Don's Thoughts

Sunday, 29 March 2020:

Hello, everyone. I hope you all are finding ways of dealing with the challenges of these uncertain times. And I hope everyone is remembering to reach out to others, to support and to be supported. This is especially important now.

It's been a little while since I've been in touch. My wife and I lost our internet connection for a couple of days—router problems. The kind repairman who fixed it came into our apartment with mask, gloves, and shoe coverings. Sensible precautions for strange times.

And I think I've been absent because I needed time to absorb this new reality. My wife (who is always right) was trying to talk sense into my silly head last night: about budgeting, about health insurance, about unemployment. Yes, there's room for doubt: what if PSA can't reopen?

But I don't really believe it. I believe that PSA will be back. What we do, helping children to grow up sane, strong, and empowered, is too important, especially now. We will be back.

At heart, I'm not feeling down. Instead, I'm feeling faith. And, surprisingly, peace. I've actually had time, during this enforced absence, to think. Time to write. Time to take walks, and time to remember. Time to chat with my wife. Time to remotely communicate with friends and family. So far, we are all safe—just hunkering down.

Dear families, I hope you are doing well. That you are having some enjoyable family time, and that you're not feeling ready to pull your hair out.

I've been meaning to get to talking about down-to-earth early childhood topics; I started this little endeavor thinking I'd be discussing, say, sensory tables and sensory play. I still mean to do that.

But not today. Today, I'd like to take you on the ramble I took this morning. Why? Perhaps for your vicarious entertainment: if you've been feeling cooped up with overactive kids, unable to get out, unable to focus on work or relaxation, perhaps this will help.

Or perhaps not. But at least you've been warned.

I started my little stroll by heading south down Fish Hatchery Road. But, on a whim, I turned off onto a little dead-end road, leading past some parking lots and a little remodeling company headquarters. At the end of the road came sodden ground, and then railroad tracks sitting on a raised gravel bed. I followed these for a while, then crossed them when I saw access to a little road on the other side. I followed that to its end, then walked a grassy verge until I came back out onto…Fish Hatchery Road again. How did I get so turned around? I'm used to navigating on instinct.

So, back up the road, continued to follow it in the other direction until I came to another cross street; took that to a parallel road, and turned onto that to pursue my previous heading.

Down a grassy dell into a neighborhood park. Nice park—I would have loved it as a kid. Climbing structure with lots of variety, a slide, a carousel, a small field with soccer nets. A quiet, out-of-the-way place to explore, hang out, just be a kid. Love it.

Continued down the road—a quiet country road that barely felt like Madison—until I suddenly came out on to Park Street. There had been all those roads back there, that I hadn't even known existed!

Seeing an old familiar neighborhood right across Park Street, you know I had to go check it out. Eventually found myself on Fisher Street; I used to work at Child Development Inc when it was there. From the signage at the front door, it was now One City Schools. So that's where they are! I'm glad to see good work with children still being done there, in the neighborhood.

I saw on a sign that One City is involved in Anji Play. Good for them! Anji Play emanated from a city in China; they practice risk-taking play with children. This builds physical skills, cooperation among children, judgement, and a sense of accomplishment. The children rightly feel capable, when they're finding ways of working together to achieve complex tasks. Good, good, good!

The mural is still there, painted on the wall beside the front door. I don't know most of the people in that mural—but I think Rosie, who ran CDI for many years, is there. And Paul Soglin, too, I think—an image of him when he was quite young, and used to be known as the Red Mayor.

I took a moment to remember. I remembered Joe, a very capable and dedicated early childhood educator; I remember he used to hold regular evening gatherings for the preschool children's parents, meetings where he'd discussed a variety of early childhood topics. Educating parents. Building bridges. Building community.

I remembered Miss Sadie. She was a grandparent, raising a child who went there. For a time, she was also the janitor. (Good, trustworthy cleaners can be hard to find. Treasure and keep them!) I remember Sadie with a cast on. (Her arm? My memory is unclear. This is a quarter century ago.) I remember her with a cast, still mopping floors. A quiet, unassuming woman, with an easy laugh. But she did what needed to be done. I treasure my scant memories of her. I think she has become one of my heroes.

Silly me. I think, at that time, I felt very young, unsure of myself, and maybe a little scared—trying to learn how I would make my way in the world, wondering what I would do with my life. Clueless.

After gazing at the mural, recalling, I wandered next door, to find the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County. Excellent! Back when I was working in the area, that was a community center, with a gym where we'd sometimes take the kids to play on rainy days. For years I had a photo, stuck in some anonymous folder of my papers: Jane. Lovely Jane. Smiling up from where she was riding a tiny little tricycle on that gym's hardwood floor.

There's something to be said, for joining in the children's play, joining in their sense of hilarity. A lot to be said, actually. We'd go over there and ride bikes, or throw a passel of plastic balls, and have a great time. Laughter, lots of energy, a sense of community.

From there I wandered through the neighborhood. Down a path, where I found a motley collection of abandoned grocery carts. So this was one of those unnoticed places where grocery carts went to die. A waste. One of those carts held an unopened bottle of milk—dated 1-6-20. I guess no one will be drinking that. It was keeping cool, though, in the cool morning.

Through a tunnel under the railroad tracks, to Quann Dog Park. A community garden: excellent. I don't remember that, from the days when I frequented the neighborhood.

My stroll continued along the bike path at the edge of the park—on this misty, blustery, raw early spring morning, the path and park were practically abandoned. But the mist, the birds' singing, the spring: they welcomed me. And strains of Puccini's Turandot were wafting through my head, from when my wife and I had watched a production on PBS a few days before.

Be warned: I am a tenor at heart; perhaps—finally—I am becoming one in fact as well.

Along the bike path leading to Park Street at Wingra Creek, I found a leaf. One single, solitary leaf. I bent down to pick it up. There it was, held in my fingers by its stem: gently curled, partially hiding and protecting its delicate intricacy of tiny complexities, its rich red color as fresh as if it had just been created. Just fallen on the path, one little leaf discarded. The natural world strews our paths with a profusion of beautiful gifts; how many times do our busy feet and distracted eyes even bother to notice?

I aimed my feet up Beld and then Park Streets, past successive dirt alleys leading to more hidden roads hardly noticed by passersby. I walked across a parking lot to Fish Hatchery Road. Past the large new apartment building under construction by its intrepid crew, through Wisconsin weather and world-wide pandemic. I reached home, and decided that this was what I was going to talk to you about today.

Why? Because it's all about time—taking time. Becoming "a little lost". Taking time to lose myself, and to find new places, make new connections, remake my sense of the world. And, in getting lost, refinding myself, reliving old memories that haven't much come to mind. Refinding treasures.

Because it's all about raising children. Giving them the time, the opportunities, to live, to experience in fullness their adventures, their sensations, their feelings, their thoughts, the connections they make. Time to make, and treasure, memories.

Because it's all about you, and about me—about us. We, too, need the time to experience our own lives, to have adventures, to experience our responses to them and, in so experiencing, perhaps discovering new aspects of who we are.

We all are children. And all children are people. And, with love and respect for our common humanity, we will carry on.


Friday, 20 March 2020:

Good morning, everyone. I'm here to complete my thoughts from yesterday.

So, living in time. Moving through time. Experiencing situations and the accompanying emotions in time.

Time—our experience of time—is at most only loosely bound to the hands of a clock. Time is subjective. It crawls, with heavy ponderous slowness, when we're waiting for something. Our tensions, our unresolved yearning or dread, suffuse each moment with a heavy burden of emotion whose weight seemingly will never end. And then, when we're feeling carefree and our thoughts are far away, time also can drift away without our noticing; only later, looking back, do we perhaps wonder: where did the time go?

Why did the time go?

It went because we were not there.

Time loves attention. You could say, time is attention.

So, maybe we were physically present; but our attention was elsewhere. If our minds go wandering, if our attention is in imaginary worlds or distant memories, that's where we are experiencing time. We are momentarily living in those imaginary worlds, or in those memories (which may be as clear to your mind as the day right before your eyes). So, if on a bright and sunny summer morning you're gazing off your back porch across the opposite field towards the distant horizon, and you're remembering when you were a child and could run carefree across that field, instead of having to do laundry or go off to get the car fixed and do errands—then your daughter comes and tugs on your arm and asks "What's for breakfast?", and suddenly the sun is well over the maple tree when you could swear it had just risen—well, you know where the time went. It went with you.

Time is subjective. Time is carried by emotion.

This makes some biological sense. If nothing particular is happening, if we are in repose, the mind can relax a bit. Why put your mind in the habit of living endlessly in overdrive, endlessly being taxed, endlessly being worn down? It makes more sense to conserve your brain's resources for when they're really needed, and to reduce its wear and tear by slowing it down when it's not so needed.

And what tells your mind when it's needed? Your senses, sending messages to the brain; motion being detected, memories of past threats perhaps being triggered. Terror, or rage. Your autonomic nervous system being activated: adrenaline pouring into the bloodstream, heart rate accelerated, senses primed, muscles fueled, brain working at high speed. Among the first parts of the brain to set to work in threat situations: the limbic system. Memories (the hippocampus). Emotion (the amygdala). These more primitive sections of the brain go into action before the thinking, conscious brain does. They are what kept our hairy ancestors alive. I presume they are what's keeping many mammals alive, today as well as in the distant past. The primitive brain.

Emotional time: subjective time expands or contracts depending upon its emotional content. It is emotion that charges our moments, puts our brains into overdrive, dilates time until each second is its own eternity, and directs our attention. It is emotion that cues us that something is important to us. Note that: emotion tells us what is important to us; emotion guides our choices. And when we're doing what's really important to us, emotion is what keeps us there; our emotions are invested in what we're doing.

So, after all this discussion, what do we say about our children? Just a few simple statements.

Children need time for what they do. Children in a "learning moment" need to be able to get "a little lost" in time. They need that expansiveness of time in order to find new aspects of themselves, new aspects of themselves to address a new learning situation. They need to learn how they will learn about this new material, this new activity, this new situation.

And of course, if they're really immersed in the activity, then they've made an emotional commitment to it as well, and their involvement with that learning situation needs the chance to live and to find some sort of resolution. It needs to fade in its own time, or the assurance that it can happen again, or it needs to be transferred to something else. We must respect and support that need. Our children require our support: to respect their needs, to give them meaningful time and emotional attention, and to understand and soothe their turmoils.

Thursday, 19 March 2020:

Hello all! It's a quiet morning here. I'm sitting at my front window, listening to Sibelius symphonies, watching a few solitary people walk by on the sidewalk, and reading email from many of my marvelous PSA coworkers. And I'm getting all teary-eyed. As Nati so beautifully said,

"I’m proud to be part of an amazing place like our PSA these days.
When the world around us looks crazy it's good to be part of a creative and caring community."

So many thoughtful and caring contributions from so many, our staff and our wonderful families:

The Art Studio has been sending out studio experiences to be done at home. But these are much more than simple recipes for doing little activities. These master teachers are helping all of us to learn what it is to do art: how to go about exploring materials, how to take time in our explorations, how to experiment in using materials of all sorts to explore and express who we are. To see the possibilities inherent in a situation. This is very Reggio—this is also what it is to live a truly rich and full life!

And the Art Studio sent out something else: the link to the PSA Virtual Art Gallery. Some of our families have already created beautiful entries, and they are inspiring to view. I hope many more of our families will share the work they and their children are doing!

Our beloved Sarah Hofstra has created a set of slides with activities that families can do at home; it is a great gift to have another set of eyes, another creative mind, to consult when a fresh set of ideas is needed. Such as when we're feeling all cooped up. Fresh slides have been added, and I hope more folks will contribute.

Classes are finding ways to get together, ways to share ideas, ways to check in with each other. I got to witness part of the Cloud Room Hang-Out yesterday: great (and reassuring) to see some of the children, family members, and teachers.

And I got to read the letter that the Rainbow teachers sent out to the children and families, explaining simply and lovingly why our school is closed and how they plan to keep in touch and keep the spirit of community alive.

And I saw an incredible list of websites that Nati sent around: many dozens of sites for children and adults to explore.

And of course, there's a lot that teachers, and families, are doing of which I'm not aware.

I hope people are having fun exploring. And, parents, I hope you are finding the time to do the things that you have to do, and the things that you want to do. If there is any way in which I can support you, or anything else you want to say, our wonderful Abby has inserted a comment form in this blog.

Now, I know I had a number of topics in mind to explore. One of them is time. On this timeless afternoon, maybe I'll meditate on time.

I sit here, staring out the window, waiting for my thoughts to take shape. And as I sit here, watching the motionless trees across the street, wondering where could be the "bird club" that my wife often sees sitting in those trees at sunset, watching the traffic a couple of streets away, noting the grayness of the sky and the yellowness of the grass in the cool of late winter days, the puddles no longer marked with the spatter of raindrops that have now ceased, thinking that maybe now I should take a walk and let my head clear and creative thoughts stir, and thinking back to walks I took when I was in college in rural southern Vermont 40 years ago, muddy dirt roads and trees all dripping in a rain's aftermath in early spring….

Well, one can get lost in time.

We in this culture often think of time as the motion of hands on a clock. And we measure—we're obliged to measure—all of our activities, all of our required achievements, against the motion of the hands on that clock. And when I'm at work, or trying to catch a bus to get somewhere, I do that too. And you know what? I do it badly. I am forever being late. I don't want to stop what I'm doing until the last minute—but I forget: to make a transition itself takes time.

Sound familiar?

Always, always rushing, to catch up with the movement of the hands of that clock.

We spend so much time rushing, so many moments trying to catch up. With what? And why?

There are arguments for the clock. It allows us all to work in sync. It enables us to make sure we include everything we wanted in the day. It helps us to ensure that everyone's needs are met, like eating. And sleeping. And, if we're out for a hike, it helps us to time our walking so that we'll be off the trail at nightfall. (It is really easy to get lost in the wild at night.)

But, what if you want to be lost?

Being lost is not necessarily a desirable state of affairs. You probably don't want to be lost in the wrong neighborhood in a big city. And being lost in nature can be alarming and dangerous.

But being a little lost can be wonderful. Not knowing precisely where you are, but being able to navigate "by the seat of the pants". Having enough familiarity with the area, and having enough sense of direction, that you can find your way back to known ground when necessary.

Being a little lost is how we discover new, even unexpected, things.

I remember wandering the back streets of downtown Boston, north of Beacon Street. Quaint streetlamps, old buildings, little shops, cobblestones. Quiet. Few cars. Only occasional foot traffic (when I was there, at least). Unexpected vistas. Amazing fire escapes. An old city school: pass under the entrance, gaze across the courtyard—tucked away.

Downtown Boston, especially along Beacon Street: wonderful ironwork in fences and on balconies, old doors in fancy brownstones. Doors of ornate beveled glass, doors of manorial solid oak.

The Italian North End. Streets to wander, streets festooned with banners announcing upcoming festivals. An Italian restaurant on every corner (or so it seemed). An old monastery: arched doorways, quiet courtyard. And that kitchen supply store my wife and I came across--we did not leave empty-handed….

And then there was that summer night I spent wandering downtown. All night, occasionally lying down on a park bench to shut my eyes for a few minutes. Strolling along the Charles river, hearing the water lapping at the shore, the lit buildings of Cambridge reflected in the waves. And, around 3 o'clock in the morning, the haunting notes of a horn wafting across that gentle water, the city curled up along its shores, a sleeping dragon being serenaded.

Memories I cherish.

As Tolkien says, not all those who wander are lost.

Only "a little lost". Just enough to explore. Just enough to experience. Just enough not to have any particular destination in mind, and so to be open to where I found myself.

And, in wandering, we do "find ourselves". In being willing to lose ourselves, we find new aspects of who we are—or recover aspects we thought we'd lost.

Among those aspects: a sense of wonder. If we're willing.

There are many ways to wander, to let yourself become just "a little lost". We can wander physically: in a city, along country roads, in a favorite park. Even in an airport.

(Boston's Logan Airport has this wonderful Rube Goldberg/ Mousetrap contraption, in which balls run endlessly down chutes, over chimes, knocking against levers to propel other motions, eventually being hauled up to do it all again. It's almost endlessly fascinating; I recall it being in the International Terminal.)

(Chicago's O'Hare has those lovely colored lights along the walls of a tunnel connecting two buildings, underneath an access road. And Detroit's airport has a really cool fountain—as well as an overhead tram system running the mile length of the terminal building.)

We can wander online. (As we're all being reminded, in this "cocooning time".)

We can wander in mind, exploring old memories and odd new thoughts, being willing to venture down unsuspected passageways, perhaps creating whole worlds and stories with the strange denizens we meet in our own interior recesses.

(Peter S. Beagle, in my favorite introduction of all time, praised Tolkien as a "colonizer of dreams".)

In our minds, we can create stories growing from scenes in our past, or springing fresh from the wealth of "loose parts" we've collected in our life experiences and from our cultures. And we all create stories about ourselves, about who we are, about why we act. We wander among those loose parts, fitting them together until they work for us.

In our untrammeled, unbounded, unfettered minds.

But when we wander in mind, and when we wander online, and when we wander in our physical world—we also wander in time.

For time is the realm in which things happen. Time is the realm in which stars and plants and thoughts grow. Time is the realm in which we grow.

Time is the realm in which experiences happen. And time is the realm in which we fully absorb and respond to our experiences. Time is the realm in which those experiences change us—and in which we change our experiences.

In the depths of time. In an instant, and across years.

We dance with our experiences, sense and respond, respond and sense. But, beyond the outward dance, we are kaleidoscopes, mixing and matching all that we have felt, all that we have seen, all that we have thought. It is an inner dance, constant motion, ever-changing patterns, often of great beauty, in which we deconstruct and build again our inner worlds, our conception of the outside, our views of ourselves and of events in our past. The pattern can change slowly, over the course of a lifetime, or it can change quite rapidly if the impulse is great. And what is the impulse at work here? It is the force of the world about us, pushing and tugging on the skin of our inner selves. And it is the drive of our own inner selves, to survive in that world, to live; and it is the drive of our own inner selves, to join in that world, and to thrive!

For to live in that world, to be and to grow into our full selves: that's what we're here for.

Those forces that impel us from within, to act to survive and to thrive—those are our emotions. They may not always make sense to us. They may not always seem appropriate, or necessary. But they are programmed into us, and grow with us, and drive us to live, according to our needs. And—like everything else that happens, like everything else that we experience—they occur in time.

They need time to grow, to ripen to maturity, to live according to the need, and to pass when the need, inner or outer, is past.

All events, and all states of being, need time in which to be experienced. We need to give them that time.

Whether we're eating, or painting, or having a screaming fit (whether outwardly, or in our own frustrated minds), we need time in which to experience these activities, and the states of mind and emotion that underlie them. This is true whether we're 2, or 35, or 82 years old. Indeed, we all have the same basic needs, though those needs may appear different at different ages and stages of life. (Adults know that emotional needs can be deferred when necessary, if they're not too acute; what adults sometimes forget is that those needs cannot be deferred indefinitely.)

So, time. Give the gift of time. Give it to yourself. Give it to your spouse. Give it to your whole family. Time is one gift that can be difficult to find in this culture whether we're rich or poor—but it is all the more precious for that.

Time. Attention. Love.

**Ah, time; the clock says it's getting late, and my mind and body say that too. So, I think I'm done with this reflection for tonight. But it might not be done with me!

There are some resources sent around by other teachers that I wanted to attach to this document, to be shared with everyone; technical questions and time have delayed this. I hope I can find a way.

Abby just sent out a sample of what classes and teachers have been doing. One of the things that struck me was how dedicated to the community our PSA parents (and grandparents) have been! Participating in class Hang-Outs and activities, sending responses back to teachers, sharing beautiful artwork and documentation with all via the PSA Virtual Art Gallery. All while taking care of busy families largely confined to home, and perhaps trying to get some of their own work done as well. Kudos to you all!**

Tuesday, 17 March 2020:

Hello, all! I wanted to make a few more comments about what folks in the field generally call "room arrangement".

The good folks in the Reggio preschools speak a lot about "children's rights". They speak about creating beautiful spaces for children. And everything the Reggio educators do exhibits a deep belief in children's ability to interpret the world around them, to express themselves in a variety of ways, to act independently and capably in pursuing their explorations. This is what we believe in, as a school; this is what we have been exploring in all the time I have been at PSA, a quarter century. And you, our community of families—this is why you are with us. Because you believe in this, too.

We all love our children. We want to empower them to become who they are. We want them to feel at home in the world. And part of that feeling at home is the spaces they live in.

The Italians live in a culture suffused with art: sculpture, architecture, music. And clothing. And food. Opera! And that Italian countryside, so famous for its luminosity: so much beautiful painting has been produced there! An outsider might be forgiven for thinking that everything the Italians do is art. Natural that such a people would put such an emphasis on creating beautiful spaces for their children.

But children everywhere deserve beauty, and have the right to it. They don't always get it. But it is their birthright.

Beauty uplifts the soul. It calls us back to our true selves. It reminds us of why we're alive. And, if we're not too jaded, it can help us feel at home.

So, when we're thinking about creating spaces for children, we're thinking about functional spaces. We're thinking about spaces in which children are empowered to act independently, as much as possible. And we're thinking about aesthetics.

The Italians think about the quality of light. They have preschools filled with light. The children play extensively with light—the Reggio exhibit in town last year (The Wonder of Learning) demonstrated that. Light, and color, and mirrors, and fabric hanging and stirring in strains of rosy luminescence. Curiosity, and science, and a community (teachers and parents and children) all at work in the exploration of that which is beautiful all around us.

They look at shadows: how they can be made to move, how the illumination from the sun shining through a window moves across a wall in a dark room.

They look at forms, as would a people whose land is populated with classic sculpture, and architecture two millennia old. I remember video of children exploring the Malaguzzi Center when it was newly completed in Reggio Emilia—children joyfully running around massive stone columns, learning on dancing feet all the ins and outs of that newly minted space. I remember video of children manipulating on a computer photos of that same space, digitally moving and resizing those stone columns. Another way of exploring and owning it.

The Italians teach us all that aesthetics are important, "even" to children. If the children are encouraged in noticing them. If the children's right to live their full lives is respected, and not trammeled in the struggle to survive.

Create beautiful spaces for your children. Create beautiful spaces for yourselves. Because beauty calls us to ourselves, and makes us feel at home.

**Oh dear, I do go on, don't I? I bet you all have beautiful spaces—but I need to clean up my apartment!
Now, where was I?**

Ah yes, aesthetics. There's another reason for talking about this: sensory perception.

Brains are busy: they have a great deal to process, and to manage. The visual processing system alone is amazing: it orders a vast array of input and sends it through a sequence of increasingly sophisticated subroutines that recognize various attributes of what is being seen. (Are there edges or corners? Is there movement? etc). The visual system also coordinates everything with other processing areas: hearing, the autonomic nervous system which governs fight-or-flight-or freeze, the executive prefrontal lobe which governs conscious response to a situation.) And this is the simplified version, for laymen such as myself. (And I hope I haven't garbled it.)

The cerebellum, a dense network at the lower back of the brain, is constantly coordinating our muscles, helping us to balance and to move.

Our inner ears, a miraculous and delicate mechanism in themselves, sense both linear and circular motion (in all three dimensions); our brain coordinates the output from both ears and eyes to sense motion and to keep us in balance.

Our ears' better-known function, of course, is to sense sound. They do so with another delicate mechanism, a tiny curled membrane whose length responds to a spectrum of pitches from low to high, transmuting those vibrations into tiny electrical impulses by means of tiny cilia on the membrane; those impulses then travel into the brain. In short, our ears and brain are mechanically carrying out what any mathematicians among us would recognize as Fourier processing. And they were doing this long before there were mathematicians.

And so on. Why am I babbling on about all of this?

Perhaps because I'm obsessed. Maybe even to show off. (Silly human!) And because, in all of the brain's miraculous workings, sometimes things can go a little off. Or sometimes a brain can be overwhelmed.

Especially a child's brain, which is just developing.

Perhaps the wiring gets a little confused, or a regulatory mechanism isn't working quite right, or a part of the brain just gets overloaded—but sometimes our brains sense something too much, or too little, or sense something in a confused manner. And it can take a person a while to consciously sort out what's real and what's not. Or if a brain momentarily gets overloaded and cannot take in any more information, because it's still processing the input it's already received, it might need some time to recover.

Sometimes our brains just need a break. Sometimes our children's brains just need a break.

What does this have to do with aesthetics?

It has to do with eliminating cacophony. It has to do with eliminating clutter. It has to do with simplifying. And all of these things enter into creating attractive spaces.

There's a reason we go into nature to find calm, to find peace, to find rest. Nature usually is calm. Nature usually is restful. This is one of the aspects we usually find beautiful in the natural world.

(Not always. I love thunderstorms, and wind, and the crashing of waves—as long as I'm not in a small boat. But even that wind, those crashing waves, have a "white noise", calming sameness or rhythm about them.)

In short, our senses and our brains have evolved in nature, to handle nature's impulses. And nature's impulses usually have enough sameness, enough order, in them that our brains aren't overwhelmed. And when they are overwhelmed? Well, that's because we're in the middle of a tornado, or being chased by a rhino, or something—and that's not calming or pleasant at all!

So, make beautiful spaces. Because beautiful spaces are calming. Because beautiful spaces are what we've evolved for. Because beautiful spaces are where we feel at home.

Enough said?

And, incidentally, one of the aspects I've spoken repeatedly of here is light. The lighting of a space. Because it matters. At PSA, we've generally gotten away from using the bright fluorescents. If a room is really dark, there may be no getting away from turning them on—but we try to bring in enough area lamps that we can do without. These area lamps serve many purposes: they help to indicate boundaries. (The area lit by that lamp is the area intended for a given use.) In our school, a large building which can feel institutional, lamps help create an atmosphere of hominess. Lamps are usually less bright than the overhead fluorescent bulbs (whose sheer brilliance can be overstimulating). And our area lamps don't "vibrate" the way the fluorescents can: for children with sensory processing disorder, or epilepsy, fluorescent lighting can be a real problem.

The short and sweet: use attractive area lamps, enjoy natural light (including northern light, without the sun's brilliance) wherever you've got it, use enough light for what is intended, but don't over-light the scene. Okay?

I'll talk to you all again. Until then, be well and have fun, and may you find rest.



Monday, 16 March 2020:

Dear families,

As we all try to cope with the new reality, I’ve been pondering what I can do to help. And, since last Friday evening, what has been gestating in my head has been, well, just talking. It started with talking about sensory play ideas, and how to do them at home. But it’s grown. It’s grown into musings about room arrangement, and how to set up spaces that help to guide children’s behavior. It’s grown into discussing routines and expectations, so that children can feel secure. And it’s grown into something that I hope others will participate in, because we are (virtually) surrounded by people who know things that I don’t, or may have forgotten. We are surrounded by a multitude of people with all sorts of gifts to share. And, especially in this strange time, we need to be sharing. It is time to be caring, for ourselves and for others.

Every person is different, has different experiences, different knowledge; every family is different as well. You may or may not have a use for any of my ruminations. All I can do is offer them up, in the humble hope that they may help someone.

So, if your kids and you are doing fine, if you’re okay with whatever’s going on at home--don’t listen to me. (Unless you want to.) Carry on!

But, if things are getting a little wild at home, and you need some words from the Great Beyond to soothe your stressful day, let’s talk.

There are many factors that cue our children’s behavior. Obviously, many of them are inside: their energy level, mood, comfort level, what they’re thinking about or struggling with, what they ate for breakfast. But perhaps what’s less thought about is how their surroundings, both physical and emotional, affect them. Lighting, noise level, the softness or hardness of furnishings, the comfort of their clothing, how busy the surroundings are--all of these affect children. All of them affect children’s willingness, even their ability, to behave appropriately. And you can influence all of these factors (save perhaps their unquenchable energy!)

(Children are also impacted by the emotions of the people around them. This is a significant topic--we’ll save it for later.)

I’m reminded of my younger days, when I used to do the student thing of going to coffee shops to write. I had to find the right atmosphere to be comfortable, so that I could relax and let things flow. Hard enough sometimes to deal with the challenge of The Blank Page, without feeling self-conscious and all bottled up. Even now, I often listen to music when I write, to take some of my edge off.

I think children often face the same thing. They may not be able to articulate it, but if they’re not at ease, for whatever reason, then they can’t focus, can’t relax, can’t “behave appropriately”.

Children often show their stress by misbehavior.

So, what can we do to help?

Start by creating comfortable spaces that clearly indicate their purpose.

If you want a place for the kids to read books, use the couch, or a carpeted floor--a few soft pillows would be a cozy addition. Or the bed. Wherever it is, make it comfy and inviting. “Invite” a favorite doll or toy to join in.

As I recall, the Red Room teachers created a lovely little single-occupancy space, complete with hanging fabric and pillows, where a child can nestle in and read. Or just be.

If your child wants a place for writing (real or pretend), that’s great! Is there a little table in the child’s room? Can you put one there? Having his or her own place to work is empowering. Set it up with a good supply of paper, and with writing utensils that really work. Provide an array of magazines and books, posters…whatever has text and interests your child. An alphabet around the bedroom walls? Okay. An alphabet the child helped create, perhaps by tracing and cutting, or by doing rubbings? Even better!

And encourage calm, so the child can focus. Just as we might encourage calm in a space in which we are working.

Maybe, if you’re sitting at the kitchen table doing some work yourself, your children might like to work alongside you. Sounds companionable! Just remind them that you need to get some work done, so if they want to be there, they need to “work” quietly and give you some space.

If the kids are really physically active, really need to move, and you’re stuck inside: try clearing away some space and setting up materials that they can crawl into, or jump on, or build with. Do you have a space where it’s safe to throw soft balls? They’d probably do that for a long time, and use up a lot of energy! If you have some old mattresses around, maybe you have a place to set up a jumping arena--perhaps even complete with padded walls, to keep heads safe. If so, let them know that this is where they can jump around to their hearts’ content.

The Copper Room set up a space like that.

Know that you can use furniture, rugs, lighting, even wall hangings to delineate a space and to set a mood for the children. Since you are in your own homes you probably won’t need to do much--but when we set up classrooms at the beginning of the year, we experiment with moving furnishings around. We look at setting boundaries for spaces that provide appropriate work areas and storage for the intended functions. We look at lighting: is it attractive, sufficient, and does it set the mood we want? Would wall hangings reduce the noise in a space, and set the mood for its purpose? Where do we want to hang children’s artwork and family photos, so that they feel they belong?

We also look at traffic patterns in a space. Are there looping paths among the furniture, that encourage rambunctious children to run laps? Is there enough room for the intended number of people to use the space? If other people have to pass through the area, is there room for them to do so without disturbance?

Enough talk for the moment; this will be continued. Be well!

Don Sawabini

PSA Float