musing about pregnancy, parenthood, education, play, & learning from birth until now
It seems frivolous to some, but when children engage in play in any form, it is actually the most advanced form of development we can allow for.
Why, then, are we forcing academic skills earlier and earlier in early childhood education? I want to go on record right away to say that early childhood teachers and specialists do what policy dictates. They become the unintentional gatekeepers of academic skills-- they are the ones who are blamed when gaps occur in a child's literacy development. It really isn't fair. Children walk into PK classrooms with significant gaps in vocabulary development if they come from a home where they are not read to, interacted with, or simply sat in front of a screen. While we know that the 3 million word gap study wasn't necessarily so black and white (the original study claimed a 3 million word gap between those in poverty and those who are affluent), and since then we've developed more nuances theories of vocabulary and literacy development, but ultimately the premise stays the same. In homes of poverty, more likely than not, children do not have access to books, parents who read books to them, parents who engage in storytelling rather than directive language ("do this, go get that, stop that"), and so on.
I'm lucky in that my child is not growing up in poverty, and is surrounded by more books and storytelling than the average household, since, well, I've made a career out of literacy. But sometimes, I need to pump the breaks. While storytelling and books and simply conversing with S. is important, there also needs to be space for individual and free play.
I've been reading a book called The Importance of Being Little by Christakis.
I haven't gotten into the meat and potatoes of the book yet, but already I've finding benefit in recognizing the need for grownups to sometimes not force literacy upon our kids. Yes, academic skills will develop, and yes, literacy is important, and yes, storytelling leads to literacy development-- but general development and social emotional skills come from free play, and sometimes all we need to do is sit back and allow for that free play. Now, does that mean no supervision? Of course not.
Another piece that my husband and I observed as S. recently celebrated her first birthday is the amount of toys she has in our living room. We wondered...what was it like back in the days where kids didn't have access to teapots that sang lullabies and interactive tables that counted from 1-10 in English and Spanish? In some ways, kids were more imaginative, more free. They went to play and found pinecones and stones-- interacted with chickens and dogs (we have both). They swung from branches and got muddy digging for worms. It seems kind of...old-school, right? But here's the kicker-- in 2019, our kids are lacking social emotional skills, and my inkling is because of this overstimulation with screens and toys. Time, I guess, to bring out some boxes and do some minimizing to not only allow for more free play but also to get rid of what is now looking like a possible toy-hoarding in the living room.
So, when is play no longer an acceptable form of development? Well, this kind of depends on who you ask. I plan, when homeschooling S., to give her ample time to play and tinker throughout her entire academic career. This play in my eyes will develop and change. At 1, that might mean she is climbing stairs and opening and closing doors. At 2, she might be throwing a ball to the dog or digging for stones. At 5, playing hopscotch. At 10, mixing different paints to create new colors. At 16, checking out the various capabilities of a VR headset. All forms of play here are developmental in different ways, and all lead to natural learning and, most importantly, do not turn off engagement. Play is actually quite a complex concept, and I plan to use it both for open play and in a way that is facilitated in order to meet standards as well.
I don't remember covering Waldorf philosophy or Steiner as a theorist much in grad school. We may have had the odd article here and there, but all I really knew about the philosophy was that it came out of Germany and that it was considered a fairly alternative, hippie pathway. When I started thinking of approaches for PK and early elementary work, though, I realized it was a lot more prominent, although still relatively scarce throughout Maine (there is one Waldorff school in Freeport), than I originally thought.
After reading Across the Rainbow Bridge when S. was 4 months old, I romanticized the idea of Waldof in my head. A beautiful, simple approach. A focus on arts, daily routines, and happiness. No technology. An emphasis on imagination and play. What isn't to love! I was drawn particularly to the storytelling aspect as well as the minimal technology. Just like I initially romanticized the idea of homesteading, I did the same with the focus on using natural elements for everything, from dressing the child in wool to allowing play only with natural things, like fabric and clothe dolls and wooden shapes. The book was also written really well, appealing to the "good ol' days" where everything was simple. Approaching everything with happiness was essential, like daily cleaning. When I finished the book with the lovely storytelling aspect of crossing the rainbow bridge into life as we celebrate a 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. birthday, my still-hormonal self was crying happy tears that I found the philosophy that would guide my homeschool.
But then I read Steiner. Like every good researcher, I wanted to hear the philosophy straight from the source. Much like many theorists, Steiner kind of rambled on and on in a pie-in-the-sky way, but again, this dry kind of approach is basically everything I read in grad school so I was used to it, if only a little out of practice. As a sidenote, the only exception to theory is Rosenblatt, who always kept everything relatively simple.
The Renewal of Education by Steiner was a typical theory read. It included a series of speeches he gave on his approach, which eventually became known as Waldorf philosophy because the initial school which followed it was in Waldorf, Germany.
I think over the years Steiner's true approach has been softened. He believed, for example, that storytelling should lack inflection so that children could come up with their own theory on the stories biases. Of course, this goes against basic principles of reading fluency and we know reading fluency connects to comprehension. To have students be able to read fluently (which includes accuracy and inflection, a concept called prosody), we must expose them to lots of oral storytelling that models effective prosody.
The concept of natural items for play without faces is also a form of imaginative play. I don't necessarily have anything against this but it just isn't realistic in my house, where S already has toys with faces. Finding faceless toys is also deceptively hard, unless you buy items from a Waldorf toy based site, which sells dolls for 50 bucks.
Then there are kooky theories like maturity based on tooth development-- essentially that a child's maturity is based on the eruption of all their teeth, and up to that point, they aren't ready to be stimulated. Well, if you watch or read anything modern on infant language stimulation, you'll find that this isn't at all true. Check out Birth of a Word, for example.
Do I hate all things Waldorf now? Not at all. In fact, we've gotten rid of our living room TV and plan to use TV sparingly, maybe once a week, if that. But, in the 21sr century, I can't get rid of my laptop or phone. She knows what they are, and she skypes with her grandparents often, but not more than about 15 minutes a day. We will limit screentime, especially until she's in middle school where she'd be developmentally ready to use it as an educational tool, but I can't have zero exposure-- I teach online, and much of my career is digitally based.
I also still like the idea of natural play, but veto the lack of stimulation. Does she have plastic toys (a Waldorf no-no)? Yes, but she also has wooden toys and plenty of grass, pinecones, and other natural things to touch outside. Will I let her eventually frolic around and play with supervision but not necessarily interaction? Sure, when she is ready...probably closer to two. It is essential now to interact with her often so that she recognizes language and conversational elements.
So, Waldorf (and Steiner) specifically might be a bit extreme, but there are components that I see myself already using and implementing. To each their own!
Homeschooling Reason 1- Over-testing & Literacy
Rigor. Standardization. More reading. More writing. More math. With the advent of No Child Left Behind and then the Common Core State Standards, we saw a shift in accountability. As NCLB was replaced by Obama’s Race to the Top Initiative, we continued to see the pressure to test proficient on standardized tests trickle down from policy to superintendents to principals to teachers (Ravitch, 2013). Ultimately, the message was this: if your students fail, that means you’ve failed as a teacher. It is obvious, then, that if the measure of student success was standardized testing started at grade 3, and a successful measure brought more federal funding or, at minimum, kept the school open, that the only common sense solution was to teach to the test. Teaching to the test meant more math and English at the expense of arts, physical education, and any other untested “elective” (Ravitch, 2013).
The problem is, kids are kids, and to develop academically and socially, they need time to play, both in the artistic sense and the physical sense. Some might see a child playing on a playground with their friends and think nothing of it. I see that child learning social emotional intelligence, getting physically stronger, learning problem solving skills (e.g. maybe if I swing harder I might be able to skip a bar on the monkey bars), and, well, getting physically worn out and exercising.
As teaching to the test became more rampant, so did scripted curricula that prepared students for these tests. “Prep” tests are now given in some states as early as Kindergarten. The idea is that if students learn to read better and faster, then they will pass the tests. Obviously this is a flawed premise—pushing students to read faster and move through programs like accelerated reader, where students are awarded extrinsic “rewards” for reading as many books as possible, kills the love for reading. It kills motivation for reading. It kills the aesthetic value of reading (Gallagher, 2009). Yet, when students walk into Kindergarten in 2019, they will have, on average, 20 minutes of recess, 20 minutes of art, 20 minutes of science, and at least 120 minutes of reading/writing.
As someone who teaches English and English education for a living, of course I’m thrilled that we are dedicating so much time to literacy. But, the problem is that this time isn’t spent simply having students marvel at the pictures in a really artfully crafted book. Students often don’t have much choice as to what they read, and if they do, they still have to submit that book report or answer reading comprehension questions. In some ways, yes, it is important to see if students are able to read phonetically—testing using, say, running records, is an important way to know whether or not, formatively speaking, students are having any issues with phonetic awareness that can be “diagnosed” and solved. The problem is that our attention in our schools is placed on rigor, not aesthetics, and while our students might come out of Kindergarten often knowing how to read, they already hate it. I’m all for rigor, but we are doing it the wrong way.
It is ironic that the teacher educator has chosen to homeschool her kiddo. Yes, I get the irony. If I could simply send my child to school with my former preservice teachers minus the bureaucracy of public schools, I would. I trust the preservice teachers I work with immensely. The problem is, often their hands are tied. How creative can you get when you are told in your scripted curriculum that you need students to complete pages 78-80 in their worksheets today? How much can you argue with test prep if your job depends on it?
When S. will be ready to read, she will learn to read through phonetic instruction (not whole language instruction—we’ll take elements of this instructional approach, like learning sight words, but as a whole research points to phonetic instruction as a more effective practice, although slower). She will have a choice of reading what she wants, and I’ll fill in the gaps by reading out loud books that might be a bit too advanced for her to read on her own. This way, she continues to develop her vocabulary (a key to building reading comprehension—see Kylene Beers and Donalyn Miller) but doesn’t struggle so much that all hope for reading comprehension is lost. The idea is to scaffold instruction just so that she is constantly between the two rungs of the Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky) of being easy enough to complete without facilitation and just hard enough to not be able to complete without facilitation. In plain English, this means that she’ll need to read books that she can easily read independently PLUS books that might require reading aloud because the vocabulary is just complex enough to learn new words but not too hard as to lose motivation because NOTHING is understood.
I know I’m “mixing” learning to read instruction with reading instruction, but the two really go hand in hand. We begin developing literacy skills in our children from birth, right—language is the key starting point for developing literacy skills. The more we read to our kids, the more vocabulary they are exposed to. They are also exposed to differences in tone and inflection with written word. Think about it—you don’t ever talk the way that you read, unless you are loony. From reading aloud you move into reading letters aloud along with phonetic blends. This sounds fancy, but often is intuitive. You want them to say mama? You usually sound this out, right? That’s a phonetic blend—MMMM----AAA. Ma-ma. Go on, baby, say it—mama. Ma-ma. Maaaaaaa---ma. This is the very basic and essential example of phonetic instruction!
Eddie and I have many more reasons for homeschooling S., and I’ll continue to reflect on these ideas here, but for now I’ll leave you with the reading that I cited in the above post, along with the idea that it is NOT our teachers NOR our principals that are often at fault for the state of our over-tested public schools these days—it starts out with policy makers who are both too far removed from public education to know better AND often "bought" by companies who profit hugely through the education market.
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