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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!

Facebook Event

 

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.

 

Why Pop Up Play for Grown Ups?

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My friend Vivian and I are hosting a “Pop Up Play Session for Grown Ups” next month.  I think you should join us.  Why, you might ask?

Because it will be fun!

Adults as a whole can’t be bothered to play much and it can be a bit silly to many suggest otherwise.  We have jobs, children to raise, bills to pay, chores to do, ailments to deal with, parents to take care of and everything else under the sun to do instead.  We have to-do lists and of course they have to be taken care of.

There is a lack of appreciation and understanding of what play is among the majority of the adult world.  Most people see play as something childish, and fair enough, it is primarily the domain of children.  To over-simplify things, children are process oriented and adults are more product oriented.  Take some purple paint: the three year olds I teach want to explore every facet of this substance.  What happens when it’s on paper? On the table?  On the side of the shelf?  What happens when the paint pot is filled with water? In truth, “childish” investigations are never ending and the primary way young children build their brains and further their development.

Adults on the other hand might not touch the paint at all.  Many would tell themselves they are no good at art and laugh off any activity involving the purple paint.  If the end product would not be “good,” what is the point of doing it at all?

I don’t think we will have any paint at this pop-up session but we maintain play is necessary for us as we grow into adults as well.

When you come join as at the lovely HEART Cafe Courtyard we are going to have stuff for you to play with (mainly recycled loose parts from SCRAP), a few choice quotes posted around, and most importantly permission for you to simply play – alone or with others.  You might not know how to start.  You might feel awkward because you don’t want to look silly in front of complete strangers or you genuinely won’t get the point of it all.

We are confident though that if you give yourself the time and permission to just get lost in just messing around with the junk, you will  enjoy the process in and of itself.  Your ever present and stressful to-do list might even float out of the foreground of  your mind for a while.  Your guard might come down for a bit and you will let yourself enjoy the company of people you don’t yet know.  There is connection, mindfulness and fun to be found when we start to value the means of a chosen activity just as much as the ends. Our lives are meant to be enjoyed!

 

 

Should Chocolate Be Delicious?

I don’t know if it’s virtuous or masochistic of me to bother at all but this is a response a blog post I found entitled “Should Young Children Learn Through Play?”  It is kind of sad that this is how I spend a good chunk of a day of my Easter holidays but I own it.

The blogger, Anthony Radice is a proud traditionalist teacher with some opinions abut Early Years practice.  He quickly falls flat in the first paragraph saying: “teachers of younger children are much less likely to be subject specialists.”  Quality EY practitioners and teachers should be and are specialists in early childhood development, a subject that has developed immensely in the last thirty years.  Though it has confirmed what quality nursery and preschool teachers have known intuitively for much longer, the rest of society has yet to catch on to these findings.  Working with young kids is easy “women’s work” after all, so why should we be listened to?

Anthony tries to get up but trips again:

But what do very young children do naturally? Even play is not ‘natural’. Anyone who has cared for more than one young child at a time will know how frequently disputes have to be resolved, and how much effort is required to establish some rules for playing: sharing, for example, is not something which children naturally do. They have to be instructed.

Many EY practitioners do indeed instruct kids how to share in all sorts of ways, but the effectiveness of different techniques is out of the scope of this post.

For young children, play is as natural as breathing and eating, and just as necessary for healthy growth and development.  Young children are at a distinct stage of development, for a reason.  Even a basic background in early childhood development would help others see the danger of trying to rush young children through it.

We’re all entitled to our opinions and Anthony goes on with the rest of the blog post with simplistic remarks about the difficulties of kids not sharing, toilet training and “Lord of the Flies” scenarios to justify his.  Many EY practitioners and teachers will agree with him on these points to varying degrees and that is fine.  Where he simply fails is using these quips as justification for his “traditional/academic/earlier-is-better” approach to EY.  The points just don’t connect.

Don’t like to go here but Anthony begs the question if he has ever working or setting foot in an Early Years setting when he goes on to say:

Then there are the other wonderful things that can be done with groups of young children, all without their having to start learning to read and write excessively early. They can listen to stories, they can learn songs and poems, they can make their first attempts at drawing. All of these require an authority figure to be in charge and to maintain order if they are to be executed successfully.

Any setting where children aren’t listening to stories, learning songs or “first attempts at drawing” would be shoddy.  Anthony would probably be horrified by my practice but my key children regularly engage in these activities (and much more of their choosing).

Anthony’s closing paragraph is an event in itself.

Most wonderful of all these aspects of early formal education, if we are thinking about opening minds to the wider world, are the ability to listen to stories and to memorise songs and poems. So much fascinating and valuable knowledge can be built into education from the earliest stages, if we are prepared to take charge and stop idolising children.

I am even perfectly fine with direct instruction and even engage in lots of it myself, as long as the young child is actively choosing to be there.  When they have their inevitable conflicts over toys or play, I am there to guide them through them solving their problems as much as possible.  I am absolutely an authority figure but my goal is to give them social and emotional skills to increasingly handle their problems without me, which they are.

(The truth is children can and do handle many conflicts themselves without adults barking rules at them, but we train them to expect us to solve their problems.  Adults of all ideological stripes make moral problems out of simple developmental ones all too often.)

I accept that some people like to have circular, insular edutwitter debates (like myself apparently).  I accept there are going to be people within and outside of Early Years who favour “academics” over play in nursery & Reception settings.  I fully recognise that this blog is not going to change any of their minds.

What I don’t accept, or respect is the fact that none of these people – who love to talk about evidence and research in terms of education for older children – do not and possibly cannot point to anything evidence-based to justify their opinions and feelings in terms of Early Years practice.  They complain about it being dominated by “child-centered progressivism” and as far as I can tell never engage with the stone-cold evidence that quality practice is based on.  I, and others, in Early Years can, and do get tired of this.

Quality EY practice is frustrating for these types because it isn’t about their narrow views of learning but rather about what literally builds young children’s brains and fosters their overall development.  I think many like “academic” Early Years practice because it makes primary school teacher’s jobs easier in many ways.  Children are used to sitting still and looking to adults as the sole source of knowledge and bestower of approval.

Primary school teachers have incredibly hard jobs and more is being expected of them and their students than ever before.  I can see why most teachers (who wisely never set foot in edutwitter land, or more likely have never heard of it) appreciate it when they have compliant and “easy” students.  I empathise with their situation but the fact that over-testing, lack of recess and worship of SAT scores has warped and twisted education into what it is today does not change young children’s basic biological and physiological hard-wiring. If anything, Early Years principles need to be pushed up into the rest of education.  I can already hear the same usual objections from Radice and others, and I’ll give the same “look at the Scandinavian countries” response.  The edutwitter carousel will continue to turn.

Nobody has to agree with me about anything at all, and of course we are all going to keep our favourite ideological teddy bears but I do ask Anthony Radice and others to study some basic early childhood development before going on about Early Years in the future.

Suggested Reading List for Anthony Radice or anyone else:

Power & Freedom #4: Throwing the Blocks

 

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I call these posts “power & freedom” because I believe more than ever that they are two things children need and deserve to feel in their lives.  These are also two things that can be hard for most adults, myself included, to accept, much less encourage or appreciate.  Doing so means we have to give up our own control over the children and their play in a variety of ways.

In Early Years settings, where we can have so many kids and so many absolutely real issues such as staff views, scheduling, logistics, Health & Safety concerns, manager or SLT expectations and honestly our own patience, we can’t recreate mini-Adventure Playgrounds (no matter how hard I dream).  Finding that balance of giving children at least some experiences with feeling powerful and free in the context of a large nursery setting is a fascinating challenge.  It requires me to bite my tongue a lot and to observe and reflect on the children in my care.  I truly think their play gets deeper and more dynamic when I step back and let them feel more powerful and free than I would have a few years ago.  This letting go of control and respecting children’s play in a new light has been at the core of my new love for this work.  I look forward to the day when I can childmind or open a setting of my own where I can fully make children’s power and freedom a priority in my practice.

Anyhow.

There is one boy in my key group who has been settling in for a while.  He only comes for short visits with his Mum until earlier this week he would not play or engage with anybody or anything in the room.    He is from a poor, “challenged” (or any other euphemism you like) background  Today was the first time his mom left for an hour.  He was upset at first but was willing to go outside with me where he actually got to some great play.  I showed and explained the things for him to do.  I showed our big wooden blocks and that we could make something with it, stacking a few of them.  He thought this looked great but turned out he just wanted to throw them around!

I tried building a few things but he just took more blocks and tossed them.  At one point he made them into a pile.  He really enjoyed this, (as well as the slide and trying on different pairs of wellies) and I am glad I let him go for it.  I think in settling into a new environment children should feel their natural curiosity and urges are allowed and even valued. I want Early Years settings to be places where children feel free and allowed to explore their world in the ways they liked.  These are supposed to be places for their growth and development, and I think we should let children own more of this process.  It is their growth and development after all.

I won’t act like my first instinct wasn’t to wish he would build normally with the blocks.  It would have been easier for me of course.  I couldn’t help but try suggesting to/redirecting him a few times into building with the blocks but I quickly saw that is not where he was at in his play, interest or development.  I consciously chose to stop trying to move him towards a more adult-acceptable use of the blocks and let enjoy the blocks in his own way.  Who is to say building traditionally with the blocks is better in terms of morals, learning or neural pathways being built?  If we know “behaviour is communication” what was this boy who does not speak any English trying to tell me about his interests and needs?

Allowing behaviour like this still does not feel natural to me.  I’m sure he could pick up on my body language and tone as I let slip a few “be carefuls.”  But by the time his Mum came to pick him up he was coming periodically to me with smiles, cuddles and to point out other things he found outside.  This was a much more comfortable and confident boy than I saw just earlier this week who did not feel safe enough to play much at all even by his Mum’s side.  I can’t say for sure but I like to think it’s partially because I provided the space for him to follow his natural curiosity.

Let’s talk about safety.  Obviously I would have redirected his aim (and did once or twice) somewhere else if children were getting in the trajectory of his blocks.Not even two years ago I would have “nicely” stopped this right away, saying that “these blocks could hurt people but I can help you find a ball to throw.”   This isn’t the worst thing to do to a child’s play but my heart is not in enforcing unnecessary blanket rules anymore.  The only big NO’s for me are hurting people or property.  I think it’s my job to be there to help them navigate everything else.

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(The Rules posted at Roseville Community Preschool)