited Dodge Nature Preschool in West St. Paul ( http://www.dodgenaturecenter.org/ ).  It’s a beautiful setting, embedded in a nature center with more than 400 acres of woods, hills, marshland and a small farm. But that’s not what brought me here. I was here to photograph kids and adults embracing risk. And I was not disappointed.

 

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I saw children balancing on a slackline (with a second rope to hold onto). I saw children climb a steep hill, some using a rope and some merely stepping carefully. Some even ran down the hill at the end. There was a giant log that a few children straddled and slowly made their way across, others crawled and a few walked across, arms out to keep their balance. There were smiles and laughter. These kids had so much confidence.

 

 

 

 

But couldn’t these children hurt themselves?

Well, the short answer is yes. That’s what makes it so thrilling. But the teachers don’t have a disregard for safety, far from it. The teachers, Kristenza Nelson and David Longsdorf, are constantly assessing the risks the children encounter. What makes these teachers different is they also assess the benefits.

 

August 12 114For example the slackline was about one foot off the ground. At the beginning of the year, Kristenza and David have one child go on at a time and a teacher stays close and verbally encourages the child. As the children get comfortable, the teachers allow the children to go on together. Some children may choose to wait until they are the only ones on, but most find it both physically challenging and a great way to bond with friends. The teachers know that a child may fall and scrape a knee or elbow. They have band-aids if that happens. But the benefits far outweigh this risk. The children develop a sense of balance, build closer friendships, persist in a task that seems difficult at first, and gain self-confidence.

Oh, and they have fun.

When the children were crossing the log, Kristenza was next to the log, helping children when they needed it. She first helped verbally, but was ready to physically assist if a child needed an extra hand to balance. Then Kristenza noticed there were wasps on one part of the log. This was a risk that had very little benefit, and she quickly suggested they move on to Challenge Hill.

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On Challenge Hill, each child assessed the slope of the hill and the particular consistency of the dirt. There had been a lot of rain so there were grooves where some dirt washed away, but it was fairly solid. A few kids start right up without holding on to the rope. Others grab the rope and rely mostly on their arm strength. One child hangs back and David talks to her to help her assess how she might try to climb. Eventually everyone makes it up. A few go up and down several times. One child tries letting go of the rope to walk down. She falls and scrapes her knee. David asks if she needs help. She walks over and shows him her knee. They talk quietly and he puts a band-aid on her knee. She has a drink of water and she goes right back to climbing.

Kristenza and David were constantly assessing risks and benefits throughout the afternoon. They were supporting the children, rough awareness 2encouraging them verbally, and helping them physically. They showed as much care and concern for these children as any teachers I have seen. But they also showed trust in the children. And the children rose to the challenge.

And they loved it.

[I took a lot of photos, but I only had permission to use them in  my book and not my blog.  I used photos of my daughter and nephew for this blog (some at Dodge Nature Center.  You can see the actual photos next November when  my book comes out]

 

A Plea for Child Readiness

all families matter
all families matter

The term “School Readiness” has always bothered me. As a preschool teacher, I am not just getting children ready for school or even for kindergarten. I am helping them learn to be life-long learners. I want them to enjoy school, of course. But I want them to enjoy the people they meet at school and enjoy the things they do after school just as much. I want each of them to be a well-rounded person who finds their own way of fitting in to the world and offering something to the communities they find themselves in.

 

A blog post of Teacher Tom’s http://teachertomsblog.blogspot.com/2015/06/your-child-is-not-falling-behind.html

making a map

made me see another reason to dislike the phrase “school readiness.” It is often a euphemism for literacy; more specifically reading and writing. Too often I see programs focusing on “school readiness” put so much emphasis on reading and writing that they ignore speaking and listening skills. They miss out on the power of pretending. It often seems to me that these programs think that if you teach preschoolers like they are first graders, they will learn first grade material. This includes the idea of having them sit for longer periods of time and discourage them from moving their bodies until Outside Time.

 

 

I do believe that people create these programs with good intentions. I am from Minnesota where African American students in fourth and eighth grades are more than three grade levels behind white students in math, and they are more than two grade levels behind whites in reading. This is usually referred to as “the achievement gap,” but Dan Gartrell points out that it should be called “the education gap.” The first phrase puts all the responsibility on the children, but the second phrase points out it is a shortcoming of our education system.

 

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I also want to acknowledge that there is no golden age of education when we didn’t have an education gap. Frankly public education over the past century is filled with so many achievements that the bar has been raised. 1940 was the first year that half of the 17 year olds in the US graduated High School. Public schools have continued to improve on these graduation rates. The education gap we are talking about has always existed, but now we consider it unacceptable.

The sad truth is that our schools have never served most African-Americans well. The push for school readiness is understandable, but the problem is that too many schools are built on the same school culture that has failed. If we want all children to be ready for school, we need schools that are ready for children.

Children need to be moving. It is what is best for them in all developmental domains, cognitive as well as physical, social and even literacy. More and more evidence shows the importance of movement for learning at all ages. Meanwhile, there is plenty of evidence that sitting for long periods of time is bad for people of all ages. In the UK, there was a recommendation that 2 hours of an 8 hour office workday should be spent not sitting. Too many young children don’t even get that much time to move around.

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Those of us in the education world have to take responsibility for the education gap. We need to find ways for kids to play more, to move more and to express themselves more. We need to address the needs and interests of the children in our schools and childcare programs. We need to think less about school readiness and think more about child readiness.

It’s on us.

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The Highs and Lows of Body Awareness

 

I was having a conversation with Nancy Boler, a yoga instructor. I came into the conversation wanting to talk about ways to help kids relax or calm down, especially as they settle in for nap. I was telling Nancy about my desire to have a balance yoga 1to the roughhousing and other Big Body Play I am encouraging in my classroom. I made reference to wanting kids to be able to move from their excited state to a calm state.

rough awareness 1Nancy challenged me on the use of the word “excited” to describe roughhousing. She said, “It’s high activity, but not excited. It’s very focused. The kids are very aware of their body when they roughhouse.” She contrasted this type of play with playing video games where there is also a spike in adrenaline and an increase in the heart rate. However, the body itself is at rest. In this case there is a disconnection between the body’s actions and the body’s reaction.

 

In my head, I had been thinking of roughhousing and yoga as opposite sides of a balance with the body as the fulcrum. Butyoga 2 this conversation made me want to focus on the similarities. I thought of my limited understanding of the yin-yang. Roughhousing is high activity and (some) yoga positions are low activity, but both revolve around an awareness of the body.

rough awareness 2

 

 

 

 

This brings up another point that Nancy made. “I don’t think adults give children enough credit for self-regulation.”  If children exert themselves physically, they will eventually find a time to rest. Some kids will go from one extreme to the other. I have a niece who when she was three, would ride her tricycle up and down the sidewalk until she literally fell asleep. She had to be carried up to bed. Most kids, of course, have a transition between the two extremes.

I think we get into difficulty when children watch a movie or play a video game that gets them excited. I think most of these children will need to engage in some high activity get their mind focused on their body again. They could also do it by being very intentional with breathing exercises. Either way, I think it helps to think of it as balancing excitement with body awareness rather than excited and calm.

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Thinking about it this way helps me figure out how to interact with children who are playing actively soon before nap time in my classroom. A child who is playing pillow fight with others and laughing is already showing body awareness so it will be a matter of gradually lessening the activity. However, a child that is throwing pillows randomly and shouting seems to be in an excited state and in need of focus. If I throw a pillow at this child, I am offering myself as a target and focus for the play. I may need more physical contact (hugs, sitting on lap) as we move into quieting down for nap.

 

This idea of roughhousing as body awareness also gives me deeper appreciation for what the children are doing when they are playing rough. There have been studies showing that “play fighting” and “rough-and-tumble” play leads to social competence and group cohesion. I think this self-awareness that kids develop (in conjunction with impulse control that happens concurrently) is a big part of this social

 

 

All Feelings Are OK

I wrote this post last week while I was at the High Scope International Conference. I did a workshop on gunplay (and warplay and super hero play). I also was able to be a part of several great workshops. One workshop that really touched me was called Make Room for Boys by Gerin Martin and Sandy Slack based on their book of the same name. The book and workshop has tips for teachers on how to work with boys based on what we know about the development of boys.

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One of the things they addressed was the need for boys to express their feelings and for teachers to help them do so.   They talked about the need for boys to learn a variety of feelings not just “happy,” “sad” and “mad.”

 

 

picking apart a rotted log

 

During my workshop on gunplay, a participant talked about how boys express some scary things. I asked the question, “Is itOK for them to express anger?” I could have asked, “Is it OK for them to express fear?” Many participants at my workshop seemed uncomfortable with boys pretending to use guns or weapons. The person mentioned above, and I am sure others, worried about boys expressing violent fantasies.

 

 

What I find interesting is this reluctance of teachers to allow boys (and some girls) to express their fantasies because it is too “scary.” The fear isn’t about children engaging in actual violence, but pretending to engage in violence. Children often engage in this type of play to gain a sense of power, especially over fears that they have. In other words, this type of play is a way to express a sense of fear and power (and at times anger) without actually being physically aggressive.

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In fact when children engage in gunplay or superhero play, they show a great deal of impulse control by staying in the role they take on. The child in their role may shoot or otherwise attack “a bad guy,” but they stay in character and follow the rules of that character. For example Superman flies, but doesn’t use a gun. A police officer uses a gun, but doesn’t fly. We should be encouraging children to express their fears (and other emotions) in such a controlled and measured way, not trying to stop it.

hillside-93-600x267If we want boys to learn that it is okay to feel scared, frustrated, giddy, embarrassed, worried, overwhelmed and understand that everyone feels that way at times, we need to encourage them to express themselves through play (and in conversation). If they are not hurting anyone, they should be able to choose what they pretend even if an adult finds it scary.

 

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As Fred Rogers said, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”

Who needs Playgrounds?

I am a little behind on posting because I was at the High Scope International Conference last week. I had a great time and met many wonderful educators there. One of the workshops I took was about playgrounds presented by Betsy Evans. I am a big fan of her work on conflict resolution and children and she is one of the biggest influences on my own teaching practices. I was pleased to find that she started with a quote about the need for children to take risks. I have written about it in the post Real Confidence, and I am sure I will write about it more. Betsy talked about how playgrounds have eliminated risk and along with it, physical challenges for children. In other words, they are boring.

 

This made me think about the park I grew up near, Basset Park in Williamsville, NY. It was a public park with trees, rollingJudy's party 3 hills, a pond and dirt. It also had no playground, which meant you could have hours of fun. I can still picture the long sloping grass that led to the pond; the gully with exposed tree roots, bushes, and year-round mud; and the dirt path that led through the middle to allow emergency vehicles through. This dirt path had an area in the middle of the park with a few trees and several boulders.

 

 

 

 

August 12 114This area with the boulders was a favorite place to hang out. When I was younger, we usually pretended each boulder was an X-Wing fighter as we entered the world of Star Wars. The trees were escape routes as we tried to evade the Storm Troopers with our stick light sabers in hand, just in case.

 

 

 

 

 

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illustration by Marc Simont from A Tree Is Nice

illustration by Marc Simont from A Tree Is Nice

illustration by Marc Simont from A Tree Is Nice

 

As I got older, we still hung out in the same area, but we mostly sat and talked. I remember we would each find a seat at adifferent level, some on the ground, others on the boulders and others in the trees. I know that boys tend to talk without looking at the eyes of others so it may have been different for my sisters. This setting of trees and rocks was able to meet the needs of quite a few ages.

 

 

 

I recently saw this same effect when I was walking by a small playground. There were two teenage girls sitting in swings, a J Club October 5boy leaning against one of the poles of the swing set and another boy perched up on the top bar of the swing set.

I also noticed that they didn’t sit on the climbing structure which was full of what looked like cages, fences to prevent children from going off the edge. The structure had very distinct functions, you could slide over here, you could go up the steps there, or you could climb the ladder over there. Of course, children will try to find a challenge even when the apparatus fails to give them one. The structure was inhospitable to quite a bit of play and even relaxed conversation. The teenagers were doing fine although I couldn’t help think that some well-meaning adult would tell the boy to get down.

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illustration by Marc Simont from A Tree Is Nice

 

This playground had no good climbing trees, no rocks, no dirt. Surrounding the rubberized surface was a flat expanse of grass. There were soccer goals and in the evening coaches work with kids to teach them various soccer skills. I have nothing against organized sports, but I think people of all ages need time to just hang out without an agenda. Not only have organized sports cut into our unstructured time (kids and parents alike), but they have also cut into the availability of natural areas where people can sit at many levels, in sun or shade.

 

 

I don’t want to get all nostalgic about “the good old days” when kids could climb in trees and play in the mud. There were plenty of kids who didn’t have the luxury because they worked as domestic workers or in factories, or just taking care of the younger kids while their parents worked. I also know there were too many people that were physically or sexually abused (by adults and/or children). I am not longing for some far-off time, but I do hope we can learn from the past, the good and the bad.

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And trees have not gone away, of course. But I think many of us have forgotten the simple pleasures of trees, grass, dirt and rocks. We spend tens of thousands of dollars on commercial playground equipment when maybe we should be spending the money on landscaping. If we had more trees who needs playgrounds?

Seeing What They Can’t See

If children are going to be scientist, they also need tools. Tools can help children see things they can’t see otherwise. Magnifying glasses are often provided, but I have found that they don’t provide much that a child can’t see by looking closer. On the other hand, a portable stereo microscope is fairly inexpensive and can be brought outside. Unlike compound microscopes, which require specimens to be mounted on slides, stereo microscopes allow the specimen to be simply placed under the lens. Worms and insects can crawl under. Pine cones, leaves, or any object under four inches in width can fit and the lenses can be focused on different parts of the object. Children can often see patterns on wings and leaves invisible to the naked eye. For younger children who may have a hard time looking into the microscope, you can hold a camera to one of the eyepieces and children can look at the camera’s screen.

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In my preschool classroom, one girl watched a worm move across the base of the microscope. She noticed the setae on the worm help it move across the base of the microscope. After watching it, she held the worm and felt it tickle her hand. She realized she was feeling the setae. She had felt this before, but looking in the microscope helped her notice it.

 

 

 

 

 

Another way for them to “see what they can’t see” is to open up the object. Hammers, knives and saws can be used by children over the age of three with adult supervision. Hammers can be used to crack nuts and other hard objects. Pumpkin carving knives can be used to open many firm vegetables. Depending on the size of the group and the abilities of the children, other knives could be used as well. An adult should hold the object unless it is big enough to stay still on its own. Saws can be used to open many other things. You need to clamp the object down so the children don’t have to hold the object while sawing. In general, preschoolers only pay attention to one thing at a time so they shouldn’t have to worry about steadying the object while cutting it.

 

Several years ago I asked my class how a marker works. There were several theories, some more realistic than others. Then I clamped the marker to a workbench, and helped the children saw the marker open. Even the kids who had predicted accurately were amazed to see the color-filled cylinder. I have done the same with golf balls, soccer balls and a guitar (all broken).

 

Many appliances or machines can be opened with screwdrivers. An adult should open it first to assess any risk of injury from sharp corners or moving parts. Adults may also find that there is very little for young children to see to understand how the machine works. While children can’t open up every appliance on a whim, they may look closer and machines they may have otherwise looked right past.

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Giving children time and tools to explore the world around them, allows them to be the scientists researching the world around them. They are not just opening a walnut or a seedpod or a washing machine. They are opening a door to a new world. They are opening themselves up to wonder.

It’s the Journey Not the Destination

Just as early childhood educators emphasize the process, not the product for art, we should also emphasize the journey, not the destination.

looking at construction sign
looking at construction sign

 

 

Too often teachers take children on walks outdoors to get to a certain place. Every effort is made to make that walk efficient. Children are often made to walk in a straight line or hold a rope. This can keep the children from stopping to look at things along the way, but that is exactly the problem. We should be encouraging children’s curiosity, not stifling it.

 

 

 

There is so much learning that can happen in the neighborhood. I think the neighborhood (or surrounding area) should be thought of as an extended classroom. Obviously the type of learning will depend on the setting. If the program is in the country, children can visit a special place. Each child could even adopt a tree that they check on regularly. If the program is in the suburbs, the class might visit an elder (or a park or library). If there is construction nearby, visit regularly to watch the progress. In a dense urban environment, you might visit stores.

My center is in an urban neighborhood. The neighborhood is mostly made up of single family homes with front and back yards. We are two blocks from the Mississippi River. Since its inception over forty years ago as a parent cooperative, the center has been part of the neighborhood. One of the first teachers put it this way, “The neighborhood was the curriculum.” That is still true today (or at least it is part of the curriculum).

 

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We have our own playground, but we venture out regularly. On our walks we often have to stop when children find ants on the sidewalk. The same is true for flowers or leaves or walnuts. I also always have a garbage bag so we can pick up trash along the way. It is part of our third classroom guideline, “We help our community.”

 

 

There is a parkway we call The Giving Tree named after a giant willow tree. The area is wide enough (more than 50 feet ) to

the giving tree
the giving tree
picking apart a rotted log
picking apart a rotted log

 

bushes become a hidout
bushes become a hideout

play on without being near the roads. There are dozens of trees, which also means an endless supply of sticks, acorns, walnuts and so on. On our block, there is a neighbor with a small pond. We check on the pond throughout the year to watch the progress of the water plants, the fish and (later) the ice. We have a park we walk to that takes us under a highway overpass, which also has sloped concrete that presents a small challenge to children who try to walk on the incline to the park. We also visit a grocery store. Most importantly however, is our neighbor Barbara who has gardens lining the sidewalks on her corner lot. The gardens are full of flowers, but also lots of ornaments and objects. She has a whole section of gears from some ancient machine, another section with figurines of animals.

 

 

 

The children love passing Barbara’s garden. In fact, we can often spend five, ten, even fifteen minutes just walking by her house. One time, a child, Dale, came up with the idea to take pictures of some of the objects in the gardens. The next day we brought the pictures with us and kids had to find the object. A few months later, Barbara was notified by the city to “clean up” her yard. She appealed. The children brought her the photos. I had written their comments about the garden on

the photos as well. Barbara used the photos (along with testimony from many neighbors) to win her appeal and her garden is still a magical place of discovery.

In fact anywhere we walk can be a magical place of discovery if we just take the time to look.

a fairy house in the neighborhood
a fairy house in the neighborhood