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.

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.

J Club October 5

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]

 

A Plea for Child Readiness

all families matter
all families matter

The term “School Readiness” has always bothered me. As a preschool teacher, I am not just getting children ready for school or even for kindergarten. I am helping them learn to be life-long learners. I want them to enjoy school, of course. But I want them to enjoy the people they meet at school and enjoy the things they do after school just as much. I want each of them to be a well-rounded person who finds their own way of fitting in to the world and offering something to the communities they find themselves in.

 

A blog post of Teacher Tom’s http://teachertomsblog.blogspot.com/2015/06/your-child-is-not-falling-behind.html

making a map

made me see another reason to dislike the phrase “school readiness.” It is often a euphemism for literacy; more specifically reading and writing. Too often I see programs focusing on “school readiness” put so much emphasis on reading and writing that they ignore speaking and listening skills. They miss out on the power of pretending. It often seems to me that these programs think that if you teach preschoolers like they are first graders, they will learn first grade material. This includes the idea of having them sit for longer periods of time and discourage them from moving their bodies until Outside Time.

 

 

I do believe that people create these programs with good intentions. I am from Minnesota where African American students in fourth and eighth grades are more than three grade levels behind white students in math, and they are more than two grade levels behind whites in reading. This is usually referred to as “the achievement gap,” but Dan Gartrell points out that it should be called “the education gap.” The first phrase puts all the responsibility on the children, but the second phrase points out it is a shortcoming of our education system.

 

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I also want to acknowledge that there is no golden age of education when we didn’t have an education gap. Frankly public education over the past century is filled with so many achievements that the bar has been raised. 1940 was the first year that half of the 17 year olds in the US graduated High School. Public schools have continued to improve on these graduation rates. The education gap we are talking about has always existed, but now we consider it unacceptable.

The sad truth is that our schools have never served most African-Americans well. The push for school readiness is understandable, but the problem is that too many schools are built on the same school culture that has failed. If we want all children to be ready for school, we need schools that are ready for children.

Children need to be moving. It is what is best for them in all developmental domains, cognitive as well as physical, social and even literacy. More and more evidence shows the importance of movement for learning at all ages. Meanwhile, there is plenty of evidence that sitting for long periods of time is bad for people of all ages. In the UK, there was a recommendation that 2 hours of an 8 hour office workday should be spent not sitting. Too many young children don’t even get that much time to move around.

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Those of us in the education world have to take responsibility for the education gap. We need to find ways for kids to play more, to move more and to express themselves more. We need to address the needs and interests of the children in our schools and childcare programs. We need to think less about school readiness and think more about child readiness.

It’s on us.

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Use Your Words

Teachers of young children often use the phrase “use your words.” It usually refers to the idea of using words to express dissatisfaction with another child rather than hitting them. I also used to use the phrase to remind children to ask before joining in play, but I have had to rethink that.

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The problem is that most communication comes from nonverbal gestures. There are a lot of other skills besides using words that are needed to join others in play. For example, Greg and Neville are very close friends. They play together every day, often roughhousing. However, they do not start by asking if they can play rough. They have an understanding built on trust.

 

Here is a typical day in my classroom:

Neville crashed into Greg. I take a few steps forward. Like a police officer, I am assessing the situation as I approach. Is anyone hurt? Is a fight about to erupt? Did a fight already in progress? Do I need to call for back up? Neville looks up at Greg (he is a full head shorter). Neville is smiling. Greg meets Neville’s eyes, and he smiles, too. Then Greg tackles Neville to the couch. They erupt into laughter. I look around to see if the area they have chosen is safe for this type of play. They wisely chose the couch. I know that in a few minutes, Neville will cry. It almost always happens that he will get bumped a little too hard. Greg will stop the play and ask if Neville is OK. Neville will cry for about thirty OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAseconds and Greg will apologize. Then Neville will look at Greg’s face and smile. Greg immediately goes into play mode. The two are tackling each other.

It always starts with non-verbal communication. The two know that they are playing. They often tackle each other once or twice before they even talk about what they are playing. After the initial greeting-tackle, one of them will suggest a scenario.

 

“How about we’re superheroes?” “How about we’re Ninja Turtle?” “How about we’re lions that escaped from the zoo?”

Then play resumes. It is a mixture of verbal and non-verbal communication. If someone winces, the other often eases up. If someone starts laughing, the other will keep repeating the action that led to laughter. Sometimes they don’t even bother with a scenario. They simply enjoy the physical contact.

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Greg and Neville have an existing relationship that allows them to not use their words. What about a third child? Greg and Neville often are joined by others who read the body language. If the two of them are rolling on top of each other, another child might also roll on top of one of them. Usually it works. Once in a while someone will say “stop.” The other child stops and trust is built.

 

If a new child joined our class, I would have to help them join other children who were playing.  I find that the most successful way of joining others is not to ask, “Can I play, too?” The first step is non-verbal. The child needs to play with similar materials. If a child is drawing, draw near them. If they are building with blocks, build near them. They also have to position themselves in the same way as the child they want to play with. If the child is sitting on the floor, the other child should sit on the floor. If the child is sitting at a table, the child sits at the table. If the play involves movement, the child entering play needs to move as well.

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If pretend play is involved, the child should figure out the roles and choose a role to suggest. When they do finally speak, they need to use a tone of voice that is not too forceful or even a polite request will go unheeded. Even if the other children don’t agree with the role chosen, they will often choose a substitute. “You can’t be the Mom because we don’t have any parents. You can be the big sister.”

Children do need to use their words, but they need to express themselves with their actions as well.

 

Disruptions Don’t Always come from the Kids

Reading books to preschoolers is one of my favorite things about my job. If the classroom is getting a bit too rowdy for me, I know I can pick up a book and start reading out loud. By the time I turn to the second page, a few kids gather around. Soon, most of the class is sitting around me listening. I love the way kids this age become so engaged with the story that they call out when they see something in the illustrations, or they anticipate some of the lines in the book.

A teacher sitting crisscross applesauce
A teacher sitting crisscross applesauce

 

One of the most gratifying things as an author is reading my own books to kids. Now I hear kids call repeating words that I wrote. There is a child in another classroom at my center who has to point out each character on each page. “There’s Rita. There’s Johanna.” After pointing out everyone, he sits back down. When I turn the page, he stands up and points out everyone on that page. It’s great to have someone so excited about my book.

 

One time I was at another childcare center to read. As I turned the page, the illustration shows Bree holding up a worm. A child rose to his knees and pointed and said, “Look, a worm!” I was just about to say, “You’re right. She does have a worm.” I was thinking I could ask how many of the kids have found a worm. But I didn’t say anything because a teacher scolded the child telling him to sit quietly so I could read. I read the rest of the book, but I didn’t have any other enthusiastic kids calling out.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter the book I asked the kids questions and they asked me some questions. The kids had a lot to say, but every time they became a bit animated (kneeling, talking over each other) a teacher scolded them. It was hard to have a conversation because the teacher kept interrupting us.

On my walk to the bus, I realized none of the teachers commented on my books with the kids (or me). They thanked me for reading to the kids, but otherwise the only time they spoke was to scold the children.  It seemed that for the teachers the main learning experience was learning how to sit and wait for a turn to speak.

 

I find this often happens in preschool classrooms. More attention is spent on obedience than on the learning experience. Children are often told to sit “crisscross applesauce.” This refers to sitting on the floor with legs crossed.

In terms of learning, I have not been able to find a study that shows any more knowledge retention, or an increase in engagement when sitting this way. My own experience finds quite the opposite.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I think one of the reasons children are asked to sit that way is so they don’t disrupt the attention of others who are listening to someone speak. I don’t think there is anything wrong with telling children that they need to make sure everyone can hear or see. But there are many ways to sit without disrupting others. It can even include children leaning on each other.

 

In my classroom, I let children choose to sit or stand the way they want when I am reading a book. I do ask children to make sure others can see, so fairly quickly the kids and I find that the higher up you are, the further back you need to be. For example, if you want to stand, you go in back. If you want to lie down, you need to make sure no one is in front of you. I do have to remind children occasionally, but certainly no more than in classrooms where they are supposed to sit crisscross applesauce. The difference is, the kids in my room can look around and see the other kids and realize why they are moving. It is not because the teacher said so, but because the child behind them is saying, “I can’t see.”

 

I think this issue of enforcing compliance can lead to teachers scolding children more harshly. Rather than giving children a gentle reminder that someone behind them can’t see if someone stands in front of them, the teachers react as if the child is disrespecting them for not obeying. The child is just being a child who can’t sit in one position for long (just like many adults). If there is any disrespect happening, I think it might be coming from the teacher.

Police dog
Police dog

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.