Favorite Fall Day

It started many years ago when my children were 3 and 4 years old. We were looking for something to do on a wet, chilly fall morning. My oldest didn't handle crowds well when he was young, so we often tried to save visits to public places when it wouldn't be as busy. It occurred to me that this particular morning might be quiet at the apple orchard, so we decided this was the place to be. 

It was only us exploring among the apple trees. At one point I kicked one of the fallen apples. My son saw this and kicked it back. Soon enough we had a spontaneous game of soccer going with the fallen apples. This wet, chilly morning became one of our favorite fall days that year.

Ever since it's been a tradition for my kids and I to head to the orchard on a day that few people would be there, preferably later in the season when more apples would be on the ground, but not yet too decomposed. 

My children are 11 and 12 now and I wondered if this tradition would continue. I was home when they arrived off the bus this afternoon. I asked them if they were up for going to the orchard and after only some brief apprehension they both said yes. 

It was just as magical as it always is. It was such a great reminder that even though my kids are getting older, they can still let loose and allow themselves to play. I allowed this with myself as well! I think we could all use a little more play in our lives and days like today remind me how good it feels. 

I hope this tradition continues. I have visions of going to the orchard with the kids when they come home for fall break from college some day. I can dream, right?!?!


Structured Recess?

For the past couple of years as my children have been moving through elementary school I've wondered about some of the guidelines and rules that their school has during recess. There's actually a rule that kids are to not run on the woodchips that surround the play set. The worry is they might fall and get hurt. 

There also seems to be zero tolerance for conflict among kids during recess. They're quickly told they need to stop playing a game if an argument ensues. 

I recently saw an article in the Star Tribune talking about a local school district hiring a recess consultant to come in. This is a pilot program and they acknowledge that they're trying to find the balance between structured recess time and free choice time. 

The reality is, our kids have very little unstructured time throughout their day. The goal of the structured recess time is to eliminate some bullying issues and include those that might not otherwise be included. Is this truly the answer to these issues? 


Part of childhood is learning how to cope with getting hurt. We all fall down and learning how to get up after a fall and recover is an important life skill to have. Conflict is also very much a part of life. Many of us are quick to think of conflict as a bad thing, "Kids, stop fighting!" I don't like conflict very much either. However, it's unavoidable in life. We have to have tools to know how to handle it. Instead of having children end a game because of conflict, what if they get some guidance from an adult about how to navigate the conflict?

Perhaps this local school district's money might be better spent by hiring more staff at recess to be available when needed instead of organizing the play for the children. The staff could be trained in watching out for those that might be feeling left out and how to provide the children with some tools on how to enter play. They could also informally coach kids on how to notice if someone wants to join in their play and how to engage them in their activity. 

I believe the bigger concern, however, is why this is a more pronounced problem now than it was 15-20 years ago. Were these problems simply going unnoticed? It's entirely possible and to some extent, probably yes. However, some of these issues just didn't exist. Kids had better coping skills for figuring out some of these things and parents were less worried about their kids getting hurt. 

What's changed?

Over the course of the past 15-20 years the field of early childhood and early elementary school has changed considerably. What used to be expected of 1st graders is now being expected of kindergartners. Teachers have to address certain standards by certain points in the year. There's a certain amount of time that's supposed to be dedicated to math, literacy, social studies, science, etc. There isn't time allotted for the social-emotional growth that needs to be happening. Some teachers work hard to fit this in. Others feel conflicted because they know the kids need it, but they're not sure where to fit this in. I think most would agree the expectations are too high. 

Many early childhood programs have very little child-led learning. This means much of their day is structured as well, so there's very little time for free play time where they would encounter social conflicts and struggles with entering play. Without being exposed to these issues kids won't know how to handle them as they grow older. They need these experiences. 

The problem isn't really recess in the elementary schools, but it's overall how our system is working. There needs to be more emphasis on play: unstructured play especially in the early childhood years. Many kindergarten and first grade teachers say that their students don't know how to play anymore. Unfortunately these teachers often don't have the time to teach them these skills due to everything else they have to be teaching them. They eliminate the possibility of free play time altogether since the kids can't handle it. 

They should be able to handle it. 

What can we do?

We need to step back and re-evaluate how we're looking at early childhood. Although there is so much newer research to prove that young children are capable of learning so much, we have to be mindful and prioritize. Those of us who have been in the field of early childhood for a long time have known all that young kids are capable of, but we've also known better. These young kids mostly need time to learn about social relationships, how to cope with emotional upsets, how to problem solve when they're building something in the block area or building a fort out of sticks, etc. We can and should extend this learning of course by providing measuring tapes to see how long the sticks and blocks are, talk with them about their emotions, and coach them through their social conflicts. There's room for both, but not room for everything. 

The next time you observe an early childhood or kindergarten class simply playing, know that they're learning. They might, in fact, be learning far more about life in those moments than any other time during their day. 

We need to provide the time and space for all of this valuable learning, so they will have these skills as they move into elementary school and beyond. So, instead of feeling the need to structure MORE of our children's time, they can have more of the unstructured free play time that they so need throughout their childhood. 

Life's About Learning

The photo above is my siblings and I when we were young. I'm the baby in the photo. Although we all came into this world with our own unique personalities and traits, we didn't come into the world automatically knowing what we gradually learned through the years. Some of the things we learned by mistake while some were intentional teachings. What we knew even one year later was so much more than we knew when this photo was taken.

Our lives are very full. We have places to be, things to do, people to see. I have observed through the years that overall people have less patience for the process of learning and less intentional time is being placed on learning some of the things that eventually just become habit for us. For example, it's safe to assume that most adults have mostly mastered the concept of group norms. They know not to shout out in the middle of someone else talking, not to get up and walk right in front of the speaker, wait their turn, etc. However, this isn't something that people just naturally know how to do. They have to be taught. It's not one lesson and most of it is learned in the moment. 

This school year, beyond my work with families, I've gone back to teaching preschool two days a week. Most of my students are three years old. They've already learned so much about the world. Most of them have mastered using the bathroom independently, can drink out of a cup, can walk, can talk, can pick themselves back up after falling, can paint, can build with blocks, etc. The growth that happens in those first three years is amazing. Some of this growth happens accidentally while some of it happens through intentional modeling and teaching. 

Despite all that they already know there's so much still to learn. They don't yet know about being a part of a group, how to make friends, what to do if someone upsets them, etc. Just because they haven't learned these things doesn't mean anything is wrong with them. In fact, it would be strange if they DID all know how to do these things at three years old! Learning takes time. They won't have this mastered within the first few weeks of school, perhaps not even halfway through the school year. They'll get there. 

As you're moving through this world and your day, try to pause to remember that there's still so much to learn. Just because you've mastered something doesn't mean your co-worker has too. It also doesn't mean that your co-worker will never master it. With patience and guidance she can get there. 

When you're feeling frustrated with your child for not getting ready quick enough in the morning step back to think about how this could be taught differently so she could get ready faster. What tools does she need to have to grow in this area? We need to meet kids (all people, actually) where they're at to be able to fully extend their thinking and learning. If we just hope they'll get there, we'll spend more time being frustrated and angry and, in turn, not being very productive. 

Those faces you see above in the picture...we're all adults now between the ages of 39 and 47. We didn't know everything then and we still don't. We're still learning and growing and it's a beautiful thing!

Today try to slow down. Where can learning happen in your life? How could you step back to help your child learn something rather than just getting her to complete the task?