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Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The Comfort of Dragons

TH loves hugs.  They love to be held, cuddled, carried, and cared for in a most gentle way.  His heart is tender, and he feels with a ferocity that is unwavering.  He feels not only for himself, but for others also.  There have been countless times when he has provoked the entire class to a more empathetic response to a story, an event, or a situation.  

OP loves hugs as well and also enjoys the gentleness of her caregivers.  She also loves to care for others.  Many parents have experienced this whenever they arrive on our school grounds. Before they can even enter through our gate, OP has proclaimed their presence to all who are within an earshot, but most specifically, to their child.  She likes to make these connections, to help, to bring joy to another one of her friends at the news of their parent’s arrival.  

One day I came out to the garden after my planning time to find these two engaged in pretend play with one another.  OP was a “Momma Dragon,” while TH carried out the role of the “Baby Dragon.”  “Mommy, I’m tired,” says Baby Dinosaur.  “Ok, Baby, time to go to bed,” replies Mommy Dinosaur.  TH walks gingerly over to a toy storage box at the side of the shed.  He climbs on top and pretends to sleep.  OP soon joins him on the box, and after she sits down, he soon rests his head in her lap.  His face tells me he’s content, while her face tells me she’s enjoying her recurring role of caregiver.  

As I watch their play continue to unfold, I pause the cycling tasks in my head in order to appreciate this moment.  Here is OP, caring for TH in her familiar, gentle way.  And here is TH, resting his head in the comfort that he so adamantly enjoys.  Here are two pieces of our community, finding purpose and comfort in the embrace of one another.  

Community is like that.  We come with all that we have and all that we are, and somewhere in the midst of our messy muddling, we find connection, solace, and peace.  Sometimes this comes easy, and our relationships quickly fuse into the mosaic of a collective.  Sometimes it’s hard, and it seems like we’d sooner find comfort in a complete stranger than we would with those right in front of us.  And sometimes, but only sometimes, we just transform into dragons.


Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Transgressing Scarcity

“I want to paint!,” says OP, as she echoes what is for her a consistent desire during the transition between rest time and play.  She pulls out a paper tray and a piece of paper, while I offer her watercolors, brushes, and a paint palette.  Sitting down, she begins to meticulously place a multitude of colors and shades on her white piece of paper.  

OS has only recently woken up from their nap and hears the commotion happening at the table across the room.  They pull themselves off their mat and gingerly cross the other mats, scattered over the floor.  “I want to paint too!,” they say, when they arrive at the table.  I acknowledge this, and begin to gather more painting supplies from the shelf.  Turning to hand them the tools they will need to accomplish their wish, I am started by what I see: OS has picked up a paint brush off of the table, and has begun to paint a dark swirl of color on OP’s creation, already in progress.  

Some may remember an earlier story I had written about a similar event entitled, “Dancing Without Borders.”  In it, I described my amazement of the way in which OS and OP had allowed one another to transgress commonly-held notions of boundaries.  That was juxtaposed with the way in which the United States has treated immigrants over the past several years.   And now, here these two are again,  dancing with paint bushes, while challenging others’ ideals of possession.  

While I continue to watch OS and OP return to their dance together, I am again transfixed by their inaudible negotiation of a space, of an event, and of a shared creation. Their arms become tangled in the messiness of their activity, and perhaps their activism, co-mingling colors and ideas.  As they continue to blur one another’s lines and shades, they also continue to transgress societal views of ownership and scarcity, and as they transgress one another’s space, they continue to transgress the current immigration policies of the United States.  Reflecting on this, I remember the words of Ghandi, “There is enough on earth for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”  

OP’s Mom arrives at the end of the day.  She is met with the same enthusiasm and energy that OP exudes each time her Mom arrives in the afternoon.   After some exchange of hugs and greetings, OP runs to her bag and pulls out the same page she was painting on only hours earlier.  “Mommy, Mommy, look what me and OS made!,” she exclaims as she hands her Mom their work of art.  I smile; generosity has won the day.  


Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The Ghost in the Studio


There is a ghost in the studio

And the children are running.

Running,

Screaming,

Fleeing to the elevator.

There is a ghost in the studio

And the children are running.

It’s Friday, May 29th, 2020.  Last night I watched a video of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, being assaulted and killed by a white police officer.  This is not the first time this has happened.  In fact, it has happened 1,254 times since 2015 (Tate, Jenkins and Rich, 2020).  I feel sad thinking about this, as I watch the children play a new pretend game that they’ve been rehearsing the last couple of weeks. 

There is an old wooden shed in front of me, nestled within our outdoor garden/playscape.  The roof of this “storage shack” jets out behind it to provide shelter for our newly-revived outdoor studio.  Only yesterday one of the children’s’ parents came to guide the children and I through the construction of a long table that now inhabits this covered area.  Also inhabiting this space is a thin white sheet, hanging along the back wall of the studio.  “It’s a ghost!” LW announces, as they, and the other two children, turn and run out of the studio and towards the front of the shed.  Once there, LW yells, “Get into the elevator!”, while all three of the children jump on top of a small table.  “Press the button!”, says OS, while TH presses the imaginary button on the wall with a stick which they had gathered on the way to the elevator.  “We’re at the top floor!”, LW says, and they climb down from the elevator and into a net of safety again.

Fear

For almost three months now, these children have been under the ominous cloud that is COVID-19.  At school we often refer to this reality as “the virus,” and the children have seemed to find some understanding in the term.  However, for perhaps the first time in their lives, there is something that their parents don’t have an answer for, their teachers don’t have an answer for, that no one has an answer for.  This must be a scary place for them to be, as those who have built such strong fencing around them struggle to construct a new barrier, a new layer of protection from this new reality.  As the children continue to engage with this ghost, I am curious, and I wonder about the connections their making between this thing that they are running from and the virus that we’re all trying to escape…

Change

It’s Thursday, June 4, 2020.  The children have just finished adding to our “BLACK LIVES MATTER” mural, outside the fence of our playscape. We are in the studio again; however, today I notice a change in their play.  Contrary to their interactions with this ghost for the past couple of months, they are not running away.  They are moving towards the towards the white sheet with sticks in their hands, and they are attacking it; they are attacking the ghost.  OS has two sticks in their hands as they become entangled with it, hitting it, assaulting it, from close proximity.  CF says, “It disappeared!” “What disappeared?”, I asked.  “The ghost disappeared because we hit it!”, CF replied. 
We gather in the studio together and celebrate the destruction of this thing that they once feared.  As we revel in this new occurrence, I can’t help but to become curious once again.  What has changed in their relationship to the ghost in the last couple of weeks?  What transformation has taken place?


I do not pretend to know the answer to these complex questions, but I also can’t help but to draw on the symbolism that is occurring.  This ghost, this white sheet, has for so long been a cloak that has symbolized hate, racism, and even death.  It has been wielded as a weapon of fear and a relic of ignorance.  Even those who have sworn to protect the citizens of our country have embraced this ghost.  In fact, since I began writing this post, the number of black people who have been killed by the police has risen to 1,298 (Tate, Jenkins, and Rich, 2020).  That’s forty-four people in less than one month. 

The Fight

But it is time to stop running from it.   It is time to recognize that this ghost is something that lives all around us, among us, and even within us.  It is time to encounter the thing that we fear.  It is time to attack it, to thwart it, to destroy its ideal and its reality.   It has been wielded for far too long and far too much.  It is time we take a lesson from the children, to take a stand and to fight.

On a morning soon after George Floyd’s death, we were talking about what happened to this man who was beloved by so many.  I shared with the children the story of his death and without any prompting, TH spoke up and said, “I would have pushed the policeman off of him!”  “Wow,” I thought, "I hope we all have the courage to do the same."


There is a ghost in the studio

And the children are attacking.

Hitting it,

Dismantling it,

Taking it by force.

There is a ghost in the studio

And we are not running anymore.



Tate, J., Jenkins, J., Rich, S. (2020). Fatal Force. The Washington Post.  Retrieved
            from  https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/investigations/police-shootings-database/

Saturday, May 9, 2020

A Metaphor for Learning: Threads, Tapestries, and an Ecology of Meaning-Making


LW walks into the classroom.  They have a smile on their face and I can see they are excited for the day ahead.   That smile, that excited feeling, are both a part of what has been woven into the tapestry of meaning that LW brings with them.  This tapestry is also made of the experiences of family, of context, of meaning-making, the weaving together of threads of meaning, which continues to refine and create their tapestry.  LW has come from their home, their primary environment, which is itself a tapestry of meaning(s), interwoven and shaped by LW’s family- their mother, their father, and their brother.  Additionally, the wood that lines the floors of their living room, the light that shines through their bedroom window, the plant that rests above the sink in the kitchen- all of these create the tapestry/tapestries that inform Lincoln’s own tapestry, their own weaving of meaning. 

Their family is not exempt from this effect; their mother, father and brother are also made up of tapestries of meaning, informed by one another, by LW, by the weavings that make up their environment.  And so, the threads that make up each of their tapestries are inextricably linked to all who, and all that, has shaped their experience(s). 

As LW moves further into the room, they encounter me and the tapestry of meaning that I have brought with me, as well as the certain transference of meaning that LW associates with what it is to be a teacher, a caregiver, an adult.  They say, “Hi Cody!”, and I return the greeting as I work my own tapestry in order to mirror their tapestry of feelings, desires, and expressions.  They glance at the threads of meaning that I have woven into this environment this morning in the form of a provocation, made up of multi-colored stacking blocks, lined up next to one another at equal intervals in front of a three-foot-tall square mirror.  As LW considers this tapestry, they no doubt layer it with the threads of meaning that they have extracted from similar provocations, as well as those meanings that the colors, shapes, and sequence display, as they are interwoven with the meaning of reflection of the mirror.  However, LW turns their gaze from this, and it moves towards the wooden ramp that is positioned in the back corner of the room, near where I am sitting. 

LW steps up the ramp and then stops at the top with their sock-covered feet.  As they begin to slide slowly down the smooth surface of the wood, my mind quickly moves to a memory of this same experiment the day before.  They, and their friend OS, climbed up and slid down this ramp many times, eager at the end of each slide to return to the top for another attempt.  This, I recall, is not unlike the investigation that they have been conducting outside where they have been using various objects such as the cones which have fallen off a nearby alder tree.  LW and OS have been sliding these cones through a five-foot-long plastic pipe from the summit of a large box they have been standing on, ending in a small collection of cones, near the base of the pipe.  Though this was an altogether different tapestry of environment through which to explore sliding objects, LW's thread of meaning that they have begun to weave into this morning’s tapestry has no doubt in some way been transformed and transferred from their previous experience.

As I consider this, I begin to filter this meaning through the tapestry of my own experience and wonder what new thread may provoke a further exploration for LW.  It is at this point that I remember some small, smooth pieces of colored glass, as well as some half-inch pieces of painted ceramic tiles that I had come across that same morning.  I had not planned on these fragments to help weave this morning’s tapestry of experience; nonetheless, I quickly retrieve them from a shelf nearby. 

LW is intrigued by the introduction of these new materials as I say, “I’ve noticed that you have been enjoying sliding down this ramp in your socks, and I’ve begun to wonder how other objects might slide down it as well.  Here are some pieces with different shapes, sizes, and textures.  How do you think they will slide down this ramp?”  LW quickly embraces these new tools of exploration, grabbing some from the tray I’ve placed beside the ramp.  They say, “I’m going try this one!”, holding a square piece of ceramic tile, painted on one side over a textured-swirl design. 

When they begin by trying to slide the unpainted and course side of the tile down the ramp, they quickly notice that it will not slide without some continual force being applied by their hand.  LW repeats this process again and notes, “It doesn’t really slide very well.”  I respond, “I noticed that too, LW.  I wonder what would happen if you turned the tile over and tried to slide it on its painted side.”  They immediately turn the tile over and place it at the top of the ramp.  This time the tile slides with ease and only requires an occasional nudge to give it new momentum.  LW exclaims, “It’s working now!”  I affirm this and ask, “Why do you think the tile slides better on the painted side?”  They reply, “I don’t know.” Then I tell them to feel the two sides.  “What do they feel like?” I ask.  LW slowly moves their finger over the painted side before turning the tile over to feel of the course side.  “This side feels kind of slippery,” they say, as they point at the painted side.  They continue, “But the other side doesn’t feel very slippery.” “You know, I noticed that too,” I respond and add, “The painted side of the tile feels slippery and it slides well, but the other side isn’t painted, isn’t slippery, and doesn’t slide very well.”  “Yeah,” they say. 

Soon after this exchange, LW begins testing the smooth glass pieces before they are joined by OS, who aids them in racing the various objects down the ramp, after noticing the speed of the sliding glass.  OS too brings with them a tapestry, woven together with the threads of meaning, experience, and context.  Because of this, the tapestry of our environment changes as new meanings are made in the interplay of the simultaneous tapestries that are present. 

Looking back on that moment of co-learning in the classroom environment, I realize that the threads and tapestries that I’ve been describing here could otherwise be described as an ecology of meaning.  With each new thread, meaning is woven into each individual and collective tapestry which then are transformed by their relation to other tapestries and their inherent threads.  This ecology of meaning can be seen in the tiniest tapestry of an ant, made of its many threads of size, shape, color, bodily processes, etc., to the tapestry of a mural painted on the ceiling of a cathedral.  Everything that exists is a tapestry because nothing has its meaning apart from the relationships that make up its many parts.  In this perspective, even the thread that I’ve spoken of here is a tapestry because its inherent meaning is made up of, and through, the experiences and previously constructed meanings (threads) of its host.  In this way, no meaning exists in isolation; each thread is only derived through an ecology of other threads, an ecology of meaning. 


Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Conflict and Opportunity

“Hey I want that helmet!”  “No, me want the helmet!”  “No, me!”  “Me!” I hear these words as I stand on the playground on a brisk winter morning.  Turning towards the commotion, I see that two children are both vying for a blue bicycle helmet, the only blue bicycle helmet that happens to be on the playground today.  I start moving towards them, careful not to rush in too soon, but also aware of how quickly the situation might escalate. 

This is my second day as one of the teachers of the Preschool House after visiting and observing the children three days previously.  On all five of these days, this has been a common occurrence: these two children having a conflict over the same object or toy.  But as common as this occurrence is, what is even more common is these two playing together!  Every day during outside time these two find one another in the yard and quickly commence their time together.  In fact, the situation described above is the direct result of their attempt to ride bikes with one another. 

As humans, as well as animals, conflict is a phenomenon that occurs all around us.  It occurs as a result of desire, of love, of hardship, of need, and a host of other reasons.  In spite of the rate of this occurrence, we find a myriad of ways to avoid it.  These ways are sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, but present nonetheless.  This is understandable as we have witnessed some of the damaging results of conflict; one only has to tune in to the national news these days to glimpse this reality, which makes the ability to navigate conflict all the more urgent and necessary. 

When I was in Reggio Emilia, Italy (home of the Reggio Emilia Approach) a pedagogista there, Annalisa Rabotti, was asked by another educator from the United States how to avoid conflict between children.  Annalisa responded that conflict is certainly not something to be avoided, but rather, “conflict is the pretext for learning how to be together.”  I thought her words were poignant and spoke to the heart of the opportunity created by conflict.  Whenever I see these two children entering into the space of conflct, what I see is opportunity - opportunity for growth, opportunity for connection, opportunity for relationship.

 I kneel down beside them.  I say, “It sounds like you both want the same blue helmet, but there’s only one blue helmet.  What ideas do you have to solve this problem?”  They pause for a moment to think.  “He could use the black helmet,” One child says, as he points to the one hanging nearby.  “No! I want the blue helmet,” the other child responds.  I say, “So, your idea was that he could use the black helmet, but he said no, he still wants the blue helmet." To the second child, I asked: "Do you have any ideas?”  He says, “We could take turns!”  I say, “His idea is that you could take turns.  What do you think about that?” “No, me don’t want to take turns,” the first child responds.  Then something curious happens.  The first child pauses once again and then says, “He can use the blue helmet, and me make dinner.  Then me use the blue helmet.” I reflect his words to the other child, “Oh, he says you could use the blue helmet while he makes dinner, and then he could use the blue helmet.  What do you think about that idea?”  “Yeah!”, the second child responds, and they rush off to begin their newly negotiated ideas. 

In the midst of this conflict, the two friends learn something about one another.  They move closer in, they encounter one another anew, and depart having existed in the presence of one another’s vulnerability, and thus, have moved deeper into relationship.  This is a monumental gesture, one that has the opportunity to change not only them and their bond together, but also the fabric of the society of which they are a part.  The psychoanalyst Scott Peck says in his book, A Different Drum, “There is no community without vulnerability, and there is no vulnerability without risk.” This young friendship is instructive in this way and offers us further insight into the relational opportunity posed by conflict.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Processing Emotions with Preschoolers: Anger

Anger is an emotion that is hard for anyone, regardless of age, to process.  We are told that our anger is dangerous and wrong from a young age.  In homes that embrace gentle parenting practices, parents often fear that the anger they sometimes feel toward their children (which is, of course, inevitable in such a close relationship) is in itself toxic and damaging.

At Tumbleweed we talk a lot about embracing all emotions.  We know that feeling happy doesn't make you "good" and feeling sad or angry doesn't make you "bad," that our light and shadow selves are two sides of the same coin, and that one can't exist without the other.  It is not always easy to convey this to children, or even to feel it ourselves.  And no matter how effectively we communicate this emotional acceptance to the children in our care, we are combating a world of media images and the larger culture which celebrates contented, happily playing children as good, and portrays children expressing anger as bad. Our cultural fear of anger leads to a stigmatization of that emotion, which in turn leads to anger being expressed in unhealthy or destructive ways, when anger itself isn't inherently unhealthy or destructive at all.


Part of the reason why anger is so difficult in preschool aged children is that they have reached an age where their physicality can have a much different effect on the adults in their lives than it did when they were an infant or toddler.  As a child grows and gets stronger, it can be harder for adults to remember just how young they are, and that when their emotions boil over, they haven't yet learned to maintain control of their body.

Where an adult may see an angry four-year-old and interpret their punches and kicks as deliberately trying to harm, the child is feeling out of control, most likely scared, and is looking for a limit to be set.  Sometimes that limit setting looks like holding a child to help them be still, or giving a child space to fully feel their emotions in a place that is safe.  Sometimes setting those limits doesn't feel good to anyone involved, and that is why after fully feeling anger it is so important for a child to be offered connection and a chance to repair the relationship with a trusted adult.

This process of repair often begins with telling the story of what happened.  I'll ask a child, "What do you remember?" and offer my own memories of an incident to fill in the blanks; it's difficult to form memories when we are overwhelmed by emotions.  My own recounting of the incident will be given in a neutral tone with no judgement.  For example: "I remember you were feeling so mad.  I saw your arms flying out and I knew your body needed lots of space.  You didn't like that I moved your body.  That felt so hard."  Asking lots of "why?" questions is usually not effective - when a child is feeling that strongly they've gone beyond the point of reason.  They don't know why they behaved the way they did, but they want to know how to do things differently next time.

During a recent group time, we talked about anger.  I told a story from my childhood of a time I felt angry - hearing stories of adult emotions may feel scary or overwhelming to preschoolers, so it can be helpful to recall childhood stories instead.  In the story, I remembered holding my anger inside and not letting it out, and how bad it felt to not know how to let the anger move through my body.  Then we began to talk about safe ways to let ourselves feel anger.  Some ideas generated by the group included:

CKP: Push a wall
EB: Give yourself a hug
EM: Ask your parents for a hug, or hit a bed or something soft
CN: Hug a stuffy
EB: Yell!  Make a big sound from your belly

As we discussed how anger can feel when it's inside of our bodies, we all agreed it doesn't feel good to keep it inside, it feels much better to let the anger move through us in a way that feels safe.  The teachers present emphasized that it's okay, normal, and expected to be angry, and all feelings are welcome in our school, and that the teachers are always there to help anger be expressed in a way that feels safe to everyone.

At a different group time, we read the book Anh's Anger, a beautiful story by Gail Silver about a boy learning to sit with his anger.  EM asked, "Is his anger going to hurt him?" and this gave us an opening to discuss how healthy and normal anger is, and how part of what we try to learn as we grow older is how to express anger.  We talked about how anger can be a force for good - in the past we have used the example of the civil rights movement to talk about how anger at injustice leads people to take action.

At the end of each discussion about anger, we circled back to something that feels very important: in our community, we accept all feelings, and children all get to keep working on expressing those feelings safely.  Teachers are there to help when feelings feel so big that children lose control, and no matter what, at our school, children always get to try again, to make amends, and to express feelings without judgement.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Diapers to Undies: How We Think About Potty Training

When children begin at the Preschool House, whether they are transitioning into care with us from the Infant House or are new to the Tumbleweed community, one of the first questions we often hear from parents is about potty training.  When will it happen?  What will it look like?  What should parents be doing?

The first thing we like to remind parents of when we discuss potty training is that we must let the child be the leader.  There are few things in their lives over which preschoolers get control, but they do have absolute control over what goes into their bodies and what comes out (and where).  So, rather than setting up a power struggle that we are sure to lose (as we can't force a child to pee or poop when we want them to), we want to follow each child, with as little pressure as possible, trusting that they know what is best for themselves - and knowing that it is physically more safe and healthy to do so.  

This is an area in which parents often feel the pressure of deadlines and comparisons.  As much as possible, we encourage parents to let this go.  We want to follow each child's timeline and agenda rather than our own.  We know that all children will learn to eliminate on the toilet without being "trained" or following a program.  Adding our own agenda, or pressuring children based on what we think they should do, will only make the bathroom a scene for testing and resistance, and likely make the whole process take longer than it otherwise would!


Every teacher at Tumbleweed has had the experience of a child who absolutely refuses the toilet every time we are in the bathroom, and then one day the child sits on the toilet and pees, and from that point on pees on the toilet every time their diaper is changed.  Children's timelines in this area can be opaque to the adults in their lives, but eventually each child will have a good relationship with sitting on the toilet as an accomplishment they achieved all on their own, while also furthering their relationship with the adults in their lives when we showed them the trust and respect to make the decision themselves.

So, what we won't do: pressure, adhere to external timelines, have our own agenda for your child's toilet learning schedule.  Then, what can we do to encourage your child to be ready when they do decide it's time to sit on the toilet?



-Involve children in diaper changes.  Encourage them to be focused and engaged, not distracted, at changing time.  Talk about what you're doing ("I'm opening up your diaper using the snaps.  Here they go:  One, two, three!") and have then do every part of the change they can: putting pants on and off, choosing a diaper, getting up and down from the toilet.  Have them get their own wipe, wipe themselves after peeing, throw the wipe away - encourage them to take over every part of the process they can!  At Tumbleweed, this starts when children are infants.  We talk every child through every diaper change, and invite them to participate as much as they can.  We have children stand up for all diaper changes, which allows the most active participation.

-Talk about urination and bowel movements with accurate language (we use the words poop and pee at school).  We use these words without negative connotation or disgust - we want to encourage the kids to have a happy and healthy relationship with their bodies and what they produce.

-Offer the toilet at every diaper change.  Sometimes a child will say "NO."  Sometimes they will spend weeks saying "NO."  We trust them and move on, and continue to make the toilet available.  We do diaper changes in the bathroom, which helps this become routine.


-We encourage each child's awareness and ownership of their body. We use phrases like "You climbed onto the toilet by yourself.  That looked really tricky!" or "Did you hear that sound?  That's your pee!"  These things help us directly connect the child's awareness to the power and control they have over using the toilet.

-Slow down, never rush.  This is on their time and speed, never ours.  The only little pushes we may give are statements like "Next time when you get that feeling, when you need to pee, you could do it on the potty!  Wouldn't that be great?"

Our main message is that each child in our care is right where they need to be.  We choose to trust them and follow them and have potty training be an exciting journey toward greater independence.  We are there to support their learning and celebrate each step of the journey with them!