Saturday, March 25, 2017

I Was Told When I Got Older All My Fears Would Shrink: On Being Present and Growing With Our Children

My main focus here is my work with preschool aged children, but I'm a mom, as well, and one of my kids is creeping out of "early childhood" into "middle childhood." Most experts who are into classifying such things, classify eight as the last of the "early years," but he has always been an "old soul," and, having arrived at the sage old age of eight, he is suddenly so mature, so much his own person. He's grown his hair out and declared his love for all things Star Wars and Harry Potter. Big dude stuff. He's speeding through the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and generally does his homework without being asked, though he sometimes opts out of the optional reading logs, even though he reads voraciously and would get a free cupcake just for filling in his minutes.

He is kind. He is adventurous and brave, but a gentle soul. He is curious about the world. Honestly, he's really cool. I am starting to see the person he will be when he grows up, and I am starting to navigate the waters of having a child who has outgrown a lot of "kid things," but who is not yet ready for everything that comes next.

We recently went to his first big concert, His first big stadium, probably gonna need earplugs, get the overpriced tour shirt, concert.

I'll be honest, I was as stoked as he was, and I was feeling like an awfully cool mom for arranging this experience. His favorite band, Twenty One Pilots, was making a stop on their Emotional Roadshow tour in nearby New Orleans. We arranged to spend the night with friends in the city, bought our tickets, made plans to get beignets in the morning.

The day came.

He was bursting with excitement. A thirty minute wait for the shirt with the tour dates on the back did not dampen his spirits. He made a well reasoned pitch for being allowed to get a Dr. Pepper.

After the shirt and the Dr. Pepper, we began the ascent to our third level seats. Our "nosebleeds," that I felt would be perfectly fine for a reasonably priced first concert experience.

It was dark. The opening band had been playing for some time. Lots of people were already seated and had to move their legs for us to get through. The stage was dizzingly far away and far below.

Man. I'd forgotten how scary upper level seats can be.

I felt a little nervous... and looked over and saw that my sweet boy, my not-quite-grown-up dude, who'd been waiting for this experience for months... was terrified. Tears rolled down his face.

"Mom, this is scary."

I held his hand. I told him to breathe. Inwardly, I cursed my poor planning and this experience for not being what it was supposed to be.

It's easy to place higher expectations on our kids than we should when we start seeing them as "grown up," It's easy to place higher expectations on our own planning than is actually warranted because we are "grown up." Age doesn't negate our flaws as humans or, well, random chance.

I had planned this. He was going to love this. I'd spent money. We'd bought the shirt that was now shaping up to be a souvenir of that time I really screwed up as a mom when he was eight.

My carefully planned moment was crumbling. And if I'm totally honest here, my first reaction was to look around and wonder what other people were thinking. Were they judging us, judging my parenting?

We all have these thoughts in these types of moments, I think. And our initial response can be to try to make it all just STOP. But that doesn't solve the problem. or lead us to where our kids need to be in moments of stress.

We got up. We calmed down. I swallowed my pride and recognized my plans had a flaw and I needed to fix this for my kid.

I talked with the customer relations people and, after being sent to several different customer service booths (and stopping for Dipping Dots to re-up on Cool Mom Points), we were offered an upgrade to pit tickets... which seemed wonderful... but we couldn't afford (and, in retrospect, pit tickets fit my adult agenda for "good concert experience" and aren't exactly appropriate for an eight year old concertgoer anyway). A very kind customer service agent then offered us complimentary first level seats that hadn't been claimed. Relief. Perfection.

We settled into our new seats, Dipping Dots in hand, right as my son's favorite band took the stage. He bounced with joy and sang along to every song, hanging in there past multiple encores and hours past bedtime.

I love live music; I love a good probably-gonna-need-earplugs rock show, and this was a great one. I can't tell you how excited I am that I can share this with my son. But this didn't happen because I decided it would. The whole parenting thing never quite gets easy. But it's easier when we recognize that it's never really about us, and we can't dictate how an experience is going to go no matter how much we plan. No matter how much we want something, we can't just make it so.

The good stuff happens when we're listening to them, and when we're able to set our adult agendas aside, especially in the moments when it's hard and it's stressful and everyone is feeling disappointed.

As my children get older, I hope they will continue to share with me the things they love, and I can continue to facilitate their growth towards the people they want to be.

But more than anything, I hope they continue wanting to bring me along for the ride.

Monday, February 20, 2017

This Is Why We Are Here

Years ago, I was given Jon Muth's beautiful book, The Three Questions, as a graduation gift. It was a gift from my then-boyfriend's parents (who are now my in-laws).
This beautifully illustrated picture book, based on Leo Tolstoy's story of the same name, is a  meditation on the meaning of life.

The little boy in the story ponders three questions, "When is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do?"

His friends offer many possible answers, all tailored to their own particular interests and habits, until he is led to the answer through a series of experiences with Leo, the old tortoise, a mother panda, and her baby (it's a truly beautiful story and one that can be appreciated on multiple levels - I urge you to pick up a copy and read it if you have not).

He is led to these truths, which I try to meditate on daily:

The best time to do things is now.

The most important one is the one you are with.

The right thing to do, is to do right by the one who is by your side.

I can't say I'm always successful.

Children are simply better at this, at being here in this moment, with whatever it offers. 

There is a lot of angst and worry and anger in the world right now. We, as adults, are walking around with a lot of weight on our shoulders. We think a lot about what's wrong, and we wonder how to fix the things we don't like, and we feel overwhelmed. 

A dear friend asked me if I'd be interested in writing a guest post on her blog and made a point to ask that it be "positive and non-political." This sounded like a piece of cake but I am ashamed to say that I have yet to complete this task.

I realized that I found this request to be far more of a challenge than I'd expected. I could never get very far into a post without connecting to something "bigger," and those "bigger" themes were always heavy. They were dark, they were angry, and I was frozen with my inability to work my way around this, to write the "right" things.

Now, look, there is a time and a place for anger, and I have many dear friends who are dedicated activists and their strong emotions are warranted and purposeful. Worry and fear serve their own valid purposes, too. 

But not properly harnessed and channeled, these emotions muddy our better judgments and intentions. They're distractions. This is not why we are here. 

If you know me, and you talk to me often, you know that my stance has always been that the most valuable thing we can do to change the world is to help shape thoughtful, empathetic citizens. People who are kind and giving; who help their community and think critically and independently and find their niche - the thing that makes them truly happy and allows them to give back to the community.

This has ALWAYS been my passion. I really believe this. 

But to do it, I need to show up, be present, do the hard joyful work. 

Kids know this; they live in the moment.

In The Dude and the Zen Master, Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman meditate on this idea that "people get stuck a lot because they're afraid to act...We need help just to move on, only life doesn't wait."

 The solution?

 "[Y]ou want to row, row, row your boat -- gently. Don't make a whole to-do about it. Don't get down on yourself because you're not an expert rower; don't start reading too many books in order to do it right. Just row, row, row your boat gently down the stream."

When I ground myself in that moment, when I push aside my adult agenda, when I row gently down the stream, the joy comes rushing back in.

It's not hard work, living and being present, once you allow that weight to lift from your shoulders.

It's joyful. And it's meaningful. And it's a very effective way to get some very important work done.

"Remember then that there is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side. For these, my dear boy, are the answers to what is most important in this world.

This is why we are here."

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Playing With Measurable Outcomes

     If you read here often, I'm sure you are aware that I strongly believe the early years are meant to be a time of joy, of building relationships, of developing those "soft skills" of collaboration, communication, social skills, resilience, "grit."

     But I recognize that kids need a certain amount of academic preparation. They need to enter kindergarten with certain measurable skills. Realize that when I say this, I may not mean it in in quite the same was as other's might. I don't agree that all children should be expected to progress in exactly the same way or at exactly the same rate or that a checklist of arbitrary skills is an indication that a child is necessarily on track. But I do think the standards are worth a re-read - they may not be asking exactly what we think they are... and the best way to ensure the quality education we want for our children is, in fact, PLAY (and the standards back this up - don't believe me? Take a moment to read).

   I've spent some time recently reading over our state's standards for early childhood education. They can be found here in their entirety if you're interested:, as I have only highlighted some of the standards that most concern me in our modern educational climate. I believe all the standards are important, but felt that the readers at home would get bored with reading the entire document here on my blog.

In the very first state standard, we ask that children "engage in play-based learning to explore, investigate, and acquire knowledge about themselves and their world, four year olds are expected to "show curiosity, interest and a willingness to learn new things and try new experiences."  We also require them to "choose a multi-step task and complete it on their own."

We are asked to provide children with choice, with autonomy, with a chance to explore. Are we doing this? Can this be found in a worksheet?

    I wonder how we support the development of these skills and measure children's success in these areas without sufficient time and freedom to feel curious, to be interested, to find new experiences, to make their own choices? How will they complete things on their own if we don't provide many opportunities for them to do so, with adults removing their own agendas in order for children to create their own? How will children develop the ability to play purposefully and meaningfully without long, uninterrupted blocks of time in which to strengthen these skills?

     For standard A2, we want children to "demonstrate attention, engagement, and persistence in learning." We expect four year olds to "stay engaged with others, objects, and activities despite interruptions or disruption" and to "plan and complete tasks and activities."

The standards aren't asking them to follow directions, to write on the lines... they're asking them to be persistent in pursuing their own learning goals.

     Are we providing children with sufficient opportunities to develop their own ideas and ask their own questions? Are we protecting their time from unnecessary interruptions and distractions? Is the daily schedule set up in such a way that children are able to see their chosen projects through to their conclusion?

Standard AL 3 asks children to "recognize, understand, and analyze a problem and draw on knowledge or experience to seek solutions."

Standard AL 4 asks that children "demonstrate creative thinking when using materials, solving problems, and/or learning new information." A four year old child should be able to "express unique ideas and approach tasks and experiences with flexibility, imagination and inventiveness and gather information and ask complex questions in order to understand a new or familiar concept."

Are we giving our children enough space, enough time, to hone these skills? Are we stepping back and allowing them to gain the practice, and the confidence, needed to make their own decisions and find their own solutions? In order for our children to invent, to create, we as teachers and parents will need to hold back out judgments and directives. We need to support  their wonder, share in their joy, applaud their successes and refrain from intervening. You cannot create or invent for someone else. You cannot intervene without robbing them of the chance to solve their own problems.

We want students to " develop an appreciation for music and participate in music and movement activities that represent a variety of the cultures and the home languages of the children in the classroom" and to "create various forms of visual arts." Students are expected to express thoughts and feelings through movement and musical activities" and "create artistic works that reflect thoughts, feelings, experiences, or knowledge using different materials, tools and techniques."

We need them to be able to "observe and/or describe what they like and do not like about various forms of art and how it makes them feel."

     How are teachers finding time during a typical school day for students to dance freely to a variety of musical styles, to experiment with and thoroughly experience a variety of artistic mediums, to view and discuss many styles of authentic art? Are we ensuring that they have the time, materials and freedom to truly express themselves through their creations?  Are children allowed to choose their own materials and create as they wish, valuing the process and creating something that is truly their own? Are they given the freedom to play and experiment with art materials so they are comfortable and familiar with them - how the colors blend, how the brush moves across the paper, the thickness of the lines, the richness of the hue? What is the texture - how does it feel on paper? On skin?

      Are they allowed to interpret musical selections through movement; to dance as the music moves them and to experience the emotional power of authentic music of all varieties, not just "kids' music," but classical, folk,  and popular music from many cultures and time periods?

How do we measure students' grasp of these concepts without giving them the autonomy to freely express themselves? 

This cannot come in brief moments when "we have time." It must be part of the overall culture of the classroom, the typical flow of the day. It should be joyful. It should be relevant.

     By age three or four, most children can rote count to twenty and further - useful for such games as Hide and Seek - and recognize concepts such as first, last, before, after, next (necessary when bickering over who gets to go down the slide next or who will be first to wash hands). Counting tangible objects  is useful as well - we must ensure that everyone has the same amount of crackers, that there are enough chairs at the snack table (or not enough if there's a disagreement going on), or that MY tower is TALLEST by counting the number of blocks in each for comparison. These are expectations of the preschool standards, and rightly so. I hope children are getting enough authentic opportunities to apply these concepts during their school day.

     Are we supporting these experiences in our classroom routines and conversations? Are children allowed to lead? Are we answering their questions as they are asked? 

     Students are expected to "describe measurable attributes (length and weight) of objects and materials, using comparative words," "identify/name simple measurement tools and describe what they are used for (e.g., ruler measures length, scale measures weight), and "participate in measurement activities using standard measurement tools to measure the length and weight of objects and materials (ruler, scale, measuring cup)."

 Are we providing children with tools and authentic opportunities to explore and understand these concept?

     The science standards ask the very most of children, and it is here that I fear our traditional educational environments really hinder our students' learning.

     We want the children to be able to "develop the ability to carry out the scientific inquiry process (ask questions, predict, make observations, explain observations, and draw conclusions)," including the abilities to "use all five senses to observe living things, objects, materials, changes that take place, and relationships, describe what they see, hear, and are able to touch in the environment and group materials/objects according to observed features, and use simple tools to investigate and gather information on living things, objects, materials, and changes that take place (e.g., magnifying glass, sifter, magnets)."

     They require that four year olds are able to "ask why and how questions and offer ideas about living creatures, objects, materials and changes they see, hear and/or feel, [and] participate in simple scientific investigations." We expect them to " observe and describe properties of objects and materials, and how objects and materials can be combined or can change from one form to another (e.g., ice melting to a liquid), explore and use simple tools and machines (e.g., hammers, levers, pulleys, ramps, etc.), ... observe and talk about sources of energy and how they affect objects and materials (e.g., lights, bells and other sources of sound, etc.) and watch how balls, toys and other objects move and use different strategies to change their speed of motion."

     Students need to "explore, observe, and describe a variety of living creatures and plants. classify living creatures and plants into categories according to at least one characteristic, carry out classroom routines to care for living creatures and/or plants with limited direction from adults (e.g., feed the fish or hamster, water plants in the classroom), describe and follow guidelines for how to interact with living creatures appropriately (e.g., hold the hamster gently, observe the fish without tapping the fish bowl), describe plants’ and living creatures’ life cycles, use basic vocabulary to name and describe plants and living creatures and use basic vocabulary to describe similarities and differences between living creatures and plants."

     Are we providing our preschool aged children with enough time outdoors in nature to observe and investigate plants and animals? Are they consistently experiencing the seasonal changes through authentic immersion in the out of doors? Are they given the time, space and appropriate materials to wonder about light, sound and stages of matter? Are they given the freedom to wonder and develop experiments to answer their questions about the world? Are they allowed to use real tools? Can they use their bodies freely and manipulate objects in their environments to better understand the laws of physics?

I believe in the value of play because I believe that the early years should be joyful. They should be filled with wonder and loving relationships and excitement.

Many people counter this with an argument for "a balance between play and learning."

This is more than a false dichotomy, it is ludicrous. Striving for a "balance between play and learning" is counterproductive. We take away joy and we take away learning when we try to limit children's opportunities to play and lead their own learning rather than to create a rich, loving environment where children can be free to learn.

We should not worry that play gets in the way of learning. This is foolish.

Play IS learning to the child.

Frankly, I worry that the typical classroom lacks the depth that can be found in play.

It lacks the authenticity.

It lacks the heart and soul.

It lacks the relevancy.

Only when learning is child-led is it truly meaningful.

Only when we recognize that the curriculum is our children and the classroom is the world around us will we be able to "cover the standards" and make them really stick. 

As the late Bev Bos said so beautifully, "if it hasn't been in the hands, the body and the heart, it can't be in the mind."

Let's teach our youngest students with that in mind.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

They Won't Grow Up To Be Pirates

I believe it is the fantastic Dan Hodgins who reminds us that when children pretend to don their eye patches and swashbuckle their way across the seven seas, we never worry that they will grow up to be pirates.

I mean, pirates are real. In real life, they're terrifying. They're criminals. They're violent.

We don't want our kids to grow up to be pirates.

But we can watch a group of children play pirates and we don't worry. We don't wring our hands and fret about their violent futures. Unless the swordplay gets too rowdy, we hardly feel the need to intervene.

We recognize it.

It's normal.

It looks fun.

There are many variations on this kind of play. There may be "good guys" and "bad guys," who can take a variety of forms. Maybe Spiderman or Batman will make an appearance.  Maybe the kids mix it up and add a monster or T-Rex into the mix, or they declare they are knights battling dragons. We recognize these games and they make us smile.

We feel comfortable with play taking these forms because they reinforce certain notions we want to hold onto about children and play. The play looks fun; it's likely very active; there may be laughter; the characters and plot lines are familiar and comfortable and they don't challenge our notions of children's innocence.

We start to get uncomfortable when the details change. Many of us intervene when guns make an appearance. We worry when the characters aren't clearly defined, when the lines between good guys and bad guys get blurred. We worry about desensitization. We worry they will grow up to be violent.

We don't worry that they'll grow up to be a pirate or a T-rex or the Joker. Alternately, we don't hold particularly high hopes that they'll be a superhero or a knight. And this all makes sense, because they never do grow  up to be Batman or the monster under the bed or any imaginary in-between.

The thing is, we aren't quite recognizing this type of play for what it is.

While, yes, play is fun at its core, there are much larger things at stake when kids engage in this kind of play. Pretend play that involves conflict, whether the battle involves superheroes, swords, toy guns or roaring monsters, is a type of therapy for children. It's a way for them to work out things that they find frightening and confusing, and for them to feel powerful when they might otherwise feel powerless. There is no indication that this kind of war play or feigned violence leads in any way to later violent behavior or desensitization to violence. In fact, many studies indicate that this type of play helps children to better manage difficult emotions, especially fear and anger, thus improving mental health and self-control - in other words, it makes them less likely to lash out in anger and violence as adults. This type of play is especially valuable for children who have actually witnessed violence and trauma for a variety of reasons.

 Rough-and-tumble play integrates a variety of motions described by therapists as alerting (jumping, running, sliding) and organizing (pushing, pulling, rolling, tumbling), two of the three stages in the body's natural trauma response cycle (the third type is calming, which applies to calmer sensory experiences such as water and sand play, play dough, painting and cuddling up to read stories). Play in which children imagine themselves thwarting dangerous "bad guys" and monstrous foes -  in whatever form they may take - allows children to feel powerful"Children have very limited control over many areas of their lives. Becoming a superhero in their play allows them to access some sense of power," explains Dr. Amy Bailey, a clinical psychologist at KidsFirst Medical Center in Dubai. "It can help them act out and process any inner turmoil and sense of powerlessness that they have. This can help children to resolve issues of power and control, and it allows them to resolve or reduce fears and anxiety. They can also try out different personas and can experiment about the type of person they want to be."

The same can be said for all the other kinds of "good guy/ bad guy" play, no matter what forms the roles take.

What we must remember, however, is that even when the roles change, the benefits of this style of play remain the same.

A friend of mine recently contacted me out of concern for play she'd witnessed between her son and a school friend.

This little boy playing at their house was acting out a scenario in which he was shooting at police officers. She found this troubling, as she had only seen children's play in which police officers were "good guys."

Scenarios that flip our expected scripts are disturbing to us as adults looking in on children's play. This is often when we rush in to squelch the play. However, this is also typically when the play is the most valuable.

In my little Baton Rouge Playschool, I witnessed children enacting "flood" multiple times after the flooding of August 2016 in which so many of our friends and neighbors lost everything. The children would scream "Our house is flooding! Our house is flooding!" and gather up toys to stow away on top of chairs and tables, "higher ground."

I was fortunate enough to hear Lori Peek, a sociological researcher and co-author of Children of Katrina, speak at LSU recently, and to talk briefly with her about her research as it relates to play. She spoke of the same scenario, recalling that nearly every child, of every age, whom they observed playing freely, played what she referred to as "Evacuation" - rushing about frantically, gathering items, stuffing them in bags, making sure everyone "gets out."

This is not something the children were desensitized to. It was fresh, it was painful, it was weighing heavily on their minds and they were trying hard to understand what was happening, what their role was, and what control they had in such frightening circumstances, circumstances in which the adults in their lives seemed lost and afraid.

In his book Children and Play in the Holocaust: Games Among the Shadows, George Eisen describes children playing games they devised such as "grave digging" and "gatekeepers." As recounted by Dr. Aaron Peretz, a survivor of the Kovno ghetto:

"The children in the ghetto would play and laugh, and in their games the entire tragedy was reflected. They would play grave-digging: they would dig a pit and put a child inside and call him Hitler. And they would play at being gatekeepers of the ghetto. Some of the children played the parts of Germans, some of Jews, and the Germans were angry and would beat the other children who were Jews. And they used to play funerals..."

These children were not desensitized to the horror they were living through. They were struggling to make sense of it, to cope, as that is the only way they could possibly survive it. No one could argue that these children wanted to grow up to be a Nazi, beating up Jewish children. These children were taking on these roles to try to feel a sense of power over those who wielded power over them, to try to process the source of their fears.

The little boy - only four, a preschooler, who played out "shooting cops" at my friends' house was doing the same. This type of play allows children to process fears, to overcome their feelings of powerlessness, to try to understand other perspectives.

This summer, children saw on the news that police officers shot people. People who weren't bad guys. Many children, such as this child, may have previously only seen police officers in a negative light. They were already afraid of law enforcement. The adults in their lives were distrustful of law enforcement. These events deepened their fears.

They were not desensitized. They were frightened. They were trying to process, to understand. To find power in a world that offers them no power.

Meanwhile, children in another part of town, such as my friends' children and my own, were shaken to the core by news that police officers - men and women they were taught would help them find their way home if they were lost and "catch bad guys" who may be sneaking about to steal their toys - that some of these people may actually have bad intentions, may be dangerous. At the very least, they are simply human beings who can make mistakes, mistakes that have dire consequences consequences that cannot be undone. They thought these people would protect them. Their worlds were rocked with news that police officers can hurt people. People that weren't the bad guys. And that the bad guys could hurt good police officers. And that police officers in scary riot gear - so different from the friendly neighborhood cops in "community helper" booklets, read to be colored blue - were arresting good people, too. This didn't fit into their previous world view.

These types of nuance, this level of complication, is never present when Batman has to take on the bad guys. Not when a knight slays a dragon. This isn't the Ender Dragon or Darth Vader. Real world good and bad is sticky and confusing and terrifying.

Children have to process these things in their own way, their own time. For many, it will mean acting out the same scenario over and over again. Acting out a scenario we, as adults, will find disturbing and ugly.

It does not mean that these children are desensitized to violence, and they are certainly not becoming desensitized through this style of play.

They are processing their fear, their confusion, their feelings of powerlessness.

The children of our city spent a summer immersed in news of police officers shooting citizens and citizens shooting police officers. Terror and unrest were constantly unfolding on television screens and whispered about by the adults in their lives. Their already shaky foundations were rocked further by flood waters that ruined homes and churches and schools. That's a lot to process, a lot of reasons to feel powerless.

The children played "jail." There were lots of good guys and bad guys and shooting and death. They played funeral and policeman and super heroes and Star Wars and bizarre mashups involving components of all these things. Arms were chopped off with light sabers and opponents were slain with dart guns. This all looks awfully unpleasant to the adults looking on, and, frankly, it is unpleasant.

But for children, especially those too young to write in a journal or even express eloquently in words what they are feeling, play is a language. Their play scenarios reveal what is on their minds - what they fear, what they seek to understand, what they need to overcome.

As parents and caregivers, we need to support them in these efforts, as this is how they cope with the scary things, the difficult things where the lines between good and bad are blurred. This is how they develop empathy and emotional regulation - again, how they will grow up to be the kinds of adults who solve problems with words instead of fists and guns.

This is why I won't interfere with feigned shooting or explosions and why I'll bit my tongue and watch when a child takes on a role in his or her play that I find upsetting or contrary to my worldview. Kids need this sort of play, and it has been going on in various iterations for much longer than I've been alive.

And not one of these children will likely grow up to be a pirate.

** I realize that there will be many readers who, rightly, are concerned about their children of color playing with replica weapons.  There is a very real concern about children's safety, based on the horrific events such as the shooting of Tamir Rice, and it stems from very real, and much larger, issues of systemic racism.

This is not a simple issue, and it is something, as a mother of white children, I cannot claim to fully understand.

However, this fear, valid though it may be, does not negate the need for children to safely and freely engage in this kind of play, most especially those of minority populations. The very children who are most at risk when engaging freely in this sort of play are the ones who most need it. The fact that society fears it so tremendously is further indication that they need it desperately.

This, to me, is a call to find ways to create more safe places for children to play freely, in spaces where they are given freedom and autonomy and can be ensured safety by trained, knowledgeable, caring playworkers.

In her article, "When Play is Criminalized: Racial Disparities in Childhood," Eisa Nefertari Ulen explains,

"Black and Brown children's bodies are so heavily policed that the state of being a child of color in America can

 feel like a kind of occupation. This occupation of the child inhibits free play. According to Wilson, the war-time conditions that inspired the adventure playground movement when it originated in Denmark, approximate the conditions Black caregivers face today. While most American playgrounds contain permanent structures, like swings and slides, which were built according to very strict, very adult guidelines, in adventure playgrounds, or "junk playgrounds," children use wood, old tires, tape and other materials to build play environments they can tear down and build again according to their own imaginative visions.
The first adventure playground was produced by a Workers Cooperative Housing Association in Emdrupvej, Denmark, during the 1940s German occupation of that country. Parents needed solutions to shield young people from the occupying forces as they engaged in everyday play activities. Parents feared that "their children's play might be mistaken for acts of sabotage by soldiers," Wilson explains. Rather than roam and play as children have done through time everywhere in the world, in Denmark and later, in blitzed neighborhoods throughout England, war-weary children turned to adventure playgrounds, which offered safe spaces to engage in the exuberant bursts of activity and noise-making associated with truly free play.
"Parents of young people of color in the United States often face very similar concerns," Wilson says, "as their sons and daughters are likely to encounter disproportionate rates of discipline and policing, both in public spaces and inside of school buildings. Black male children in particular are often not afforded the benefit of being perceived as innocent, and behavior that is forgiven of white children is more often interpreted as deviant when exhibited by children of color."
With Black children facing suspension for wearing their hair in a natural style ,handcuffed for showing their friends a science experiment , and physically disciplined for minor infractions, Black parents often fear that free play, and the exuberant expression of freedom uninhibited play engenders, puts their children at risk.
Punitive discipline and the policing of Black children in schools is just one impediment to free play in communities of color. When families wish to encourage free play for their children in schools that don't suffer from predatory officers and officials, those of low socio-economic status often lack safe spaces in which to do so. Studies published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine and the American Journal of Health Promotion concluded that Black and Brown children and children of a low socio-economic status aren't even getting access to basic PE, much less the richer experience of free play that Barnes described or the adventure playground model that Wilson works to support."
My hope is that more understanding of children's developmental needs and more opportunities for safe free play can be brought to children in sensitive populations, both here in Baton Rouge and nationwide.
Interested in learning more about my work to bring PLAY to Baton Rouge? Check out Red Stick Pop Up Play and contact us to get involved in our efforts.
Learn more about the value of Adventure Playgrounds to historically under served communities here: The Venture, Wrexham, Wales
Check out Pop Up Adventure Play and Play Empowers to learn about national and international efforts to bring play to all children in all communities. 

Friday, August 26, 2016

Won't Wash Away

Art Credit: Mason Meyer, age 6

"Did people's houses flood all the way up to the roof?" my friend's six year old son asked her. 

Yes, all the way to the roof.

Most of us here in southern Louisiana have friends and family whose houses flooded up to the roof.

My son's school flooded to the roof. Everything was lost.

His dear friend's house flooded to the roof. My husband spent a Saturday helping the family totally gut the house and clear out the wreckage. Working alongside a large crew of many family, friends, and neighbors, they still didn't finish the job.

I'm still watching children process this information.

All the way up to the roof?

Photo Credit:

It's a difficult concept to grasp for adults, even.

For children, it's nearly beyond comprehension, even for those who experienced it firsthand.


 "Mardi Gras" is a pretty common play scenario around here. Furniture gets moved and tubs flipped over, boxes are dragged out and "floats" are created. Heavy bags full of last year's parade hauls - beads in every color, the occasional strange stuffed toy or piece of plastic jewelry, perhaps a glow stick that has long since lost its glow - are shoved into place in the rear of said "float," and the kids start bopping to the music (real or imagined) and tossing their "throws" to the parade attendees (usually me).

      I've seen this scenario quite a bit lately, as it's a fun thing to do with a full house of kids. In a departure from my usual small group of Playschool kids, I've been filling my weekend, afternoon and evening hours with friends' kids and friends of friends' kids, as they clean out and gut their homes, or the homes of neighbors, or volunteer at shelters, bringing much needed comfort and medical attention and supplies to evacuees (both humans and their pets). Women like me, filling this sort of behind the scenes role, have been dubbed "Cajun Rosies" as a nod to Rosie the Riveter and in keeping with the "Cajun Navy" and "Cajun Army," local people on the front lines in flood rescue and salvage.

      I've had conversations with kids who lost everything, including their family dog, in the floods. I've seen kids' eyes light up at the sight of a particular toy or book that was a favorite in that child's home before it was taken by the flood waters. The term "shelter" is used often in children's play, even when it is centered around "worms" tunneling through the play dough or "butterflies" emerging from a tangled "chrysalis" of blankets. Death and dying are common themes, embedded in scenarios like "dead foxes" and "dead princess," where all the princesses and woodland creatures can be revived with a quick trip in the box ambulance or some time tucked into the "hospital bed" on the couch. "Death" is reversible, it seems, but that is the term that's used nonetheless. It's something they're hearing, maybe on the news, maybe whispered by adults who think they aren't listening. It's worrisome to them and they're trying to make sense of it. Play is how children process those concepts that are difficult to process. This is how they make sense of their world.

      Most of the kids I'm hosting weren't directly affected by the floods and go home to dry homes and familiar toys and pets who are very much alive each night. But they've all had at least one parent wading through floodwaters or knocking out dry wall or negotiating the needs of people who have lost everything in shelters. This is a pervasive part of everyone's world right now.

     These kids are trying hard to make sense of the events that bring strong adults in their lives to tears and have taken from their friends the very comforts they take for granted themselves. They act out these things that scare and confuse them by playing "dead princess" and "worm shelters" and controlling the outcomes of the events. They are seeking ways to feel powerful in this time where even those who are "in charge" feel powerless. Sometimes they are more explicit in their play schemes  - I've watched children play "our house is flooding" multiple times - packing up toys and art supplies, sweeping them from the shelves into bags and climbing onto chairs. "Oh no! Our house is flooding! Get up here! Get up here!" There is a real intensity in this scenario, with children rushing breathlessly to higher ground.

     But amidst all these scenarios (and a healthy dose of your typical discussions of poop and Pokemon), I've seen "Mardi Gras" acted out many, many times. The "floats" seem to become more and more elaborate, and the usage of dress up bin items has been impressive. They dance and sling beads and remind their audience to say "throw me somethin'!" if they want the good throws.

     Amidst the loss, the ruin, the whispers of adults who worry many areas of Southern Louisiana will never be the same, these kids are reveling in the beauty of this place, this culture. They are processing through very serious, direct play scenarios, yes, but there is also valuable therapy in celebrating what we have, what we want to hang onto. A little glitter, a little laughter, something special thrown just to me - these things heal. These things remind us what we're working to save. Kids get that.

      Yesterday the Krewe of Ms. Sylvan's House put together a fantastic float, spanning a large area of my living room. They decked it out and prepared their throws. When the parade was ready to start, they requested music. I queued up a Spotify playlist entitled "New Orleans" after a quick scroll through to ensure there wasn't anything inappropriate in the lineup.  I started to sweep up from the day's snacks and craft activities, and Professor Longhair's "Go to the Mardi Gras" began and the living room Mardi Gras party was in full swing. As I stowed away rogue crayons and blocks, the parade continued, kids laughing and dancing and slinging beads. The next song began, and it was less ebullient: Steve Earle's painfully beautiful "This City."

    The words and the contrast to the joy of the moment moved me to tears and I had to excuse myself to the kitchen to wipe down counters and cry.

    Watching from the doorway where they couldn't see me wiping away tears, I was further moved by their resilience, their complete immersion in their play that blocked out the lyrics:

"This city won't wash away
This city won't ever drown
Blood in the water and hell to pay
Sky tear open and pain rain down
Doesn't matter 'cause come what may
I ain't ever gonna leave this town
This city won't wash away
This city won't ever drown"

     They continued to dance and laugh and toss beads around my living room. They continued to be children, and to immerse themselves fully in this moment that brought them joy.

     That is what moves us forward.

     That is what we are working to save.

     That can't be washed away.

Want to help Baton Rouge's Flood Relief Efforts? Here are some great local organizations working hard to rebuild our city and the beautiful community of people in it:

Together Baton Rouge

North Baton Rouge Disaster Relief

Companion Animal Alliance

The Loveabulls Project

Flood Recovery Fund for East Baton Rouge Public Schools

Runnels Art - Flood Recovery Fund

First United Methodist Church - Flood Relief

Read more about the effects of the flooding on the city's children here.

Learn more about play's healing effects in our city here.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Part of the Solution (Guest Blog for PLAY EMPOWERS)

I live in Baton Rouge.

I love this city.

I work here as an early childhood educator and an advocate for play-based learning.

I advocate on behalf of my own two children and of all this city's children.

My work is play and I believe strongly that it is the most important work I'll ever do.

Photo Credit: Maggie Clarke

Three years ago, my little family embarked on a grand adventure.

We packed up our belongings and moved nearly 800 miles from Winston-Salem, North Carolina to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a city where we knew no one and which we had only visited once in a whirlwind trip to find a home and visit a few schools.

I was immediately taken with this city, with its majestic live oaks stretching across the streets, beads glittering from their branches. I reveled in its culture of celebration, constant festivals and parades and football tailgates. We moved in July - I brought the kids down a month ahead of my husband to give them a chance to feel at home and make friends before school, and everyday life, began in earnest. The heat and humidity were oppressive and the mosquitoes were numerous, but I quickly fell in love with my new city. We made friends, we made our house a home, I got a job and life seemed good. 

School started in August. My four year old son wore a uniform for the first time, as do all public school students in East Baton Rouge parish. He chose a backpack and lunchbox emblazoned with his favorite super heroes and struggled to keep his burgundy polo shirt tucked into the tiny elasticized waistband of his navy blue shorts. He and his classmates ate their free school breakfast in silence daily. He learned to walk quietly, in straight lines. He adored his preschool teacher, though the parents of many of the other students complained that she let the three and four year olds in his class play too much and she did not give them enough homework.

He wondered out loud about the differences from block to block in town - from the quaint, well-kept homes on our street to the "shotgun" style row houses closer to his school which were clearly in poorer repair, some with broken windows or holes in the roofs. He worried that his classmates lived in these homes, wondered what happened when it rained. He asked why no one cared more about those people and those neighborhoods. I didn't have an answer. 

I made my own adjustment. I was transitioning from an extremely progressive magnet school in North Carolina, one that embraced students as people and gave them ownership of their learning, that gave teachers autonomy in the classroom with the expectation that they would reach those kids. I was now expected to test my students weekly in every subject and graph their test results for weekly data meetings. Students were expected to be re-tested until they "passed," with the data taking precedence over actual knowledge retention.  We were encouraged to plot student progress on wall charts for all to see. Recess was fifteen minutes daily. Lunch was silent. Children who struggled with emotional regulation were to be sent to the time out monitor, not a counselor. There was required paperwork to track their referrals, and I was told this information was needed for when they "entered the system" later. 

We were not preparing children to be leaders, to be citizens, to be thinkers, to be voters.

The students in Baton Rouge's public schools are predominantly black, predominantly poor. The schools here didn't even begin desegregation until 1981, and that effort has been largely declared a failure. 

These children are being denied their childhoods, their opportunities to play and strengthen social skills and emotional regulation. abilities. These young children, largely underprivileged children of color in a historically segregated city, are being prepared not for college, not for careers, but for prison. 

I had many seasoned teachers and administrators tell me that things HAD to be this way because Baton Rouge has such high poverty levels. "You must not have had poverty problems where you come from" was the common refrain, and I was never believed when I insisted that, yes, we did. Winston Salem has very high levels of poverty, and my school there was a fairly accurate representation of the city's demographics (we were a  "lottery" magnet, meaning selection was purely random, based on lottery). We had some of the highest test scores in the state. We let children play. We gave them ownership of their learning. We gave teachers the autonomy to teach in ways that were authentic to them and their students.

We believed in our students. We envisioned them as college graduatesAs successes. As people. 

I keep in touch with former colleagues and students and am constantly impressed with the work they are doing (see linked articles above to read about two phenomenal young women I had the opportunity to teach at this very special school, representative of the accomplishments of the majority of that school's graduates). We also had fantastic family involvement that, yes, spoke to the kinds of families who were attracted to our school, but also spoke to the kind of atmosphere we created - one that embraced all students, all people. One that meshed with the surrounding community. This was very intentional. It was not luck or happy coincidence. It was our mission

We prepared students to be future leaders because we not only allowed them to think and to question, we encouraged them to do so. We not only allowed them to "goof off" and be kids from time to time, but we encouraged them to do so.

We embraced and nurtured their humanity.

The mistake of policy makers in East Baton Rouge schools is that they continue to do more of the same thing they've been doing for years and expect different results. 

They continue to emphasize conformity and control over connection and humanity.

They continue to take away recess, to take away teacher autonomy, to shame rather than uplift, to direct rather than collaborate, to declare rather than listen. Our children are suffering.

This quote is lovely and makes the rounds often. I'd argue, however, that all students come to school to be loved. And that we need to spend far more time listening to their needs and less time testing their recall of facts. Alfie Kohn writes about this here and here.

I didn't feel like I was part of the solution.

I felt like part of the problem.

I traded in my public school job for running my own tiny in-home playschool. My work has grown from a small group of kids in my own backyard to outreach programs throughout the city.

I'm sure there are some that wonder, in light of the systemic issues I describe, why building with cardboard boxes and climbing trees have become my focus rather than something larger and more visible. 

I found myself wondering this, too, as my city erupted in anger and panic over these past weeks as the long-simmering tensions boiled over. I wanted to help in healing this place I call home, and worried that I could not possibly do enough.

But the truth is, we all have to do our own small part. No person can do it all, and we all have to share whatever gifts we have. That's how we make an impact. That's how we make a change.

My city is hurting right now. We are in the news for recent tragic events but the pain is not new. People are angry, and rightly so. We are painted as being very much divided, but from where I sit, people on both "sides" want a lot of the same things.

They want to feel safe.

They want a better life for their families, for their children.

They want to feel that their voices are heard.

This is where we can be part of the solution. 

In the days following a string of tragedies both in my city and in other parts of the nation, from the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile to the shooting of the Dallas policemen and the protests and unrest that grew out of those events, I held a pop-up play day for Baton Rouge kids. 

We played.

Photo Credit: Sylvan Taylor

We built.
Photo Credit: Sylvan Taylor

It rained.

Photo Credit: Sylvan Taylor

And rained.

Photo Credit: Sylvan Taylor

And then we played and built some more.

Photo Credit: Sylvan Taylor

Photo Credit: Sylvan Taylor
Photo Credit: Sylvan Taylor

These kids worked together, helping one another to build forts and scale trees and fight off "bad guys."

Photo Credit: Sylvan Taylor

Things like age and race and gender didn't matter much. at all.

Heat didn't stop us. Thunderstorms didn't stop us. 

Our city was hurting and afraid, and these kids reminded us that there could still be joy.

The next day brought more unrest and anger as peaceful protests turned agitated, as fearful police were directed to respond with force against citizens trying to be heard. As the voices of a few drowned out the reason of many.

Out of the pain and anger grew a call for unity. Local churches gave me an opportunity to hold a children's event alongside their worship service.

Again, it rained, and our outdoor service was moved into an oyster bar across the street with generous owners.

The rain stopped, and again, we played.

We chalked the walks with words of love and peace for all to see.

Photo Credit: Sylvan Taylor

We blew bubbles and made a banner and played some more. 

Photo Credit: Casey Meyer

Photo Credit: Casey Meyer

And it was all so beautiful.

You might still wonder why this is my response to all the hurting, the violence, the divisiveness all around me.

Why am I standing there blowing bubbles? 

There are so many reasons.

Imaginative play is one of the best ways for children to process their emotions during times of crisis and tragedy. The news right now in my corner of the world is scary indeed, and children need outlets to process their fear and grief. 

“The inherent desire to create – whether on paper or in scenarios with toys – is universal to us all. For this reason, play is an invaluable tool for communication.Children learn how to process complicated feelings through a playful filter and explore tough questions in a language that is easier for them to understand... And while the world and the threats it poses may change, children everywhere continue to try to solve its problems through imaginative games." ("How Children Use Play to Make Sense of Terrorism," Lizzie Enfield)

In play we are at peace. We are in a state of calm alertness; we are aware of all around us and awake, but not agitated, not stressed. We feel joy. We feel a sense of belonging.

That is healing no matter who you are. I challenge you to watch children at play and not smile at the very least, if not feel the urge to join in.

We build connections through events such as these. People gather and talk. They laugh. They feel together, not divided. We learn to truly SEE one another.

This heals. 

The greatest reason, however, is that play is an investment in our children.

True free, authentic play is how children develop a sense of empathy. This is something that cannot be taught, especially not in traditional schools. This is something that is only developed through play.

Empathetic children grow up to be empathetic adults.

They grow up to be people who can see things from another's perspective, who can bridge differences and solve problems with words. They grow up to be the helpers, the police officers who embrace protesters, the protesters who use words instead of violence, the teachers and social workers and ministers who speak out for making a difference. The citizens who help out their neighbors. 

These are leaders. These are peacemakers. These are the GOOD we wish to see in the world.

Opportunities for child-led play are also the solution for raising children who can regulate their emotions, especially fear and anger. 

This is the  "emotion regulation theory of play—the theory that one of play’s major functions is to teach young mammals how to regulate fear and anger.[4]  In risky play, youngsters dose themselves with manageable quantities of fear and practice keeping their heads and behaving adaptively while experiencing that fear.  They learn that they can manage their fear, overcome it, and come out alive.  In rough and tumble play they may also experience anger, as one player may accidentally hurt another.  But to continue playing, to continue the fun, they must overcome that anger.  If they lash out, the play is over.  Thus, according to the emotion regulation theory, play is, among other things, the way that young mammals learn to control their fear and anger so they can encounter real-life dangers, and interact in close quarters with others, without succumbing to negative emotions." (from "Risky Play: Why Children Love It and Need It" by Peter Gray).

Children given the opportunities for free play become adults who can control their fear and anger. Again, they become problem solvers, effective collaborators and leaders. They become peacemakers.

They become the solution.

My part may not be loud or flashy. 

But it brings me tremendous joy and it IS the solution for our nation's future.

A friend shared this with me as I was writing this post, and I want to close on this idea:

 “The future of our country is being built on our work in early childhood development. We all must play a role in helping every child succeed. We are overdue, my friends. Nearly 120 years ago, The New York Times wrote an editorial with these words: ‘Given one generation of children properly born and wisely trained, and what a vast proportion of human ills would disappear from the face of the earth.’”  ("Investing Early: The Best Sort of Nation Building" by David Lawrence)

This is my solution.

Photo Credit: Sylvan Taylor

This is my part.

Photo Credit: Sylvan Taylor

Want to learn more about organizations working to build a stronger Baton Rouge?

Together Baton Rouge

Beyond Bricks EBR

Front Yard Bikes

The Loveabulls Project

Love Alive Church

St. Luke's Episcopal Church

Anchor Chapel

Interested in my advocacy program, Red Stick Pop Up Play, or other advocates for PLAY in Baton Rouge?

Looking for resources to start your own PLAY Advocacy?

Hear my first in a series of podcasts on this subject here: