The Podcast Has Launched

I have a new podcast: Teaching with the Body in Mind about the importance of children moving for learning.  It is hosted by me, Tom Bedard, Joey Schoen and Ross Thompson.  The first episode launched on March 14, 2017.  New episodes will come out weekly.  The podcast is part of the Explorations Early Learning podcasts: https://www.explorationsearlylearning.com/podcasts

You can find it on iTunes and Stitcher.  We will have a Facebook page for the show in the next week or so.

We talk about various issues related to movement and early learning.  In the first episode, Tom talks about his evolution as a teacher, allowing big body play in the classroom.  In the second episode, I talk about how I started allowing gunplay in my classroom.

I was also a guest on the podcast Renegade Rules with Heather Shumaker and Jeff Johnson.  You can hear me on episodes  46 and 47.

The Joy of Risk

I have been reading Rae Pica’s new book, What If Everybody Understood Child Development.  I was asked to respond to her chapter on risk called, Bubble Wrap Not Required for a book study group http://blogs.dctc.edu/dawnbraa/2015/09/14/book-study-expert-commentary-for-chapter-4-week-3/

Here was my (unedited) response:

Rae Pica focuses on parents’ fears of anything negative happening to their children. I’d like to think about parents’ hopes for their children. We want children to be resilient. Resilience requires taking risks. We want children to be joyful. Nothing beats the joy of successfully taking a risk. Risk is a part of being alive and children need to know how to deal with risk.

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But it’s not risk alone. Resilience comes both from risk and persistence. You have to try and you have to fail. The risk might be physical. It might be emotional. We know that children will get hurt. We know they will cry. Our job isn’t to keep them from falling. It’s to help them up and hug them when they do fall.

Let’s be clear that risk is different than hazard. Risk is something that a child can see and assess such as climbing high. EachJ Club October 5 time a child reaches higher, she can look down and decide if she has reached her limit. Once she has reached her limit, she can climb down. Next time, she will probably go a little higher, but she will be the one to decide.

A hazard is something a child cannot see or assess. For example, if there is a slide on a playground, the child will assume she can go down it. She will not notice if the slide has a gap that could catch the drawstring from her sweatshirt and asphyxiate her. Adults need to minimize hazards as much as possible and minimize risk as much as necessary.

While our first impulse as adults may be to protect children, we need to look at the big picture. Children are ultimately safer when they learn to assess risk themselves. For example, open bodies of water pose a risk for drowning. We could make sure children don’t have access to water, and as long as they are in our watch, they would not risk drowning. But the day they find themselves by a lake or river without us, are they safer? It is much better to first expose them to shallow bodies of water where they can have fun and then teach them how to swim as they get older. The same is true for other risks. It is better to climb a tree and get a few scrapes than it is to not climb at all.

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Children need to challenge themselves when they take risks. It is important to let children climb on their own so they can assess the risk they are ready for. If an adult puts a child up in a tree, the child has no control over the situation. Children also need to use their body to back out of a situation they decide is too much for them. If a child climbs and gets stuck, the adult should verbally help them down. Reassure the child that you are nearby and talk through the steps the child can take to get down. Only help them physically if falling is imminent.

As a teacher, you can help children learn to assess risk as they play. If a child does something that seems risky, don’t stop them right away. Instead move closer and see if the risk is reasonable. If you are not sure you can ask the child for their assessment (“What’s your plan?” “Are there any sharp corners you need to worry about?”).

You can also do a risk-benefit analysis. Decide what the risks are as well as the benefits. If the risk is reasonable and there are benefits, just stay nearby and watch for changes in the situation. If the risk seems too great decide if there are any changes that would make it safer while still allowing the child to get their needs met. If a tree branch seems weak, is there another branch (or another tree) that is safer?

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It is important to keep in mind that playing, even risky play is relatively safe. There was a study in the UK that found that the sport of badminton results in twice as many injuries than playing on playgrounds. Most other sports resulted in even more injuries. There are benefits to engaging in sports, of course, so the benefits outweigh the risk, so why not playgrounds? And tree climbing didn’t even make it on the chart.

One of the most dangerous things for a child to do is ride in a car, but we have agreed as a society that it is worth the risk. Children do end up in the emergency room for falls 20 times the number for non-fatal car accidents. However, it is extremely rare for a child to die from a fall. Children under the age of 5 are more than 10 times more likely to die in a car accident than from a fall. Children 5-9 are more than 80 times as likely. In other words, children may get hurt, but almost all will be minor injuries. Meanwhile, children learn how to deal with risk and ultimately stay safer.

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Getting out of bed exposes you to countless risks. But if you stay in bed, you risk letting life pass you by. Just watch how children run to greet the day, ready for anything. It may be risky, but it is joyful. Maybe instead of trying to make the children more like us, we need to be more like them.

Seeing the Trees

This summer, I took a break from writing this blog while I finished the first draft of my book, Teaching with the Body in Mind. The book covers a lot of the same topics as the blog. I now will get back to posting weekly.

 

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While I was working on the book, I read several studies. One thing that really struck me was how small the sample sizes were for each study. One of my favorite researchers is Michelle Tannock who does a lot of work on rough-and-tumble play and attitudes about it. One study of Tannock’s that I often cite found that close to 80% of incidents of rough-and-tumble play was done by boys in this particular setting. Reading the study again, it really struck me that she studied a class with 17 students.

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When I think of my classroom, and how much it varies from year-to-year, I can’t help thinking how different the results would be. Last year there was a lot more rough-and-tumble play than this year. Last year, the girls were responsible for much of that play. My gut feeling is that the boys still did the majority of the play, but it really can vary.August 12 047

 

Most studies on rough-and-tumble play find that the boys engage in more of the play, and a few boys are responsible for most of the play and particularly the more forceful play such as pushing, tackling, etc. The problem is that many in the Early Childhood Education field (sometimes even the researchers themselves) talk about what boys tend to do and what girls tend to do. When referring to boys, the conversation often slips into the few, most physical boys. In most research, the most physical boys are outliers on one side along with a few boys who engage in very little rough-and-tumble play.

 

After all, I could describe how boys behave by talking about Stan. He spends most of his time outside playing a marimba or drumming on buckets. He will spend a few minutes “fighting” the teacher with a pool noodle. He does not attack other children, just the teacher. Inside he will play on the mat, but rather than pushing and grabbing others, he usually plays “pile on.” One child goes on the bottom and three or four others pile on top. They just lie there on top of each other until then bottom person asks everyone to get up. Stan describes the way boys play about as accurately as well as using Greg as the model.

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Greg likes to tackle others (who he is playing with). In the classroom, he often runs and dives onto the floor. He is almost always playing physically and he can rarely sit still. The truth is, most boys aren’t like Stan or Greg. They are somewhere in between. So are most of the girls in my room.

Statistically, the boys in my room probably play rougher. Statistics can be helpful. As I’ve written in the past, knowing the statistics of the expulsion rates of boys vs. girls points to a need for systemic change in early childhood education. Especially when you consider boys tend to play rougher.

However, in the classroom, the statistics don’t mean much. When I watch Bart playing in my classroom, it doesn’t matter if he’s more likely play rough. I won’t learn about Bart by looking up statistics. I need to watch him. I don’t teach children. I don’t teach boys and girls. I teach Bart, Francine, Greg, Tina, Stan, and all the others who have names and personalities. I need to figure out how to be effective with each child and it will be different for each child.

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I don’t call a birch tree a pine just because it is growing in a pine forest. Teachers have to see each tree. Researchers look at the forest.

 

 

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.

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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

 

 

Night Games

One of the ironies of writing a book about the need for kids to move around and play rough is that I am spending hours sitting and writing. Last week I spent an hour in a coffee shop writing about the dangers of sitting.

I do move around during my day job, trying to keep up with ten four-year olds. But at night, I am often sitting down to write, or sitting down to watch something.  Last Sunday, I was sitting down with my family watching a movie when my phone buzzed. There was a cryptic message from a friend. “Night games. 9:00 at the park.” It was from Julian. Julian is one of those rare souls who truly did not forget how to play.

Art Sled Rally
Art Sled Rally

He is the founder of some of my favorite events here in the Twin Cities. One of those events is the Powderhorn Art Sled Rally where people are asked to decorate a sled and go down a hill at the end of January (often the coldest week of the year here in Minnesota so it can be -10F). He also created the summer camp Adventures in Cardboard where children use cardboard to fashion armor, swords, shields and magical items. The kids spend a week creating shops to sell magical items, battle other houses (there are six houses, each with its own mythology), storm castles and wind their way through labyrinths.

 

hillside-93-600x267Needless to say, we were going. I grabbed our flashlights, my wife called a few friends, and my daughter grabbed her sword. We arrived at the park a little before 9. There was one other car in the parking lot. It was dark, but our friends had a flashlight. It’s an urban park, not necessarily dangerous, but people are mugged here on occasion when walking alone at night. It was definitely not my usual destination on a Sunday night. We heard others on the hill under a street light. We walked up to find Julian, his son and daughter and three other teenagers. We had three tweens and four adults with us. It was time to play.

 

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Julian pointed out the boundaries and explained the rules for “Manhunt.” The four teens were the hunters. The rest of us had to hide. They would try to find us and tag us out, but we could sneak up on them and tag the hunters out. Off we went into the darkness. As I ran off to hide, my heart started to race. It was dark and it was possible to hide in the trees, but as I saw four shadows approaching, a sense of fear gripped me. It wasn’t a paralyzing fear, but that sense of fear you get on a roller coaster. You know you are safe, and yet your instincts are telling you that your body should not be dropping at 40 miles per hour. It was the feeling I had as a child when I played “Ghost in the Graveyard,” “Bloody Murder” and other variations on Hide-and-Seek.

This was much different than when I play chase with the preschoolers in my class. I have fun, but admittedly I am self-handicapping to keep the play going. Tonight I was trying my hardest and eventually running my fastest. It turns out I cannot outrun a teenager (I’m in my late 40s). All of us were trying our hardest and wavering between fear and elation. When we ran out of breath, we kept running anyways until we were tagged out. The 11 year olds, the teenagers, the adults, all were having a similar experience. The darkness helped equalize the experience a bit, and made it more exciting (and yes scary).

 

 

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Ready for adventure
Ready for adventure

 

It made me realize that this is what the preschoolers experience when I chase them. It’s not just that we are moving our bodies, there is also a sense of danger in a context of safety. Of course the kids could fall and scrape a knee, but they are not trying to outrun a wild animal. It’s a game and yet the emotions can react as if it were real. That is part of the play experience. And frankly, urban parks are often a place that can harbor fear, and yet a group of people can turn it into a place to play, and turn those fears into joy.

 

Side note: The images for this post are from Adventures in Cardboard and the Art Sled Rally. Check out the websites for more images, video and information:

http://artsledrally.com/

http://julianmcfaul.com/summer-workshops-2014/

Use Your Words

Teachers of young children often use the phrase “use your words.” It usually refers to the idea of using words to express dissatisfaction with another child rather than hitting them. I also used to use the phrase to remind children to ask before joining in play, but I have had to rethink that.

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The problem is that most communication comes from nonverbal gestures. There are a lot of other skills besides using words that are needed to join others in play. For example, Greg and Neville are very close friends. They play together every day, often roughhousing. However, they do not start by asking if they can play rough. They have an understanding built on trust.

 

Here is a typical day in my classroom:

Neville crashed into Greg. I take a few steps forward. Like a police officer, I am assessing the situation as I approach. Is anyone hurt? Is a fight about to erupt? Did a fight already in progress? Do I need to call for back up? Neville looks up at Greg (he is a full head shorter). Neville is smiling. Greg meets Neville’s eyes, and he smiles, too. Then Greg tackles Neville to the couch. They erupt into laughter. I look around to see if the area they have chosen is safe for this type of play. They wisely chose the couch. I know that in a few minutes, Neville will cry. It almost always happens that he will get bumped a little too hard. Greg will stop the play and ask if Neville is OK. Neville will cry for about thirty OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAseconds and Greg will apologize. Then Neville will look at Greg’s face and smile. Greg immediately goes into play mode. The two are tackling each other.

It always starts with non-verbal communication. The two know that they are playing. They often tackle each other once or twice before they even talk about what they are playing. After the initial greeting-tackle, one of them will suggest a scenario.

 

“How about we’re superheroes?” “How about we’re Ninja Turtle?” “How about we’re lions that escaped from the zoo?”

Then play resumes. It is a mixture of verbal and non-verbal communication. If someone winces, the other often eases up. If someone starts laughing, the other will keep repeating the action that led to laughter. Sometimes they don’t even bother with a scenario. They simply enjoy the physical contact.

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Greg and Neville have an existing relationship that allows them to not use their words. What about a third child? Greg and Neville often are joined by others who read the body language. If the two of them are rolling on top of each other, another child might also roll on top of one of them. Usually it works. Once in a while someone will say “stop.” The other child stops and trust is built.

 

If a new child joined our class, I would have to help them join other children who were playing.  I find that the most successful way of joining others is not to ask, “Can I play, too?” The first step is non-verbal. The child needs to play with similar materials. If a child is drawing, draw near them. If they are building with blocks, build near them. They also have to position themselves in the same way as the child they want to play with. If the child is sitting on the floor, the other child should sit on the floor. If the child is sitting at a table, the child sits at the table. If the play involves movement, the child entering play needs to move as well.

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If pretend play is involved, the child should figure out the roles and choose a role to suggest. When they do finally speak, they need to use a tone of voice that is not too forceful or even a polite request will go unheeded. Even if the other children don’t agree with the role chosen, they will often choose a substitute. “You can’t be the Mom because we don’t have any parents. You can be the big sister.”

Children do need to use their words, but they need to express themselves with their actions as well.

 

Painting or Dancing?

My favorite day of the year is coming up next Friday, Painting Day. Each year we do some unique painting activities in the morning. In the afternoon, we turn my classroom into a giant painting. Everything becomes a paint brush: brooms, bath scrunchies and eventually the kids themselves. About 45 minutes into it, as the teachers try to change the kids’ clothes and keep the paint contained to one room, I start to question the wisdom of the painting. Does it have to be so big?

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Well, yes, it does have to be that big actually. I remember Bev Bos   writing about using vinegar and baking soda. She said that it wasn’t enough to have a cup of vinegar, it should be a gallon of vinegar and it should explode. The kids should be wonderstruck.

 

 

 

The kids walk into the room covered in white paper. The kids start by pumping paint into pie tins and using brushes. They paint the paper on the walls first. Then someone puts their hand in the paint and spreads the paint around on the walls. When some paint spills, someone will start sliding their feet around.

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Slowly, kids leave to clean up. As the painting gets less crowded, the kids move around more. The painting turns into dancing. Kids roll around. They paint each other.

 

It gets a bit crazy, but the joy it brings is worth it.

 

 

side note: We started our Big Painting after seeing JAO create a “speed painting” of the Sistine Chapel.  See her create a speed painting here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xTld-q3_AgU

Technical details:

  • We use the paper that photographers use for a backdrop. It’s 9 feet wide and comes in 60 foot and 150 foot lengths, available at photography supply stores.
  • We buy four gallons of cheap tempera paint with pumps.
  • We have brooms, bath scrunchies, pie tins, rollers, feather dusters, etc.
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