Archive for December, 2009

Trying out PlayTime

Thanks to Bethany for suggesting the Playful Parenting book, by Lawrence Cohen, in response to my “Connecting with my kids” post. I’ve now skimmed most of the book, and my wife has read the entire thing and enjoyed it.

We’re interested in trying out one technique in particular. In chapter 9, “Follow Your Child’s Lead,” Cohen introduces “PlayTime,” a scheduled, more intense form of playing with your kids where you make an explicit, concerted effort to follow their lead, wherever they want to go, for a specific period of time.

The basic format of PlayTime is quite simple. The parent or some other adult sets aside regular one-on-one time with a child. The adult offers the child undivided attention with no interruptions and with a clear focus on connection, engagement, and interaction. In a sense, PlayTime is just Playful Parenting Plus, where the “plus” means more enthusiasm, more joining, more commitment to closeness and confidence, more fun, a more welcoming attitude toward their feelings, more willingness to put one’s own feelings aside, more active and boisterous play. In addition, you don’t answer the phone or cook dinner or take a nap during PlayTime.

One of the things that attracts me to this particular technique is that it is a commitment for a specific period of time. It is “time-boxed.” I get to go all-out, knowing that I don’t need to worry about pacing myself beyond the agreed-upon length of time. It’s a safe way to start building my playing muscles. A high-weight/low-rep strength training program. At least that’s one way to look at it. And I don’t have to feel guilty when I’m not doing it all the time.

Another thing I like about it is how much the kids will love it. We’ll be upfront with them about what we want to do. And we’re going to schedule specific times. With two parents and three kids, that’s six sessions total. We’re going to cover each of these once a week. And we’re starting with a 30-minute period. That may seem short, but we want to be realistic.

During PlayTime, I’ll let my child know that what we do is entirely up to them. I’ll follow along, infusing the play with whatever energy I can muster. And I’ll let them remain in charge for the duration. It will be hard work but it will also be rewarding. We’re going to forge some nice connections, and I’ll have a chance to get some deeper glimpses into each of my children’s worlds.

After I’ve had some chances to try this, I’ll be reporting back on my experiences. Stay tuned.

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Out and About

It’s been great to watch students exploring our larger community more and more. In the last two weeks, children have organized trips to Capitol Lake, where they played for hours in snow and ice; to the Children’s Museum for lots of pretend play, and to our local park where there is lots of room to run, hide in the trees, and play active games of all kinds. Many of the younger students are outside in all weather, enjoying everything from mud to frost. The photos above are from a museum visit where two students built a farm, complete with chicken coop, and everybody collaborated on creating a dinosaur world in the sand exhibit.
We wish everyone a wonderful winter holiday! We’ll be back in this space when school resumes in January. See you then!

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The Morally Questionable Lessons of Formal Sports II

You are a big-league baseball pitcher. The opposing pitcher has been throwing hard inside fastballs and has hit one of the batters on your team--maybe deliberately, maybe not. Should you retaliate by hitting their best batter with a high inside fastball? To do so is to deliberately risk injuring a fellow human being.

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The World of the Game

In the last few weeks, many students have been immersed in playing and winning Plants vs. Zombies, a computer game designed by George Fan. It’s been a highly collaborative process,with students playing together, separately, or with staff to master the complex and humorous world of peashooters, pole-vaulters, and other magical plants and zombies. Sam is playing here while students gather around, learning and questioning as they watch him skillfully navigate the world of this game.

Although video games are not yet widely recognized as the valid and worthwhile learning environments that they are, Rising Tide School students are free to participate in the fascinating activity of entering a magical and strange world and using their skills and wits to figure it out and master it. I recently enjoyed reading an interview with scientist David Deutsch about the place that video games play in children’s lives today. Consider this insight from Deutsch:

“Apart from conversation, all the complex interactive things require a huge initial investment, except video games, and I think video games are a breakthrough in human culture for that reason. They are not some transient, fringe aspect of culture; they are destined to be an important means of human learning for the rest of history, because of this interactive element. Why is being interactive so important? Because interacting with a complex entity is what life and thinking and creativity and art and science are all about.”

The full article is here and is a great read for anyone who wants to understand how video games fit into a Sudbury education. Games are an essential way that children learn when they direct their own time, and video games, along with the all the other complex, creative games invented by the students themselves, create the rich world of play and learning that is Rising Tide School.

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Growth paranoia

I was reading in a devotional classic this morning and came across some analogies for the spiritual life that I think work equally well for education. Given some basic nurture, sunshine, and rain, a plant grows without any special effort or help. We can try to help it along by adding supports and scaffolding, but it will grow regardless—sometimes in spite of our interventions. We may even deceive ourselves into thinking that our special efforts were essential—that, had we not intervened, the plant would have collapsed and died. Similarly, for a child to grow taller requires no special effort.

There is no effort in the growing of a child or of a lily. They do not toil nor spin, they do not stretch nor strain, they do not make any effort of any kind to grow; they are not conscious even that they are growing; but by an inward life principle, and through the nurturing care of God’s providence, and the fostering of caretaker or gardener, by the heat of the sun and the falling of the rain, they grow and grow.

To act in ignorance of this truth would, of course, look pretty funny:

Imagine a child possessed of the monomania that he would not grow unless he made some personal effort after it, and who should insist upon a combination of rope and pulleys whereby to stretch himself up to the desired height. He might, it is true, spend his days and years in a weary strain, but after all there would be no change in the inexorable fact, “No man by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature”; and his years of labor would be only wasted, if they did not really hinder the longed-for end.

Imagine a lily trying to clothe itself in beautiful colors and graceful lines, stretching its leaves and stems to make them grow, and seeking to manage the clouds and the sunshine, that its needs might be all judiciously supplied!

I think this perfectly describes how silly we as a culture look in our preoccupation with beefing up our efforts at educating children—more standards, more tests, more money. It wouldn’t be so silly if our efforts were focused on providing the basics of a nurturing environment in which kids could grow. But the drive is for much more than that. We as a society possess the “monomania” that children won’t learn anything unless we do something. And thus we have the “combination of rope and pulleys” that makes up our school system, and we debate endlessly about which ropes and which pulleys are best suited to the task. Few question whether the ropes and pulleys are necessary.

This widespread paranoia would be amusing if it didn’t exact itself so acutely on our children, each of whom must resultantly “spend his days and years in a weary strain.”

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Tips for parents of budding readers

Following on my last post’s more theoretical bent, this post contains some practical advice for parents of kids who are learning to read. Most of these tips would classify as common sense if it were not for the silly psychological complexes we’ve built up as a society around how we’ll ever get kids to learn.

Read to them

Read to your kids, at least occasionally. If you want to enjoy a wealth of children’s literature (as I do), do it a lot. (But don’t beat yourself up if you only do it occasionally. It’s not as if they won’t encounter written language if you don’t read to them constantly.) Share the joy of reading with them. Don’t burden yourself with theories of reading pedagogy. Likewise, don’t assume you actually know how people learn to read. None of us really do, no matter how many letters we have after our name.

Try not to get too giddy

Seeing your kids choose to read and start making sense of things is so much fun. Soak in it and enjoy it, just as you enjoyed your baby’s first steps and their first words. But don’t praise them too much. Let it be, for them, their own enjoyable experience of reading, and not primarily a way of pleasing Mommy or Daddy.

Be a helpful resource

If your child asks you what a particular word is, simply tell them. Don’t ignore their request and instead tell them to “sound it out” (unless they’re actually asking “Can you help me sound it out?”). If you ignore their request and instead make your own demands, you’re hijacking their experience for your own purposes. Aim instead to facilitate the flow. The more they flow, the more they’ll pick up. The more you frustrate them, the less they’ll want to do it.

Let mistakes slide

The fear of letting children make mistakes while learning to read is laughable. We learn from mistakes, and it’s no less true in reading. Don’t overly concern yourself with perfection. Let words slide here and there. Again, try not to interrupt the flow experience. They’ll work out the details in the long run.

Fight your tendency to control the learning process

(As if you had the power.) Here’s an exercise for you. This is for your own good, not your kid’s (though they’ll be just fine, I promise you.) The next time they read a word incorrectly and keep going, let them do it. See how many times you can let them go without correcting them. You may have to fight with all your might that internal perfectionist, but it will be good for you. You’re giving yourself a wider range of behaviors to choose from, rather than just kneejerk reactions. The next time you correct them, it will be because you chose to, not because you were compelled to.


When your kids are reading to you, give them what they ask for, and try not to interrupt them. In short, relax and be courteous.

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The Clearwater Mafia Forum

Mafia is a party game that many people at school play. There are many different variations, including some played online.

I have created a mafia forum for people to play mafia on, and as I am on vacation, I am having trouble recruiting. If you want to play a online mafia game, you can go
here and sign up.
I am running a short introductory mafia to make sure people are acclimated to forum mafia. The requirements are not too much. Basically, you would need to post once or twice a day (or more) and state your opinion and vote and such.This post ends here.

End of post.

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Reading happens

My 6-year-old daughter recently started showing an interest in reading the Storybook Treasury of Dick and Jane and Friends. I had bought it several years ago when looking at various approaches to teaching reading. But long since then, my wife and I had decided to let the kids come to reading on their own, when they’re interested and ready. We’ve avoided any parent-driven techniques and schedules for learning to read.

In fact, I had half a mind to get rid of the Dick and Jane book. It’s so obviously designed for teaching reading, as opposed to having any literary merit of its own. Even so, my daughter is eating it up. She delights in the pictures and uses them to sleuth out the meanings of the words. So I won’t be getting rid of it any time soon.

It’s fascinating to see how different kids learn to read. Some are more apt to “sound words out” based on what they’ve picked up about the different letter sounds. Others begin by learning specific words as a whole and later recognizing them by sight. It’s pretty obvious that my daughter does the latter. She’ll see “funny” and say “silly”, which tells me she’s not sounding things out. She’s going straight from image to meaning, even if she uses the wrong word.

Of course, such categories oversimplify things. In reality, each child uses a variety of ways to learn to read. Not only that, but each word is learned in its own unique way. Each word is first encountered in a particular context and has uniquely personal meanings. How “home” gets wired into the brain is not going to be the same as how “and” gets wired into the brain. “Home” can have all sorts of connotations; perhaps “home” is a lot more meaningful than a utility word like “and”. Then again, my daughter is particularly fond of “and”. She used to point out every instance she could find during bedtime story reading. She associated “and” with the delight of recognition and discovery.

If my observations seem to ignore all the various learning style theories and methodologies for teaching reading, that’s intentional. I’ve done a fair amount of reading about reading. But I’ve never been particularly impressed. My overall response to the massive amount of literature about reading pedagogy is “what a waste”. The underlying assumption of the whole field seems to be this: The better we understand how people learn to read, the better we’ll be able to ensure they do it. Hey, that sounds pretty reasonable at face value. But it assumes two things:

  1. We actually can understand how reading works
  2. People won’t learn to read if we don’t make them

I dispute both of these. The number of books written about the phenomenon of reading is not an effective indicator of how much we actually understand about the miracle of human communication via the written word. Theories and their resulting methodologies, such as phonics and reading by sight, are at best crude attempts to structure how human beings develop their innate capacity for communicating via written symbols. We only have little slivers of understanding about how it all works.

What’s worse is that such methodologies so often ignore what motivates people to read in the first place. And in doing so, they often destroy children’s motivation by turning reading into a required, assigned task. Regardless of how cute or fun they try to make it, reading becomes extrinsically motivated, i.e. something you do because you’re supposed to do it, not because you yourself have discovered it to be valuable.

What motivates kids to read? That’s entirely contextual and has everything to do with what interests them in general. My daughter is motivated to read about Dick and Jane and Baby Sally and Spot and Puff, because she finds all these characters adorable and she loves the pictures. Other kids first learn to read because of video games, or dinosaurs, or magicians, or baseball. It depends on the kid.

Another assumption, probably the worst of them all, is that all children should learn to read at the same age. We all know that babies learn to walk at different ages and talk at different ages. The same thing goes for kids learning to read. At Sudbury schools, where kids aren’t forced to start reading before they’re ready, kids learn to read anywhere between 4 and 11 or even 12 years old. If you’re not naturally predisposed to read before the age of 10 and you are put into a traditional classroom at the age of 6, then you’ve got a long road ahead of you, potentially filled with heartache and demeaning labels. All because of a faulty assumption.

Reading is among the many skills that kids will naturally pick up in a literate society such as ours. But we as a society don’t trust the process. We act on faulty assumptions, apply a cookie cutter approach, make reading something you must learn in school, at the same age as everyone else, and then we wonder why we have an epidemic of “learning disabilities”. Could it be we’re doing more harm than good?

Where was I? Oh yes, my daughter is learning to read. This may be the start of a real growth spurt, or it might just be a passing phase, in which case she’ll pick it up again in some other context later on. Either way, we’re going to trust the process.

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The Morally Questionable Lessons of Formal Sports I: A New Look at the Classic Robbers Cave Experiment

In his famous Robbers Cave experiment, Muzafer Sherif invited two groups of boys at a summer camp to engage in a sports tournament for valued prizes. As he predicted, the tournament led to serious animosity between the two groups and ultimately to a condition resembling inter-tribal warfare. How did this happen?

Primary Topic:  Parenting

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Catching Up

Before too much more time goes by, here are some snapshots of activities in the warm, early days of this school year, which will perhaps help ease the frigid temperatures during this cold snap.

One of the most popular warm weather activities was whiffleball, played many hours daily by a variety of students and staff, rotating between all ages and sizes, playing on teams, practicing together and one six-year-old who only wanted Matt to pitch him a few balls almost every day.

Ready to hit the whiffleball

And here's the pitch

For lots more pictures and more of this post, click on the link.

Another pitcher takes the "mound"

This pitcher is also an expert juggler

Another student having just finished playing on a summer league, worked with Matt to keep her softball batting and catching skills sharp.

Steely-eyed softball batter

A few students posed when they spotted my camera, while two girls, blithely unaware of me, focused on their farm.

Don't mess with these girls

Ready for the stage

Good friends

Friends overseeing a farming operation

End of post.

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