Pandemic Preschools

A child in a medical mask during a coronavirus pandemic


I’ve just finished reading a great article in the NY Times by Donald G. McNeil Jr. The Coronavirus in America: The Year Ahead. This is by far the best science-based assessment I’ve run across as I sit scouring the internet for facts. While many people are similarly obsessed, their motivations are generally about their exposure and that of their loved ones. Because of my age, I should be equally concerned but, because I’ve accomplished most of my goals, I am at peace with my mortality. What drives my search is what will be the impact on children, especially those of preschool age.

The good news is children seem to be the least susceptible to the illness both in terms of symptoms and death. ALthough there are some troubling new symptoms. While their health is not a huge concern, how we care for and educate them is one of the most challenging problems we have yet to address. Fortunately, there are pilot programs now being run for the children of front-line workers that will give us insights on how we can manage such programs. The initial indications are that this is not an insurmountable problem. Longer-term management is far less clear.

The most immediate issue will be staffing. Since children can be carriers for infection, sooner or later, the staff of preschools are likey to come down with the coronavirus ether through contact with children or when they are out in the community. Most will recover, some will not. This will result in two trends, a shortage of teachers and a demand for higher pay. It will take some time before we realize that all front-line workers have been undervalued and for the society to begin to recognize that teachers ARE front-line works who are grossly underpaid.

In our capitalistic society, the economics of preschool has always been skewed because it was established when childcare was “women’s work” and, therefore, not the responsibility of the father as the breadwinners. Thus, we expect families, rather than society, as we do for older children, to pay for preschools. This economic stress has a regressive impact on families who are, for the most part, at the start of their income-generating opportunities. This is exacerbated these days by the heavy burden many families carry for their college education. It is possible but extremely unlikely that our society will suddenly make both preschools and college free for all. That means that in the gradual reopening of the economy, these perverse economics, together with the adjustments made to a new post-pandemic paradigm, families will increasingly find that preschools are no longer affordable. Many couples, and their employers, will conclude that working from home and watching their children is the sensible thing to do.

While this could be a trend that lasts for only a few years, when one looks at the history of post-pandemic societal changes, they tend to have very long-term impacts. Taken together with the rapid acceleration in technology and the nature of modern work, we can expect home childcare to become the norm. What do these trends mean for children?

When it comes to sit-down education, they will be just fine. There is an unlimited supply of educational materials and online content that is more than adequate to provide a solid basis for academic learning. We can also expect that parents will have to adopt a more play-based form of learning if, for no other reason, than it is far less time-consuming. So, is there a downside for kids?

There sure as heck is a downside when it comes to physical activity and development. How many homes have the sort of environment that provides the full spectrum of physical development? For that matter, how many playgrounds do? That is, if kids are allowed to go there, and parents have the time to supervise them for a couple of hours a day. Play in the neighborhood? Forget about it.

Through my research on the recent in developmental neurological science, I have been able to identify the play patterns that stimulate development in specific areas of the brain. A few of the most important include vestibular, proprioception, executive function, and somatosensory. These are difficult, if not impossible, skills to acquire indoors. If kids could go outside and be in a complex natural environment, the lack of stimulation would not be as acute as children have a knack of finding what they need if left to their devices. Yeah, like that’s going to happen soon and at scale, NOT.

The result of this inevitable scenario is that many more wooden playsets and plastic mini houses with slides will be bought. As anyone who purchased such gear will tell you,  these setups were unsatisfying to their kids and regrettable. What is the path forward?

What is needed, and needed right now, is a line of inexpensive apparatus that provides diverse challenges that the children can reconfigure by themselves as their skills improve. Impossible? No! Difficult? Yes. Creating such a system is the mission of Constructive Play Design.

Watch this space.

See How They Learn

Walking Barrel

Photo –Suzanne Axelsson

I have been creating play systems for five decades. During that time, my greatest joy has come from literally watching brains grow. Increasingly I have moved away for providing fixed elements in favor of provisioning spaces that allow children to create their own play.

I have been following Ms. Cheng Xueqin from her first visit here in the States, where she introduced us to her work at AnjiPlay. While many others, such as Lady Allen, Carl Sørensen, María Montessori, and others have made significant contributions to the notion of kid powered learning, no one has been more resourceful, innovative, or a better proponent of the concept.

While the environments she and her team, including the hugely talented Cas Holman, have created are to my mind astounding, the effort placed on teacher training and pedagogy is equally essential and innovative. Her insights are both simple and profound. Here is a graphic example.

The picture above would give most early childhood teachers a heart attack. But if you look closely, you will see that the children have the situation superbly under control. Not only are they safe, but they are learning deeply and profoundly. It helps us understand this better if we deconstruct what we are seeing.

Note the pieces of wood in the barrel on which the boy in the black shirt is balanced. Why is it there, and how did it come to be placed there?  The simple story is that the wood provides ballast to the barrel, so it is much more stable than it would be otherwise. The children likely learned this piece of engineering by trying to move a barrel while another child was inside. This learning took place probably a while they were younger and exploring in a less challenging way.

Both the balancing boy and his playmate clearly know that this is an experiment that might fail, so they grasp hands. Both understand that this is only for added stability and not to catch the acrobatic partner. This assumption is supported by the fact that the spotter child is not in a position to make a catch, and they are both relaxed in the knowledge that the balancing child is skilled in making a safe landing. They also know that this game is not about rolling the barrel but rather on jumping off as the raised foot in anticipation clearly shows.  The final piece of evidence that these kids know how to take on a challenge safely is that both are aware that the amount of wood ballast is more than sufficient to provide the inertia needed to counter the force of the push off by the jumper.

All of this action is taking place in a matter of seconds. Here in the States, most preschool teachers would intervene and correct this learning moment as hazardous. During the many teacher programs at AnjiPlay attended by people from all over the world, participants are not only given background information about how such challenging play is essential to the development of competent children, but they also have the opportunity to see it in action. Seeing is believing.

While there are some colleges here that provide aspects of this approach, many do not. As we move more towards what Ms. Cheng calls “true play,” we will need to find ways and practical examples to help teachers who have not been given the education nor the direct experience with this type of programming.

I am currently working on a book called Kid Powered Learning that will be a workbook for teacher development to address this issue. My hope is to have it print later this year.

Here is the link to Suzanne Axelsson’s blog Interaction Imagination. This is one you should follow if you are a teacher, parent or play advocate.


Playing With POOP


While I continue to expound on my theory of play patterns and triggers, I’ve begun to look at how to use the approach to help children develop “school skills.”

I’m sure that it will come as no surprise that since I am a champion of following the lead of the child and trusting their natural proclivity of learning through play, that I look askance at the wrote-education that is all too prevalent.

Following that path, I began to look at those books and lesson plans that pair a letter with an image and a word. The child in me found those exercises repellent, and I can honestly say I have never used them in the classroom or with the children in my life. So, what is a better way?

For me, one of the talismans of learning in early childhood is laughter. While I have not seen a study that directly supports this contention, it is the logical extrapolation from the neuroscience. Thus, I always perk up when I see kids laughing. When it comes to using words, there are two types that do this, nonsense words like those used in Dr. Seuss and scatological words like poop.

Most parents tolerate the occasional bathroom humor from their kids but begin to draw the line when these are repeated incessantly much to their consternation.  I suspect this tendency to wear out the joke is one reason that teachers askew their use by children in the classroom and the loss of control that can subsequently result. But I wonder if we can’t try a few experiments to see if these can be used educationally. But why bother?

One of the things that psychology teaches us is that words with heavy emotional impact tend to be written indelibly on the brain. This suggests that a book or game that has an element that states P is for Poop will be more effective in teaching letter and sound association than P is for Puppy.

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I think it’s important that the whole lesson or book is not made up of these no-no words and that they only come up as surprises. Some of the words that I find that kids think are hilarious include the following:

  • A is for Ass
  • B is for Bugger
  • F is for Fart
  • S is for Stinky
  • And of course, P is for Poop.

Can you think of a few others?

I wonder if I can modify a set of standard blocks that have a letter on one side a word on the side and a picture on the bottom. Then I can add a few of the “naughty” blocks to make block play a whole lot better.

Can you think of other letter lessons we could “improve”?