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 obey our orders 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 and 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 onn 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?

Power & Freedom #1: Pencil Sharpener

Our 2 year old program has fully merged with our Nursery next door.  This week I’ve been transitioning out of our original 2 year old program and into a key person role with most of the new 2 year olds, which I will start in full after this break.  There’s been a few rough days as I get used to a new routine but overall I’ve really been enjoying it.

One experience sticks out from this week and it make me think about children’s need to feel power and freedom in their lives.

0985709099Pencil Sharpener

A lot of our coloured pencils were getting dull so I dug out an automatic, battery operated pencil sharpener a coworker has in her cupboard.  When I sat down on the floor to start sharpening, I quickly had a small crowd of six 2 & 3 year olds around me to see what I was up to.  Of course they all wanted to have a go at using this exciting contraption and of course, this soon turned into bickering, pulling and attempted snatching between each other.

Five years, maybe even three years ago, I would’ve gone out of sight to sharpen the pencils, avoiding the need to referee such an unnecessary conflict.  I would’ve said it was better for all parties involved to avoid drama like this.  I’d get it done quicker by myself anyways and I’d save my valuable patience for other parts of the day.

Anyways I’ve been moving away from that line of thinking and I decided to this right on the floor.  To make this pencil sharpener work the kids had to put it in the right sized hole, set the switch on the right setting and hold it in with just the right amount of pressure.  Most didn’t seem to get the fact that it was sharpening the pencils, they seemed mostly interested in making the pencil spin around and the noise the motor made. I’m not sure but I would most all of them have never used such a contraption.  It must have been a fascinating object for them to investigate and figure out.

I’ve been learning to look at situations like this as valuable life practice for the children and myself as well.  Not just practicing sharing a pencil sharpener but how to practice dealing with emotions when having to share space with all these pesky other people.  When the bickering and pulling started, I instinctively put on my benevolent enforcer/”sportscaster” hat: “You all want to use this pencil sharpener.  Since we only have one, you’re going to have to take turns.  How about N has a turn now and in a bit it can be A’s turn?”  I didn’t have a timer and I was arbitrarily deciding when each child’s turn was over, “you really like using the pencil sharpener but now it’s A’s turn.  Please give it to them and I promise you’ll get a turn again in a bit.”  Some kids were better at complying with my order than others.  I ended up snatching it out of a few kid’s hands because they weren’t listening and I felt silly and hypocritical then as I snatched the sharpener out of their hands.  The truth is I have not fully grown out of the authoritarian mindset that most all of us have been born into (I very well might never, but I write blogs like this to help me reflect and grow more).

I’m not sure exactly when or how the situation calmed down but I think it was a combination of the initial “new thing!” excitement wearing off, my repeated refrains of “I know it’s hard to wait but I promise you will get another turn,” and them getting the system of the turns going in a circle around the table.  Once this initial clamor for the sharpener died down, I felt more at ease and was less a “benevolent enforcer” at the table.  At some point I started replacing my arbitrarily-timed orders to fork it over to the next kid with something along the lines of  “when you’re finished, please give it to H” and so on.  The responded to this so much better and I am going to return to this point in a bit.

It is worth repeating how into this sharpener they were.  It makes sounds!  It spins the pencil around – but only if held with the right amount of pressure!  Some of them started to notice the pencil shavings coming out into the clear case!  There’s two different sized holes and a switch that changes how it operates!  There is so, so much to investigate, manipulate and figure out

As adults we should try to put ourselves in children’s shoes as much as possible.  What if I were in the middle of an utterly fascinating activity – let’s say a good book – and somebody came in and said “my turn” was finished and they had the physical power to enforce this order?  On top of this, what if my brain is still in the process of developing and I think the world revolves around me and literally can’t control my impulses?  Does somebody admonishing me with single word orders to “share!” mean anything at all to me?  What do I learn from this person snatching the book out of my hands as I did to these children at first?

So as the kids and I calmed down, a working harmony developed and they all took turns and started to willingly pass it to each other.  One young three year old boy who is known for being veryquick to hit and push began to explain “it’ll be A’s turn, then my turn, then H’s turn, then E’s turn.”  The turns lasted longer and my reminders to “please pass it to so-and-so when you’re finished” became less frequent.

I am not beating myself up for my benevolent enforcer role at first.  We only had one pencil sharpener, they all wanted to use it and I absolutely agree that part of life is learning that the world does not revolve around us.  That said, the way we help younger people come to learn this hard lesson for themselves is by letting have more power and freedom in their lives and giving their interests more respect as well.  There is a world of difference between “it’s A’s turn now,” (and if you don’t hand it over now I am going to snatch it from you) and “when you’re finished, please give it to A.”  They are both essentially directions, but one respects the  child’s interest in the pencil sharpener as something worthwhile and not just “childish behaviour” that needs to be managed and controlled by us to minimise behaviour that’s annoying to us.

On another note, I am more convinced than ever by arguments by Peter Gray and others that children learn best in multi-age groups of children with few, if any adults present.  I wonder what would happen if I did not intervene at all in the use of the pencil sharpener?  The obvious answer here, that I only to by reflecting on all this, is to work towards having  an automatic pencil sharpener always being available in the room so they can investigate and use as needed.  Maybe our only adult role would be sure it doesn’t get lost or broken?  In my dream setting I will open one day, the only rule would be “it’s okay unless you’re about to hurt someone or break something.”

Children’s interests, emotions and lives are not a commodity for us to tinker with or manage to avoid being annoyed by.  To learn to live life well, children need to be allowed power and freedom to actually live it for themselves.

EDIT: Somebody commenting on facebook rightly questioned why I was making them share it at all.  Normally I all about not forcing sharing of any toys.  The interest and the clamor I found myself reverting back to an older, ingrained adult “share police” role that I am still unlearning.

My next piece in this series is going to be on kids throwing sh*t off a ledge!

Likes, Favorites and Retweets

Finding out about child-led, play-based approaches to early learning has turned a job I unhappily “settled for” for years into a genuine passion and interest, possibly an obsession.  In 2016 I’ve read so much – Magda Gerber, Peter Gray, John Holt, Alison Gopnik, Heather Shumaker, Deb Curtis, Margie Carter and more.  I’ve learned just as much from the Upstairs Studio podcasts.  I’ve delved into the massive arena of Early Learning FB groups and for better or worse, most recently I’ve discovered the world of “edutwitter.”

It’s embarrassing to admit it but I have very few coworkers I can talk with about things openly and honestly.  Anybody working in the early years should sympathize with the lack of time we all have.  There is little time for us to talk, reflect or debate.  Two of my immediate coworkers go home and have their own children to take care of.  The other one has an active social life.  They are great workmates but I have not been willing to out myself as the total nerd that I am: “would you like to get together this weekend to discuss schemas and respectful discipline techniques?”  We have talked about getting drinks since September and this week we are going to actually set something up.  I’ll do my best to use the the time to talk about nonwork stuff!

While keeping my eyes on the prize, I’ve been finding it easier to not be so zealous about changing the state of our program or my workmates interactions.  I’ve been able to let go more and I think show a different way by example somewhat.  Showing a better way is much more effective than telling somebody, especially if they are not actively looking for a new approach to their practice.  To be quite honest, part of me thinks I am further along down a path I’d like others to go down.  If I look at it more fairly though I am having some success spreading the type of practice I think is best.

I love research and discussion about what practice developmentally appropriate or not.  I can and do talk, read and listen about it all day lately.  I am going to challenge myself to stay away from it on social media at least for a while.  I have found myself getting caught up in the silly stuff.  I think I had to write all this to drive home for myself the painfully obvious fact that the likes, favorites and retweets don’t provide better practice for the kids in our care.  I am starved for that discussion with colleagues but it’s just not the same over the internet.

Instead I am going to focus on finding ways to find time to discuss and reflect with my coworkers and move things forward with them.  Tomorrow our two year old room is going to be merging with our nursery and our teams will be merging more or less.  I think it can be a great positive in the long run but there are going to be some definite growing pains and I am gonna try to save all the energy I’ve been spending on social media and use it to help roll with the punches that are sure to come.

I’m still planning on posting this to social media.  Mostly because I am a total hypocrite but I would still like to share my thoughts with anybody listening.  I just won’t be scouring the internet looking for other people’s for a while.  Instead am going to try to engage more with the thoughts of the educators I see 37.5 hours a week.

My take on: “The Great Disconnect in Early Childhood Education”

thegreatdisconnect

I got a few good early learning books for Christmas and one of them was “The Great Disconnect in Early Childhood Education: What We Know vs. What We Do” by Michael Gramling.  I read most of it that day while I stuffed myself with Christmas food.  It’s a quick, good read and I really hope more early learning people, especially current EY educators will consider reading it.  Though it focuses on how things have gotten so messed up in the US, I think the dynamics are basically the same.  Gramling does a great job at explaining why and how this gap between “What We Know vs. What We Do” in the early years has come into being.

(First off let me say that I am from the US.  I’ve only been in the UK since March of 2016.  I think many issues in early learning are similar but am willing to accept I still have lots to learn about the lay of the land here.)

Gramling focuses on the American Head Start system, that started out in the 1960’s as part of the U.S. government’s War on Poverty Program.  Gramling portrays these initiatives as coming because the country “suddenly awoke to discover injustice and suffering in their midst.”  I’d argue, and I don’t think Gramling would disagree, that these were actually concessions to and co-optations of the dynamic and militant movements for racial and economic justice at the time.

Head Start was a childcare program for poor kids attached with additional social services for the children as well as their families.  Additionally it expected parental involvement on advisory boards and offered many opportunities for employment.  It was an ambitious program that has and probably continues to make real differences in poor people’s lives.

Their stated goal was to eradicate poverty in the US.  They obviously have failed tremendously.  Not only do we continue to have an achievement gap, inequality in the US is greater than ever before.  This all then begs questions of how childcare programs and social services can eradicate something that is inherent to free market capitalism.

Debates around education and inequality make me quite angry.  Professional experts and politicians debate things endlessly, but common sense and science alike show that is all pretty straight forward.  Kids growing up in poverty face an immense amount of attacks on their very physical, emotional and cognitive development and no matter what educational pundits like to say about what style of education is best, wealth continues to be the strongest indicator of future individual success.  On one hand I stand by empirical research.  On the other hand part of me can’t help but shout “no sh*t!” to these findings that get reiterated every few years.  Do we really need another study to tell us that people who grow up in economically stable households will more often not only have a better start in life, but will have a financial cushion to help them through their individual trials in life?  Who out there is waiting for just the right report to finally accept that racism effects every level of education in the US?

If the Government gives you money, you have to prove to them and the public at large that you’re using it correctly.  To justify their funding, Head Start has over the years looked towards on data collection and assessment of children’s learning to prove they are doing their job.  This, Gramling argues, is where Head Start (and the field in general) has fallen into the “Accountability Trap” where they focus on external standards at the expense of the young children in their care in the here and now.

Driven by performance objectives, teachers view children not as people with whom they are building relationships, but as walking, talking sets of deficits that need fixing.  As a result, most interactions between teacher and child become bereft of any authentic human quality and take on instead a stilted, ritualized quality that is unique to the world of early childhood education.

In later chapters, Gramling reminds us all, that not only do young children not develop in a easily linear or quantifiable manner, they are growing and learning constantly, and way beyond the pathetic aims of most “structured” early learning settings.  He shares stories of children learning and skillfully learning language through everyday life, watching and listening to the adults who think they aren’t paying attention.

In part, because families underestimate their child’s ability to learn and think is precisely why they inadvertently provide such rich language.  They assume they can talk over their child’s head with no consequence.  Ironically, in standards-driven early childhood education, the child is is also completely underestimated, but with results that are completely opposite: he is not provided with rich language at all, but is expose to tiny sound bites.  For example, in order to “teach” the precocious four-year-old who eavesdropped on his sister words that describe human emotion, the curriculum will provide the teacher with a lesson plan that says, “The child will identify pictures of people who are sad and happy.”

Although the child’s developing brain absorbs information like a sponge just waiting to be totally immersed in language, in standards-driven early childhood education, we dispense language with an eye dropper.

He end up drawing our attention to the vocabulary or language gap between children of poor and rich families and he recommends more laid back, child-centered programs where children can engage in free play and in lots of language rich conversation with each other and the adults in the room.

… I am not cut out to write a proper book review and I am just going to get to the point of why I am writing this and why I think I bother with this blog at all.  This disconnect in early learning is massive and it is not going to properly be covered until current educators take a real part – in ways big and small – in standing up for what we want to see.  Politicians, consultants, researchers and non-profit experts are not the ones with the kids everyday.  We are and we have to take some responsibility for our field.  Yes this involves real risk and it seems hard because we have so little power over the way our rooms our run.  We need to start looking at why we don’t have any power and ways we can look to build some together.  It can be small as me politely and successfully arguing with my room lead that yes, our children should be able to go up the slide.  It can be more collective as teachers in Chicago organizing to give their students more play in the school day.   Here in the UK many settings are successfully implementing In the Moment Planning and transforming their settings.  Those of us not lucky enough to find work at these places need to push things forward regardless.

Working in early learning was a job I “settled” for 7 years.  It’s only since recently discovering the depth, importance and power of developmentally appropriate practice and play-based settings that this has turned into a real passion for me.  I am going to be part of this field for the rest of my life.  I can’t stand that standards, structure and academics are getting pushed down on younger and younger children.  It’s completely backwards in every sense of the word.  We know it’s wrong, we know we hate taking part in it and we have to figure out ways to have some real say in how we practice our profession.

We need much more than data.

Today I read a thoughtful piece by Jan Dubiel, National Director of Early Excellence.  In it, he argues for the importance of collecting data on children in the Early Years.  Dubiel reassures people who are  weirded out by the word “data” (such as myself) that:

Data is simply another word for information, and the reality of life as an early years’ practitioner is that collecting information is a constant feature of what we do. We’re always picking up information about the child as a learner, their qualities and behaviours, as well as about what they know, understand and can do. This informs the decisions we make and how we support their learning from the first day of the school year to the last.

In short, early years’ practitioners, through the very nature of the job and the continual assessment that is part of that, are constantly collecting information on children and using this to achieve the best results for them.

Those who are against the data collection in early years (often labelling it the “datafication of childhood”) miss the point. Without knowing how we are doing and what progress is being made, how can we possibly teach effectively?

The first two paragraphs are lovely but the question at the end is a bit of a wild leap.  I think there are plenty of solid, relational, “everyday” ways to know how I am doing and what progress my children are making and I am not sure me spending time ticking the right boxes on Tapestry is the only or best way to skin a cat.

It might be worth explaining more about myself.  Right now half of my working week is working as a TA in a 2 year old morning program in a “high-needs” community.  I am contracted for 18 hours a week and if I am lucky, this gives me around 30 minutes at the end of most days to make sure the room is clean, get a few observations done and hopefully make an entry in our daily diary (which we are getting further and further behind in).  At my best I write observations that illustrate the power and deeper meaning of children’s play and observations that help me reflect on what to continue and what to change in my practice.  At my worst I am throwing together one more observation out in five minutes just because “it needs to get done” and that is all the time and energy I have left.

It should be recognised as a law of EY physics that any time spent on paperwork is time not spent with children or setting up the right environment for them  Any emotional reserves spent worrying about how to get the paperwork done are emotional reserves not spent patiently helping children through the trials of being young.  Even at the best of times, when all my two year olds are playing happily and not needing me at all, any time I am spending “efficiently” getting an extra observation done is time I am not being fully present and carefully observant of the children in my care.  Instead these children see me sitting with them with my face in an iPad, clicking away.  What lessons are they learning from my example.
I disagree that “a numerical score is a useful starting point for summarising…”  I can confidently disagree with this because I have seen where these numerical scores come from.  To be very blunt, they come from a field of overworked, underpaid and stressed out women who are doing the best they can every single day.  Many are passionate, brilliant and committed.  Many are burnt out for various reasons – including the increased paperwork – and continue to use developmentally inappropriate practices as well.  Many others of course have also left the field because they couldn’t continue working with professional expectations without professional conditions.

Dubiel argues further for the power of data below:

At an individual level, it allows practitioners to make interventions that have a positive impact. Move the telescope a fraction and you have information about children in a whole class or school, and their skills and capabilities. Zoom out further and we’re able to produce a nationwide dataset for a whole cohort – rich and valuable information for the Department for Education, researchers, advisers, practitioners and many others to comb through, find the evidence for what works and identify where specific developments and approaches make an impact. This allows us to put in place the principles and pedagogy that really will improve the life chances and opportunities for success of the children in our settings.

We should always be open to new research and practice, but we already know “the principles and pedagogy that really will improve the life chances and opportunities for success of the children in our settings.”  We have decades of research showing us what developmentally appropriate practice looks like and how it can be best delivered.

I wholeheartedly share in Dubiel’s goal of wanting “to develop a system that truly delivers for all children.”  I just honestly disagree that an over reliance on data should be our priority at the moment.  We are running the risk of  “confusing the map for the territory.” I know governments like data, but seeing how they are using SATS, should we really trust what they like to do with the data once we deliver it to them?

More than this, I feel there are more immediate problems facing our field.  First and foremost in my mind we need more high quality training on developmentally appropriate practice and respectful discipline techniques.  Of course what we really need is better pay, so there would be no room in the field for people not willing to adopt best practices, but that is too huge a topic that continues to get pushed under the rug.

Skilled EY practitioners definitely collect constant information on every aspect of the children in our care and it is a crucial part of our job.  When my two year olds had their hands in our taps at every possible opportunity I knew I needed to provide another way for them to explore the feeling of running water.  So we did just that by adding some big containers with spouts to our water table.  We’ve talked about this as a team before and after and reflect with each other when we can about how the children’s interest in water play continues.  Really, do things have to be more complicated than that?

There is something sacred and absolutely vital about simply being able to be present with and observant of babies and young children – and knowing when to let them be as well.  It is one of the most important things we can give the children in our care and it’s increasingly scarce in so many settings.  It’s the ability to be make another human feel that they are seen, listened to and respected for who they are.  Babies and young children need this just as much as any adult and the way we are “collecting data” right now is actively making this harder for me to provide on a regular basis.  I am not sure this feeling can be quantified at all.  I feel very defensive of it and I suppose that’s why I just spent my Monday evening writing this rant.

I agree with the importance of documenting children’s learning and progress but there are significant problems with how it is currently carried out.  I write this because I would like to see more EY educators have a real voice in figuring out how it should be done properly.  I hope any other educators reading this feel inspired to share their thoughts on this as well!

More Ugly Concrete Paths!: Space and Emotional Environments

So overall I am getting into a pretty good routine at work.  In the mornings I am with a wonderful group of two year olds for a short AM program and in the afternoon I am a special needs assistant for an eight year old boy.  I’ve been having a lot of thoughts in my head lately I figured I should share them all here for posterity.  Let’s start with something about the environment.

I’m not surprised but I am struck by how often the group of two year olds choose to play in the least resourced area we have: a gated off concrete  pathway outside our playground.  This is the only space where they can run or ride trikes back and forth without obstacles.  Obviously enough a common group activity is running back and forth, chasing each other and screaming.  They don’t play here all day but it is a very popular space and it makes me think about what sort of environments do young children really need?  The proper room itself isn’t that big and stuffed with catalog furniture, shelves and toys.  I think it probably looks good and “educational” to most adults.  This concrete path on the other hand is ugly, especially right now during the winter.  If we were part of a private setting, it would not be a selling point to any adults.

It’s not that they don’t play inside with all the catalog-bought toys, it’s the obvious fact they are often drawn to having more space and freedom to move and follow their natural and important 2 year old urges – and even if that’s in a less than stellar outdoor space it still better than nothing.  They have less adults chatting over their heads, telling them what to do and how to do it when they are outside.  When I am out there on this ugly path I mostly just sit in one spot and enjoy watching them play.  If a child needs help I do my calmly help them figure out what they need.  I am learning more and more the importance of just being present with children and letting them do their thing.

I think it’s easy for adults to focus on the looks and physical objects of an early learning space.   Let’s add wooden materials to attract certain parents.  Let’s put numbers and words all over the walls because it’s educational.  Let’s buy tons of toys from the right catalogs.  The physical environment is absolutely important but I think we need to talk more about what some of have called the emotional (and maybe even cultural) environment of our space.  This environment is shaped by our relationships with the kids, and basically the culture we set by role modeling behavior and what sort of activity we allow or don’t allow.  I think this is the sort of stuff that is hard to sell to adults who don’t understand early childhood development.  The only people who might know it are the adults and children who share this relationship, understanding and culture.

The most dynamic, exciting and joyful interactions I’ve seen the past several weeks have been on this small, drab, gated concrete pathway.   The kids have chased each other, danced, thrown balls, looked for planes and birds in the sky and plenty more.  Just having the space and freedom to do what they like is an amazing thing to watch.

Related to this I have just discovered some of the writings of Claire Caro.  This is the first time I’ve seen somebody spell out in plain, step-by-step terms the sort of early learning ethos I have been finding myself drawn to and excited by.   She describes the role, skills and actions to take as early learning educators who value the importance of child-led learning.  To start off with I recommend “The Adult Role in Child-led Play” and “Five Easy Steps for the Observer.”  Both articles give concrete advice on the how’s and why’s of forming the right emotional and cultural environment.  A lot of it is about the importance of trusting and respecting the children in your care ihere and now.  I can’t recommend them enough!

What’s more important, nice bulletin boards and all the right natural toys or children truly knowing they are consistently trusted, respected and loved?  Especially when they are in the middle of a conflict or dealing with difficult emotions?

I’m not saying that my two year olds like this space because it’s ugly.  I am saying they like it because they have the room to move freely and I do my best to provide a suitable emotional environment for them to be in.  Positive emotional environments can’t be bought out of catalogs and they might not be able to be quantified much at all, but they are vital for children’s growth and well-being.

Rounding the Annoying Zealot corner… maybe

There is probably a better term for this but I think there is a human tendency to turn into an annoying zealot when somebody newly discovers something profound or exciting in their life.  I mean they are also passionate, dedicated, dynamic and full of a sense of purpose but they can also be plain annoying to others.  Maybe the newer they are to something the tendency to be annoying is higher?  People who delve head first into far left politics and activism.  People who become born again Christians.  Hardcore Atheists.  People who do Crossfit.  People who are vegan.  People who aren’t vegan.   Apparently also people, such as myself, who discover the world of pro-play, child-led, developmentally appropriate early learning practice.  I’ve worked in this field since 2007 but it’s honestly only been the last year or so where I have discovered an entirely new love and interest in this work.

To cut to the chase, I started getting into these topics right when I started a new job in Leeds, where I have recently moved.  Like most nurseries and childcare  it is full of educators who care deeply and work hard at their jobs.  These same educators also simply have too much to do each day and are overworked and stretched thin.  And like more settings, there was all sorts of practice that left a lot to be desired.  Having my mind blown left and right by the likes of Peter Gray or the Child Care Bar and Grill podcast, I simply did not have the patience or presence of mind to see the situation in a realistic light.   Actually a bigger factor was how overworked we all were.  There was nowhere enough time to get to know each other, reflect on the day or to discuss practice and how to work as a team.

I wrote most of them off in my head and ended up leaving.  It was the right decision.  It was 24 2-3 year olds in a full day, over scheduled program that did not have free access to a play area.  There were also staff who simply did not have proper knowledge or expectations of children that age.  They were probably better than many settings in terms of appreciating play but the schedule still ruled mercilessly supreme over the day.   And probably most important, it wasn’t the right place to be in as I was unlearning and rethinking so much.

I’ve learned to look at children with new eyes.  I am realizing I need to learn to look at adults with new eyes as well and this is much harder.  There is no way around the fact that we only know what we know.  We can’t hold people’s lack of knowledge or experience against them.  This is easier said than done though when adults lack of knowledge or experience translates into developmentally inappropriate practice and poor experiences for the children in our care.  This is legitimately hard to watch.  We have a duty to advocate for what we know is right, but I can’t be quickly writing other adults off anymore.  At this old setting I found myself being too “go with the flow” about most things and then chose random hills to die on when I got too frustrated with the situation.  As I was still thinking through lots of new ideas, I wasn’t confident enough to simply “use my words” and tell my coworkers where I was coming from.

I simply can’t expect my coworkers from different walks of life and experiences to be immediately on the same page as me.  I can’t be a jerk about things either but it is also larger than me.  Early years educators need to be given more time to build trusting and secure relationships with each other.  It’s much easier to bring up differences of opinion when it is with people who know, trust and respect where you are coming from.   I think managers and directors need to realize that this takes actual scheduled time and actual support.  It’s not going to happen properly in random five minute sessions or after work drinks.

To take responsibility for my here and now though I am thinking about my new job.  Part of it is working in small 2 year old program.  Overall it’s going very well but obviously the four of us are coming at the job from our different angles and perspectives.  A solid team takes time to build.  For my part I am going to work on assuming the best from my coworkers and even though it is awkward and uncomfortable, practice respectfully bringing things up when I have an issue.

I am still very passionate about everything I have been learning, and there is no doubt that A LOT needs to change in our field and the wider culture, but I’d like to think I am coming around to a more reasonable, long term view of how I can be a part of that.