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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Reflecting on your children's environment

The word 'environment' is one of those words like 'love'.  It can have so many different meanings depending on context, can't it? Sometimes we can get stuck in a groove of seeing a word like that in only one way. But if we're going to provide children with the best 'right now' and the best ladder to their future, we need to be aware of all the facets of the environment that we provide for them.

Many people think of nature the moment they hear that word 'environment', and so the immediate associations stirred up in their brains will be to do with plants. Animals. Pollution. Maybe Green politics. But the environment isn't just the natural world.

In early childhood education we're always talking about the learning environment.  And too often people assume that when we talk about the environment in that way, we're talking about stuff. Objects. Spaces. Maybe arrangements of those things. But the environment isn't just the play equipment and the way the room is set up.

In parenthood, things seem a little different; we're always talking about the home environment, but often we dwell on people.  Behaviours. Attitudes. Maybe prejudices. But the environment isn't just the norms provided by families.

I hadn't really thought about this until I got one of my uni assignments back the other day, and the marker commented that I had an unusually good understanding of what 'environment' meant.  So I thought I'd share some paragraphs from that assignment with you, in the hope that it helps you to think more deeply about the environment you're providing for your children, and to see everything- 'stuff', nature, spaces, attitudes, people and so on- as an influential contribution to your child's world.. 

(NB: I've cut out my references and professional jargon to make it a bit more reader-friendly!!)

Bedridden but not bored

Play can act as an escape route from the sometimes harsh bonds of reality, but when I contracted rheumatic fever at the age of five and was bedridden for three months, that escape was severely restricted. I was saved by my family environment. My mother, a needlework teacher, had always encouraging me to choose patterns for my clothing from the huge McCall's pattern books and to watch and help her sew them, so I had unusual skills and confidence for my age. 

(Choices, you see.  Choices give a child a feeling of power and control within their environment.  My environment included a sense of agency about things that affected me, like the clothes I wore. And opportunities for involvement in adult 'work' from an early age- that's environment too.  That's a form of respect for a child, if you let them join in.  Do you?)

It was 1961, the genesis of the 'Barbie' craze;  my mother supplied me with a large bag of sewing and knitting equipment to make dolls' clothes. I spent hours experimenting, failing, re-cutting, constructing and decorating. This was quality play and learning; for sustained periods I was focussed on copying real life events and experiences which I had shared in relationship with my mother, engaging in fantasy by designing 'wedding dresses', and using and extending previously learned skills. 

(So there's some 'stuff' in my environment- I was given open-ended materials. But I also had uninterrupted time to be creative.  I also was allowed to fail. I also had a supportive parental relationship. All of that is 'environment'.)

My mother always made optimistic choices. I was trusted with sharp scissors and tiny needles, and this promoted feelings of competence. My mother didn't intervene unless I asked for help, and taught me how to undo mistakes rather than fixing them for me. I made choices about design and was not judged, though interest was expressed in my work. 

(I've still got some of those dolls' clothes I made, you know, and some of them are truly hideous- but nobody ever said 'yuk'.  Interest without judgement is a terribly important part of a safe environment for a child.  And so is trust.)

Being left to my own devices with a wide range of appropriate tools and materials helped to make me a confident, resourceful person. Most importantly, being bedridden but not bored gave me confidence that I could achieve quite ambitious goals by myself despite significant difficulties if I had adequate preparation, a life skill which has contributed much to my success in the classroom as both a student and a teacher.

(So, do you provide an environment that nurtures self-confidence and resourcefulness? How can you do that in your home or your classroom?)

I was allowed to be my own teacher; in adjusting the amount of extra fabric needed to dress a rounded figure, for example, I taught myself advanced three-dimensional geometric concepts. Such self-teaching would not have been as effective if my mother was constantly hovering and correcting; my mother allowed me to learn in a concrete way, helping at times but generally intervening only on request. She provided sensible preparation even beyond the dressmaking skills- how to hold scissors when walking, how to use a thimble- before letting me loose with real tools and materials, so my failures were limited to misjudgments rather than physical accidents. But creatively I was a free agent, and this contributed to a life-long ability to express myself originally.  

(If you're a helicopter parent, that's a huge influence on your child's environment. It's like a dampening cloud over a child's head- they'll always be trying to please you or trying to escape you, instead of discovering who they are and what they can do.  Give guidance- yes- but then give space. And try not to over-guide creative activities- the process, not the product, is what allows a child to find their creative self.)

A natural environment

Outdoor play was scaffolded by my father, a keen naturalist and amateur geologist. Place is a vital ingredient in the construction of personal identity, and so it proved for me. Fishing for yabbies in my grandparents' creek, bushwalking and being introduced to flowers by their botanical and common names, catching and inspecting blue tongued lizards, learning which landforms indicated the presence of alluvial gold before panning for it in the creek- all are vivid memories and integral to my sense of 'being': who I am, and what interests me. 

(Wow, how much variety was there in my physical environment? I got the nature stuff as well as amazing indoor opportunities.  Are you providing variety?  Where else are you comfortable, where you can take them and teach them?)

The intentional teaching by my father played a large part in preparing my brother and me for safe outdoor play. We were then allowed to go to the creek yabbying and building dams in the sand without supervision. Seven- to twelve-year-olds tended to recall outdoor play environments most strongly; certainly my natural play spaces had long-term impact on me, and this 'sense of place' has been an enduring influence on my personal and professional life. I have no fear of the bush to this day; I 'belong' there. 

(Where will your child feel he 'belongs' when he grows up? Where are you allowing her to learn to feel comfortable? Unwrap that cotton wool, or they'll be looking for cotton wool all their lives.)

 Sociocultural influences

We were poor and had few toys, but I was given crayons and paper plus access to a very wide range of literature. I was also taught how to use my mother's typewriter and so was actively playing with words as symbols by age 5, when I wrote my first rhyming and scanning poem. My father was musical, and I sang nursery rhymes with the piano. This rich cultural environment enabled my creativity and gave me a love of both the written word and music which I now strive to pass on to the children I teach. 

(And right now, I've got to say that there is a world of difference between sitting a very small child in front of a typewriter and sitting them in front of a computer. A typewriter, by comparison, is completely open-ended. The potential for creativity, as opposed to the repetition of preordained actions to move down a preordained path, is not in the same ball park. And by the way, while we're thinking about the cultural environment, what sort of music is happening in your home? Is your child watching video clips of adult songs, complete with sexy-wiggle dance moves, or something a little more age appropriate? That's all part of the environment you provide.)

My parents valued education; they were alert to my advanced reading age and provided ability-appropriate rather than age-appropriate books. I see that it was far-sighted of them to recognise my strengths, abilities and knowledge as an individual rather than being guided by pre-ordained age schedules.

(Understanding your child, knowing who they are... that also is part of the environment.  Work at it. I think it's the most important part of the environment.  If you don't know who they are, how can you provide the 'stuff' and the 'spaces' and the 'guidance' they need?)

A hole in the social bucket

Generally, my social experiences involved board and card games with the family, always played with strict rules and great good humour. This taught me self-regulation; games with rules are a path to learning the rules of a community, and this was certainly the case in my family. I still despise cheating and gamesmanship, which were taboo in our home. 

(What's okay in your home or your classroom? What do you allow? What do you normalise?)

By age five I had only one playmate, a neighbourhood peer with a very dominant personality who also owned Barbies. Re-enacting our home experiences through play, we engaged in role-plays and invented scripts with the dolls, sometimes fighting over whose doll would be the 'star'. The fights were brief because I gave in almost immediately, disliking the unpleasantness of my peer vying for influence and having learned no negotiating skills. This experimentation with personal power within our own small world of play taught me the dubious strategy of withdrawing from conflict rather than confronting difficult situations; this mechanism has been problematic for me in my professional life, demonstrating that lessons learned through play are not always positive in nature. With more opportunities for social play with peers, I might have developed a stronger ability to interact more effectively under duress. 

(Yes, it IS important to allow your child to work out their own battles within their social groups- they need to learn negotiating skills.  Don't step in too soon.  But do make sure that they have opportunities to interact with plenty of other children so they can find some like-minded peers.  Otherwise the peer group is likely to be an uncomfortable environment for them to endure all through school, and possibly later in life too.  Ask me- I know!)

So, I wonder if my assignment has helped you to think more broadly about your children's environment?  I hope so.

Where can you push a wall out? 

Where do you need to put up a fence?

Are you strong in the cognitive and emotional environment, but falling into a rut in the physical? Or maybe the other way around?

Is there something you can change to make your children's world a better place?

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