rethinking the cow path

 

Around the world, there are hundreds of cities that are burdened by daily traffic jams. I cannot imagine that anyone ever anticipated there would be so many cars. In fact, in the world’s oldest communities, the streets were around long before cars even existed! When the earliest motorized vehicles showed up, they simply used the convenient paths that pedestrians, horse carriages (and yes, possibly cows) had been using for years. Ralph Waldo Emerson joked: “We say the cows laid out Boston. Well, there are worse surveyors.” Although the accuracy of Emerson’s statement is debatable, the problem remains. As our populations have grown and our need for transportation has increased, daily maneuvering has become a stressful and sometimes costly endeavor for many people. In cities around the world, the streets are simply not meeting the needs of the community. 

Our schools face a similar problem. The approaches, routines, and traditions of our centuries-old school systems are simply not meeting the needs of our current society. What our students needed to be functioning members of a society in, say, 1925, is not at all what they need now. The world has drastically changed due to technology, and replacing a chalkboard with a smartboard and textbooks with digital books is simply not enough to prepare our students to be successful. “Today, the United States has one of the highest high school dropout rates in the world. Among students who do complete high school and go on to college, nearly half require remedial courses, and nearly half never graduate… [Schools need] to prepare all students for college, careers, and the innovation-based economy in which they will make their living. (https://www.ed.gov/k-12reforms) Just like our city streets, our schools are no longer meeting the needs of our students. It is time to rethink the cow paths. 

So, what is the solution? Do we simply need more of the same? In our congested cities, should the streets be expanded to allow more cars to maneuver? We could get rid of some local businesses and knock down a bunch of historic buildings to make room for more roads. In fact, a few cities have already taken this approach. However, it is short-sighted and requires an unpalatable and costly sacrifice. 

In the same way, some schools have expanded their academic blocks, simply doing more of the same. Along the way, they have sacrificed parts of the school day, such as social studies, Phys. ed, recess, and fine arts classes. Another alarming trend is the increase in “academic rigor” in early elementary classrooms, including the implementation of high-stakes testing in preschools. But these “more of the same” approaches are short-sighted, and sacrificing the developmental needs of our children has proven to be both unpalatable and costly. 

Widening the cow path is not the solution. We need to innovate. And more of the same is not innovation, it is inertia. Wise city planners take into account future community needs as well as predictable human behaviors. They think long-term and work with human nature, not against it. For example, if they are convenient and inexpensive, people will use bike rentals and perhaps opt for public transportation. Another innovative approach is the offering of tax incentives to city businesses, allowing their employees to telecommute which will reduce the amount of rush-hour traffic. Given the option, most people prefer to telecommute for at least part of the workweek. Whenever possible we should work with, not against, human nature.

In the same way, wise educational stakeholders should take into account the experiences and skills our students will need to be successful in our quickly-changing society. In the classrooms of our youngest learners, we should consider how to best use children’s natural curiosity and play-instincts as learning catalysts, rather than ignoring or trying to suppress them.  In education, it is especially important that we work with, not against, human nature. It is time to rethink the cow paths. 

 

Play on, my friends!

“In play, it is as though the child were trying to jump above the level of his normal behavior.” -L. Vygotsky

I once observed four kindergarten students during our Play-Based Centers block. They had neatly placed several sight word cards in a pocket chart at the School Center and arranged themselves on the rug. Having set up their space, they were now taking turns pretending to be me. This is both flattering and alarming as most children are astounding mimics, often detecting and imitating mannerisms we don’t even know we have! (Apparently, I say “Let’s see. . .” quite a bit.)

  Sam, a natural-born leader, even at the tender age of five, was the first “teacher” and was asking his three “students” to find a sight word in the pocket chart when given a clue. This was a familiar routine. We reviewed sight words each day, where I asked questions designed to help them notice word features. For example, I might say: “Find the word that has an /t/ sound at the end.” or “Find a word with six letters.” 

Sam praised his “students” with several high fives as they easily found the sight words matching his clues. I grinned at the general cuteness of the scene. I was once again reminded of how much I love seeing my students enthusiastically weave our academic and positive behavioral reinforcement routines into their play. It’s like watching my own kids happily eat their vegetables, and then ask for seconds. 

As I jotted down some notes on their play, Sam paused, clearly considering his next clue, a little annoyed that his friends had figured them out so quickly. “Ok, let’s see. . . ready for a challenge? Here’s a tricky one. . . Find the word that has two syllables and four letters.” My amused grin faded and was replaced by genuine surprise. I had introduced syllables to the class a couple of days ago. We had played a game, sung a song, and clapped the syllables in each of their names. But I had not yet talked about syllables in my sight word review. Ben had quite naturally taken their play to the next level, pulling ideas from separate classroom experiences to create a “challenge” for his friends. 

This is only one example of how, given a low-pressure environment with time for self-directed, free-choice activities, children naturally create new and increasingly complex connections. I have seen this again and again during PBC. Their play often transforms learning from isolated and scattered ingredients into a rich, and satisfying feast. Learning comes alive during Play-Based Centers, often going well beyond the minimum mandated curriculum covered during our regular academic blocks. 

Russian psychiatrist Lev S. Vygotsky states: “In play, a child is always above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play, it is as though he were a head taller than himself. As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form; in play, it is as though the child were trying to jump above the level of his normal behavior”  (Mind in Society, 1967, 16).

Play on, my friends!

March 27, 2020, is International SEL Day!

From selday.org:

The Urban Assembly and SEL4US invite communities across the globe to celebrate the importance of social-emotional learning (SEL) on the first annual International SEL Day on March 27, 2020.

We know that SEL changes lives.

Studies show that SEL provides many benefits to students—from improved social-emotional skills, well-being and behavior to improved academic outcomes—and these results are long-term and global, with proven positive impact up to 18 years later on academics, conduct problems, emotional distress, and drug use.

SEL competencies are also critically important for long-term success in today’s economy.

We know you get it, but many members of our communities don’t know about SEL yet.

Join the Movement!

That which we call a (toy) rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

During Play-Based Centers the objects at each center are referred to as “materials,” and not as “toys.”  There are two reasons for this.

First, most items at the centers would not actually be categorized as toys. For example, magnifying glasses, scissors, dry erase markers, yoga mats, and books are not usually labeled as toys. The word “materials” better encompasses the wide range of objects that might be used during PBC. 

The second reason that the term “materials” is recommended, is simply because the word “toys” has a common association with experiences that are frivolous and have no value or purpose. This bias is especially true in schools, where it sometimes feels like every minute is scheduled and every experience must have a defined objective and predetermined purpose. As though no learning is possible unless it has been planned ahead and rigidly controlled by an adult. (Yes, this is sad but true. And better left to another blog post. . .)

Consider these two sentences that describe the exact same action:

  1. Mari played with toy flowers at the Imagination Center, during our daily playtime.  
  2. Mari explored with materials at the Imagination Center, during our daily PBC block.

See the difference? The words we choose matter. And unfortunately, until the play-instinct is better recognized and valued in education, we must choose our words carefully or jeopardize the credibility of our efforts.   

At the Imagination Center, where students have created a Florist Shop, Mari carefully arranges silk roses. And yes, to Mari they smell just as sweet, whether we call them toys or materials.  

Play on, my friends!   

pigs and play

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”   — Frederick Douglass 

This is a story about the importance of a strong play foundation for piglets.

(I mean children.)  

The Three Little Pigs

Part One:

Once upon a time, there were three little pigs:  Penelope, Patrick, and Peter.

Penelope spent her youth in her pigpen, primarily watching people and animals prance around on screens, pretending to be something other than what they really were.  She knew all the latest, most popular animal trends and as a teenager spent her waking hours maintaining her “streaks” and predictably posting on social media. Penelope’s most prized possession was her phone, which she placed protectively under her pillow every night.  

As a very young pig, Patrick was sent to a Private Pig School where he spent his waking hours playing on several sports teams, participating in numerous extracurricular activities, and constantly studying for his AP (Advanced Pig) courses. Not a minute of Patrick’s life was wasted.  He looked forward to a future in “the real world,” which his parents had been preparing him for since he was a very young piglet. To be honest, the future seemed a lot less stressful and hectic than his past and present life. His most prized possessions were his numerous trophies and certificates, proving his perfect pig status. 

Peter Pig also had a phone and occasionally posted on social media.  As a teenage pig, he also played a team sport and took AP courses, but as a little pig, he primarily played.  Hour after hour, day after day he played around the farm- every chance he had.  He got into scrapes and then figured out how to get out of them. He made friends with the other animals, and over the years grew and learned about himself and others.  He knew most everything about his farm community and knew most everything about the animals who lived there! Peter’s most prized possessions were his playmates and his personal experiences.    

Part Two:

One day the three young adult pigs set out to begin their lives.  Their first task was to build their houses.  

Penelope was exhausted by the whole ordeal and quickly constructed a house of straw.  Unfortunately, her house had hardly any foundation. When a troublesome wolf came along, (as it always does) the straw house just didn’t stand a chance.  Poor Penelope had no idea what to do, and no motivation to do anything anyway. She posted a picture of her destroyed house, then moved in with her cousin, Prunella. Unfortunately, she primarily spent her days staring at the screen of her phone, being both distracted and entertained. Not having any real-world skills, and no real motivation, she had to depend on others for her basic needs for the rest of her life.

Patrick had many skills, but few were relevant to living in the real world.  Mostly, he had excellent test-taking skills. Unfortunately, no one was currently hiring a professional test taker.  Patrick was also burned out from being “on” all the time, and the stress and pressure of constantly competing were beginning to get to him.  The stick house he made looked very neat and nice, but his house lacked a strong foundation. When a troublesome wolf came along, (as it always does) his house didn’t blow away completely, but there was significant damage.  It would be a lot of work to rebuild. Unfortunately, Patrick had been working all his life and just couldn’t muster the energy to fix his house. So, he moved back in with his parents. Perhaps in a year or so he would try it again.   

Peter planned his house thoughtfully, (executive functioning skills) bartered with his neighbors for materials, (social skills), and was determined to do things right, even if it took a while (emotional skills.)  Peter’s house had a strong foundation. When a troublesome wolf came along, (as it always does) Peter’s house, with a solid stone foundation, remained standing. And he lived and played happily ever after!

The End.

P.S. A strong, healthy foundation is important for all children.  But it is absolutely essential for those children who live in neighborhoods with resident wolves. 

Play on, my friends!

survival mode vs learning mode

Let’s take a brief look at the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, and how toxic stress affects learning.  

Your amygdala (there are actually two of them, so technically amygdalae) is the part of your brain that is responsible for helping you survive.  It is closely connected to your senses. Your prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, is responsible for higher-level thinking, problem-solving and the superstar of the show: executive functioning.  

The amygdala is great for when your kitchen is on fire.  Like an internal siren, it gets “turned up” to high volume and then helps you deal with the crisis, and ultimately survive.  However, let’s say that for some reason, parts of your house kept catching on fire. After awhile your amygdala would just stay “turned up” to maximize efficiency and begin taking a more active role at all times, even when there are no fires insight.  You would likely become hypervigilant about potential fires. That’s reasonable, really. Your brain has adapted to your circumstances. It thinks: “Man, there are a lot of fires in this life. Better be on the alert, pay attention, be ready at all times.  We need to be in survival mode!” Your prefrontal cortex is great for learning and all, but given the threat of fires, it gladly takes a back seat to make way for your amygdala, which is doing its job, keeping you alive. It reminds you to scan your environment for danger and be ready at a moment’s notice to react to any and all real or potential threats, whatever form they might take.  

Even when you leave your fire-prone house, your amygdala remains “on”, and you will continue to scan your environment for signs of danger.  You’ll be on the alert for the first hint of smoke. Maybe you’ll start carrying around a fire extinguisher. You will also question your relationships.  Are the people in your life liabilities? Will they get in the way of your escape plan? Could they actually be responsible for starting fires? Not surprisingly, you might have trouble making or keeping healthy relationships.  Transitions and new situations will be especially challenging, and you might experience frequent anxiety or even have occasional panic attacks. You’re in survival mode, and surviving takes a lot out of you. You just can’t invest much into growing and thriving when you’re primarily focused on surviving.

When our students experience one or more Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs), they become increasingly likely to have their amygdalae “turned up” and stuck on high, leaving the prefrontal cortex taking a back seat.  That’s reasonable, really. Their brains have adapted to their circumstances- sadly, they are in survival mode. Unfortunately, the prefrontal cortex is pretty important in school. Actually, it’s essential.

 Just like in our hypothetical fire example, these students are in survival mode, and surviving takes a lot out of them. Their prefrontal cortexes just can’t invest much into growing and learning when they’re in survival mode with their amygdalae turned up high.  So, instead of giving their whole focus and attention to the people around them (such as teachers) who are asking them to remember things (like spelling words) their amygdalae are orchestrating neurological and physiological vigilance for potential threats. 

So, what can be done to help our students who are in “survival mode”?  Research shows that play decreases amygdala activity and increases prefrontal cortex activity.  And not just in the moment. The benefits of even small amounts of play can actually help heal the damage of toxic stress from the past as well as create a protective factor against future stress.  (PEDIATRICS Volume 142, number 3, September 2018, http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2014/08/06/336361277/scientists-say-childs-play-helps-build-a-better-brain)  

Play really is a brain changer.

Play on, my friends!

silicon spoons

Many children are born with a silicon spoon in their mouths.  The entertaining morsels served up on that silicon spoon are so enticing and addictive that, not surprisingly, students have little appetite for anything else.  Unfortunately, what’s consumed by our young children has very little nutritional value. Maybe their devices are “connected,” but our children are starving for real-life connections and meaningful relationships. 

 Play is how children learn about themselves and the world around them and is an essential ingredient for growing healthy humans.  As teachers, we can choose to work with this natural play instinct or we can ignore, or even attempt to suppress it. Play-Based Centers is designed to harness this play-instinct and give our students a daily dose of meaningful connections through play, fueling their days with joy and strengthening their academic, social and emotional skills.   

Play on, my friends!

a daily feast

I like to think of Play-Based Centers as a daily feast!  We have given our students interesting and useful ingredients and tools, through intentionally chosen materials and crafted, themed spaces.  Our students are not chefs, they have not yet mastered culinary skills. So we have also modeled how to make certain recipes and taught them basic techniques, through guided play, and explicit instruction during and outside of PBC block.  

But someone does not become a master chef by memorizing recipes or by watching other people cook.  Although these are valuable experiences, they are not the most important part of learning the art and science of cooking. 

In order to improve any skill, we must have opportunities for meaningful practice.  And in order to become life-long, passionate learners, we must have the opportunity to make meaningful connections through self-directed experiences.  

Play-Based Centers is an ideal opportunity for our students to experience the freedom to explore, practice, build skills, create, and make connections.  And maybe to begin to master the art and science of becoming.     

Play on, my friends.  

musings on water and dead bugs

It is surprisingly easy to bring the academic topics and concepts covered during whole-class instruction to your Play-Based Centers block.  PBC allows opportunities for enrichment and exploration that there simply isn’t time for during your regular academic blocks. Most importantly, students have time to approach concepts and skills from multiple perspectives, adding meaning and creating opportunities for deeper learning and authentic connections.  

I once planned several whole-class science lessons on surface tension. The activities were not particularly complicated, but I did have limited materials and time.  I really only had a few days to cover surface tension before we needed to move on. Honestly, how is anything supposed to stick in only three days, no matter how awesome my lessons are?  With unlimited materials and time, I would have set up separate stations and had the students rotate through each one over several days. Then, I would have returned to the topic several times over the next year.  However, this was not an option. Thanking my lucky stars that I worked at a school that still allocated time for science at all, I opted for a few quick teacher demonstrations. After these, I simply transferred and then rotated the demo materials through the Science Center.  For more than a month, small groups of students eagerly played and explored using the materials. At first, they tried the demonstrations again, mimicking what I had done. And then, they began creating their own explorations. At times they requested other materials and I added and removed items to encourage their play and creativity.  Some students recorded their explorations by drawing or writing on scrap paper attached to clipboards at the center. (I often leave paper on clipboards and pencils at the centers to encourage, but not require, observations and documentation.) During Ch.E.C.K.-ins I encouraged their use of content vocabulary, self-directed inquiry, and active learning.  In winter, as the temperatures dropped, our science lessons touched on states of matter, and how liquid water can become solid ice. The students recalled their explorations of surface tension and asked interesting questions, connecting their earlier observations at the Science Center to this new topic. One or twice we brought in a bucket of ice and snow collected during recess and left it at the Science Center. Observing the way it melted and eventually evaporated.  In the spring, we studied the changes taking place in ponds. I reminded the students of their previous water explorations, and the students were engaged and eager to talk about the different ways that surface tension affected the plant and animal life in ponds. I added some large, sealed containers of pond water to the Science Center and the students made observations using magnifying glasses. They noticed the pollen and other objects floating on the top. They also had an interesting exchange about the fact that while some bugs can stay on top of the water due to surface tension, some dead bugs in the container had sunk.  After that, several students visited the Art & Design Center, extending their connections by creating drawings and dioramas of ponds. There may or may not have been a few dead bugs included in their artwork.   

Play on, my friends!

the gift of time

What is the number one teacher complaint?  There just isn’t enough time!  

Play-Based Centers is a daily, flexible block of time to address the numerous challenges that teachers face.  And honestly, they grow more numerous with each passing year. But there are some years that I am especially thankful for PBC.  

One Friday, mid-year, I joined Anne, our school BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) during my PBC block.  She had been observing Liam, a non-verbal student in my kindergarten class with an Autism diagnosis.  I was especially thankful for Play-Based Centers that year, which allowed time for Anne and me to consult and gave us both an opportunity to observe and build rapport with Liam.  Noticing his frequent preference for the Building and Engineering Center, which currently had wooden trains, Anne had set up a behavioral plan, with visual supports, that included extra time to play with the wooden train set as an incentive.  Anne and I were able to introduce and practice using this and other supports, such as social stories, with Liam during the play block.    

Several weeks later, when doing Ch.E.C.K.-ins, I noticed that during PBC, Liam frequently played with another student named Andy.  Mostly it was parallel play, although we had seen some increased interactions between the boys over the last week or so. Andy was a patient and relaxed child, who seemed to accept Liam’s sometimes unexpected behaviors without concern.  I documented these observations, and a few days later, when assigning partners for a math sequencing activity, I knew just who to put Liam with.  

Liam’s year in kindergarten was not perfect, there were certainly challenges.  But it was a good year. A year of progress. Progress that would not have been possible without PBC.  Anne and I had the opportunity to establish a relationship with Liam early in the year, and to help him understand and generalize expected behaviors throughout the year.  Having the time and flexibility to focus on his needs during PBC made all the difference. As Anne and I observed Liam that day, she smiled and said, “This has been so good for him.  Time to play is exactly what he needs.” I completely agreed. In fact, the gift of time is exactly what we all need.  

Play on, my friends!