You Gotta Move

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I went to see Gill Connell last night speaking on how movement teaches the brain to think. Most of the talk was based on her book A Moving Child Is a Learning Child. I can’t recommend the book enough. Connell lays out child development in a way that is fairly easy to follow. Children are born with reflexes. When a child moves, these reflexes are relaxed and conscious movement takes over. For this to happen, movement skills start as processes that the child must think about. The child repeats these skills until finally they become automatic. Only after these movements are automatic can the brain focus on higher level thinking. In other words, one of the main things the brain focuses on as it begins to develop is movement. I would add the other major thing the brain focuses on is communication. Of course communication at this stage requires movement and (a lot of) crying.

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Connell’s message serves as a good warning to those who want to get preschoolers (or kindergartners) to sit down and

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learn. Sitting does not necessarily lead to learning for any age. Sitting does however lead to health risks. It’s ironic that as we learn more about how movement relates to brain development and learning, we are having young children sit for longer and longer periods of time.

 

 

 

 

The talk I was at was geared toward parents, and Connell focused a lot on how movement is important for literacy

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development, and specifically reading and writing. Afterwards I was thinking about how movement relates to communication in general. Children often play games that involve movement with a few people: games such as chase, climbing together, digging and playing in sand or mud, and, of course rough-and-tumble play. All of these games require speaking and listening skills, but also the reading of non-verbal cues. Children also have to trust each other to play with each other, especially games that could involve physical risk if the other child doesn’t respect their limits.

 

 

 

 

A teacher sitting crisscross applesauce

When children take the risk to trust others, they also build trust, and ultimately friendships. And friendships create a need to communicate. Some of that communication will be face-to-face, but it will also involve writing (notes, texts, emails, and social media posts). Movement build the skills to physically read and write (eye tracking, anchored body, tripod grasp of the pencil, dexterous thumbs for texting, and most importantly automatic movements so the brain can focus on higher level thinking). Movement also creates the bonds of friendship that builds the desire to read and write.

 

Connell describes this as a cycle: The more a child moves, the more the child knows: The more a child knows, the more the child wants to know: The more a child wants to know, the more the child wants to move. I would just add a concentric cycle: The more a child moves the more the child communicates: The more a child communicates, the more the child wants to communicate: The more a child wants to communicate, the more a child moves.

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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.

 

 

Won’t they get hurt?

“Do you think she’ll get hurt?”

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

“Probably, but she’ll love it.”

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

But couldn’t these children hurt themselves?

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

 

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

Oh, and they have fun.

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

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

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

And they loved it.

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

 

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

 

 

All Feelings Are OK

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

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

 

 

picking apart a rotted log

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

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