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It’s Not Goodbye After All

“I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.”

~Joseph Campbell

I haven’t really begun to process all the emotions that have been coming up for me as I think about the end of this school year, specifically because my daughter (who just turned 6) is moving on to a new school, on to first grade. She started coming here when she was just 2 and a half. She has spent more than half of her life within the walls of this school. She has been barefoot the majority of the time, hanging in the branches of our beloved olive tree, and making meaningful connections with so many children and teachers. She has lived here…really lived. She has dug her hands into the work of childhood- come home painted, sandy, exhausted, full of new wonderings. Her confidence has flourished, and her voice has strengthened. Her stories have been heard and shared and cherished.

Whenever I really contemplate the reality of her departure, I well up…and a bubble of grief mounts in my heart. How have these years flown by so fast, and how did her once petite stature give way to the long and lean girl who stands in front of me now? How can this be the end already?

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A couple weeks ago, my girl and I went to see her friend perform in a local children’s production of The Little Mermaid. I knew a few children who were in the play because they had been in my class when I was a teacher, and I loved seeing them up on that stage. But I was dumbfounded after the play was over when a woman came to me and said “Sara, hi! Nice to see you again! Did you recognize Emme up there?”

During the play I remember thinking how wonderful the lead actress was…she was about 10 or 11, and sang and acted with charm and grace. She was wearing a long red wig of course, à la Ariel, so naturally her appearance was drastically different when she removed it to uncover her blonde locks. She was an alumni of our school and I couldn’t believe how much she had grown…of course I recognized her! My mind was flooded with memories of the 4-year- old version of her. She was funny, bright, clever and developed a particular fondness for a hat that looked like a stuffed buffalo head. I remember, with clarity, a very specific picture of her wearing it- looking like she was about to charge whoever was taking the photo of her.

As I congratulated her, and gushed about how talented I thought she was, she smiled and seemed grateful. It became quite clear that her memories of me were fuzzy at best, and when I said “I was your teacher a long time ago” the light of recognition didn’t seem to glow behind her eyes. I didn’t take this personally, of course, and I definitely recall the overwhelming atmosphere that occurs post play, when many faces are swimming all around you to pat you on the back and congratulate you. I was a drama kid, after all. She thanked me and ran off with a friend, and that was that.

I didn’t feel defeated after our little exchange, I felt curious. I felt like a seed was planted in my mind and as I began to really reflect on it, questions started growing.

What is our impact as teachers of young children?

How does our relationship with each child guide them through their inevitable transition out into the “real” world?

What really matters most? The experiences children have here, or the memories they have of those experiences?

After they leave this place, what do they carry with them?

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As I continue to reflect on these questions I think about what I know about children. Children, of course, are mindful by nature. They are present and aware and engaged. When they are in it, THEY ARE IN IT. They experience the world with all their senses attuned. They are intuitive, empathic and industrious. I look at the children at play in our yard and I see so much going on that it’s difficult to keep track of the multitude of collective experiences they are having. On any given day (actually more like, at any given moment) you can see children involved in worthwhile things like building together, playing family, cooking in our mud kitchen, helping our garden teacher, Shannon, harvest something new, laying in the shade of our trees, chasing each other wildly, sitting on the hill listening to stories, carving riverscapes in the sand, filling buckets, collecting treasures, testing out their newly folded paper airplanes, or putting on a show.

Maybe to some this looks like frivolity, or “wasting time” but to the children who are invested in these experiences, they are deeply meaningful.

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My intent is not to idealize, or paint a totally utopian picture of childhood, of course. There are shared experiences that are meaningful for entirely different reasons that occur on a daily basis here too. Conflict and sadness are woven into the fabric of everyday. Especially in this last week of school…there is a palpable restless and anxious energy that hangs in the air as teachers and kids prepare for saying goodbye. Everyone is tired, and the children who are moving on to kindergarten are acutely aware of the looming transition.

I was discussing some of these things with a colleague recently, and she shared some of her feelings about the very real emotional impact that the work we do has…how heavy it can feel sometimes. She also shared how encouraged she felt when another colleague of ours shared some pictures that beautifully captured the connections that the children have made with each other here this year…and those connections are what the children internalize and carry out the door when they leave. In the bustle of working together, it is easy to forget the significance of ordinary moments that the children have on a day to day basis, and how these bonds and relationships inform the people that they are continually blossoming into. And just like they don’t remember the experience of being born, or their first birthday, that doesn’t mean those events didn’t hold value and worth. Remembering them is secondary to living them.

 

It is these personal narratives that the children unfold (I almost imagine them as petals blooming out of a flower) that become such an integral part of WHO they are. And that cannot be diminished or undone. So even if we are forgotten, we will always be a part of each other’s story.

No goodbyes necessary.

Finding Comfort In Conflict

By Kelsie Castro

“Those who have a strong sense of love and belonging have the courage to be imperfect.”

-Brene Brown

In a reflection between some of my colleagues and I, an interesting thought entered my mind about the conflicts that we had seen a lot of recently. Thinking specifically of an occurrence between two “best friends” in the early morning that was very emotional for both parties, this idea of conflicts between friends stuck with me. As I continued to reflect on my way home I began to wonder, what does conflict really mean for children?

Taking a step back for a moment and letting this question simmer, I thought a little more about our image of conflict. When thinking about conflict especially among children I think the most common thing for people to focus on is the responses those engaged in it have toward one another. We imagine the yelling, fighting, hitting, name calling, etc. that comes out in full force for many children (and sometimes even adults) when they are challenging someone else. Reflecting on this I started to think about what people might see if they looked past all of those loud, scary noises and movements, and instead stopped to consider the emotions behind it all.

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Artist: Cordelia, age 7 1/2 (Little Owl alumni)

Within each conflict there is a feeling there, something that is telling that person to scream, to hit and to lash out. Something in them that says “You NEED this!” These feelings and the need for them to exist is exactly why conflict is so integral to our being in the first place. In order for us to grow and develop into the people that we want to be, to realize our true selves, and to learn to advocate for the things we believe, we must experience conflict. And by this I don’t mean the little arguments we have with people or disagreements that are easily resolved, I mean real, raw, emotionally taxing types of conflict.

But what happens when people, especially children, don’t feel comfortable enough to express these big emotions, to feel their anger, disappointment, etc. to its fullest extent?

In our parent conferences a few weeks ago, one of my coworkers told a pair of parents who were concerned about their child’s strong reactions to feeling angry, frustrated, etc. that this is actually something we as teachers hope to see, a side of the children that we want to know. I recall her telling them that when a child yells at her or does something to challenge her for the first time the thought that comes to her mind is actually “Yes! They are finally comfortable here!”

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Sienna (age 3) drew anger.
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Sienna drew sadness.

Thinking about what my colleague shared I realize that this is a whole other side of conflict that so many people, especially parents, don’t tend to see. When we imagine those moments of frustration where children are kicking and screaming or those times when they are in tears on the floor, we are so wrapped up in our own frustration with what’s going on and with the idea of being challenged in that way, that we don’t see them reaching out and telling us with their bodies and their cries, “I need to feel this and I know I’m safe here.”

This is important to consider because it gives us an opportunity to view conflict, especially with those we are closest to, in a whole new light. When we engage in conflict what it actually says is that we are comfortable enough with each other to disagree, to let go of our inhibitions, to have honest reactions and to, in many ways, show them our “worst selves.” It is us being unafraid to speak our minds and realizing that it is okay in this space and with these people to be vulnerable.

Think for a moment about the the people you tend to challenge most or the people who challenge you. Chances are the people who come to mind when you think about challenge and conflict are people you are closest to. They are your partner, child, coworker, friend, family member; a person with whom you know a mutual love and respect will exist even in times when you are extremely frustrated with one another.

I think we all know it’s much easier to be joyful when the energy around you is joyful too. In fact, I’m sure many of us have had moments in our own lives when we’ve tried to mask our feelings or bury them inside to avoid being seen as the “negative” or “difficult” person in a situation. We might have conceded when we really didn’t want to concede, given up on an idea to make way for someone else’s, or even pretended to be happy in times when we actually felt really broken inside.

When you are in conflict with someone you know, and who you know cares about you, you are freed from that worry that you won’t be accepted or won’t be loved and don’t have to hold those feelings back. You can be vulnerable, be yourself, and bring all those challenging emotions to the surface, eventually making space for resolutions and repairs in that relationship to occur.

These feelings, the fear of being “that person,” is something that is not unique to adults even though I think we tend to believe it is. Even in children that feeling is there, picking at them in those moments when someones pushes them over, takes one of their toys, or makes them uncomfortable in some way. There is surely a desire to do something, to give into that voice in their brain that tells them this is not okay and wants them to yell and to fight back, but the worry of how others will react is often too strong. This is why conflict is actually a really beautiful thing. It’s not just a yelling match or a power struggle, it’s a chance for children to feel empowered and for them to advocate for themselves especially to those they are close to.

It’s in those moments when we see children find that courage and open up to someone in a sometimes painfully messy way, that we begin to see not only the importance of conflict but also why children feel the need to engage in it. For children, those times when they are expressing how frustrated, angry, or upset they are (in whatever form that takes) are really them sharing with those around them how comfortable they are. It doesn’t mean they dislike the person they are challenging or that they don’t want to spend time with them but rather that they want them to understand who they are, what they are feeling, and why they are feeling that way.

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Atlas (age 4) “Anger is black but there’s rainbows all around.”

In reality conflict is a connective force, helping children and people break down walls often times without them even realizing it. It opens up parts of us that we usually don’t want seen and allows the people around us to connect with who we are on a much deeper level. It is what brings balance to our relationships, and creates a space for vulnerability to live. A space where children and even adults to be their whole selves and when the right conditions are set, where a person can trust that they will be accepted even when things are hard.

Considering this I ask you, in the context of your own lives to ponder these questions… Can a relationship truly be healthy if it doesn’t include some level of challenge or conflict? Can love and mutual respect for one another occur in an environment where conflict is not allowed or supported? Is it possibly to realize the depth of our connection to others if we have never been challenged by them and had to work together to a resolution?

“This Is Me!”

By Chelsea Hepner

“The value of identity, of course, is that it so often comes with purpose.”

~Richard Grant

Throughout the year, the Green Side (4 and 5 year olds) have been focusing on different projects centered around the idea of self-identity. The teachers have been thinking about different ways for the children to explore and express who they are. One way that this took shape was creating self-portraits. The children were given a mirror for this project and encouraged to take a few minutes to study their face. As they did this, I asked questions such as:

“What do you notice about yourself?”

“What kind of shapes make up your face? Your eyes, your mouth, your nose?”

“What colors do you see?”

The children really took the time to slow down and study their unique features and thought about how they wanted to represent them.

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One thing that came up while doing self-portraits was the lack of skin colored oil pastels. Some children were okay with using green and pink to draw their faces, but others were looking for a color that matched their skin. We quickly realized there was only one shade of brown and one shade of peach. This sparked a conversation about the variety of skin tones. Vanessa explained, “We all need different colors because our skin in different colors.” James also shared, “We growed different with different skin.” I suggested that we could mix paint and make new colors. Many children were very excited about this idea and were quick to come be a part of this work.

In small groups, the children studied their skin and different paint colors to figure out which colors they needed to mix. They thoroughly enjoyed mixing the paint and testing the new color against their skin, adding more, and different colors as needed. The children seemed proud and excited when they felt that they had created a color that matched themselves. It is a special and unique color that truly belongs to the them and many children have even decided to name their blend! The children also had an opportunity to add their new paint color to a canvas, a place where they can see their color along with their peers.

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Naming our colors…

“Light Brown”- James H.

“Chocolatey”- Beatrice

“Elliotte Color”-Elliote

“Rice Crispie”- Max

Butterfly”_ Vanessa

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As a teacher, I feel that it is important to give young children opportunities to reflect about who they are and what makes them feel special, confident and unique.  Self-portraits require the artists to reflect and ask themselves, “How do I see myself?” “How am I going to represent myself on paper?” These projects have also brought up wonderful conversations about diversity. What do we have in common? How are we different from each other?

I’m excited to continue this work and see where it will take us, as we continue to think of new ways to share about, and express who we are.

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Update:

Chelsea has continued working with children in creating self-portraits that will become a biography book for the Green Side families. The stunning collection can be viewed in the slideshow below, or on the Green Side at Little Owl. Please feel free to come take a look at the meaningful and detailed portraits the children have worked so hard to paint. Can you see their individual sense of self shining through in their work? The “spark” of each child embedded in their thoughtful expressions?

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It’s About the Story

By Kelsie Castro

“How many times have you noticed that it’s the little quiet moments in the midst of life that seem to give the rest extra-special meaning?”

~Fred Rogers

As Calder and I were standing together in the backyard, we heard a voice yelling from the sand box. We looked over to see Carolina M. peeking around the climbing wall, gesturing us over to the place where she was standing.

“Hey! Come look at this cool thing I made.”

Calder and I walked over to the sandbox where Carolina excitedly pointed to a spot on the ground. I asked, “Is this the cool thing you wanted to show us?”

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“Yeah, it’s about a muddy puddle” Carolina replied, giggling at the thought that must have entered her mind when she said the name out loud.

Calder and I looked closer at Carolina’s work, noticing the designs she had created with her shovel in the sand. Calder, admiring the sand art, reached down to feel the texture. As Calder’s hand stroked the side of Carolina’s creation she looked at him and said, “It needs some white sand now.”

Together the two of them gathered and sprinkled sand on the design, taking a step back when they were finished to admire the changes they added together. With a thoughtful look Carolina looked at the creation and then at me and said,

 “Now it’s about a story.”

 Hearing Carolina’s words I immediately began to think about the story that this new creation was telling. In my mind the story was one of collaboration. It was about the way she had inspired him, the work the two of them had put into it, and the way that Carolina’s vision grew when she invited someone else in. In my eyes, as the admirer of their art, this story was about connection and communication. It was, like much of the art and experiences that happen here, about the story.

Reflecting on this more however, I realized that the reason this was the story I saw, the reason I could look a little deeper and recognize that process, was because I was there. I had the opportunity to see this work in action and to see the collaboration that had taken place first hand. I was able to understand why these marks in the sand were more than just that. But what if I wasn’t there to see Carolina’s excitement or to witness the way Calder looked at her designs? Would this creation be as meaningful to me?

As I wondered more about this, I thought about our parents, and how many of them don’t get a chance to see their child’s work in motion and how much they want to feel their children in the process. Thinking about those families I wondered how we could make that more of a reality. What could we do to help them see that these marks in the sand were actually something special and meaningful. I wondered how we could help families see that the work that children do is always about a story.

Dear Sara…

“Conscious parenting is activism and activism is hard. Activists are cycle breakers. Breaking cycles requires deep change and that takes time. So activists need a lot of patience. It can be deeply painful. So we need the ability to bear great pain. It is often exhausting. So we need to be good at loving ourselves and taking care of ourselves. Conscious parenting is activism. You are changing the world.”

– Vivek Patel

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painting by rollarius55

Dear Sara,

I struggle with keeping patience and not yelling, especially when I am home all day alone with the boys. Sometimes, I yell in anticipation of how hard I think the day will be. Sometimes I yell when they are physically attacking each other, and I just want them to stop. I have done several things to keep myself accountable and to reduce the frequency of yelling (including preemptively increasing self-care, and creating a chart where I track, with the boys, how many days in a row I can go without losing my cool). We have had conversations about why I yell sometimes (tired, overwhelmed, I grew up with a mom that yelled, etc.) and how this is something I am working on. We are all working on different things, together. For example, Lewis is working on whining less, and Jackson is working on patience. I am also diligent about “repairing” after (I’m sorry I yelled, this is what I was feeling, it’s not your fault and I don’t want to yell because it’s upsetting and scary for you).

In spite of my best efforts, I never make it more than a week or so without yelling. I know this is a common issue, and I guess what I am wondering about is how much to let kids know “if you listen to me, I won’t have to yell”—is this reasonable or does it put too much pressure and responsibility on the kids? Also, what else can be done about this issue? I think the hardest position to be in is not the parents that yell and are “fine” with it, or the parents that seem to have endless patience and poise (and avoid yelling all together). But, rather, the difficulty comes for parents who yell but are philosophically and fundamentally opposed to yelling, and worry about the modeling, and the emotional and relational consequences, but inevitably do it because they can’t break the habit.

Thanks for sharing your insights, as always!

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Hi Amy,

I truly appreciate, but of course am not at all surprised by, your level of self-awareness and accountability regarding this challenge you are having. I must say how wonderful it is that you don’t place blame on the boys, or anyone else, and have taken initiative to put strategies in place to lessen the instances where you lose your cool…and that when you do, you make the effort to reconnect. I struggle with yelling too, for many of the same reasons and I believe, as you acknowledged, many, MANY others do as well. While I don’t seek to normalize yelling, I do want to point out that the habit, as you put it, is one that actually stems from the deep desire for cooperation from our children. Because we are wholeheartedly dedicated to raising our children respectfully we don’t rely on tactics that are punitive, manipulative, or violent…so I think yelling springs up as almost a cry for help when everything feels out of control. It’s no surprise at all that this happens when you are alone (and outnumbered) with the boys.

So, to get to the heart of the matter I think we need to first look at all the complex things that come into play here. It’s so important to untangle all the varying factors, and perhaps put them in a slightly different context, before putting all the puzzle pieces back together to gain a clearer picture. First are the developmental realities of young children, and our expectations surrounding them. By “realities” I mean perfectly normal, but sometimes upsetting, things such as impulsivity, aggression, sneakiness, strong displays of physicality, boundary-testing, non-compliance etc., all the behaviors that pop that “peaceful parenting” bubble and make us question if we are doing things “right.” I think the more we prepare ourselves to not only expect, but to view these behaviors through a different lens, the less likely we will be to react with anger, surprise, embarrassment or feel threatened by what they are expressing in the only way they know how. The truth is, of course, that aside from the fact that our children go in and out of phases of equilibrium and disequilibrium, these irritating or unsettling behaviors are often cries for help, clearer limits or more connection.

I think that it’s so important that you bring the notion of self-care into the mix, because being a parent in and of itself can feel like an act of altruism…and for some people I believe, perhaps, even an unhealthy self-denial. One perspective I’d like to offer is the idea that self-care should include things as seemingly disassociated as setting limits with children clearly and early, meaning before we get upset. When taking care of ourselves, I think images of getting massages, having wine with friends or a couple hours of solitude come to mind, but setting limits around things we find overwhelming, stressful, or exhausting is a crucial part of tending to our own needs. Being able to know our own limits, and be aware of where the needle is on our internal gauge (slightly annoyed to livid) is the first part of bringing consciousness and intentionality to our relationships. It often helps me to use this visual of a gauge so I can be aware of the route my feelings take, because I find the more aware I am of where my feelings are (especially as they are escalating), the easier it becomes to steer them back from taking everything over. It is absolutely my responsibility alone to regulate myself, forgive myself when I don’t, and commit myself to try again tomorrow.

This leads perfectly into your question about whether or not you should let your kids know how their behavior is contributing to the cycle. Which brings up a lot of important ideas surrounding consequences…of which there are three types: natural, logical, and punitive, more on that here. What is the consequence of “not listening?” What do you think it should be? Do you trust that the sheer unpleasantness of conflict, or having an upset Mom is enough for children to internalize a lesson on how to behave differently in the future? Is the goal for them to ultimately change their behavior? What should be mentioned to them, or held back? These are all important questions to explore…

My feeling is that informing your child “if you’d just listen, then I wouldn’t have to yell” is an unfair expectation, and possibly even counterproductive- especially at this age- and communicating this to them might lead them to feel a sense of shame, or that they are somehow responsible for your feelings and actions. I think it’s important to be honest about your feelings (using age-appropriate language), and model how you regulate yourself (a few breaths, a short walk, screaming into a pillow etc.), but in the end letting them know that it is solely up to you how you behave, or what you choose to act on…and that it’s hard to be perfect, and that nobody is. I think it’s quite healthy for children to know we have limits to our patience, that they know what “too far” looks and feels like, but also how to pull back from it. I think it’s also critical to show them that we have faith that our relationship can weather some bumps, and that we remain confident in our ability to always come back around to connection.

Outside of the “storm”, once our connection has been reestablished, is the best time to problem-solve with them about how things can go differently next time, or about what they (and you) can do to contribute to a more peaceful household. Will it all come crashing down next time you are feeling impatient, or tired, or stretched too thin? Maybe. We are all facing some sort of hardship…battling something behind closed doors. It is so important to remind yourself of all the validating and loving things you are doing with your children, and that what you are doing is hard work. We must learn to rely on each other and ourselves to keep a lantern lit, so that a light will continue to shine on the darker corners of our parenting paths. You cannot change what you cannot see. Nothing can grow out of darkness.

 

All the best,

Sara

 

Additional resources:

For a wonderful overview of what nonviolent communication looks like with children look here.

For some encouragement, look here.

For Janet Lansbury’s take on yelling look here.

 

 

 

 

It’s A River Party!

by Eric Eyman

“Children need safe enough environments in which to play and explore, and they need free access to the tools, ideas, and people (including playmates) that can help them along their own chosen paths.”

~Peter Gray

river6Over the past couple of months, Emerson, Everett, Jackson, Lewis, and James, have bonded over creating waterfalls and rivers in the sandbox. This exploration is something that has connected a group of children that don’t often play together, and has become a weekly, and sometimes daily activity for the children.

On one particular day, I had the opportunity to observe the children for a long period of time and felt so excited and inspired by what I saw. I watched as the children gathered around the sandbox and discussed their plans for the rivers. The children each volunteered to do different jobs, and with a blink of the eye, the group set off to fulfill their river-making duties! James, Everett, and Emerson raced over the hill to the garden to fill up buckets of water, while Jackson and Lewis began digging away in the sandbox. A few moments later, a long, curvy riverbed started to take form. The middle of the riverbed wrapped around in a circle, which Jackson called a moat. I was amazed by how fast the two had created this elaborate river! Each time one of the children dumped a bucket of water, there was a moment of anticipation and wonder, as the children froze in their places and closely studied the movement of the water.

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I wondered: what was it about making waterfalls that was so captivating for the children? 

Jackson and Lewis made adjustments to the riverbed after discovering how certain parts of it needed to be deeper in order for the water to flow. James mentioned, “We want it to fill up everywhere.” After taking many trips back and forth carrying heavy buckets of water, the children started to complain about feeling tired. James hunched over and Everett’s arms went limp. I started to worry that the children were going to abandon the river-making and move on to another activity. I wasn’t ready for this exploration to end, and wanted to see what other possibilities the children would discover. I thought of ways to fix this problem, but then remembered how important it is for the children to problem-solve on their own, and learn how to work through feelings of disappointment or frustration. I decided to wait and see if the children would come up with any solutions.

Finally, James came up with a solution to use the hose in the sandbox. He realized that we needed to connect both hoses together (the hose from the garden and the hose from the mud kitchen), in order for it to reach the sandbox. I thought about where he may have learned this idea, and I realized that the gardeners often connect the two hoses together to reach the trees in the back corners of the yard. James shared this idea with the group, and a rush of energy came over them! The group ran over to me and asked with enthusiasm if they could use the hose. Noticing how excited they were to test out this new idea, I agreed to let them use the hose for their exploration. I thought about how James wanted to fill up the riverbed, and how many of the children were interested in seeing how the water moves. I wondered if using the hose would help them achieve their goal of having a flowing river. I also thought about ways we can conserve water, while still being able to follow through with this idea. I shared with the children that I would only turn the hose on so that a small stream would come out. The group picked up their pace as they unraveled the hose together and carried it over to the sandbox. James positioned the hose at the top of hill. As I walked over to mud kitchen to turn the hose on, I could hear the children chanting, “Water! Water! Water!” When the water from the hose started flowing down into the riverbeds, Everett, Elliotte, Emerson, and Liam splashed the toy dinosaurs around and shouted, “Yay!”

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While some of the children enjoyed playing with the toy dinosaurs in the river, Jackson and Lewis continued to dig around them, stopping only to wipe the sweat from their foreheads. It seemed like the two were determined to bring their vision to life. As I watched the two of them tirelessly dig, I wondered what it was about this project that motivated them to keep going.

Was it the thrill of seeing the water rush through their man-made riverbeds? 

Were they inspired by the other children, who shared the same passion and excitement? 

Eventually Jackson and Lewis created a second moat that connected to the first one. During one moment, Everett stopped playing and looked around at their masterpiece. In a very earnest voice, he said, “I’m SO glad. I’m SO glad.” When another child approached the sandbox, Everett cautioned him saying, “Watch out! Jackson and Lewis made this.” It seemed that he was very appreciative of the rivers that they had created.

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Later, Caroline joined the group and helped with the digging. When Jackson and Lewis started to slow down and take longer breaks, Caroline passionately shouted, “We need more diggers!  We need more diggers!” Gradually, more and more children gathered around the sandbox and observed the river-making magic happening. Seeing this group of children work together, as they had many times before, I could feel the mutual respect and trust they had for one another. Many of the other children watched quietly in fascination, and some shared observations with their peers. At one point, Nathaniel mentioned how the two moats that connected together looked like the number eight. Soon, there was a crowd of children surrounding the sandbox, and it became a big spectacle! Everett exclaimed, “It’s a river party!”

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Nurturework

By Sara Zacuto

“Children need to be loved as they are, and for who they are. When that happens, they can accept themselves as fundamentally good people, even when they screw up or fall short. And with this basic need met, they’re also freer to accept (and help) other people. Unconditional love, in short, is what children require in order to flourish.”

~Alfie Kohn

A long time ago, early in my days as a teacher, my friend and mentor told me something that has stuck with me through the years. She said:

“Parents just want to know their child is loved.”

I believe she was helping me prepare for my very first round of parent-teacher conferences, and calming my nerves with this pearl of wisdom. I didn’t have children of my own at the time, so even though her thought made sense to me on an intellectual level, it didn’t carry the same meaning that it carries now. Over the years I have reflected on her words, and they have since resonated so deeply in my experiences as a mother and teacher. Her simple yet profound statement has, in part, informed my practices in relationship building with families, and put an unconditionally loving filter on my view of all the children I’ve cared for in my many years of teaching…especially the challenging ones. And, of course, I have found these words to be true as a mother, as I want for my own children to be seen, respected and yes, loved by the other people who care for them.

I am constantly in a state of challenging, and thinking about my identity as a teacher and mother (sometimes too much, or too critically) and I’ve gone in and out of what I call grooves of “getting it.” I’ll have weeks where my connections feel strong and deep, things kind of roll, and click. I’ll feel confident and can handle curve-balls being thrown my way. Those are the weeks where all the tools I’ve learned how to utilize seem to be easily accessed, I can call up the right language and attitudes in the face of struggles. Then I’ll experience other times where I feel a tangible distance from others, or a general lack of patience and ease (all of which I can usually attribute to tiredness, anxiety or hunger), and the path of “loving well” becomes much more elusive and slippery. But this pattern of highs and lows that has emerged continues to teach me how vital forgiveness (of self and others) is, and also how critical it is to develop and hone the art of repairing and hitting the reset button after I’ve made mistakes. It takes a conscious effort to step back onto the path.

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I was recently inspired by watching an interview with author and educator, Ann Pelo, whose work focuses on reflective pedagogical practice, social justice and ecological teaching and learning and the art of mentoring.  She describes, with such eloquence, embracing a curious mindset about children. She breaks down and re-frames the notion of a teacher as an instructor who aims to deliver a measured amount of content knowledge, but rather a careful thinker who deeply considers the child, and instead offers responses to their play and interests. She speaks to the expectations of teachers, and how overly invested they can become with offering “things” to children, all in the name of supporting their learning. She suggests that we clear space for learning rather than try to fill it, which points to an authentic trust in young children as self-motivated learners. I loved her trademark, poetic phrasing when she said these offerings to children should have the “lightest touch” and teachers should have the “least attachment” to preconceived outcomes. She goes on to talk about what she calls “lively” learning, and that the emergence of new ideas and thinking comes from wrestling with conflicting ideas…that learning should be fluid, reciprocal and engaging. For a link to the video of her full interview, look here.

It is this idea of responsiveness to children, and curiosity about them, that makes me feel that it is a form of love…and I wonder:

Can we love someone if we aren’t truly curious about them?

How much do we really desire to know more about the children we are close to?

How often do we actually marvel together with the children in our lives?

As adults we often operate out of a belief that we know more than children rather than, perhaps more accurately, know differently than children. It is what makes it difficult to hold space for them, or slow down when they need more time to process something. Our “knowing” overrides theirs, and it turns into a battle of wills- which we are almost always certain to lose, not to mention be completely exhausted by. As Ann says, it isn’t “sustaining work.”

So what is the “food” we can thrive on when working with young children? What nourishes us as teachers, and in return nourishes the children we care for? It might sound overly sentimental but, it’s LOVE. We can’t show up and be present with children if we don’t love them unconditionally, and desire to know them deeper. We can’t be responsive to their needs if our love doesn’t fuel our actions. We can’t uphold the sheer energy it takes to be with young children all day without loving them. We cannot hear what they say if we do not listen from a place of love. It is love that enables children to feel validated and safe. It is love that illuminates our work with them.