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A Pile of Dirt – one childhood in a Failed State

I keep thinking about my childhood in Zambia. Images of sunshine in the clouds, beautiful tall trees, huge ants on the flagstone, red ants under the avocado tree bark, the squabbling chickens, our three huge dogs, those turtles after the rain, dry lightening storms, and yes, a pile of dirt that arrived every spring and was dumped by the fence. True, there were no screen-entertainment options – not even T.V. The one-channel state media came on at 5:00 p.m. every evening; once a week my brother and I could watch an hour of Sesame Street or I recall seeing “Gilligan’s Island” (but maybe that’s made-up), before the news came on. 

Zambia in the late 60s – early 70s was a “failing colonial state”. It was a time for reinvention and remorse, a time to come together or to blame one another. It was a time for religion to open its many hearts or splinter us. We could either reinvent our destinies or leave. My family tried to reinvent itself and then we left. We were not missionaries or teachers or bankers or escapees from South Africa. We were Zambian. Our hopes for Zambia were as great as the sunrise on the Zambezi river. Our home was a place of much mirth, many gatherings, conversations about a “new politics”, and the door was always open, no “warning calls” needed. We had pool parties every Sunday.  ANYONE was welcome – ethnic backgrounds were irrelevant, friendship was not.

We kids knew how to play – mostly because adults were busy with this new world. We built forts in the bushes, houses in the bamboo, and played-out stories in the enormous strawberry patch. Our dogs were fellow-characters. There was much ado about nothing. 

But, that pile of dirt was one of my favorite places to play alone. I climbed it and stood on top, feeling the breeze and seeking out the little girl who lived next door. I told stories to myself and molded them in the soft, pliable, (manure) soil. I ran down and lay in the grass, gazing at the story-clouds. Apparently, I was there all day. And by the end of a day, I was so stinky that a full-force hose was turned on me before someone threw me into the tub. 

I did not feel my parents’ insecurities very often. Their worlds were exploding. Once a thief broke in to our house and I remember us sitting down all together with the police the next morning. I heard that the robber had actually crept to my parents’ bedside tables to look for jewelry and money. I think I slipped away through the side door to find that centipede I’d been playing with the day before. And, I remember my father talking about how difficult it was to get his trucks across the country (he ran THE moving & storage company for Central Africa). Thieves were pillaging and attacking the trucks and their drivers. I remember that we had to get an armed guard. I did not know why.

I don’t remember that my dad was gone for several weeks, seeking a new home for us somewhere in the world. I don’t remember that my parents and all our cousins disagreed about where we should emigrate. I don’t remember how the last day arrived. When it did, I felt the grief. But, I felt no fear. We were on an adventure. Together.

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What’s the use of summertime?

What’s summertime for? There’s a myth that our long summer breaks are a vestige of agricultural rhythms – but how are we to interpret that when we easily misunderstand other “founding acts” for the sake of present-day benefits? How many private industries grow out of this “gap in the public fund”? How do we continue to work (to pay for the daycare) so that we can afford the house (to sleep in) to buy our healthy food to heat up in the microwave (because the oven takes too long)? Perhaps we can accept summertime as a gift. Somehow everyone slows down, and children know this if they are outdoors in the heat and sunshine. Children know what to do with these long days – if we let them.

Because young children are born knowing how to play, they will know what to do in a backyard filled with twigs, sticks, stones, water, and shade. Unlike us, they can fill that space with their imaginary friends and companions, stories, time with a pet, or a family of fairies and gnomes. Yes, these imaginary creatures are important vehicles for our young ones who don’t yet distinguish between “fact” and “fiction” (as if we can). If we let them, our young children will fill an apparently empty space with their imaginations. But we need to get out of their way.

If we have filled their lives with stimulation: “entertainment-parenting”, screens of any sort, constant outings, etc., they will need more time to settle-down to the expectations of a “blank slate” – the backyard. If we have placed our precious one in the center of the world, responding to every request and statement, that too will take time to unwind. If we have few other children to invite over into our backyards, maybe just one or two a week would do – social time with others, but unstructured. How much time to clear the system of overstimulation? At least a month. At that point a young child will not want to come indoors, will be so self-entertaining that you’ll be able to write your masterpiece, will be an active participant in a world of her or his making and less willing to sit in front of a screen. Within a predictable summer routine of time together in the morning, at lunch and at dinner, our children will thrive on less.

Summertime is for our backyard, for lying under a tree and watching the breezes, for listening to the bustle of birds and rodents, and envisioning their homes inside trees, under the ground, and in the branches. What does mama bird yell at her babies? Where does that hole in the ground lead to? Maybe I can build an underground home too. Perhaps there’s a family of moles building more rooms, connecting to a town, collecting for the winter, playing together? There are few limits on how children will imagine the lives of animals in their yards (unless they’ve been exposed to the lies of Disney). These internal narratives will nourish their literary souls and entertain you at the dinner table.

Summertime is for slower time, thoughtful time, time together as families, the backyard.

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May Day: honoring change, forgiving ourselves

What is May Day for if not to celebrate a change in the season? Or changes in the ways our lives are organized? Or in the new ways we might view our children?

We came together as a school last week, on May 1, to circle around the maypole and to eat pizza out of our community bread/pizza oven. Our delightful afternoon was a pause; a moment to enjoy one another and to stop the quickening time that spring seems to bring. One parent ran the pizza oven, others helped organize the ribbons around the pole, grandparents looked over us, children played in the mud, a daughter placed one perfect pizza after another into the burning hot oven. We did not discuss world events. We shared pizza toppings and recipes, considered ways to spend time together over the summer, shared information on musical performances happening in town, and ways to cook our dinners together in the bread oven.

Spring brings a change in schedules, feelings for our town, our houses, the ways we work, and the ways we relax. It is a chance to offer new ideas for supporting one another in this “raising children” project. It offers us chances to sit outdoors together discussing our daily challenges and to laugh about the multiple ways we “get it wrong”.  How do we get it wrong? Oh, in so many creative ways. Our latest book, The Coddling of the American Mind: how good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure, helps us to see the errors in our ways – and to continue the work of parenting together.

One chapter in particular, “Paranoid Parenting”, holds up a difficult mirror:

“Paranoid parenting is a powerful way to teach kids all three of the Great Untruths. We convince children that the world is full of danger; evil lurks in the shadows, on the streets, and in public parks and restrooms. Kids raised in this way are emotionally prepared to embrace the Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people – a worldview that makes them fear and suspect strangers. We teach children to monitor themselves for the degree to which they “feel unsafe” and then talk about how unsafe they feel. They may come to believe that feeling “unsafe”(the feeling of being uncomfortable or anxious) is a reliable sign that they are unsafe (the Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings). Finally, feeling these emotions is unpleasant; therefore, children may conclude, the feelings are dangerous in and of themselves – stress will harm them if it doesn’t kill them (the Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker).”(177)

Children who grow up with these guiding principles are more likely than others to believe that ideas can hurt them, or that feeling uncomfortable in a classroom is a reason to vilify a teacher or professor publicly. This young “iGeneration”, now in college, is more likely than any other to believe that they cannot engage in critical debates for fear of being hurt, literally. This, of course, makes us parents uncomfortable, for how do we allow our children to navigate the challenging terrain of people we don’t agree with, who may be too pushy, who might always seem to get their way, or manage to constantly be the center of attention, or who we just don’t understand?

Meanwhile, the children continue to play in the mud, set up a bucket/rope/shovel experiment, climb the tire swing and take turns with who stands on top, organize a “family of puppies” with mama and daddy in charge, all without the help of any adults, who are still busy eating pizza and sharing recipes.

It’s not that we parents should not be concerned about the real dangers out there in the world, but rather, how do we allow our children the necessary space and time to develop their own tools for navigating a difficult world with abiding faith that they can do it. We just need to continually practice letting our children find their own boundaries (within ours) and forgive ourselves endlessly!

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Daily Rhythms and Creativity

“I’ve suggested here that good play is taught by children to one another and it is probably the necessary precursor for every other kind of learning in a classroom…it is the child’s ability to play in a sustained manner that makes sense to other children, which opens the gates to all other pathways” (Paley; “A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play”, pp. 71-73)
Our summer program is entering its final week and Ms. Jen and I have witnessed a slower summer rhythm enter naturally into our days outdoors. Not only did the first week’s heat slow us down, but the availability of so many new plants, bugs, water-holes, and shady spots moved us into many self-sustaining groups of children who role-played “baby-birds”, “families”, “royal-family” and “bakery”. Children built a stream running through the yard which needed help from all the children so it would flow. All-group games of tag integrated some new faces. And, narrative story-play has ensued.
The play yard is transformed! And, I suspect your back yards are too. All of these children know what to do in their gardens; mud soup, small puppet plays with stones, acorns and sticks, house and tent-building, and self-storytelling. Send them outside in the cooler mornings, they will find a space to enter into the flow of “childhood’s time”- slower, more fluid, dreamier, more meaningful.
We have had some magical days each week and the children have made new friends as the groups change. This has been a good opportunity for social flexibility, possible because the structure of our days has remained essentially the same. We have spent more time outdoors, but essentially everything is predictable. This allowed us to invite some new friends into “how we do things” and connect to one another in our play but also in the purposeful work that teachers do; gardening, mending, knitting, crocheting, sewing, and cooking. New children found their ways into our predictable days by way of running games and tag, but more often than that, entered into the creative play of narrative.
Our slower pace has allowed teachers to raise awareness of “crafting”. We wet-felted, finger-knitted, and did some blanket stitching on “pocket-pouches” for “collecting things”. Handwork is generally in the realm of the teacher, but we had enough five-year-olds who were interested in the project and a fifteen-year-old (thank-you Amalia!) with dexterous hands, that we were able to complete some lovely work together.
Inside, our circle has been filled with lovely nature songs and hand clapping-feet stomping songs, nursery rhymes, and circle games about bees “buzzing at the flowers”. We told the stories filled with imagery of woods, flowers, and animals: “Mashenka and the Bear”, a Russian folk-tale, “Little Red Cap”, “Akimba and Bumba”, an African story with a moral undertone about trustworthiness. 
We have been keeping it light at the snack table for the hot summer days -delicious green salads and different breads throughout the week. We have made sourdough, focaccia, pretzels and kindergarten bread which was devoured. The wood-fired bread oven baked some school bread and will be mastered so that all of you can bring in bread dough in the fall. The watermelon sorbet was a treat and Ms. Jen wanted to share the recipe with you ( the children can be big helpers deseeding the watermelon for you.
Our parent-teacher committee have continued to meet to read Vivian Paley’s ever-insightful book “A Child’s Work: the importance of fantasy play”. She remains a vivid influence on our work here at Garden Gate with her reminder that “The children (are) in fact, natural-born storytellers who created literature as easily as I turned the pages of a book.” (16, Paley). When story-telling is valued, children bring their natural abilities to tell stories into everything they do; this is the basis of literacy and social awareness. Storytelling , not book-reading, in early childhood is part of active play, it is all intertwined.  And, as Ken Robinson says, “a return to a more active, problem-solving, play-based schooling that allows every child to gain the full benefits of early childhood and to develop a sense of who they are and what they are good at”(“Why Low-Tech Education and Outdoor Play is Trending in Education”, FT, June 2018; will create the basis for a more fair and just society.
We hope you all continue to have a slow and steady summer and look forward to seeing your relaxed faces in the fall. Keep the children playing, that is, actively creating and re-creating their worlds within the boundaries of predictable days and rhythms.
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Guiding our Children into Society: “No” for us is “Yes” for them

“The unexpectedly rigorous business of bringing up children exposed me, as it necessarily exposes almost any parents, to our ‘child-centered’ society’s icy indifference to everything that makes it possible for children to flourish and to grow up to be responsible adults.” (Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics, p. 33).

We spent an evening at our first parent-enrichment last week discussing and reflecting upon the importance of establishing good boundaries for our children by setting them most clearly for ourselves. The difference between our approach to the discipline that young children need and that of authoritarian-type parenting consists in a form of necessary self-reflection; “no” for us becomes “yes” for them. “Yes” you may play outside, climb a tree, sweep the porch, sit in the swing, play with a friend – emerges easily out of practices that do not allow iPads or television in our young children’s lives, sets time limits to play dates, bed times, dinner-table routines or rowdiness. We also need to deny ourselves the pleasures of too much screen time or overindulgence, while creating pleasurable time with our children: lying around doing nothing, doing chores together, hiking, family game nights, camping, traveling. These experiences of “togetherness” are the building blocks of our future, older families. These are daily practices of self-discipline. And if we know our children thrive in a predictable world designed by us through our abilities to set limits for ourselves, they will want to enter into that world in healthy ways.

Not only do these limit-setting practices help our young children, but they will help us as we and our children age – to know ourselves and to arrive quickly at the answers we need to difficult questions. What will we do when our 9 or 10 year old asks to go to a friend’s house and we don’t know that friend? What will we do when they encounter another family’s values and they are different from ours? How will we cut through the chaos of conflict that other value-systems will bring into our homes if we have not examined our own values and decided how we will act as a family? Inevitably we will encounter these other sets of values (if the television is on other people’s values are already in our home). But we will know that no matter the issue we need to wade through we’ll meet at the dinner table, or speak to one another respectfully, or give one another space if needed, or create opportunities for each other to feel better. This is the “fabric of family”.

We’ll be able to do this only if we’ve spent the time in our children’s early years, establishing well-thought-out practices of “togetherness” and discourse. If we push our young children away from our homes too early, we will lose touch with each other’s needs. We will not respect each family member’s difference. We will invite chaos into our homes and struggle to tame it. Our young children’s lives offer us the time to become “family” and to build strong foundations out of self-knowledge.

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Storytelling African-Style

There is nothing more lovely than telling a story outdoors, living into the images our own imaginations conjure, while the leaves rustle and the wind cools. We take inspiration from African storytelling which values the moment of storytelling as well as the images that need to be conveyed. One of my teachers, Harold Scheub, helps here: “Storytellers are constantly in the process of taking ancient images and casting them into contemporary kinds of forms. And so there’s no such thing as an original story. I don’t care where it is, whether it’s written or oral, the fact is that every story has been heard before. Every story has been told before. So if we’re looking for originality we’re going to find it, but in unique kinds of ways. We’re not going to find it the way a story is told, we’re not going to find it in the story itself. It’s that connection, that’s the important thing. Connections are everything. Connecting the present and the past, connecting the storyteller and the audience.” ( “The Man with 10,000 Tales” by Tim McDonnel. When we choose the stories we tell the children it is purely out of this connection that we operate.

The stories we tell are old, orally-transmitted tales, folktales, or pedagogical tales. We tell stories appropriate to the ages of our children, the season, and the make-up of the group. Story time on most days is silent – not a pin drop can be heard – because the children are so absorbed by the telling, the imagery, the lyricism, and the repetition. Young children love to hear a good story over and over; we tell each of our stories for three to four weeks. Stories contain gems that allow children to encounter wolves, thieves, giants, or elves. But these elements are true. So, for example, when I tell “Bremen Town Musicians”, each animal does not become “human” it remains within the bounds of its characteristics: the nervous rooster, the lazy cat, the chatty dog, and the clever donkey. These are not Disney characters who are really just humans in disguise. These are animals confronting their mortality and finding strength in one another.

Another story, “The Turnip”, seems very simple at first. But the group effort needed for all the characters to pull the turnip out of the ground is a magical image of helping one another make the harvest. I watched the children “act it out” last week and will never forget the looks of joy as each child wrapped their arms around the person in front of them in order to pull out the two children who were the “turnip”. Our children need images of social cooperation more than ever.

Unlike reading a story, our stories are not told “perfectly” every time. And sometimes the teller embellishes or erases details, much to the delight of the listeners. Our “Africanization” of storytelling gives the child permission to tell her own stories – to take a story into play with other children, to tell a story he’s heard before without worrying about whether they it’s “right”. Again, the perfectionism inherent in our industrially fabricated material realities (books) can hinder our children from becoming authors, ready to jump into the creative abyss of their own abilities.

Literacy is nothing if it is not love of stories and story telling. Children who are not forced to read too early have time to author their own tales, to play with language, and to hold a captive audience with whomever will listen – perhaps a small audience of stones and bottle caps (as my daughter used to do). Reading is useless if our readers don’t know the value of a story. And in order to love that story, our children need to be free from other people’s images (either in books or in videos) and to hear tales rich with ancient images cast both in old clothing as well as contemporary garb.

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Ready to begin!

The yard sits ready; dirt, sand, shade, plants. Teachers have created summer circle, chosen stories, and decided the menu. Crafts and chores await. We’ll be planting and playing, learning while doing; new poems and new languages. And, most importantly, we’ll be making new friends.

Our late summer menu:

And, here’s our Late Summer Menu, 2017.

Mondays: Rice Day
Salad: Carrot Salad
Main: Vegetable curry and rice Dessert: Crackly Banana Muffins

Tuesdays: Bread Day
Salad: Green salad with goat cheese rounds Main: Bread and butter
Dessert: Fresh fruit and yogurt

Wednesdays: Roots Day
Salad: Green salad
Main: Tarte au Pistou; Provençal tart made with onions, tomatoes, basil, and garlic
Dessert: Fresh fruit

Thursdays: Golden Grains Day
Salad: Green salad
Main: Provençal tomato, brown rice, gruyére and summer squash gratin Dessert: Berry or cherry clafoutis (baked custard with fruit)

Fridays: Legumes Day
Salad: Green salad
Main: Green (puy) lentils with tahini and cumin served with wild-yeasted bread (The levain now 4 years old.)
Dessert: Fresh fruit
Cheese: Stinky cheese; we’ll taste different cheeses every week.

*Many of this season’s veggies are supplied by “Happy Hollow Farm” a community-supported organic family farm, when they don’t come from our garden.

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Pretend Play Makes Us Social

“You build the train-station. We’ll build the train. Who wants to be the conductor?”

All the children begin dragging chairs across the yard and setting-up station stops. One child becomes the conductor, another becomes a worker who needs to go home, and another becomes a traveller who is visiting a friend in Chicago. This is an everyday scenario in the play yard at Garden Gate. The game may or may not continue into the following day; but undeniably, another game of role-play will occur. “Free-play”, as we call it, takes place once the children are settled and most of their “playing-out” is over, that is, clearing their systems of noise created by exposure to the media or too much adult conversation. It takes place in an intentionally quiet and simple environment, usually outdoors.

As an anthropologist, I view the work of creating an environment where children’s imaginations can flourish as equal to the task of building a virtuous society. I see the link between the individual and society as the most important function of human imagination. I have no doubt that every child has an individual imaginary-world, but every child can also use these innate capacities to explore the distinction between themselves and society. Imagination is a child’s opportunity to join in to an “already constituted system of conventions and institutions.” I fear that education as construed in our society is so focused on applying individual imaginations to competing with others, that we will ultimately shred our social fabric, if it’s not already a fait accompli.

Children, beginning at two can separate the signifier from the signified – the person from the role – in pretend play. One anthropologist notes the importance of play that manipulates the order of things and time: “in order to pretend that a stone is an apple that one can eat, both the concept of stone and of apple need to be separated from the here and now.” The capacity to separate time from representation allows children to create social roles and groupings. As imagination develops children are able to elaborate these separations of person from role in ever-complex ways. It allows children of 4 and 5 to begin games that both imitate society and affect it. When role-play enables young children to become “husbands” and “wives” simply because the priest said, “I hereby declare you man and wife”, children can re-create marriage. They can re-create the world.

Most importantly for this anthropologist, learning social roles is the child’s connection to a shared imagination – social roles do not exist if they are not understood by all. Being the “conductor” or the “traveller” or the “mother” or “postman” or “fireman” or “hunter” or “soldier” has no meaning if it is not shared by others. Pretend play allows our children to connect their imaginations to society – they enter into the social world through role-playing. Roles are independent of actual individuals. This capacity to separate the individual from the role is uniquely human but can be poorly developed if not nurtured.

When a child constructs an imaginary social world with other children, s/he is entering a space where the rules are different, where the role becomes paramount and when the game is over, the child will discard the role. Developmental psychology confirms that this capacity is hardwired in us, beginning around six months old. And this is why, when we tell our children “it’s pretend” or “not true” or “not real”, they do not understand; for they already unconsciously understand. Countless times I have witnessed parents of young children “reassure” their child that fairy’s and elves or any other imaginary aid is “only pretend”, to the disorientation or apparent relief of the child. This pretense about reality is ultimately confusing, for as the young child will grow away from their need to pretend play, s/he will develop new ways of seeing the world.

“Pretend” was not a lie; it was one way of seeing reality. If taught correctly, the child will learn that there are multiple ways of seeing the world and that an individual assumes a lot of power in privileging one perspective over another. Young children are built to generate their own realities and systems of rules in order to explore the world. Older children will exploit different capacities to view the world; capacities such as analytic, narrative, numeric, aesthetic, poetic, mnemonic. Parents should feel certain that these abilities will emerge when the child is ready. We as parents, but also as a society, need to nurture the space and time for them to do this.


*This piece was inspired by the work of Maurice Bloch, social anthropologist working in Madagascar since the 1960s. He examined the role of imagination in the contexts of religion, science, and society. His work draws on developmental psychology, history, and ethnography in Madagascar. Imagination, for Bloch, is “a basic element of the process between perception and cognition,” an ability to “create images in the brain separate from perceived stimulus.” And he argues “only humans can imagine a separation between a state of affairs and its full existence in the past or future.”

Maurice Bloch. June 2016. “Imagination from the Outside and from the Inside,” Current Anthropology, Vol. 57, Supplement 13.