I’ve been thinking about democracy lately. I’ve been questioning it. Not because I don’t believe in the freedom and power of the people. But because this particularly ugly Presidential race has people so polarized, and I’ve never felt so baffled by what the other half of this country is thinking. Admittedly, I’m not a fan of Donald Trump. But this is a close race; which leaves me wondering about a very large population who supports this man. Democracy suddenly feels a little precarious.
I always look forward to the election years in my Pre-K classroom. As an early childhood educator, I see them as an opportunity to talk to the kids about the process of voting and ultimately, the concept of democracy. By nature, 5 year-old children are inherently self-interested and in search of control, so they like the idea of voting with all its accompanying influence and power.
We demonstrate the process by having kids vote for things like favorite ice cream flavors. We ask the minority voters: “Hmm. What do you like about pistachio ice cream?” The other kids all listen, curious to hear, open to learning about another’s unpopular preference. Eventually, we graduate to heftier topics like which books the kids want to read for classroom book club and the direction of our curriculum studies.
At its core, the democratic process is supposed to be about every individual in the community having some power over decisions by way of free elections. Of course, there will always be those in the minority who must concede when the majority votes the other way. So, the flip side of democracy requires respecting another point of view and, in a perfect world, healthy dialogue amidst conflicting opinions.
In a 2013 article in The Guardian, Danielle Allen, political theorist and Professor of Government at Harvard, argues: “In a democracy, the more people from different backgrounds trust each other, the better off their society. So, for nations to flourish, people need to learn how to get along with strangers.”
She was talking about how you cannot have freedom without equality, and goes on to say that inequality undermines democracy. But what is most pertinent in her argument is the idea that the way a group works together is paramount to any particular goal. “Bridging rather than bonding”, she writes, is what matters for the power and efficacy of a democratic system. “The more bridging relationships in a society, the more that society appears democratic, egalitarian and connected,” Allen states.
All of which brings me back to my premise on classroom community. In a strong community, no matter how many different points of view, there is inherent respect and trust. Children that learn to work through different opinions and conflicts together, by way of healthy discussion and expression, are by definition able to accept one another’s belief systems. This makes is easier to concede when your vote isn’t in the majority, and it makes it easier to bring the two sides together in common understanding and empathy.
We had a mock Presidential election before the school year ended. We went around the room and each child voted. Mind you, this is Cambridge, so the Hilary votes quickly added up. We had a few Trump supporters (the kids thought his name was Donald Trumpet). Our final vote was a little boy. His mother happens to be a political theorist and Government Professor at Harvard and an ardent and outspoken opponent of Donald Trump. He gave a confident thumbs up for Donald Trump(et). Because after all, in the end, this is a democracy we live in.
As children acquire language skills, they also begin to experiment with different ways of communicating. Exposure to new vocabulary allows them more precision and power in expressing their opinions and ideas.
Our classroom study of new vocabulary words began organically. Early in the school year, we created a “Manifesto” that stated all of the classroom’s beliefs. Rather than creating a list of rules, that can be meaningless (and often negative) to children, the Manifesto was a list of things the kids communally agreed that they believed in; a list of the characteristics they wanted to classroom to be, stated in their own language.
I found it interesting how often the kids would refer to the Manifesto, specifically by name, when there had been any infringement on its declarations.
“He is not following the Manifesto!” they would exclaim. Or: “The Manifesto says ‘use a kind voice’,” Or even: “I made a mistake, but it’s okay, the Manifesto says you can make a mistake.”
Having a label; a big, defining new word – MANIFESTO – for this list of beliefs, enabled a sort of framework for the kids to talk about classroom rules and behavior. It also offered a common language that the entire class understood.
On another occasion, the class was discussing some social conflicts. It occurred to me that what they were really feeling and talking about was lack of respect. It was the only word I could think of that truly captured the sentiments. The kids repeated the word “respectful” and asked questions about what it meant.
“So it means to be nice?” one girl asked.
“Well,” I responded, “Yes, but it’s more than that.” I tried to think of a developmentally appropriate way to define respect. “It’s really about believing that another person is important,” I finally settled on. “And treating them in a way that is important. It’s about taking care to not cause harm to anyone because they are important.”
The class took this in and added this new word to their ever- evolving vocabulary.
The word “respect” quickly became the mantra of the classroom. Everything seemed to be held up to the litmus of whether or not it was respectful. The word, and concept, was so much richer and more powerful than “being nice”. It crystallized and nailed what we were trying to achieve in our community.
“That is not respectful,” I would hear kids say to one another. The class as a whole became much more aware of treating one another in a respectful way, and it changed the vibe in the room and the way we spoke about conflicts.
As children’s language becomes more sophisticated, they begin to play with sounds and love the challenge of saying a complicated new word. My class learned a song this year that had the word “potentiality” in it. The class loved saying this word, pronouncing it over and over. The learned that it meant they could do anything they put their minds to.
When you actually hear children using these new words in the context of their everyday lives, it is poignant.
One day, during a feisty altercation between two little girls where one would not let the other play in a particular game, I heard the other little girls yell: “You are not letting me have my potentiality!”
Language, big and bold in the world of child, can bring power to expression and thought. It expands children’s experiences and brings sophistication to their interactions. The words they choose become the essence of who they are.
As the year progresses, each child in my classroom begins to develop his or her own signature drawing style. There comes a time about midyear when I can look at a drawing and know exactly which child created it. At this age, there is a wide range of fine motor control and an equally wide range of ability to create something that looks representational. But skills aside, each child also looks at the world through a different lens and depicts what they see in different ways. The notion of artistic aptitude is never the goal.
In my classroom, we try to avoid drawing activities that are “product-driven” and focus instead on the process that children go through when observing details and planning their drawings in a spatial sense. I consider drawing projects in two categories that support different skills.
First, there is the observational drawing project. This is when children are asked to look at details of an object and create a rendition of it in their own hand. This is a more scientific form of drawing; one that is more realistic to the viewer. Here, there is a focus on the attention to perspective, and contours and texture of a subject.
The other is creative, open-ended, free drawing. Drawing as a form of expression and experimentation. This kind of drawing, in my mind, is the place where kids can really explore making different marks on paper and can use drawing as an outlet for ideas. Drawing can reinforce curriculum themes this way – providing kids with a visual channel for making sense of information, whether it is a rocket ship (how can I make the pointy part on top? Oh, a triangle shape maybe) or a Jamaican flag (I need green, black, and yellow. How do I get the yellow X in the middle?)
When children are given time and space to draw on their own, they often make pictures of people; frequently family members. Sometimes, they also use drawing as an outlet for things that scare them or conflicts and feelings they are struggling with. Interpreting these drawing can be fascinating.
I had a little boy in my class this year that had a great deal of social conflicts. He was argumentative with his peers, had difficulty seeing other points of view, and frequently found himself involved in altercations. Teachers gave lots of positive reinforcement when he did well and spent substantial time explaining to him why his negative behavior was alienating to others.
One day this boy had struggled with his classmates, destroying something they had built, but then worked hard to redeem himself by helping them rebuild it. The teachers and peers made a big deal over his repair. He quietly internalized all of this and then brought some drawings he had made to show me.
When I looked at his drawings, which had illustrations of crying faces with X’s through them and hearts and sunshine and arrows pointing to brighter images, I realized the true power of drawing. This little boy used marker and paper to process what had happened to him, and as a means to communicate it to others.
Visuals are influential to children, especially in the early literacy stages. Drawing offers not just an opportunity to build skills; but a venue for expression and communication. The boy’s last drawing had the number “3” with a check mark, a heart, and and X’d out face. When I asked the boy to tell me about this last one, he said: “I did three good things today. And that made me happy.”
Recently, I was rushing at the last minute to pick up tickets to a ballet performance. When I arrived at the theater minutes before the show was scheduled to begin, I was stopped by a long line. I waited, growing increasingly frustrated, and waited. Finally it was my turn. As I hurriedly approached the window to get my tickets, a woman who was not in line stepped in front of me and overtook the ticket window. She actually slightly pushed me as she bee-lined for the window. I was stunned. I spun around, incredulous, trying to get anyone around me to share in my reaction. An usher in a suit was standing nearby.
“She just cut me in line!” I exclaimed to him.
No sooner had these words come out of my mouth did I begin to hear all of my students’ little voices saying the same thing, over and over throughout the school day. “He cut me! She cut me in line!”
The usher looked calmly at me, with an expression that implied I was overreacting and made me feel a little pathetic.
“You will be next,” he said dismissively.
I was taken aback by my own visceral fury at this woman cutting me in line. I mean my blood was boiling. The feeling of violation was palpable. This woman cut me in line and the guy in charge didn’t care!
When this happens at school, I always tell the kids in my class:
“Don’t worry about that. Just let them stand in front of you. It’s not a big deal.” Sometimes I have the offender go back to the end of the line. But I rarely take this affront very seriously.
Experiencing it myself felt powerful. Like the usher intimated, it’s no big deal. But yet, there is something fundamentally unjust about following the rules when others are not.
Of course, I got my tickets right away and made it to my seat before curtain call. But I stored this experience away in my brain and remembered to relay this story to my class the following day. I wanted them to know that I finally got it. Someone cut me in line, too, and it felt awful!
When I told my class this story, more and more kids kept coming over to hear it and asking me to tell it again and again. They were fascinated that this had happened to me, intrigued by the details, and genuinely outraged by this offense.
“What did you do?” they wanted to know after I told them how upset I was.
“I told the man in charge,” I responded.
“What did he say?” they asked.
“He didn’t think it was a big deal!” I exclaimed. “He told me I could be next. But I still felt really mad!”
The kids giggled at the thought of me in this situation. They wanted to hear more. In hindsight, I think they wanted a resolution that felt more satisfying. Don’t we all?
I told them that the important part of this story was that I finally understood how bad it felt to be cut in line, and then how really bad it felt to be dismissed by the person in charge. I wanted the kids to know that I truly empathized with them.
Realistically, it’s just not practical or feasible to address each and every affront that happens in an early childhood classroom. But sometimes kids just need someone to share in their everyday frustrations. Someone to understand and say: “I get it.” Sometimes we all do.
Sometimes people assume early education is about …crafts. The word makes me shudder. Crafts. Groan.
Early ed is about so much more. Crafting is cute, but in my classroom, we do real work.
Last year, my class expressed an interest in building. Building with blocks, with Legos, with sticks and rocks. They loved to build and construct with all kinds of materials. In the vein of emergent curriculum, we began a unit on construction.
Construction is always fun to learn about because it is so real; so hands-on and sensory. It contains many layers of learning and is something that kids can touch and feel and relate to in their everyday lives. There is some element of it that engages each child, whether the architectural drawings, the big trucks, the engineering of it, the connecting of materials, the purposefulness of it all.
Personally, I prefer units that connect with the community around us and that kids can integrate into their lives. As I am in a city school, there is a great opportunity for field trips where we can take the kids to any street corner to observe the cranes and diggers and work in progress. They are fascinated by it. Every morning, they come in with stories of construction they see around them.
In this unit, we use real tools. Now, watching a 4 year-old take hold of a power drill is not for the faint of heart. But with teacher oversight and time spent practicing with supervision, kids can usually take on this responsibility. In my classroom, we tend to err on the side of cautious risk-taking. They practice hammering with golf tees into Styrofoam before we bring out the big guns.
This unit is only real if we make it real. So this year, after learning that the playground needed a new bench, my classroom decided to take on this commissioned work.
Together as a group, the kids decided what materials we needed: wood, nails, tools, tape measure, etc. Would tape and glue work? They concluded probably not. Then each child drew an architectural drawing of what they thought the bench would look like. We even went on a field trip down the street to Harvard to see some cool new benches that had just gone in on campus.
I ordered (real) wood from Home Depot and it was delivered to the school. The kids helped unload the wood from the truck – two kids at a time working together to carry the 2 by 4’s down the hall to our classroom.
The kids watched as my trusty co-teacher used an electric saw to cut the wood to spec. Then the kids spent time sanding the wood out on the playground. The other classrooms wanted to know: “What are you guys making?”
It soon came time to put all the pieces together. Each child had a turn using the powerdrill to screw the pieces of wood together. It was beginning to look like a bench!
Because I’d accidentally bought twice as much wood as we needed, we ended up building two benches and auctioned one off for the school auction; bringing in a substantial amount of scholarship money. The kids understood that the bench they were building was going to be sold for real money that would result in real good.
The bench now sits proudly on our playground and groups of children often climb up on it to play or sit and read. And I am so proud to say that my class built that bench. And they really did, from concept to last nail.
This summer I spent a lot of time reading about the impact of play on children’s development. Current research cites examples of how play positively correlates with language and literacy skills; how it exercises children’s executive functioning (the part of the brain that controls organization and decision-making), how it improves children’s ability to negotiate and be flexible with others, how it enables the capacity to self-regulate, and on and on. Play addresses the whole child – physical, cognitive, social and all.
Child development theorist Jean Piaget claimed that “play is the work of children.” What he meant was that children learn best through actively exploring and discovering through their own self-directed activity.
Unstructured play can make some educators uncomfortable. It implies chaos in the classroom. And indeed, there is some level of (constructive) chaos that is part of any productive play.
Oftentimes, children need guidance on how to play before they can be successful on their own. They may be inexperienced in how to enter play. They may need help understanding how to extend a narrative story line in imaginary play. They may need reminders to share or take turns. It’s a fine line for the teacher to tow between too much and too little interference in children’s play. Only when they face conflict and challenge on their own will they be able to reach a new level of mastery.
If we assume that play is the work of children, there is no limit to what can be taught in this context; how children’s minds can be stretched and how cognitive (not only social/emotional) growth can be realized. With so much pressure placed on young children these days to demonstrate academic, rote learning and standardized testing being presented earlier and earlier, the role of play is more important than ever.
I always tell anxious parents who are worried about pre-reading and math skills and where their child fits in on the academic spectrum, that we sneak these skills into play. Only then are kids interested and only then is it really developmentally appropriate.
Play is where you find kids fully engaged. Play is where kids have some level of control over their lives and interests. Play is where kids push themselves to the edge of what is comfortable and familiar. Play is where risks are taken and messing about happens, and failures and mistakes turn into powerful “aha” moments for kids.
What does learning through play look like? It looks like kids measuring and weighing liquids at the water table. It looks like kids examining the details of a pinecone with a magnifying glass at the science table and then rendering a drawing of it. It looks like a group of kids building a movie theater out of blocks and then negotiating which movie they will show. It looks like kids pretending to be at a restaurant, complete with chef, servers, and patrons as well as child-created menus. It looks like kids patiently taking turns to do a puzzle together. It looks like kids covered in paint as they experiment with color mixing. Each of these scenarios is ripe with learning across many domains.
Letters and numbers and physics and estimation and geometry and chemistry and concepts of cause and effect …. children are exposed to it all through various kinds of play. Play allows the process of learning to take place organically; enabling each child to take on what he/she is developmentally ready for.
The teacher’s role is facilitator, at times arbitrator. But the classroom experience should belong to the kids at the end of the day. Only then, can the magic of play be transformed into real learning.