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.

Human Being or Human Becoming?

“When I got home from school, I would run with my dog spot to the pond past the pine trees.  That was a long way back, probably a quarter mile.  Then we would run back to the road.  We would run back and forth until I had to go in for dinner.”

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My dad doesn’t talk much about his childhood.  I didn’t even know he had a dog, but I could tell he was picturing the scene in his head as he told me about the freedom he felt as a child as he ran endlessly.  It’s harder for him to get around now.  His legs don’t always take him where he wants to go.  But he still has his memories.  He can smell the pines.  He can feel the breeze.  He is no longer on the other end of the line as I talk to him on the phone.  He is back at his childhood home, and I picture it as if it were a vague memory of my own.

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This made me think about some of my assumptions as a preschool teacher.  In early childhood education, we often think of children in terms of “development.”  Child development can be important, but we must remember it is one lens to look at children.  When we look at children in this way, we are always looking at where the child will go next.  Emily Plank, author of discovering the Culture of Childhood, told me that we think of children as Human Becomings rather than Human Beings (although I think she was quoting someone else).

 

Talking to my father, I see it is just as important to look at childhood from the other side, to look back and see what we have been.  That boy running with his dog is still a part of who my dad, but it is not something he could do now.  That boy running was also once an infant taking his first steps.  The developmental view is no more important than the reflective view.  I could talk about how that child running is not just developing his muscles, but releasing BDNF to spur neuron growth, while also regulating his attention so that he could focus on academic skills.  But that is really beside the point.  It seems to me that where we might be next in our development is comparatively unimportant.

 

How we feel at any given moment is what we carry with us.

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Following Each Path

Looking back on the preschoolers who graduated, it’s clear that each child is ready to take on Kindergarten head on.  They will continue their journey through school and life beyond the classroom.  Each one is ready for school, and I hope the schools are ready for them.  I don’t doubt the dedication of their new teachers or new schools.  My fear is that many schools offer too few paths for children to take on their learning journey.

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I look back at some of the leaps in knowledge the children took, and I can see how different the journey through my classroom was for each child.  Jack was obsessed with the Mario Brothers game.  Every day he would pretend to be Mario and his best friend, Trevor was always Luigi.  Jack and Trevor spent most of the time running around acting out the game.  The rest of the time Jack and Trevor were building Transformers with Mobilos.

One day Jack sat down with paper and markers and drew a picture.  He asked me to spell “Mario.”  Then he drew another picture and asked how to spell “Luigi.”  Soon he had me spelling Wario, Waluigi, Toad and Princess Peach.  Jack hadn’t really shown much of an interest in writing before, but after a few days he was spelling Mario by himself.

 

 

 

His friend Trevor had been writing for a few months.  Trevor would usually make a card for his mom after lunch.  He would write “mom,” “love,” and his own name.  He would also copy words from a “word book” (a book with pictures and captions showing how to spell the word).  He usually copied the names of foods he liked to eat.  One day he brought over a sheet of paper he had worked on.  He told me it was a new guideline for our classroom.  He had spelled the words himself.  It simply said, “Don’t bring a dog, bring a kid.”  He had drawn a dog with a circle and line through it.  Next to that was a grown up and child holding hands.

Yusef was interested in bringing the whole class over to his house.  He told me he knew the way to his house, and asked if he could take us over in the afternoon.   He drew a map.  He started to label the map.  He drew an H for hospital.  He asked me to spell basilica for him.  I knew that he lived in the suburbs at least 10 miles away, but I was interested in how far he could get us.  He led the class for a few blocks and then he had to stop.  He told me, “Let me look at the streets and let me look at my imagination.”  He thought for a minute or two and then directed us for a few more blocks, all the way to the freeway entrance.  It was farther than I expected.  He really was able visualize a map in his head.  I had to point out the sign that forbid pedestrians.  A few weeks later, he and his mom did invite the entire class over to the house on a Saturday.

Meanwhile Galadriel loved playing with her stuffed animals.  She often made cakes out of play dough for her animals.  She would put candles on the cake.  Sometimes, there was only one candle because the animal was her baby.  Other times there would be ten or more.  She would make birthday cards, copying words.  The parties usually involved two or three other children and their stuffed animals.

Jack, Trevor, Yusef and Galadriel all had their own experiences that fostered their learning.  I focused on some academic skills, but I could have focused on social skills or creativity as well.  I also could have talked about other children from the class.  They each had their own distinct path, but somehow all our individual paths would cross over, merge for a bit and then wander away again.

I am thankful that I was able to accompany each of the children on their paths for this short time.  I can’t wait to see where life takes them.  And I look forward to a new crop of kids to send me in new directions.

Stop Means Stop

Our society has a problem with understanding the concept of consent.  The Stanford case is only the most recent public example of a culture that fosters sexual harassment and sexual assault.  The Stnaford rapist obviously disregarded the notion of consent, but there were many in the media and legal system that also did not seem to understand that no one has the right to touch or interact with another person without permission.  I have been thinking about this situation for a while, but since this blog is geared toward those who work with young children, I didn’t think I would address it here.

 

But when I look at the problem as a cultural phenomenon, I realize that all of us have a responsibility to do something.  In closer reflection, I see that there is something I can do.  While preschoolers have different types of interactions than adults, they are also deal with the issue of respecting others and their belongings.

 

 

We have the guideline “We Take Care of Each Other” in my classroom.  This guideline covers any type of play or interaction.  I can’t take a toy from someone else just because I want to play with it.   I can’t say something that hurts another child’s feelings, even if I didn’t intend to hurt them.  For example, preschoolers love to rhyme words, but I can’t call Chuck, “Truck” if he doesn’t want me to.  Even if he thought it was funny earlier in the day.

 

 

 

One of the ways children learn to take care of each other is roughhousing.  

Some teachers will stop children if they play rough so they don’t hurt each other.  I think this is a missed opportunity for children how to learn to respect each other.  If two children want to roughhouse, they are taking care of each other when they roughhouse, meeting the need they have for physical play.  However, if one child wants to play rough and tackles a child without asking, that is clearly not OK.  That child is not taking care of the other child.  The child must ask first.

 

If Sandra and Kenneth knock over Latifa’s block building while they are playing rough, they are not taking care of Latifa.  If Sandra and Kenneth move to the mat where no one is building, they are taking care of each other.  If Kenneth says, “Stop,” at some point, Sandra needs to stop.  If Kenneth decides to resume the roughhousing, he will let Sandra know.  It’s not a question of whether the play itself is “right or wrong, but rather it is a question of whether children are respecting each other.  Stop means stop.

Often children will say, “Stop,” frequently if they are new to roughhousing or if their play partner is new.  They are testing whether this partner is trustworthy.  Do they stop when I ask?  Usually after a short pause they will play rough again.  As they gain trust in another, they usually pause the game less often.

Sometimes children don’t even need to say, “Stop.”  They express their desire to stop by crying or cringing a bit.  In this case, not only do the other play partners stop roughhousing, they also check in.  Are you OK?  Can I help you?  Do you want a hug?  As teachers, we may have to teach some children to check in with others, but most children pick up on it fairly quickly.

There are some children who are not yet able to read the body language of others.  They may continue to play rough despite a child tearing up.  It might be easy to simply not allow these children to play rough, but I think these children are precisely the ones we need to teach by giving them more opportunities to play rough.  The teacher can describe the body language.  “He’s scrunching up his face, try not pushing so hard.  Now he’s smiling, he liked when you knocked him down.”  Children can learn with this direct instruction.  If these children don’t learn to read body language, they are at risk of being rejected by other children.  These rejected children have less opportunity to gain social skills and often end up exhibiting anti-social behavior later.

The last thing I would like to say about children learning to respect others and asking for consent is in regards to interactions with adults.  Our culture often has an expectation that children must hug certain adults such as relatives.  If children hesitate, they are told they must hug Auntie.  I think it is seen as a sign of respect toward the elder, but it shows little respect for the child.  I think it sends the message that children don’t get to decide who touched them.  This is hardly a message we should be sending.  You can ask if  child wants to give a high five, or you can ask if the child will give a hug with you, but then leave it up to the child.  Don’t admonish them if they say, “No.”  No means no.

Teachers of children all ages have an opportunity to change the value of consent in our culture.  We just have to start seeing it as something we teach.  There may be no greater lesson.

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.

 

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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.

Curiosity, Observation and a Buick

My class just finished an investigation of a car, specifically a 2003 Buick Le Sabre Custom owned by one of my co-workers. It may sound funny to be so specific about what we were investigating, but it’s a very important part of the experience.

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Our investigations are in-depth studies of something the preschoolers in my classroom are interested in. Each investigation lasts about 6 weeks. We usually only spend about 10 minutes a day on the topic. But the children start applying their new knowledge throughout the day. Sometimes they incorporate this knowledge into their pretend play. Sometimes they notice things in their daily life that they usually don’t notice.

removing the headlamp assembly
removing the headlamp assembly

 

The investigation can go deeper if I focus on something specific. 10 years ago I did a “car investigation.” As I look back on my documentation, the kids focused on the various colors cars came in. They categorized cars into minivans and cars. They also focused on the steering wheel and radio.

 

The Le Sabre investigation involved looking at the whole car, inside and out. Early on we did observational drawings

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jacking up the car

where the kids drew details from the car. We checked and added oil. We added wiper fluid, and tested the wipers. We tested the lights and changed a bulb on the turn signal. We jacked up the car and took off a wheel.

 

We did another observational drawing at the end. One of the interesting changes that happened involved the dashboard. The first drawings had lots of circles for buttons scattered across a rectangle. The second drawing had a distinct radio, vents, controls for the air and the turn signal (with the control for the wipers). The children clearly had a broader knowledge of the car.

 

 

At the end of the investigation we made a Le Sabre out of cardboard. It was interesting to see the details that they chose to represent. We had the four wheels, but now the kids drew the hubcaps on the circles. They cut out yellow paper for headlights and red paper for the tail lights, and orange for the turn lights. Someone made a radio with buttons and lines (for the CD player). One child put a small box under the hood for the engine. The next day, another child drew squiggles on paper and then copied “10W 30” from the photos of us adding oil. She taped the drawing of “oil” on top of the engine.

Our Buick Le Sabre
Our Buick Le Sabre

My hope is that each investigation makes children take a closer look at something around them, something they see every day. During the investigation they look closer. They focus their attention, first on the subject of the investigation (the Le Sabre in this case), but then their attention focuses on their environment. They start noticing the control for the windshield wipers in their own car, for example. It starts with looking closely at one thing, but it allows them to see the whole world differently.

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Embracing Rough and Tumble Play

Embracing rough and tumble play? Isn’t that the type of play I try to stop from happening in my classroom?

I spent years gently reminding children that we don’t play that way inside. Wait until we get outside. Even when we were outside, I would constantly interrupt, “Be careful. You might get hurt.”

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I often talked about teaching to the whole child, meeting their needs in all learning domains: social-emotional, literacy, cognitive and physical development. But looking back, I ignored many of the children’s needs for physical development. I was failing to see a vital part of who these children were.

 

Rough and tumble play is the purest form of what it means to be a child. It is the two year old jumping up and down, waving their arms a up and down yelling, “Mommy! Mommy!” at the end of a school day. It is the four year old spinning and falling, and then spinning again. It is the time when children are so engrossed in the joys of movement that they lose all track of time.

 

As we grow into adulthood, we see this same total immersion of the mind and body when a dancer executes a phrase with extreme focus and precision, or when a surgeon completes a complex procedure and saves a life. Sometimes this immersion in movement is as simple as tending to a garden, or rocking a child to sleep. With adults we call this flow, but with children it’s called childhood.

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I embrace rough and tumble play because it is literally a type of embrace. It is a way for children to show affection for another while also testing the limits of their own physical abilities. Children need tender affection such as cuddling and hugs, but children also need to be physical in a more vigorous way.

 

So yes, I embrace rough and tumble play. I love the joy it brings when my class engages in it: roughhousing on the mat together, spinning endlessly, stomping, making themselves bigger and more powerful . I also embrace that peaceful calm they have when they (eventually) get tired and focus on a quieter activity such as building with Legos or Mobilos.

 

I can’t tell you how many times I have had an adult come into my classroom and ask how I get preschoolers to sit so quiet and focused. If they had come into my classroom ten minutes earlier, they would have seen children roughhousing and laughing riotously. People also comment on how well the children get along in my classroom. Again, this happens because we play loudly and physically, not despite it.

The more I teach, the more I have come to believe that children move from parallel play to collaborative play first through physical play, literally having their bodies interact with others. It doesn’t necessarily need to be rough and tumble play. It could be dancing although I find it hard to tell the difference with preschoolers.

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I embrace rough and tumble play because I think it brings out the best in children.