I’ve worked with pre-school kids since I was in high school some 40 years ago. The growth and excitement of learning that explodes out of kids between ages 3 to 5 has always drawn me powerfully; I’ve always felt that working with kids this age is the world where I most belong.
I had the good fortune to spend the last 12 years as a part-time consultant, working with four different pre-school in Holyoke ; I was part of a grant program to help identify kids with delayed motor skills before they got to kindergarten. Two or three mornings a week I got to play with kids. I showed up with a rolling suitcase full of toys and a few simple props to organize the sessions. I never, ever got bored with it, though most of the time I was playing the same games over and over. It was always so interesting to watch kids learn, and see skills emerge that were absent a few weeks before. Like watching seeds sprout up out of your garden. Over 12 years there must have been a thousand mornings I did this work, and several thousand kids that I got to watch grow and change.
Over the course of those 12 years, I started to see a disturbing trend. While there were always a few kids in each class that clearly needed my help more than the others, I started to notice that more and more kids seemed to be showing up in pre-school classes who just looked way behind where they should have been in motor development. Instead of two or three in each class, I’d see 6 or 8 kids who really seemed to need help. The whole idea with the grant that was paying me for my time was to identify the kids who needed help and refer them for services in the schools, but that wasn’t really a great solution. The school system was overwhelmed, and lots of times the referrals took so long to get through the system that the kids were already in kindergarten before the help could get started. So the weekly sessions started to be more like small group therapy, and for many of the kids, that little boost was enough to get them going. Just being there, to be playful and pay attention, and be in the moment with them as we played these simple games. Call it “underground play therapy”. Call it anything you want, but I could see it worked. For anyone who works with kids in a school system, there’s often the frustration of realizing how much of the effort to help kids takes place with adults having meetings, talking about planning and documenting the help kids are supposed to get… lots of reports and “measurable goals”… yet here I was in Holyoke, just doing these simple games and watching kids gain skills and confidence and being joyful without an education plan or an action plan or any of the paperwork in sight. One of the real joys of the work was seeing how kids could make these leaps in skills, and then seeing how it gave them confidence and a sense of themselves that would remain. They wouldn’t even remember me, or what happened, but those seeds, those sprouting skills would continue to grow stronger and sturdier as they made their way.
Sadly, the grant ended, last July; just as so many programs that help kids have faced cutbacks, the grant program that hired me stopped funding the consultants.
But I had another idea that was already cooking… I had been in contact with an engineering professor at Smith College, and we were already moving ahead with the idea of getting students involved in building play equipment for preschools. The seminar began in September 2011, with six students from Smith College and from Springfield College. Most of the first semester was spent looking at the world of kids play in pre-schools, and the factors that are contributing to this trend of kids who are three showing up in pre-school moving through the world like they’re only 18 months…The causes are complicated, from way too much screen time from a young age, to kids growing up in neighborhoods where there aren’t enough opportunities to play outside and ride tricycles and go down slides and swing on swings like most of the grown ups in this room did when they were at that age. It starts with how babies are growing up, sleeping on their backs to prevent sudden infants death syndrome (SIDS) (this is a legitimate health risk) , but those concerns have had unforeseen consequences. Many babies today are not spending enough time on their tummies to learn the skills that come when you push off the ground to hold yourself up and look out at the world. Babies and kids in general are kept so safe, often sedentary, so that kids simply don’t get a chance to move. They get placed in infant seats and car seats and they don’t get to crawl around on the floor much because, of course, they could get hurt… and we have become so intent on that extra measure of safety that we’re giving up on the opportunities kids need and crave and use to learn about the world through their bodies.
Our focus is on getting kids to move and play indoors; not because outside play isn’t crucial, but because we live in New England. Kids in pre-schools often spend months of time indoors because it’s too cold, too snowy, too rainy, too hot… and the opportunities for play indoors are just so limited. Some of this is safety concerns, and also the reality of liability concerns that keeps pre-schools from letting kids jump or climb or ride indoors. Safety seems to trump everything else, but I am here to tell you that safe and sedentary is not the answer. We have never seen a generation of kids grow up with so many distractions and so little opportunity to move and play and explore in the ways kids have always done.
So we are getting started with a few initial designs, trying to use simple and inexpensive materials for movement toys that can be used right away, in the spaces where kids spend their days. We’re not thinking indoor playgrounds here, because most of the centers don’t have the space for it. We’re trying to develop a whole series of small modular designs, so that a center can choose and use what fits in the space they already have. Once we have designs that have been field tested and proven safe and sturdy and fun, we will put the plans on our website where anyone can copy them. We’re not selling anything; we want to make them available to anyone who has the hope and desire to help kids. I dream of a whole community of retired engineers, grandparents, high school and college students, architects and urban planners and people who love to build things, and want to make a difference building these designs and donating them to a local pre-school. Why aren’t people doing this already?? Well good simple designs aren’t so simple to create. Legions of lawyers are sharpening their pencils and looking for accidents and product liability claims any time kids get hurt when they play. This makes schools and people like me scared to put things out in the world, just in case someone, somewhere might get hurt. But this focus on safety at any price, causing fear of letting kids move, is the most important thing that has to change. So I also dream of getting more creative minds working on this problem, and opening up a new conversation about what kids need to grow up in this world. We can make a difference, we can figure out what kids need, and we can start to build it. That’s my dream.