Monday, March 27, 2017


"It's a party, okay?"

"Yeah, we need a cake."

"I'm the polar bear baby. She's kind of shy about the party."

"Oh, that's okay polar bear baby you can come with us."

"What if a ghost comes to the party?"

"Hey, we need a light for the party!"

"Let's pretend it's this guy's birthday, okay?"

Many years ago, my three-year-old friend Sylvia taught me to call it "playing a story." In this case they were using our classroom Duplos, each of them taking an avatar or two in hand, joining the circle. Sometimes newcomers ask something like, "What are you doing?" which leads to a hasty summary of where the story stands, but usually they just drop to their knees and listen for awhile until they have enough of the gist to join in.

I've always viewed these types of games as a kind of every day miracle. Only a few months ago, this would have been nearly impossible for most of these four and five year olds, to sit down together like this, to not be tempted by the urge to destroy, but rather to gather around on our bellies and knees and negotiate a story together. They may strongly assert the parts of the story that are about themselves like, "I'm the dinosaur!" but when it comes to the shared parts, their sentences tend to turn into questions and invitations as they look for agreement and participation from the rest of the kids.

It's from games like this that children begin to learn what they are going to need to be truly successful in life, which is to say, the skills and habits necessary to be productive, participating members of a community. Too often, there is an adult at the center of the games children play in school, directing, making rules, guiding, and even scolding, but it's only when the grown-ups shut up and get out of the way that the kids can really dig into the real work they need to do. 

I love few things more than being a fly on the wall as they strive to create their story world together, making assertions, then tagging an "okay?" at the end, creating space for the others to agree, alter or disagree; inviting others with sentences that begin with "Let's pretend . . ."; moving their bodies to accommodate one more person; talking to one another through the characters they hold in their hands, often dealing with important social and emotional issues; arguing productively (as opposed to combatively) when ideas clash, both sides willing to yield a little or a lot in the interest of keeping the story going.

These are the skills and habits they will use throughout life. This kind of play directly reflects what most of us spend our lives doing: coming together with other people around some shared challenge or interest or opportunity, putting our heads together, then creating the community or team that we want or need to get things done. It's as true in business as it is in the arts as it is in our neighborhoods. Indeed, this is, at bottom, what democracy itself is supposed to be about: people of goodwill coming together to figure things out.

What encourages me is that it is a universal thing. I see it everywhere children are freely playing together. Of course there are conflicts, but if we adults can manage to keep ourselves out of it for a few moments longer than is typical, the children, through the community they have created are often quite capable of handling it themselves.

"Hey! Don't take that! This is our party!"

"Yeah, we're using that!

"No, stomping dinosaurs!"

They may not always be as polite, but they are often far more effective than adults who so often come in and "fix" things.

"I wasn't taking it, I was just moving it over to here because my horse needed a chair."

"Oh, I'll put it back."

"The dinosaur just wants to stomp around the party, okay?"

There is nothing more important for humans than learning about life through playing stories like this. Some assert that our great evolutionary advantage is our big brains or our opposable thumbs or something like that, but the truth is that our biggest adaptive advantage is that we are hyper-social animals, using language and mathematics and all sorts of complex systems, forever making ourselves more and more reliant upon one another. It is our hunter-gatherer drive to live as members of a community that determines whether we thrive or struggle as a species. It is our hunter-gatherer drive to sit around the fire playing stories.

When children play like this, they are not just learning about the complex interplay between individual needs and those of the community, but, if we allow them, they are also teaching us how it's done. The answers are all there if we would only listen.

"Let's . . ."


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Friday, March 24, 2017

The Mind Of Non-Discrimination

"We know that when we look into our cells as a human being, we see that the human being is only made of non-human elements.

"We have the mineral element in us. We have the element of vegetable in us. And we have the element of animal in us. We not only have human ancestors, but also animal ancestors and vegetable ancestors and also mineral ancestors; and our ancestors do not belong to the past, they belong to the present. They are fully present in us.

"Without them, we cannot see the way we see, we cannot think the way we think, we cannot live the way we live . . . So when I produce a thought, all the ancestors in me, including the mineral ancestors and animal ancestors, collaborate within me in order to produce that thought.

"It's like when you see -- when you look at a tree -- that is not the job of only your eyes. You know very well, without the brain, without the blood, without the cells in your body, without all that, "seeing" would be an impossible thing for eyes.

"So when the eyes see, the whole body is participating in the act of seeing. So when we produce a thought, when we reason, when we create music, when we do mathematics, not only are a number of neurons doing so, but the whole body, the whole lineage of ancestors in us are participating in producing that thought.

"So looking like that, you see that you are made of non-you elements and the non-you elements continue to be in you. And if you take the non-you elements out there is no more "you" left.

"So we have the complex of superiority as a human being. We think we have that kind of intelligence, that kind of consciousness, that other living beings do not have. But I'm not proud of that kind of mind that we are using in our daily life; the mind of discrimination caught by many notions; the foundation of all kinds of suffering.

"We discriminate against this and that, and that creates complexes of superiority, inferiority, equality, and so on.

"This plant has intelligence. This plant has knowledge. This plant has a will to live. This plant knows how to fabricate flowers and fruit, and how to continue to live the best way it can. And it seems to me this plant is creating far less suffering than human beings.

"I am not very proud of my mind of discrimination. Therefore, I am free from the complex of superiority of a human being. I know that I can do better.

"And that is why, when you produce a thought, Mother Earth is producing that thought together with you. Don't say that you are along producing that thought. Mother Earth is in you and she is producing that thought with you at the same time.

"So this thought is not your property. This thought is a creation of the whole earth; but not only the earth, but the sun also, because without the sun, the earth cannot be itself; and she is not able to create you and bring you into existence.

"So that is the mind of non-discrimination. As far as you use the mind of discrimination to judge and to organize, you continue to create suffering. That is why it is so important to remove notions at the foundations of discrimination and separation." ~Thich Nhat Hanh

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Thursday, March 23, 2017

"Be Careful! I Might Kick You!"

The only rule we have surrounding our swing set is that the adults don't push the kids. Other than that, we take things on an ad hoc basis, allowing the children to experiment and explore as they see fit, negotiating as new circumstances and new children arrive. 

Many of our four and five year olds, partly because adults are not pushing them, have figured out how to "pump" themselves, a rite of passage skill like whistling, snapping, or winking. This means that the kids are starting to experience some of their classmates swinging higher and faster than they did at the beginning of the school year. There may have been a time when the adults felt compelled to warn the kids about the danger of swings, but it's been months since I've heard one. That's because the children, of their own accord, perceiving the potential for injury should one not remain alert around a swing in motion, have taken on that role for themselves, listening to their inner voices of wisdom rather than the external one of command.

Last week, one of our newly-minted high flyers was really leaning into it. A couple of friends stopped to admire her. They stood directly in front of her in a spot close to where her feet were arcing into the sky, but just out of reach.

The girl in the swing shouted through a mischievous grin, "Be careful! I might kick you!"

Her friends reflected her grin back at her, then accepted the challenge by stepping closer. On most playgrounds an adult probably would have swooped in at this point, but our community of parent-teachers has learned that not only do these kids know their current limits, it's also necessary for them to occasionally test those current limits because that's part of how we grow in wisdom.

On the next swing forward, the swinger's boots missed the heads of her friends by a good two feet, so they stepped closer. This time they were within a foot of being kicked, so they stepped closer. This time their beaming faces were mere inches from her boots, so they stepped even closer. Now they were within range and they knew it. You could tell by how they prepared their bodies: poised to dodge. They had the measure of the timing by now and as those boots headed their way, they stood their ground until the last second, before falling back, pretending to be kicked, dramatically acting out the worst case scenario, laughing at the near miss they had carefully manufactured for themselves.

They did it again and again, all three of them laughing at the risk they were pretending to take. There were a couple times when the dodgers waited a bit too long or were a little clumsy in getting out of the way, but the girl on the swing simply curled her legs away from them, insuring that there was no actual contact even if there theoretically could have been.

These are important moments for children and when we over-regulate them we rob them of the opportunity to learn about themselves and others. As the adult responsible in that moment, I was alert, staying nearby, ready to coax or coach as the case may have required. I may have responded differently had different children been involved or different emotions or a different style of risk-taking. What I saw in this case, however, were three children fully in control of their situation even as it may have looked hazardous to someone viewing the situation from the outside.

This is the problem, of course, with many of our "safety" rules: they create hard, immovable boundaries when living, breathing ones are called for so that the children can actually make space into which they can grow, even if that space is only the whisker of daylight between the heel of a boot and your chin.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

"I Actually Love You The Same"

I had known the boy for two years. He didn't want his mom to leave, although she had left him at school hundreds of time before. He stood at the top of the stairs at the schoolyard gate, yelling after her, crying through the slats, saying, "Come back! I want to go with you!"

I sat beside him as he yelled. I said, "You want your mom to come back."

"Yes, I want her to come back." He cried and yelled some more.

"I think she has some things she has to do."

"She does," he answered. We had both heard her tell him that she had an appointment as she walked away. He cried and yelled some more.

When this happens with younger, less experienced children, I remind them of when mom will come back, but I knew that he already knew this. Instead, I said something else that was true, "I wish your mom would come back."

"Me too," he replied. He cried and yelled some more.

"I'm going to miss her."

"Me too," he replied.

"I wonder why."

"Because I love her."

"I love my mommy, too."

He started to cry and yell again, then stopped to tell me, "And I love my daddy."

I nodded, trying to wordlessly convey the idea that I was right there with him.

He was looking at me, tears still hanging from his lower lids, fingers still curled through the gate slats. He was thinking something through. Finally, he said, "I love you, too . . . " as if wanting to make sure I didn't feel left out.

I answered, "I love you," a little too eagerly, I guess, because he hadn't finished his thought.

". . . but not as much as Mommy or Daddy." Then he stopped again, perhaps taking a moment to absorb what I'd said on top of his words. In any case, after a moment, he let go of the gate and stepped toward me, "I actually love you the same." He didn't want me to feel unloved.

I said, "I'd like to play a story with you."

And he answered, "Me too."

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Giving It Away

We're due for a new batch of play dough, so I thought we could make it during class yesterday, but one of the kids arrived with a supply of store-bought kinetic sand that she was donating to the cause. I figured we could do with a little change of pace, so I put it on the yellow table instead of the usual ball of dough.

At one point, I found myself sitting with four boys, one of whom was attempting to collect it all for himself. This rarely happens with the regular play dough, but often happens when we're investigating something new in its place.

"Hey, I want some!"

"He has all of it!"

"He won't share!"

He didn't have all of it, as a matter of fact, but simply most of it, leaving each of the rest of us with portions the size of a child's fist. He had formed his lion's share into a mound and was encircling it with his arms, hunching over it with his body. There is no official classroom expectation that he give any of it up, but there it was clear from the reaction of his friends that there was an issue of fairness at stake. 

"You can't have it all!"

"I need some more!"

"You're not even using it!"

I said, "He does have most of it, but look at his face. He's not happy about it, either." And indeed, his expression was one of tense misery. 

One of the boys asked, "Why isn't he happy?"

I left the air clear of words for a moment, hoping that the boy with all the sand would offer us his explanation, but he remained silently dour. I said, "You'll have to ask him why he's not happy, but I've noticed that people are usually miserable when they're hoarding something."

I've been using the word "hoarding" for a couple of years now, not in a judgmental way, but rather by way of objectively labeling a particular, common behavior. Often, the kids ask for a definition of the word, but this time no one did, the illustration before them, I guess, being clear enough.

"But I just need a little bit more sand," one of them said to our hoarder, leaning toward the boy, which caused him to lay across his stash even more protectively, his expression approaching anguish. At that moment, one of the guys who had slightly more sand than the rest, broke off a fistful and passed it across the table to the boy who needed just a little bit more. In contrast to our hoarder, he was beaming.

I said, "Look at his face. He gave some of his sand to his friend and now he's really happy." Then I turned to the hoarder and said, striving for the same tone of objective narration, "And look at his face. He is hoarding his sand and he looks really unhappy." There was a moment as everyone studied one another's faces, before the group opted for happiness, each one handing some of his meager supply of sand to the kid beside him. There was a flurry of giggles as they joyfully gave it all away to one another only to find that there was always more to give.

Our hoarder, his stash no longer under assault, eased up for a moment as he watched his friends play their game of give-away. His body was still tense, his expression a stark contrast to those of the rest of the kids who had forgotten him for the moment. 

I leaned toward him, "They are giving their sand away and they are happy. You are hoarding your sand and you are miserable." He looked from me to his pile then at his friends before taking a handful and shoving it across the table. His face immediately relaxed into a grin. He did it again and again and again until he had no more or less than anyone else, laughing, exchanging his hoard for a share of the joy the rest of them had found in giving it away.

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Monday, March 20, 2017

"Real" School

I attended a play-based kindergarten. It wasn't called a play-based kindergarten. It was just called kindergarten and what children did in kindergarten was play with blocks, paint on easels, and run around on the playground. Most kids didn't even attend kindergarten, it wasn't considered a proper year of schooling.

The following year, first grade, was the first year of "real" school. Most of us were approaching seven years old. We were not expected to know the alphabet, although I did, even as I was still unclear about the lower case letters, and we certainly weren't expected to have a tool belt full of "sight words" at our disposal. In fact, other than my own name, I'm pretty sure I didn't have any. Sitting at desks was a totally new concept and when we took our seats on that first day, we found small construction paper teddy bears, one for each of us, upon which Miss McCutcheon had written the word "Ted." I went home that day to tell mom that I'd learned to read. We were later to be divided into reading groups where we worked together to make out the text in our Dick and Jane books. We were all more or less starting from scratch.

When we received our report cards, I received straight A's, which made me proud, but what confused me was the second set of grades that came under the heading "personal skills" (or something like that), scored with numbers instead of letters. There were four of them. I don't recall the other three, but one of those skills upon which we were being evaluated was "self control." Self control? I remember thinking, how could anyone not get a high mark in that? And indeed, as I compared my grades with my classmates as one does, every kid in my social circle had managed one of the two highest marks.

In today's artificially rigorous schools, children who are still struggling with the alphabet on the first day of kindergarten are considered "behind." In fact, most are expecting the kids to already be working on sight words. Miss McCutcheon's "Ted" activity is the kind of thing teachers are now doing in preschool! At the same time we've accelerated our academic expectations for young children we have seen more and more of them struggle with "self-control" (e.g., struggling to self-regulate attention and hyperactivity). 

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research:

We found that delaying kindergarten for one year reduced inattention and hyperactivity by 73 percent for an average child at age 11 and it virtually eliminated the probability that an average child at that age would have an 'abnormal,' or higher-than-normal rating for the inattentive-hyperactive behavior measure.

In other words, if today's kids had the sort of introduction to school that we had back in the 1960's they too would be scoring high marks in self-control. Instead, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, the prescription of psychostimulant medication to children, drugs like Ritalin, has boomed in recent decades. In some parts of the country as many as one in ten school-aged kids are on some sort of medication to help with self-control. Many of these kids then go on to a lifetime of mood altering medication. It's a nightmare as parents, teachers, and doctors are doping young children to make them "school ready" when simply giving the kids an additional year of the sort of unstructured play would do essentially the same thing, you know, without the drugs.

And this doesn't even factor in the majority of kids who are perhaps able to sit still, but continue to struggle with curriculum expectations that are beyond their developmental abilities, leading them to either conclude they aren't smart, to hate school, or both. 

It's around this time of year that parents tend to ask me whether or not their child is ready for kindergarten, especially those with kids whose birthdays fall right on the cusp. I always advise them to give their kid another year at our play-based school or one like it. Indeed, I would advise that for all children whatever their birthday, because the research is quite clear: children are best served by the sort of play-based education I received in kindergarten, even if we didn't call it that, until at least seven-years-old. 

It turns out that playing with blocks, painting on easels, and running around on the playground is "real" school after all.

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Friday, March 17, 2017

Listening And Understanding

Every parent has had an experience like this. Our daughter wasn't even two. We were in the car, headed to meet grandma and grandpa at a Seattle University basketball game. Traffic was horrible and I became particularly incensed at one driver in particular. I rarely swear so I'm confident that what I said aloud was "clean," but I nevertheless let him have it. There was a moment of silence, then from the backseat, I heard my little angel say, "Get out of the way driver! Go over there and drive in the trees!"

One of the most common complaints about children is that "they don't listen," but they are always listening (they just don't always obey, which is a healthy thing). Humans are designed for language and from the moment they are born, indeed, even before they are born, they are listening. They may simply begin with tone and timbre, but they very rapidly move on deciphering not just the words we use, but their meaning, often comprehending long before they are ready to use the words themselves.

One of the most remarkable experiences of my teaching life came a couple years ago when I was visiting my friend John's Dorothy Snot preschool in Athens, Greece. One of his teachers asked me to tell a story to a group of 4-5 year olds in English, none of whom spoke the language. I chose to tell George Shannon's Lizard's Song, one that I often tell to the kids at Woodland Park. At the end of the story, the kids wanted to hear it again, so I retold it. Then the teacher interviewed them. As a collective, they had missed some of the details, but they had more or less understood not only the plot, but many of the nuances, as well as the moral of the story.

I'm sure that I "sold" some of the story through my facial expressions and hand gestures and I'm certain that they knew more English than they let on given that it is sort of the unofficial second language of the country, but their ability to tease out meaning from my foreign language floored me. There is no way I could have done that had the tables been turned.

They are always listening and they understand far more than we credit them with.

Lately, I've been trying out the expression "tough luck" with the kids. Not in a mean or dismissive way, but more as a statement of philosophy.

"I pinched my finger!"

"Whoa, that's some tough luck."

Yesterday, I was sitting around the play dough table with a couple of kids and one of them told a story of woe. I replied, "That's some tough luck."

She replied, "What does that mean?"

And before I could answer, a newly-minted four-year-old replied, "It's like saying 'Bummer, dude!'"

They are always listening and they understand far more than we credit them with.

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