Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Curiosity And Exploration

She said, "I'm going to climb this tree," referring to the multitude of "trunks" of a lilac bush that stands as tall as a tree. I was nearby, but it wasn't obvious she was talking to me, but when I didn't reply, she asked, "Do you think I can climb it?"

I took hold of the thickest branch and gave it a shake, then did the same to another branch beside it. I said, "It seem strong enough to hold your weight." Then answered her question with a question, "Do you think you can climb it?"

She studied the lilac for a moment. She also tested some branches. In fact, she tested all the ones she could reach. "I think I can," she said before beginning her ascent.

Curiosity and exploration are the foundations of how young children learn, as any preschool teacher, or research scientist, knows. But it is only within the context of feeling safe, or at least safe enough, that they can truly thrive intellectually, physically, and emotionally, and parents, teachers, and other important adults play an important role in that. From the very beginning of life, physical touch reassures an infant that it is safe; it seems to give the body the go-ahead to develop normally. Without that touch, without that reassurance of safety, tragically, human babies fail to thrive and even, in extreme cases, to die, even when provided with all the other necessities for life. The need to feel safe does not disappear as children grow older.

There is a balance adults must learn to walk in their relationship to children, one that isn't always easy to find. We've all heard of the dangers of what are labelled "helicopter parents," those well-intended adults to hover and smother. Likewise, we're appalled by neglectful parents, those who fail to provide their charges with the attention they need to feel safe and therefore to thrive. The title of cognitive psychologist Alison Gopnik's book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, provides an apt metaphor that I find useful when trying to find that balance for myself. The carpenter is her way of referring the overprotective parent, one who see's their role as constructing their child through constant intervention and instruction, while the gardener refers to the parent who sees their role as planting a seed, to water it, to protect it from true dangers, but to otherwise simply let it grow.

The carpenter-parent tends to create an environment of pressure and expectations, prioritizing structure and metrics over exploration and play. In contrast, it is in the presence of the gardener-parent approach that children are assured that they are safe enough to be curious and to explore, to play their way toward a fuller understanding of themselves and their world the way humans are designed to do it.

As poet and author Diane Ackerman wrote, "(R)oaming is one of the things humans love to do best -- but only if they can count on getting home safely." We are, from our first days, driven by our curiosity to explore, but we can only do that when we are first assured that we are safe, which requires the presence, the love, the nurturing nearness of adults who will be gardeners. No one can tell you how to find that balance: it can only come from adults themselves being curious enough to explore.

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