Saturday, May 14, 2016

In Our Nature

       There is a tremendous focus on technology in today's society - we do seem to love it so. I feel confident that at every interview for a teaching position I've ever had, I was asked about my comfort level with the various technologies that school was currently employing.

     If I'm being honest, my comfort level is.... low.

     I mean, I do love my smartphone. Nearly every picture on this blog was taken with it. If they weren't, I was using a DSLR - gone are the days of developing my prints in a darkroom (and, as quaint as that hobby seemed, it was still, admittedly, utilization of technology, albeit totally outmoded). And social media has been a tremendous support system for me and an excellent resource for communicating with families.

     But it's a tool for me. Not for my playschool kids.

     I could detail the reasons why I'm not wild about technology for the kids, but that's been done a lot lately. And I'm not really opposed to it. It's fine in moderation, for entertainment and communication.

     It just really pales as a learning tool.

    I know, I know - college and career readiness! We use technology in our jobs! The kids need to know how to use....

   Yes. I know. The thing is, they already know how to use most of today's technology better than we do. My three year old can navigate a smart phone or tablet with ease, and that's as a child who has extremely limited access to such things compared to her peers.

   Have you ever played Minecraft with a seven year old? I have. It's embarrassing and humbling.

    Today's children use today's technology with ease. No instruction necessary. They learn these strategies the same way they gain any other skills - through hands-on exploration powered by their own interest. 

    Many of the techniques that teach "media skills" in schools are a joke compared to this self-led tinkering, anyway. What does this instruction look like? Each child touching the smart board once in turn? Watching a video? Using the computer lab's clunky monitors, navigating an online assessment using a mouse? These activities aren't really getting it done, and, again, most of today's students understand today's technology at a much higher level than the schools are offering up anyway.  

    I understand the schools' motivations here. I do. We all want the best for our children and we want them to be prepared, to succeed. It's in our nature. And someone somewhere decided that to be prepared, to succeed, kids needed more exposure to technology. The problem is that their logic was faulty but we all believed them.

      I was caught up in this once upon a time as a classroom teacher, too. I'll readily admit that. The intentions are good; our society just hasn't panned out to look at the wider picture.

    Kids already understand today's technology. The learned it in the way that they learn best - through exploration. They don't need passive exposure to watered down technology in school to understand it. Frankly, this is time wasted. 

    Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the technology that exists in homes today (and certainly the technology that exists in schools today) will be completely obsolete by the time today's elementary students reach middle school, let alone their college and career experiences. These are simply not skills they will need in their futures. This is a fact.

    So what will today's students need to be college and career ready?

    They need the ability to speak their minds clearly and effectively.

    They need to ability to work effectively in a group.

     The need problem solving and critical thinking skills.

     They need enough exposure to the wide world around them to be able to effectively evaluate information sources for accuracy, for whether or not those sources seem reasonable and of high quality.

     They need to have a sense of who they are, of what they contribute to the group, of where their talents and passions lie. 

     This is what they need to be college and career ready. These are skills we can help them to hone as young people.

    University professors and human resource departments nationwide are bemoaning the fact that young adults increasingly do not have these skills. They weren't prepared for the expectations - they aren't college and career ready.

    What's missing? 

    Kids today are missing out on play. They're missing out on time spent in nature. They're missing out on the kinds of self-directed exploration and real world experiences that help them to develop the skills necessary to be college and career ready.

    The average American child is said to spend 4 to 7 minutes a day in unstructured play outdoors, and over 7 hours a day in front of a screen. (Danielle Cohen)

    They don't need more time in front of screens.

     They need more time in nature.

      Richard Louv refers to nature as Vitamin N, vital in healthy child development (and necessary for adults, as well). He tells us that humans are hard-wired to love and need exposure to the natural world. 

     It's in our nature. And we are denying this part of our nature, especially to the youngest members of our society, to the detriment of their attention spans, their mental health, their ability to interact with their world, their ability to think critically and creatively. We are denying this integral part of their nature in favor of screens and worksheets and quietly sitting.

    We are denying their best chance at being ready for college, for careers, for adult life. For happiness.

     Unstructured outdoor play is the solution, not more screens.

     Why is time spent outdoors so vital for child development?

     Time spent in nature is a full sensory experience. It provides stimulation and integration of the senses in a way that isn't overwhelming - indeed, it is soothing and promotes focus and calm. Quite the opposite of time spent in front of a screen.

     Time spent in natures makes kids think. Natural environments provoke a sense of wonder and a pleasurable opportunity to hone creative and critical thinking.

     Time spent in nature allows for real-life opportunities for problem solving and valuable opportunities to hone a sense of responsibility.

     Time spent in nature allows us to broaden our understanding of the world. We learn empathy. We learn that we are part of something larger than ourselves.

     I spent a lot of time reading about Forest Schools and trying to find ways to travel to forested areas for the kids to better experience nature. We live in a fairly urban area, so you can drive pretty far before finding a large, "real" natural space.

    I imagine many of you reading right now are concerned about your lack of access to "real nature."

    I was, too. 

     I recently participated in a discussion session with Liana Chavarin of Berkeley Forest School and hoped to apply some of her strategies during field trips. 

     As we talked, and she shared her experiences cultivating a love of nature as a child in urban Los Angeles, I began to see my own backyard in a new light. Not only was it enough, it was better than some far-flung location because it was relevant and meaningful to my crew of preschoolers. Where I saw the ordinary and mundane, they were seeing something magical.

    Our milkweed draws monarch caterpillars twice a year. 

     Louisiana spring brings puddles, temporary creeks, and occasionally all-out swamps.

     The neighborhood around us holds many treasures, from special rocks, to tiny flowers in the grass, to tickly fern fronds, to the ever-watched fig tree (how long till there are figs?!?).

     Even the vacant lot at the end of the street holds treasures - sunflowers great and small.

     These experiences help them to wonder, to explore, to tinker, in nature. They are developing a feeling of being connected to the earth, to something beautiful and wondrous and larger than themselves. 

    In this environment, they are learning, working together, joyously exploring their world.

    They are becoming college and career ready.

     More importantly, they are setting the stage for full and rich lives.

      In their neighborhood. In their nature.

Interested in more about finding "your" nature, even in an urban or suburban environment?

My sources for this post:

my children, my "sprouts," my backyard

Sunday, May 8, 2016

** Presentation and Resource List**

Thank you, Baton Rouge, for coming out on Mother's Day to discuss PLAY with me!

I was beyond thrilled to have such an active, engaged group of co-learners - the discussions we had were better than I imagined they'd be, and it seems that everyone came away feeling empowered and excited about PLAY!

I can't wait to hold more sessions and dig deeper into our ideas.

(real life kids playing with real life loose parts)

(My presentation on a big screen!)

(How you KNOW I'm an expert)

Below is the power point itself - video of the presentation coming later

Here is a (totally non-comprehensive) list of resources referenced in my presentation or that I otherwise find helpful. This will be an ongoing work in progress.

Articles and Published Studies I Referenced:


Bos, Bev, Don't Move the Muffin Tins: A Hands-Off Guide to Art for the Young Child

Bronson, Po, and Merryman, Ashley, NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children

Daly, Lisa and Beloglovsky, Miriam, Loose Parts: Inspiring Young Children

Edwards, Carolyn; Gandini, Lella; and Forman, George, editors, The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformation

Hanscom, Angela J.,  Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident and Capable Children

Johnson, Jeff A, Babies in the Rain

Johnson, Jeff A. and Johnson, Tasha A., Do-it-Yourself Early Learning

Johnson, Jeff A. and Dinger, Denita, Let's Play: (Un)Curriculum Early Learning Adventures

Johnson, Jeff A. and Dinger, Denita, Let Them Play: An Early Learning (Un)Curriculum

Louv, Richard, The Last Child in the Woods

Louv, Richard, Vitamin N: 500 Ways to Enrich the Health and Happiness of Your Family and Community

Murphy, Lisa, Lisa Murphy on Play: The Foundation of Children's Learning

Shumaker, Heather, It's Okay Not to Share

Shumaker, Heather, It's Okay to Go Up the Slide

Skenazy, Lenore, Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)


Monday, May 2, 2016

Experts (or, that time I got to wear the cape)

    I recently attended an amazing conference - one I'd been counting down for since the moment I signed up for it. The presenters and many of my fellow attendees were people I'd followed for years, whose thoughts on education helped guide and shape the teacher I am today. I read their blogs daily; their books, dog-eared and filled with my scribbled notes, fill my shelves. I vacillated between giddy excitement at the anticipation of spending three days with so many like-minded, inspirational people and learning alongside them.... and being terrified. Yes, terrified - afraid they wouldn't like me or I'd make a fool of myself or in some other way I would turn out to be not good enough or smart enough or authentic enough and that my life's calling would be yanked out from under me.

      Yes, that's kind of extreme and ridiculous in hindsight but that's how I felt. I struggle with anxiety, especially socially, and my worries can really spiral out of control in anticipation of a big, important event with many unknowns. And these people were the EXPERTS. The knowers of all knowledge. The ones with the special presenter badges and the blog bylines and the publishing deals. They were here to impart their wisdom and I was here to soak it up.

     Well, that's what I thought, but it didn't turn out like that at all.

(If you're ever unsure of how to break the ice with the "experts," maybe you should close your eyes and wander backwards-and-butt-first into them. Here I am gracefully greeting the fantastic Dan Hodgins. Hear him share thoughts on revering the "experts," along with the equally fantastic Amy Ahola, here, on their Shaking Bones podcast)

     Once I was finally there and in the midst of things, I gradually relaxed. I won't say I was immediately totally fine - I definitely had several moments where someone paid me a compliment or generally talked to me like an equal while I stammered foolishly and downplayed myself with some lame statement beginning with "Oh, I'm just...." And I hope those people will look past that when next we're together.

     By the end of the conference, though, I felt quite differently. I didn't feel like "just" anything. I felt like I was on equal footing with these people. I felt amazingly validated in my professional practice and newly inspired to take on the world! Beyond that, those people I had previously revered (yes, that's how I felt) had listened to what I had to say and laughed  and danced and goofed off with me and become my friends. I feel beyond honored to call them my friends, not because they're the "experts" or because they're "famous" and hanging out with them makes me cool (or whatever) but because they're such lovely, kind, funny, awesome people and knowing them enhances my life. I consider them mentors, sure, but I also consider them peers and that opens me up to an extra level of learning and support now that I no longer elevate them to the level of untouchable "expert." I can ask them questions. I can admit my mistakes to them. I can see myself one day making the same kind of impact they've made because I recognize that they're on a journey just like me and we're all working toward being our best selves. Our roles in this life are not static.

 (I got to wear the cape, you guys. And we have the same shoes. Not so different after all.
Read the ever-wonderful Teacher Tom's thoughts on the conference here and here: )

      There are many lessons I've taken away from this experience, so many things I'm still pondering, so many implications for my professional practice.

     My first thought is this: Why is that kind of "expert-and-student" dynamic still so prominent in our schools? For years, the research has indicated that a student-led learning environment one in which the student feels empowered and the teacher takes more of a supporting role, is the superior model.  When students truly own their learning and feel capable and able to constantly grow as a learner,  learning truly flourishes. Yet, our schools still so often fall back on the old "sage on the stage" model, reducing learners to passive, empty vessels in need of filling. Elevating "experts" to a higher status than those who are still working their way up is not only unrealistic (those experts are still on their learning journey, as well - we should all remain on that path  towards our Truth for life), but it is also damaging. The notion that some people are experts and keepers of all the knowledge supports a fixed mindset - the idea that we are all inherently good at some things and bad at others and there's not much we can do about it. A more collegial learning environment supports a growth mindset - the mindset in which we see intelligence or ability as dynamic, things we have power over, that we strengthen through practice and experience. I know all this - I have been working for years to instill a growth mindset in my students - yet I still fell back on that old, static notion of the "expert," the person who knows more/ is therefore better than me. Being able to engage with those who have more knowledge and experience than I currently have as equals rather than superiors allowed me to see that we're really not that different - and gave me a great deal more to connect to and to strive toward.

     I work with tiny people currently, and there is no doubt that I have a great deal more life experience and knowledge than they do. They look to me often for guidance, and rightly so. However, dictating their every move and insisting upon doing things "my way" won't empower them to grow as learners or as members of the greater community. As often as I can, I step back and encourage them to find their own solution, their own answer, their own way.

    Why is this good practice? They are, after all toddlers and preschoolers. Some would say that they still need me to explicitly tell them what to do. That model doesn't work on many levels, however. Firstly, even very small children are human, and will naturally fight for opportunities for power. Without a connection to their teachers, they are unlikely to learn much. They're also unlikely to be very happy, which brings me to another big take-away from the conference.

      Being embraced and accepted by those around me did so much for my confidence - and for my ability to take in new information and feel ready to own that knowledge and apply it. I felt welcomed and supported by this amazing group of people who had largely been strangers previously. I felt like they were rooting for me to succeed.

     That's the atmosphere we want to create in our classrooms. Everyone learns best when they feel embraced and happy, when they feel like their voices are heard. When they feel that they are good enough, they are worthy, their strengths bring something valuable to the group and their weaknesses are accepted, too. We create this environment when working alongside our students, when following their interests whenever possible, when giving them a chance to share their voices and their talents in whatever way they feel most comfortable. This is how we strengthen each other as human beings and how we build a community with a real sense of belonging. When that happens, all of us benefit.


We're working together to figure this thing out....