Thursday, August 06, 2020

Creating a Place Where Children Think for Themselves

"Teacher Tom, look what I made!"

"I'm looking at what you made."

I strive for Woodland Park to be a place where children are as free as possible to create, explore, study, and play with as little adult judgement as possible. I am not there to critique their work or to teach them tricks, but rather to be the resident expert on safety, schedules, and courtesy, while providing the time and space for children to ask and answer their own questions about their world.

When a child says, "Look what I made!" most adults respond as if it's a request for judgement and offer some sort of knee-jerk praise. "It's beautiful!" we might say, placing our benign stamp of approval on the child's work. I was taught that a more appropriate response is to instead focus on the effort (e.g., "You worked on that for a long time") or to simply stick with the facts before you (e.g., "You used red paint and some bits of string"). It's the difference between children learning to be motivated extrinsically versus intrinsically. Our constant critiques, even when offered as praise, teach children that their value is in the eyes of others, and in particular those with power, while our goal, I hope, is for them to learn to judge their work for themselves, to be guided by their own internal light.

Even though most of us already know this, it remains challenging. It's hard to not want to praise children. And, especially as parents, it's even harder sometimes to avoid criticizing them, especially as they get older and we fear they are headed for pain and heartbreak or, if we are honest with ourselves, embarrassing us. I have been trying to train myself in the art of speaking with children for a couple decades now and it is still hard for me. I still catch myself making mistakes daily.

When I'm at my best, however, when I'm truly creating a place where children think for themselves, it's when I am unhurried enough to take a moment to collect myself before speaking. I've found this to be a key for me: that pause to make sure I am saying what I want to be saying. And I've noticed in recent years that the words I'm saying, when I'm at my absolute best, are even less intrusive than comments about effort or a factual description of what I see before me, but rather just an echo of what the child says to me.

When a child says, for instance, "Look what I made!" I find myself responding directly to her words and nothing more, "I'm looking at what you made."

"Teacher Tom, this is for you." . . . "This is for me."

"Teacher Tom, I fell down." . . . "You fell down."

"Teacher Tom, look what I can do." . . . "You can do that."

"Teacher Tom, I'm here." . . . "You're here."

It's as if I'm a mirror for the children, a surface upon which to reflect. Most of the time this is enough, the child just wants to know that he is heard, even though some children then proceed to tell me what they want me to know rather than having been directed into a channel dug by my adult assumptions. Perhaps they will then describe what it is they've made, or share that they were or weren't injured, or detail the process by which they achieved whatever it is they've achieved. Most often, however, they simply smile in recognition of having been heard, then go back about their business, turning away from the mirror of me, and returning to the inspiration coming from within.


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