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)

 

 

Power & Freedom #3: Climbing Shelves and the “Other Adults Factor”

For a while I have been letting children climb (sturdy & stable) shelves inside while I stay close by.  I haven’t helped them get up or down, but stayed close to communicate with them so they can make informed, safe decisions.  Nobody’s been hurt and the fun, play, growth and communication that’s happened through the climbing has been immense.  It’s made me a little anxious trying to monitor them but I’ve truly enjoyed the process.

I’ve purposefully done this because at the moment my nursery does not have any climber for the children in or outside.  In my view, their absolutely literal need to climb should take precedence over adult standards in this environment.  They are capable of learning they are allowed to do certain things at nursery which aren’t allowed at home.  If we had a place for them to climb, I would be more okay with keeping the shelves off limits (though I honestly don’t care about the sanctity of shelves that much.  What is the worst that could happen if we let children climb and play on stable, sturdy shelves?).

I love seeing children assess and take risks in their play.  I have an increasingly high tolerance for mess.  As the title of these series of posts states, I think children need real power and freedom over their play, growth and learning.  I’d like for more adults in Early Years and education in general to take these principles seriously.  My love for working with children has only been ignited recently as I’ve learned to let go of my power in the room, and un- and relearn much of what I took for granted about early learning.

The truth is that two days ago I have chosen to compromise on these ideals.  Other staff think this shelf climbing is unsafe, unnecessary and should not be  allowed.  I disagree but I have made the decision to go along with in terms of “team unity.”  Like many Early Years teams we’ve all been part of, there are “splits” and different views on so much, including risky play and mess of course.  As a new TA, I am only beginning to understand the fault lines and history of the divide among staff.   I’ve decided that I cannot and should not push too many changes in the Nursery at once. I know I am pushing their comfort zones in other ways and I will choose my battles a few at a time.  At the moment it’s allowing messier play and allowing block towers to be built way higher then they were in the past.  After a while I hope they will see that these aren’t so bad or hard to handle and will just become a norm in the room.  Hopefully their tolerance for messy, risky play and the appreciation for the growth that can occur through it will increase over time.

The idea that “no significant learning happens without a significant relationship” is just as true between adults as between children and adults.  Though I openly, honestly and respectfully disagree with my fellow TAs on this topic, there are real issues with my fellow TAs not feeling respected or listened to.  Why should they be expected to be open to considering alternative points of views when their views are not being considered or respected?

I know in this instance I am selling out the children’s rights here but I think changes towards child-led early learning simply have to be taken a few steps at a time and with a team of adults who learn to operate from a similar page.

Am I handling this right?  Could this be a first step towards just going along with what’s expected, easy and “normal” in early learning?  If any other sympathetic TAs, Teachers or other EY staff are reading this, how do you navigate pushing for what you believe amongst your coworkers?

 

More Men In Early Years? Meh.

I suppose I am real blogger now, asked to write something original for another blog!

Anybody in the Early Years blogosphere, or really anyone paying attention knows that men remain practically non-existent in the field of childcare and education. Looking after babies and young children is still considered to be and in many ways remains “women’ work.” The flipside of this sexist cliché is that us men who do care for and educate babies and young children are out of the ordinary, questionable and to many people’s eyes weirdos who are possible threats to their children. I have my stories of not being allowed to change nappies, ignorant comments and weird looks from others but they’ve been repeated by others plenty of times and it is not the scope of this blog post…

(rest of article at The Male Montessorian).

Power & Freedom #2: Throwing Sh*t off a Ledge

The outdoor area for the Nursery at my school is much bigger than my original 2 year old program.  My favourite thing about it is that part of it is on relatively substantial hill that the children can go up, and look down on the play area, the rest of the school and neighbourhood.  As I am getting to know all the children in the nursery, a group of them have repeatedly wanted me to go up with them on one part of the hill.  There’s a walled off ledge here, and a path under and along side it.

Up on this part of the hill we’ve spent time just sitting and watching the action below, making pretend sneezes to laugh about, playing with ropes I tied to tall tree branches and more.  It’s a great place to get away from the commotion and fluorescent lights inside.  I do my best to not hog the spotlight of the play but since I am new to the nursery, and I want to build good relationships with the kids  I am leaning more into my funny, entertaining new-adult-in-the-room mode.  As the relationships get in place I will increasingly pull back from the center of the action and let them get on with their play more and more.

Yesterday one boy suddenly decided to start to throw everything he could off find of this area and off the ledge.  A small dug up dead bush, plastic cups and plates, two logs almost as big as him and two big plastic crates.  It was getting on the path below and it looked messy.  He was having a really good time!  I wish I was able to take a picture of all this so you could see what I am talking about.

This is notable to me because I distinctly remember when I would’ve stopped this sort of play straight away.  I would have thought it looked destructive, messy and if allowed to continue, might lead to Lord of the Flies situation.  “Children need to learn to obey us and to not make needless messes.”  I don’t say this only to pat myself on the back for my supposed enlightenment but more to be honest about the path I’ve been on working in early learning.

Learning to trust children more and tolerate more mess, I observed as I let him continue with the chucking everything in site off the ledge (there were no children below and if any were coming I would’ve asked him to wait until they passed).   Since I do not yet know this boy, and our setting is in a working-class, immigrant area where many of the children aren’t given many opportunities for messy, risky, big body play my assumptions about his play started off honestly pretty paternalistic.  He hasn’t had opportunities to explore the trajectory schema (good on me for letting him do so).  Not that I think I was wrong at all here, but it puts his supposed setbacks in the foreground of the situation.  After a few minutes I think I looked at it more positively.  This boy is developing full body strength as he actively explores weight, gravity, trajectory.  He is feeling powerful, something every human needs, using his body to send this stuff through the air, and most of all he is really enjoying throwing sh*t off the ledge!  Allowed power and freedom to play how he liked, this boy was engaged in most every single Characteristic of Effective Learning and his Laevers Scales were strong fives

Do you remember how much fun it was to throw things as a child?

Many of our assumptions about, and rules and expectations for children needlessly interfere with children’s hardwired plans for their healthy growth and development.  I won’t delude myself into thinking anybody reading this isn’t already part of the choir but what would be gained from stopping this boy from enjoying this activity?  I think the only real answers are concerns over safety (besides getting to know the kids I was up there to make sure nobody would get hit), “respect for the toys” (nothing was broken),  but if we are really being honest, it is about breaking the child’s will.

I don’t think many would be happy to look at this way but again, I remember how I used to look at children.  I remember what I felt and thought when I first started working with kids in the US without any understanding of early childhood development.  I simply did not understand the biological and psychological reasons behind much of their behaviour.  I started working in a preschool because I “liked kids,” but I now know I was completely ignorant about them.  I saw a large part of my job as providing consistent limits, expectations and consequences so they would eventually, somehow follow adult expectations of behaviour.  This was how they would be socialised into well-functioning adults.

I saw children through what I call the all-pervasive “cute, empty-headed beasts” lens of childhood.  If we don’t know about children’s development so much of their behaviour will then be inscrutable and maddening.  It is something to be managed, corralled, punished, praised, bribed and manipulated until they eventually live up to adult expectations of behaviour.  If I remember correctly, I would have worried “how else will children know how to behave?”  If this boy thinks it’s okay to throw the toys off this ledge now, how is he going to learn to delay his gratification enough to get through the hardships of adult life that are to come later?

The answer to this very legitimate concern is that children in stable loving environments full of secure relationships with adults and other children will naturally grow into stable, loving adults who are secure in themselves.  It is not complicated but it does require faith, trust and respect for children in a culture that thinks these are outlandish ideas.  Babies and young children learn how to be decent adults by the example of being treated decently by adults.  As Magda Gerber put it, “Personality characteristics such as generosity, empathy, caring and sharing cannot be taught, they can only be modeled.”

I  put sh*t in the title of this piece because I think much of the reality of children’s play can be a bit distasteful or controversial to our adult senses.  Children’s play is not always respectful or part of polite, adult society.  We can get trained on and read books about schemas and understand it all intellectually, but genuinely being okay with things getting thrown through the air is and the path getting messy is an entirely different ball game.

If our settings are supposed to be for children’s growth and development, I am going to let this boy and and any other child throw sh*t off the ledge and engage in other behaviours that might challenge some of our adult hang-ups around mess, risk, and safety.  To be clear I am not saying I have the monoply on “best practice” here.  I am not arguing anybody needs to go to work and to pretend they are okay with behaviours that they are not (it won’t be sincere and you will drive yourself nuts), nor is this saying children don’t need age appropriate expectations and limits, but I am advocating people engage in some serious yet gentle reflection and find their growing edge of comfort with these topics.

Who are our settings for?  What is the worst that could happen if you let that child follow their urge to put the sand in the water table?  Stand on a chair to make their block tower higher? Not come to your mandatory circle time and instead carry on with their play?  Take the play dough outside?  Roll a tire down the slide?  And of course, what is the best that could happen if we let our children have more power and freedom in how they play?