As we open enrollment for the 2024 cohort of my 6-week course, Teacher Tom’s Play-Based Learning, I’m reminded once again how radical our ideas are about young children. I forget that not everyone trusts children even if most people say they do. I forget that most adults are convinced that children must be guided, coerced, tricked or otherwise manipulated to do “right” things, even as they genuinely profess a belief in their innate goodness. I forget that out there, outside our bubble, grown-ups might proudly say they want “kids to be kids,” yet their behavior demonstrates that they can’t imagine them thriving absent a background of near constant correction, “good jobs,” and unsolicited advice. Most people think that we agree with one another about children, but once we get talking, they start to realize that what we’re saying is radical.
It’s the radical idea that children are fully formed people, due the rights and respect due to all the other people. When we treat adults as untrustworthy, when we seek to guide, coerce, trick or otherwise manipulate them, when we correct or offer false praise or unsolicited advice, we are generally considered to be jerks of the highest order. Yet somehow, many of us, maybe most of us, live in a world in which it’s considered normal to treat children this way.
Do they need us when they’re young? Of course they do, in the way that seeds need gardeners to make sure the soil is well-tended, that it is protected, and that it gets enough water, but the growing, the sprouting, the leafing, the budding, the blooming, and the fruiting is up to the plant.
I am spending more time these days outside of our bubble, interacting with adults who seem to genuinely want to do the right thing by children, to do better by children, but who are stuck with misguided ideas of what children are. They have no notion that, from an historical perspective, what they think is normal is not: for children to spend their days doing what the grown-ups tell them to do, to sit still, to spend all those hours indoors, to move from place to place driven by a schedule rather than curiosity. Recently, I was in a meeting with a pair of partners interested in investing in educational matters. Their own children had both been in cooperative preschools like the one in which I taught for nearly 20 years. One of them said, “On my first day working in the classroom I was down on my knees helping the kids build with blocks. Teacher Sandi tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘This is the children’s project, not yours.’ That was a real eye-opener for me.”
I know Teacher Sandi. I know exactly how she said it. I’ve done it myself, often to highly accomplished professional people “slumming” for a day in the classroom. This kind of thing, as simple and as obvious as it sounds to those of us who have dedicated our lives to progressive play-based education, is for most people still a radical idea. Sometimes the thought of making the changes that need to happen seems overwhelming. It makes me want to crawl back into the bubble and stay there, focusing on the children of the parents who get it. But then I’m encouraged by how readily this radical idea can also become an “eye-opener,” just as it was for me as I set out on the same journey more than two decades ago, and just as it continues to be.
Most of what I’ve learned from and about young children over the past two decades comes down to un-learning the modern lessons of parenting, schooling, and the capabilities of children. I’ve discovered that if I am to do right by children I must release control, shut up and listen, get out of their way, and love them. And whenever I’m challenged, whenever things are not going well, I’ve discovered that the answer always lies in returning to the radical idea of treating children like people.