Who Knows How Children Grow?
I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the last few years in the company of a group of people who seem to be quietly holding up the sky, yet are mostly invisible. They are almost universally underpaid and under appreciated, and yet their daily work is as important as any in our world.
Day care providers and pre-school teachers are the people we have designated to guide and prepare our babies, toddlers and pre-school children for the world of school and early education. For many young children, the world they experience at their child care center is where they spend most of their waking hours on weekdays. What they learn and how they adjust in that setting makes a huge difference in their readiness for learning as they enter school. The wider world seems to finally be recognizing the value of early childhood education, and programs to include more children are growing and expanding rapidly. This would seem to be an encouraging trend, recognizing the importance of these programs, but the teachers and providers I meet aren’t so sure. At a time when the world seems to finally be paying attention, I sense most of these teachers and providers are frustrated and feel voiceless in ways that make their daily jobs increasingly stressful and difficult. Why do they feel so ignored?
I meet with these teachers and child care providers in my part- time work as a training consultant, running workshops on early motor development, and the importance of getting young children to move and exercise every day. These trainings take place mostly on weekday evenings, and the teachers arrive tired after a full day of work. I am always impressed with how they are able to find the energy to join in with the games and play activities we present. At the start of each session, I try to go around and get each participant to tell me where they work, and how many years have they worked with young kids. I often find out that there are people with 30 and even 40 years experience still working, along with a mix of younger staff . I make a point of saying that the longer a person has been working, the more they will understand how much the world of pre-school has shifted in recent years, and how much harder their job is every day compared to years ago. This is the point when all the heads start to nod, with the older and more experienced staff giving me a look of support and understanding. It seems to be the great unspoken truth in child care. The teachers and center directors are being tied up with regulations and restrictions, and held back from doing what they know is best for the children. I am always amazed at how consistently the frustration is voiced. It seems without exception that the people working with our pre-school children don’t feel like they are allowed to provide what children really need, and it’s getting worse all the time. So what is going on?
I believe what has evolved over time is a huge disconnect between the people who set policy and the many on the front lines of child care who have no choice but to abide by the new rules. There is no back and forth process by which the people who are affected by the new rules give feedback. It does no good for day care providers to complain, and their very existence depends on compliance with whatever new rules are set down. A center that fights the rules risks losing their license to operate. There is a grudging acceptance that nothing can be done. Where I live in Massachusetts, these new and excessive safety regulations have been put in place by one specific agency , the Department of Early Education and Care (EEC). The EEC continues to restrict the kinds of active physical play that children crave and so desperately need. The kinds of simple equipment that used to be found in every center, like swings and climbers, are fast disappearing in the name of raising safety standards. Centers that have used play equipment for many years are suddenly told that their play equipment needs a bigger “fall zone”, or fails to meet a new regulation. When modifications prove too costly, most centers simply opt to take them down. Why is this such a big deal?
This is an issue where the more experienced day care teachers who have worked in the field for so long really understand how the world has changed. They have all seen more and more children arriving in pre-schools with lags in their motor skills. The causes are varied, but point to a real change in how parents allow their babies and toddlers to play and explore. The “back to sleep” policy that was instituted nationwide by pediatricians in the early 1990’s is part of the picture. This was a well meaning policy, intended to prevent sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), but has had the unintended consequence of creating a whole generation of infants missing out on “tummy time”. As infants spend more time on their backs, both in sleeping and in baby seats during the day, they are missing out on learning about their world and moving and exploring in ways infants have always done to move through developmental milestones. There is a huge increase in children with plagiocephaly (flat heads) that result from spending so much time on their backs while the skull bones are still soft and pliable. Infants are crawling less, as parents place their babies in seats and devices that keep them from moving on their own, and parents are often tempted to “entertain “ them with a screen or a phone, rather than allowing them to crawl around and risk getting in trouble (which is exactly what babies need to be doing). So we have a whole generation of 3 year olds arriving in pre-schools who have been more sedentary and are less prepared physically than ever before, and what are we doing in pre-school? Policy makers are at odds with basic child development, and are actively pushing providers to turn pre-school into kindergarten, with the misguided notion that pushing academics at an early age will pay off when kids enter school. Yet children who arrive in pre-school with weak muscles, sagging posture and short attention spans are less and less prepared for the new world of expectations in many pre-schools. They are expected to sit and focus for longer than has ever been expected before, and they are less and less prepared, so it is no wonder they wind up frustrated and acting out. Ask any pediatrician to describe how often they are prescribing ADHD medication for children under the age of five. We are setting up children for failure rather than success, and we could be doing so much more. If ever there was a “back to basics “ moment, we have arrived, and it is time to resist that urge to push academics on 3 and 4 year olds, and let children play. That’s how they learn.
I am not an academic, and what I have learned and observed in my years of working with young kids and the people who take care of them has grown from direct contact with that world, rather than from any formal research. My very first job out of high school was as an assistant teacher in a pre-school in 1973. I somehow have always managed to incorporate work with preschool age children through many career turns; as a furniture designer (building indoor playgrounds) , rehabilitation engineer (working on equipment for disabled children) , and finally landing in my present job as a pediatric Occupational Therapist. I have been incredibly lucky in finding a “niche” that has allowed me to observe and interact closely with thousands of pre-school age children as they play and move, as well as hundreds of teachers and day care providers. I spent 12 years (1999-2011) working as part of a grant program in Holyoke, MA, where I screened pre-school children for motor skills three mornings a week. The program was intended to identify children who needed help before they got to kindergarten. It was an open ended grant, and it gave me a chance to observe several thousand children over those years. I usually ran small 20 minute play groups with 3-4 children at a time, and used simple games I could bring with me in a rolling suitcase ; jumping off step stools and hitting a beach ball, throwing a ball to knock over bowling pins, sitting on the floor and building with wood blocks and small people figures. The children who were behind in their skills would come more often than those who were at age level, but everyone got a chance to play. I was amazed at how many kids who were a year or more behind in their motor skills could catch up quickly as long as they got the chance to learn and experience the right kind of play in pre-school. Having a chance to help and “fix” these problems for so many children is an experience I will always cherish. It also gave me a chance to observe a wide range of children with varying levels of skills at play. I become aware of how the number of children who needed extra help changed over the years from 1999-2011. When I first started in the pre-schools, I would usually see 2-3 children in each class that were quickly recognized as needing extra help. Twelve years later, I would see as many as half the children in some classes lagging behind in their skills, and needing extra help. It ‘s important to say that these were not all children from low income families, and that I saw the same lags in skills in pre-schools where most of the children were from higher income families. The changes were gradual, but I could see it, and when I speak to experienced pre-school staff they see it, too. This trend of more and more children entering schools with lagging skills is also costing schools and communities dearly, as more school based services are required to improve skills once the children enter kindergarten.
So what do we do now? This is not intended as any kind of anti-government rant, and I am a firm believer in the importance of a government that protects and sets high standards for the safety of our children. But what has gone on in recent years is a strange process of adding more and more regulations and restrictions that have profound unintended consequences. I do not know why state agencies like the Massachusetts EEC have grown so rigid and out of touch with the community of professionals they oversee. I’m sure there are many well meaning people involved, mostly “following policy” that they did not create. Why create rules that restrict children from being children, and keep teachers and day care providers from doing what they know is best practice? It is certainly possible for policy makers to bring a new sense of balance when they consider issues of safety and risk. There is acceptable risk we all face in everyday life, in driving in a car or walking or riding a bicycle down the street, and we accept those risks, and would not recognize or accept a life where risk was removed. Children who climb and ride and swing face risks, too, but there is certainly even more risk in a sedentary childhood. Those responsible for setting safety policy can, and should, gather advice from those who are doing the daily work with children that everyone agrees is so important. How different and exciting to offer that respect and use it to inform policy. Imagine a government that actually asks for help to improve their regulations. There seems to be so much anger at government these days, from every possible political angle, and yet we also seem more and more to resign ourselves to avoiding “fighting city hall” when there seems to be no one listening. This can change.
I have been hearing from those wonderful and dedicated teachers for years now, and it’s time they were given a voice and a chance to be heard. This is what our children need, and we need to help those caretakers do the work they know they should be doing, because we already trust them with our children, and there is too much at stake if we continue to ignore them. Pre-school children who jump and climb and swing and ride tricycles every day are happier, healthier and much more ready to learn about the world. Have any questions? Ask a pre-school teacher. And please thank them for being there.
Tom Murphy MS OTR/L ATP is a pediatric Occupational Therapist at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, MA. In 2011, he founded the Bogin Playscape Project (boginplayscapeproject.com) to build and donate indoor playgrounds and equipment to childcare centers in Western Massachusetts. Two playgrounds have been completed. He also works with Arlene Spooner, PT CEIS, a pediatric physical therapist, and gives training workshops for teachers on motor development in children infant to age 5.
“A Call to Arms” (and Legs and Eyes and Brains) or
Life/ Work/ Play
I’m now 61 years old and my identity has been tied to my work since I started my first real job as an assistant teacher in a pre-school in 1973. I have been fortunate in my work life, with a variety of jobs that have allowed me to be creative and help others. I have tried in recent years to write about my work with children on a website, in an effort to share what I’ve learned. How children play and grow today (compared to a generation ago) has been at the center of my writing, and a key component in developing training sessions for pre-school teachers. It’s always been easier to explain when I speak in public to groups of teachers, parents, therapists or college students, because I can get people moving and illustrate with props and games. Yet somehow telling my whole story has always eluded me. I can’t decide how to frame it, or who is my intended audience. Am I on some kind of impossible quest to change the world? Am I writing for parents, for teachers, or for the “powers that be” who might someday pay attention and make changes? Besides, what makes me think I know the answers or that I’m the kind of “expert” anyone should trust? I’m decidedly not an academic or a researcher. My experience comes from time spent with children and with the dedicated folks who take care of them. I’m hopeful I can convey how a working life of more than 40 years spent observing, encouraging and building things for kids to move and play on has helped inform my writing. I can’t help but put myself into the story, as I’ve had such an inside view of the world of children and play over so many years. I know there is a good story in here that needs to be told, because when I speak to the wisest and most seasoned teachers and caregivers of young kids, their response is so consistently a firm nod of agreement and sense of comradeship over how things have changed.
This is a story about how the world has changed so much for children in a short time, and how I deeply believe we are racing headlong in the wrong direction in how we care for our children today. I experience it almost every working day, from parents and day care providers and in the faces and bodies of children. We love and cherish our children, and yet we are so consumed with their safety we are smothering them by keeping them “safe and sedentary”- a pattern that creates more problems and stress than those extra measures of safety ever tried to address. This is a place where the unintended consequences of well meaning people has tangled up and so frustrated the people who work with young children that I fear we are losing much of the magic and excitement that draws people to work with pre-school children. Over time, there is a quiet erosion of the energy and passion of these dedicated teachers and caregivers. Taking care of children who aren’t allowed to move and exercise enough is so much harder and more stressful today, and yet anyone who works in or runs a pre-school will tell you how they feel trapped. They are frustrated by regulations that have made play equipment for children (swings and slides and climbers) almost non-existent, and how almost everything they try to introduce that children climb or move on (especially indoors) seems to violate one safety standard or another. There’s extra time they must spend on paperwork, following new guidelines, anticipating the next safety inspection and whether their policy book is up to date. It starts to seem as if nothing else matters so much or deserves attention. This shift in priorities simply drains those dedicated people of the energy they need to try to build an interesting and engaging environment, and it’s the children who are affected most. I live and work in Massachusetts, and I wonder if life is much different in other places, but I don’t think so. I am very far from an anti-government type, and I believe firmly that the government can and should be helping on every level. So what’s wrong? Why aren’t they helping?
Here in Massachusetts, I somehow imagine it should be so different. Up until the start of 2015, when the governor’s office changed hands, we have had a solid group of social progressives in charge almost everywhere you look. I firmly believe all these leaders would profess strong support for the value of early childhood education. When you have Elizabeth Warren and Deval Patrick in your state, and Barack Obama as our President, how much more progressive can we get? I have been thrilled and warmed when we get these wonderful progressive leaders into office, but then what happens? When it comes to pre-schools and children’s opportunity to play, we get more of the same overwrought regulation and hyper-focus on how this year we need to be even safer than last year. While I can reserve a good measure of responsibility here for one specific agency in Massachusetts, the Early Education Commission (EEC), it is also clear that their mandate comes from above, and that they are carrying out the mandate they were given. It is abundantly clear that where the government tries to mandate higher and higher standards for those who take care of our children, there is a major disconnect and lack of understanding of the real needs of children.
Children need to move, and they need to move and exercise and explore every single day. It is no exaggeration to say that young children learn most everything important through and in their bodies, and that efforts to raise academic standards for young kids without addressing the physical needs of their growing bodies and brains is pointless and counterproductive. This is a point where anyone who speaks to experienced pre-school teachers will find agreement. Yet there is a push almost everywhere to turn pre-school into kindergarten, and kindergarten into 1st grade. The thinking seems to be that somehow by racing ahead with writing and reading and academics with three and four year olds, we will magically give them the boost that will propel them along a path to later success in school. It doesn’t work that way, and young kids who miss out on the crucial brain development that comes from moving and exploring and being physical will struggle with learning and attention later on. Children need strong muscles and solid visual skills to even sit up and see what is being taught. Children who get enough movement and exercise are far more ready to learn, and will have better focus and attention, with less frustration and impulsivity. They will sleep and eat better as well. We have never raised a generation of young children with so little opportunity to ride tricycles and climb and jump and swing and we are already seeing the result of this shift. The number of pre-school children already being medicated for problems with attention deficits is shocking. School districts are struggling with trying to keep up with increasing numbers of children identified with special needs, and needing extra help, when a substantial number of children are simply never given the chance to develop the foundation motor skills that every child needs to succeed.
This is the part of my story when I truly feel I am speaking from my own experience, and the knowledge I gained is deeply engrained in my bones. I spent 12 years (1999-2011) working as a consultant in a state grant program that was intended to screen and identify pre-school children with motor skill delays before they reached kindergarten. It was an amazing opportunity to be able to spend three mornings a week playing with children. The grant was quite open ended, and I was given the freedom to set up whatever kind of playgroups and other interventions I could devise. I’ve worked for 20 years as a pediatric Occupational Therapist, much of the time with a caseload of young kids with significant delays for a wide variety of reasons. Most pediatric Physical, Speech and Occupational therapists likewise work with those children who need help the most, and only rarely get a chance to spend significant time with kids of all levels. During my 12 years of traveling from center to center with a rolling suitcase of toys and games, my strategy for my morning sessions was simply to engage with the children and get them moving. I developed short 20-minute sessions where I would work with 3-4 children at once, and was able to quickly watch and assess which children needed more help than the others, and include those children more often in my visits. Since I divided my time at four child-care sites and was present most every week over so many years, I got to see several thousand children in total. I got to see hundreds of individual children from before they were three until they were older than five, and it is this rich experience that really opened my eyes about how the world was changing. During the first few years, I would usually see 2-3 children in each class that needed extra help, and often I was able to intervene in a wonderful and almost invisible way through the playgroups. It was quite remarkable to me that so many children could gain skills and confidence so quickly once they had a chance and someone was paying attention. What a gift it was to be able to help so many kids without needing “approved visits” through their health insurance or an “individualized education program” through their school. I saw this week in and week out, year after year; how getting children engaged in simple jumping games with a beach ball, or sitting with a set of small wooden blocks and people figures and creating a “community of play” made such a difference. Children who were behind in their skills could catch up in a matter of months and transform before my eyes into more alert, confident and happy children. Day after day, I got to hear the incredible sound of joy and laughter when children are jumping in the air and discovering the thrill of landing safely on their own two feet. The satisfaction from knowing I made a difference has stayed with me. What I also saw, however, was a shift over the years of doing this work, and an ever-increasing number of children who were behind in their motor skills when they entered pre-school. Instead of 2 or 3 children who looked like they needed help, there were sometimes classes where it seemed like half the children needed extra help. It’s important to note that the 4 centers I visited were all in the same Western Massachusetts community (Holyoke), but that the children I saw were from a fairly broad economic range. They were not exclusively from low income families where specific issues that were related to poverty could be the main factor in why these changes were occurring. I saw the same pattern in a center where children were from much higher income families where issues of poverty were clearly not the problem.
So what was going on? Here, I can only say that I’m not a researcher, and that I saw what I saw over a long period of time. I tried to talk to as many people as I could who I thought could help me figure out what was going on. Over time, and through speaking to other therapists who worked in early intervention (birth to age 3), a pattern emerged. What I was seeing in pre-school was obviously the result of what was happening with babies and toddlers, who would “graduate” to a pre-school setting and yet still look and move more like toddlers. This is the generation of children who have grown up in baby seats instead of crawling on the floor – because, of course, it’s safer. They sleep on their backs and are not allowed to sleep on their bellies because that’s safer, too. This “back to sleep” movement evolved from a worthy cause- pediatricians efforts to reduce sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Unfortunately , it has had the unintended consequence of vastly reducing the amount of time babies and toddlers spend on their bellies where so many crucial postural and body awareness skills develop. Babies spend less time moving and being carried around and more time on their backs in car seats looking out at the world from a single position. This new generation of children has wonderful skills with a cell phone and touch screen, because that’s so often been a helpful tool for busy parents who let them spend lots of time on screens and watching movies- it keeps them occupied and quiet like nothing else, and of course, it’s safe. I’m not saying all screens and devices are harmful, but the balance of time kids spend in front of a screen today compared to 20 years ago has shifted drastically and it has an impact that must be recognized.
Along with these trends in child rearing that have all contributed to less movement and active exploring for so many babies and toddlers, what else could be happening? I also wonder about the impact of another strong cultural force- the 9/11 bombings, and the resulting increased focus and anxiety about safety and our vulnerability everywhere. I taught a class with students from two local colleges in 2011-12, and those students, mostly around age 20, had grown up in a different world. When I asked them to write about their own early play memories (from the early 1990’s), without exception they each described playing at different friends houses in their neighborhood, only vaguely supervised. Each student communicated in different ways the importance of that unsupervised play on developing a feeling of independence and self-confidence. After 9/11, the whole idea of unsupervised play for children changed, and neighborhood and playground play became an activity organized and carefully supervised by grown ups for almost every child and family. What is “normal” has shifted completely, and children today have lost much of the power and magic that is gained from playing and negotiating with peers on their own. This is a powerful if invisible force that can’t be ignored.
Let me also say loud and clear I am not against safety. I could not be more tuned into what young kids need for safety. I have spent years building and designing indoor playgrounds, and I know how to make them sturdy and safe above all. I hope to make it through my career without doing harm, and the last thing I need is a lawsuit brought on by an injury on a playground I designed. Yet there is some level of risk in every move we make and every activity of each child all day long. There is clearly an acceptable level of risk we all take on every time we get into a car, or hop on a bicycle. Accidents happen, but we accept some risk in order to get to work or take that bike ride we want for exercise. The issue for pre-schools that get inspected for safety by agencies like the Massachusetts EEC and similar agencies in other states is simply that the inspectors hold so much power. A pre-school director has no viable option when an inspector determines that the swings or climber used in their center for generations does not have an adequate “fall zone” according to new regulations. The center must either make expensive renovations or take down the equipment. An ignored safety violation can mean loss of licensure and closing the doors. Preschools, always running on tight budgets, are usually not in a position to make expensive repairs, so equipment is simply discarded. This has been a process that has gone on in Massachusetts for many years, and the cumulative effect is simply to limit a whole generation of children from experiencing the thrill and satisfaction of swinging, climbing or jumping off anything over 4” high. Sadly and ironically, the long-term absence of challenging play equipment makes children today less able to handle routine physical challenges when they are encountered later on. There is actually greater risk for children unprepared for the experience of jumping, swinging and climbing when they finally get the chance to experience them.
So what’s to be done? I will offer a few simple remedies that might serve as a starting point, and then offer my own personal dream of how maybe we might push the world just a tiny bit in a positive direction. Here in Massachusetts, I would ask the EEC and other childcare agencies to offer more training, education and solid information for families and caregivers on the importance of vigorous play and exercise, and then find new ways to offer tangible support. The EEC also needs to find a way to change their method of inspections to insure each center offers opportunities to move and exercise and explore (even with some acceptable risk involved). This is crucial, so that they can transform themselves from the “Department of NO” into partners with the caregivers who are working so hard for our young children. I run workshops all over Western Massachusetts for pre-school teachers and child care providers, and there has been unanimous resentment towards the EEC at every single workshop where I meet childcare providers. I remember hearing one pre-school director tell me “Those inspectors won’t be satisfied till outdoor play for kids means having them sit outside on a piece of fake grass with little play figures who are getting the exercise”. These dedicated childcare advocates have simply been shut down and ignored for too long. The EEC needs to ask those they inspect whether the inspection process is useful and listen to what they are told. Finding ways to get government agencies to really listen to the concerns of the people they oversee needs to be a priority, and can help people find their way back to believing in the important role government can play in improving the lives of children. I dream of a time when early childhood centers could look for help from the EEC for grants for tricycles, swing sets and climbers that meet safety standards, and indoor playscapes that give kids in New England a chance to move and challenge themselves even when the winter is long and the day is spent indoors. This has been my personal dream as well. In 2010, I founded the Bogin Playscape Project, in honor of Nancy Bogin, my long time friend and mentor. Nancy was the person who first hired me to work in her preschool and allowed me to build an indoor playground when I was still a student. This new project has allowed me to start building simple toys and equipment again, and my first indoor playground was installed in October 2014 at an early intervention program in my hometown of Amherst. Sadly, The EEC has specifically forbidden me from placing my design for a preschool playscape anywhere in Massachusetts, unless I pursue certification for my design from the American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM). I have described the EEC response to me as similar to the Wizard of Oz asking Dorothy to bring back the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West. Mind you, this is for a simple design of a large plywood box with some fun attachments. I have raised money and received several grants for the first building projects, and everything I build is donated to the pre-schools free of charge. But I don’t have resources like big commercial vendors, and I’m not selling anything. I am asking for a chance to bring some simple and sturdy designs out in the world. When I started my project, I thought the hard part would be getting grants and funding- but that’s not half as hard as getting permission to try to do good in this world.
My long-term goal is to extend the reach of my project so that others can use the designs. Once I have a few playgrounds up and running, and get feedback that they work as intended, I hope to post the designs on my website so they can be copied. I have intentionally used simple materials and construction techniques, so the designs could be copied by high school vocational programs, or retirees looking for a good home project, anyone who wants to build and help. I welcome others involvement, and I dream of the EEC or other state or federal agencies sponsoring design competitions for indoor playscapes so that architecture and design students could get involved. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. We need our best and our brightest working to design equipment and environments for children that are safe but challenging too. I am convinced there is a potential groundswell of help and support out there in the world yet to be tapped. Imagine the positive impact of people in prisons or treatment and diversion programs building play equipment for their own children and for their communities. Playgrounds are colorblind, and cut across all the cultural and economic differences that divide us. The magic and wonder of working with pre-school kids still inspires me as it did when I was 17, and I hope to spread that excitement as long as my working career lasts. I have joined forces with a wonderful physical therapist who specializes in babies and toddlers, and we continue to run training workshops for child care providers. We use simple and low cost props and materials to help encourage more active play and exercise and explain why it is so crucial to children’s health and well being. We have worked with many hundreds of caregivers in the last few years, and yet it is such a big world out there, and harder than ever to get the attention needed to make even small changes that will last. But these dedicated adults who are taking care of our young children in pre schools and day care programs in every community around us are holding up the sky, and they are usually doing it for low wages and under stressful conditions. They need and deserve more help just as much as the children we treasure. Work with infants and preschoolers can and should be made a decently compensated career path that reflects it’s true value to society. Government can and should help these unsung heroes, with grants for higher education and even help with reduced rate mortgages and contributions to retirement accounts for their service to our communities. That’s a place where real help is needed and will pay off.
One last thing. Some kind of “Good Samaritan” help with liability coverage would also be a great boost to anyone trying to build and design for kids. While I’m donating my work for a worthy cause, the thought that I can still be sued if anything ever goes wrong is frightening, and keeps many good minds from taking up this challenge. The fear of liability is an ongoing and powerful disincentive to innovation and creativity, and sabatoges the urge to give back and share that we need to cultivate.
So here is my “Call to Arms” (and legs and eyes and brains). Our children need help, and an investment in what really counts in early child development. Investments in stronger, healthier children is “infrastructure” spending we can’t postpone. We can redefine what it means to really value our children and get them ready to grow and learn. How sad and ironic it would be if we finally achieve free universal pre-school education and it doesn’t offer what children need. Come on parents, teachers, citizens and taxpayers of New England and beyond- where are you??
More pictures , information and ideas are on the website ;