Sunday, November 22, 2015

Rules and Reasons

Last week, Teacher Tom 
wrote a blog post titled “Eleven Things to Say Instead of Be Careful.” The blog was focused on the issue of “risky play”, better described by Teacher Tom as “challenging play” or “safety play”, and he suggested some more descriptive ways of explaining what we mean to children when teachers say, “Be careful.” His first example was “"That's a skinny branch. If it breaks you'll fall on the concrete."

What struck me about this statement isn’t just the clarity and honesty of it, but that a teacher was giving a child an explanation for why they should or shouldn’t do something. So often teachers tell children to do something or not do something, without giving any reason. “Be careful” falls in that category. So do so many other statements, sometimes given as a direction, sometimes worded in a way that relieves the teacher of direct responsibility, without actually giving the child the reason. “Chairs aren't for standing on.” “We wear hats when we go outside.”  “The blocks can’t be higher than your head.” All might be reasonable expectations for children, but wouldn’t they sound even more reasonable if we explained to the children why we’re saying them?

“That chair isn't sturdy enough for you to stand on.”

“I’d like you to wear your hat to keep your head warm.”

“I’m worried that if the blocks are that high, they might fall on your head and hurt you.”

Of course, when we give the children a reason for what we’re saying, we’re opening the door for them to present a counterargument, but isn’t that part of learning how to interact with others in a democratic society? Children need to understand that there are rules, but not that rules are unilaterally imposed on other people without reason. When teachers revert to “it’s the rule” or some version of “because I say so”, children might follow it, but only because of the teacher’s authority, not because of an inherent sense that it’s the right thing to do. If we want to teach children about morality, decision making, and perspective taking, we need to model democracy in our own speech. Rules don’t spontaneously exist, they’re created by people, and they can be changed by people. Perhaps that’s why teachers are so hesitant to let children into the process, because of a fear that even these very young people will try to change the rules and take some authority away from the teacher. I would argue that if the only way you can maintain authority is to remove dissent, that authority isn’t valid, even over children. If we want our children to grow up to understand fairness and reason, we need to include them in the decision making process, even if it’s only by explaining our reasoning to them.

And maybe some of our rules will need to be changed after all.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

In Praise of Big Blocks

When my son was four, he loved preschool. One of his only complaints was that he hardly ever got to play with the big blocks. His classroom had a long wall lined with hollow blocks (aka “big blocks”) but that area was only occasionally open for play. “What did you do at school today?” I would ask. Sometimes he would say, “The big blocks were open today!” followed by an excited description of what he had built. But much more often, his first words about his day would be, “The big blocks were closed.”

Hollow blocks are a preschool classroom staple, either in their own area, or combined with unit blocks. But often, teachers discourage or ban their use. Teachers sometimes say that the play gets too out of control. Or that the kids argue too much while building. Or that the themes that children use are too violent, scary, or wild. Or that blocks aren’t safe, because they might fall on someone. When children are allowed to play with big blocks, it’s often with a lengthy set of limits and rules: how many children can play at a time, restrictions on what can be built, and limits on the height or size of a structure.

Why are teachers so scared of big blocks?

Yes, the play can get active. But, just like any other activity, whether it gets “out of control” depends on teacher guidance, interaction, and support. Yes, children will argue about what to build and how to build it, but that social interaction should be a goal, not something to avoid. Negotiation about planning, ideas, themes, and roles are crucial social skills that children learn by doing. Eliminating settings for this negotiation might prevent social conflict, but it also eliminates opportunities for children to practice and improve these skills.

Children are drawn to the big blocks simply because they are big blocks. It takes work to move them – challenging, physical work. Children are drawn to the scale of the big blocks because they can make structures that are their own size and that they can fit on, in, and under. They are captivated by concepts of height and risk. The concern that a block could fall on someone’s head might be expressed as fear by the teacher, but for the child, that concern is turned into a challenge of how to prevent it from happening. Figuring out how to build a strong, stable structure, nearly as big as or even bigger than their own bodies, gives children a chance to express competency, confidence, and skill. It involves imagination, creativity, engineering, and design, all in the context of social interaction, as a group – sometimes a large group – of children discuss, debate, argue, and negotiate about their ideas. 

Yes, the big blocks can be risky. And loud. And wild. But they can also be imaginative, inspiring, thought-provoking, and cooperative. They can be the place in the classroom where rich, collaborative, social play happens. They can be the place where children propose and test ideas and evaluate their results.  They can be the place where children learn how to disagree and discuss differences of opinion. They can be the place where children test their limits and abilities, and push themselves to see what they can accomplish. And we, the teachers, can stand beside them and support them each step of the way.