Who Has a Voice

I have been thinking quite a bit about how to teach the concept of consent to young children. It is often said that morality is better caught than taught and I think that is apropos in this case. But that does not mean the teachers aren’t actively teaching consent. Rather, I think the focus is on creating a culture of consent in the classroom. Then the teacher can find times for short “direct instruction” to help instill what consent is.
In the classroom it means that adults and children have a few basic agreements. I would use the term “guidelines” in a classroom setting. The agreement is essentially that everyone has a right to their own body and that when mistakes happen, we can fix those mistakes. Here is the wording I have used in my preschool classroom and my colleague used in her toddler room:

• We take care of each other
• We solve problems together

Together these allow for wording to use over and over. If Lena (a toddler) tackles someone who clearly does not want to play rough, the teacher can say, “Remember, we take care of each other. You have to ask if they want to be knocked down.”

If the other child cries or gets mad, the teacher goes to the next guideline. “Oh no we have a problem, but we solve problems together.” Then the teacher can follow the steps of conflict resolution.

The teacher will be repeating the two guidelines over and over, but toddlers do start to internalize them. The teacher can also post the guidelines using different color for each so the toddlers can keep track of them. The teacher can point at the words when they say them. Many of the toddlers will start pointing at them as well.

The first guideline is a little more obvious. If each child has a right to decide what happens to their body then they must respect others bodies. I don’t use the word respect for young children because it doesn’t seem concrete enough. Most young children know the phrase being “taken care of” so it seems to work better. I have seen toddlers use this terminology after it is used.

The second one might not be so obvious: solving problems together. When I started using guidelines, I thought We Take Care of Each Other encompassed this one. But in the classroom I saw how useful it was. Some children feel shame when they hurt someone, intentionally or not. Other children at this age honestly don’t realize they caused someone to get hurt (not yet understanding cause and effect).

I found myself referring to this guideline all the time. It had an unexpected effect. It helped restore peace in the classroom. Children learned that the teachers were not interested in blaming children, but rather solving the problem and moving on. Many toddlers and preschoolers will step in to help when there is this focus on repair. It doesn’t matter if an individual was even part of the conflict, each child can be part of the solution. I think this aspect of consent is often missing in our culture’s recent discussions on the topic.

If children mostly see adults searching for someone to blame and “take responsibility”, many may try to simply avoid getting caught or deny any responsibility if they are caught. Instead, children should step up and try to solve the problem (whether they are the one responsible or not). I think this is where the important learning can happen. Because consent is not simply an agreement between two people about what is allowed to happen. It is a community deciding who has a voice.

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Batkid and the Importance of Superhero Play

I watched the movie Batkid: The Wish Heard Around the World last night.  It’s the story of Miles Scott, a young child with leukemia.  When Miles was five, he made a wish with the Make-A-Wish Foundation that he wanted to be the real Batman.  The wish granters found a stuntman to play Batman and Miles would be Batkid.  They decided to have a flash mob at one point during the wish so they tried to get 200 volunteers.  Instead over 10,000 people showed up.  Meanwhile people from all over the world starting sending messages of encouragement, as many as 1,400 messages per second.  Entire sections of San Francisco were shut down and turned into Gotham City.  The story is incredible and I can’t recommend the movie enough (or volunteering for Make-A-Wish).

 

Make-A-Wish grants hundreds of wishes around the country, but most wishes do not get outside attention.  There was something different about this one.  I think it says a lot about the importance of superheroes.  While there is no such thing as a superhero in the comic book sense, the concept of superheroes seems to connect with something deep inside many of us.

Both the Chief of police and the mayor of San Francisco (both starring players in the wish) talk about Batman as a hero that inspired them when they were growing up.  The costume designer from the San Francisco Opera who made the batman costume also was a fan of Batman.  Many of the people who sent emails, Facebook messages or showed up in person were dressed in Superhero outfits.  It clearly strikes a nerve in many of us.  Reading or watching movies about superheroes can give us a sense of bravery we may not always feel.  On top of that, most superheroes are also outsiders in some way, not fitting in with the rest of society.  I think most people can feel like an outsider in one way or another.

The pivotal point in the documentary for me was 40 minutes into the movie when the day of the Wish started.  Up to this point you see Miles playing and smiling like most preschoolers.  But then there is a change.   Batman comes to the hotel room.  He hands Miles a Batkid costume and says, “I need your help.  I need you to put this on.”  Miles walks out of the bedroom in costume and he is standing up straighter with his chest out and his arms splayed out just a bit.  He is essentially taking a power stance.  There is no smile.  Instead he has a very serious look on his face.  He uses a deeper voice.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMiles is clearly feeling powerful.  He goes through the day helping save someone from the cable car tracks, capturing the Riddler and the Joker.  Meanwhile there are over 10,000 people cheering for him.  Miles and Batman stop for lunch and Miles looks out over the crowd who starts dancing.  He uses his kid-voice now.  He says, “I think I’m done.”  He seems tired.  Suddenly they see The Penguin (the comic-book villain) kidnapping the San Francisco baseball mascot, Lou Seal.  Miles kicks into his Batkid persona and he and Batman head back out.

 

Eric Johnston, the man who played Batman, commented about this moment in this way, “He battled leukemia,

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and when you’re tired you can’t stop.”  Miles puts his mask back on and takes on his power stance, and he’s back in action.  Clearly the superhero persona is helping Miles work through this challenge.

The father also talks about how Miles identified strongly with Batman because he fights bad guys the same way Miles fights cancer.  He has no super powers, he simply doesn’t turn away in the face of fear.

I think it’s just as clear that many other people also identify with that same feeling.  Many of us want to be as fearless as Batman.  They need that same reminder to be strong and powerful.

 

0 Superhero huddle

Parents and teachers often complain about kids playing superheroes.  They say the play is violent and out of control.  I often hear teachers say the play serves no purpose.  I think Miles shows that superheroes serve a very real purpose.  Not all of us have to face a battle with cancer, but we all have struggles in life.  When that happens, it is important to find your inner-superhero, take a power stance and move forward.

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

 

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/

Tired of Saying no

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NO NO NO NO NO NO NO

 

Preschool classrooms are filled with rules: No running, no pushing, no throwing toys, etc. The rules are made with good intentions, but many of the rules essentially stop children from using their whole bodies in the classroom. It’s as if we are inviting only the head and perhaps hands into the classroom. Children resist this at every turn. It leads to frustration from all sides. As one teacher told me, “I’m tired of saying no all the time.”

NO RULES?
In the last few years I have used guidelines instead of rules. Dan Gartrell talks about the benefits of guidelines rather than rules in his book, Education for a Civil Society: How Guidance Teaches young Children Democratic Life Skills.
Rules talk about what children can’t do. Guidelines talk about what we can. Guidelines also allow for gray areas that often happen. For example, we have a loft in my classroom that looks down on the classroom on three sides. Originally I had a rule that you couldn’t throw things down from the loft. It seemed straight forward, but situations kept coming up that called this rule into question. A child made a paper airplane, and threw it from the loft. Then a few weeks later a group of children had a pillow fight with some throwing pillows from the loft. Later a child watched a tissue float down from the loft. None of these situations presented a safety concern. I could make a rule that lists all the things you can’t throw. I could even put a positive spin on it and list the things you can throw. But what happens when someone introducing something not on the list? What if someone crumples paper and throws it?
When I started using guidelines, I could say, “We take care of each other so we can’t throw toys form the loft because they are hard and could hurt someone.” When a child makes an airplane, I can say, “Are we still taking care of each other if you throw a paper airplane?” The child can figure out that no one will get hurt. Not only did I get rid of unnecessary rules, I am helping the kids to practice risk assessment in a safe way.

NO RUNNING?
This also brings up rules that many of us consider universal such as “No running in the room.” While running in the room in general might pose a safety concern that children may not be able to anticipate on their own. There is a lot of gray area in terms of what is running. For example: Is jogging OK? Isn’t a five-year old skipping more likely to result in falling that if the same child was running? I have found myself watching children “running” in the room with enough control to stay safe on several occasions. I have also watched kids “use their walking feet” and walk right into someone who was in their way. Is it really the speed that is the problem or the child being in control of their movement?

 

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NO PUSHING?
In regards to the child who walks into another child, it is often a result of a still-developing vestibular sense rather than a deliberate act of aggression. What will the child learn if I say, “No pushing?” And if I have the rule “No Pushing” what about two kids who smile as they push each other? Can’t children roughhouse?
No running, No Pushing and No Throwing Toys can seem like universal rules, but in the end, I am convinced there are no universal rules, but I am convinced that there are universal guidelines. Using guidelines means that the children and I have to use our judgment when situations arise. It is good for the children to learn and it is good practice for teachers to always reflect on their actions.

We Don’t Have to Wait

0 Superhero huddle

We often think of preschool as getting children ready: ready to read, ready to do math, ready for school. We hope to set them on a path to be good citizens who care for others.
But I have been thinking about this past year and all the ways my preschool students have cared for others. They help each other when one classmate is sad or upset. They like to help the toddlers whenever they can. They also help others in the community. When a neighbor was having trouble with city inspectors over her garden, the children told her how important the garden was to them. They gave her drawings and showed her photos of the garden. She told them the pictures made her garden look magical and the children told her it was magical.
Last month, on our bi-weekly visit to an assisted living facility there were just a few Grand Friends. We greeted them and learned a few new names. Then we headed downstairs to see their gardens. We looked at the gardens for a while, and ran around the circle path. Then someone spotted one of the regular Grand Friends and shouted, “She’s here.” The Grand Friend wheeled over and told them she got to the activities room late, but she didn’t want to miss them. Most of the kids came over and greeted her before running around the path again.
On our way out, every child said, “Goodbye.” She smiled as they left. A few weeks later, she passed away. It was our final goodbye. The way she had come out to see the kids and the way she smiled, I realized how much the children meant to her and the way they rushed over to her, how much she meant to them. We don’t have to wait to be good citizens who care for others. They already are.
A new study came out that showed that children perceive that their parents care more about grades and athletic accomplishments than they do about their children being kind to others (which actions do you think most parents celebrate the most?). As preschool children grow, there will be many accomplishments to be proud of, some of them academic, some of them athletic, but the children will never learn or experience anything more important than bringing others joy and helping others.

Meal Time Literacy

One of the best activities for literacy in an early childhood program turns out to be one of the best for building community, social skills and learning about nutrition.  Of course, I am talking about meal times.  There is a lot of attention paid to “family dinner” and its importance for healthy well-adjusted youth (and families).  The same could be said about meal times in childcare centers and other programs.  Meal times are a time for informal conversation.  In a classroom, a child has experience addressing a group formally during group times.  A child gets experiences speaking one on one with a teacher or a friend.  Most preschoolers will get experience speaking informally in a small group during play.  Meal times allow children to learn how to listen to and enter into conversation informally when there may be more than one conversation going on at once.  On top of that, the conversational skills will vary from child to child so there can be quite a bit of non-verbal negotiation.

Some young children will need help entering a conversation.  Some children will want absolute quiet before they will talk.  They usually try to achieve this by yelling loudly, “I’m trying to say something.”  I have yet to see this strategy work.  Of course, the child who waits patiently for it to be quiet also has a hard time joining the conversation.

As a teacher, it can be difficult to help children without taking over the conversation myself.  I try to think of the direct instruction given to children as a Tweet, no more than 140 characters.  I will say something like, “Say her name and then say what you wanted to tell her.”  I’ll let the child try that before giving more direction.  If that attempt failed, I might say, “Say her name loud enough so she turns toward you.  Don’t worry about her being totally quiet.  Just start telling her.”

My favorite thing is sitting and listening to the three or four conversations going on at meal time.  As children get more comfortable e=with it, they enter one conversation and then another.  Each year, the class has certain jokes and “games” we play.  This year, someone always asks to play the “pretend food game.”  The game starts with me saying, “We left some toys on the table.  I know it looks like food, but don’t eat it.”  Then they come up with ideas for what their food could be.  Someone holds up a spoonful of yogurt and says it’s glue.  “No, don’t eat glue.  Oh no!”

Meal time conversations can also be about home life.  Someone might make up a story.  It can go a million different ways.  The important thing is that we are all experiencing it together, creating our own classroom culture.  Meal times seldom come up when talking about curriculum, but I think they say a lot about the teachers’ philosophy of education.