Wednesday, May 23, 2018

How We Become Wiser, Gentler People

It happened in a flash. He wanted to dump the bowl of "jewels" (florist marbles) that he had collected into the mud. She wanted them to remain clean. He dump the jewels. There were loud voices and when I looked from across the sand pit I saw her push his face, then storm off.

Both children were upset. The boy's mother was nearby and after checking to make sure he wasn't hurt, engaged him in a discussion, so I followed the girl whose body was tense with rage. She marched this way and that for a moment, jaws locked in anger. As I approached, she turned her back on me, so I stopped in my tracks.

What was I going to say to her? Maybe I was going to remind her of the rules we had all agreed to some weeks ago, specifically mentioning the one that goes, "No pushing." I might have been preparing to say something like, "When you pushed his face, you hurt him." She walked slowly away from me, her shoulders hunched forward. When she got to a corner formed by a railing and a random cart that has found its way onto our playground, she knelt on her knees, nose in the corner.

I looked back at the boy who was now chatting easily with his mom as he bent down to the mud handling the jewels he had dumped there.

I didn't say anything to the girl because, frankly, there was nothing to say. Or rather, anything I said would be redundant at best. There was no question that she was already feeling remorse, regretting her action, mulling it over in the quiet of the corner she had found for herself. I stepped away and left her to her conscience. After a couple minutes, she moved herself into a more distant corner, although this time she faced outward, her face a study of sorrow, staring into the ground.

Again, I began contemplating words I might say to her. Maybe I could comment on her emotional state. Or perhaps there was something I could say to help her understand the cause and effect of the affair. But again I realized that anything I said just then would be a mere distraction from the important work she was doing, sitting alone, calming down, and painfully reflecting.

Moments later the boy approached her, hand outstretched. In it was a jewel. He offered it to her saying, "I cleaned this one for you."

She took the jewel and held it in the palm of her hand. The boy shifted from foot to foot as if waiting for her to say something. When she didn't, I softly said, "That was a kind thing to do." He went away then, back to his play. The girl watched him go then looked back at the jewel in her hand, contemplating it for a moment before clutching in her fist. She stayed that way, thinking and feeling, until she was ready to return to her own play. It's from these moments that we become wiser, gentler people.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

"Ready, Guys?"

There are four wheelbarrows on our playground. Yesterday, a boy climbed into the bed of one, leaned a bit too far toward the front and found himself dumped onto the ground. He thought that was hilarious and did it again, then again. After a time, his friends noticed and they crowded around, asking for a turn. He obliged.

Soon, they had mastered the solo tip-and-fall, so began experimenting with two, then three kids per barrow dump. Once they had played the challenge out of that, they explored how they could dump themselves over the sides, a technique that required someone on the outside managing the handles, "Ready, guys?"

When they tried dumping one another toward the handles, they discovered a kind of equilibrium, a sort of wheelbarrow teeter totter with one kid in the bed, while the other put his weight to the handles. The boy in the bed found that he had to shift his weight back and forth for it to work.

After a while, the wheelbarrow wound up fully upside down. They tried sitting on the wheel facing toward the handles. The tried it with two bodies. One boy then turned around to face the wheel, using the wheelbarrow leg supports to support his weight while rapidly spinning the wheel with his feet. Everybody then needed to try that. As they awaited their turns, they found other things to do, such as squeezing under the overturned wheelbarrow bed through the tiny crack between it and the ground.

"Hey guys, look! I'm a turtle with a wheelbarrow shell!"

I laughed at his joke, but no one else did, because by now the rest of them were out of earshot, finished with the wheelbarrow, having moved on to a game involving a small trampoline that was missing three of its six legs.

Someone had installed a stick pony as a lever and as they took turns stepping on the trampoline, he would put his weight to the lever causing them to fall onto the ground. They had crowded around, asking for a turn, and he had obliged.

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Monday, May 21, 2018

Discovering What The Other People Are For

Both of the boys have older sisters and one of them has a twin brother, so they have lifetimes of experience in living in a world with other children. I know they love their siblings, these people who are raising them as much as their parents are, but those have always been "arranged marriages," so to speak, people with whom they have by the circumstances of their lives been thrust. It's not the same as getting to chose a person, the way we do when someone becomes our friend.

When I first began teaching two-year-olds, parent educator Kate Kincaid told me, "They're all independent suns around whom the universe revolves," and while I might today be more inclined to compare this stage of their lives to one of those two star solar systems in which mother and child orbit one another, I've found the metaphor to be largely apt. At the beginning of the school year they don't typically view the other kids as potential playmates, let alone potential friends, but over the course of the year it begins to happen.

On Friday, as I sat across the playground, I saw one of these boys take the other by the wrist. It looked to me like he was attempting to pull him along against his will. There was a moment during which they tugged against one another, one boy resistant to being pulled, the other insistent on doing so. I began moving closer in anticipation of a conflict, but before I'd taken more than a few steps, the boy being pulled managed to calmly pry those fingers from his wrist. Words I couldn't hear were exchanged, before they then took one another's hands properly, as equals, as friends, and began to walk together.

At first they just walked about the space, neither pushing nor pulling one another, following the contours of the playground. When one stepped up, he waited while the other stepped up. When one stopped, the other stopped. They were accommodating one another, working together, pointing, occasionally exchanging words that I was still too far away to hear.

Eventually, they came to the bottom of the concrete slide and opted for an ascent. They tried to do it while continuing to hold hands but the surfaces were too steep and slippery, so they freed their hands for scrambling and one after another climbed to the top. Once up there, they exchanged more words, gesturing, then apparently agreed to slide back down. The first one waited for the other and they slid down side-by-side, looking into one another's faces, beaming, as they did so. They agreed to do it again and again. Sometimes they agreed to take another track up or down. By now I was close enough to hear them. They were saying, "Let's . . ." the most magic of words.

These aren't the first butterflies to emerge from their chrysalid. We have witnessed the miracle of several first friendships over the past few months, but each time it's a wonder, these first steps in the journey of discovering what the other people are really for.

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Friday, May 18, 2018

"Okay, Now Pretend You're Going To Roast Me For Dinner"

Three girls were playing together on the outdoor stage. I approached just as a fourth girl asked them, "Can I play with you?"

This is tricky question to ask around a preschool because the knee-jerk answer is most often "No." Normally, I advise kids struggling to enter into an established play group to start by asking, "What are you playing?" or to simply state, "I'm going to play with you," or best of all, to simply drop to your knees and start playing. It still doesn't always work, of course, but I've noticed that kids who approach others like this are far more likely to have success.

In this case, however, one of the girls answered, "Sure, if you want to be an evil unicorn."

"I'll be an evil unicorn."

The girls then continued where they left off with both me and the newcomer listening on.

"Okay, pretend I'm on the bridge and you come along and push me off."

From what I could gather, the girl asking to be pushed off was a good unicorn. For the most part, she was directing the evil unicorns in how to torment her. They pretended to push her off the planks of wood they had arranged as a bridge, then she said, "Okay, now pretend you're going to roast me for dinner."

There was an old bicycle tire on the stage. The good unicorn knelt down in it. One of the evil unicorns held a couple of florist marbles. She put them on the good unicorn's back, saying, "These are so you'll taste better when we eat you."

"I'm already going to taste good."

"Yes you will, dearie, but these jewels will make you taste even better."

The evil unicorns went through some motions around their roast while the newest evil unicorn looked on, still studying the game before leaping in.

After a few seconds, the roast popped up, "I'm done now. Now you have to wash me off." She retrieved a faucet set up (a spigot with hot and cold knobs mounted on a board) that has somehow appeared on the playground this year. The evil unicorns used it like a hose. Then the good unicorn said, "Pretend the bridge is the table and you're going to slice me up." She walked out on the bridge again and curled up under the spigot, repeating, "Now slice me up for dinner, dearie."

At first, the good unicorns used the sides of their hands to pantomime slicing, then one of them said, "Pretend I'm going to slice you with my staff," referring to the large stick she had been wielding. They were interrupted by the newcomer calling out, "I don't want to be an evil unicorn. I want to be a good unicorn!"

"Okay, if you're a good unicorn then we're going to have to roast you for dinner. Get in the oven." The newly be-monikered good unicorn dutifully took her spot within the circle of the bicycle tire.

"But first you have to eat me," insisted the other good unicorn.

"Don't worry, dearie, we'll eat you first."

Then the newest good unicorn called out, "And eat me too!"

"Of course, dearie, of course."

(Fairy tales) tell children what they unconsciously know -- that human nature is not innately good, that conflict is real, that life is harsh before it is happy -- and thereby reassure them about their own fears and their own sense of self. ~Arthur Schlesinger

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Thursday, May 17, 2018

Playing With Garbage

Last week, we made what we've come to call "San Francisco kites." All you need is a breezy day, one of those thin plastic shopping bags, a piece of string, and you're in business.

In 2012, the city of Seattle has banned the use of those plastic bags that once littered our streets and filled the branches of our trees. It was an inconvenience at first, remembering to bring your own re-useable bags to the supermarket, but now it's second nature, like putting on a seatbelt or wearing a bicycle helmet. I continue to support the measure. I can see the difference it has made, but one of the unintended consequences is that they are no longer so easily accessible for us to use around the preschool for things like our simple kites or making rope with our homemade rope-making machine.

Across Lake Washington, for better or worse, the city of Bellevue where my parents live, continues to permit the use of these bags, so I've taken to illicitly importing them, like a smuggler during prohibition. Mom collects them for me and sends me home with several dozen every time I visit. I reckon it won't be long before Bellevue follows suit and then those bags won't be so easy to come by any longer.

In the meantime, we'll enjoy our simple pleasures, these wonderful kites made from garbage, this thumb in the eye of those who manufacture toys and craft supplies and curriculum materials to sell to preschools, making simple, joyful things complicated and complicit in the commodification of everything. A good childhood does not need to be purchased. It comes naturally in the form of things the rest of society has cast-off, like toilet paper tubes and scrap paper and old car tires and bits of wood left over from construction projects. It's such a cliche that it hardly bears repeating, but everyone knows that children have more fun playing with the box the Christmas toy came in than the toy itself.

So we will fly our kites as long as we can, joyfully, and when they are gone we won't weep but rather find some other garbage with which to play because we know there will always be garbage and playing with it, making it new again, is what children have always done.

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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