I decided to sign up to help with our local school’s PTA this year as secretary. Especially because I only have a few years left before I return to the classroom, I am excited to dig deeper into the parent side of school.
I’m hoping that because it’s an entirely new board, my continual question-asking will be seen as constructive rather than just annoying. But even as I have started to consider my role, I felt that writing a post might help me synthesize my thinking, as well as to share ideas for others.
What makes your school unique? What challenges does the community face, and what are some advantages it possesses? How can you find out more first-hand?
What are ways the school already fosters relationships between teachers, parents, and students? What are ways the PTA can facilitate even stronger connections?
How might inventorying past and potential events/programs benefit your school?
What are the ways parents prefer communication? How might you find out?
In what ways can you convey to parents that all their voices matter, even if they can’t attend meetings?
In what ways might you be responsive to the needs of parents, teachers, admin, and students as a PTA?
How might the PTA collaborate with the administration?
I am hopeful that we can find opportunities to strengthen connections among parents, teachers, and students!
Sure, they may be building independence, problem-solving, time-management, confidence, physical health, risk-taking, and more. But the neighbors don’t see any of that. What they see & think is, “Where’s the mom?”
Never mind that when we were kids, such unsupervised play with a pack of neighbor kids was the norm.
Never mind that outdoor play actually addresses dramatically more threatening issues our kids face today, such as anxiety and diabetes.
When a someone recently told me that “Where’s the mom?” is the question asked when they see my kids play, it led me to revisit the way unstructured, unsupervised play has declined since when we were kids (sidebar: what about “Where’s the dad?” If we’re going to be judged, at least let it be equal opportunity judgement!). I have started to wonder whether this is less about protecting kids and more about protecting ourselves from judgement (offline & online) from other adults.
Ultimately, we need to find the courage to set aside those fears and focus on kids’ needs. We have been told, “You can’t be too careful when it comes to kids’ safety.” But the truth is that “an obsession with safety carries its own risks,” not least of which include a child’s diminished sense of autonomy. (see “Child Safety Up, Child Anxiety Up. Hmmm.“).
As a teacher, this seems to have direct parallels in the classroom as well. Both teachers and parents are pressured to make all the decisions in the name of safety or future success. Both are put under such an intense microscope, challenging the status quo is risky business. Both face an ever-present risk of severe judgement.
As a result, child autonomy is suffering, but we have the power to change that. We can:
Let them walk/bike to school (join LetGrow if you’re interested in finding other families near you to walk/bike with).
Actively discuss with kids the nature of autonomy and how we can work toward that goal.
And of course, it always helps when we find our tribe! There are many Facebook groups (one example here) and Twitter hashtags (#StudentAgency & #studentchoice) where you can find supportive teachers and parents who are similarly working toward childhood independence.
I’ve often mentioned the importance of creating a rich environment to help invite learning (rather than relying on more contrived programs and flashcards that put learning on the adult’s timetable all the time). But like everything else, this has been a bit of a journey for me.
Weird fact about me: I have subscribed to the magazine Better Homes & Gardens since I was 13 years old. (A major influence on my continued loyalty was when they replaced a copy that my very helpful then-2-year-old had “put in the bathroom.” ie, watery toilet grave. I still hope that email with my pitiful story and request for a new copy is pinned to some break-room somewhere).
So while I’m nothing even close to an expert on interior design, by the time kids came along, I had some difficulty consolidating my notions of home decorating with kid-friendly-play.
So for today, I thought I’d share today a little of what that learning environment currently looks like in our home. Some of the learning environment elements include…
At first, I restricted access to all sensory play (like the box of beans below and play dough) so that they would need to ask each time they wanted to play, because who wants to spend days constantly cleaning this up?? But then I learned how wearisome this can be for all parties involved, which ultimately inhibits play.
I ended up replacing the box with one on wheels, storing it under a daybed where the kids can slide it out to play as desired; play dough storage became similarly accessible. As for picking up stray beans, it turns out the dog really likes them, so that helps with the mess factor. But most importantly, sensory play has become a more readily-available choice in our home.
I mingle the toys with the books, and try to provide a cozy spot nearby (like the sheepskin rug pictured below) so that reading is always a convenient option. I’m also always shifting the way our books are organized and displayed (more on that in last week’s post).
I try to provide “toys” that have open-ended possibilities. Our loose parts toys (photo below) are one of my favorite ways to watch my kids’ imaginations fly, but another factor has been simply arranging toys together. Safari LTD animals near a school bus near wooden trays.
…occasionally setting up invitations to play
Leaving shelves open so that we can find new ways to invite play on their level has been helpful here. This little “dining area” has been set up for a while so my kids have largely forgotten about it by now, but it’s often the first thing visiting kids notice when they come over to play.
…Design for togetherness
This has been perhaps the most influential element of creating a rich learning environment at home. I used to think that I needed to keep toys and books corralled in a corner so that the grown-ups could enjoy grown-up space. Now I know that when I integrate play into the design, I can cultivate more comfortable spaces in which everyone feels they belong, which in turn invites more shared play.
For us, this looks like no separate play room, plenty of seating for everyone use the space, and shared bookcases arranged so everyone has what they need on their level. But of course, the possibilities are endless and should be based on your family’s needs.
What about you? What are ways you provide that “third teacher” at home?
Variety is key, and it’s not always super pretty. It’s all about access. Which means it should be ever-evolving, based on our observations of our kids’ shifting needs. And access wins over pretty every time.
This might look like…
…pulling out books from our tightly-packed shelf onto the display area with the library books to remind our kids of gems they’ve forgotten.
…giving them their own shelf to organize favorite books (and to keep them safe from book-shredding little brothers for now).
…letting them go to town arranging their own personal “library.”
What are ways you help encourage book access with your kids at home? How does that shift over time?
A few days ago, I overheard my 8 year-old adding her day plans to our shared daily to-do list (more on that here). Using the speech-to-text feature, amid other typical tasks, I suddenly heard her say, “Read all the books on the bottom shelf.”
Teacher mom that I am, of course I was delighted.
But then I turned to reflect once more on our journey of her literacy:
The constant tension I felt between whether I should let her choose her own books or drill her on-level basal reader or sight-word flashcards to push her to the next reading level.
The nagging worry that I was denying her opportunities by turning down programs with the label, “proven to be successful in improving the reading skills of every student who participates.”
The way I wondered if I was wrong to yield to her book-making efforts over any worksheets that came home.
Yet amid all the angst, here we are to nearly the start of 3rd grade, and not only is she a fantastic reader and writer, but she’s adding items to her to-do list like “read all the books on the bottom shelf.”
It makes me wonder. Had I pushed all those academics and level advancement on her from my place of stress and worry, would she be making such choices for her summer? My suspicion is that had I pushed my agenda on my strong-willed child, she would want little to do with books today–especially on her “time off.”
It seems that those of us raising kids today are given every reason to believe that to trust our kids’ autonomy over their learning is tantamount to negligence. We are constantly bombarded with ads that offer promises of confidence in our children’s future success. We are so stressed by questions on whether we’re doing enough for our kids, that there is little room left for noticing the learning that quietly and naturally unfolds each day.
There is an abundance of learning and growing happening within our kids each day. Recognizing, embracing, and celebrating that from a place of love will always outperform operating from a place of not-enough stress and fear. Not because it will guarantee some future Harvard acceptance or a job on Wall Street, but because it will cultivate a lifetime of joyful learning.
I watched him eagerly build. Forget that parking garage we’d given him; his backdrop for his car pretend play needed to be a magnificent double castle. It was clear that for him, his make-believe was thoroughly real and satisfying and rich.
And I wondered how often I have not recognized such pretend play for what it really is: self-constructed learning experiences.
Now, as I watch my kids play and explore and learn, I am filled with questions.
Do we recognize their fantastical play of equal or greater value than “real world” play?
Children use fantasy not to get out of, but to get into, the real world. ~John Holt
Do we see a child at play or a person constructing meaning for themselves?
Do we believe that play has its place, but that that place is still below drilling shapes, colors, and counting if the child has reached a certain age?
“Children naturally resist being taught because it undermines their independence and their confidence in their own abilities to figure things out and to ask for help, themselves, when they need it.” ~Peter Gray
Do we allow panic of “readiness lists” (for any grade or age) to override our child’s autonomy over what they’ve indicated they are ready for?
And most personally relevant: will I avoid the same mistake I made with my oldest (from which her own stubbornness saved us both), assuming that unless I assert my agenda and timetables and learning, my preschooler will fail?
Even as I work to provide a learning environment, I will try to remember an equally, if not more, important role: to trust them enough that I take their own learning autonomy seriously.
Ok, before you think my title means I’m advocating that we expose the Tooth Fairy & abolish bedtimes, let me clarify the phrase “no secret teacher business.” It’s a phrase I hear frequently from teachers like Taryn Bond-Clegg and Edna Sackson, mostly with regards to how we plan our precious time together. It’s about cultivating mutual trust and student ownership to show them they are capable of planning productive days.
So what are the applications here on the parent side of things?
Well, just a few weeks into summer break, I’ve found myself with frayed nerves under the constant onslaught of questions:
When can we…?
Fortunately, right before I lost my mind altogether, I realized that I already make a daily list of tasks and scheduled to-dos in advance in Google Keep.
Better still, I realized there’s a fantastic feature in which one can invite collaborators. I immediately knew I needed to share with my daughter; though I confess that initially it was less about shared ownership and more about preserving my sanity (though it turns out the latter is a happy byproduct!)
Here’s what I noticed when I started sharing “the plan:”
An immediate drop in the above-listed questions (phew!)
An immediate increase in thoughtful discussions about how we spend our time.
Greater independence since it turned out she preferred consulting the Google Keep list to find out what’s next, too.
The beginning of actual collaboration — she started helping me with some of my tasks, crossing off items she knew were complete, and even adding some of her own to-do’s!
Inviting kids in on the plan is truly a win-win. When they realize that we trust them to be in the know, they will show us they are capable of truly contributing to the way we plan our time. Together.