Early childhood teachers are suffering from a collective identity crisis. For years, we've been standing in defense, trying to justify our profession by borrowing language and imagery that is not our own. We've been trying to align with K-12 teachers, and while doing so, we have reached outside of our field to use someone else's language, imagery, and practice in attempt to show that we are "real" teachers.
Two years ago I drove to a neighboring state with a teacher friend to attend a professional development night hosted in a Reggio Emilia inspired school. As the director gave us a tour of the classroom walls lined with photos and quotes of children engaged in emergent projects, she explained how the preschool teachers had worked on the documentation on their own time. She admitted to us that she expected this kind of reflective work at her school, but she hadn't figured out how to schedule coverage or pay for preparation and documentation time for her teaching team. When she made this admission, my mind froze. I couldn't pay attention to anything else for the rest of the evening. I was stuck in a downward spiral of thought that went something like this, "No way! This is abusive. Reggio Emilia educators would never endorse this kind of treatment of early childhood teachers. A central purpose of reflection and documentation is to professionalize our work, and to show the intelligence of the children and teachers collaborators. How do well intentioned people get so off track?" My heart was heavy and filled with righteous indignation. I thought of my many colleagues who have told me similar stories of teaching and caring in beautiful private progressive schools where they work with no health care and make half, at best, the salary of public school teachers. I thought of a young teacher I met at a child care council training a few days earlier who told me she worked a 9 hour shift daily because her director gave her a hour unpaid lunch break so she could stretch her shift to cover both the opening and closing hours, in the name of providing children consistency. I thought of the job posting I had recently seen at a well known, well endowed, college seeking someone with a degree in early childhood development to work for $13 an hour in an infant toddler center.
I felt intense grief and disbelief when I first put on a mask to go grocery shopping this summer after stay at home orders were lifted. It was so strange to muzzle my mouth and my smile. Surprisingly, as I stepped back into my routine of Saturday morning grocery shopping it didn't take long to noticed how happy I was to see my favorite checker, David. In all my years of shopping at Hannaford's, we had never talked beyond shallow pleasantries, but now we found ourselves chatting like old friends - the masks didn't break our connection, rather it forced us to connect with our conversation and by what felt like our hearts. While my groceries rolled by me on the conveyor belt, I learned that David has 5 siblings, he is a favorite uncle for a big crew of nieces and nephews, he is saving all his money to buy a new lap top, and he is planning to go back to college next year to study design. As I pushed my cart through the parking lot, back to my car and pulled my mask down for a breath of fresh air, I instantly knew I would be okay. I felt connected. I knew we would find a way to teach and care even with masks on.
We spent a good deal of time worrying about the effects of mask wearing on young children this summer as we prepared to reopen. In NY State at the preschool program I lead, all the adults are required to wear masks at all times. Sometimes we've experimented with clear masks and face shields and at times these alternatives are especially helpful (such as during story time when we really want the children to see our expressions) but mostly, given that we are working at least 8 hours a day, we have just adapted in a matter-of-fact-way to putting on a mask to go to work. We seek the most comfortable mask we can find, give each other masks breaks, and change our masks a couple of times during the day to freshen up.
What's amazing is how well the children have adapted. Not only have they adapted, but they are teaching us about their own innate social-emotional intelligence. My friend Shelley who is also teaching preschool with a mask on says that sometimes she plays a game where she pulls down her masks to reveal her funny exaggerated emotion and kids laugh and say "Yep- I knew your face would look happy (or surprised or sad). She explained that kids seem to tune into her and check in to see emotional state even more than she had previously realized. Children are always watching our eyes - our gaze holds incredible power to convey care and love and respect. Children also tune into our tone of voice, our gestures, our body language, our stance. These are all the subtle ways we communicate with children and with one another. Wearing a mask forces us to strengthen our expressive art of caring.
As I've been wearing a mask this fall, I've been thinking about care as the first literacy of life. It is through our touch and our gaze during care rituals - feeding, rocking, holding, dressings - through the first human caring exchange, that our children listen to our unspoken messages and connect through the language of our care. I believe this language is not only conveyed through what is seen (through the gaze) and what is felt (through the hands and body) but also through what is sensed (through the heart). Howard Gardener teaches us about children's inter and intra-personal intelligences. He describes how children have heightened abilities to sense and intuit their way through social interactions and how they hold awareness of self and other. Howard Gardener even went on to describe another kind of intelligence - one he calls existential intelligence which involves the child's ability to go beyond what is seen and heard. Yes, we know what he is talking about because when we care for young children we go beyond what is seen and heard - we experience this existential intelligence regularly. As I marvel at the children, I ask not how we as humans learn empathy, awareness, and connection but how is it that we lose these things?
As an early childhood teacher and leader, I have been told in the past, not to talk about care to describe my work. At conferences and leadership institutes I have been advised to use the language of academia to demonstrate how children learn. The message has been, “Others will think you are just babysitting if you talk about care. You need to show that you are above that. Don’t call your school a child care center, rather call it an early learning institute. You are more than care.”
Embedded in this message is the notion that the older the person you teach, the more respect you earn. College professors and high school teachers are really “teaching”, while those that care for babies, toddlers and young children are at the bottom of the educational hierarchy. We’ve been told to reach up into schools for categories like math, science and literacy to give child care legitimacy. Even within our own field, we’ve been forced to use these terms to achieve accreditation and recognition.
Another implicit message we internalize when we disguise the care of children with academic categories is captured in this quote from David Hawkins, “Much of our zeal for reform in early education is consistent with the interpretation that we don’t really like children and we want them to grow up as soon as possible” (D Hawkins, The Informed Vision). The language and systems we have been asked to use are not born from within, they are borrowed, and they don’t respect or see truly the unique stage of life called early childhood. They push down, they pressure, they hurry, they confine. They causes us to subjugate child life, and to place children and their care subordinate to what is thought of as academics learning.
In my career, I have learned to talk the talk and I know how to pin academic standards on just about every aspect of child care and early human development. When I see the three year old sitting at the table eating snack, I can tell you how she is using her proprioceptive intelligence to find her seat, to hold herself in a healthy posture while she also uses both hands to pour her own water, strengthening her attention and her brain development as she crosses midline. I can tell you about the sequencing and the fine motor skills she practices while she uses a small knife to spread humus on her cracker. I can describe the language and vocabulary lessons embedded as she shares conversation with her teachers and peers. Most importantly, I can describe her budding sense of self and the knowledge she gains about her own agency and worth as she builds an intimate relationship with food, growing a self-awareness about her likes and dislikes, and her internal registers for hunger and satiation.
I can describe how the lessons learned at snack time are linked to future academic success, but as I do so, I wonder, why can’t we appreciate care of children for its own sake? Why does this language feel artificial and contrived and sorely missing the mark? Why must we commodify children for some future goal? Why do we speak a language that is not our own, while simultaneously complaining that the work of early education and care is misunderstood, unappreciated, and nearly invisible?
By not speaking opening and explicitly about care, I believe we are propagating the false dichotomy that education and care are separate. I am no longer willing to rank care, hide care or disguise care. I want to name care and show that the most basic rituals of care, which society typically thinks of as custodial, are intellectual encounters. Whether serving a meal, changing a diaper, wiping a nose, holding a hand, or helping a child put on his mittens, care requires a special kind of intelligence, insight, dignity, respect, presence and dialogue. A child is learning about himself and others through care. Care offers the first lessons in empathy, perspective-taking, partnership, and human worth. These are not soft skills. This is the knowledge that cannot be categorized, measured and standardized. Care is the making of humans. Care is the lesson of love, connection, and human dependency deeply embedded in the body and mind of a young child in the present moment. Care is the origin story we all share.
As early childhood educators, we have had a hard time naming what we do because care is so close to us. In a field that is the domain of women, care is undervalued, expected, and assumed. Sometimes it is so familiar to us that it seems simple and obvious, but it is not. Care is complicated, profound, and strong. As first teachers we have an incredible opportunity to examine care, describe care, and lift up care as the seed of human growth and development and self-actualization. Care offers a way of understanding life. Care is an ethical model for relationships, happiness and lifelong learning.
As early childhood teachers, I invite you to be ambassadors of care.
Together, let’s liberate care!
"THE DANGEROUS SIDE OF USING TERMS LIKE RISKY PLAY AND FREE RANGE KIDS IN EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION AND CARE."-
I feel worried about the way we are talking about risky play and free range kids as we see the pendulum begin to swing and we see more and more parents and teachers defending play and taking a stance as “Guardians of Childhood”. Thank you Lisa Murphy for offering us this image of ourselves during The Play First Summit by Fairy Dust Teaching. I am reflecting upon what it means to be guardians – and what we can claim in this role for teaching and caring in a way that protects and empowers children.
I am proud to stand alongside all the people in this community of play practitioners. As a young teacher, I was fortunate to be mentored by a group of wise women who told me in graduate school (28 years ago) that I would encounter inappropriate practices in the field as they bolstered me to stand strong for play. Everyone who has ever worked with me knows me as the teacher who takes children on nature walks, lets them run in fields as fast as they can, encourages them to climb trees, catch frogs, and sit in the grass for story and snack. I have directed schools serving high needs communities with block grant funding, and schools with big private endowments serving professional working class parents. I have written grants to outfit every child in full body rain gear for outdoor-play-every-day-in-all-seasons, and I have broken down the little 10x10 sand-box on the playground to build a giant sand theater with a water spigot for big-body-messy-sensory play. At a school I directed in North Boston, the parent board generously built a children's garden in my honor and they laughed at me when I asked them to please stop planting vegetables and flowers and just leave a big pit in the center of the garden exclusively for digging and mud play. I don't say any of this to toot my own horn, but just to say that I am deeply rooted in play, in risk, in freedom. I also say this because I am concerned that what I am going to say next will be misunderstood and misconstrued.
I don't believe we should adopt the term "free range" for early childhood. I certainly will not be using this language to describe my program. As a counter example, I will point out that just as early educators should have never borrowed "calendar time" from the elementary school math their way curriculum, which was not designed for early childhood, neither should we borrow the term "free range" as it was intended for elementary school aged children. Lenore Skenazy’s brilliant movement, Free Range Kids, began as an approach for older children. Unfortunately, the broad impressionistic stroke it paints for our youngest citizens is one that is easily confused with permissiveness. In fact, there have even been articles shared after the Play First Summit that talk about benign neglect as the best parenting 3 model. Those of us who have been children of neglect or who have worked with children in neglect, know that neglect is real, and neglect is dangerous, and it is not a term we should be tossing about and especially not associating with our play work.
I was riveted as I listened to Lenore Skenazy talk about her journey as a parent and discuss her pioneering work with Peter Gray and their organization, Let Grow. What hit home for me, was how Lenore made a point that her book and her crusade to let her child have autonomy and independence (such as riding the NY subway alone) was directed towards her 9 year old child. She emphasized that she is a parent who cares deeply about safety and protection for young children. She actually flinched when Sally Haughey said that she remembered running free and wild at age three (Sally later explained that she had siblings watching over her). Lenore says on her website, we are not daredevils. We believe in life jackets and bike helmets and air bags. But we also believe in independence.
As we embrace Lisa Murphy's invitation to be Guardians of Childhood, we do so with appreciation for this very unique time of life called early childhood when young children are emerging from babyhood and are simultaneously vulnerable and capable. Vulnerable does not mean weak or fragile - but it does remind us that part of our human evolution and survival is based on protection and care of our youngest citizens. I once heard David Sobel talking about how teachers are like cultural anthropologists and we have the close up opportunity to preserve the dynamic complicated world of childhood play. Getting out of children’s way, orchestrating schedules and environments where they play deeply, and collaborating with them with respect, requires us to know many things. I find myself leaning in when children play – I want to listen and marvel, catch their stories, and reflect upon their discoveries with my colleagues. I believe the Play First Summit supported us as researchers of play. This is the opposite of ignoring kids or standing by idly while we let them range, romp, roam and run wild. Well, yes, I really do value ranging, romping, and roaming but I worry that the words and images we are throwing around about play do not respect the art and science of the play practitioner. I worry that as the play pendulum swings, play will BOMB because people will not know how to see play, and people will think that successful play environments are as simple as sitting in a lounge chair, putting our feet up, and letting little kids be.
We work with parents and teachers to help them develop self-awareness about their role in the lives of children. We look at the broad continuum of guidance approaches from a punitive-rigid-my-way-or-the-high-way approach on one end, to permissive-neglectful-lacking-all-boundary approach on the other end. I heard many wonderful speakers at the summit, such as Janet Lansbury and Teacher Tom, speak of an appreciation for the journey of developing self-awareness as we find a role for ourselves and an image of ourselves that is supportive of the young child’s play. When we are beginning to open our minds and shift our perspective from reward/punishment approaches to partnership/listening approaches, we find our best footing in the middle ground. The same is true as we shift from developmentally inappropriate practices to child centered play based practices. It takes real work and study of child development. Parents and teachers in the midst of this shift often swing far to one side or the other of the continuum. In play based programs there is commonly a misunderstanding that we are advocating for no limits. We counter this misperception by encouraging parents and teachers to see themselves as leaders and to see boundaries as synonymous with love and care.
Since the Play First Summit, I have noticed a surge of articles and discussions railing against helicopter and snowplow parenting. I understand the sentiment, but I am growing weary of hearing educators label parents this way. It seems there is nothing the media loves more than to publish smug articles that shame parents, rank parenting, and pit parents against one another. This is the very thing Lenore Skenazy is working against, as she herself was harshly judged as the worst parent in America. I just want to caution educators not to step into that trap. Labeling parents, labeling children, labeling humans –labeling is never a practice that works in our favor.
The other thing we are seeing right now are images of barefooted toddlers wielding power tools and educators posting comments such as “risky play” and "this is brave and beautiful!". The video I saw on Facebook with a diaper clad child and an electric drill was, honestly, charming and alarming at the same time. The child's joy and intelligence was evident, and I respect the pride of the parent who posted this. But, let's all be clear this video was posted by a parent who was with her child in the back yard and made a decision for her own son to let him explore a power drill. This was not an image that early childhood teachers should take as a stamp of approval for an early childhood experience in a group care setting. I’ve seen other such images that cause me concern of barefoot children with adult sized tools. Again, some images that are circulating in the early childhood discussion groups come from adventure playgrounds with much older children building fires and using saws. I’ve done a good deal of wood working and fire building with children, as a parent and as a teacher, and I’ve always taken these risks at age appropriate milestones while teaching common sense safety.
Images are powerful! Again, as a counter example, I have written letters to NAEYC in the past, protesting their sterile photos of teachers standing in front of groups of young children pointing to a calendars and charts because I believe educators need to see images of children getting messy and images of adults wiping noses and rubbing backs, because that's what teaching really looks like.
Images, as well as words, inform our collective identity.
Now as I hear the discussion about free range risky play, I find myself on what feels like the opposite side of the conversation saying, please don’t post photos of barefoot babies wielding power tools, because this is not a good image for early childhood teachers who are developing their judgement for risky play to lock onto. I want to protect teachers who are growing their play advocacy legs and learning to really see children. I want them to trust their gut to keep kids safe and find firm ground under their feet as they defend play and child autonomy and also care for other people’s children with smarts, love and limits. I don’t want to have a lengthy discussion here about whether or not you believe you should give children in your program electric drills, but I do want to assure you that there are many ways to give children reasonable playful risks that don’t involve power tools and don’t give their caregivers heart attacks.
The concept of young children as both vulnerable and competent, which I learned about from the work of Ron Lally, reminds me to find the middle ground. We are constantly seeking balance. Children run towards us for comfort, safety, and limits and then run away from us for autonomy, risk and adventure. This push and pull continues all through the early childhood years. We find footing on the precarious terrain that requires us to be ever ready to receive them and to let them go. In this middle ground, I want to advocate for language and images that also reveals the vulnerability of teachers who must constantly evaluate their practice, know themselves, and know their children, to find the spot that is both safe and free for the children in their charges. Being Guardians of childhood includes boundaries and clear judgement and we can’t leave that out of our conversations or of the image we hold of ourselves. The dangerous side of using terms like risky play and free range kids without attention to the unique period of early childhood and with-out special care and discernment threatens to give play based programs a bad name and could even unintentionally place children and their caring teachers in harm’s way.
- Carol Garboden Murray