The Wonder of the Five-Year Old Mind

“Most of us can look back to particular teachers who inspired us and changed our lives. These teachers excelled and reached us, but they did this in spite of the basic culture and mindset of public education. There are significant problems with that culture, and I don’t see nearly enough improvements. In many systems, the problems are getting worse. This is true just about everywhere.”—Sir Ken Robinson, Ph. D.

I had a little boy on Thursday that was desperate to say thank you. In kindergarten, this is a magical time of year. About a week or so after Parent-Teacher interviews, I usually start my first reading groups, handing out new books for my emergent readers. To say that they are excited is an understatement. It is honestly magical (in a July 1st kind of way, complete with fireworks) to watch their faces when I break it to them that they will have their very first book sent home that very day. There are usually gasps of delight. And I usually see them looking at one another with wonder and amazement.

Is there anything more rewarding to a teacher than the view to sheer joy and delight on a child’s face?

The day I passed out books was also the day that our Literacy Coach came to observe. She had noticed that one emergent reader was missing a canvas reader’s bag to store his book and reading log inside, and she had made a special stop on the way home Wednesday so as to get a special bag for one little fellow. She told me that he deserved to have the same as everyone else, and besides: she did not want him to feel left out. What an amazingly caring lady this woman is.

That little boy? Well, he noticed that the effort had been made on his behalf, and at the end of the day, he came to me and said, “Who got that bag for me?”
I told him who, and we both decided it would be a good idea to seek out Mrs. Turner and say a special thank you to her, now that the excitement factor had come down a notch, enough for him to attend to business.

We walked upstairs to find her.

And as I walked the few short steps with this busy little boy’s hand in mine, I was struck by the fact that not only was he excited that he was getting a book and book bag to take home for homework, he was deeply thankful for the privilege that was his in being enabled this wonder.

It is a wonder still for me in the recalling his little face. In recalling all their faces as I watch them learn.

I still love to watch their eyes as I read a book to them that makes them laugh.
I still love to watch their expressions as they connect with the characters and story, often laughing uninhibitedly.
I still love to watch them working diligently over a story they have created of their very own, watching them laboriously sounding out the words that they alone feel are best suited to represent their thoughts.

Yes, I still get a feeling of amazement from watching them learn what we traditionally call school.

But in my classroom, I feel I have such an exquisite privilege. I also get to watch them direct their own learning through play and inquiry. I watch them create and build and form and construct. I watch them invent and discover and imagine and wonder. And all the while I wonder: is this school?

Can this REALLY be school?

There is nothing quite like an early years classroom to remind one of what school could be like if it were founded on the principals of creativity and innovation.

What are those problems with culture in public education, particularly in the years that follow primary learning? Why does the passion fizzle? Why do kids end up hating school, thinking they are dumb? Thinking school is a waste of time?

Robinson (2009) would account for three critical areas of concern that contribute to this phenomena, those being: the preoccupation of our educational leadership with certain sorts of academic ability, the hierarchy of subjects as presented by that same leadership and the growing reliance of this very same leadership on standardized assessment of these privileged areas so as to account for learning.

Robinson (2009) says the fact that schooling is primarily concerned with words and numbers, privileging these two areas as being the utmost of importance in human intelligence, is true cause for concern. What of other aspects of human intelligence? And why is it that the maths and science, along with language skills, are placed at the head of a hierarchical order of important things students must know? Are there not other aspects to being human that weigh in as equally important? And even more ludicrous: why must we assess students to the brink of sending them into fits of panic and anxiety so as to see how well they do in these hand-selected areas of interest? Placing them on a scale as to their performance in regards to two areas of human development: our literacy and numeracy abilities?

I have been writing for over a year about the importance of care in education, doing so primarily because I, like Robinson and others concerned with the state of education, believe that the way school systems have been arranged and evolved run contrary to the human spirit. We are relational beings, in need of connection. We crave response and touch. We want to be with people. But we are also creative beings who long for something more than we have been offered. We desire to learn in the safety of an environment where we are cared for enough to push the boundaries of our own minds.

What schools need is transformation.

But how is this to be done?

First, it starts with educators challenging views about schooling and learning that narrow and undermine the human capacity for connection, while not overlooking in the resistance the very integral aspects of brain development accomplished through play, wonder, creativity and imagination.

Truly, I feel it starts with investigating primary classrooms and asking whether the very inquiry-based learning projects we see underway in these classrooms could not be adapted and modified so as to uniquely suit each grade level to follow. Matching students with areas of learning that fit their interests and learning styles so as to maximize their opportunities.

You know, I ask my students all the time if they are excited for days off from school. We have one coming up next week. Invariably, the answer I get is no. Is this because I am such an awesome teacher! Ha! I wish. No, it is rather because these children know that their learning is up to them. They are integral to the success of their day. I am only there to guide them, enable them, assist. It is their job to make the school day worthwhile.

They intuitively know this. It is just the way a five year-old brain was made to work.

I think that is why they love school. Because they still have some leverage in terms of how and what they learn.

May that always be the case.

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Let the Children Play

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When he gets frustrated, he uses the puppets to talk out his feelings. We role play, he and I. This is not time for academics, paper and pencil. This is pure, unadulterated imagination. He needs it; oh, how he needs this opportunity to freely play. Unstructured. Liberated from the confines of classroom protocol, even if but for mere moments. He talks to me with his hands, showing me that he needs this time to unwind. To imagine. To portray. And I am listening carefully, reading in between the blurred lines, so as to understand all the reasons why this matters so very much.

A while back, another one used to wander the hallways. He never seemed to have a sense of commitment to any one room, any one place. Flitting here and there, we would find him where he was least expected. Now he spends that time that he formerly used to wander, playing. He pretends that he is a ‘cop’ or a salesman. He makes intricate creations out of chain links. He reads books and plays office. He loves to imagine, and his teachers report that the behaviours that were formerly front and center have vanished. Could it be because of play?

These little people, young learners: they crave the time allotted for play. The boys do especially, but certainly the girls too. Each day, when that time comes- when that hour arrives: they relish it like it is their last supper. When playtime is over, they ask, “It is over so soon? It’s already done?” It seems unbelievable to them that their beloved Centers have now ended- as it appears to them that play only had just begun. That’s how it is with playful learning, how it is with inquiry-based learning: time passes along and you don’t even know where it has gone.
Play is just that subtle and unobtrusive in scope, yet vital and necessary in its impact to really make the difference between children doing well and children doing poorly.

According to Christina Hoff Sommers of Time magazine,

“Prolonged confinement in classrooms diminishes children’s concentration and leads to squirming and restlessness. And boys appear to be more seriously affected by recess deprivation than girls. “Parents should be aware,” warn two university researchers, “that classroom organization may be responsible for their sons’ inattention and fidgeting and that breaks may be a better remedy than Ritalin.”

Angela Hanscom writing for the TimberNook blog says,

“Fidgeting is a real problem. It is a strong indicator that children are not getting enough movement throughout the day. We need to fix the underlying issue. Recess times need to be extended and kids should be playing outside as soon as they get home from school. Twenty minutes of movement a day is not enough! They need hours of play outdoors in order to establish a healthy sensory system and to support higher-level attention and learning in the classroom.”

According to a document drawn up for the Canadian Council on Learning by Early Childhood Education Program Chair, Par Jane Hewes, play is undervalued and all children’s opportunities for free play are under threat (both for the boys as well as the girls). She says:

In recent years, the trend has been to introduce more content via direct instruction into the practice of early-
childhood professionals. Research demonstrates that this approach, while promising in the short term, does not
sustain long-term benefits and, in fact, has a negative impact on some young children.17 Long uninterrupted
blocks of time for children to play – by themselves and with peers, indoors and outdoors – are becoming increasingly rare.  The developmental literature is clear: play stimulates physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development
in the early years. Children need time, space, materials,and the support of informed parents and thoughtful,
skilled early-childhood educators in order to become “master players.”18 They need time to play for the sake
of playing.

She goes on to add the following:

There are unique and fundamental developmental benefits that derive from spontaneous free
play. The child’s experience of intrinsic motivation in play is fundamental to successful life-long learning. Play is a valid learning experience in and of itself – albeit one that has been difficult to justify and sustain in formal educational settings.

I don’t know the all the reasons for why kids are finding school to be a place they feel lost. But I can imagine that if I were a child, I would probably not be able to get through my day without a diversion of some sort. Some kind of escape that could whisk me away from reality even if only for a moment or two. That’s why teens and adults love social media so much- it is our chance to play. We all need an outlet in our life, and for most of us, we find that relief from the busyness of life and reality through play, whatever ideal that particular form of play conforms to.

After all:

“Young children learn the most important things not by being told but by constructing knowledge for themselves in interaction with the physical world and with other children – and the way they do this is by playing.”
Source: Jones, E., & Reynolds, G. (1992).
The play’s the
thing: Teachers’ roles in children’s play, p. 1

With this in mind, can’t we just let the children play?