NY Times on the importance of play in early childhood education

A friend sent me an article from today’s Times, making the same point I’ve been trying to make for the last few years.  Play is a key to getting young kids interested in learning and interacting as part of an inventive, inquisitive group.  I was glad to get the piece, which supported my thesis, though it also aggravated me slightly to read it.  

Written by a freelance science writer in the well-balanced style that is the Times’ trademark, it quoted several educational researchers who believe that more play should be part of early schooling, instead of the accelerated academics pushed by our country’s misguided, corporate-driven educational mandates.  “No Child Left Behind” (surrrrrre…), the article suggests, may underestimate the academic value of young children discovering learning in joyful play, rather than by forcing them to do cognitive tasks at an age when they cannot fully understand or participate in them.

True enough.  Play is crucial for a lot of reasons, at all stages of life, but particularly for kids beginning school.  Glad to see the NY Times printing an article about it.  Here’s the thoughtful, well-written piece.

A sardonic tendency, ingrained by my father, no doubt, twitched after reading an article which, to me, stated the painfully obvious and brought this unfortunate analogy to mind:

“Seven-year multimillion dollar Harvard study of 100,00 children and young adults strongly suggests that children forced by abusers to engage in sexual activities are far less likely to be enthusiastic about sexual intimacy later in life.  Researchers debate….”

I know, I know.

We get to the heart of the discussion on play vs. academic tasks for tykes with this paragraph:

The stakes in this debate are considerable. As the skeptics of teacher-led early learning see it, that kind of education will fail to produce people who can discover and innovate, and will merely produce people who are likely to be passive consumers of information, followers rather than inventors. Which kind of citizen do we want for the 21st century?

The answer really depends on who you ask, as many answers do.  Those who profit from a passive, easily manipulated consumer society have a vested interest in keeping masses of Americans as stupid and gullible as possible.  Which kind of citizen do we want for the 21st century?  It depends on who “we” is.  If it’s the good folks who make billions on ever more sophisticated standardized tests for tykes?  No brainer.  If it’s those who believe that democracy can only work properly with an educated, thinking populace able to intelligently discuss and creatively tackle problems?  

Well, you and I know which side we’re on– but then, nobody is paying us the big bucks to be on the side of profiteers at any cost.  Easy to condemn educational profiteers, I suppose, but, on the other hand, everybody’s got to make a living.

The importance of creativity

Adaptation of something I wrote two summers ago, all bitter references to unhygenic assholes removed, for marketing purposes:

Think of a world without creativity.   No music, comedy, repartee, great food; no movies, books or even articles, no television worth watching, no mischief, nothing worth laughing at, no cause for that good cry that is sometimes so needed.

Creativity, much spoken about by educators today, has always been at the heart of learning and good teaching.  

All creativity involves a certain amount of spontaneity.  It is play. The great John Cleese describes the essential conditions for creativity in a wonderful clip, unfortunately no longer available on youTube.  The five factors he talks about are:  place, start time, ending time, confidence and humor.   

For young children, who are naturally creative when given the slightest chance to be,  we’ve reduced the formula to this:

Have fun and help each other.

You can’t have fun if people are bothering you.  Don’t bother anyone. If you can’t help, don’t hurt.

When it’s time to be quiet for a minute or two, be quiet.

Cleese locates the creativity, you need a space to do it.  How about a room filled with art materials and a camera stand to shoot frames? With a recorder to make soundtracks and a computer to assemble the animations.

Cleese discusses the importance of a time set aside, a time with a beginning and an end, ideally about two hours.   He points out that it takes up to a half hour to leave the pressures of life outside and begin to play.  With luck you will play for 90 minutes or so.  Then play must end, as play always does, because it doesn’t feel like play forever. 

This is exactly what happens in the animation workshop.  For ninety minutes the kids have all the time in the world.

The other aspect of time is patience, taking your time, having a block of time you can use for play and dreaming up ideas.  You cannot be very creative while watching the clock, just like you can’t productively meditate keeping an eye on time.  You have to let things develop in their time, comfortable with not much happening sometimes.  

Asked what she liked best about the workshop, the Idea Girl said “it gives you plenty of time.”    

Confidence is necessary, because if you think you can’t dance, or sing, or draw, or animate, you probably won’t be able to.   What gives a person confidence?  Another one smiling and giving a thumbs up when the idea is presented.   What takes away confidence?  Critical comments, ridicule, skepticism, indifference to your best efforts.

The last part, humor, happens quite naturally in a room where children are playing, relaxed, involved, having fun, trying out the craziest ideas they can think of, not worried about anyone bothering them.

Different Styles

Given the leisure to do what they most want to do in life, a privilege few get in any case, many people would be at a loss.  I’ve received the sometimes sarcastic blessing of knowing what I’d most like to do.   Absurd as it no doubt seems, I’d like to give otherwise doomed children a creative workshop to do their stuff in.

I walked into a beautiful suburban kitchen the morning of Joe’s funeral.  Joe, a gentle and universally beloved man, fought lung cancer to his last breath, and when his last breath was too weak to let him fight, his wife continued the fight on his behalf.  In the end, as after every battle against an implacable foe on a steeply tilted battle field, the good guy lost. Arrangements were made for Joe’s funeral.  An hour before the drive to the funeral home, the smell of coffee came from the kitchen.  Two men, one around 60, the other 70, were talking about the older man’s recent retirement.

“Jesus, what do you do all day?” asked the younger man.

“Well, I work out on my treadmill.  I’ve started to play golf, I do that a few days a week in the nice weather.  I watch a lot of TV.  I even read a book once in a while, believe it or not.  It’s not bad,” he said with a weak smile.

“I’d shoot myself within a week,” said the younger man, shaking his head “I gotta go to work.  I’d go crazy if I wasn’t working.”

Not me, I thought.  It could be because I am already crazy, of course.  I don’t rule that out.  It could be because I have things I love to do that I do whether I get paid for them or not and at the moment am eking by without having to get paid.  It could be because I believe in something bigger than myself that I am working towards.  It could be because I am already crazy.  It could be I am repeating myself.   It could be many other things.  The world could be wrong in its cyclops-like focus on the  material “bottom line” and I could be right.  I could be wrong and the world could be right.  We could both be wrong, but in the end the world wins anyway.

One thing I will say, and it should be clear enough to go even without my saying it:  work is the most universally practiced form of therapy in the world.   Without work to give focus and identity, not to mention a livelihood, life can seem meaningless, a rudderless float in a thirsty ocean.   Go to work and you will mostly not be thinking about the hundred things that might drive you insane.  At work you earn money, sometimes get thanks, recognition or respect, feel productive (at least sometimes), have colleagues to talk with, spend the bulk of each day in purposeful activity of some kind.  Those who do not work, can’t work, can’t find work, are prone to depression, anger, hopelessness, violence even.  

L. Paul Bremer’s biggest boner as unqualified ruler of Iraq after Shock and Awe was firing everyone in the Iraqi army instead of keeping them employed and on the payroll.   Bremer sent these unemployed men home with their guns and told them sternly to fuck off.   Bremer and his bosses didn’t expect them to react like such enraged assholes, not after they’d been liberated from the tyranny of a modern-day Hitler.   No good deed goes unpunished, they say.

I am not knocking work, though my attitude toward it may deviate from the prevailing Calvinist ethic.  We live in a work and profit-driven society and it has long been thus.  Go fight City Hall, Bremer-breath, one may well tell me.  Work liberates, work is a good in and of itself, doesn’t matter what the work is — it’s better to work than to day dream.  That much every school child is taught.   Better to be productive than think about being productive in some weirdly personal, non-monetary way.  

Better to do work that doesn’t mean much in the larger scheme, or work that arguably does harm, but pays you decently.  In fact, meaningless work that pays well is preferable to most people to meaningful work that doesn’t pay much.  Doesn’t take a highly paid quant to crunch those numbers and arrive at the correct answer.  Certainly meaningless work that pays decently is infinitely better than meaningful work that not only doesn’t pay, but sucks the life out of you.  Pursue that kind of unpaid work long enough and hardworking people will begin to resent your insistence on your right to meaningful work, curse you as the unredeemed prick you no doubt are.

Different styles, that’s all I’m saying.

The Long Slog

I had the image of pushing a heavy, almost round rock up a steep hill. This is how my project often feels to me.  A friend told me that even if this Sisyphean image was accurate, thinking so was not a helpful way to imagine a difficult undertaking that requires patiently applied perseverance.

“Why not think of it instead as rolling a hoop down the road?” he said.

I did, and it was a huge help.  At first.  I have found, as time goes on, that the hoop is not completely round, that its edges are sharp, that it weighs as much as the rock I’d been pushing, that the road is gutted and long, and devilishly inclined, that cars now whiz by, often very close by, and rarely miss spraying a plume of filthy water.

“What else would you rather be doing?”  I ask myself.  I have no better answer than this, truly nothing engages my imagination and my various skills more.  So I continue slogging the long slog.  Strength to all of our arms!

We take our laughs where we can get them

There was a woman, a very good looking young woman, actually, who had a small business running after-school programs and seemed to grasp the educational and group dynamics potential of the student-run animation workshop.   When I increased the price to about double what the first after-school program was paying, she barely hesitated before agreeing to pay it.   Her assistant was a great and supportive fan of the workshop, she urged me to organize the little mini-animation festival I put on for the kids and their parents.  One day a week or so before the festival the usually cheerful assistant came in and told me her boss had died the previous day.  Cancer she never revealed to anyone she worked with had ended her life at 34.  Her business winked out of existence a few months later.

Fast forward a few challenging months and, temporarily (or permanently) out of public school programming, I am conducting a four session workshop for women with chronic serious diseases.  Some are in recovery from cancer, others show up straight from chemo, some show up once and not again, others make half the sessions.  A core of four is there every week.  These first time animators all produced very cool animation, worked beautifully together, got more and more demanding about seeing the day’s rough cut before they left, high fived each other at the end.   One woman in particular, Liz, was a great innovator.  She came in with brilliant and ingeniously different ideas week after week.  Her animation for the four sessions is here. 

She was excited about assisting at the recent Stevenson workshop, the first I’ve done since last summer.  The day before the workshop she was hit by the flu and couldn’t make it, she expressed her sincere regrets.  I assured her there’d be more sessions, promised she’d be at the next one, whenever I could arrange it.  A few days later I sent her the clip from the Stevenson session, telling her how difficult it had been and that she hadn’t missed much fun.  I didn’t hear back.  I wrote again a few days later, telling her I hoped she was up and around and that I’d be sending her the new website soon.

When the website was done I sent her the link, since she had grasped the idea so well and run with the ball so enthusiastically, once she’d had her head down on the table for the first forty minutes or so of each session.  I emailed her once more after not hearing back, and was beginning to fear the worst for this talented woman I barely know.  I have gleaned that she is living with cancer, and that it is not easy living.

When I got a smart phone I texted her that I’d joined the 21st century, hoped she was over the flu and feeling better and added this picture.

Are You OK ?

Several days passed, and hearing nothing from her, I imagined the worst.  A gloomy thought twisted its way into my head: this workshop is the accursed kiss of death to the rare women who really get its potential and find it compelling.  

Then tonight, at 1:35 a.m. a tiny bell in my pocket sounds, and she’s texted:

Congratulations!  Sorry for the delayed reply.  I’m so so happy flowers are growing (emoticon of red flower) Rain makes it happen (yellow umbrella) Happy Spring!

I wrote back:

Thanks.  Good to hear from you — and happy Spring to you, too!

I hope you don’t have any objection to this wonderful bit of work being here (and I sent her the link)

3:42 a.m.  I’m glad you sent this.  I’m very upset and can’t sleep.  Seeing this animation was uplifting.  Thank you . … (emoticon of girl holding up hand)

3:45 a.m.  I’d share this on my Facebook (emoticon of two people holding hands) except one thing.  If it’s not too much bother, I’d like an edit…

Here I had an actual laugh.  A small one, yes, but genuine (nobody here to impress with a fake laugh) and, like I said up top, I’ll take me larfs where I can get ’em.

3:49  the part with the butterflies has the cat jumping in. (Cat head emoticon)  At one point its head changes to a dog.  That’s not my taste (slightly disgusted looking emoticon)

3:52  I’d post your page without hesitation if that part were eliminated (a series of emoticons animating a round yellow face bursting into a laugh)

3:55  Thanks for replacing maddening thoughts with delightful ones.

She made my day with that one.

4:08  I enjoyed Jesse’s project!  (gold star emoticon)  The patterns in the beginning are well done.  The tumbling guy has fun hair.  (emoticon of a thumb up)

4:14   I will try to sleep and think of (emoticon of rowboat, I think) being inside (angel fish emoticon) animation (some kind of water emoticon).  Thank you. (emoticon of little angel head with halo).

Embedded?

Need to trim this down and send it to a friend I’ve been out of touch with.  Following up on yesterday’s energizing meeting, the guy turned out to be engaged and engaging and had a lot of helpful information, I need to continue the networking.    This cat knows two well-known animators he’s offered to introduce me to.   Let’s see if this embed works.

The Point of Today’s Business Meeting

I have the product, the original and compelling prototype built and ready to be put in a package and sold.  Now I need to develop skill and confidence in the packaging and selling.   Today I have a meeting with a man who runs a well-funded nonprofit that uses the discipline of 3-D animation as a therapeutic tool for “at risk” and court-involved teenagers.   His organization has an office, where I will meet him, and a staff, including a Director of Programming, the job I had been mainly focused on for the first couple of years of my adventure in becoming the change I want to see in the world.  Maybe I will be introduced to his Director of Development, which is what fundraising is called in the corporate world.  I need to start meeting these money people and asking a lot of questions of them.

His organization is supported by grants from foundations and sponsored by several corporations.  It seems to have been remembered by wealthy people in their estate plans.  By all appearances it looks like it’s thriving.

What do I want from today’s meeting?  Mostly to get insight into how to raise money, and get the name of a grant-writer to talk to.  I plan to ask directly, at the proper moment, and for the rest of the meeting, actively listen.  It is the minimum I’d like to take from today’s meeting and I must be sure to get it.  Repeat: get contact info for his Director of Development and any grant-writers he knows.

Here are things I will keep in mind.

To speak little of my own program, answering only as much as asked for about it.  To draw him out on how he went about building his unique inspiration into a working expression of his idea that is helping many and allowing them to express themselves, learn skills, work as teammates and better their lives.  How he got it up and running– how he was inspired to turn his dream into reality and what steps he took.  What advice he might have for someone in the beginning of a similar project.

I know the short answer is that it’s possible to build charitable organizations, even those driven by vague or ass backwards missions (as with several I’ve seen), with sufficient funding.  If you start with enough money you can hire the people you need to take the organization pro in short order.  How to get funding is the million dollar question. 

The point of today’s meeting is to listen to this guy, draw him out, hear his ideas. Ideally end with him sympathetic enough to my goals to offer to be a mentor, talk on the phone, bounce ideas off of.  That he seems to be a man of few words indicates to me that I should not ramble on either.  I should pay attention to what he’s saying, be thoughtful, find areas of shared interest, ask engaging follow-ups.  

He e-mailed back quickly to invite me to meet, and though he didn’t mention having clicked on my website, he’s no different from several of my friends in that regard.  Even if I were inclined to hold that against him, it would blunt the point of today’s meeting if I had it anywhere in mind.  It is, truly, meaningless whether he finds my program cool or not, although hopefully he does.

Today I’d like to take the tour of his facility, if possible, hear the full explanation, see more work by his students.  The sale at this meeting is as subtle as the abuse many experience as kids and tricky to put into words.  But it is a sale.  The point of today’s meeting is to sell.

The person who made the introduction wrote “don’t let him get you to volunteer for him.”  I am forewarned.   The only other thing I know about the guy, really, is that he chooses to run a program to help “inner city” youth in trouble.  

That he chose to do this with his life and creative energy speaks very well of him.  I will applaud his mission and ask him how he got the drive to help these kids, tell him, if he asks, about going into that tenement in West Harlem that was right out of Bigger Thomas-world, the brutality and lowered expectations I witnessed there and at the Hugo Newman College Preparatory School there in Morningside Depths, the tremendous creativity I saw in the kids whenever they were given the chance to express it.

And remind myself to stay away from politics.  Keep my end upbeat and open. I’m there to listen and drink in advice and wisdom.  He’s the customer, and he’s by definition always right.  Going there today to exercise the patience I’ve developed in other areas, see what, if anything, this fine man has to offer that could help my organization. 

One thing I need to remember, this man was driven to be an artist before he started this organization, which. like mine, is  based on creativity.  He is among that small slice of people who are excited by creation, know the thrill of timelessness that comes upon a person when he or she is painting, drawing, layering parts on top of musical parts, composing, editing.  I need to go there and see where he’s at.  That connection to creativity could be the key to the whole meeting.

“Who’s in charge here?” the moments-before-angry faced teacher’s aid asked me in the workshop the day she filled in there for my absent assistant.   It was a rhetorical question, I could see by her smile that she got it.  The process was in charge, the organized chaos of creativity.  She was amazed that no adult seemed to be directing it.  There is no point to mention that to this fellow, he is a director in his program and imparting discipline is as important to his stated mission as freedom is to mine, maybe more so.  But the impulse to create, this is a key.

Got to trim my beard, get in some of my least shabby clothes, and head down there, with these thoughts in mind:

creativity

identifying with kids in trouble

turning ideals to action

grant-writer and Director of Development  

how did you find good people?

Mission Impossible

Breaking the impossible mission into small bites, each broken down into a yes/no question and working through an exercise based on the CBT thought record, with evidence for each answer.    

Is the idea or premise of the project sound?

Yes.  The premise that children thrive and are eager learners and peer-teachers when they are listened to and encouraged to be autonomous has been shown many times.  I have demonstrated this in dozens of sessions in public school after-school programs.  Take a look at Sugata Mitra’s great work for an engaging and much more scientific demonstration.  Teaching others yields the highest learning retention (90% vs. 30% for demonstration) of any teaching method.  (While this seems intuitively true, see this)

cone of learning

The organizing principle of the program is  basic and almost too simple to need much explanation.  People like to be listened to, children, in particular, need to be heard, have their competence acknowledged.   The role of adults at the workshop is primarily to listen to and encourage children’s ideas.  In a room where teamwork proves to be the most effective way to work, and is also much more fun than working solo, cooperation takes place naturally.  Where there is excitement to do something, and a working method in place, the thing will get done.

Does this translate to the educational and social development gains you tout for this program?

The evidence here is incomplete but results in the rooms where workshops have been held strongly suggest that it leads to these gains.  The potential of the program is great, and student enjoyment of it, and engagement with it,  almost universal, so far.

How is this program different than other programs that use animation with children?  

Those programs offer structured lessons taught by adult teaching artists who guide the children step by step through a given technique. They function in the traditional teacher imparts knowledge to student model where the student then demonstrates what they have learned by carrying out the instructions.  

In my program the children are the artists, with access to an array of materials and media, and they learn by observation, discovery and invention.  They quickly become the teaching artists themselves when they solve problems and help another student with something they’ve mastered.

Have you made progress marketing?

Yes.  I have redesigned the website which has been universally regarded as an excellent improvement over the old one and something that shows the program in action, expresses its essence colorfully and explains it, within ten seconds or so.  Czech it.

I am producing postcards, a brochure and a short, beautiful book in children’s book format showing the program in action.    I overcame many technical hurdles to design the website and get it on-line and, seeing the concept and shape of each of the other marketing materials I need to make, I am confident that they too will be beautiful and engaging.

Hate to ask a mean question, but have you had business cards made yet?

No.  While they are cheap to produce, and any card is better than none and I can always have a better set done later, I have been stymied by design challenges.  A pathetic excuse, I am well aware.  They are at the top of my list of marketing things I need to design, even though I did not include them on my list above.

Any luck going down your checklist of things you need to do to advance your mission today?  

No, none so far outside of this exercise.

Is it possible to sustain a strong belief, even with something that works exactly as you envisioned and designed it, and has the potential everyone you’ve been able to show it to has grasped at once, in the absence of another person who believes in it too?

No.  In the long run, no.  And this is a long run.  That’s why my next task is reaching out to several strangers to see what I can do in that crucial department of meeting people who will be engaged by the program and what it can do.   Truly, that is the most important single task ahead of me right now.

Will you get on it right now?

Yes, of course.

Rob:

I got your name from (  ) who met you at ( ).  ( ) thought you might be a valuable person to speak with about my program, an educational nonprofit I am in the process of launching.

Based on the principle that adults listening to children is a powerful motivation, the wehearyou.net student-run animation workshop has been embraced by children (and in one case adults with chronic disease) in the dozens of workshops we’ve done. You can see some of their work here (link)

I am in the process of recruiting adult facilitators and collaborators.  I believe that Social Workers and Art Therapists have a skill set that would make them ideal in this role, and that they would also derive a lot from participation in the program.

If you’d be willing to talk to me, I’d be much obliged.  Email me here or call ( ) at any time.   

format for contacting organizations:
 
Discovered your program recently and admire the work you’re doing.  It’s amazing to me that [insert particular amazing thing here]  more people don’t see the connection between collaborative creativity and improved social and life skills.   Congratulations on your great work.
 
I’m in the pre-launch stage of a nonprofit program with a mission similar to yours, a stop-motion animation workshop for public school kids ages 7-11.   The kids collaborate, like a [compare to their actual work], and do all aspects of production, using computers to create what are essentially digital flip books.   You can see some of their work here:   http://wehearyou.net/
Of course, the animation is in a way a bi-product and organizing principle.  The real deal is the kids working as teams, teaching each other, spending a couple of hours in an encouraging​, creative space where imagination and technical precision are two interlocked aspects of good work.
 
If you have some time to speak with me, I’d be grateful to hear more about how you developed your program from the initial inspiration and first steps to a sustainable program.  
 
wehearyou.net works exactly as designed, kids take to it immediately wherever we’ve done it, but I could use some ideas and guidance about how to get it up and running on a wider scale.
 
If you’d be willing to talk, email me back or call me any time ​
at (  ), whatever’s easier for you. 
 
In any event, know that your success is an inspiration to my fledgling organization.

Book plate1-FINAL flat

Mania

Tired, very tired today after succeeding in the frustrating prolonged struggle to get the new website up and running.   That I did it all completely on my own is a source of some pride, though mainly the source of my exhaustion.    

An individual must be rugged, it turns out, if he or she is to work alone over a prolonged period toward a far off goal.

Now that I can embed videos on wehearyou.net directly (see Thanks and Animation pages), I am determined to replace them all.  Although there is an ether gremlin in the mix that causes two of the four to disappear, instead of playing, but only on the masked site…

Determination… hard to tell from mania today.screen cap ether gremlin