Life Must Be Lived as Play

“Will you play with me?” It’s an age-old question that our eleven-year-old son will still ask us when he wants to shoot hoops in the driveway or play ball tag in the basement. My husband and I know that, at some point, our tween will stop asking. We hold on to these moments and hope they continue for as long as possible. “Will you play with me?” is an invitation with no guarantee of being accepted and we feel grateful to be asked. I try to remind myself that the dishes or emails can wait and that I may not hear this question very often in the coming years. 

As adolescence starts to take hold in our house, it’s prompted me to wonder when we stop asking others to play and why that is. Psychiatrist Stuart Browne writes in his book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul that play is like oxygen, “It’s all around us, yet goes mostly unnoticed or unappreciated until it is missing.” 

Thanks to early childhood researchers and advocates from Fred Rogers to McArthur Fellowship recipient Vivian Gussin Paley, we know that the “work” of childhood is play. Through play children build their imaginations, learn how to problem-solve, and navigate social networks. This doesn’t change as we get older. Throughout our lives, it is through play that we learn how to move beyond frustration and into innovation. Play is more than fun. When we are engaged in play, we learn to express our feelings, opinions, ideas, and needs. Above all, play creates joy, which is its own best reward. 

At home and at school, we can support the children in our lives by creating invitations to play. Based on Brené Brown’s work in The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings on Authenticity, Connection, and Courage, we asked our sons this weekend about when they feel like they’re engaged in play. Specifically, we asked: What do you love to do so much that you lose track of time, you can be goofy, and you don’t want it to end? 

We made a family list:

DadMomJackMatthew
Reading
Snowboarding
Surfing
Jujitsu
Ukelel
Wandering the stacks at the library
Dungeons and Dragons
Board and card games
Weekend cooking and baking
Reading fiction and memoirs
Wandering the local market
Board and card games
Needlepoint
Ball tag
Basketball
Jumping on a trampoline
Playing with Sandy (our puppy)
Reading a good book

Reading in bed or on the couch
Board and card games
Tag
Playing with Sandy
Drawing in a little notebook

We talked about why these things feel like play and we made a family commitment to try to bring more play into our lives by carving out time together to do the things we love.

In the classrooms, I partner with, I work with teachers to think about the times when learning feels playful. It’s often when students are connecting with one another or they are laughing together or discovering something new. 

During a unit planning day with sixth grade teachers this week, we worked on making learning engagements more joyful, memorable, and playful. The teachers are taking their students on a field trip to a science museum as part of the unit. They initially planned to have students explore the museum website to preview what they will experience. It seemed purposeful, but not particularly playful. I suggested that, instead, they could print photos of images from the museum website, put them on large pieces of chart paper, and have students write and draw in small groups what they think they will see and what the images makes them wonder. Students could circulate around the room to the different images creating “graffitti boards” that they could then revisit after the trip. Purposeful, joyful, and playful. 

Clicking around the website wasn’t likely to evoke much wondering or feelings of play, but gathering together with classmates in what I call “heads in a huddle” to share their thinking about a compelling image would feel like a form of play. Students would likely lose track of time, be a little goofy, anad wish that it could last longer. All signs that joyful learning is occurring. 

Plato is said to have stated, Life must be lived as play. I agree. 

Here are some additional ways to make play a pillar for starting with joy in your home and classroom: 

At Home:

  • Invite children to play with materials by making available markers, crayons, scissors, paint, watercolors, oil pastels and paper. 
  • Make a family list by asking each other: What do you love to do so much that you lose track of time, you can be goofy, and you don’t want it to end?
  • Play together with board games, card games, dice games, and role playing games (some of our favorites are Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, 30 second mysteries, and Exploding Kittens)
  • Invent family games (our family favorite is ball tag–pretty much exactly as it sounds but using a giant yoga ball)
  • Play with books through family read-alouds by making your voice match the characters’ voices. Our recent favorite are the Harry Potter books illustrated by Jim Kay. Another family favorite has been and always will be Calvin and Hobbes.
  • Listen when children ask us “Will you play with me?” and find a way to say “YES”
  • Model the ways you find play in your own life. 

At School:

  • Invite students to play with materials as part of the writing process through mixed media illustrations by making available markers, crayons, scissors, paint, watercolors, oil pastels and various paper. Look to picture books for inspiration especially wordless picture books and Caldecott award-winners.
  • Make a class list of favorite ways to play by asking: What do you love to do so much that you lose track of time, you can be goofy, and you don’t want it to end?
  • Consider ways to foster student choice and movement while meeting the same lesson objectives
  • Reframe independent reading as imaginative play–after all, that’s what fiction reading really is
  • Incorporate daily “quick writes” to help students see writing as a playful process through short bursts of what Paula Borque calls “thinking and inking”. See Paula Borque’s Spark: Quickwrites to Kindle Hearts and Minds in Elementary Classrooms for more ideas. 
  • Support students to play with ideas by creating a culture of experimentation 
  • Notice times when students are implicitly saying “Will you play with me?” Confer with students one-on-one to honor those moments when students need us as academic play partners to discuss their innovative ideas and interesting noticings. 
  • Finally, model the ways you are playful in your own life. Take silly class photos. Play games with students at recess. Invite laughter. Compliment the ways you see students inventing their own ways to play. 
playing with watercolors to make joy bookmarks

Getting Curious About Ourselves to Harness the Good in Our Lives

If you could do one thing all day, what would it be? 

When I ask kids this question, I get responses that give me insights into their interests and daily lives: shoot hoops in my driveway, bake cakes, go fishing, jump on a trampoline. Tapping into children’s interests can help us recommend texts they may want to read to further their knowledge or to fall in love with characters that feel like a mirror to them. But we can also make important connections between children’s interests and what it means to be a reader or writer: 

“How do you learn new shots in basketball?…That sounds a lot like the process of learning how to write new kinds of sentences” or “What’s your favorite cake to bake and what’s the process?…Wow, it sounds like sometimes you use a recipe and sometimes you improvise. That sounds a lot like how we use different strategies as readers depending on when we need them.”  

Metaphors are powerful memory tools and the more personalized the metaphor, the more likely we’ll remember it. 

I ask kids questions like this because it’s a teaching tool, but also because I want them to get curious about themselves. When we get curious about ourselves and how we want to shape our time, we learn a lot about ourselves. Learning how to pay attention to our likes, dislikes, and natural curiosities can help us shape the thoughts we have which then affect the way we feel

This year, our ten-year-old has fallen in love with the Wings of Fire series. He’s on book twelve of the series and chooses to read on the weekends, before bed, and when he wakes up. His book club book chosen for him by his teacher about a boy living a hundred years ago in Texas…not so much. He’ll read it because he has to, not because he wants to. And that’s okay.

The truth is no one is interested in everything. There are things we like to learn about or do more than other things. Learning how to balance our time and energy based on the things we are curious about and interested in and our obligations to others is simply a part of life.  It’s how we become agentive and take ownership of our actions, thoughts, and feelings.

I ask kids other questions like: What is something you are looking forward to? What is something good in your day so far? What is something you feel grateful for? When do you notice you get bored? Why do you think that is? What did you learn you today that you didn’t know before? When you get stuck, how do you get unstuck? Even when there are a host of challenges in our lives, if we can focus on what we are looking forward to, things we are grateful for, new things we are learning, and how we are inherently resilient it can give us an important happiness boost. 

While we want young people to try many things and to discover new interests, we cannot force positive feelings about everything in school or in life. But, we can support them to take notice and get curious about themselves. The more curious we are about ourselves, the more we can tap into our strengths and use our time to hone our potential and contribute to the well-being of others. And the more we reflect on ourselves as a practice, the more we will begin to notice patterns about ourselves to catch and harness the good in our lives. 

 
Years ago, my husband, gifted me the Five Minute Journal by Intelligent Change. It’s an incredibly simple resource for getting curious about yourself and noticing patterns about your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Every morning I write down three simple statements that all begin:

I am grateful for _____

What would make my day great?

I am (affirmation)_____

Before bed I jot down responses to two more prompts:

3 Amazing things that happened today…

 Could I have made my day even better?

Through this journaling process, I’ve become more curious about myself. I notice when gratitude feels hard which is usually when I’m feeling stressed. I notice when my responses include details about my children that I’m glad I didn’t miss. I notice that food and movement show up a lot in my responses and that when I have a plan for healthy eating and morning movement I feel better for it. The journaling process has been a way for me to catch my thoughts and create my own happiness. 

If we can change the way we think and where we put our mental energy, we can reshape our thoughts and our feelings. We cannot always think happy thoughts. Nor should we expect that of our children. But we can take note of our thoughts, get curious, and learn how to focus on the positive over time. Getting curious and noticing patterns in ourselves is a lifelong process. So is finding happiness. 

Below are some ideas about how to help kids to get curious about themselves to harness the good in their lives:

At home:

-Share stories about how you got curious about yourself and learned a new skill or passion in the process

-Share stories about times you were bored and how letting our minds wander during those moments can lead to imaginative possibilities

-Start a daily ritual as a family about moments that were good in your day–over time your children will take the lead in asking everyone how their day was and what was good–celebrate that initiative

-Try the Five Minute Journal or open-ended journaling and let your children catch you in the act of journaling–explain why you do it

-Ask each other what would make your day/weekend great

-Talk about what you are grateful for and notice what’s the same and what’s different in your responses

At school:

-Start a journal routine in your classroom as bookends to the day or week

-Encourage students to notice what excites them and what bores them–no one loves everything–offer strategies for how to get something out of boredom like looking for one new thing you didn’t know before

-Establish a gratitude routine where students share something they feel grateful for that week

-Have conversations with students about what they are looking forward to especially at the start of reading and writing conferences: in school, in the books they are reading, in what they may be writing

-Model your own curiosity about yourself

-Acknowledge it’s okay not to love everything in school or in life

The Power of Invisible Practice

“Invisible spelling and sentence practice”

“I want it. I need it. So, I’ve got to do it.” Like a human Nike ad, my ten-year-old son voiced this new personal mantra to me on a recent car ride. He was describing why he works out in the basement every day. We’re talking planks, wall sits, pull ups–things most people do only when a coach or trainer is standing over them shouting, and, sometimes, shaming. But, Jack, chooses to do these things. Every day.  He even watches Youtube videos that help him learn new exercises and then he’s willing to try them even if he initially fails. He wants to get faster on the soccer field and in the pool. Just now I found him with ankle weights doing leg lifts before bed. I’m not advocating that all of our children or students should do calisthenics before bed. Jack finds joy in the process of this self-driven practice to get stronger and better at the things he likes to do. 

In our house, we call this kind of practice that no one else sees (except your family) “invisible practice”. Jack’s teammates and coaches don’t see this kind of practice. They only see the end result. It’s why we call it invisible. 

We learn nearly everything through practice. To play the piano. To throw a ball. To recognize that letters represent sounds. Or to form letters on the page so someone else can read them. But, in the beginning, practice is hard.  It can feel like the opposite of joy. And the only way we keep practicing is if we want to create change in ourselves or if we find the practice a form of play. 

Initiating an “invisible practice” routine can be hard. Assigning or requiring “invisible practice” can backfire. We see this with reading logs which can become anxiety producing and sometimes lead children to see reading as a chore. The truth is children often know the things they would like to get better at. 

Our youngest son told me this week, “Mom, I’m not a good writer.” He’s seven and already thinks writing isn’t for him. I thought to myself this is a boy who until recently used to carry a pocket notebook around so he could jot down little notes and create sketches. Holding his heart closely, I reminded him that being a writer is about having ideas that you want to share. It’s not about what your writing looks like. But right now, he is looking at everyone else’s paper and realizing his writing doesn’t quite look like everyone else’s. 

Learning to form letters was not automatic for him and has taken years of practice. Learning to conventionally spell has been challenging. Some phonics lessons have stuck. Others will come in time.  A lot of writing for him requires a lot of thinking in order for it to look conventional. But, as cognitive scientist, Daniel Willingham, reminds us “the brain is actually not very good at thinking.” When certain processes become automatic and memory kicks in, thinking becomes easier. 

We decided to try some “invisible practice”. Every morning after breakfast, we practice a few spelling words with the same phonogram pattern and a sentence or two. No more than five minutes. Every day. We’re working on “b” versus “d”. We’re practicing how to form letters. We’re working on capitalization and end punctuation. But the end result is a sentence that looks like something he is proud of and wants to get better at. 

This “invisible practice” is like the wall-sits of writing. We’re practicing the foundational skills that didn’t solidify for him through immersion.  It’s not the imaginative, narrative-driven writing of writer’s workshop. It’s practice designed to help with automaticity and sentence fluency so that the mechanics of writing feel less effortful and less uncertain. So he knows his stories are worthy of sharing. So he has the confidence to tell his stories through writing.  

At home and in classrooms, I emphasize the value of “invisible practice”. Learning is messy and thinking is hard. You can learn to embrace mistakes, have a growth mindset, and persevere, but practice is a part of learning. 

Here are some quick strategies for how to make “invisible practice” a part of your home or classroom:

  • Model and think-aloud about the kinds of “invisible practice” you do to learn new things or to get better at things that are hard for you
  • Use the term “invisible practice” and emphasize that it’s the practice we do out of choice that matters most in life
  • Create invitations to practice rather than requirements (invite children to make decisions about the kinds of invisible practice they might do based on their own goals)
  • Support a growth mindset before, during, and after practice by praising hard work and effort rather than mastery
  • Help children learn strategies towards independence like asking themselves questions and noticing patterns

Energy and Calm: Reading the Natural Rhythms of Children for Greater Joy

One of the greatest mistakes of our day is to think of movement by itself, as something apart from the higher functions . . . Watching a child makes it obvious that the development of his mind comes about through his movements. —Maria Montessori

My youngest son is what you might call “active”, “busy”, “energetic”. You know the type. Daring and courageous on the playground. Struggles to sit through family meals or mini-lessons. The thing is he’s a seven-year-old boy and he’s built to move, run, jump, climb, and play. This week he’s decided he wants to be a diver, and he’s taught himself how to do a full front flip on the couch. It’s actually pretty impressive to watch. At home, we can channel his energy and respond to the natural rhythms of his day. As the school year starts, I find myself hoping that his teachers will view his energy as I do–as his greatest strength. 

We all experience moments throughout the day where our bodies are telling us–it’s time to move. As adults, we tend to have control over our bodies and can get up, move about, and make decisions about when to move and when to be still. Children tend to have less autonomy and decision-making about their movements, especially in school. 

Watching children, it’s easy to see that they are inherently motivated by opportunities to move. The word motivation, is actually from the medieval Latin motivus, which means “moving” or “motion.” But, as humans (especially little humans), when we feel boxed in, we experience the opposite of motivation. When our energy needs aren’t met, it’s natural to get frustrated. We then use our bodies and voices in ways that reveal something isn’t right. The more we learn to read children’s gestures and bodily cues that it is time to move, the more we can intentionally plan for these moments and respond in joyful ways. After all, children are built to move, watch things move, and make things move (see ideas below).

But being in continuous motion is exhausting and learning to self-regulate your body to find moments of calm is an essential part of one’s overall happiness and well-being. Research now shows a combination of movement and breath have been found to lower stress and anxiety. 

Children can learn to find moments of calm by counting their breaths or doing simple yoga poses like “tree pose” and “say hello to the sun”. Children can also be taught what I call “joy breathing” exercises. They can visualize smelling a flower (inhale) and blowing out a candle (exhale). Another one of my favorites is pretending to blow on a slice of pizza, also known as “pizza breathing”. These simple, quick techniques can help all of us find moments of quiet stillness. 

Notice the energy patterns of the children in your life and consider ways to build movement and calming opportunities with intention. And consider adopting the belief that children’s natural energy just might be their greatest strength. 

In the classroom:

  • Incorporate movement and gestures during read alouds and during small group instruction–not only will this support children’s energy needs but it will also strengthen their comprehension
  • Work on letter and number recognition through whole-body games like hopscotch (use chalkboard paint or sticky chalkboard paper on your classroom floor)
  • Have an easel area and standing desks for students to write standing up which builds core strength
  • Mix up your turn-and-talk routine by adding a walk-and-talk routine where students are free to roam around the room walking and talking with a partner
  • Put objects related to lessons around the room for a quick scavenger hunt 
  • Incorporate a ball or soft object that can be thrown around to respond to questions
  • Invite students to do reading, writing, word study, or math investigations lying down on the floor propped up on their elbows–this activates core muscles–don’t be surprised if some kids start doing planks
  • Teach students various “joy breathing” exercises and use them in transition moments from the classroom carpet to seats or before lining up
  • Notice which students have energy as a strength and design leadership roles for these students that involve gross motor skills like moving furniture, passing out materials, and delivering notes around the school as a messenger 

At home:

  • Have areas in the home designed for different kinds of movement like rough-and-tumble play, sensory seeking play, bouncing a ball, or swinging (we have monkey bars and hooks in our ceiling for ropes, ladders, and swings; we also have an occupational therapy crash mat which has saved our couches!) 
  • Head outside and encourage children to make decisions about their bodies with sentences like, “Do you think you can do it? You know best if you are ready.” 
  • Find ways to play as a family before school and after dinner–natural times of the day when children may need to expend some energy before finding their calm (a Cunningham favorite after-dinner game is what we call ball tag– basically family dodge ball with a giant yoga ball)
  • Model “joy breathing” techniques and remind them of these strategies when emotions run high

Trusting in the Choices of Children

This past week, well-intentioned mother that I am, I took my sons to our book-filled, joy-filled local library. The space is inviting, and the book collection is enviable. It’s a space that inspires a readerly life. Picture books are organized in accessible bins with the front covers facing out. Colorful murals adorn the walls and encase reading nooks. Series books are organized by title and character to make it simple for early and middle grade readers to find a series they love.

I led my seven-year-old to the early reader chapter books area. I gathered an armful of books that I thought looked the right mix of sentence-length, page layout, and text complexity–what the field has historically called “just right books”. The books looked well-worn from previous readers and included a lot of animal characters that go on adventures with an unlikely friend. Maybe this would have sparked my son’s interest a year ago before he could read them. But my attempt to build a book stack of “just right” books was a bust. My son read one of the books with me alternating pages but it was a lackluster experience. Nothing about it felt joyful. My choices, driven with academics in mind, turned my son away from reading that day.

We got home and, unprompted, he went to his room and came back with a book stack he inherited from his brother. He picked one as his independent reading book, Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot by Dave Pilkey. He proceeded to astound me with his reading of the first chapter. I had made a mistake. I had underestimated him with my carefully curated book stack of suggestions. Sorting through the books on his own, he also found our next read-aloud, The Last Kids on Earth by Max Brallier, a book I wouldn’t have chosen about zombies and monsters in a post-apocalyptic world. His instinct for story was right. It’s been our favorite read-aloud this summer making me question why I wouldn’t have chosen this book as a read aloud at home or in my classroom. The writing is clever. The characters are memorable. My own book bias was getting in the way of my son’s joy with reading.

Feeling in control of our own destiny, or having agency, is critical to finding and sustaining our own happiness. I know the research: give children access to books, provide opportunities for choice, and over time, children will identify as readers. It sounds almost too simple. So what got in my way in the library that afternoon? Well intentioned coddling on my part, stemming from anxiety that we weren’t practicing reading aloud enough this summer. I don’t think I’m alone in believing in the agency of children but sometimes forgetting to live that belief in practice. It takes constant intentionality. And sometimes we get it wrong.

What I needed to do instead that afternoon in the library was give my son space to make his own choices. I needed to trust that his choices would be the right ones. I needed to start with joy, not with decodability. In Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivate Us, Daniel Pink aptly reminds us, “Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement” (108). When we limit the choices of our children they cannot help but wonder, Is this all there is?

To be a self-driven reader, writer, and person is the ultimate goal of literacy experiences at home and in school. Our children should be able to internalize the question–What do I want?–and be able to make their own decisions coming to adults for guidance when they feel they need it. Not when we think they do. Empowering children to be self-driven about books and about their life’s choices is, ultimately, an act of care.

At home, we can trust our children to make choices by:

  • taking them to the local library and avoiding the urge to build their book stack for them
  • praising their decision-making with statements like, “You made a great decision. Tell me about it.”
  • asking “What do you want?” and trusting them to answer for themselves
  • modeling our own decision-making about books and about anything else in life

At school, we can trust our students to make choices by:

  • expanding what counts as “school” texts (graphic novels, comic books, magazines, wordless books, apocalyptic stories)
  • praising their decision-making individually and collectively
  • giving opportunities for choice-driven partnerships and social literacy practices
  • modeling our own readerly lives and sharing our book stacks
  • organizing our classroom libraries to make access and interest the biggest drivers; using leveled libraries for our own instructional purposes not for student book choices

Emphasize Experiences Over Accomplishments

When my husband was in college, he made an Olympic Trials swimming cut in the 200 meter backstroke. But he didn’t go. He decided to go back packing in New Zealand instead. To him the experience of working in a hostel with his best friend in another country was a more important life experience than swimming at Olympic Trials. He has no regrets about that choice, and I don’t think many would.

Like my husband, I grew up as a swimmer. We met on the pool deck and exchanged smiles as the frequent last two swimmers in the water at our college practices. Now our two sons swim and they are in the midst of an exciting summer season. Our ten-year-old has won every race in his summer league this season and has a slew of blue ribbons to show for it. But he doesn’t display them on his swim bag or seem to treasure them very much, and I’m happy for that.

As parents, we have been conscientiously emphasizing experiences over accomplishments. We know our boys will find greater fulfillment and happiness if they avoid the never-ending string of achievement-chasing that childhood can sometimes turn into.

Research shows that success does not create happiness, but happiness can create success. Research also shows that we make ourselves happier if we buy experiences, not things. But, young people aren’t trying to buy their way to happiness. They are trying to earn recognition from adults and their peers assuming that will get them happiness. It’s an easy trap to fall into when trophy cases and record boards are on display. Or when awards are given out. Or when grades are overemphasized.

By emphasizing experiences in life, we know that our sons’ accomplishments will follow, but accomplishments won’t be the goal.

Here are a few ways to focus on experiences over accomplishments in your family or classroom. Your children and students will be happier for it:

  1. Model paying attention to what you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel throughout the day, especially on joyful days.
  2. Cultivate experiences together that you can reflect on and remember. Tell stories that start “I remember when…”
  3. Emphasize the joy of watching children as they strive to be their best selves. “I love to watch you swim” is my go-to phrase for the end of every meet. In the classroom I used language like: “It is fun to watch you choose your own books and read” and “You really worked hard to problem solve today.”
  4. Acknowledge that competition is natural and in many ways built into our DNA. But, avoid compare-despair mentality. Help children to cheer on and compliment teammates, friends, classmates, and siblings.

Story Puzzles Make Waiting More Joyful

Life is full of waiting. Dr. Seuss even has four pages dedicated to the necessity of waiting in Oh, The Places You’ll Go:

Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting. (18)

When you are a kid, life can feel even more full of waiting. Waiting on line. Waiting for your turn. Waiting for dessert. Waiting to reach 5 feet. Waiting for teachers. Waiting for parents. Waiting for siblings. Children learn early on, that life is full of waiting.

The nearly wordless picture book, Wait, by Antoinette Portis reminds us that sometimes children are our best experts on waiting. We often need children to remind us there is value in waiting over hurrying. When we reframe waiting as more than an inconvenience, or fact of life, but as a gift to see the world a new way, we make ourselves happier in the process.

Like life in a classroom, life in a family requires waiting. But there are ways to make waiting more joyful. Lately, my husband has introduced story puzzles to our boys especially when we are waiting in restaurants. Story puzzles, also called lateral thinking puzzles, are just like they sound–a hybrid between storytelling and puzzles. Some information is given about a strange situation, but you aren’t given the full story. Someone is the storyteller or quizmaster, and everyone else is a puzzle solver. Listeners can ask yes or no questions to try to explain the situation. Quizmasters can answer with yes, no, or irrelevant. Here are two of our recent family favorites:

Story Puzzle 1: A man was heading home and saw someone in a mask. He turned around and went the other way. What happened?

Answer: The man was a baseball player and the person in the mask was the catcher.

Story Puzzle 2: It was a good thing Betty died in the ocean. It was a bad thing Carla died on land.

Answer: Betty and Carla are hurricanes.

Story puzzles turn waiting into a time to play and connect with one another. Try one the next time you are waiting with someone else and notice the ways the time feels more joyful. You’ll almost be disappointed when your food comes or your wait is over.

Make Joy a Habit

We are creatures of habit. Will Durant (paraphrasing Aristotle) wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit.” It’s a mantra that reminds us: We are not what we do once in a while; we are what we do every day. For years as a mother and teacher, I’ve wondered how can we use the power of habit formation to bring more joy to our lives and the lives of children?

While the popularizing of habit formation is not new, many of us struggle to stick with healthy habits. We know exercise, even a little of it, can make us happier and healthier, but it can be hard to stick with it. We know that we are what we eat, physically and psychologically, but choosing apples over cookies is hard.

A new field within the science of happiness is looking at habit formation and the power of habit stacking. Essentially, add a new, healthy habit to an already existing one and you increase the likelihood that you will stick with the new habit igniting a sense of pride and greater happiness in the process.

For example, want to read more and encourage reading in your children? Commit to it as a habit by stacking reading on to an already existing habit as a part of your morning or evening routine. For example, while having your morning cup of coffee read for five minutes with your children on the couch. You and your child gain connection and you model the value of reading as a habit to start your day.

Habit Stacking At Home

There are countless ways to bring more joy to our lives through habit stacking. Here are a few ways to make a joy a habit in your daily routine:

-Waking up: Start your day by writing down an “I Am” affirmation. Try not to repeat yourself. Be specific.

-Morning coffee or tea: Read on the couch with your child. Let them choose what you read. Alternate pages if appropriate. Our family favorite is Calvin and Hobbes.

-Brushing your teeth: Think of three things you are looking forward to that day.

-Driving somewhere: Add joy by listening to audio books–our family favorites are The Terrible Two by Mac Barnett, The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. Instead of asking, “Are we there yet?”, my boys now ask “Mom, can you please put on the story?”

-Making a meal: Listen to a podcast (my favorite, On Being) or by letting children be DJ (Space Unicorn seems to be the song of the summer in our house).

-Relaxing before bedtime: Write down three good things from your day and something you wish you’d done differently.

Habit Stacking In Our Classrooms

In our classrooms, we can use habit stacking to bring more joy to students as a part of their daily routine by design.

-Morning Arrival: Invite students to write “I Am”, “I Can”, or “I Did” statements on chart paper while you take attendance. Watch your affirmations grow as a class all year long. Invite one or two students to share what they wrote each day.

-Gratitude Practice: Alongside learning objectives, write down one thing you are grateful for each day. Invite students to turn and talk about one thing they are grateful for before you launch into a daily read aloud or mini-lesson.

-Transitions: Before transitioning to the classroom rug or back to individual seats, invite students to take three deep breaths or to do a power pose to nudge body–mind connections.

-Partner Work: Encourage students to compliment their partner as a habit at least once during their partner time.

-End of the Day: Invite students to write down one good thing from their day that brought them happiness before they pack their belongings.

The Simple Joy of Sidewalk Chalk

No directions. No prompting. No explicit instruction needed.

When I handed a group of fourth and fifth graders a big box of chunky sidewalk chalk, they simply started to write. Dream Big. Anything is possible! Dreams come true! This is what hope looks like.

If you haven’t held a piece of sidewalk chalk lately, I recommend it. It may reignite in you a sense of possibility or maybe even a gnawing sense of doubt. What do I write? Who will see it? Is it any good? The roots of our biggest hopes and deepest fears all rise to the surface with that chalk in our hands. But, what chalk really represents is the sense of freedom that comes from writing or creating anything. Seeing your mark on the world.

If you are a parent or caregiver, keep a box of sidewalk chalk in your trunk or a little baggie of chalk in a bag you carry. It’s a simple way to spark joy when waiting for a sibling to finish an activity or in between errands.

Pair sidewalk chalk exploration by reading aloud books like Peter Reynolds’ creatrilogy The Dot, Ish, and Sky Color. This trio of texts celebrate the freedom and pride that comes from making your mark where there is no guarantee. For an extended read aloud, try Clyde Robert Bulla’s The Chalkbox Kid. This early chapter book is ripe with possibilities for discussion about finding hope in unexpected places.

If you are a classroom teacher, stock up on sidewalk chalk for spontaneous days this fall when you take learning outside. Watching what children do with sidewalk chalk gives us enormous insights into the literacies young people feel most comfortable using. Who draws? Who writes? What words do they use? How do they spell them? Who partners together to create? Who asks for help? Make chalk available throughout the year during recess. This also allows students who just want to create a chance to feel as proud on the playground as the student who wins the foot race.

This summer, pick up a piece of sidewalk chalk and see what comes to you. Draw. Write. Dream. Play. Then, carry that joy and energy with you into your life with children.

Better My Brave

“Mom, every day I want to better my brave.”

Jack, age 9

To our sons, the world is a playground. They climb trees (even on field trips when they’re told not to–sorry, Mr. Schwartz). They scale walls. They jump over garbage cans. Watching them, it seems like they have unparalleled energy and unimaginable courage. Over the years, I’ve learned to bite my tongue and erase “be careful” from my lexicon. I’ve learned to trust that they know their own bodies. They know what they can handle. And they will look to me for when they need help.

When our son, Jack, was in second grade his big goal was to climb on top of the monkey bars and stand up on them. Understandably, school wasn’t thrilled with his attempts at this. He came home declaring that all he was trying to do was better his brave. It’s hard to argue with that kind of dedication to self-improvement.

Based on our Jack’s idea that every day we should try to better our brave, we’ve created a summer family challenge (or really, my husband, Chris did–wish I could take credit for the idea). We are each choosing a physical challenge and a mental challenge to “better our brave” over the next few months.

Designing this website and starting this blog is my mental challenge. I’m not particularly comfortable with self-promotion, but I am a big believer in idea promotion. And, I think I have some ideas to share. Mostly stories. Tidbits that may provoke new thoughts for you. Details from my days.

Each week, I’ll be posting brief musings that offer insight into one of the seven pillars I write about in my forthcoming book Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness.

The seven pillars are simple, research-based concepts to help you find more happiness in your life and to help children create more happiness in theirs. Together, the seven pillars can help you embrace a life philosophy, teaching philosophy, and parenting philosophy to start with joy whenever and wherever you can. Collectively, these blog posts will offer entry points for you to think about the seven pillars in your own life. Which are strongest? What represents a challenge for you? How can the pillars help you and the children in your life to live a happy life? The seven pillars are…

Connection. Choice. Challenge. Story. Discovery. Play. Movement.

Oh, and my summer physical challenge–go camping.

To better your brave and the brave of those around you:

  • respect that challenges will differ for everyone
  • catch yourself saying “be careful”–if anything, it distracts children from doing what they believe they are capable of doing
  • create your own personal or family challenge this summer to better your brave
  • listen to the words of children with care–“Attention is the beginning of devotion.”-Mary Oliver

© Katie Egan Cunningham 2019