Celebrating Play

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play IS serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” – Fred Rogers

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Last week, Katy Smith, the 2012 Minnesota Teacher of the Year visited Indiana. She was a great sport as I subjected her to plenty of Hoosier Hospitality. I baked her a sugar creme pie, we ate a world famous breaded tenderloin from Nick’s Kitchen in Huntington, and I even told her various legends to help her understand the meaning of the word, “Hoosier.” Those small offerings of hospitality were a small price to pay for the inspiring message Katy brought to Indiana.

Katy is a licensed parent educator. She has the unique role of teaching parents through a state supported early childhood program in Minnesota. Katy can rattle off facts related to the importance of brain development during birth-5 years. She can tell you the rate of return on every dollar invested in early childhood, and she reminds all of us that childhood is fleeting. After spending only a few moments with Katy, you are ready to join her mission to save childhood.

As I’ve reflected on Katy’s mission, I have concluded that in society’s quest to create future geniuses, we have forgotten the genius of childhood. Pablo Picasso said, “it took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” To ensure that we don’t loose the fleeting moments of childhood, we must all look at how our children are spending their time. If their young lives are filled with TV, video games, and endless car rides to dance class, sports practices, and vocal lessons, then when do they have time to play? Research continually supports the idea that unstructured play enhances language development, social skills, intelligence, imagination, and problem solving abilities. We seem to know that’s true, yet somehow, we are missing the mark because countless children still enter school unprepared to learn. So how do we go about “saving childhood?”

I think we must first look at where we are investing our time and resources. I tell my students every year that my job is to work myself out of a job. I teach middle school reading remediation, and I wish every day that there was no need for my class. If our society could ensure that all children have enriching early childhood experiences, the need for remediation later would decrease significantly. Kindergarten teachers will tell you that they are playing catch up for many students on the very first day of school.  As a community, we need to embrace childhood and promote programs that invest in developmentally appropriate experiences in early childhood.

ImageThe Indianapolis Children’s Museum is a shining example of an organization that is committed to recapturing the joys of childhood. As part of Katy’s visit, we had the opportunity to interact with several of the researchers designing the new playscape experience for the museum. Kudos to the designers for believing that children learn through play, and thank you to the Children’s Museum for their commitment to sharing that belief with every parent who visits. A trip to the preschool classes housed at the Children’s Museum reflected the same belief system. Opportunities for exploration, imagination, and play welcomed us at every turn. ImageNo doubt, these children will enter school ready to learn. As our nation begins to have conversations about the importance of funding early childhood programs, let’s remember to also talk about educating parents and the general community as part of that initiative. We all want what is best for children. Sometimes, we just need to be reminded that it is ok to let our kids play. Today, I celebrate the wonders of play and ask you to join Katy’s mission to save childhood.

Celebrating Aboite Elementary School

Today, I start my blog by describing the end of my visit to Aboite Elementary School. I had already bonded with the incredibly personable office staff earlier in the morning, so I felt comfortable chatting with them when I signed out. I told them that Aboite  was one of the schools I regretted having to leave. I often encounter schools that have a certain “je ne sais quoi” that makes me want to stay. Usually, it is hard to identify one attribute that makes a school so welcoming. At Aboite, however, I have no doubt that it was the staff’s personalities that made a difference. Energetic educators with bright, welcoming smiles greeted me at every turn. As my eyes shifted from the teachers’ smiles to the children’s faces, it occurred to me that students are usually mirrors of their teachers. Not only were the children smiling, but they also treated each other with incredible respect.  Obviously, the students learned about that respect by watching their teachers. Without a doubt, the climate of the entire school reflected the character of the adults in the building. In keeping with this theme, let’s consider a famous quote that is particularly appropriate today.

“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character-that is the goal of true education” -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Today, as we set aside time to celebrate the work of Dr. King, I rejoice in the ability of the teachers at Aboite Elementary School to accomplish this goal. The students at Aboite are obviously intelligent, but the teachers continue to challenge them by requiring them to think intensively and critically. Add to that the already clear commitment to modeling upright character, and you end up with a school that invites you to stay a little longer. I hope I can visit you again, Aboite Elementary School, today I celebrate you!

Celebrating Deer Ridge

Image 13“Get down on the ground with them, and get those eyes in focus.” My husband is a much better photographer than I am, but I do try to remember this advice when taking pictures of children. At Deer Ridge Elementary School, the teachers reminded me that this photography advice is also applicable to our daily lives as educators.

The “get down on their level” thought occurred to me at the beginning of the day when I delivered my “celebration brownies” to the teachers’ workroom on the second floor. As I trudged up the steps, I thought about exhausted teachers making that climb every day just to get to lunch. The Image 11teachers, forever focused on the positive, just giggled when I commented on this irony and claimed they liked the exercise. While I was arranging the brownies, the bell rang, so I went out on the balcony and enjoyed a “view from above.” As I watched the children enter in an orderly fashion, everything from this perspective appeared quiet, simple, and neat.  I knew, however, that I wasn’t doing any good perched high above the students. So I did what the teachers at Deer Ridge do every day; I descended the steps determined to make a difference.

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From the moment I arrived on the “ground floor,” I knew Deer Ridge was a place where educators remember to focus on the eyes of their students. Teachers dedicated to meeting individual needs demonstrated their ability to make every child feel valued. One thing I miss about being in my own classroom this year is the opportunity to work with students I know well on an individual basis. A kindergarten teacher seemed to sense my longing to make an individual connection, so she sent Aidan over to get the rocks he earned for his good behavior. As I bent down on Aidan’s level, looked into his eyes, and listened to the pride in his voice, I thought, “this is what I need to remember to do every day in my own classroom.” Yes, Aidan, you rock, and so do your teachers at Deer Ridge because they reminded me to focus on your eyes. Thank you, Deer Ridge staff, for descending the steps every day to make a difference. Today, I celebrate you.

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