Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Re-creating the lessons from The Girl Who Drank The Moon

I have a few "project-based" book clubs for homeschool children. I love these book clubs. It gives me a chance to work with groups, and facilitate children building knowledge from one another. Since most of the work I do with kids is in one-on-one sessions these days, I look forward to the group dynamics. I am also continuously impressed with the deep thinking the homeschool children show during our discussions. We discuss one book for two weeks. During the first week we dive deeply into a discussion about the book, and during the second week we do a project based on the book. The projects vary from book to book, and I try to make sure each project adds to the depth of our discussion from the week before. Last year when we read The Giver we created our own Utopia. After reading A School for Good and Evil and Harry Potter, they designed their own school, and debated questions like should their school group students by particular characteristic, or allow students to mix. The groups all develop a book list themselves in the beginning of each session, so I am often reading quickly ahead of them to try to come up with a fun, meaningful project.

One of my groups chose to read The Girl Who Drank The Moon. I had never heard of the book before a group member recommended it, but I found it to be a beautiful story with many layers to discuss. The story describes a land with different communities. One community is protected and ruled by a group of self-appointed elders. The other communities are "free". Many of the events in the book come from the assumptions the two communities make about one another.

For our project day, I divided the students into two groups, and gave them each a secret job. One group was told that they lived in a community whose ancestors claimed that they should diligently protect themselves from the evil outside the community. Their community held sacred amulets that protected the world, but every 5 minutes (for the sake of the game I chose 5 minutes, in real life it would have been every year), they would have to sacrifice the amulets to the outside community. They don't know why they have to make this sacrifice, but they do it every year to keep themselves safe. Their challenge during our project was to build a wall of newspaper around their community to keep the other community out. That way,  one day they could stop giving up the amulets.

The other group was told that their goal during this project was to become friends with the first community. They were told that this first community is very strange, and although they guard the sacred amulets that protect the world, every  year (five minutes) they just dispose of one of the amulets. This puts the whole world in danger. This second community picks up the amulets to protect the world from the amulets ending up in the wrong hands. Their mission was to find some way to convince the first group to become friends, so they could get them to stop throwing the amulets away.

Both groups had the goal of protecting the amulets and keeping the amulets in their original community. But both groups were told assumptions about the other group's intentions, which impacted their actions and how they interpreted the other group's actions.

I wasn't sure what would come of it, but I was pretty sure the game would not last the whole 30 minutes I gave it. I thought the groups would figure out the mutual goal early on. I was wrong.

The groups immediately got to work. The first group picked a small corner, of the room and began creating a newspaper wall to barricade themselves in. Every five minutes the timer would go off and they'd throw out a shiny rock/amulet to the other group. The other group would pick up the rock with confusion and put it aside, while busily making craft gifts and welcome signs. This second group worked hard on trying to find a way to show they wanted to be friends.

Despite all of the second group's gifts and friendly nature, the walled-community held strong inside their tiny area. They had literally boxed themselves in, and although they were getting uncomfortable, and were constantly losing amulets, they refused to give in to the friendly overtures at their gates. A few of their members climbed over the wall and joined the other side, and one wavered from the inside, calling for peace for all. One even asked, "What happens if we don't give you the amulet?" The second group answered, "Nothing! Why are you giving them to us?"  But even after that conversation, the first group continued to hand over the amulets, and refused to trust the outside group.

There were many flaws with this lesson, and if I do it again there is a lot I would change. But it was fascinating to see how groups of people can find it hard to accept the good intentions or others, and to blindly accept historical narratives as true. Even when both groups had the same goal, and would be stronger together, they still maintained walls and beliefs that prevented themselves from winning.

When in our daily lives do we fail to see the common goals we share with another person or group because we are so intent on building our walls, or following a plan of action that does not have meaning behind it?

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Importance of Play

While attending the Council for Exceptional Children’s Division of Early Childhood International Conference in Portland, I attended session after session on play. Why it is important, how to teach it, what to teach, and how to support families in playing with their children. One of the most fascinating sessions I attended was on Project Play, a research study out of Northeastern University.
In this project the researchers have been studying the different developmental stages of play with objects. They have found that how children manipulate objects during play develops in a series of stages, and that this development is clear whether or not a child has a disability. It is important, then, to support children in play where they are, and help them move to the next developmental play stage, without skipping over play stages, as children need to experience all the stages to move on. This work resonates with Stanley Greenspan’s work on DIR/Floortime, and I was fascinated to seem the similarities in the research findings.

The work also had me thinking about how we look at childhood and elementary school itself. This was my second early childhood conference of the year, and in each conference play has been honored as an essence of childhood. The field of early childhood understands the importance of play in a child’s development. But how are the rest of us doing when children move from early childhood to the middle years? We no longer honor play as an essence to healthy development, but see it as something that will give children a break from a hard day of work. Yet for many children, the play in itself may be exhausting, because play is where their real developmental work takes place.

The findings of Project Play stuck me as well, because once children enter elementary school we start talking about age appropriate play, and age appropriate toys.  Yet a child with developmental delays, who is following the developmental play trajectory, is going to miss out on steps in his development if he is forced to experience age appropriate toys and experiences. Instead, he needs developmentally appropriate play opportunities, with an adult who can carefully guide him up the developmental chain. Forcing a child to play with an age appropriate toy, or play an age appropriate game at recess, may make the child look like he is typically developing, but in fact is denying the child an opportunity to develop the missing skills. Of course, we don't want the child to stick out as different and subject them to bullying either, so we need to be mindful in how we choose to create developmental play opportunities for older children.

Object play is where children learn much of their visual-spatial processing skills, which prove to be essential when a child needs to be able to determine the beginning and ending of a word when reading, or to be able to manipulate numbers within a written math problem. Symbolic play, where items represent real-world items, like when a set of blocks becomes a fort, or a plastic doll becomes an animated person, supports children’s development of symbolic reasoning and ideas. In symbolic, dramatic joint play, we learn to accept another’s idea and add on to it in our play. We experience cognitive flexibility, and coping strategies. These are all skills that we need for healthy executive functioning skills, as well as being able to understand scientific reasoning, complex math problems, and comprehend literature.

But if we are forcing children to skip these play stages, or not giving them time to experience these play stages at all, what are we doing to their development? We can teach something that looks like dramatic play, but is it a full understanding of dramatic play that is also helping the child develop cognitive flexibility? Or is it simply that the child is following the set of play rules we put out for them, because this is how to make them look like their peers?