Sunday, May 18, 2014

"Free to Learn"

Some quotes I loved from the book "Free to Learn" by Peter Gray, all in defense of play:

"Play is nature's way of ensuring that young mammals, including young humans, will practice and become good at the skills they need to develop to survive and thrive in their environments."

"Learning, creativity, and problem solving are facilitated by anything that promotes a playful state of mind, and they are inhibited by evaluation, expectation of rewards, or anythign else that destroys a playful state of mind."

"Imagine that you had omnipotent powers and were faced with the problem of how to get young humans and other young mammals to practice the skills they must develop to survive and thrive in their local conditions of life. How might you solve that problem? It is hard to imagine a more effective solution than that of building into their brains a mechanism that makes them want to practice those very skills and that rewards such practice with the experience of joy. That, indeed is the mechanism that natural selection has built, and we refer to the resultant behavior as play. Perhaps play would be more respected if we called it something like "self motivated practice of life skills" but that would remove the lightheartedness from it and thereby reduce its effectiveness. So, we are stuck with the paradox. We must accept play's triviality in order to realize its profundity. "

"Playing with other children, away from adults, is how children learn to make their own decisions, control their emotions and impulses, see from others' perspectives, negotiate differences with others, and make friends. In short, play is how children learn to take control of their lives."

"In play, whether it is the idyllic play we most like to envision or the play described by Eisen [violent play] children bring the realities of their world into a fictional context, where it is safe to confront them, to experience them, and to practice ways of dealing with them. Some people fear that violent play creates violent adults, but in reality the opposite is true. Violence in the adult world leads children, quite properly to play at violence. How else can they prepare themselves emotionally, intellectually, and physically for reality? It is wrong to think that somehow we can reform the world for the future by controlling children's play and controlling what they learn. If we want to reform the world, we have to reform the world; children will follow suit. The children must and will prepare themselves for the real world to which they must adapt to survive."

"Children must feel safe and cared for in order to devote themselves fully to exploring and learning, and children learn best from those with whom they have caring, trusting relationships."

"I doubt there has ever been a human culture, anywhere, at any time, that underestimates children's abilities more than we North Americans do today. Our underestimation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because by depriving children of freedom, we deprive them of the opportunities they need to learn how to take control of their own behavior and emotions."

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Authentic and Sincere

"Children want only two things from us. They want us to be authentic and sincere. "

Paul Epstein  - Observation Course with CGMS

Monday, March 24, 2014

On Wrongness.

From Kathryn Schultz's book "Being Wrong"

Why is it so fun to be right? As pleasures go, it is, after all, a second order one at best. Unlike many of life’s other delights — chocolate, surfing, kissing — it does not enjoy any mainline access to our biochemistry: to our appetites, our adrenal glands, our limbic systems, our swoony hearts. And yet, the thrill of being right is undeniable, universal, and (perhaps most oddly) almost entirely undiscriminating. We can’t enjoy kissing just anyone, but we can relish being right about almost anything.

Our indiscriminate enjoyment of being right is matched by an almost equally indiscriminate feeling that we are right.

A whole lot of us go through life assuming that we are basically right, basically all the time, about basically everything.

As absurd as it sounds when we stop to think about it, our steady state seems to be one of unconsciously assuming that we are very close to omniscient.

If we relish being right and regard it as our natural state, you can imagine how we feel about being wrong. For one thing, we tend to view it as rare and bizarre. For another, it leaves us feeling idiotic and ashamed.

Of all the things we are wrong about, this idea of error might well top the list.

We are wrong about what it means to be wrong. Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition. Far from being a moral flaw, it is inextricable from some of our most humane and honorable qualities: empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction, and courage. And far from being a mark of indifference or intolerance, wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change. Thanks to error, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and amend our ideas about the world.

However disorienting, difficult, or humbling our mistakes might be, it is ultimately wrongness, not rightness, that can teach us who we are.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Happy things in our school garden.

 Keeping in mind at all times that the natural environment where we live tends to look like this:

And that the wind and sun are so relentless that they do this to the vegetation:

It  is not an exaggeration to celebrate when we get a crop of tomatoes of this size:

Or to celebrate that this year we have managed a bed of organic spinach, basil, onions and garlic:

Another celebration has been flowers from our garden for flower arranging indoors:

 Some of this, I suspect is possible because we compost all of our green waste. Today I sifted our compost and all the plants got a fresh layer of organic minerally goodness.

I mean, sure we have parts of our garden that reflect the typical prickly landscape of the Aruban desert.

But it is so fun to be able to have an outdoor picnic snack table surrounded by flowers for children to sit and talk, eat, and be happy. 


Thursday, February 13, 2014


"Often inexperienced teachers place great importance on teaching and believe that they have done everything necessary when they have demonstrated the use of the materials in a meaningful way. In reality, they are far from the truth because the job of the teacher is rather more important than that. To her falls the task of guiding the development of the child's spirit, and therefore her observations must emerge at the end- and this is their only justification- in her ability to help the child."

Maria Montessori, The child in the Family

Friday, January 10, 2014

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

"It's all a learning opportunity"

I regularly follow a weekly podcast of free "dharma talks" given by Insight Meditation Center called Zencasts. One of my favorite teachers to listen to is Gil Fronsdal and a few weeks ago he was speaking on the topic of equanimity. Aside from giving me something entertaining to listen to while I walk my dogs on this rock in the middle of the ocean, I usually find that much of the advice given is not only helpful for my life and meditation practice in general, but also directly applies to my work in the classroom.

The talk about equanimity couldn't have come at a more opportune time and couldn't have been more directly related. After hectic Thanksgiving travel and with preparations for the winter break looming I was feeling out of sorts and having trouble navigating the classroom waters steadily. When this happens, and I know that I am tired and probably not being my best self the words of a wise fellow blogger, Stacey Lewis from Sweet Sky, come to mind: "You are the weather." And if I'm in a particularly stormy mood, I know I'm a huge influence in the environment.

In the talk, Gil mentioned a visit to his son's preschool. After disrupting a perfectly calm classroom with his sudden presence, Gil apologized to the teacher. The teacher smilingly replied "It's all a learning opportunity."  He went on to talk about four qualities that he originally called "the grandmotherly attributes" but decided to rename "the preschool teacher qualities" after several anecdotes related to his experience at his son's school. He was referring to the Brahmaviharas, four central Buddhist virtues. I have read about these before, and loved so much to hear them described in the context of working with preschoolers.

The first of these four qualities is loving-kindness. In terms of working with children, to me this means a practice of seeing the best in the children and deeply wishing happiness for them. It has to do with hope and with acceptance, and with practicing the acknowledgement of what is positive in each of us. It also means directing that same kind of attitude towards myself. It also means to me that when I am feeling disconnected from a child, that I first have to work on my vision of that child so that I can see them lovingly and then be able to be of help.

The second is the idea that everyone is deserving of compassion. To me that means cultivating an attitude of helpfulness. It means working hard on overcoming the learned habit of wanting someone to experience pain in order to learn sometimes. It means being able to see clearly that when a child is acting out in the worst possible way, they are suffering and are in need of some smart kind of kindness.

The third quality is empathetic joy. This is sort of a new practice for me... I was brought up in a very competitive environment and my schooling and hobbies all reinforced the  idea that in order to succeed, someone else has to lose or do poorly. And that therefore, if someone else was doing well, I should feel threatened. The practice of empathetic joy means that I can rejoice in other peoples happiness. In the classroom that means that I can participate in all the successes that happen in the classroom. As a teacher, I can help children develop that feeling too- that when someone else does something great, we can all be a part of that celebration. (I love the idea of how this practice can really multiply the feeling of joy in one's life.)

And the last of the "preschool teacher virtues", and the one that Gil expanded on the most in the talk was the quality of equanimity. This is where he compared the preschool teacher to the grandmother. As educators we have seen our share of children and can have a much greater perspective on children's behavior than say, a first time parent. To me it meant that we can have days in the classroom that feel muddled and remain confident, knowing that it won't always be that way. The same way that we can have the most normalized week and meet the following Monday without the expectation that it will be just as orderly. Equanimity is a quality that I'm sure preschool teachers who have been at it for decades posses in excess.

Thinking about these four qualities after listening to that podcast was like putting a fresh wind in my sails and having a solid north to point to.