Friday, March 01, 2013

Turning On Our Own Light

You can't have a light without a dark to stick it in. ~Arlo Guthrie 

Before we've even convened our Pre-3 class for the first time each year, our parent educator Dawn and I have already told the parents during our fall orientation meeting to expect that children will hit, kick, push, scratch, and bite, and that their child is likely to be involved one way or another. Then, after the first month of school, at our first parent meeting, with parents abuzz about all the hitting, kicking, pushing, scratching, and biting they've witnessed in class, Dawn's parent ed topic is "normal" development, including the inevitable experiments in hitting, kicking, pushing, scratching, and biting, and what we can do about it.

For the purposes of this post, I'm also going to add such behaviors as taking, spitting, screaming, destroying the work of others, bossing, hoarding, and just about anything else that can fall into the category of "socially unacceptable."

Dawn goes through the research, pointing out that all of this is well within the range of normal, and that we should strive to seize these obvious teaching moments. (For further discussion about how we try to do this at Woodland Park, you might want to click here and here.)

But it does raise for me the deeper question: why is this typical behavior?

Some of it is mere oblivion. Children this age are notoriously suns around which the universe revolves and one of the reasons we bring them together in the first place, is to give them the chance to experience bumping up against all those other suns and figuring out how to live in a constellation with them. It's not uncommon at all, for instance, for a child to run right through another on their way somewhere else or to simply push someone when they're in their way. It's not rudeness: they are really just so absorbed in their pursuits that they don't notice the other people. Experience and development will bring them around in time.

Another part of the answer is that young children are essentially mad scientists running around this laboratory of life poking at buttons, throwing switches, and tugging on levers, sometimes over and over, driven to understand what they do. This is why, for instance, you don't want to have your nuclear launch button in the same room as a 2-year-old. 

But that's not entirely fair. It's certainly more complex than either of these summations suggest. From an evolutionary perspective, children are born with only one tool for survival: crying. The species produces a next generation only because enough adults instinctively respond to crying. For adults that cry is something that pierces our hearts, calling us to action, pumping our blood, making us feel as if something is wrong, while for the baby that cry is merely the tool for connecting with the world outside herself, with none of the emotional baggage we bring to it.

We've evolved into an animal with great big brains and relatively fragile bodies, with so much to learn before it can survive on its own that we must go through years, even decades of dependency on others, if we are ever truly able to be independent. From the moment we are born, however, we begin to play, reaching out first with our crying voices, then ears and eyes. As we combine natural development with experience, our hands and feet come into play, until our whole bodies are engaged in the playful process of learning about our world. And it's the other people who engage us the most intensely.

(T)he children who "take" the most are invariably the ones who give the most. ~Janet Lansbury

Development might dictate when we are ready for things, but it's play that determines what and how we actually learn. If you watch babies play, as parent educator Janet Lansbury spends her days doing, you'll see how, when allowed to freely explore, they manipulate objects, turning them over and over, studying them from all sides, banging them on the floor, sticking them in their mouths, and generally putting them through their paces as they teach themselves the important things to know about these objects. And when that "object" is another person with whom they are allowed to freely explore, they seek to manipulate him, turn him over and over, study him from all sides, bang him on the floor, stick him in their mouths, and generally put him through his paces. This is done, of course, without malice or intention other than that urge to engage and learn through play.

As Janet points out, we grown-ups are inclined to intervene, and we should when someone is getting hurt, but too often in our efforts to somehow manage the interaction, we try to teach them things rather than allow them the freedom to actually learn the way humans are designed to learn, thereby discouraging play. "Our interruptions put the brakes on valuable social exchanges and leave toddlers with the message that they're incapable of interacting with their peers."

An example she uses is the concept of "sharing" or "ownership," ideas that are simply beyond the developmental abilities of babies. When one baby takes something from another and we jump in by insisting, no matter how gently, that it must be returned, we are attempting to "teach" an idea that they are incapable of understanding, thus putting an end to a playful, social interaction. In other words, we prevent them from manipulating the world before them, as is their natural inclination, not letting them, in fact study this situation from all sides, bang it on the floor, stick it their mouth, or generally put it through its paces. It's no wonder that Janet has found that the babies in her classes, where they are given this opportunity, who are most likely to "take" are also the ones most likely to give: they've been allowed to learn about the entire interaction, understand it, and understand the light.

I will love the light because it shows me the way. Yet I will endure the darkness because it shows me the stars. ~Og Mandino

How can one understand light without exploring dark? How can one understand up without exploring down? How can one understand gentleness without exploring roughness?

As children get older and begin to find their way to people like me who work with them, it's no less important that we give them the opportunity to freely explore their social world. Of course, as with Janet's babies, we intervene when someone is getting hurt or scared, but that doesn't mean that even these behaviors aren't an important part of their learning. I've seen Janet's take-give phenomenon at work in our own school over the years. The 2-year-old child with the larger, stronger body who so often runs right through his peers will invariably become the 4-year-old skilled in the art of gentleness. The toddler who is most likely to destroy another's block tower will invariably be the first to understand the importance of helping rebuild it. The child who blunders by attempting to show affection for another by biting, will invariably be the one who later touches us with his ability to show his friends how much he loves them.

Again, I must emphasize that I do not want children to be pushed, hit or bitten, but I am a realist and know that short of simply keeping young children apart from one another, these things are a part of how humans learn. We must study the dark before we can understand the light.

It's not always easy and I fail often, but ideally we adults seek to remain calm, to intervene when necessary without judgement, to role model compassion and gentleness toward the injured, and to help children think their way through to alternatives, knowing all the while that as long as we are there loving them with consistency and compassion, experience and development will bring them around in time, invariably to a fuller understanding of the light.

We all walk in the dark and each of us must learn to turn on his or her own light. ~Earl Nightingale

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Maureen said...

You have provided a fabulous description of the true "art" of working with preschoolers - knowing how and when to insert that adult voice. For me, it is what keeps the job so energizing and intellectually rewarding - the juggle of observing, guiding, stepping back, stepping in. We teachers have to work closely with families to share about developmental norms and how much the children are learning through their [often fractious] play with one another. Children have to learn "within" themselves, not by my edict. I really loved your words - "when that "object" is another person with whom they are allowed to freely explore, they seek to manipulate him, turn him over and over, study him from all sides, bang him on the floor..." So, so true!! Thank you, thank you, thank you for this.

Barbara Zaborowski said...

Do you mind if I copy this for the parents in my preschool?

NZ Teacher said...

Beautifully written as always. Thanks so much Teacher Tom. You are a true inspiration.

Teacher Tom said...

Go for it, Barbara!