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:

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