You might hear this question referred to as “the most-asked, least-answered question in America” – and the more so, for our youngest learners before they are verbally fluent! When we ask the “What did you do…” question, we are (often painstakingly, and rarely successfully) prying information out of young children.
I wanted to start our year together by offering two tips for how to crack open the mystery of what goes on inside our classrooms with your children, keeping us away from the “I-ask, you-tell (or rather, don’t-tell)” paradigm that we easily slip into. I’ll offer two tips: use our Daily Reflections, and play with your child.
Daily Reflections are emailed by your teachers every day. Use them! Look at them with your child at a special time; make this part of your routine. In an ideal world, you could print them, so your child could hold them, crinkle them, draw on them, and collect them. In the real world, you might suffice with glancing over them quickly on an iPhone with your child while they eat a snack on the stroll home. These Daily Reflections will cover many aspects of your child’s classroom life throughout the year. Comment (don't ask!) to your child about the pictures and words – “I notice some children played blocks today”; “It looks like the class baked challah”; “It sounds like some of the students and teachers talked about trains.” And then – wait. Don’t ask. Don’t keep talking. (This part is hard for us New Yorkers!) The words will come from your young one. And if they don’t – keep waiting. They might come two hours later, or the next morning. When they do, take back out the Reflection, and your child can point to what they’re talking about. Children are not always ready for our questions or prompts, but they often circle back to them later. After talking about the Reflection, email your teachers – do you have questions about what your child said, or about what you see? Are you wondering how you can support the learning in the Reflection at home? Your teachers are here to help make this bridge between home and school! And of course – make sure to thank your teachers.
Play with your child, and **listen** to them. Children don’t “talk it out” like you or I might; they don’t sit down with a glass of Merlot and open up. Play is their social lubricator. Joe Frost writes,
“The child’s playing out is equivalent to the adult’s talking out… The young child’s play is a means of expression; skillful adults can learn from observing play, and can express children’s feelings back to them in ways that aid understanding.” (from his book on the history of children and children’s play, or borrow my copy from the office if you'd like)
Keep a few simple play materials (fancy, new, bright, noise-making is not necessary here) somewhere central in the house. It is helpful if these materials are plain and open-ended; in my apartment, we use old wooden chess pieces (pretending they are people) along with some odds and ends – small wooden bowls, empty spice jars, a mirror, a collection of buttons and tiles. With a young child, who perhaps has not been exposed to this type of pretend play before, model for them: “This is me, this is you, this is our stroller ride to school. Oh look! Here is school, and here are the toys at school…” And let them take over. Participate, but don’t lead. And remember – this is not “ask-and-tell”. Play with them. Stay in character. If you are curious about something in their class, see if you can work it into play: “And then we all sit down for snack” (and move the pretend people over to a pretend snack table). See what happens, and listen. They’re playing, but they’re not “just playing.” They’re telling you about their day!
As an aside – the problem with “themed toys” here (movie/show characters, or even dolls that are clearly boy or girls; kitchen sets that have food that looks like real food) is that the children loses the agency to project themselves and their daily experiences into their play. They are not in class with Superman, American Girl Doll, and Elmo; they’re in class with real people and a truly “blank” toy allows them to share with you more of that. Same for non-people toys; a simple, wood bowl means your child can tell you about the snack they ate, or what their friend ate, or what they baked – they are not limited to the visuals of the play food from the kitchen set. (To get started with some of this, head to Housing Works on Columbus between 74th and 75th and peruse the shelves on the back right – a treasure trove, and only a few dollars!)
As you try either or both of these, shoot me an email and let me know how it goes. Where are you successful, where are you struggling? What other tips do you have for talking and playing about school with your child? Let’s stay in touch.
Lastly, please see below for my remarks at Parent Orientation this past Tuesday. We could not be more excited to be building school together with you all this year!
So…nursery school. Here we are. But what is it?
A group of authors that our teachers read this week inquire into the nature of nursery school. I find their words instructive for our purposes here tonight, and I’d like to use one of their notions to frame our year together. They write,
“Early childhood institutions are socially constructed. They have no inherent features, no essential qualities, no necessary purposes. What they are for, the question of their role and purpose, is not self-evident. They are what we, ‘as a community of human agents’, make them.”
As a community of human agents. That’s us – that’s you.
School is not a product of biological evolution, like opposable thumbs or walking on two feet – it is a cultural invention. It is something we have created for ourselves; something that we dreamed up and have since deemed necessary. School, in this sense, is a manifestation of an ongoing cultural project, occurring over decades and centuries and across countries and continents. You are all part of that project – as students earlier in life and as parents now.
The culturally-invented nature of school shows me that we are all engaged in the process of creating school rather then inheriting school. Like it or not, believe it or not – school is not a static, staid object but rather a living, breathing, dynamic concept.
For a quick mental exercise to illustrate my point, and I’m generalizing about decades here, think about your high school experience – the collapse of the Soviet Union, Clinton-Lewinsky, Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men – ok fine for me it was more Britney and N*Sync – and then think about what your grandparents’ high school experience likely was, perhaps in the 1930s – the Great Depression, the New Deal, in between World Wars. Then think about what their grandparents’ schooling was like in their teen years – perhaps in the 1870s – American Reconstruction, industrial revolution, building railroads.
And again, think about the nursery school experience for the same generations – you, your grandparents, their grandparents. This time, keep in mind that nursery school was quite literally invented about a century and a half ago. Before that, it simply did not exist – the first kindergarten class in America opened in 1856. I don’t think they were talking about “kindergarten readiness” then. Early childhood, and early childhood institutions, bore almost no resemblance to your children and the classrooms they will enter tomorrow.
Examining history shows us just how varied schooling can be, how open it is to the influence of the people who inhabit it.
This is both liberating and burdensome. We are liberated from the constraints of what school should be, and burdened with the responsibility of taking action to make school what we want it to be.
Therefore, my job, as I see it, is not to give you a school for you to deposit your children into; my job is to provide support for our “community of human agents” – children, teachers, parents and caregivers – who together create a school and a community as the year unfolds. What we are about to embark on – beginning tomorrow and carrying us forward throughout the course of the year – is not pre-ordained. It is not scripted.
Rather, we are here to create something together, a school that is the result of human relationships, the product of action we take together. The daily act of creation – of creating our school community – is the result of authentic, engaged relationships between all of its members. With each action you take in the confines of our community this year, you create that community.
And so, when you walk into your classrooms shortly, they do not yet make up a school. They are empty, awaiting the necessary ingredients to become a school – people and relationships. As you walk into your room – as you inhabit it for the first time as a group of parents – look around at each other, at the walls, at the very air you breathe. What school do you want to create together this year?
What I have heard from you, over the past ten years and each summer as I sit down with our incoming families, is that you want a school that is full of love and warmth, a school committed to social responsibility and social justice, a school that teaches children not only skills and content but also empathy and collaboration. A school that is also a community.
My point here tonight is that these values and ideas – their presence in this school – are not a given. It takes us – you – a community of human agents – to bring them to life. And so, tonight is an invitation to all of us to enact those values for our children. An invitation for us to live the values we want our children’s school to embody.
When you are here at the JCC, when you are in the Common Space on the 2nd floor, when you are in your child’s classroom, when you are out on the sidewalk on Amsterdam: hold the door for the person behind you; say hi to a caregiver you’ve never met before; say thank you to your teachers; take part in a Tikkun Olam project through the Parents Association; get down on the floor and play with your child and her friends – and go out of your way to make sure the child sitting in the corner by himself is included.
Make our school the kind, loving place you want it to be.