Monday, July 17, 2017

Setting Limits

In limitations he first shows himself the master. ~Goethe

It can be very frightening for a child not to have limits. Not only can the world outside be frightening, but the world inside, the world of feelings, can also be scary when you're not sure you can manage those feelings by yourself. ~Mister Rogers 

I once wrote a post about a boy who regularly peeked at a collection of cars that we keep on a shelf behind a piece of fabric. Each time he did so, I reminded him, "That's closed," before gently leading him away. He was not the first nor the last two-year-old to peek longingly behind the curtains and want to learn about what he sees there.

That particular post was about the challenge he faced, and how we dealt with it, when the cars were finally "open." A few commenters chided me for not just letting the boy play with those cars when he first showed an interest, one writing, "You stood in the way of his curiosity."

Like many preschool classrooms, much of our storage is inside the classroom, and we have a lot of stuff crammed onto those shelves: for better or worse, this is a reality of our environment. I've been doing this for a long time. I know, from experience, what happens when everything is "open." I'll never forget finding a neophyte parent-teacher who I'd apparently not properly briefed on the concept of "open" and "closed," sitting on the floor surrounded by a dozen board game boxes, puzzle boxes, and other storage containers, the contents of which were strewn about her. Two-year-olds were struggling to walk, stumbling, kicking, and breaking things underfoot; a couple kids were crying, while others were manically pulling more things off the "closed" shelves.

The parent was aware that something had gone wrong. "I thought I was just letting them play the way you always talk about," she said to me as we stayed together after class to tackle the gargantuan sorting process. And it's true, I do talk an awful lot about the importance of children playing freely.

Awhile back, I wrote another post about how I planned an art project by, essentially, choosing what things to which the children would have access and pre-programming others in the hopes that it would lead to the children discovering a new way to use common materials. I don't always think through projects in such detail like this, which is why I wrote about this one, although I always have at least some idea about how I expect the children will engage with the materials I've provided. In this case, amazingly, it worked the way I'd envisioned, which is rare. A reader detected hypocrisy (my word, not his) in the juxtaposition of this kind of environmental management on the teacher's part and my bedrock assertion that children learn best when they play freely.

Underpinning both of those posts, and in fact just about every post I write here, is the idea of "environmental management," which is, after all, one of the primary roles of a teacher in a play-based curriculum. In fact, I often say that my main responsibility is to set things up; to prepare the space. Once the kids arrive, the work of learning is up to them. My job, in other words, is to set the limits within which the children, for that day at least, will play freely: to coordinate with what the Reggio Emilia educational approach refers to as "the third teacher." This is true for everything we do at Woodland Park. We, in effect, "open" some materials/spaces and "close" others. Sometimes we have ideas about where our set up might guide the children, although truthfully, more often than not it doesn't go the way we expect, as the children, within the additional limits of the rules we have democratically established together, experiment with the materials/spaces as best serves their individual and collective curiosities. And this is as it should be. The goal is not to satisfy the teacher's expectations (although it's pretty cool when that happens), but rather their own curiosity.

It is within these environmental and social limits that free play happens. It is within these limits that we strive to avoid the "language of command," which means that there is no one there telling kids things like, "Do it like this," or "Today we're making flowers." Instead, we we make informative statements like, "We have scissors, tape, construction paper . . ." or "This is what Suzy made," then leave them to do their own thinking. This is what I mean when I talk about playing freely.

In working with our "third teacher" (the first and second being parents and classroom teachers) I am not working all on my own even if I am the one responsible for setting things up. Every classroom set up is, in reality a collaboration between me, the changeable and fixed aspects of our environment, parents, and, the children themselves. It is my job to interpret the feedback I receive on a daily basis from my educational partners then to manage the environment in such a way that we are, together, free to pursue our collective and individual interests, questions, and passions.

That is largely what I'm doing as the children play: collecting this feedback by listening and observing, then responding to it. When it seems that the children are "bouncing off the walls," for instance, it often means I've set the limits too narrowly for this particular group of kids on this particular day. When the children seem aimless, stumbling, kicking things, breaking things, and crying, it tells me that I may have set the limits too broadly for this particular group of kids on this particular day. When children completely ignore one of our classroom invitations, it's a sign I need to rethink the materials/space (after giving it a couple days) because it clearly is not serving their pursuit of knowledge. When children fall on something en masse it tells me that I should consider finding ways to expand the limits.

In a broader sense, we know that limits are vital to young children. As Dr. Laura Markham writes in her book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids:

. . . (K)ids who never need to "manage" themselves to accommodate limits and rise to expectations have a harder time developing self-discipline . . . Limits keep our children safe and healthy and support them in learning social norms so that they can function happily in society. And if we set limits empathically, kids are more likely to internalize the ability to set limits for themselves, which is otherwise known as self-discipline.

Dr. Markham is talking about parenting and behavior here, but the principle of limits is also, obviously, applicable to the classroom.

When I've listened and observed well, our environment fully engages most of the kids, inviting them to play freely, but there are always a few who peek behind the curtains, children curious about the limits we've set for them, and what lies just beyond. That too is as it should be.

Hey friends! I'm currently in Australia where I'm appearing in venues around the country. I'd love to meet you! A few of the events are sold out, but there is still room in others. If you're interested, click here for details about my "tour."

Also . . .

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

1 comment:

Aphie said...

This is THE 'invisible skill' that was imparted most strongly to me by my mentor in the classroom when I came to this calling. She made the way the children's behaviour reflected the limits' parameters as too broad or narrow, explicit for me, and it was mind blowing. It is still amazing to me that this skill is so intrinsic to our work,and I feel like it may even be The Work I do; preparing that third teacher before getting out of the children's way. It's almost like we're captains, reading the tiny signs of wave and weather and adjusting our ships accordingly.