Alan Berger, Owner and Director, Peace Through Play Nursery School

Mary Rothschild, Excutive Director of Healthy Media Choices and facilitator of Witness for Childhood, speaks with Alan Berger, Owner and Director Peace Through Play Nursery School in Chestnut Ridge, New York and a member of the Ethical Culture Society

M.R.:  What philosophies have influenced you?

A.B. :Several philosophies and influences have impacted me throughout my life.  I’m an Early Childhood Educator, so I have influences through the Early Childhood field.  One is Maria Montessori, who originated the term “Peace Education.”  Many people don’t know that she is responsible for the saying “If we are to have true peace in the world, we must begin with children.”  This is often attributed to Gandhi, but he actually was quoting her in a speech he gave at a Montessori School where he spoke at her invitation.

Around 1990, I became familiar with the Ethical Culture movement and became involved with them.  As a result, I became involved in ethical and moral education for children.  Around the same time, I became familiar with the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh who had a tremendous impact on my ethical and moral outlook on life.  And my background is in special education and early childhood bringing me to the place where I’ve become a tremendous advocate for children. Working with children is my life passion.  Several years ago, I became familiar with the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and their work fit into my life stance and the work that I’m doing to help children and bring peace into the world.

M.R.: What are the chief concerns you have around media and young children?

A.B.: I own and run Peace through Play Nursery School in Chestnut Ridge, New York.  I chose that name because I wanted the name of the school to reflect the work we wanted to do with the children.  At that time and until today we see that children are disconnected from their childhood in many ways.  I believe that this is, in many ways, a result of their exposure to the dominant culture.  I’ve owned the school for 9 years and throughout that time we have seen young children bringing the outside media into the school environment; bringing the behaviors they witness on TV, bringing the action figures.  So, we’ve had to really work to counteract that by bringing our own brand of Peace Education and pulling from other Peace philosophies as well.  For example, one thing we do is that we try to direct super hero play into other types of more peaceful play.  We’ve turned power rangers into peace rangers. We’ve helped children use their superhero play to impact on something that is for the greater good.  For instance, instead of fighting each other they are going to save the earth or help save a tree from being cut down.  So, we try to redirect their behavior from fighting each other to saving the world!!

M.R.: What does that look like?

A.B.: They are engaged in imaginary play: instead of going after each other, we help them come up with a story about what’s going on with the earth.  We based our work on “Superhero” . It looks like us engaging the children to work for the greater good –  a cooperative cause. It’s about: What do we do to restore the tree?  Finding a magic formula; that’s where their imaginations come in.

If the children bring in commercial toys, our policy is: they go back with the parent or keep it in their cubby.  Most of what we have been talking about is relevant to boys.  With girls we see some who are challenging in terms of exhibiting “adult” behavior.  For instance, we are a cell phone free school.  But, we have children coming in with cell phones.  We don’t allow them.  That is an adult behavior.  There’s a girl who is sophisticated but in an adult “sassy” way.  It is a struggle, a result of a family that has a lot of adult media and music.  Her mannerisms are steeped in the culture of her family.

M.R.: Most parents of young children were brought up very influenced by media themselves.  Why do people come to the school and not reinforce its philosophy at home?  Is that a challenge?

A. B: People come to the school for many reasons.  Some come because of convenience, subsidies, and, yes, the philosophy.  Sometimes it is logistic.  Yes, it can be difficult.  For instance, one girl, we can’t get to the mom; she is on the fly.  Child is left at the door; there is no time.  Other people pick the child up at the end of he day.  It is difficult to spend even a half hour with the mother.  A boy had a lot of violent angry language.  I was able to speak to the mother and grandmother.  He stopped watching video games after that conversation and we saw some improvement.

Another way I would describe myself is: I am a Humanist.  I am on the Education Committee of the American Ethical Union. My practice is eclectic.  I love Buddhism as well as the Ethical Culture Society.  I see them as connected.  My interest is in how people relate to each other and how we relate to nature.  In my work in advocating for children, I bring a sense of what is morally right for children, what is it that we want children to have that will help them be the best they can be and impact on the world in the best possible way.  Most important is how we interact with the children, what we model.  We’ve taken the stance that we are trying to show the children what peace is.  Giving them the word “peace” and giving them ideas about what the word means and ways to be peaceful.  We are constantly looking at our own place, our own actions. What are we bringing every day to children?

M. R.: Do you find that sometimes that means admitting that you messed up?

A. B.:  Definitely.  We are not perfect.  We apologize.  We let them know why we got angry, for instance and that we are sorry we did.  We are all learning how to be together.  A member of our staff is reading Hanh’s bookAnger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames and it is a help in working with challenging children.

Thich Nhat Hanh talks about Buddhist community.  It is not perfect.  We are implementing a peace rug, small carpet.  Children roll it out when they are in conflict; sit on it and talk until the issue is resolved.    This is a more formal way for them to see the efficacy of peace.

For 10 years I was director of Ethical Culture Society of Queens. We were really concerned about what child are exposed to and what they are getting from the dominant culture.  The great thing about Ethical Culture Sunday school is that, though there is a lot of material to use, such as Love Your Neighbor: Stories of Values and Virtues by Arthur Dobrin, you bring whatever you wish, so I could speak to them as a person.  I could say; “I don’t own a TV” and have a discussion.

M. R.: What do you see as the challenges and opportunities in your situation and from your background?

A. B.: The main challenge is a culture that does not honor children.  This is why I love Raffi’s concept of Child Honoring so much.  He speaks to what the real problem is for children at this time.  Our other big challenge is getting the parents on board. The parents are doing everything they can to grow a family.  People typically follow in the traditions they were brought up in.  We give information. How do we wean people off the media culture that impacts them so negatively?  How do you get the parents out to events?  At our parent meeting in the fall, we showed Consuming Kids and the supplementary portion with the  Barney/Power Ranger comparison film.

We need creative ways to engage parents.  I share my perspective through workshops at Childcare Resources of Rockland County.  Curricula are available from Ethical Culture, but the teacher has the freedom to work with children and teach about the world and how it operates; freedom to talk about decision-making, ethical choices and right and wrong. This is what I brought into the school.  What are children taking away?  It is important to bring it into the preschool environment because preschool children are being exposed to adult material.  We are an antidote to the dominant media culture.

M. R.: Early childhood is the window of opportunity because it is such a sensitive time for brain formation; the neurons are connecting in a “fire together, wire together” way, for good or ill.  Do you think there can be the greatest impact for the rest of life by working with this age group?

A. B.: This is when the children are forming and noticing how the world impacts them and they on the world.  I see what these children already have: the beauty and the challenges.  Some are getting beautiful input and others are at the opposite end of spectrum and not really experiencing childhood.  That’s where we are trying to be an antidote.

M. R.: I interviewed Richard Lewis.  He sees the adult’s presence and attention as crucial – the magnet for children.

A. B.: That’s the practice.  Children cause you to be present.  I like the idea that children are really Zen masters because they bring you into the present and they are always in the present.

M. R.: There is some evidence that the ability to be present in the moment is being eroded.

A. B.: I see that, even if the children are playing beautifully, making things out of clay, if they are creating and acting out media figures – what is that?  The dominant culture has infiltrated their creative processes.

Even look at adults.  I have things in my consciousness that I don’t want there.  On the other hand, as we experience life and challenges, how do we work with our thoughts? Meditation helps.  At the school, we do yoga every day for 15 minutes before lunch to instill the practice and that includes mediation.  How much do children remember from preschool years?  I think quite a bit – it give them an early influence.  The tool of meditation is important.  How do we deal with our issues, let go of difficult thoughts and move out of the past?  Where do we begin as humans?  Right here in early childhood – giving children the beauty that is their birthright.

Witness for Childhood brings together voices from many communities, giving perspectives on media, technology and the development of young children.

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