Ep. 65 – Teacher Tom – Preschoolers: Let Them Learn!
- The importance of male role models in early childhood education.
- How our kids bickering and arguing nurtures negotiation and communication skills.
- Examples of creative classroom environments that ‘let kids learn’
This episode is filled with engaging and enlightening stories from early childhood educator and international consultant, Tom Hobson.
Through decades of study and practice with preschoolers, “Teacher Tom” understands how children ‘learn how to learn’ through play.
He writes, “Time and again, when I’ve had faith in children, when I’ve held them as competent, for more often than not, they show me they are.”
He now shares that knowledge around the world, describing how we create classroom environments that let kids learn.
Teacher Tom HobsonTom Hobson, is an early childhood educator, international speaker, education consultant, and author. He’s also an award winning blogger under his professional alias, ‘Teacher Tom’s Blog’, where over 250,000 readers join his daily posts chronicling the life and times of his preschool in the rain-soaked Pacific Northwest corner of the USA.
For nearly two decades, Teacher Tom was the lead teacher of the Woodland Park Cooperative School, a parent-owned and operated school, knit together by Teacher Tom's dynamic and progressive play-based pedagogy. He now shares that pedagogy through online e-courses and inspires early childhood educators around the world with his engaging experiences and informed views on early childhood education.
Ep. 65 – Teacher Tom – Preschoolers: Let Them Learn!
Rachel Cram – Well, good afternoon, teacher Tom.
Tom Hobson – Hi. How are you?
Rachel Cram – I am so good. I’m so looking forward to talking to you. I actually have had you recommended to me as a guest from so many people and many of my own staff at Wind and Tide have said, you’ve got to get Teacher Tom, so this is fun. It’s great to talk.
Tom Hobson – It is fun. I can’t wait.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, I know you have been in the field for about 20 years now.
Tom Hobson – Yeah, a little more than 20 years. I was kind of a late in life, early childhood education guy. Got in when I was in my mid thirties.
Rachel Cram – Okay. What got you into it?
Tom Hobson – Oh well being a parent. I was lucky. My wife is the business person. She was an executive with Volkswagen. We lived in Germany doing that and all of that. So it really, you know, it freed me up to kind of have a hobby job which was trying to be a writer, right? So I worked really hard and I was reasonably successful.
Rachel Cram – At being a writer?
Tom Hobson – Yeah, as a freelance writer. Just kind of picking up jobs because we were moving all over the place. So wherever we went I would go out there and try to get work. This was back in the days when they’d pay you by the hour. Not a penny a word the way they do now. You could make decent money doing that. And I aspired to write fiction, but I could get paid to do almost anything except fiction. So I did a lot of marketing, copywriting and that kind of stuff. And then we decided to have our child. And so we moved to Seattle, so not too far from you, because that’s where our families were. And when our daughter was born, it was just natural that I was the stay at home parent. And she went back to her work. And you know, I feel incredibly fortunate because even then, it was kind of rare for the Dad.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. A little bit cutting edge, which is sad to say, but true. Yeah.
Tom Hobson – Well, yeah. I think less rare, hopefully less rare now than it was. But at the time, you know, I found myself in lots of groups where I would feel a little bit like I was in the way, right? Because maybe they didn’t want a guy hanging around. So I felt a little awkward about it. But anyway I love the stay at home part of being a stay at home parent, right? Because I’m by nature, an introvert. And so for me, the whole idea of staying at home, I just thought, “Oh, this would be great. I’m going to spend a couple of years, we’re just going to read stories and we’re going to cook snacks and we’re going to putter around the house and maybe watch a little. Mr. Rogers, you know, something like that.”
Rachel Cram – And how did that work out for you?
Tom Hobson – Well, really, by the time she was getting to be about two, one and a half or so, she would say things to me like we’d get up in the morning and just say, “Papa, today, let’s do something, let’s go somewhere.”
I took that to mean, all right, she’s probably ready for preschool because that’s what people did, at least that’s what I thought. And that’s what I’d been, you know, I understood. So I asked my wife and she said, “No.” She said, “She’s got a stay at home parent. Why would you want to go, you know, put her off with some stranger to raise her?” And, you know, that’s a legitimate argument. But you know, I snuck behind her back and I went and asked by my mother, and my mother said pretty much the same thing.
Rachel Cram – Oh, that’s dangerous ground.
Tom Hobson – So that then I sort of thought, okay, I got my mother in law left. So I went and asked my mother in law and she said the same thing. And so I found myself, deciding I’m going to try to cobble together a social life, you know, kind of a life that got her excited. So we would go to playgrounds and we signed up for classes and things like that.
And one day while I was playing on the playground there was one of the moms there with her son. We started chatting and I told her my story about my three powerful women who you don’t go against. Right. And she said, “Oh, I know exactly how you feel. I’m in kind of the same boat, except we found a school. It’s called a co-operative school where the parents go to school with their kids.”
And that sounded really interesting to me. So I did a little research and when I ran this by, you know, the three powerful women, they all said, “Yes, as long as you go to school with her.”
Rachel Cram – Yeah, they just didn’t want you slacking off at home. That’s what it was Tom they wanted you working for your ‘stay at home status’ not slacking. But you landed not only in a cooperative school but teaching in the cooperative school, so how did that come into being?
Tom Hobson – Yeah, so from the age of 2 to 5, she and I went to our cooperative school together and I had the really good fortune of working most of that time with a master teacher by the name of Chris David, who is really a play based educator, really knew what she was doing. She knew how cooperative worked. How to work with parents and with kids. And through that process I really felt like I got my apprenticeship.
And at one point, you know, Josephine, that’s my daughter, Josephine, she was getting ready to head off to kindergarten and Teacher Chris asked me, she said, “Well, what are you going to do?” Right, because she was always thinking about the whole family. And she said, “Well, what are you going to do when she goes off to kindergarten?”
And I had no idea. I hadn’t even thought about it. It hadn’t even crossed my mind to find something to do with my time. And she said, “I think you’d be a good teacher.”
And you know, I went and I started doing some coursework before I was even finished. I was hired at Woodland Park, and there I was for, you know, the last two decades, teaching at a cooperative school. And I find myself completely immersed in the world, and I can’t imagine any other life now.
Rachel Cram – Well kudos to Teacher Chris for inspiring you into early childhood education. Sadly, as the number of men in early childhood education indicates, that’s no small feat.
This is my 35th year of running Wind and Tide, and we currently have about 160 staff, and two of them are males. And in all of my years of running Wind and Tide, I don’t think I’ve probably interviewed more than a handful, maybe ten, maybe ten men. And it’s such a loss to the field to not have men, teachers. So they were fortunate to have you, as I know that they are so fortunate to have this master teacher that you spoke of there as well.
Tom Hobson – Yeah, well, she wasn’t there. She was at a different school. She was part of the system.
Rachel Cram – Oh, okay. So were you the lead teacher then at that point or?
Tom Hobson – Yeah, when I came in I was the only teacher.
Rachel Cram – Okay. And then other parents were there as well with their kids?
Tom Hobson – Well, in a cooperative school. Parents work as your assistant teachers, that’s how the cooperative works, is the parents work in the classroom with you so they get to learn alongside.
Rachel Cram – So you’re really nurturing children and adults as the lead teacher.
Tom Hobson – Well, and how else can you do it? I mean, a two year old is not even sure where her mommy ends and where she begins. Right. And so I think it’s really important, if you’re going to really serve the whole child, is if you can have those parents around, get them involved.
Rachel Cram – Well, you’re just saying a child doesn’t know where their mommy begins and where she ends. They also don’t know where their daddy begins and ends. Oh, I think I’m going to obsess on this topic of men in education for a moment, if I can just go back to it, because I do, I think it’s amazing that you had a role like that 20 years ago and sadly it’s still amazing if you had a role like that now because that just doesn’t happen. Can I ask you, why do you think, from your opinion, there is such a lack of male role models in early childhood settings? Even in elementary schools, for that matter? I think in my kid’s elementary school there’s one male teacher there and they don’t start till grade six.
Tom Hobson – I could say. And part of this is true, is that, you know, our world is still set up where the males tend to be the primary breadwinners. And we don’t make a lot of money in our profession.
Rachel Cram – In Early Childhood. Yeah.
Tom Hobson – That would be one. That’s an easy answer. And of course, there’s the whole thing about being nurturers and men aren’t supposed to be particularly good at nurturers. And we sometimes have those messages in society that women are the nurturers and men are the protectors, that kind of thing. But honestly and I’ll just be perfectly honest, and this is a dark place to go, but it’s the fear of pedophilia.
I had a number of parents tell me that, “Well, I can’t tell the child’s grandparents that there’s a male teacher here because they’ll assume you’re a pedophile.”
And it’s, you know, statistically true. So I can’t fight that, that if somebody is going to harm a child that way, it’s more likely to be a man than a woman. I went to one of my other early mentors, a man named Tom Drummond. And when I was first hired, before I ever set foot in the classroom, I went to him and I said, “What do I do if somebody accuses me of that?”
And he said,” Well, you have to leave the profession.” He said, “Even an accusation, you can’t fight that accusation”.
So I think that part of the problem is that men live with the potential of losing their profession every single second of every single day. Because all it takes is an accusation. Because once you have that hint around, once that ideas around you, it’s not going to go away even if you’ve done nothing. And so that’s why working at Co-op was such a great setup for me.
Rachel Cram – You had other adults around you at all times.
Tom Hobson – Right. I would always make sure I was never alone in a room with a child. None of the adults were allowed to be alone in a room with a child. We would always make sure there was at least two people in every place the child was.
Rachel Cram – Well, and that is good standard practice. We do that in our schools as well. The bathroom door stays open if a teacher takes them in and you don’t have nooks and crannies where adults disappear for the same reasons. But of course, as a male, you are so much more vulnerable. My oldest son taught at Wind and Tide in one of our afterschool programs for a few years, and that was my big caution with him going in there too, I did not want that risk for him. And I would say probably almost a quarter the participants were very concerned about having their child in a class with a male teacher. So it’s a multi layer challenge because not having men in early childhood settings then directly fuels the notion that men are not nurturant and the challenge continues.
Tom Hobson – Exactly
Rachel Cram – I know that when you read sociology studies of child growth and development talking about when is it that children start to develop an awareness of roles and roles that people play in life, they say it happens between two and four years old. So to me it is such a loss. I feel like we’re just perpetuating all the myths that we have about gender stereotypes by not having males around in early childhood settings because so many children now are in daycare for 40 hours a week. And if they’re never seeing a male there, it’s in their mind. It continues on that males aren’t nurturant.
Tom Hobson – Right. The thing that I felt was great about being a male teacher in many ways in the co-operative school, is that, you know, maybe in the two year old year the mother would be the one coming but by the time they were four and five years old, very often all of my classes were 50% fathers participating, 50% mothers. The dads, once they substituted for one time, very often they’d say, “Wait a minute, I like this. I want to be there with those kids. I want to play with them. I want to be in their world.”
And you would see so many men come alive in ways that you don’t normally see men come alive, at least in my opinion, around the preschool classroom. That nurturing side. You know, people say, “Well, I want more men in there.” And I think one of the reasons is the gender stereotype piece. You know, and people tell me or there’s different energy and I’m not sure what that means, but I think it’s true.
Rachel Cram – It is true. And it is hard to say what it means because you don’t want to say that there’s a difference between having a male and a female in there. But it does change. I know in the classes where we have had men come in, the little boys gravitate to them and the girls do too. And the play changes. Even though you have had female teachers in there who are very rambunctious, filled with energy, it changes when a male comes into the room and you can’t say if that’s right or wrong. It just is what it is.
Tom Hobson – Yeah, it’s absolutely true. I definitely see that. Maybe this is, again, nurture more than nature, but a lot of times the children automatically assume they’re going to get a lot more roughhousing, right? And like I said, there are female teachers, women teachers out there who are incredible risk takers, incredible rough housers, incredible educators in that way. And using humor and using, vivacious and all the kind of things that you ascribe to the males. But there’s something about when a males in the room that you see something changed for some of the kids. Not all of them, but some of them.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. Well, I’m glad you’ve been there all these years. And I hope we see more. And there are definitely more, like you said, there’s more dads dropping off. I know when I started Wind and Tide 35 years ago, it was all moms dropping off their kids at school. It was so rare to see a dad. And now, similar to what you’re saying, I would say it’s getting close to 50/50 of moms dropping off and dads dropping off because both parents are now working. But the reality still is, even with both parents still working, it’s usually still the men that are earning the more money. So when you’re going to look at who’s going to be home with the kids more or who’s going to be the one that’s home when they’re sick, it still does often come back to the female that’s going to be taking the time off work to come into the center to do special days. And so we’ve got a long ways to go.
Tom Hobson – Yeah, well, we do it and hopefully it’s a journey in the right direction and we keep going that way. I’ll never forget when I first determined I was going to be a stay at home parent. And after I’d been doing it for about a year and a half and my father said to me one time, “You know, I missed you boys growing up. I think you’re the luckiest man alive.” And that was really meaningful for me coming from my father. When your father tells you something like that, it was like I knew I was in the right place.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, well good for your Dad, and I can sympathize with parents who don’t get in those words of encouragement as smoothly or as timely as your Dad managed to. I know for myself, I want my kids to fully launch out from under my financial umbrella. I want them to be independent of me one day, and sometimes it can feel like wholeheartedly supporting them to pursue purpose over pay and prestige can feel like it might stand in the way of that launch. So it really means, like your dad did, looking at a bigger picture for what we want for our children.
Tom Hobson – You know, I actually think, I think right now parents are really worried their kids are going to choose teaching because it is a low status job. It is a low paid job. It’s such important. It’s so vital. And there’s and I see it in the U.S. in particular, maybe this is not true in Canada, but in the U.S., I really see a dismissiveness of the professionalism. And, you know, people telling teachers what they can and can’t say in the classroom and all this kind of stuff. You think of any other profession, if they had the kind of outside interference, say, doctors and lawyers, people coming in and going to the doctor and saying, “You must give me medicine X.” And the doctor saying, “I’m a professional, you need a splint. You know, you don’t need medicine X.”
And so often that’s what happens in our profession is where people are coming in and saying, “No, you have to tell kids X, Y or Z.”
You say, “No, developmentally we know how education actually works and the process that goes through. And while it varies from child to child. There are some general principles of when children are ready to learn certain things.”
Rachel Cram – Well, and as with doctors and other professionals, teachers continually wrestle and work within new and emerging information on what is best practice, what’s best for kids, but unlike other professions, I think because everyone has gone to school, and we’ve grown up with teachers, we’ve spent hundreds of hours literally, with teachers, we can feel like “we know what the profession is about.” I wonder if in our familiarity we lose a bit of regard for teachers?
Tom Hobson – That’s right, and you know, you look at our profession, I know the statistic I read recently, it’s one in five teachers are going to leave the profession within five years. That’s a 20% turnover. Any other profession that would be considered a crisis? And we consider that just normal. And after COVID, I suspect we’re going to see a higher turnover. I think once the school year is over, we’re going to see a real transformation in our profession.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, well, we’re absolutely wrestling with that here right now. We probably have about 15 offers to open up centers in different places around the lower mainland of British Columbia, where we’re working. And we can’t open any of them because we don’t have staff. We can’t only hire a warm body to go in the classroom. We need exceptional teachers. And if they’re just not coming into the field right now, and those that are here are looking to move to places where it’s not as expensive to live.
Tom Hobson – So I was just in a place that’s not expensive to live. And they told me they had 75 teacher openings in their preschool system and zero applicants. Another place I was in the Midwest, they told me that police officers and firefighters and paramedics are volunteering to be substitute teachers because they don’t have enough teachers for the classroom. I mean, good on them for showing up. But, you know, maybe that’s how we get men in the classroom. I don’t know. It’s but I mean we’re going to have an interesting next couple of years I think.
Musical Interlude #1
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Rachel Cram – Well there’s a quote that we use from Mahatma Gandhi as almost a basis to this podcast, and I haven’t actually brought it up for a long time in many episodes, and I’m feeling like now is a great place to insert it, he said. “If we want to reach peace in the world, we must begin with the children.”
And the wisdom of those words speaks to the importance of those early years and to the wisdom of the people that work with children in those early years. Tom, you are a master teacher and you are also a master writer on early childhood education. You put out a blog every day, which is amazing and.
Tom Hobson – I’m kind of diseased that way.
Rachel Cram – Well, I’m kind of thinking so. And they’re well written. I don’t even know how you get this into your day to write one every single day. But you speak profoundly on the importance of these early years and the wisdom behind raising children with knowledge and their own wisdom for the future and shaping children that will bring peace, hopefully, to the world. You’re actually writing about how we let kids learn, how we create environments where children can evolve, grow, flourish, to be the people that they’re meant to be, to fit the world that they’re going to grow into. And I’m wondering, can you maybe think back over your years of teaching. Are there certain memories that come to your mind that stand out as almost typical, amazing learning moments?
Tom Hobson – Well, the first one, while you were saying that, the first one that comes to mind, I love this story, the little boy named Paige. And so I got to do a little backfill here to tell the whole story. In our school, one of the principles we have is the children make all of their own rules. And we call them agreements. We don’t call them rules, although the kids often call them rules anyway.
Rachel Cram – Isn’t that amazing by that age they already know they need rules and boundaries even if they can’t say that, they think like that.
Tom Hobson – They’ve already internalized the idea that, well, you know, and children, they get to be an infant and then by the time they’re two or three, all they hear about is rules. I’ll never forget, I was on a plane. I’m sorry. I’m digressing a little bit. I’m on an airplane and there was a baby, right? An infant who was crying and fussing and everything. Planes can be that way to anybody and most people are very sympathetic about that. But then there was a two year old having a hard time and it started kicking the seat in front of it and everyone on the plane was scowling and the mom was just like scolding and all this. And being stuck in an airplane is a miserable experience for all of us. I felt like the kids were speaking for me. They’re starting to already put rules on this two year old.
So anyway, so we make our own rules. And the way that works is, I tell the parents who are my assistant teachers, you know, we’re starting in an official state of anarchy. And our only job on day one is to keep the kids from killing each other or kill themselves. And always probably within the first hour, somebody has come and said, “Teacher Tom, she hit me.”
And then you’re able to say, “Oh you didn’t like that. Nobody likes to be hit. Does anybody like to be hit? Well, nobody does. Let’s all agree not to hit each other.”
So we’ll write it down. No hitting, right? It’s a no right, no hitting because that’s the way it comes out. And then, of course, the hands start going up. It’s like they know how they want to be treated. No biting, no kicking people, no taking things for people, no yelling in people’s ears. You know, you get, you get the Ten Commandments, right? You get this list of rules that pretty much everybody agrees to these, right?
So anyway, we go through this process, and it’s a yearlong process, and the kids love doing it right because it gives them feel and control in their environment. And they will point up at that list, even though they can’t read it but they know what each one says. “That’s the rule I put up there. No throwing blocks at people.” Right.
And that’s the one I put up there. “No throwing pumpkins at people,” because sometimes you have to have all the different variations.
Rachel Cram – All the things you can’t throw.
Tom Hobson – Exactly. There’ll be hundreds of rules at some point. And adults think “Well, that’s too many. They just need two or three. You know, behind each other. Be gentle.”
The kids? That’s not been my experience. So anyway, the kids make their own rules and they do it by consensus.
Well, this boy, Paige, he was getting to be about four years old. Smart kid. He wanted to change one of the rules. He wanted to change specifically the rule, ‘No name calling.’ Cause we come up with that, no name calling. And specifically, he wanted to be able to call other kids poopy head. That was the word he wanted to use. And he would say things like this. I mean, this is how clever kids can be. So he was going “If I could call you a poopy head, I would call you poopy head because you are a poopy. But I can’t say it because it’s against the rules. So.”
But, you know, and he would say poopy head as many times as he could in the process. So very clever. But anyway, so I said, “Well, listen, Paige, if you want to change the rule, we all have to agree, right? Because everybody has to agree to change that rule because that’s the way our process works.”
And so he came and he raised his hand and he suggested that rule change and nobody.
Rachel Cram – They weren’t buying?
Tom Hobson – Nobody agreed. And so the next day he tried it again. Nobody agreed. So he was getting kind of frustrated. But this time, like I said, smart kid, he lobbied. He went around the classroom so by the time we sat down together, he had this poopy head contingent. Right. You know, and he came in. I mean, real politician.
Rachel Cram – Yes. I was going to say.
Tom Hobson – And they got in there and there were like six or seven of them. “Yeah, we want to call poopy head.”
We couldn’t get consensus so he kind of gave up. Took about a week and finally he just sort of gave up on it. And this is learning, right? He’s learned something about living in a community.
So this had kind of died down. A couple of months later he came up to me one day and he handed me a piece of paper. And he had made some marks on it that look like letters. And a lot of times kids about that age without any instruction at all just start deciphering the world and start making marks that look like letters. And I said, “Paige, you wrote letters?”
He said, “I wrote words.”
I said, “You wrote words.”
He said, “Read them.”
And I, you know, I assumed it would just be nonsense, but I started sounding it out and it wasn’t spelled properly, but it was spelled phonetically. I read it out. “Aaron picks her boogers,”
And he just started laughing and laughing and laughing. And I said, “Paige, you broke the rules.”
And he said, “Oh, no, I didn’t. I wrote it. You said it.” And it’s
Rachel Cram – Oh, I love that.
Tom Hobson – This is crazy. You know, we talked about it and I laughed. It’s, “Okay. Here’s the deal. You’re not technically breaking the rules by writing these things. Let’s just make a deal that you show these to me. You can write anything you want and just make sure you show it to me.”
And so he was good with that, right? He’d done that. So later on, his mom came to pick him up and I said, “Carrie, you know what your kid did today?”
And I told her and she said, “Ah, that damn kid,” she said, “He has been going into his room every night for the last two months to teach himself how to read and write so he could break that rule.”
Rachel Cram – Motivation. What is your motivation?
Tom Hobson – Exactly. And for me he was highly motivated, right?
Rachel Cram – Yes, in your environment, he was motivated.
Tom Hobson – Children learn best in an environment where they’re free to play.
Rachel Cram – Which we all do actually. We all learn best there.
Tom Hobson – Well, I think so. At least self-directed. Right. When we get to choose our own course of study, and to stop, I think that’s the other piece is to stop studying it when we’ve got enough.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. When we reach a satisfying outcome. Or one that inspires us to keep going, like a route into calling someone a poopy head. That’s very motivating.
Tom Hobson – Right.
Musical Interlude #2
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Rachel Cram – A phrase that you’ve used in your writing, I think it’s by Alison Gopnik, actually. She says “We can’t make children learn, but we can let them learn.”
Tom Hobson – Right. That’s Alison Gopnik. Yeah.
Rachel Cram – And Paige is a fabulous example of that. I love your story telling Tom. Is there another one, another story for you years of teaching, that illustrates how we do this as parents or in a classroom? How we let kids learn?
Tom Hobson – Ok, I’m going to talk about Amanda. Normally what I like to do with art projects is I love to just make materials available. And, you know, the adult might come in and say, “What are we doing today?”
And if they see a bowl of fruit and an easel and some paint, well, the adult assumes we’re painting still life, right? I mean, that’s usually what they do, right? You know, but a kid, that’s not how they’re going to look at it. They might, they might try to paint the apples and pears in the bowl, but at the same time, they might go paint the fruit.
Rachel Cram – They actually put the paint onto the fruit itself. yeah
Tom Hobson – They might take the fruit and use the fruit as a paint tool. Or they might eat the fruit while they’re painting. They might forget about the paper and everything else and just start painting their arms and legs and hair and everything else. And for me, I always say whatever exploration they choose, that tells me that that is a question they have. So they’re trying to ask and answer their own questions, which is what play is all about, is asking and answering.
Rachel Cram – So send your kids to school in clothes that can get paint on it. Note to parents right there.
Tom Hobson – Absolutely. I tell the parents, I say, expect your child to come home every day covered in mud, paint, water, snot.
Rachel Cram – Because that’s the sign of a great day.
Tom Hobson – Exactly. And even a little blood once in a while, right. You can come home with a Band-Aid once in a while. Those are learning owies. That should happen. So anyway, one day I cut out circles of tissue paper, different colors of tissue paper, and then had pipe cleaners. And I had made as a sample a little flower where you slide the disks on and you scrunch them and it looks like a carnation or something. But the kids, you know, they were twisting the pipe cleaners together and they were doing different things with the tissue paper. They were balling it up and making things.
But this one little girl, Amanda, she was trying to do the project. She was trying to make the flower. And I was watching her and she would pull the tissue paper on to the pipe cleaner stem and she would make the hole too big and then it would drop off and she was doing this for a long time. She didn’t seem frustrated. She seemed totally engaged with what she was doing. But as the adult watching, I’m thinking “Oh, she’s failing this over and over. And, you know, she’s struggling with this.”
She didn’t ask me for help. Normally I would just stand back and let her have her exploration, but decide, okay, I’m going to sit down beside her. And I decided to make a proper flower. So I sat down beside her and I just sort of chatted with her while I was making the flower, putting on one careful disk at a time and scrunching it just the way you would see it done by a YouTube video or something. And she just kept making these with the big holes and they kept falling off. And at one point, I stuck my flower very proudly in this old vase that was there. And she says, “That’s pretty good teacher, Tom, but it doesn’t look like a real flower.”
And I said, “Oh, all right.”
And then I watched her do hers. And she said, “See?”
And she shook it. She said, “It doesn’t fall off.”
And then she did another one and she just had it fall off. And suddenly I realized that what she was doing was she was making the cherry tree blossoms that she had seen outside her window where the blossoms are raining down out of the trees when the wind blows. She was actually recreating a natural phenomenon and taking an incredible amount of joy. And through that process, she was coming to understand that process of nature. And I realized suddenly that she wasn’t just making a piece of crap art. She was actually like a God like creator.
Rachel Cram – Well, I think it was Picasso that said, “It took me a lifetime to learn to paint like a child, or something along those lines. And that’s case in point of that.
Tom Hobson – Exactly. I mean, to me, what I always say is every single piece of art a child makes goes through a period of great beauty. And what I love to do is, I love to watch adults do this, is they’ll go by and a child will be painting and they’ve made something. They’ll say, “Oh, that’s really pretty.”
And then you could just see the kid, look at him, “Say, you think that’s good, watch this.”
And then they start painting with two hands, so most of the art that goes home is just what I call preschool gray, because it is the process, right? It’s that process they’re going through. They’ve often painted holes right through the paper.
And I say the difference between a child artist and a professional artist is the professional artist knows when to stop. And that’s the only difference. They know when they can make money out of it.
Rachel Cram – It’s all about commerce. No, we’ve had parents come to us and say, “We’re a little concerned that you only use brown and gray paints. Why aren’t you putting out other colors for the kids kids? Like, are you on a budget?”
“No no. We have all the colors out there. Let’s talk about how art works when you mix these colors together. It comes gray or brown. And often there is a hole in the middle of the page. And, that’s the discovery process.”
Tom Hobson – You know, another story I want to tell you, while we’re talking about learning stories.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. No, I love this. Keep going.
Tom Hobson – But I’m not necessarily telling you stories about when they learn something because it’s a process, right? Actually the epiphanies were mine in all these stories, because for me, I just suddenly had this epiphany that something magnificent was happening. This was one day we were outside on a playground. We have this big, what we call a junkyard playground. So some people would call it an adventure playground or a loose parts playground or something like that. So there’s shipping pallets and tires and we have a garden growing there. We have a workbench. For most adults, when they look at it, they think, it looks like chaos. And most children look at it and say it looks like great beauty and adventure and excitement.
So anyway, one of the things we have on the playground is all these florist’s marbles. I don’t know if you know what I’m talking about that you can buy at the store. They’re like flat marbles.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. They come in gemstone colors. Yeah. Yeah.
Tom Hobson -And there’s been tens of thousands out there, right. The kids do all kinds of things with them. They’re just one of these found objects they can play with out on the playground. Sometimes they use them as currency, sometimes they call them jewels. They bury them and find them and count them and they organize and sequence them. So they do some basic math with them. Just all kinds of things through their own curiosity.
Rachel Cram – They’re very magical looking.
Tom Hobson – They are. And they’re treasures, right? And so one day there were a couple of boys and they were out collecting, they were just finding as many as they could and they were filling up their bucket. There was another group of guys who played bad guys every day. This was their game, was bad guys and they had… I don’t quite understand how they had it in their minds, but they were the bad guys. But they also were building bad guy traps, to trap bad guys.
Rachel Cram – There’s something about traps.
Tom Hobson – They love building the traps.
Rachel Cram – Yes they do.
Tom Hobson – They would build these monsters… basically what it was was pulling every loose piece on the playground into a big pile and then finding a place to sit on top of it. And this was their place and somehow they could explain it to you. How does it catch bad guys? Well, that part does this and that part does that. And then the sticky, gooey stuff falls on or whatever it is.
And they were playing and I was kind of looking down on all this. So they didn’t know I was there. I was just observing this play. And at one point I hear the guys in the bad guy trap, one of them says, says, “Hey, we need those jewels.”
And they were talking about the other boys. These boys normally played with them, but today they were playing separately. So these were friends. These weren’t like rivals or anything. So, “We need those things.”
So they started hatching a plan. They were going to get together and they were going to go over and they were going to steal them. And that was the word they were using, we’re going to steal them. Maybe that’s because they were bad guys. “We’re going to go steal those jewels.”
And so they got themselves all geared and they grabbed sticks. They were holding sticks. It was like four of them. And they went running at these boys that were gathering jewels. Ah!! Fiercely, you know, standing there. And they said, “We’re going to steal your jewels.”
The other boys were standing there and one of them said, “No, you’re not. They’re ours. We’re using them.”
And there was some bickering, some back and forth a little bit. And then at some point, one of the kids, I could tell someone said, “Oh, we’re in over our heads here. This is a little too intense for us. This was just a fantasy game, and now it’s turning into a real argument.”
So a couple of them just started playing in the ground and started ignoring it, turning their back on the action. But two of them in particular were… the boy with the bucket and one other kind of leader of the bad guys were sort of sitting there face to face. At some point, he says, “We need your jewels.”
And very angrily and very forcefully. And the other boy said, “You can have them when we’re done with them.”
And then the first boy said, “Okay.”
So they were talking in this fierce language, but they were having this really high level discussion, negotiation about sharing resources and about using things and about how to stand up for yourself and how to allow others to stand up for themselves. And it was really just a remarkable experience for me to watch this, because I think 90% of the time an adult would have jumped in, you know, would have got in the middle of that, scuttled the whole thing. “You can’t steal things from other people,” and “They’re using them.” and, you know, that kind of thing.
But instead, the kids knew, when they were given the opportunity, when we “let them” have the opportunity, to use Alison Gopnik’s word, they actually found this beautiful place. And the only way we learned that is through trying it, is through practice.
You know, so often as adults we forget that bickering is such an important part of what children do with one another. And we see it as bickering. We see it as fighting. We think we have to intervene right away, and sometimes we do. So it’s important to get close.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, because your rule is no deaths.
Tom Hobson – No deaths. Well, you know, usually the kids have all agreed no hitting. And so I want to be in there. And the consequence for hitting somebody is that teacher Tom will remind you, we all agreed, no hitting.
And sometimes I need to be there, you know, if I want to stop physical violence or if somebody’s bullying somebody or, you know, kind of taking advantage of their physical size or something. But usually if you just stand there and let them continue their bickering, this is how they’re learning about negotiating. This is how they’re learning how to live in a community with one another. And without the bickering, it really isn’t play. It’s a really essential part. At any given moment, you know, this is true. Somebody’s bickering over something.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. Yeah. Well, because it’s intense. It’s intense. It’s an intense world that they’re in, and it’s filled with meaning. And it’s filled with passion and desire and hopes. And it’s all in this little space, and it’s all so relevant and all so important. You know, you were talking about rules at the beginning and you were talking about Paige and almost having a political understanding that was emerging.
Tom Hobson – By the way. And he’s an attorney now.
Rachel Cram – Okay. Well, I was going to say, it is a political understanding that’s emerging during those years. During those early years we know that that’s when you’re obtaining 90% of your values and your attitudes and your beliefs before you’re six years old. So it’s this hotbed of social development for the generation that is about to emerge as the world’s leaders. And the years are so important.
So back even to the beginning of our conversation. To think that we see caring for young children as a second-rate job, as a job that perhaps only one gender should participate in. A job that is so poorly paid, is ridiculous. This serves no one well.
Tom Hobson – And so poorly respected.
Rachel Cram – Yes, so poorly respected. But the loss isn’t only for the kids and for the early childhood educators, it’s also for the rest of society who don’t get to experience these epiphanies, the important wisdom of children. In conversations like this I often think of that story about The Emperor’s New Clothes, do you remember that one? And how it’s the child who is brave enough and innocent enough to state the obvious problem out loud to the rest of the village and the villagers, that the emperor is marching through the streets naked. You’re talking about epiphanies. So attend to young children, in all ways, it’s not second rate, it’s key for all of us.
Tom Hobson – Yes. And I think I think one of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about is that for most of human existence, children were at the center of our lives. They were everywhere that adults were. They were in our villages. They were where we worked. If we were hunting and gathering, the children were right there hunting and gathering. And even up through the Industrial Revolution children and adults spent a lot of time together. And we lived in these communities where everybody knew each other. And when a baby was born, everyone knew it wasn’t just the parents responsibility, the grandma, the grandpas, the aunts, the uncles, the friends, the neighbors, the the people down the street were all taking part in raising this child, right. It takes a village to raise a child, as the African proverb says.
But what we’ve done in the last 100 years or so is we’ve broken up our villages. And we now, I mean, consciously, wake up in the morning, we send all the kids over to this place over here, and we call it preschool. And they basically interact with one or two adults, and the parents rarely even show up in that space. That’s just a separate part of the world. That’s where they spend most of the time. And the adults are at this place called work, and so we’ve taken and we’ve broken up this society.
Any civilization, any grouping of human beings, the number one priority is to raise the children. That’s the evolutionary imperative, is to get that next generation raised.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. That’s why when the boat’s going down, you get off the children and women first.
Tom Hobson – You get the children off first. I mean that’s the fundamental purpose of any organization of human beings is to raise the children. And somehow we farmed it out to this peripheral part of life. I would love to see our preschools in the center of everything. I mean, if I were responsible, if I could change the world, I would say every corporation who has employees who have children, they should have a preschool in the center of their place.
I would even go so far as to say every single employee should put a shift in preschool once a week, taking part in this important project. And it’s not just for the kids, it’s for all of us, it’s for society. Because, you know, the children, they’re thinking about the big issues, too. And they are citizens.
You know, they are citizens of our societies, and their voices need to be heard, and their perspectives are really valuable to all of us. So that’s my soapbox about how to change the world.
Rachel Cram – I like it.
Musical Interlude #3
Thanks for listening to our conversation with Early Childhood Specialist and author Tom Hobson.
Just so you know, our next episode is with Sleep Specialist Tony Ho. Last month we hosted a conversation with Austrian Baby Sleep Specialist Tara Mitchell, who’s enlightening content alerted us to the need for a similar conversation on adult sleep; Why we need it, where we get it and how much we need in order to care for our bodies and brains. Tony Ho is joining us in an episode we’re calling Insomnia: Playing Now In A Person Near You. Join us!
And now back for the conclusion of our conversation with Teacher Tom and a few last stories on how we let kids learn.
Rachel Cram – There’s a poem All I Really Need to Know I Learned In Kindergarten. Do you know that one? Maybe we’ll stick it at the end of this episode. It speaks to the rich learning that happens during the early years of life.
There was a program in Canada called Roots of Empathy, where young children were taken to visit elementary and middle school students on a regular basis throughout the school year, so the schoolchildren could interact with them but also observe the young child’s development and emotions.
And what they found with the school aged kids, was that regular interaction with a young child, reduced their aggression, of the school kids, increased sharing, caring, and even inclusion between the students. So, I think you are onto something Tom with your soap box. Who knows what could happen if adults of all genders were regularly part of early childhood programs.
Can I take a slight sidestep? One of your blogs that you put out recently was on creative problem solving and the amazing solutions that kids come up with when we let kids learn. I’m trying to remember the exact post. You have a lot of them on this topic, but as we head towards a close, I’d love to hear your perspective on a child’s capacity to see solutions differently than adults see solutions.
Tom Hobson – Yeah. I mean, do you want me just to start telling one?
Rachel Cram – Sure. Go.
Tom Hobson – Okay. Cause I got a lot of stories.
Rachel Cram – Okay.
Tom Hobson – All right. I’m gonna tell you about this little girl named Charlotte okay, and she was five years old. I mean, I had known her since she was in utero, right, because I knew her older brother. So this girl had known me her whole life. And I knew her to be really a bold girl, a risk-taker, a courageous kid, somebody who really understood herself. And she was highly self-motivated. And, you know, we like to let things emerge at our school. There’s not a lot of teachers guiding and directing. What we mainly are doing is trying to follow what the children want to do. And there was one day we were on the playground. Charlotte and I were chatting and she said, “Teacher Tom, we should have a treehouse on this playground.”
And she was looking at these cedars. And you know cedars, they have the wrong kind of branches for a treehouse. The branches go down instead of up, and I was thinking, “All right, well, well, what do we need to do?”
And she looked at and she said, “Well, we need to get up there,” pointed at the cedars.
And I said “Well, you know, okay. How are you going to do that?”
She said,“We need to get up there somehow.”
I said, “Well, we have ladders.”
And so here I’m thinking, alright, so this is the way emergent curriculum works, right? What she is learning is that perhaps this is an impossibility in this circumstance right now that the current state of the environment will not allow her to get up there. And then she’ll have to come up with an alternative plan or something like that. So that’s what I’m thinking. But this was Charlotte.
So then she says to me, “Teacher Tom, we need to build a ladder. And we need to build a ladder that’s high enough to get up there.”
So I said, “All right, you know, we have a lot of lumber here.” And that’s another thing we have in our playground. Parents, when they have like remodeling projects and stuff, they all know just to bring the leftover lumber and throw it on the playground.
So the kids went down. They found these nice, long two by fours. They said, “These are going to be the side parts. These are going to be the side parts of the ladder.”
One of them was maybe a foot and a half longer than the other one, but that was okay with them. They figured they could make that work. They took them down to the workbench. Then they started scavenging around for rungs.
And they would get like dowels, like bamboo shapes and flat pieces, anything that was the right length they were getting. They put on their eye protection and they were hammering away. And every once in a while a nail would poke out the back. Right? The pointy part would come out. Well, they knew they couldn’t leave that because the little kids might get hurt.
Rachel Cram – Right. Right. Those little kids.
Tom Hobson – I mean, they’re the big kids. They wouldn’t get hurt. They would know better than to get poked on a nail. But the little kids might get hurt, so they’d pry that back out. And they would they were doing all this measuring to try to figure out which nails with the right length for what ever rung they were nailing on. And at the end of the day they weren’t done. And Charlotte said, “Teacher. Tom, we’ll finish it tomorrow. Leave it on the workbench.”
So I left their ladder project on the workbench. And the next day, sure enough, “The ladder!” and they were down there, hammered away again. And they didn’t get finished that day. And they were working on this thing every day. By now, pretty much every kid in the school was working on this ladder. They were down there taking turns and this was the project we were doing.
And I was feeling pretty good about this. This is a great project for a preschool to have. And I’m watching the kids and they were cooperating and they were developing physics skills. They were developing language skills, they were developing constructive skills. They were developing, you know, talk about STEM education, right? I mean they were doing all of the science, the technology, the engineering and mathematics. All right here. all through self-motivation, I didn’t have to teach them a thing.
And so they’re down there working. And we knew it was finished when suddenly the kids sort of spontaneously picked up the ladder and started walking around the playground with it over their heads. And they walked over to the side part of our playground where there’s this big, steep concrete slope that was poured there generations ago for erosion control. And the kids call it the concrete slide because they would get up to the top and they slide down on the concrete. And they put the ladder up on that. And they started going up the ladder and sliding down the slide and up the ladder and sliding down the slide. And I’m standing back looking at this. You know, I’m feeling good about myself. This is progressive play-based learning. And these kids, they emerged, they made something happen that I thought was impossible, in fact.
But this was Charlotte. She was not satisfied with this. So at some point she said, “The treehouse!” And she rallied the troops together and they dragged the ladder over to the tree she picked out and they leaned it up against the tree trunk, and they started with the uneven side on the ground.
Well, they knew right away that that’s not going to work. That’s uneven. So they went got a shorter piece of two by four and they tried to nail it on to the the bottom of the of the piece of wood. Well, that didn’t work. And then they suddenly had the idea, “Wait, we could turn the ladder over and put the even part on the ground.”
Now they had it and they had the ladder up against the tree. They had their ladder there, and they just stood there looking at it. And then Charlotte said, Teacher Tom, you climb it.”
Rachel Cram – You go first.
Tom Hobson – And I said, I’m not going to climb the ladder. This is your treehouse. You’re the one that climbs. So she went over there. And again, this is where the thinking is happening, where they’re actually thinking this through. I’m letting them learn, right. So she goes over to that ladder and she’s a bold kid. She didn’t just scamper up this like it was some playground structure. She knew who had built this thing. So she tested it.
She tested the first rung. She got on. She tested the next one. All the way up. I’ve never seen her this cautious before. Slowly and cautiously she made her way, all the way up. Her feet were well over my head, probably ten feet up in the air. And I’m just down there with my hands out of my pocket, right. There a no fall zone. Ready to catch her. “Protect her head, protect her head,” I’m telling myself.
And she’s up there and she got to the top and she could look out over the fence and she could see the ship canal down below. And she told us she could see the drawbridge opening up. And that’s a ship down there and everything. You know, that was exciting. So all the kids queued up, they all wanted their turn too. So Charlotte, you know, reluctantly she came back down, but she knew her friends needed their turn. They had helped build that after all.
And each one of these children went through that same process of testing this ladder, of making sure that it was safe. Assessing their own risk as they did this. And now Charlotte was the only one with the courage to go to the very top. Most of them only went about halfway up because that’s how far they felt secure.
One little boy just stood there with his hands on the rungs, his feet flat on the ground. That’s as far as he felt comfortable going. And each one of them made their own decision about how to interact with this ladder they had made.
And I love to share that story, because in that project that was motivated by one child saying, “Let’s get a treehouse up in the tree,” we ended up with this incredibly rich environment, a full week of learning based on something that was motivating the children themselves.
It required them to work well with one another. And it became this beautiful thing. Now, we never got the treehouse. We did end up building the platform on the ground. But to me, I think that’s an incredible story about the way learning and play really works.
Rachel Cram – Earlier you used the phrase that you have this epiphany that something’s happening here. And, going back to that quote by Gandhi, “If we want to reach peace in the world, we must begin with the children.” It’s a privilege as an adult to get to spend time with children because you are seeing how they take something that to us does not look possible, like peace in the world, and they don’t go, “Well there’s only cedar trees here so we can’t have peace in the world.” They just see possibilities.
And this and this is the beauty of working with children and the necessity of working with children and the necessity even of incorporating children into the life of our villages. Because we’re missing out on that learning and becoming. How all those colors can be mixed together. And it might not look beautiful to someone who doesn’t understand the process, but it’s everything mixed together. There’s something profound in that to me.
Tom Hobson – One of the stories we’ve had is that at one point we were going to build a spaceship. So this group of kids went to put on a play and they wanted to make a spaceship for the play. So we had all these cardboard boxes sort of taped together that they had created this what was the spaceship? And then it became this big debate about, well, what color are we going to paint it? What color are we going to paint the spaceship? And of course kids negotiate, right? Red, blue, green. And then all sudden one of them goes, “How about we paint it rainbow so everybody can be happy.” because kids always come up with that solution.
And so they went after it with the paint. Just before they started one of them said, “Wait. If we all paint our colors over the top of each other we’re not going to get a rainbow. We’re just going to get brown.”
And then they got out tape and they marked off areas. And this was going to be the orange area. This was going to be yellow. This was going to be the blue area. So, in fact, yes, it does make brown, but it also can make a rainbow. And so for me, it really is a beautiful thing.
Rachel Cram – That could be a good ending right there. I love it.
Now, I would love to give a little bit of airtime to what you’re putting forth into the world right now as we end this episode, because it is free to everybody. I have that right? And it is actually, can just let you talk about that because when this episode releases, I think this wonderful information that you’re about to reveal will be available to the world right away. So can you talk about your play summits?
Tom Hobson – Yeah. So right now, as you and I speak, we’re preparing for our second annual Teacher Tom’s Play Summit that’s going to take place June 25th through 30th. It’s a totally free event featuring 20 early childhood and parenting experts from around the world, educators from everywhere from New Zealand and Australia to Greece and Italy and Israel, some of whom people have heard of, some of whom people have not. And it’s totally free over the course of five days. And really what we’re talking about is each person sharing their perspective on the same thing; the importance of early years, the importance of people in the early years who let children learn rather than make them learn.
Rachel Cram – I love that.
Tom Hobson – So I’m really excited about it. I think it’ll be a ton of fun. I think there’s a great deal of learning to be had and we get a chance to talk around the world about these issues.
Rachel Cram – Hmm. Fascinating. Exciting. Well, Tom, I want to thank you so much for your time with me today. I have loved these stories and I’ll look forward to being at your summit, and I wish you all the best as you prepare.
Tom Hobson – Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
Rachel Cram – It has been a pleasure.
Teacher Tom’s First Book is by turns a hilarious, thought-provoking, and moving exploration of the life and times of this world-renowned teacher and his little preschool in Seattle, Washington. Conceived as a “best of” compilation from the award-winning Teacher Tom’s Blog (http://teachertomsblog.blogspot.com), this book encapsulates, in stories from the classroom, what makes his democratic play-based curriculum such a powerful way for young children to learn life’s most important lessons.