Tag Archives: readiness

A Designed Life

A nugget from the Challenge Success lectures at Stanford University last weekend. The event was called, “Success By Design: Is It Possible?”

Dave Evans, ex-tech leader and professor in Stanford’s design school, where students are learning how to design their lives, not just products, answers the question in the title of the event counter-intuitively. Note that the wisdom-message at this conference was that too much anxiety about crafting a path to success (which equals admission to a top college) does no good, and that 90% of the time we take a highly circuitous path to our bliss, not the direct and carefully curated path that most people think leads to, and follows from, a degree from Stanford (or whatever).

Evans says, we can design our lives. But, he says, what we usually mean when we use that language is that we hope to be able to engineer our lives. Design, he says, is far less specific and rigid than engineering. Design, among other things, involves lots of failure. By the time a project is ready to be engineered, one hopes the failures have all been played out. Engineering is rule-bound and inflexible. Design is messy and has to come first.

The design process includes such soft and sketchy elements as Empathy (feeling the realities of the ‘user’, who might be yourself); Definition (naming the problems well); ideation (throwing lots of ideas at the wall, seeing what sticks); prototyping (this is where failure comes in … and lots of it); testing (ok, now, try it!).

Evans says, “Fail often to succeed sooner.” Embrace the years before college as chances for a student to try lots of different things, fail at many of them, and try some more. Rename, reframe, and rethink a lot. Don’t make the mistake of assuming every effort has to be an “A” effort, because that creates a fear of failure, which makes for lousy design.

We loved the message of Challenge Success, a research-fueled, humane and encouraging perspective on raising awesome and joyful kids, and recommend a browse of their offerings in the area. Preschool parents can start with this page of video responses to frequently asked questions that leaders hear over and over again at their conferences:

Preschool FAQs

Do you worry about how well you are preparing your child for success?


[This post originally appeared on The Parenting on The Peninsula Blog]

An Education

Recently a young girl of 4 1/2 sat on her own in a corner of the preschool room. She had a little dish and little tongs and she was feeding little plastic counting bears to a great big stuffed animal. She was totally focused. She was gentle, patting and cooing to the dog. She whispered to her charge inaudibly. She took her time.

Was this big stuffed dog (easily as big as the girl) a proxy for a pet at home? Or was the floppy toy reminding her of a sibling, and was she playing parent or big sister? Was the dog a ‘friend’ who needed love? Or was it a stand in for herself? What relationship (friendship or family) or what needs (loneliness, hunger, or security) were being worked out? Are these questions surprising?

For a child, play is not separate from life. Play like this is a kind of theater, where a child rehearses … everything. And for a child, everything is relational: children learn who–and how lovable–they are from those they relate to; and they learn about the relative trustworthiness and goodness of the world from those they interact with. Since childhood can be fraught with uncertainty, often children work out their own responses to relational anxieties through play.

Who knew that plastic bears, tongs, and a stuffed animal could engage a child’s attention exclusively for long periods of time? And who knew that spontaneous dramatic play could be so rich and meaningful? In fact, the meaning of this brief vignette goes beyond the sweet implications of a young child working out compassion, or whatever.

When we think about the skills our kids will need to be successful, it’s normal to want to be able to check off requirements. In fact we usually want to check them off early (so they will never be behind!). For example, we want the kids in our charge to learn writing, spelling, and language– skills that get a disproportionate level of attention from new parents who feel an intense responsibility to give their child every academic advantage. So we look at this kind of quiet play with a touch of anxiety … shouldn’t we be preparing her for the challenges of Kindergarten? Shouldn’t we be spending more time laying a foundation for later language requirements?

But what if she was laying that foundation already … with no intervention from a teacher or a parent?

Practically speaking, this little one was encompassing a well-rounded preschool curriculum, one perfectly suited to her age. She was manipulating small toys using a tool, and working her fine motor skills, which are the essential precursor skills to writing (using tongs to accomplish a concrete task, this girl was getting ready to hold a pencil to accomplish something more abstract, using symbols to represent language). She was verbalizing her thoughts to another, working out the communication of feelings in a low pressure environment (stuffed animals are known to be very good conversation partners). She was building relational confidence. And all of this was happening in the context of a drama largely hidden to the observer. What thoughts or feelings drove the girl to minister to this creature in this way? It doesn’t matter. They were important enough to require special attention, and that in turn became an occasion for her to accidentally practice a number of really useful skills.

Good preschool curriculum should always allow for a child to choose, as often as they like, their own self-directed play. In this context, children are learning how to learn. Such play always—always—encompasses a rich and multi-layered assortment of learning opportunities. How is this possible? Because a child will call on all their skills, even new and unrefined skills, to accomplish the tasks that they care about. This is where the best learning happens.


This post originally appeared on the Parenting On The Peninsula blog

Strategic Engagement

We’ve been thinking about how teachers and parents engage with children. While children do their thing, we see a spectrum of engagement, with active engagement on one end and detached observation on the other. Each are appropriate and have their benefits … the key for adults is being mindful of what kind of engagement is called for in a given moment.

When adults are well attuned to the children in their care, they know when to let a child be and when to step in to enhance or deepen the learning process.

There are times when we lead children and are fully engaged. Adult-directed play is an important part of learning, as we create scenarios for children to encounter classic problems and search out workable solutions. Adults provide safe boundaries for exploration and as much guidance as is necessary for kids to find unique (and practical) ways of overcoming obstacles. Too much distance at a time when children need guidance may lead to the kind of failures and disappointments that make a child wary of taking on challenges.

Children should also experience free exploration and play in an environment of non-directive, observational engagement. In this case, adults observe from a little distance, in order to avoid interrupting a child’s creative work. In addition to benefiting a child, from this distance adults can discover something about who our children are. When adults step back, children move at their own pace, create their own kind of order, furnish their own worlds. Too much involvement when children need freedom can lead a child to mistrust their own impulses, to incorrectly assume that they must only do what adults want them to, to shy away from thinking for themselves.

It takes some practice, and patience, to be mindful of where a child is, what their momentary needs are. It’s worth the effort. Ultimately we want to engage kids in a way that encourages them to risk new ventures, both creative and practical. When a child is learning how to create … they need a measure of freedom and a sense that their creativity has value in itself. When a child is learning how things work, they need a measure of guidance and support so that developmentally technical challenges don’t overwhelm them.

Learn these subtle skills and kids grow by measures more confident and free, able to tackle a variety of the challenges our world throws at them.

Utility and Experience

In class yesterday, Anghelika introduced rhythm sticks to a group of five-year-olds. Rhythm sticks are foot-long wooden sticks for knocking together–these simple toys/tools are fun and noisy, so are an easy sell to kids. But they also offer a number of covert benefits for a growing mind. With some care on the part of the teacher, kids can smack away while “accidentally” learning rhythm and math, following a leader, and working together.

In the midst of the knocking and counting, Anghelika noticed a single student holding her sticks in the middle, while the majority held them by the ends. We thought about this and it occurred to us that for most of the kids, there was an understanding that the stick could be a tool or instrument. Tools and instruments are for doing something with, for making music: you hold tools by their ends. For this student, however, the stick was for holding, not so much using. The thing had not yet become for her a utilitarian object: she had a stick to hold, and holding means grabbing it in the middle. From her perspective, we imagine, holding on the end is a nuisance: it requires more strength, balance, and what’s the point anyways? She had something in her hand; it felt good!

Sure, this is on the one hand a simple opportunity to introduce the idea of utility to students along with different ways of interaction. She was open to instruction that day, and her particular relationship to the object was no cause for concern. She would have gotten it, no problem.

On the contrary, there is enough emphasis on utility in our education system … what’s wrong with relating to an object for the way it feels in your hand? We take notice of this outlier for the uniqueness of her interaction. Sure, there’s an opportunity to teach her about the tool and it’s usefulness, but there is also an opportunity for us to learn something about her perspective and what is important to her in the moment. Both are true, and rich opportunities for growth, in her, and in our community perspective.

The wrong approach to the situation would be to correct her grip and tell her the “right” way to hold a stick, to point out “how the other children are doing it”, and call attention to some failure on her part to align with the crowd. The right way would be to acknowledge and respect her way for what it is, letting her speak to her own reasons why. Then, together, teacher and student can work out the best way to hold a stick for different uses.

Admissions Anxiety

It’s that time of year—when students anxiously await word from the prestigious schools they’ve applied to ….

This week, a mother came into the preschool in tears. Her child had just been interviewed for admission into kindergarten. She sat with an administrator who listed all of the ways that her son failed to measure up to the standards of this great school. Standards that included writing his name, knowing the alphabet, knowing his home phone number. This is half-way through his first year of preschool. “It takes a lot to make me cry,” she tells us.

Of course, from the school’s perspective, this is all easily explained, and a parent would be foolish not to see the writing on the wall. If my child is not prepared for kindergarten, they will be behind from the beginning. Other children, ahead of the curve, will get more attention and affirmation from teachers and my child will be slowly left behind. The downward spiral starts now: my child is doomed. Might as well get used to being at the bottom of the heap.

This mother (who is not given to these kinds of extremes, thankfully) said they never asked what her child’s interests are. They might have learned that he’s been to sixteen of California’s missions, and could give a history lesson. They didn’t learn how well he does sitting attentively in circle-time, and if they had asked they might have realized that while he does not have certain facts in hand, he is ready and eager to learn.

It gives us hope to hear that mom was asked by an administrator at another school (she has applied to seven) to share three things that make her son special. That’s more like it.

What Preschool Is For

We love preschools. We love all they give to children, and all the ways children bring their own awesome energy to new experiences. The reason to put a child in preschool is so that they can begin to learn how to be with people and understand the rhythms of group life. It is a preparation for school.

There is a common misconception that from the very beginning preschool is about sitting at the table and learning academics. It is almost never about that. In a good preschool we prepare the child for the moment when they are ready to sit down and write or count or read.