Honestly, who sees me as a teacher?

 

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A few days ago, Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted declared that in regards to Early Years: “Our view is that the looking-after-children side of things is very good. The education side is not so good.”

There are truly real problems in Early Years that cannot be swept under the rug.  Still, the line of thinking demonstrated in this quote is ignorant, disrespectful and downright foreboding.  The Head Cop of Education clearly does not understand how genuinely inseparable care and education are for young children.  In her eyes, proper education must mean getting four year olds “school ready” in the most myopic sense of the term.

I am anti-Ofsted, but I do have to give whichever individuals responsible there credit for their defintition of teaching in the Early Years.

‘Teaching should not be taken to imply a ‘top down’ or formal way of working. It is a broad term which covers the many different ways in which adults help young children learn. It includes their interactions with children during planned and child-initiated play and activities: communicating and modelling language, showing, explaining, demonstrating, exploring ideas, encouraging, questioning, recalling, providing a narrative for what they are doing, facilitating and setting challenges. It takes account of the equipment they provide and the attention to the physical environment as well as the structure and routines of the day that establish expectations. Integral to teaching is how practitioners assess what children know, understand and can do as well as take account of their interests and dispositions to learning (characteristics of effective learning), and use this information to plan children’s next steps in learning and monitor their progress.’

I am finally at a place where I am willing to claim that I am a teacher in my work in a children’s centre 2 year old program.  The thing is, I don’t think anybody else sees me as one.  I am not looking for pity, just trying to say the truth of the matter.  Spielman’s quote has got me thinking about this so here I am ranting to myself on a Friday afternoon.

Let’s get to it in broad, very general strokes: The older the person, the more respect – both social and financial – is given to the people teaching them. University professors make more than high school teachers.  High school teachers look down on Primary teachers.  Early Years of course is definitively at the bottom of the pile.  Even within Early Years, Reception teachers are seen as the most important and get the most attention.  In most people’s eyes de facto qualifications for working in the average baby room requires a certificate, two arms and a beating heart.  Somehow cutting hair and taking care of brand new humans are considered comparable options.

Of course this not-so-secret hierarchy in education is incredibly stupid.  The first 1000 days of a child’s life are of paramount importance to the rest of a human’s life.  90% of person’s brain develops in the first five years of life, and what happens in this time frame has a life long impact on their physical health, mental health and over all happiness and success in life.  There is no evidence to show that early capital-A Academics helps young children at all, and less time for play is clearly harmful to children’s emotional and social development. Blah blah blah.  If you are reading this you have probably heard it all a million times before.

Anyways, just a small handful of examples of me teaching in a 2 year old program this past week:

  • I am with one of my key children at our water table, scooping and pouring water into a funnel.  He tries to snatch it from me and I pull my hand a way saying “hey stop, I am using that. You can have a turn when I am finished.”  Not too long after I give it to him, “okay I am finished, you can have a turn.”
  • One of my key children is screaming and hitting another another who is trying to pull him off a bike.  I suggest to the child on the bike, “tell him to stop.  Tell him to let go.”  Today, after weeks of these sort of instances, the child yells “let go!” (while still hitting the other child) and the other child listens to him and let’s go and looks for something else to play with.  After the dust settles I tell the child on the bike “you told him to let go and he listened to you.”
  • I am helping a key child get their shoes on and they tell me “Yusuf doesn’t like me.”  I reply “you think Yusuf doesn’t like you?” “Yeah.” “Why do you think Yusuf doesn’t like you?” “Gonna hit me” “Yeah I wouldn’t want to be hit either, if someone trys to hit me I tell them to stop.”
  • We noticed that the children are not using the smaller wooden blocks at all, and using duplos more, so we replaced the wooden blocks with a basket with many more duplos in them.

If you aren’t familiar with the Ofsted definition of teaching, look at it again.  If you are reading this, you are probably already get this already.  Honestly though, would your friends, family or coworkers see the above as examples of teaching? Would Spielman?  These are “just” regular everyday interactions with an adult who has the time, patience and interest to talk things through with young children (and knows early childhood development).  Call it teaching or don’t, but those of us who know the real value of these “regular” human interactions, can’t let them be muscled out of education by technocratic, test-loving ghouls.

I think I get on with my actual weekend and will end this with a quote from Early Education’s far more appropriate and excellent response to Spielman:  “The problem is that education is not a production line, practitioners are not machines and children are not widgets. It is not realistic to think that the existence of a written curriculum can produce a uniform experience.”

 

 

 

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Decluttering the Emotional Environment: Over-Scheduled Days and Too Many Transitions

Originally Published in The Early Years Collective E-Zine, Issue 1.

The best designed physical environment, with carefully selected loose parts displayed in the most Reggio of baskets are not worth that much if the emotional environment isn’t right. To me, the emotional environment of a setting can be most simply judged by a few criteria: do the children feel safe, secure, respected and like they belong there? Do the adults feel relaxed, confident in their role, and able to have the presence of mind to interact meaningfully and mindfully with the children? Perhaps most importantly, are the children and adults alike happy to be there?

Just as we might move a shelf to different wall, add or take away some resources, or rearrange other physical objects in our rooms to better fit the needs of the children and our overall aims as educators, we also should be open to new approaches and techniques that help improve the emotional environment. As a team, and individually, this requires us to be honest, reflect and at times be willing to try new things in our practice.

Whatever task we might be doing, young children are experts at sensing if we are stressed, annoyed, relaxed, genuinely interested, frustrated, calm, distracted or anything else we might might be feeling when interacting, or not, with them. This of course has an enormous impact on children individually and as a group. Settled and confident adults tend to find themselves with settled and confident children. Stressed and distracted adults have a similar effect too. It is our responsibility as the adults of setting the right emotional tone to a room.

There are a lot of things that needlessly stress adults and “clutter” up the emotional environments of many settings but this article will only focus on one topic, the daily schedule. Yes, young children thrive on routine and familiarity but I’ve worked in too many places that treat the daily schedule as a cruel and impatient taskmaster. If the schedule on the wall states “10:15: Outside Play Time”, many adults rush the children through getting ready as if it were a once-a-day train that we might miss! Not only does nobody involved enjoy this stress, we miss out on opportunities for younger children to increasingly learn to get on jackets, shoes or water-proofs themselves. Instead of investing the time for children to increasingly learn to handle these tasks independently, “doing it for them” because it’s faster ensures we will always be burdened with these tasks.

When I’ve worked in situations like this, my patience went way down, my stress way up and I know the quality of my interactions with the children suffered quite a bit. I would go home everyday feeling miserable and upset with myself because I knew I wasn’t giving these children what they needed. I couldn’t keep up with the pace demanded by this setting and nobody benefited. I’ve noticed a sort of an unspoken sense of pride amongst some practitioners: look how quickly and efficiently I can get the kids through lunch, or ready to go outside or anything else. While I appreciate working with organised and capable coworkers, I am not sure speed and efficiency should be valued over the quality of our interactions.

Parents (who might know much about early childhood development) might like the look of a schedule of 30-45 minute intervals titled things like Literacy or Work Time, thinking this is what will get their children ready for school, but these sort of schedules do not allow children enough time to truly get engaged in anything. Many days children need time to suss out their play options before getting into some thing truly engaging. A rule of thumb I agree with says children need at the very least an hour of free play at a time to truly get into some engaging play and to see it through to a satisfying end. Settings I admire like Discovery Early Learning Center in the USA, have changed their environment, schedule and approach over time as they’ve learned to trust in following the pace of the children. These days they simply let the children play all day. The pictures from their Facebook page show children absolutely brimming with engagement, curiosity, well-being, persistence, confidence and everything else a quality early years setting should strive for.

Some adults can be tactful about it, others more bossy but one of the worst parts parts of transitions is the fact adults have to interrupt children in the middle of their play. On an episode of the podcast “That Early Childhood Nerd,” Heather Bernt, an American consultant says we “teach children not get engaged by our interruptions.” Her guest, Tiffany Pearsall, asks if you only had 15-30 minutes to engage in something you enjoy as an adult – knitting, reading, cooking a nice meal etc. – would you really get into it, much less bother at all? I’d add to this: How would you react if you were happily in the middle of perfecting a new recipe and someone told you it was time to put your kitchen tools away before you were truly finished? Many interruptions are unavoidable given the realities of group-based education and care but I do think we should give children’s play the same respect we would as the favourite hobby of any adult.

If you are currently in a setting with an over-scheduled day, consider minimising the transitions and chopped up parts of the day. If some transitions are truly unavoidable, is it always the end of the world if you get off-schedule a bit somedays? Do you worry what your co-workers will think if you can’t herd the kids to next thing like they do? If so, is it possible to talk to them about it? If you’re worried you won’t get good observations in a certain area of development, could you bring something specific into provision? Or perhaps get some mentorship on how to further see all of the learning inherent in children’s play? If you are lucky enough to be in a setting that values long stretches of play time, are there still any “sticking points” in the day that might be worth discussing with your team?

Young children’s brains are in a distinct and sensitive stage. What education should look like for them should not be confused with us “playing” mini-Primary teachers and getting them to sit still because that will be expected of them in a few years. “Learning time” is every single second of the day they are with us. Young children’s brains don’t stop growing when they are getting jackets on to go outside, fighting over toys, having runny noses, getting their nappy changed, eating meals, or falling down and skinning knees. These aren’t parts of the day to impatiently rush through so we can get to the part of the schedule where we think we put our “teacher hats” on. Rather, these seemingly insignificant parts of the day really are valuable opportunities for connection, learning and growth.

Over-scheduled and hurried days do not give children the time and space they require to engage, persist, experiment, think critically or deeply engage in their play. When we streamline the daily schedule and minimise the transitions, we can use our patience and energy for more meaningful and mindful interactions instead of burning through it quickly trying to keep a group of young children in line and on schedule.

Our daily schedules shouldn’t just be randomly thrown together or “what we’ve always done.” In my opinion, schedules should include long stretches of free play time (with constant access to outside), minimal transitions and move at the pace of the children. More than anything else though, schedules should best serve the actual, specific needs of the actual, specific children in our settings. This means they will change as the children grow, leave or as new children join us. Serving the best needs of the children also means they are sustainable and not needlessly stressful for the adults. Figuring this all out will take observation reflection, discussion and the freedom for educators to experiment.

A lot of us like to joke our job is like “herding cats,” but when are we going to realise that cats aren’t meant to be herded? Just like a spring cleaning and decluttering of a room, if something in the schedule is not helping the relationships and emotional environment of a setting maybe it needs to be changed or even chucked out!

From Classroom Cop to Reflective Practitioner Part 2

Tomorrow is the last day with the children in our Children’s Centre’s 2 Year Old program (most of them are three now of course).  I am going to miss them quite a bit, as I have with any group of children who’ve “moved on.”  Though honestly I am going to miss these children more.  Changing my views on what early learning practice looks like has made these relationships deeper and clearer to me than any previous group of children.  The only way I can put it is that it’s with this group that I’ve begun to learn to see these individual children for themselves in the here and now and not as future four, five, sixteen year olds or much less adults in training.  My views of them am no longer weighed down by that secret scale of judging them based on how well they do or don’t live up to a typical preschool routines demands.  I’ve earned to not only respect but see their intelligence and emotional lives – in all it’s 20-something months on this earth glory – in the here and now as well.  Their intelligence and emotional lives obviously don’t look anything close to an adults, but it is there.  I am more sure than ever that there it deserves just as much as respect as any adult. As John Holt put it, “be wary of saying or doing anything to a child that you would not do to another adult, whose good opinion and affection you valued.”

I am more confident and clear-sighted than ever before in what my approach to my work should be, and it feels quite good.  I more or less just trust in letting the children’s happiness and engagement (i.e. the Leuven Scales) guide me in most every decision I make with the kids.

If children are happily playing with well selected resources, I will do my best to not interrupt them, and sit in one place or at least work on some stuff as close as needed and let them get on with things themselves.

If I am needed because of a conflict, I will do my best to calmly help them sort it out themselves as much as possible.  I will suggest phrases like “don’t hit me,” or “can I use that when you’re finished?” If a child is hitting somebody else I’ll gently block them from doing it and say something like “I know you’re angry about not having the truck now but I’m not going to let you hit her.”

If a child is hurt I’ll do my best to calmly help them assess their accident and give all the cuddles they require until they’re ready to enter the play again.

If a child is new and not yet feeling secure or safe enough to get into some play, I’ll do my best to engage them in play or conversation while leaving plenty of opportunities for them to take the lead of the play themselves.

If a child invites me into converstation, play or interactions of any kind I’ll do my best to respond with genuine interest.

Part of me naively still thinks it shouldn’t be more complicated than this but of course it is: I work with all sorts of other adults who have different lives, experiences and views than me!

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Earlier this week I took a group of our children over to the nursery next door as that’s where they will be in September.  Long story short I saw a coworker who normally works with older children intervening in a conflict over a bike and she went straight into the “how about you have it for five minutes and then he can have it for five minutes” spiel. I didn’t openly contradict her in front of the children but quickly after  blurted out “we’ve been doing less of that lately,” (absolutely not true in nursery!) “why can’t he ask the boy on the bike for a turn when he’s finished?”

I really surprised the both of us.   She looked at me as if I was speaking a foreign language.  “… I thought we teach the kids to share in nursery?”  In my shock at myself for blurting something out at such pointless time, I tried to mutter something about “I am not sure they are learning anything about sharing when we force them to.”

Later on I apologised for springing that on her. I don’t think she was too offended but I could tell she had no clue where I was coming from.  She was only covering for the day in nursery, so trying to explain myself to her isn’t the biggest priority, but this interaction made me reflect (yet again) on the fact how little in my ten years of working with babies and young children has there been a shared general approach or ethos to our practice in any given team or setting I’ve been in.

Today we visited the nursery again and one of my program’s children kicked another one in a conflict and one of the nursery teachers came over to “make him say sorry” and then talked of giving him a time-out because he wouldn’t.  She did ask what we did in the Children’s Centre and I gave the honest answer that it depends on which adult is dealing with it and kind of left it there.  Just like with the Sharing Incident, I did not feel it was the right time to tell her I personally think there is no point in forcing a 34 month old to say sorry.

These two incidents beg the question: when is the time to have these conversations with co-workers?  It seems to me it is never the right time as we are busy with so much else (some necessary and some not at all, but that’s another blog post).  I am not and have never been a room or setting leader and I appreciate the difficulty of hiring from a low paid and respected talent pool, but I think developing a truly shared approach amongst staff is a widely unmet challenge in settings in the UK and across the world.  I have my personal views on things, but I recognise there is more than one way to skin a cat, or cook a lasagne.  What matters is that we work from a similar recipe.

In early years we like to talk a lot about gender, “getting it right for boys” and getting more men into the field.  What we talk bout a lot less is race, class and immigration.  Like I’ve mentioned in the previous post, I recognise my experiences have obviously shaped my views.  I am interested in how people’s different experiences in terms of culture, race, class, immigration and more affect their views of child rearing and educating.  I know I have a lot to learn from others, at the same time I am not going to be shy about my views and what I have been lucky to learn these last few years.  I am slowly learning how to talk and reflect with coworkers in the moment, but the answer is further to be found in us having time to really talk with each other, and possibly leadership that steers and mentors us in a general direction.  I would love to learn more from the examples of settings that have steered their ships in a shared direction.

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Anyways I am about to have my first UK summer school break and I am looking forward to it of course, but for the first time in ten years of working in this field, I am looking forward to meeting and learning with next year’s group of children.  I have strong opinions about my practice as is apparent but I’ve also learnt that there is never an end point in our practice.  It’s a terrible but true cliche there always more to learn!IMG_6361

 

 

Rediscovering Play for Adults 22/7

Rediscovering Play

Next month my friend Vivian and I are hosting our first “Rediscovering Play for Adults workshop” in Leeds.  I hope if you are around, you consider coming!

If it’s not obvious enough from this blog, I am endlessly fascinated by children’s play.  It is vital for their development and I am worried how it continues to decrease over the years.  I am trying to start advocating for it more in and outside of Early Years settings and schools.

But enough about kids.  I am learning more and more that play and playfulness isn’t something we should entirely leave behind as we enter adulthood.  Taking some time for ourselves to have fun “just playing” by ourselves or with others isn’t something to be ashamed of or be embarassed about.

There won’t be any corny ice breakers or mandatory activities with people you don’t know.  We will simply provide a space, time and “permission” to play.

You might feel rusty, silly or worry what others might think of you at first but I promise you innate sense of playfulness is still with you, it just needs a little refresher!

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Eventbrite Event Page

 

From Classroom Cop to Reflective Practitioner Part 1

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This week in my 2 year olds room, children took play dough and curry spices into the home area and their play and this picture makes me happy.  I would have never let this happen a few years ago, much less let them use a table knife!  I include other pictures below for similar reasons, they make me happy and I wouldn’t have seen anything valuable in them or the play experiences that led to them before.

Most adults don’t know a thing about babies, young children and early childhood development in general.  Sadly many early childhood educators & teachers don’t know that much either.  Sadder still, we tend to know more than most other adults but our working conditions and the pressure of “academics” pushing into our field keeps us from trusting and acting on what we do know.

Data for data’s sake, assessment detached from our day to day practice, number crunching, ridiculous notions of “school readiness,” benchmarks to achieve, GLD (Good Level of Development) benchmarks in the UK and equivalent high-stakes expectations in other countries all keep too many early years educators fenced in, stressed out and afraid to take the first steps necessary in changing their deeply held views of children and what our jobs could look like.

Three decades of groundbreaking research can’t do much against centuries of cultural baggage that sees children as cute but empty-headed semi-humans.  Our work is stressful, but as a whole we adults make it so much harder than it needs to be.  As Dan Hodgins says, we make “moral isssues out of developmental ones” and spend far too much time battling, scolding, praising, yelling, sticker charting and otherwise manipulating children into obeying us.  Many of us joke it’s like “herding cats,” but maybe we should realise cats aren’t meant to be herded!

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I’ve now worked in Early Years for 10 years.  Might be hard to be believe but I’ve been ambivalent and embarassed about this for most of this time.  I’ve been a “warm body” in a room more times than I would like to admit.  In my practice I have done almost every dumb and damaging thing to children under the sun.  I got into this work because I “like kids” but I have had far too many days where I couldn’t stand being in a room with them.  In essence this was because the job felt like, and really was, just being a classroom cop.

Don’t run inside.  Sharing!  Don’t build the tower so high.  You need to share! Clean those up now.  Clean up! Stop playing, go wash your hands and come eat now. Stop playing and come to a circle time.  Sit criss-cross apple sauce.  Stop fidgeting.  I love the way Anna is sitting, well done Anna.  Go play now.  If you two can’t share I am going to have to put this toy away!  Okay Joseph can have it for five more minutes and then it’s your turn.  Don’t climb on that.  Share please!  I’ve told you three times now, go sit down behind the desk!  Please stop running inside.

Why would we expect anybody to enjoy this for a job?  I never did but I didn’t know things could or should be different.  In my first setting even though I got quite “good” at them, I hated circle times but continued to do them all the same.  I don’t know how to explain this feeling but it wasn’t until I heard Dan Hodgins and Amy Ahola talk about circle time that I heard others affirm a little voice in the back of my head that I wasn’t yet able to listen to.  Before hearing their podcast episode, I always preferred impromptu, smaller and non-mandatory “circle times.”  Unsurprisingly, when children had the choice to come in close to listen to a story or sing songs, to sit how they like and leave when they liked, the process was much more enjoyable for us all!

Similarly at my first setting, I hated our “work times” and so did the children.  We would stop children’s play and make them come sit at tables to do things we thought were important.  I got to a point that whenever I was the only adult in the room, I would simply not do them.  I didn’t have any actual evidence or knowledge to back up this choice, I simply didn’t want to do something we all hated.  Honestly it was little more than laziness at the time but I do think I instinctively knew that it’s more important for young children to be having fun.  I now trust that voice more than ever.

Like I said though, I was not yet ready to listen and act on this feeling.  I still thought part of the job of circle time was getting children to obey me, sit on designated carpet squares and learn “self-control,” (i.e. stop fidgeting and annoying me when I am trying to read them a book!).  I did not yet know that well-loved and children naturally learn self-control as they get older and thought it was something we adults had to socialise into them.  Circle times sucked, but that was part of the job, and who am I to suggest to the team and our manager (not too mention our professional parents expecting their children to be “kindergarden ready”) that maybe we should try something else?  Lunch needs to get set up anyways, and we can’t have the kids running around then..

Hearing Amy and Dan fully blow apart the idea of mandatory circle times was truly a revelation.  For the first time I heard others reflect a feeling I’ve had about my job that I basically ignored and it was a major part of turning on my reflective practitioner switch.

Most politicians don’t know anything about what we do, or what they actually want from us but in saying our field needs to improve, they are in effect expecting wide scale individual personal transformation from a stressed-out workforce fenced in by criminally low-wages and an education system warped by high stakes testing and accountability.   Personal transformation takes courage and the willingness to step into the unknown.  It takes faith in ourselves to trust that little feeling or voice in the back of our heads.  It requires humility in realising there is always more for us to learn and we do not have all the answers.  In our context, it also requires freedom in the workplace to experiment, try things out and have some real say over the way things are done.  How many early years settings operate like this?

High stakes benchmarks set by people who have never set foot in our settings create, or appreciate that every class of kids is always going to be different, create a stark and simplistic view of what our jobs are and what it means to be good at them.

I don’t think people who don’t work in early years can understand the general pressure and disrespect that we feel as a field and I am not sure I can fully describe it but I will try.  We take pride in our work, and love the relationships with the children and the thank you cards from some parents but because it is not respected by others, we often look for external valididation and proof that we are doing a good job.

To prove that we do more than “just play with them all day,” we have children do cookie cutter arts and crafts because the parents love how cute it is compared to what children would actually make on their own.  We don’t know enough about the power and purpose of play and and too often set up activities only to mark off developmental checklists and collect “data” because that’s just part of the job description.

I am only now at a point where I beginning to learn enough about early childhood development, and confident enough in my own practice to realise that this job can be so much more than what I’ve first though.  I am learning to truly see children as actual humans worthy of full respect here and now, to trust in putting relationships and deep play with them first in everything I do, to continue to hone my observation skills to see children’s play for what it really is, to not take young children’s behaviour personally and focus on being in the moment with them as much as possible.  I now trust that strong, secure relationships and play are more than enough.

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Somehow I’ve turned from a “warm body” Classroom Cop into a reflective practitioner who spends their Saturday mornings ranting on their blog.  I now truly my work and am endlessly fascinated by it.   I don’t expect people not in the choir to be reading this but I hope for others in the field to get their reflective practitioner switch flipped on as well.  If it can happen for me, it can happen for anybody but for it to happen on a wide and long-lasting scale, we need to massively invest an unprecedented amount into the field.   It is plain stupid to expect teachers dealing with the stress of poverty wages to give their hearts and minds over to quality reflective practice.  There are many who do, and stay in the field out of the sheer passion for it, but there are clearly not enough to round out a quality workforce.  No amount of quality training is going to address issues stemming from low wages, stress, burn-out and high turn over.

Side bar:  Part of my personal transformation is that I am an anamoly in more ways than one.  Besides being a man, I am from a comfortable middle-class background and am married to an atmospheric scientist.  Unlike so many of my coworkers, I don’t have children to look after when I go home.  More than this, I have been raised on the far end of the vocabulary gap, grew up around tons of books and was brought up encouraged to think for myself in so many ways.  I don’t say this navel-gaze but just sharing what obviously informs my world view.  I’d be very interested in hearing from EY educators from backgrounds different than mine on all these topics.  I know my experience in this practically all female field is not representative at all.

Money talks and shows what we value in a society.  We can’t keep relying on the heartstrings and low wages of passionate educators to subsidise an essential field that not only keeps the rest of the economy working today but is literally raising the next generation.  Educators trusted and respected in the form of better pay, suitable working conditions are far more able to move into a reflective place where they can learn to trust and respect children in turn.

“Look out, a T-Rex!”: Thoughts on “Walking Feet”

I am back with the lovely 2s in the Children’s Centre this term.

We only offer morning sessions and we have to pack up most everything near the end of the session as the space is used for Parent’s Groups, Heath Visitors, Nurses and other stuff. Due to the limited hours we are contracted for, we unfortunately have to start packing up while the children are still here.

At first I was conflicted about this as it is cheating the children of a full array of provision for the full 3 hours, but I am beginning to think they don’t mind that much!  Today was a good example of what children can get up to when we simply let them.

One boy yelled “Look out, a T-Rex!” to another, pointing his finger up to the sky.  They both yelled and started to run inside to one corner of the room.  They stopped to laugh, look each other in the face and then the other yelled “It’s coming! A big T-Rex!”  With that, they screamed and then ran outside to the farthest possible corner.  Along the way they picked up five more children and the exclamations, running and fun multiplied. This continued for a good 20 minutes, seven two year olds having a great time running back and forth from inside to out.

I love moments like this, when the children are happily playing with themselves and have no need for me at all.  I continued to pack up with my coworkers, and kept a discrete eye on them as the fun continued

At one point a few of them suddenly decided they needed to use the wooden blocks to build something.  I don’t know what it was supposed to be but it had something to do with the game as one girl was urgently yelling “hurry! hurry!” as they laid the blocks out along the ground before they all ran on again.  The game continued for at least 25 minutes in total before parents started coming to pick them up.

Here is where I am tempted to explain the heaps of learning and development that occured through this simple game, but I am getting tired of that discussion.  If you’re reading this and genuinely want me to explain it more, I can.  Otherwise, I am going to move on to the topic of Walking Feet!

Nine years ago this happy, cooperative, collaborative, communicative, imaginative and long-running game between a group of two year olds probably would not have happened.  I probably would have shut it down the first time they ran inside.  I’d say something like “No running inside!” or “Use your Walking Feet!”  Maybe they would’ve continued it outside just fine, but it very well could have stopped there.

Five years ago I would have tried something like “Oh no, dinosaurs!  Please play that game outside!” with a smile on my face.  Though nicer in tone and a bit more respectful of their play, it still could have thrown it all off track.

The truth is, I rarely care about children running inside these days.  I don’t buy that it’s really about children’s safety either. I think it is more a combination of adult worries of “chaos,” adult anxiety over what other adults will think of the kids’ behaviour and adult ignorance about children’s developmental need to run.

When we don’t understand early childhood development and lack confidence in our practice a firm insistence on a set of rules to enforce helps us feel “in control” of the room and the children.  We will also be susceptible to worrying about what other adults will think of “our” children’s behaviour.

If Miss So-and-So in the room next door has her kids playing quietly at tables, what will the manager think of my kids running around yelling about dinosaurs?  What will their parents think?  Worse yet, if I let these kids run now, what’s to stop them from all running all of the time?

I’ve stopped immediately enforcing blanket rules on running this past year and a half and let me tell you: no children have been hurt, and they don’t all run all of the time.  It’s also a relief to stop playing Classroom Cop.

I think it’s hard for most adults to realise how often and how easily we needlessly comment, interrupt, manipulate and otherwise interfere in children’s play.  For these young children, we are the first adults for them to build relationships with outside of their families and close friends.  Our setting is the one of the first consistent places for them to get used to on their own.  The boundaries/rules we enforce and the manner in which we do have an immense impact on the way they will play and interact in the space.

I am not arguing against consistent boundaries.  Children absolutely need them.  I am arguing for critical reflection on what boundaries are actually necessary and beneficial for children in settings that are specifically meant to be for their growth, learning and development.

 

 

 

Smaller Scale Risks

I make it a point to rarely hold kid’s hands when they are maneuvering, climbing, jumping off or balancing on something.  I almost will never pick a child up and put them somewhere they can’t get themselves.  Not only do I think it’s unnecessary, it robs them of the opportunity for getting things done on their own.  There is a lot of physical development, motor control and self-confidence to be gained for children in this process.

If a three year old wants me to help them get jump off a climber, I will rarely give them my hands but I will offer suggestion on how they can get down.  If they want to climb down I’ll reassure them “I’ll stay here and won’t let you fall” and then try to help them think through each step of getting down.  Unless they are too upset for some reason, I want them to do it for themselves as much as possible.

At the same time, I will never pressure a child into taking a risk that they are not ready for.  As someone who was a very physically timid and cautious boy, it always feels good to help support kids take risks at their own level.  I am realising I am going to get plenty of opportunities for this now that I’ve begged/weaseled my way into being part of our Reception’s Forest School program.  Every Friday morning this term I get to go to a beautiful park with a handful of children and a few other adults and enjoy the woods.  I love it.  I wish I could do it all day, every day.

My favourite part is at the end of the session when they can finally just explore things how they see fit.  Last week I went with two children under some branches and down a hill.  We had to get over and down a few rocks, the boy was happy to do so but the girl wasn’t so sure and said she didn’t want to go down.  She reached out for my hand and I wouldn’t give it.  “You don’t have to go this way, but if you want to come with us, how about you watch how I get down the rocks and then you give it a go?  I’ll stay right by to make sure you don’t fall. Is that alright?”  She replied it was and I then went down and narrated where I put my feet.  She then gave it a go and I think surprised herself at how easy it was for her.

On my first Forest School outing, there was a challenge to run down somewhat steep hill.  Most of the kids went for it right away but there was another girl who was obviously scared and started to walk down slowly.  She was pressured by another adult with an “oh come on!”  and started to pick up the pace.  The look on her face brought my back to my childhood and how much I hated to take even small risks.  She ended up getting down the hill just fine but I could tell she was a little overwhelmed and scared from the experience.

Maybe we all need to be pushed out of our comfort zone from time to time but I didn’t like this interaction much at all.  Why does she need to get down the hill a certain way?  Why can’t she get down the hill how she sees fit?  Maybe after a few tries she would have realised her capabilities and ran down on her own initiative.

Others might have pressured the first girl to get over the rocks in a similar way.  Others might have held her hand or even carried her over the rocks to solve the problem.  Instead I feel we have have to respect individual children’s agency and right to take risks or not, and in the way they see fit.  What’s not a big deal to one person might be more of a challenge for another.  Not everything about risky play involves huge physical acts.  Risk is relative.