Thursday, February 28, 2019

Yes Day

There are many reasons for me to say no to children's various requests. Safety concerns, schedule and time limitations, limited supplies, limited manpower to supervise and clean up messes, generally not feeling like putting one more thing on our agenda that day. 

But if I am going to be really honest, I often say no because I have been conditioned to, in the interest of running a smooth, safe preschool program for children, assume that the worst case scenario can and will happen. If I let them dance on the table, they can and definitely will fall off and break a limb. If I let them run in the classroom, they will obviously slip and crack their head on the corner of a shelf. If I let them use the water from the handwashing station for their sand and mud play, they will definitely do this every day without regard to how cold or late or inconvenient it is to be in wet muddy clothes. 

What I am saying is, 90% of the time I say no, it comes from my own fear and not necessarily on reality.  There is a part of the brain called the Cingulate Gyrus that is overactive or imbalanced in some people (like me), where, in the interest of self-preservation, will automatically interject a "no" without a thought process to support it. I have learned that I have to outsmart this part of my limbic system when I find myself saying "no" too often. 

It becomes tricky here at Beansprouts because the children feel really comfortable asking for things from the teachers. Today, for instance, they asked for chalk to stomp on. I repeated back, unsure whether I heard them right. "You want pieces of chalk to smash with your feet?" "Yes," said the spokesperson of the group, "we need you to get us some sidewalk chalk for stomping".  Since it was a yes day, I gave them all one piece of chalk...with the instruction "only one piece each"... which I TOTALLY regret because, well, in my mind I was thinking they were wasting chalk. Despite my best efforts, I had managed to insert a little "no" into my "yes". Looking back, I see that letting them stomp all of the chalk would not have been a waste of supplies at all. How is drawing with chalk any more valuable than stomping and smashing chalk?  It was a blast for them, and the collective energy around this chalk stomping was surreal. Saying yes to chalk allowed an activity that offered a social experience more valuable than what I could have been able to manufacture myself.

(Side note: a little while later, someone asked to draw a hopscotch game on the patio, so luckily we still had some unstomped chalk!)

Today's Yes day started at the morning art table. We were using felt-tipped markers on paper towels and paper. We discovered that applying water (ahem, or my coffee) with our fingertips diffused the color and turned the paper towel into art that could transfer to the white paper underneath it. The kids asked for more water as their little dishes ran low, and my cingulate gyrus presented me with a beautifully frightening image of an art table that runneth over with marker tinted water, down to the floor, kids slipping, sopping wet clothes. But I said Yes, because this was my commitment to myself and our school today. And they did end up pouring bowls full of water onto their drawings (see our Instagram post). 

But guess what? Even though they were, as a group, at that table for thirty minutes or more with unlimited water refills, I did not find one drop of water on the floor, and rarely had to clean up any water from the table. Again, if I had limited them to one container of water, it would have limited their interest, limited their time at the table, limited their ability to bring this project to its full fruition. I would have stunted their creative expression and artistic development.

Not every day can be a "say yes to everything" day like today. But for today, Yes was my priority. Yes to the child who asked to free climb from the picnic table to the side of the climbing structure. Yes to the kid who asked to have snack 45 minutes early. Yes to all of the kids who raised their hands at story time to share something that ended up being the same thing they shared from the page before. Yes to the kid visually checking in with me to see if it was okay that she was stomping in puddles. Yes to the child who "needed" to change their pants because there was a smudge of dirt on the pocket. Yes to the friend who asked to make several off-topic announcements throughout the portion of circle time that I really wanted to talk about our quality of self-care. Why not? 

In the grand scheme of themes, saying no to these things makes my life more convenient, but in what ways does it rob them? What if that child sharing at circle time is the one memory she takes from today? Or what if the child who asked to change his pants was really trying to alleviate a scratchy seam, but because that was more than he could verbalize, he asked instead to change his pants because of this little smudge of dirt? Maybe my impulsivity toward "no" comes from seeing only a small slice of reality.


Every time I implement a "yes" day, I benefit.  Ultimately, it is for the children. I want to reset and reboot and remind them of how much freedom and independence and trust and respect we give them. But what I get in return is priceless. I get to overcome my own fears and anxieties, my worst-case-scenario thinking that limits our collective opportunity. I get to unpack and inspect my real motives for saying "no". What a gift to be in this profession, where everything I do gets reflected back to me in a way that lends itself to personal growth. 

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Power of Pretend Play


A few years ago I got a master's degree in human development. My first thesis, before my epic hard drive crash where I lost all of my data and changed topics altogether, was on the power of pretend play. Specifically, it was a discussion of animal pretend play, and how when children take on animal personas, they get to explore these parts of themselves that they don't feel safe exploring in their own personal reality. 

I had a child who never participated in circle time - until he discovered that he could be a kangaroo. Slowly, he began participating at circle time, first with small movements of his kangaroo paws, then with verbal participation as if from a kangaroo, and eventually, the child opened up as himself in front of the group. Another child witnessed domestic abuse, and for the next several days, she pretended she was a cat, narrating her story from the cats perspective in the context of pretend play rather than from her own very real, human, traumatic experience. 

I read a snippet from a book this morning about how children discover their ethical prosocial selves in play. 

I've been thinking about this all day.

In the context of play, I see children acting out important themes that come up often in their lives - themes of conflict, empowerment, misbehavior, disobedience, cooperation, helping, not helping, including others, being included, intimacy, separation, enemies and friendship, death and rebirth, having superpowers beyond measure, and being stripped of those superpowers. It's a bold thing to, in the context of make believe play, tell your pretend mom that you're not going to come home that day. Or to realize that one of your pretend family members have died and you must now avenge their death (although 99% of the time, the dead family member "wakes up" within a couple of minutes). Now imagine - just imagine - that you're a younger kid in the group, admiring the older kids from afar because you can't quite keep up with their games and dialogues and unspoken rules - and then suddenly, they let you be "the baby" in your game, and you now have access to this group of kids you have been longing to play with for weeks or months. Gaining entry into a coveted social group is a priceless experience afforded often in pretend play scenarios. Almost every game needs a one of the more submissive characters, and the younger kids are almost always willing to take on those roles - the baby sister, the baby brother, the pet dog, the bunny (doesn't every game have a bunny?).

By experiencing all of these themes in real life (because their play IS their real life, in that moment), they experience, the safest way, the consequences of various parts of themselves - including their ethical and moral selves.  They witness responses from the other children, and learn about behavior and taking others' perspectives and thinking for and as a group, rather than for their isolated selves.

And we see children taking breaks from the group play, to play alone and process and assimilate all of this. And to spend time in solitude, to nurture another part of their selves.

And in this way, children create their own learning environment in a profound, meaningful way. The teachers? We just set the stage. The kids are taking on the lead roles here.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Valentine's Day

We had a wonderful family visiting this morning to tour our preschool.

It seemed like for the duration of this tour, things were spilling, falling, crashing. At one point, a child accentuated this theme when she had the wonderful and creative and powerful idea of jumping off the bench onto the large magna-tile structure she had built. She looked like godzilla landing on a relatively tiny skyscraper. It was amazing, and totally captured the pattern of the morning. The mom that was here noted, "there must be a full moon or something". And yet while it all appeared to be in chaos, when you looked at the children's faces, or watched their reactions to the baskets of blocks getting knocked over, or the marker block upturning and markers rolling everywhere - they were totally at ease. And this made me feel at ease.

However, when the touring family left, I felt like we were going to need a little reset. Like, come on, the rest of the day can't possibly go on like this or I'll be going crazy cleaning up little messes everywhere.

So I told myself, at circle time, even though I have a million things planned bc of the holiday, it must be a venue for centering and grounding ourselves.

We started circle time in the usual manner. Songs and such. Then we continued the passing out of Valentines, which we did differently this year. Instead of the usual "drop the card in each mailbox" method, the children were carrying their tote bags and personally exchanged Valentines. This brief but powerful interpersonal exchange was so beautiful to witness. The smiles, the eye contact, the seeking out of the person they were trying to hand off a card to, the excitement, the spontaneous hugs and kids telling each other "Happy Valentines Day". I have to admit, it was one of the most special Valentines Day circles that I can remember.

This sense of validation, of personal attunement and connection, being seen, being valued, being thought about. I really think this was so special to the children. Not only is this special to the children, but it is an innate need and necessary part of healthy development. And this is a group of children that really seems to get some of these deeper more subtle aspects of human interchange.  I mean, they are still preschoolers, testing boundaries and what not, but they function at a high level - while they don't always act on it, they have an emotional and social literacy that seems to me to be very advanced.

My favorite part of circle lasted about 2.5 seconds. I was about to hand the children my Valentines. My very impersonal, plastic, just bought at Target two days ago, Valentines. Plastic heart-shaped glasses and stencil rulers. I even opened the packages right at circle time as I was explaining to the kids how I would pass them out. It was a poorly planned gift to say the least. But here comes my favorite part. I told them that after each of them got to choose the color of their gifts, I would then tell them something I loved about them. And I saw their faces light up. They were thrilled to hear this! And it reminded me that not only are they special to me, but I am special to them.

Yesterday, I asked each child at circle if I could be their Valentine or if they could be my Valentine. They all agreed enthusiastically except for one resistant child, who came around by the end of circle when she realized that you aren't limited to one Valentine. As one of our circle time love songs go, "Love is something if you give it away - you end up having more."

Happy Valentine's Day!

Mindfulness and emotions

I'm taking a mindfulness course at mindfulschools.org and in one of our discussion boards, someone asked "Emotions are such a huge...