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.

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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.

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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Seeing the Trees

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Highs and Lows of Body Awareness

 

I was having a conversation with Nancy Boler, a yoga instructor. I came into the conversation wanting to talk about ways to help kids relax or calm down, especially as they settle in for nap. I was telling Nancy about my desire to have a balance yoga 1to the roughhousing and other Big Body Play I am encouraging in my classroom. I made reference to wanting kids to be able to move from their excited state to a calm state.

rough awareness 1Nancy challenged me on the use of the word “excited” to describe roughhousing. She said, “It’s high activity, but not excited. It’s very focused. The kids are very aware of their body when they roughhouse.” She contrasted this type of play with playing video games where there is also a spike in adrenaline and an increase in the heart rate. However, the body itself is at rest. In this case there is a disconnection between the body’s actions and the body’s reaction.

 

In my head, I had been thinking of roughhousing and yoga as opposite sides of a balance with the body as the fulcrum. Butyoga 2 this conversation made me want to focus on the similarities. I thought of my limited understanding of the yin-yang. Roughhousing is high activity and (some) yoga positions are low activity, but both revolve around an awareness of the body.

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This brings up another point that Nancy made. “I don’t think adults give children enough credit for self-regulation.”  If children exert themselves physically, they will eventually find a time to rest. Some kids will go from one extreme to the other. I have a niece who when she was three, would ride her tricycle up and down the sidewalk until she literally fell asleep. She had to be carried up to bed. Most kids, of course, have a transition between the two extremes.

I think we get into difficulty when children watch a movie or play a video game that gets them excited. I think most of these children will need to engage in some high activity get their mind focused on their body again. They could also do it by being very intentional with breathing exercises. Either way, I think it helps to think of it as balancing excitement with body awareness rather than excited and calm.

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Thinking about it this way helps me figure out how to interact with children who are playing actively soon before nap time in my classroom. A child who is playing pillow fight with others and laughing is already showing body awareness so it will be a matter of gradually lessening the activity. However, a child that is throwing pillows randomly and shouting seems to be in an excited state and in need of focus. If I throw a pillow at this child, I am offering myself as a target and focus for the play. I may need more physical contact (hugs, sitting on lap) as we move into quieting down for nap.

 

This idea of roughhousing as body awareness also gives me deeper appreciation for what the children are doing when they are playing rough. There have been studies showing that “play fighting” and “rough-and-tumble” play leads to social competence and group cohesion. I think this self-awareness that kids develop (in conjunction with impulse control that happens concurrently) is a big part of this social

 

 

Kids Will be Kids

 

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“Boys will be boys.”

Usually this refers to the way some boys engage in rough-and-tumble play for much of the day and girls don’t. When I talk to other teachers who allow and encourage rough-and-tumble play, I get a very different picture. We all agree that big body play or rough-and-tumble play seems fairly mixed gender-wise. I have 8 boys and 2 girls in my preschool class this year, but about half the time someone asks me to get out the mats for roughhousing, it is a girl. When kids are piled on top of each other, there are girls and boys in the mix.

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There is research that shows that girls are more likely to engage in rough-and-tumble play when the teacher does. It has been my experience that kids also participate in activities that the adults around them clearly love. It makes sense to me that if a teacher has fun roughhousing, most kids will participate regardless of gender.

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As I work on my book on rough-and-tumble play, I keep thinking about gender, both the gender of the children as well as the gender of the teachers. I am always reluctant to talk about gender and behavior. I think that boys have certain tendencies and girls have certain tendencies, but there is a lot of crossover. In her book Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School, Barrie Thome observed young elementary school students. This age group is known for segregating themselves by gender, but Thome found that the vast majority (80%) of boys played with girls and the same percentage of girls played with boys some of the time.

Thome refutes the notion of separate “boy culture” and “girl culture.” Children may show a preference for others of their own gender, but it is not exclusive. This thinking of separate cultures with distinct behaviors can quickly cause adults to become essentialist in terms of gender.

For example, in Wired to Move: Facts and Strategies for Nurturing Boys in an Early Childhood Setting, Ruth Hanford Morhard suggests teachers “give boys opportunities for physical contact,” but then goes on to say, “Make sure the boys understand this kind of physical contact is fine with boys, but not with girls.” This otherwise excellent book makes the mistake of conflating a tendency of boys (and girls) into an absolute truth about the genders. There are boys who would not be OK with this contact and there are girls who would enjoy it. And yes, there are children that are perceived to be boys who may not have come to their full gender identity as a girl (or vice versa).

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All children need the freedom to move their bodies in the way they choose while respecting the rights of others regardless of gender. This means that many boys will crash their bodies into other boys, but some girls may be involved in this type of play as well.

 

 

 

Having said that, I think that the idea of “boy culture” could be useful. Boys are expelled from preschools at a much higher rate than girls. They are referred for special needs at a much higher rate as well. Meanwhile the teachers are almost exclusively women (at least 95% depending on what statistics you use). I am not claiming that there aren’t women who “get” rough-and-tumble play. And I am not concerned about how much of a behavior is learned and how much is biological. I am merely talking about the teachers’ responses to the full body expression of many boys and some girls.

I also think that there is culture within the field of Early Childhood Education with a wide array of variations within this culture. There is a tendency to favor sitting and reading books over other storytelling media (storytelling, acting, video). There is often a rejection of certain types of play such as violent-themed play and roughhousing that is common among boys. The result is a culture clash.

None of this is intentional. Many of these teachers may not have had the need to move as much as many of the boys (and some girls) in their classrooms. I am not implying that teachers are intentionally not meeting boys’ needs but rather they are unknowingly using their cultural expectations to determine what is acceptable.

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This becomes more pronounced when looking at African-American boys. The vast majority of teachers are white women. The intersection of race and gender present some unique concerns. As stated, boys tend to express themselves with their whole bodies in ways that teachers often view as disruptive. When African-American boys are behaving boisterously, the teachers might not only view it as disruptive, but they may attach some intentionality to it. They may perceive a child as being aggressive when they play this way, or perhaps even defiant. I think white boys are given a little more latitude (boys will be boys) even if they are also scolded.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I think all teachers need to look at their own preferences and recognize that they may not “get” why kids do certain things. They may be uncomfortable playing certain ways, but they can do it anyways knowing that they are trying something from a different “culture” that can be appreciated and accepted. They can let kids be kids.

 

 

 

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.