Link Round-Up 25.08.16

Oh yeah I have a blog.  Here’s some stuff looking at race and class in early learning.

If anybody reading this knows of preschoolers getting suspended, would you be willing to share more information in the comments about how and why this happens?  I can’t believe this is even a topic to discuss.

I’ll actually write some stuff later too!

Our misguided effort to close the achievement gap is creating a new inequality: The ‘play’ gap by Nancy Carlsson-Paige

What we now call the “school to prison pipeline” — the pathway that leads many young people from school into the criminal justice system — is embedded in the context of racial and economic injustice that has always shaped our nation’s schools. And now, in a misguided effort to close the achievement gap, we are creating a new kind of inequality. In the current education climate, now focused on academics and rigor even in pre-K and kindergarten, economically advantaged children have many more opportunities to play in school than do kids from low-income communities. We are planting the seeds of disengagement for the young children we want to see succeed and stay in school.

A Toxic Brew of Poverty, Race, and Preschool Suspension by Susan Ochshorn

With the academic pushdown that has accompanied the adoption of the Common Core, this phenomenon is rearing its ugly head earlier and earlier.  Last spring, the U.S. Department of Education’s survey of America’s public schools found “troubling racial disparities” among them access to preschool and the high rate of suspension of boys of color, who represent 18 percent of preschool enrollment but 42 percent of students suspended once.

Some of the above has to do with classroom practice terribly unsuited to little kids, the casualties of Common Core Standards that don’t support the whole child. Boys are especially vulnerable, as their development, including self-regulation, proceeds on a different timeline than that of girls. More rigid, prescribed kindergarten curricula and the absence of play or recess affect them even more deeply.

The Marcon Study by Susan Black

In a compelling study of early-childhood programs in the District of Columbia Public Schools, Rebecca Marcon, a developmental psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Florida in Jacksonville, found that educators cannot assume that “just any preschool curriculum will achieve positive results.” As Marcon discovered when she was called in to investigate high rates of retention in the district’s first grades, many youngsters weren’t getting smarter with each year they spent in school. In fact, Marcon soon determined, many kids were failing even though they’d been enrolled in readiness programs such as Head Start, pre-kindergarten and kindergarten.


Two Plastic Buckets

I am in a 2-3 year old room.  Like most settings we have a sand and water table and naturally enough I’ve seen sand and water constantly and deliberate get dumped on the floor.  Any early learning person knows what I am talking about.  No amount of asking a young child to keep it in the floor is going to do any good.  They need more space to really explore the properties of the sand and water and our little sensory tables just won’t cut it.   I finally bought some fairly large rubber buckets to put near our sand and water tables so they could have a place to properly dump the sand or water.  I see this as a compromise between their perfectly natural and appropriate exploratory urges and my apparent need for the room to not be a total mess at the end of the day.  If we don’t want sand or water on the floor, it’s on us to give them a decent place to put it.  Lisa Murphy’s mantra of “control the environment, not the children” is in my head every day.  This is supposed to be “their” space after all and their need to learn through play should not be trumped by our wanting less of a mess to clean up.  If there are age-appropriate behaviours – dumping sand, throwing toys, running, climbing, pushing things over etc – we can’t deal with, it’s on us to give them environments and outlets for them to do so in a way we can accept.  It’s also on us to learn what is age appropriate behaviour and to work on being able to Get Over It!  This of course is a process for most of us.

I suppose most people don’t see the depth of investigation and learning happening when one girl is carefully scooping and pouring water from the table into the bucket and then enjoying running her hands through the water.  I know I am supposed to work in this field because it’s made me happy and proud to see how she and others have played with these two buckets this past week.  Happy to see the many ways they play with them and proud that I finally got around to taking another baby step towards embracing more child-led learning in my work.

To be quite honest, my “growing edge” is letting the 2 and 3 year olds in my room “cross-pollinate” the toys around the room.  Take the home area toys to the book area, take the books to the home area and so on and so on.  I know it’s the right thing to do but my old school ways kick in constantly throughout the day.  I’ve gotten so much better about it, and let them take most things anywhere but the last hold out in my brain is the truly messy stuff – sand and play dough.   I am working on it and I will get there.  It’s something I need to talk to my room coworkers more about as I truly think some would hate the idea.  Of course we are never given time to discuss or reflect as a team on our practice, it’s all we can do to get through the basic stuff each day.

It does make me wonder though how much time and energy we could possibly conserve if we were willing to give up more control over the room and the children’s play.  Instead of being nursery cops we could focus on just being present with them and all the important work that goes along with that.

I know one real fear, that I completely and entirely share, about letting children transport toys, sand, play dough and more where ever they like is that there will be just too much to clean up at the end of the day.  I can’t help but think that the children would be much more willing to understand the need for some parts of the room to be “closed” to be tidied up in the final part of the day if they had the time, freedom and power to truly control their play and learning the other 90% of the day.  There are other logistical problems and ideas I am thinking of in my setting but I need to get to sleep!

Any other early learning people, especially teachers of 2-3 year olds, further along the road than me reading this?  What ideas or advice would you have for a child-led learning newbie like me?


Extra Credit:  Typically awesome episode of the Child Care Bar and Grill Podcast titled “Keep the Sand in the Sandbox!”

“Everything I’m not made me everything I am”

I am a rare and seldom seen creature, I am a man who works in early learning.  Here is my obligatory “man working in childcare post!”

In terms of the vast array of problems facing early learning, I honestly consider increasing the amount of men in the field to be a very low priority.  I barely consider it to be on the list at all really.  Personally I am not even that concerned about being made to feel especially welcomed either.  Of course I’ve heard the stories of men not being allowed to change diapers or be suspected as pedophiles and creeps.  I’ve had a few parents treat me as such and probably more think it but not say anything.  These views are ignorant and they piss me off.  I also have seen being a man absolutely work in my advantage.  Forward looking nurseries and childcare centres actively want to hire men.  I was lucky enough to be hired at an excellent centre in Melbourne.  I had five years experience and a strong letter of reference from my Seattle manager but I know for a fact being a man was icing on the cake in their eyes.  It looks good to have decent men on staff who aren’t complete idiots.  I don’t want to discount the ignorant treatment other men have experienced in other settings but I really do think think there are much bigger problems facing early learning at the moment.

Preschools are being turned into boot camps for elementary and primary school. Academics are being pushed at earlier and earlier ages even though it is simply proven to be harmful and incredibly developmentally inappropriate, much less benefit children at all.

The pay and respect for this field is disgustingly low.  Wages won’t magically raise with the addition of men into the field.   Wages will rise when educators and families and decent people come together and force the government to provide adequate support for this work.  I can’t do the topic justice but I can’t get over the contradiction between mountains of research that show the tremendous importance of our first five years of life and on the other hand the centuries of sexism and complete ignorance of childhood development.  Our brains grow and develop in the most important ways in the first five years of our life.  Properly taking this into account, we could advance society and individual’s lives in countless ways.  We don’t do this though because as a whole we still operate as if babies and children are empty minded beasts who can’t be understood and the women who choose to care for them each day as a profession just do it because “babies are cute.”  Why should we be paid a decent wage anyways?

Sad to say, but writing the above made me realize that plenty of early learning educators – of any gender – continue to basically operate from the “Kids as Empty Minded Beasts” and “Babies Are Cute” principles.  I know I started in the field simply because “I liked kids” and I know I had no working understanding of childhood development.  I am not as good an educator as I would like to be, but I am amazed I’ve progressed as far as I have.  The awful truth is when the field is as lowly regarded at is, centres and nurseries cannot be terribly picky about who they hire.

On a different and more personal topic, the title of this post is from a Kanye West song.  The song is about him of course and how he sees himself as a rapper and star.  One morning while walking to work this line from the chorus really spoke to me.

“Everything I’m not made me everything I am.”

I mostly accept my role as a man doing what is seen as “women’s work.”  I mostly accept that some will think it’s weird or don’t understand why I would be here in the first place.  I mostly accept that I am in a job where I will likely never make much money.  I mostly accept that people, including some friends and family secretly look down on or pity my decision to stay in this field to some degree.  I mostly accept that I will never make as much money as my wife or friends or cousins who are in more professional jobs.

Then there is still a sad, insecure part of me who feels like I am not measuring up to what a man from a college-educated background should do with his life.  I’m not particularly ambitious about much.  I’m not willing to work an office job I hate to make more money.  I’m not into typically “man” stuff either.  I’m not handy.  I’m not into sports.  I’m not much of what men are supposed to be.

“Everything I’m not made me everything I am.”

I am not much of what a man is supposed to be.  I can’t fully escape comparing myself to the stupid standards of others.  I suppose none of us can.  While walking to work and listening to this song though I realized I am a lot of other things.  I am someone who is caring and strives to be a decent person.  I am somebody who has learned through trial and error how to be decent at caring for and building important relationships with other people’s children.  I am somebody who gives others peace of mind knowing their children are being well cared for and loved while they are at work.  I am somebody who has learned to be mostly comfortable doing something not typically done by men.  I am somebody who is driven to get better at this sort of work that is physically but even more so emotionally demanding.  I am somebody who is ambitious about doing my small part to improve childcare and early learning.

This also means that I am  an educator who is learning to trust babies and young children to take ownership of their own learning.  I am an educator that is giving up my supposed power and control in the room and letting the children in my care do more for themselves.  I am an educator that is confident in letting children “just” play.  I am an educator who is trying to better my practice and maybe help push the field forward in a small way as well.

Our work is not valued, respected or understood much as a whole by others.  To any other women, men or people of any gender working hard in early learning, let Kanye’s confidence and DJ Premier’s piano loops give you a boost of love and pride in the important work you do!

Boxes and Masking Tape

I should really go to bed but I wanted to jot this down quickly as I think it illustrates the path I am on as somebody who is talking a lot of good game about PLAY and CHILD CENTERED everything but still has a lot to unlearn.  Lisa Murphy asks, “Do we view education as the filling of a bucket or the lighting of a fire?”  To be honest, I strive to operate each day as if I am lighting a fire, but I constantly catch myself in a bucket-filling mindset at different times throughout the day.

Today I brought in a lot of boxes I had at home and some masking tape.  Without even realizing it I came in with the bucket filling mindset.  I thought the children would have so much fun if I made them a huge house or a tunnel or something else.  Naturally I assumed I would need to basically build it so it would be sturdy enough to play with for a while.  Since I like to think of myself as thoughtful though I would show them where to put the tape.

About 90 seconds into doing this I realized I was being completely stupid.   My 2 and 3 year olds simply wanted to put tape anywhere on the the box and thought this alone was a great activity.  I am happy that I had the presence of mind to catch myself and not get in the way of this!  None of them could tear the tape themselves so I ended up ripping a small notch and letting them tear off the rest.  They would then use both hands to apply it somewhere on the box.  Some declared they were building a castle and at another point two other kids said it was a rocketship and a house.  One girl brought over some coloured pencils and started decorating it and others followed suit.

Pulling at the semi-torn tape seemed to be a good challenge for their strength.  Most had to pull quite a bit.  Putting the tape on was good practice for using their fingers with intention.  Most importantly, they enjoyed it!  I could be projecting but a few of them were so excited that I let them use as much tape as they wanted.  We kept the boxes out for most of the day and they did all the things we know kids do with boxes: sit in them, hide things in them, make forts and plenty I wasn’t around to witness.

If I stayed in the bucket mindset could have easily made them watch as I built an expertly constructed cardboard fort.  They would have enjoyed my product but it would simply not have been the same experience and it would not have been their process.  Kids need hand-on experiences to explore how things in the world work for themselves.  I need to learn to trust them to explore things in the manner they choose and are able to!

We will leave the boxes and tape out tomorrow and see what happens!


No Place for Converse

I am feeling ambitious and excited.  Lately I have all sorts of big dreams and goals to help change our collective views of babies, young children, play and the task of educating and caring for them.  I want to be a foot soldier in the fight against these sick ideas that pushing one-size-fits-all curriculum on younger and younger children.  I mean I must be pretty serious because I started this wordpress site and even a facebook page of the same name!

I recognize these are lofty and idealistic goals that much more experienced people have been fighting for much longer than I’ve been paying attention.  It is clear to me these will not be achieved over night.  While I patiently work and wait for this glorious day of social revolution in our field, I have a more reasonable and medium-long term goal: a public awareness campaign asking parents to stop sending their children to us in lace-up Converse shoes.


Every second we are with your Converse-clad child – lacing, unlacing, pulling back the floppy canvas sides and trying to force their heel into the back of the shoe, double knotting the laces – is a waste of valuable time that your child can be playing.  And when I say playing I mean:

  • learning about themselves, the world and their place in it,
  • learning about their peers and how to get along with them,
  • building their gross motor skills, strength, balance, coordination,
  • learning to assess and take risks and build their confidence,
  • and basically learning, growing and developing in every possible way you can imagine!

I hope my intended mostly tongue-in-cheek tone is coming across properly here.  Lace up Converse shoes are not the worst thing to happen to childhood, but they do drive me and quite a few other educators a bit crazy!  I realize I am adding a bit to the mountains of judgement, pressure and flack that parents get every day in today’s world.  I am just respectfully asking parents to consider sending their young children to us in shoes and clothes they have an actual chance of learning to put on themselves!  Let them get on with the important task of playing!


Origin Story: Part 1

Every passionately and annoyingly-obsessed early learning educator needs a good origin story.  So here’s mine:

After I graduated college in 2007 with a useless degree, I moved back to my hometown Seattle to be with my partner.  My long-held goals of working at a social justice type non-profit were recently dashed (here’s looking at you, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded!) and I needed to find a job.  I’ve always “liked kids,” and had experience doing volunteer childcare for a few community organizations.  I figured it would be better than working in restaurants or retail.  I don’t remember my thoughts exactly but I must have thought, like most people do, that it can’t be that hard to play with kids all day!

I applied to a few places without any training or background in Early Childhood Development.  I was lucky enough to be called in for an interview at a well-regarded place in downtown Seattle and as part of my interview was given time in the preschool room to observe how I interacted with the children.  I didn’t know anything, but at least I instinctively knew that a big part of the job was getting to know and building relationships with the children.  I got the job!  I was hired as a “floater” to help cover breaks, sick and vacation days in all the different rooms

The first 6 months was absolute chaos and destruction to my brain.  I had no idea that I could feel so physically tired but more so emotionally fried.  The first year and a half at least was a long trial by fire.  I learned, like many others do, that “liking kids” is just not enough to last.  I lost my patience and yelled plenty.  I held children to unreasonable and wildly developmentally-inappropriate expectations and then got angry with them for not living up to them.

I am embarrassed and ashamed about my practice at the time but I will not take all the blame.  I simply did not know any better.  The situation is much bigger than any one person’s background, training or intentions.  Nurses, forklift drivers, K-12 teachers, mechanics and more all need formal training.  In Washington state at the time, all that was required to educate and care for people who are at a vitally important stage in their growth and development was to seem okay enough during an interview!  I can honestly say I should not have been hired but I can imagine why the Director did.  She had children enrolled and she needed warm adult bodies to keep the rooms in ratio.  Maybe during my interview and observation time I showed I could possibly be trained to be a decent educator down the road.  Putting well-meaning but uneducated and untrained adults in a room with little people is a great way to get lots of bad and mediocre results.  Somehow the blame usually gets laid at our feet though, and not the people who currently have the power to build a better way of doing this.  This of course can be a whole other topic!

After a year or so I tried to switch fields.  I realized if I stayed in this field I’d make very little money and could not see any feasible paths for advancement.  I found work as an assistant at a non-profit that provided parenting support to new families across the state.   To make a long story short I didn’t even last there a year.  I learned I am not cut out to sit at a desk in a windowless office for 8 hours a day.  I made better money but I was miserable and in a bad mood.  (It did not help that I did not believe in much of what the organization did.  I truly think they would have helped struggling families more if they liquidated the organization and gave the money spent on the budget and professional salaries directly to the families instead).  I came crawling back to the same center quickly after.

I stayed at this center until 2013.  I learned a lot there and over time somehow grew into a by-some-standards acceptable educator.  By the time I left I was in the infant room most mornings and the lead pre-K in the afternoons.  I learned how to navigate and stay sane and on task in a room of babies or young children.  I changed my first diaper and then hundreds (thousands?) more.  I made tiny steps towards learning how to plan activities based on children’s actual interests.  I learned how to maintain consistent and (somewhat) age-appropriate expectations in a room.  I think most of all I learned on quite a deep level that our relationships with the children are the absolute foundation for anything decent that can happen in a childcare or early learning setting.  Nothing else can happen if those secure relationships are not in place.

Of course I did not learn this on my own.  I learned from the example and advice of many experienced and dedicated people there.  I appreciate their patience with me and I miss working with a lot of them.  I could probably write future posts just about them.

To be real I also learned some things that aren’t so great.  Many of the parents – Seattle lawyers and professionals – were very caught up in the damned fear cycle that surrounds so much misunderstanding of early childhood development and to different degrees we catered to their worries and anxiety.  In this world, earlier and more is always better.  Young babies need tummy time and walkers.  Toddlers need flash cards.  Preschoolers need to go over letters, numbers and to learn to trace their names and sit at tables to do activities that we deem are worthy.  Pre-K children need to learn letters, phonics, “work-time” activities and worksheets.

I didn’t know why, but had a vague feeling that some of this early academic stuff just wasn’t right.  Many times I rebelled by simply not doing these activities when given the opportunity.  I didn’t have any research to back up this stance, I just knew that it was not fun for any of us so why should we bother!  I just gave the children more time to play.  I remember talking to the head preschool room teacher about my concerns about and she agreed it wasn’t ideal to make 3 and 4 year olds sit down for these work-time activities.  Unfortunately this is what she felt most parents were interested in and paying all this tuition for.  It makes me sad to think of this conversation.  Early learning educators doing things they disagree with, that many children don’t enjoy, to keep well-meaning but wrongly-educated parents/”customers” happy.

There is a severe lack of understanding and trust in the capabilities of babies and young children.  I am now learning that we are rushing people through childhood too quickly.  For babies and young children, earlier and more is simply not better.  It is demonstrably worse.  Children need the time and space to learn, discover and grow at their own pace.  Taking issue with these ideas might be controversial to some and I can promise that many future posts will go into this stuff in more depth.

I do have to add the caveat that by many reasonable standards this center was and is good.  Most of the staff cared about what they did and built loving relationships with the children – which I still think is the most important thing.  Maybe it is presumptuous of me but I think we need to always strive the best possible standards at all times.  Our understanding of this will change due to new research and understanding of course.  It has been fascinating for me to learn how hardwired children are to learn, grow and develop on their own and learning more about these topics has given me an entirely new take and excitement for working in this field.  I kind of can’t believe I have had to work in this field for 8+ years until I discovered all the wonderful, inspiring and challenging pro-play and… um, realistic-view-of-children people out there.

What a surprise, this first post has turned into a full-fledged rant.  Anyways, in 2013 I left, because my partner got a post-doc position in Australia of all places and I followed along.  I guess that will have to be part 2.  Thank you so much if you actually read all this!

Future topics will probably include:

  • Being a man in this field.
  • How sexism and patriarchy effect this field.
  • How racism and class effect this field.
  • Being a human vs. a cog in the the “conveyor belt” of diaper changes and mealtimes.
  • Top down efforts to better and “professionalize” the field without respecting and trusting the experiences and ideas of educators.  The flip-side of this being educators needing to learn to truly trust and respect the babies and children!
  • Real talk about trying to operate each day from a deep pro-play place while still having lots of old-school thoughts deeply ingrained in my brain.
  • Real talk about documentation.
  • The absolute importance of teaching social and emotional literacy.
  • Why talking about our practice with other educators and others can be so hard.
  • Why I love Magda Gerber and want to learn more about Emmi Pikler.