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Thursday, June 16, 2011

What we can learn from children

Children fascinate me. I learn from them every day. And I think my favourite thing of all about them is that they usually haven't had their instincts taught out of them- yet. 

Adults, on the other hand- well, we're ever so good at hiding our feelings till everyone around us is confused (and so are we), eating and sleeping based on the clock or social expectations, limiting ourselves through fear of failure, measuring ourselves with the yardsticks of strangers.  And so on. We could learn so much from children, if we allowed ourselves.

Take 'Jamelle', for example, a 3-year-old indigenous girl with a spirit as wild and free as a little wallaby (and I know a fair bit about wallabies, having brought up an orphaned one last year!). To the average observer, she might seem a little behind in her sense of 'belonging' to her classroom; she rarely does as she's told and her emotions have a fuse about as long as my little fingernail. But she has a lot to teach us if we're prepared to shut up, watch and listen.

Sitting on the mat isn't exactly Jamelle's strong point, not even for a moment.  Yesterday she flew in from outdoors and landed in home corner like a little tornado of energy, instead of settling at the teacher's feet for a transition time. Having watched what happened a few times when a teacher tried to bring her back to the group- screaming hysterics accompanied by flailing arms and total disruption of the room's atmosphere (one is never in doubt about Jamelle's feelings (!!) -that clarity of expression is a lost talent to most adults- but I digress!)- I chose to just supervise and observe her play. 

As I watched her from a distance, I could see that she was on some sort of mission. Never mind that her teacher had a truly fascinating new book about dinosaurs over at the mat; Jamelle had work to do.
Her concentration was fantastic. That food had to go in the microwave, and those dolls had to go to bed. 

I went over to offer her a helping hand once I'd worked out what she was doing, and was accepted into the process with a grin. We had a very serious discussion about how many dolls would fit in the big bed, and where we would put the ones who didn't fit, and what we would use for blankets.  (Call it 'maths' and 'problem solving' if you like.)

The moment we had home corner 'sorted' to her liking, I suggested she might like to look at the dinosaur book... and she took my hand very happily, wandered over to the mat and sat down for the rest of the transition.

Now, wouldn't you like to have that sort of sense of purpose, that sort of focus? As I look around my home this morning and feel overwhelmed (as usual) by the multiple tasks at hand, I wish I could instantly choose something that I think needs doing (undistracted by what other people expect me to do) and just get on with it. And then relax.

(Incidentally, Jamelle obviously has a fine sense of 'belonging', shown by the way she takes ownership of home corner and the dolls every day. That's her space, and she constantly arranges and rearranges and role-plays and problem-solves there with complete contentment. She's just not too keen on conforming to our timetables and methods.)

I had the pleasure of sitting with Jamelle at rest time the other day.  Again, the expectation is that the children will lie straight down on their beds and try to go to sleep.  Now, you KNOW what I think of rest time! I hate rest time! -but I acknowledge that Jamelle is still at the stage of needing a sleep during the day; I just wish that everyone else would acknowledge that children can't just 'switch' from one state (excited and animated chatter over the lunch table) to another (stillness on a bed), even if that's what best suits the carers.

Jamelle, dear wild thing that she is, simply went her own way about readying herself for sleep. She knew what she needed, and blow the rules.  First, she grabbed half a dozen jigsaws and books (supposedly not allowed, but you know me- I just watched her process and said nothing!) and stashed all but one puzzle under her bed. Then she chatted to me as she completed the puzzle- selecting her own 'bring it down' activity. She went on 'changing state' using puzzles and books for some twenty minutes, to the point where I really thought she wasn't going to go to sleep at all- then quite suddenly she stood up, took off her jumper ('too hot!), threw her arms around me and kissed me on the cheek, curled up like a cat and went straight to sleep literally within one minute.

How I wish I was as skilled at self-settling, as aware of my body and brain's needs, as able to create a routine that worked for me, as able to finally 'let go'. I envy Jamelle that instinctive knowledge of herself.

And while we're learning from her, let's go back to that first puzzle she selected.  When I saw what she'd chosen, I anticipated frustration and tears- I'd taken quite a bit of time to complete this one when I put it away a few days ago because it was a stinker, even for an adult with a talent for jigsaws.

But Jamelle wasn't put off at all by the lack of differentiation between the pieces- all similar colours and shapes, with a very indistinct picture of a turtle in the middle that only emerged as the puzzle was nearly complete. She just worked away at the task, and I kept my hands and my doubts to myself. To my astonishment, she completed it, and her only acknowledgement that it was difficult was her little scream of delight and excited insistence that I look!

Would you like to have that sort of attitude to difficult tasks? Take it on, work your little heart out, and celebrate when it's done? What a gift to not pre-judge one's own ability, but just give it a shot.

To me, this demonstrates the very best features of the EYLF.  The concept of play-based learning gives carers an opportunity to watch, listen and learn from the children without constantly feeling obliged to be 'teaching' them something.  It's permission to let go. If you observe closely and learn from the children what works for them, you have so much more of a chance to nurture them appropriately for where they are in their learning, and then nudge them gently in the direction of a seamless transition to a more structured program when they start 'big school'. 

Most importantly, it gives carers permission NOT to teach instincts out of small children so that they end up like most adults- slaves to expectation, instead of knowing and trusting themselves.  Take advantage of this!


  1. what a beautiful perpective you have

  2. :) Thank you, EG. Working with children is such a gift to me... when I look at the world at large with all its failings, I can get quite depressed and discouraged- but little children save me from despair.


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