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.
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.”
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.
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.
For 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.
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, encouraging 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]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 to 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.
Nancy 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. But 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.
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.
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
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, rolling 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.
This 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.
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 boy 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.
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.
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?
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.
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 seconds 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.
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.
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.
Reading books to preschoolers is one of my favorite things about my job. If the classroom is getting a bit too rowdy for me, I know I can pick up a book and start reading out loud. By the time I turn to the second page, a few kids gather around. Soon, most of the class is sitting around me listening. I love the way kids this age become so engaged with the story that they call out when they see something in the illustrations, or they anticipate some of the lines in the book.
One of the most gratifying things as an author is reading my own books to kids. Now I hear kids call repeating words that I wrote. There is a child in another classroom at my center who has to point out each character on each page. “There’s Rita. There’s Johanna.” After pointing out everyone, he sits back down. When I turn the page, he stands up and points out everyone on that page. It’s great to have someone so excited about my book.
One time I was at another childcare center to read. As I turned the page, the illustration shows Bree holding up a worm. A child rose to his knees and pointed and said, “Look, a worm!” I was just about to say, “You’re right. She does have a worm.” I was thinking I could ask how many of the kids have found a worm. But I didn’t say anything because a teacher scolded the child telling him to sit quietly so I could read. I read the rest of the book, but I didn’t have any other enthusiastic kids calling out.
After the book I asked the kids questions and they asked me some questions. The kids had a lot to say, but every time they became a bit animated (kneeling, talking over each other) a teacher scolded them. It was hard to have a conversation because the teacher kept interrupting us.
On my walk to the bus, I realized none of the teachers commented on my books with the kids (or me). They thanked me for reading to the kids, but otherwise the only time they spoke was to scold the children. It seemed that for the teachers the main learning experience was learning how to sit and wait for a turn to speak.
I find this often happens in preschool classrooms. More attention is spent on obedience than on the learning experience. Children are often told to sit “crisscross applesauce.” This refers to sitting on the floor with legs crossed.
In terms of learning, I have not been able to find a study that shows any more knowledge retention, or an increase in engagement when sitting this way. My own experience finds quite the opposite.
I think one of the reasons children are asked to sit that way is so they don’t disrupt the attention of others who are listening to someone speak. I don’t think there is anything wrong with telling children that they need to make sure everyone can hear or see. But there are many ways to sit without disrupting others. It can even include children leaning on each other.
In my classroom, I let children choose to sit or stand the way they want when I am reading a book. I do ask children to make sure others can see, so fairly quickly the kids and I find that the higher up you are, the further back you need to be. For example, if you want to stand, you go in back. If you want to lie down, you need to make sure no one is in front of you. I do have to remind children occasionally, but certainly no more than in classrooms where they are supposed to sit crisscross applesauce. The difference is, the kids in my room can look around and see the other kids and realize why they are moving. It is not because the teacher said so, but because the child behind them is saying, “I can’t see.”
I think this issue of enforcing compliance can lead to teachers scolding children more harshly. Rather than giving children a gentle reminder that someone behind them can’t see if someone stands in front of them, the teachers react as if the child is disrespecting them for not obeying. The child is just being a child who can’t sit in one position for long (just like many adults). If there is any disrespect happening, I think it might be coming from the teacher.