This post is a bit of a brain dump as I’m unwinding a cognitive knot. It is the result of my participation in a few book studies, both personally and professionally. The books we read were Braiding Sweetgrass by Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer and How We Show Up by Mia Birdsong.

My personal reading of Braiding Sweetgrass led me to some deep reflections and contemplations about my relationships with plants (in addition to animals). Kimmerer’s words really slowed down my experience outdoors and allowed me to focus on small moments.

How We Show Up challenged me on a deep personal level. As an introvert who values my independence and singlehood, I found myself questioning what it means to live alone. The chapter about queering friendships, specifically, got me in the feels.

But it wasn’t until I discussed these books in their respective book study groups that I truly felt transformed by the knowledge gifted in them. I’ll share a few examples of things that we questioned and the new understandings I have come to.

Through a conversation about Braiding Sweetgrass we got to a point where we were talking about gifts, and how when you give a gift you shouldn’t expect a gift in return. One person shared that if they were to give money to someone sitting outdoors, they would do so without strings attached, meaning that they trust the person would spend the money on whatever they need, not expect them to purchase food or clothes or save it. They said that there shouldn’t be an expectation of return within our reciprocal relationships. But as a group, we lingered on that, because is that not part of the point the reciprocal relationships? If we are in two-way relationships, can we not trust that we both give and receive? I felt stumped by this for a second and I didn’t see a way out. But then another person offered a path forward: aren’t we still talking about being individuals rather than being truly interconnected? An systems of interdependence mean that what we give, we do get back. In interconnected systems-thinking, we are constantly giving to each other and ourselves. This also means that survival occurs through unity; all flourishing is mutual. In this way, giving money is act of perpetual, unconditional kindness, but it also questions and resists the ownership and hoarding of money. To give is not necessarily to expect to receive, but it is to know that people around you and before you are looking out for you. If we all take responsibility for our part in a community, we all survive and thrive. So ow does this relate to being an educator? My explanation requires a reflection on my next book study: How We Show Up.

This book is a critique of the racist and heteronormative American Dreamism culture and a reimagining of family, friendship, and community. Early on in the book the author makes a point of how family units are a replication of our toxic individualist culture in North America, whereby we exist separately from our neighbours, and things like relying on friends for childcare is considered a shameful last resort for many people. For middle-and lower-class families, paying for childcare seems to be the dominant idea of “what is best for the child”; yet, this rationale reinforces the idea that early childhood educators know what is best for children and that somehow other adults like family and friends do not. I’ve been trying to challenge this notion because, despite our specialized knowledge and years of experience, we are not more knowledgeable than parents, elders, and generational or cultural wisdom. Our collective vision of parents is to see them as capable and competent; therefore, our role becomes slightly challenged when we shift to viewing our livelihood as interconnected communities rather than supporting toxic individualism. If we don’t have the expertise we think we do, then why are we demanding higher pay? If we are as capable and competent as parents and families, then why should we be asking for better occupational conditions, when this is straying further and further away from the home-life experience. How might we lean into these questions, rather than been threatened? I’ve provided a consideration from the book Illuminating Care to demonstrate this notion:

In our conversation about this book we talked about our differing perspectives on individualism. Myself and another person shared that we experience intimacy as threatening, whereas another felt that they had always had friendships that pushed boundaries of intimacy. We discusses our experiences of living with or feeling connected to family, but then realized that family to us, is something that tends to feel permanent whereas friendships can feel transient. We were sensing agreement that the transientness of friendships came with grief, protectiveness, and a resistance to change. We talked about what it means to move, to leave behind communities, and how some folks can feel quite angry when our good friends move. This is especially relevant given our current life stage, not quite 10 years into our careers when moving can happen frequently. But I recalled something that was getting called upon within me: Mike’s wisdom of how home is created and recreated on our paths throughout life, with new people. It’s not about the structure and it’s not about who is kept in or out of a space. It’s about community, bringing people together with the struggle of food, survival, and hard work. I think he would have liked this book a lot.

So again, what does this mean as an eduator?

To that I would ask, am I not recreating home indefinitely? Am I not embracing the transientness of children temporarily being in my care? Do I not enter into very intimate relationships with families and children, even becoming part of families? Am I not empowered and humbled by this, rather than threatened? Do I not operate within a community hub, bringing families together, supporting children’s young friendships, and fostering dispositions for lifelong learning? Do I not uphold community through my responsiveness to both individual and group needs? Don’t I turn local wisdom and familial cultural practices into sacred, shared experiences for all children to benefit from? Do I not prioritize my relationships above almost all else? Am I not a reciprocal partner, ally, and co-conspirator in children’s lives? Defender of wonder, play, and joy in ways that invite children into relationship with humans and the more-than-human world? Do I not resist toxic individualism almost as a job requirement, whereby I use systems-thinking to understand, extend and support the many interlocking relationships I have entered? Am I not a keeper of this community knowledge, resources, and connections?

I think am and I do. And this is how I am choosing to reframe myself. I’m not just a researcher, co-leaner, play partner, care mentor, and nurturer; I am a community keeper.

When Children Ask “Why” Part 1

If you’ve read my blog before you’ll know that I have two major sources of inspiration: Ann Pelo and Margie Carter’s From Teaching to Thinking, and my outdoor education experience in high school with the late Mike Elrick. I’ve been returning to their wisdom in the past few months with a refreshed lens, and I am taking away new insights.

I often think about the way Ann describes her experiences outdoors with children, in-particular the stories of the skunk and the trees in Chapters 1 and 2 of FTtT. While I read some of her writing this morning, I was prompted to think about how I could bring these attitudes into the workshops I’ll be facilitating over the next few months. How can I translate some of this inspiration into digestible prompts for diverse groups of educators?

While reading Ann’s story, I imagined myself in her position. What would I do in response to children asking ‘why do the leaves change colour?’. What have I done in the past? I can’t quite remember. I thought about how some educators would say that they would reflect the question back to the child “I don’t know…why do you think they might change colour?”. Another might say that they would discuss the changing seasons or the amount light during fall. Another might say they don’t know, so they would engage in research to bring books into the classroom to answer the question. Another might say that, since there are filling many other roles while outdoors, such as counting children, putting on mittens, and watching for parents, they are unlikely to feel like they have time to appropriately answer this question and do it justice. Someone might say that in their culture changing colours of leaves holds particular significance. There are so many beautiful ways to respond to this question as well as systemic factors to consider.

I contrast these answers to what Ann did in her experience, which I elude to below. And then I re-thought what I would do again: what would I do if I had enough time, space, and resources to respond in a way that aligns with my pedagogical commitments?

When young children ask “why”, as in, “why do the leaves change colour”, I doubt they are searching for an answer.

I honestly believe, instead, they are reaching for guidance on how to think about this perplexing concept. They might be looking for how to build their skills to follow their curiosities. They might be asking “how do I respond to this inquiry?” or “what should I do when I feel this sense of wonder” or even “this feeling of reverence is powerful! Am I okay?”.

Our job as ECEs is not to be a first responder in these moments. It’s not to react with answers, wisdom, or solutions. I believe, instead, that our job is to take our training and use it to linger in these moments of questioning. Rather than answering in-the-moment, how might we slow down time for children and think though these dilemmas with them. If our job/training/philosophy is to scaffold children’s schemas in meaningful ways, then it’s clear that providing quick answers does a disservice to children’s learning. Instead, I wonder, how might we answer this question slowly, over time? How might we collaborate to think about our own answers to this question? Is a scientific fact really what is being asked for here? Or is it a larger life question about birth, death, and transformation as Ann suggests. Thinking in this way, my role as a co-learner might not even be to think in scientific terms about this. Nor is it to bring in books about trees and seasons. Perhaps, instead it is simply to commit to watching the trees more, learning from our senses, and creating our own language to articulate what we experience here. What do we call it when we feel the exhilaration of noticing a leaf fall, twirling from branch to ground?

Ultimately, I am currently thinking about how children are seeking guidance on their own learning, rather than factual answers, when they ask why. Providing provocations through engaging environmental set up, the use of open-ended play/learning materials, and the intentional use of questions can extend these curiosities through scaffolded guidance, support, and co-learning.

Are Games Play?

Forgive me, this may seem like a pointless question. And if you regularly spend time with children over the age of five, you’d likely whole heartedly say “yes”. But I’ve spent the last year thinking deeply about engaging with children under the age of four. In all honesty, mostly about toddlers. And I can’t help feel discomfort when I think of the purpose of games. Pedagogically. Developmentally. And meaningfully.

These thoughts are the result of being a teaching assistant (reading and evaluating pre-service educators programming ideas for young children), a previous practicum student in Quality Initiatives for early years programs (where I heard supervisors reflect on their quality goals), and a masters student studying early childhood educators’ workplaces. It is likely also because I am reading From Teaching to Thinking and The Goodness of Rain by Ann Pelo, and I am being challenged in my thinking about what are quality, meaningful, and transformative early learning experiences. Why are we replicating the use of games? Is there a purpose beyond developmental appropriateness? It feels like there is a difference between experiences with routines and games. For example, I feel that shared routines (e.g., I chase children with a puppet before we begin our morning meeting), action songs that are requested again and again (e.g., “baby shark”), or even experiences of sharing informal rules and patterns (e.g., watching two children run back and forth in a space and copy each other) then formalized games that have one way to be played.*

This feels like the difference, in my mind, between informal games with rules, and well-known games passed on my generations, such as duck duck goose or musical chairs. When I read Ann’s stories, and I think about the time I’ve spent with children, the use of games with toddlers feels so incredibly useless to young humans. I would so much rather use myself as a tool to facilitate wonder, spark inquiry, visit a forest, observe an inset, or inspect a crack in the sidewalk than pass on knowledge of childhood games. I just feel so much resistance to spending my time and energy on these things. I don’t feel like there is an authentic purpose to many of these games, often they are exclusive in nature by eliminating someone each round, and I don’t see how they support the development of dispositions for lifelong learning. I also don’t see a clear connection with Ontario’s early learning framework, which is centred on the foundations of wellbeing, engagement, expression, and belonging. Are games even engaging if it’s not your turn?

I should probably back up here and provide some context for my opinions. As a child, I did not like games and I found most of them intimidating. I was fairly sensitive and the “thrill” or excitement of a game was easily mis-felt as anxiety. As an adult, I still don’t really like games. I love to share experiences with people, and when and if we come up with a game spontaneously, I love it. But I hate entering into a kind of dynamic that is arbitrarily designed, easily forgotten, prescribed for strategy that I can’t yet forsee, and that plots me against my loved ones. I just don’t find most games enjoyable. They’re up there with not understanding social rules in certain spaces/places. Which, I might add, is not because I don’t value cultural norms, routines, or rituals. I’m someone who actually enjoys things like silly small talk, the awkward “hello” passing someone in the street, and the game of how long to I hold the door for the person behind me?!? Those things have value and meaning to me.

I should also consider that perhaps I don’t like games because I’m not good at them. But, that wouldn’t be correct. I actually am often good at the games I do try, even if I’m new at them. I’m often called “smart” (which I could spend a whole other post deconstructing), and I know how to feign a good time, joke about what’s happening, and poke fun at my own mistakes. I don’t think it’s that I’m too serious or too awkward. I think it’s just that games are SO random to me, and they often are not introduced in a gentle, meaningful way. They begin abruptly and it’s a sink-or-swim mentality that I know I do well with. Why waste this skill on a game, when I have grad school to survive? Anyway. I digress.

Beyond my own perspective, I have started to wonder about the developmental significance and appropriateness of games even for preschooler aged children and beyond this age range. How can you determine when children are developmentally able and interested in playing Duck Duck Goose? On one hand, I can think of many developmental skills that can be facilitated through participation in these games. Like gross motor skills, expressive language, sharing space and resources, learning social rules… But on the other hand, I feel that these games are so incredibly arbitrary, unauthentic, and, in some cases, a result of lack of adult imagination to partner in more spontaneous versions of play. There are probably well-outlined answers to these perplexing thoughts, so I likely need to just do some googling. But before I did that, I wanted to document this naive disorientation in case any readers wanted to join me in this journey.

*Note: as I type this I begin to feel that the lines between these examples of what is a “game” and what is a routine or pattern are becoming more and more blurry for me. Perhaps I can actually see a rationale for when, how, and why to include games, and their pedagogical importance for demonstrating relevant concepts. Of course, the intentional use of games can be quite useful for creating a sense of belonging, understanding social rules, and for creating healthy experiences of joy, competition, and how to respond to all of the feelings that arise from things like not winning, working hard, being exhausted, and anticipating your turn. I get that.

But are games play?

Play, as I know it, is voluntary, purposeful, and done for its own sake or enjoyment. I don’t understand why there is an emphasis on gamification within play. I briefly consulted the Right to Play website, and the first image is a child with a backpack, and the second are two photos juxtaposed: one of children kicking a soccer ball and one of professional athletes playing soccer. These suggest to me that the purposes of play is for either school-readiness or professional-level entertainment and skill. Neither of these reflect play for its own sake, nor do they represent why play is meaningful and useful to children during childhood. Even when I read the UN right’s of the child, the elements of play are focused on games. Childhood is so much more than preparation for the future and deserves its own quality of life. Have we forgotten what play looks like outside of games? Beyond rules, there is so much room for playfulness, rigor, competition, and measurement of excellence. I wonder if in this reliance and focus on games and rules, might we forgotten the value of spontaneity, engagement without reward, and crafting our own journeys. In higher-ed I often hear that undergrads don’t have skills to self-direct their learning, to chart their own course, and/or to manage how to meet competing priorities. But learning processes are disorienting and knotted, and they require so much inner navigation to begin with. Do we train children to learn rules of specific games and then punish them later in life for not learning the larger games of life, learning, inquiry, and love? That’s a question well beyond the limits of my knowledge, but something I am pondering.

All of this, of course, must be contextualized based on each group of children, what their shared interests are, and what developmental skills they currently have opportunities to engage with. Should I ever have a group of children asking to play Duck Duck Goose again and again, I will (and have) honoured that. And I have participated whole heartedly in the joy and journeys within games such as this one. I think in writing this, though, I have realized that questioning the use of games is entirely appropriate, fair, and necessary. They have a (clearly) place in childhood, but they may or may not meet every purpose in my care, pedagogy, and exploration of interests with children. I likely won’t be able to look at games the same, and would like to be quite intentional and where, when, and how I encourage the use of games with children. I plan to consult a few more resources on the use of games in early childhood to better understand in which situations games are a valuable approach to supporting children in their play/learning/development.