Episode 209 – The COVID-19 pandemic puts forward a real challenge for play-based learning methods in childcare. In this episode, we chat with Tob Hobson (aka Teacher Tom) about his thoughts on how early educators can work together to face the challenges of reopening, while maintaining the engagement that children get from learning through play. We talk about the Play First Online Summit that he is hosting on July 20, which is a gathering of the brightest minds in play to figure out where to go from here.
- Sign up for The Play First Summit
- Teacher Tom’s Blog
When you look at children at play, what you see is that it’s impossible to distinguish thinking from learning. When children are thinking, that is when they’re learning. Even if they’re thinking wrong answers, it’s that process of thinking for themselves that makes them an educated person.
Tom, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
Hi, Ron, thanks! Thanks for having me on.
It’s our pleasure. We’re delighted to have you on the show. For those of you who don’t know Tom Hobson, he’s also frequently referred to as “Teacher Tom” with his very popular blog. He’s an educator, has many years of experience and is also now a thought leader on early-childhood education internationally. And we’re excited to talk to you today, Tom. Lots to cover.
Let’s start off learning a little bit about you, for those who don’t know about you and your background. And maybe start off covering why you decided to get into early-childhood education and what your journey looked like from that point through to starting your own blog and writing a couple of books and spending the time on the more educational side of teaching teachers that you’re spending more time on at this point.
Thanks, Ron. Yeah, it started out, I had no intention of becoming an educator. It was not in the cards for me. I have a degree in journalism. I was going to work at ad agencies; I was going to be one of the Mad Men. That was kind of my way-back-when career aspiration, but never really came to fruition.
And so this was 23 years ago. When our daughter was born, my wife and I were in a good position where one of us got to stay home and be the stay-at-home parent. And that one was me. And as my father said to me, “You’re the luckiest man alive.” And I agreed with him completely on that, getting to have that opportunity with so few fathers have.
But anyway, my inclination is to be sort of introverted, whether it looks like that or not. And my inclination would been just… I love the idea of just spending my days at home with my kid, hanging out with my daughter. But my daughter is more like my wife. She was a complete extrovert from day one. And at the age of about two years old, she started saying to me, “Let’s go somewhere! Let’s do something!”
And so I was kind of forced out of the house. And I started thinking, “Alright, so this means that she’s asking me to go to preschool.” And I mentioned it to my wife and she said, “No, she’s too young for preschool and she’s got a stay-at-home parent. She doesn’t need it.” I asked my mother, same response; asked my mother-in-law, same response. So, when the three most important women in your life tell you something, you’ve got to do it.
And so here I was where I was just trying to cobble together some kind of social life that made her happy. And we would go into playgrounds and just kind of taking classes and just doing whatever we could to get out there in the world. And then I discovered at one point, a woman said to me, “Well, you know, my kid is in a cooperative preschool. And I get to go to school with my kid.”
And when I ran that idea by the three powerful women in my life, they all agreed that as long as I went to school with her, she could go to preschool. And so as a two-year-old, she and I went together to our cooperative school and we ended up staying there for three full years.
And it was an incredible experience for her; it was an incredible experience for me. And when we were wrapping up and she was about ready to head off to kindergarten, her teacher – one of my greatest mentors, a woman named Chris David – she just asked me out of the blue one day, “What are you going to do when Josephine’s in school full time?”
And I said, “I don’t know,” because I hadn’t thought about it; I had no idea. And I had been working as a freelance writer before that. And the idea of going back, that sitting in front of a computer after the experiences of being out in the world with my kid all day, sounded so grim. And she said, “I think you’d be a good teacher.”
And so, anyway, the rest is history. I went and I ended up getting hired into the same cooperative system. Before I would even finish getting any kind of degree I’d done some coursework. But I had had three years of apprenticeship and I kind of knew what I was doing. And I’d spent a lot of time with Chris David.
And I spent time with one of my other mentors, a man named Tom Drummond. And I recommend to your listeners to look him up. He’s got one of the most incredible websites for educators, it’s called www.TomDrummond.com. And he’s got so many incredible resources on there.
But anyway, between the two of them, they kind of gave me my expedited degree. And I started working at the Woodland Park Cooperative School. And the rest is kind of history.
And you asked about the blog. Because of my background as a freelance writer, I had written a few articles on early-childhood, just sort of for local print publications. And those things, I started feeling bad. I’d worked really hard on those and they just throw those away when you’re done at the end of the month.
And so I’d never even heard of a blog before, this is how old I am. I remember when there weren’t blogs. And one of my parents at my school said that she had a blog, she had a mommy blog. And she was telling me about it. And I said, “Well, tell me more about this.”
So, I just literally [researched the term] “blog”. And www.Blogger.com was the first platform came up. And then I just chose the first template that popped up and I stuck a picture in there of me wearing a red cape. And I just started blogging. At first I just put those two articles online, just to have them available. And then I thought, “I’ve got more to say.”
And gradually, over time, I began to realize that as a teacher, especially – and anybody who’s a teacher knows this – is when you get done at the end of the day, there’s some eating away at you. There’s something in the back of your head, something that went right; something that went wrong; something the children did that confused you or that opened your eyes to something. And you need to process that. And as a writer, I process through writing.
And so that really is what my blog is. And to this day, I’ll have a quarter of a million readers a month. But honestly, for me, it’s just me sitting in my jammies at 5:00 in the morning trying to work out my demons over what’s gone on that day. And I’ve been doing it every day now since 2009. And so I guess I am a testament to perseverance and consistency.
Yeah, and that’s something I was going to ask you about because I understand you write on your blog every day. And that’s time-consuming and that is commitment and persistence. What have you learned through that experience from not even knowing what a blog is to having a quarter of a million readers a month?
What I’ve learned is that there’s always something eating away at you. I mean, at least me and maybe I’m the only one this way. But I think everybody is this way. When I ask around, everybody’s got something that’s gnawing away, but they’re not quite sure they don’t have the answer to.
And so for me, and it might sound time consuming, but I give myself one hour. I sit down from 5:00AM to 6:00AM and whatever comes out comes out. And I don’t even know what’s going to be at the end of it. I often don’t know what my conclusion is going to be because I’m trying… usually I have a question and I’m trying to answer it.
And I feel like by doing that, you’re sort of demonstrating to readers that process of reflection, which is so important for early-childhood educators because we need to spend time really reflecting on what’s happening and processing what’s going on in order to be effective teachers.
That’s pretty cool. Something for me to learn there and I hope our listeners, too, just the idea of just sitting down and writing what’s on your mind. I haven’t taken the opportunity to do that but I can certainly see the value, especially, like you said, in the context of early-childhood education, where reflection is so important.
Cool, thanks for sharing that story. And now it all kind of comes together, between the education experience and the journalism background. You just had to figure out what a blog was and you’re off to the races!
I know, I have to figure out everything. I mean, I just learned how to use the Google Suite of docs and sheets and stuff. I’m so far behind the rest of the world.
But you’re catching up fast because this year I understand – actually very soon, in July – you’re launching the Play First online summit. Can you tell us a little bit more about why you decided to do that and what it’s all about?
The Play First Summit is an idea that Sally Haughey, my partner from Fairy Dust Teaching, she and I were talking about the fact that there’s all of these COVID hits, right? And nobody knows, nobody in the world really knows what to do. And there’s pandemic experts but how many have they gone through it?
And so this was a time of great upheaval. No one knew; the schools were closed; everybody was at home. And then we started seeing talk about reopening. We started seeing pictures from places like Denmark with kids in boxes of tape separated from each other by two meters. And the fear of masks and all of this stuff.
And as early-childhood educators, we were kind of freaking out because, yes, the health experts are experts on health, but we are professionals at early-childhood and what’s in the best interest of young children.
And keeping them two meters apart from each other is just not good for kids. Not letting them share toys, that is damaging to children. And we started getting panicky that we didn’t have a seat at the table as early-childhood educators.
And I think this happens a lot. I think that there’s a general perception out there that those of us who choose this profession are doing… people say, “Well, you’re doing important work.” But most people perceive that all we do is throw out some toys and change a few diapers. And they put us on the head and say, “You sweet little things.”
And we really felt like we need to have a seat at this table. And so we started deciding, “What we need to do is, we need to kind of, on an emergency measure, pull together some of the thought leaders, some of the people that we respect the most in this business and get everybody together to be talking about this, both the challenges we have right now, but also the opportunity we have right now.
When things are in disarray like this, you have this opportunity to not just create a new normal, but a new better normal. And we’ve realized that nobody knows what that’s going to look like. Nobody has any idea. And I think to this day nobody has any idea how we can really open schools safely.
We have all this advice and right now we’re seeing these things. We’re seeing these plans from different school districts, from different states, from different countries. And some of it just sounds… it’s impossible to do. It’s the kinds of things that… you are simply not going to be able to keep children in a mask effectively for a whole day. You’re not going to be able to keep children from putting hands on each other effectively. So, you can’t count on those things. And I don’t even think we should reopen schools if we need to be counting on those things. So, anyway, that’s my own opinion.
But we thought, “Okay, let’s put some of the best and the brightest people like Peter Gray and Lisa Murphy and Janet Lansbury and Maggie Dent from Australia. And then we started realizing, “Well, let’s get people from around the world.” So, we’ve gotten Cheng [Xueqin] from from China, who is the creator of Anji Play. And we’ve got speakers from India and from Greece and from Sweden and tried to pull together people from Argentina.
And [we want to] talk to them about, what are their experiences and what are their concerns and what are the things that we need to be thinking about? Because if we want to have a seat at the table, we also have to have some ideas. And nobody has ideas. So, we thought this is a great opportunity to start that conversation.
And it’s not just us. It’s just not those us, the 20 speakers we have. This also needs to be the people who are down in the trenches, that are there day-to-day, working in the classrooms and bringing them in to hear their concerns and their issues and the things.
So, that’s kind of the idea for the Play First Summit. We want to create in many ways… Rae Pica, who I know you’ve spoken to on this podcast, she says we need to start a revolution. And that really is a revolution toward a play-based education, which is the natural way for children to learn.
And this is an opportunity to try to push back against all of that kind of academic pushdown that has been happening over the course of the last couple decades, where we are turning our kindergartens and our preschools into these test score factories rather than places where children can truly engage with their world and learn the way that they’re designed to learn.
And so we’re hoping that we can create something of a revolution out of this. And we don’t know where it’s going to go but we’re hoping that this can be a first step.
Very cool. And I know from my conversations on the Preschool Podcast and outside the Podcast that there’s lots of challenges that programs are dealing with, with reopening and sort of connecting the dots between, like you said, some things that are probably quite literally impossible to do while reopening. So, it definitely sounds like something worth checking out.
I have here that the summit’s happening July 20th to 24th. Is that right?
And while we’re on the subject, if I want to sign up or attend, how do I go about doing that?
You just go to the website, www.ThePlayFirstSummit.com. And that will take you right to our page. And you can take a look at all the speakers that we have there. And it’s free – I should mention that, it’s absolutely free. That was one of the goals that we had, was to make it accessible to everybody because we truly, truly want to have as many people as possible. We will be translating most of material into Spanish as well for Spanish speakers. So, I think we’re going make it as accessible as possible.
We also realized that about this time, too, that we need to be thinking about all of the changes going on right now, all of the upheaval in our world right now, including… we have lots of people, lots of us are talking about Black Lives Matter and how that is actually, out of this of trauma, that is another one of the traumas that’s come forward again that we need to be taking seriously.
Yeah, 100% it is a perfect opportunity. So, [we] definitely recommend to everybody listening to check this out. I’m going to check it out; our team is going to check it out, from HiMama.
You talked a little bit about play-based programs. And I know that’s something that you are a big proponent of. I just want to talk about that a little bit. And let’s start off by defining what that means because you kind of mentioned before, some people might view a childcare program as a place where you just kind of put out some toys and let the kids play. So, I guess, what differentiates what you would call a quality play-based program versus other types of programs that might exist out there?
So, the theory of play-based education, and this is one that has been… when you go back to the pioneers in early-childhood, people like… around the turn of the last century, we come out of a Victorian era with this idea that play was basically just a way to burn off excess energy, that it was basically a functionless part of being a human being.
But about that time, though, there were a lot of researchers who were starting to take play really seriously. People like [Jean] Piaget; people like [Lev] Vygotsky; people like Maria Montessori; people we all talk about to this day, [such as] Rudolf Steiner. All of these people who founded things like Waldorf schools and Montessori school. And of course, the great John Dewey was writing back then, too.
And, well, they started taking play really seriously and looking at the idea of it really… throughout the animal kingdom, play is the way the young educate themselves. And by “play” I mean self-selected activities and asking and answering one’s own questions about the world around them.
Being given us a safe enough – and I say “safe enough” intentionally, we can get to that piece afterwards – but safe enough and sort… of I’m going to say “beautiful” environment. And I mean “beautiful” from the perspective of a child. So, spare tires and shipping pallets and rocks and sticks are beautiful to a child. You know what I mean? What looks exciting to children.
And then as adults, really, our job is to keep them safe and then support them as they pursue their own interests. And through their play, through that process, what they do is they spend their time thinking for themselves.
And I think that this is a really fundamental thing. When you look at what we call “academic education” or “traditional schooling”, that comes with curriculum; that comes with right and wrong answers; it comes with teachers who spend their days kind of guiding or instructing or cajoling or scolding or doing something to get children toward right answers.
And the problem with right and wrong answers is they don’t require a lot of thinking. They require memorizing. And that’s why we’ve all had that experience. Everybody’s talking about, “All these kids staying home from school right now, they’re going to be falling behind.” Well, they’re only falling behind because they’re forgetting the stuff that you tried to teach them last year. And if they’re forgetting it, that means they didn’t learn it because learning requires thinking.
And when you really think about this, when you look at children at play, what you see is that it’s impossible to distinguish thinking from learning. When children are thinking, that is when they’re learning, even if they’re thinking wrong answers. It’s that process of thinking for themselves that makes them an educated person.
And so we believe that children should be spending their days doing what we are naturally designed to do, doing the same things that the hunter-gatherer children did, that children did up until, gosh, the industrial revolution when we invented these schools that we have today.
And a lot of the benefits are incredible because children who have had these kinds of opportunities are children who, when they do find themselves in a more traditional school setting, have already learned how to think for themselves and to be self-motivated. And they don’t need their teachers hovering over them, telling them what to do.
I mean, that’s one of the biggest objections that we in play-education have to some of these health advisories about COVID, it is that, basically, if you want kids wear masks, you can get them to do it but you’re going to spend all day long scolding the kids about masks. That’s pretty going to be their experience at school. Or scolding them all day long about not sharing toys or scolding them all day long about keeping their distance. And they’re not going to be doing a lot of thinking then. They’re going to be reacting in sort of a sort of “obey or disobey” environment.
And so for those of us in play-based education, what we want children to do is to have the kinds of childhood that, Ron, I expect you had, the kind of childhood that I had, the kind of childhood most of us had where we were free to go out and play with our friends and engage with the world according to our own passions.
Cool, that makes a lot of sense. And it’s funny you mentioned the animal kingdom because when you started talking about it, that’s also where my mind went because my little one, who’s almost three [years old], has me watching a lot of animal and nature shows. And that’s what they’re talking about, is the lion cubs are playing and that’s how they learn how to, like, hunt and defend themselves in the wild.
There’s a German psychologist by the name of Karl Groos who was studying animals and animal play. And we know all the animals play, right? We know the mammals do, for sure; we know birds play. I’ve watched a turtle chase a beach ball around a room, bumping it with its shell and then chasing it down and bumping it again. That looked like play to me.
I watched a parent in our school one time, the family was raising garden snails as a pet. And they brought one of the garden snails in to show the kids. And the mother… so, this was sort of an experiment where she put the snail on the palm of her hand and she turned on the tap water. And she held the snail next to the next to the flow of water.
And you could see the snail sat there and it stuck up those little antennae – I know they’re not called “antennae” but they look like antennae – and touched the water and then drew back quickly and then reached out and touched the water again.
Pretty soon it started rubbing the water up and down with its antennae. Before long, it was rubbing its entire foot up and down that stream of water. If that’s not play, I don’t know what is. It was the snail with a curiosity. So, even the invertebrates seemed to learn through play.
So, I’ve read a paper by a researcher who believes he has seen evidence of play amongst amoeba. So, at the single cell level – I’m not sure I buy that one. And then there’s a book called The Hidden Life of Trees [What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World, by Peter Wohlleben]. I read that last summer, and this forester believes he sees evidence of trees that play together.
Again, I’m not saying that I buy that one. But you know what? It wouldn’t surprise me because I believe that play is as essential to the definition of life as something like respiration.
Yeah, it seems like a very innate characteristic in living things, right?
Cool. Alright, we’re quickly running out of time, unfortunately. I was going to ask you what advice you have for our listeners who are dealing with the stress and anxiety of working in a COVID-19 world. Sounds like the tip there is to check out the Play First online summit?
I would say that that even if they don’t have time to do that, the first thing I would say is, take a huge, deep breath. Take a huge, deep breath because if you’re having anxieties about the regulations and all that, one of the pieces of advice that one of our speakers has – Lisa Murphy, formerly known as “Ooey Gooey Lady”, just one of the icons in our business – she says she’s been reading some of these things. And she says, “You know what? Look at them carefully. Take them from these health authorities and say, Yes, you’re giving me your recommendations. Now, I’m going to filter it through what I know as a professional.”
And notice that a lot of things say, “We recommend that. When you’re able to, do it. If possible, do that.” And understand that these aren’t necessarily strict regulations. These are just their best thinking. But we as professionals need to do our best thinking about it, too.
And for those of you who are worried about the children at home right now and the parents who are stuck at home as yet, parent listeners: Peter Gray, I was just speaking with him, the researcher from Boston College, he and his partner, Lenore Skenazy, from his organization, Let Grow, just did a survey of American children. And they did children of all ages asking them, “Is your life better or worse now, during COVID?” And the overwhelming majority said their life is better now. And that kind of is expected.
Then they ask the parents. And again, the overwhelming majority of parents said that their life, their family life, is better right now. So, I think we might be in a position of entering a golden age where we actually understand child development and children and increase the family involvement in their education.
Yeah, and I know we’ve been enjoying that at home. And I love that advice from the Ooey Gooey Lady, [as Lisa Murphy is] formerly known as. It’s a really good point because oftentimes we’re kind of ending up in these kind of clashes between the early-childhood educators saying like, “Hey, health authorities, you didn’t advise us,” which is true in a lot of cases.
But it’s also taking the lens of they’re doing the best they can in the current environment, so know that whatever they’re doing, we can put it through our lens as experts in early-childhood education. And that is a very powerful argument for how you should take the recommendations or guidelines and what you do with them because at the end of the day, like you said, you’re the expert.
We are the professionals. They are the professionals in their field, we are the professionals in ours. And we need a synthesis but we need to put it through all the filters in deciding what to do. And the truth is, if we are going back to school and you’re going to go as an educator back into an environment where you’re fearful and uncomfortable, it’s not time for you to go back to school.
Yeah, fair that’s true.
It might be time for the kids and other people but it’s not time for you because it’s not going to serve the children if you’re fearful.
Yeah, cool. Well, some good teasers there for the summit coming up, awesome. Tom, wonderful is always talking to you. For folks who might want to check out your blog, where do they go to access that?
Just [do a web search for] “Teacher Tom”. I’ll be the first one on the search. Google rewards you for publishing every day.
Yeah, that’s true. Awesome, cool. Well, I look forward to checking out the summit. I hope you all do, too. If you haven’t checked out Teacher Tom’s blog, I would definitely recommend that as well. Very authentic writing, as you can tell from sort of the story behind it. Teacher Tom, thank you so much for joining us on the Podcast today!
Thanks, Ron, what a pleasure!