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Friday, April 27, 2012

A risky play morning with a 2-year-old

A while ago I had the pleasure of the company of "Darius", who is in that interesting not-quite-a-toddler, not-quite-a-preschooler stage.

Now, let it not be said that I experiment on the children I babysit, but one part of my brain was very interested in what Darius would seek out for play experiences. (Okay, okay, so I may have incorporated a little bit of research into my supervision.) He had never been to our farm before; he had never met me before. I wondered if he would be more comfortable inside playing with my quite large collection of age-appropriate toys, or if he would naturally tend towards more risky play, the exploration of the unknown outdoors. I decided to just let him lead, and see what happened.

Well, the first thing that happened was that he clung to dad's leg and hid his face. Pretty normal.

"Don't be shy, Darius," said dad, obviously a bit embarrassed. "Say hello."

"That's okay," said I to dad, smiling at Darius who was peeking around dad's leg by now. "He's never been here before and he doesn't know me. He doesn't have to say hello if he's not ready yet."

To Darius, I said, "You can be shy if you want to, Darius. It's all new, isn't it?"

Instant eye contact. It's amazing how recognising and naming a child's feelings, without judgment, can cut through the ice. It was all easy from there on in; he stayed with dad, but he was watching me and listening to me.

The first thing to separate Darius from the safety of dad's leg was not a shiny, colourful toy. It was this.

I guess that's not surprising. The turkey chicks are still small enough to be cute and non-threatening. Darius spent some time happily chasing them through the bush. (Um, yes, through the bush.) Totally focussed, totally without fear.

I followed at a trot through the trees, thinking the usual carer-risk-assessment thoughts.

What if he falls over and lands on a stick and (insert dreadful injury)?

Don't be daft. Look at him. He's absolutely competent on his feet, and he's picking his way through the trees and avoiding sticks on the ground perfectly well. Probability: minimal.

All the time, I was consciously stopping myself from saying "Be careful!" He WAS being careful. The last thing he needed was me distracting him from what he was doing. But yes, it was an effort to shut myself up!


Probability: minimal. The weather's way too cool. But I'll keep a little ahead of him now, just in case. 

Then I realised that the turkeys would tell me if a snake's around long before human eyes spotted it, and relaxed. There's about as much chance of stepping on a snake here as there is of being involved in a major car accident driving to the shops. And that's only in high summer, not in autumn.

At one point, back in the clearing, he sloughed his shoes and continued running barefoot.

What if he steps on a bull-ant?

I mentioned this to dad, and he replied "Well, he won't do it again, will he?"

Bravo, dad. To my knowledge no-one's ever died from being bitten by a bull-ant, though it's an unpleasant experience. And once bitten, yes, you do start to look out for them to prevent it from happening again.

It was really good for me to engage in this type of in-the-wild supervision- experiences like this stop me from being too glib about advertising risky play as though it's easy for carers to achieve. Fifteen minutes of this, in a genuinely untamed bit of bush, reminded me of the very real fears that go through our minds when we let kids free-range. Yes, I really do appreciate how easy and attractive it is to confine children to bland, 'safe' areas, to try to avoid having to do this on-the-run risk assessment. Yes, it's quite mentally and emotionally taxing to let kids test themselves. Yes, you do feel fearful that something will go wrong, that you'll be held responsible.

But honestly, it's worth it. All the time Darius had been on the run, he'd been asking questions about the birds, and I'd been answering as well as pointing out other interesting things to see. By the time he'd tired of chasing the turkeys, Darius was grinning, relaxed, talking twenty to the dozen and ready to accept me as his carer for the morning.

Had he run off his nerves? Maybe. Or was he just appreciating not being thwarted, being allowed to do what felt good to him? Maybe.

Here are some more things that attracted Darius' attention, once he'd accepted me:

Now, let it be said that my dog is the safest dog in the world for a little kid to play with, and Darius was used to dogs. I definitely do NOT recommend letting a 2-year-old approach any old dog that takes their fancy. That's not risky play, that's just downright dangerous. The trick is to teach them some boundaries around dogs in general, and if that means grabbing their hands and saying firmly "I won't let you do that", go for it. You really do have to reinforce that approaching strange dogs is OUT.

Darius had already been taught a little caution by his parents, and so he was quite safe patting my very friendly dog. Even so, I stayed right there next to him. You just never know.

These also caught his eye:

Again, these are well-behaved animals, and they're also very shy- but they're large, heavy animals nonetheless, and so I stayed close by while Darius inspected them from a rather cautious distance. He didn't show any inclination to touch them, once we were close enough for him to see how big they were.

Darius was actually more taken by this:

My bottle-reared sheep provoked a very interesting risk dynamic. You see, she thinks she's a dog. So she had no hesitation in walking right up to Darius looking for food, and he showed immediate awareness of his limits by hiding behind my leg. Right up close, she might not have been as big as the alpacas, but she was as tall as him and clearly far, far bulkier.

I interacted with her for a short time, talking to Darius about her, and he gradually relaxed again- but still wouldn't touch her. You see? He had a natural awareness of some danger to his person- probably a natural reaction to the sheep's size compared to his own.

We often don't need to press the point. If something's lethal, we shouldn't have a child near it. Otherwise, we need to allow our kids a bit more space to assess a risk, before we move in with our own fears. Let their instincts develop naturally.

When Darius had a bit more confidence in the layout of the farm, he did something a bit more risky; he decided to take off to 'find' the alpacas by himself. I let him go off across the clearing, watching from a distance. (Yes, he thought he was ready to go wandering on a strange farm at two and a half. I bit back the natural tendency to stop him.)

Well, not only did he find the alpacas- he found my sheep too, and she ran towards him excitedly. Freak-out! Darius screamed, turned and ran back to me sobbing.

I picked him up, out of reach of my pushy wanna-be-a-dog give-me-food black sheep, and he quickly regained his composure.

So what do we make of that? Was it a terrible thing to do, letting him run off by himself to get a big fright?

I don't think so. There was no real danger present. Darius tested his limits and found them; end of story. He didn't try to run off by himself again all morning. Surely that's a good thing. When we let kids take risks, they learn.

I mean, if I'd forbidden him to go off across that paddock by himself, would he have tried to sneak away when I was distracted? There are dams on our property too. There are gullies with water at the bottom. There are long tracks through tall trees and thick bush, where even I've got lost once or twice.

No, no, no. Much better that he found his own limits, while I watched from afar.

At one stage, when I needed to go into the house for a while, I offered Darius some toys. This is what I offered him:

You know, he really wasn't much interested. He played with the bus for a while, rolling it down the ramp, but he found this much more interesting:

Children like real tools- tools that adults can play with too. They don't always need to have scaled-down, pretend toys.

Yes, it was noisy. I lived. I bit my tongue again when he bashed his hands down, waiting for the moment when he'd find a different way of playing. He did. I just had to be patient, survive the loud bit, and wait for him to discover playing with one finger, playing with two fingers, playing softly.

We played elephant music. We played mouse music.

And soon after this, he wanted to go outside again, where he played with these:

You can see how tiny those flowers are- those are my fingers next to the yellow one. He found all these playthings himself. He examined them, and collected them, and brought them back to the house to play with some more.

Yes, he played with sticks. He chose small ones, in proportion to his body. I didn't stop him. He didn't hurt himself.

Thus we spent a whole morning, a two and a half year old and a lady who had been a total stranger at the start, with only one little moment of tearfulness and not a single whine.

And what does all this tell me, that can be useful to you?

It tells me that children respond to being treated with respect. That child didn't even want to look at me when he arrived. With respectful treatment that acknowledged his space and his needs and his feelings, by the end of the morning he was cuddling me fiercely and not wanting to leave!

It tells me that we have to have more confidence in young children. We don't have to constantly entertain them. We don't have to treat them as though they have no concept whatsoever of risk. We would be well advised to get them outdoors, tape our mouths shut and let them exercise their bodies, entertain themselves and develop their risk assessment skills even further.

It tells me that children don't need to be patronised. We would be well advised to give them access to adult tools now and then- carefully chosen, perhaps, but the real thing- tape our mouths shut and let them explore.

It tells me that the world outdoors is full of children's toys. We would be well advised to tape our wallets shut, stop buying brightly coloured plastic cr*p and stuff we think our children might want, and let our children find their own playthings. Toys that are, truly, their own choice.

Children are more capable than we think. And if we allow them the room, if we bite our tongues and give them some respect along with the boundaries, they will constantly surprise us with their ability to entertain themselves.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Happiness, pleasure and the joy of being broke

There's a wonderful lyric from Malcolm Williamson's opera version of Oscar Wilde's 'The Happy Prince' that has always made me thoughtful. The prince is indulged in all things material, and never allowed to feel sorrow. After his death, he becomes a statue looking out over the misery of poverty outside the walls of his palace; it touches his leaden heart with pity, and he sadly sings:

"My courtiers called me The Happy Prince,
And happy indeed I was- if pleasure be happiness."

I think pleasure and happiness are words that we need to define very carefully in our parenting. So often we do something on the pretext that it will make our children happy, yet in fact what we're doing is giving our children pleasure.

And when the ability to give our children pleasure at the drop of a hat is taken away- usually by a change of circumstances such as the loss of a job, a relationship break-up or an illness that affects our income- we worry that we will no longer be able to make our children happy.

Let me just reassure you on that point.

Monday, April 16, 2012

I Will Not Pin.

Oh my. Everyone, but everyone, seems to have gone suddenly crazy for Pinterest.

Not me. I have decided that I Will Not Pin. And it's not just because I'm a jumper-off from bandwagons, though that's true. All my life, if everyone was wearing mulberry and taupe, I was in black and scarlet; if everyone was coming out of the movie theatre drooling about "Titanic" or "American Beauty", I was running the other way screaming "GARBAGE!".

(Don't start me. Please.)

So perhaps I was inclined not to pin from the start. But honestly, contrary nature aside, my rational brain can think of plenty of reasons not to pin.

(You're wondering what this has to do with childcare, aren't you? Bear with me. I always get there in the end.)

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Sibling bullies

Parenting is a tightrope to walk. I know that. It's so hard not to fall off one side or the other of that thinnest of thin lines- into over-regulation, or into permissiveness- even when you're trying your hardest.

But sometimes I see the chaos caused by well-meaning parents who misinterpret where the line is, and my heart bleeds for the kids, and I have to say something. LOUDLY. Today I'm saying something, LOUDLY, because yet again I've seen a child in pain when parents thought they were doing the right thing.

See, there's lots been said about how we shouldn't intervene too much between siblings. Let them sort it out. Don't force the relationship.  And I agree with that, within reason.

But let me show you what can happen when that approach gets taken too far. It's not pretty.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Richest Crocodile: Earth Day Blog Hop

 The Richest 
 in the World
        by Daniel Postgate

Published by HarperCollins, 2003
ISBN-T3: 978-0-00-780985-1

Earth Day Theme: Water and Sun

I have to admit that I love this book. I found it going cheap in the supermarket one day as though it was remaindered, but it grabbed me at once and the kids adored it too. It ticks so many boxes in the preschool room!

I mean, just look at that crocodile- did I mention that 'crocodile' is a magic word? I could read them Pride and Prejudice and they'd listen, if only D'Arcy were a crocodile.

And look at all those boys' toys that the rich crocodile has to play with! Helicopters, cars, bikes... oh yes, they're listening alright, those sometimes-twitchy and hard-to-settle boys.

If you don't know the story, here's a brief run-down:

The rich crocodile looks out across the plains and sees the other animals having fun horsing around in the waterhole.

He tries having that sort of fun by himself, but he's missing one important ingredient- FRIENDS!

So off he goes with his butler, the giraffe, to join in.

But when he gets there, the waterhole has dried up and the animals are all gone...

...and this, my friends, is where you can start to engage preschoolers with Earth Day.

Of course, you'll finish the book before you do the activities- and you'll discover that it has a great message about the importance of friends, too. But when you finish, turn back to that page with the crocodile and giraffe looking into the empty waterhole.

My favourite approach is to ask leading questions.

Where did the water go? is the first one, and what happens next is up to your kids! There are all sorts of activities that can lead on from this concept of 'where did the water go' and the many possible responses.

Maybe they'll theorise that the animals drank it.

Activity: There's an ideal opening for discussion of where the water goes when we drink it (cue giggling), and why we need water to drink. An understanding of the importance of water to human life is an essential facet of Earth Day.

A baby doll that drinks and wets is a good starting prop for this discussion. The water goes in one end and comes out the other- but what happens inside? What does it do?

This is a perfect lead-in to looking at some anatomy books and investigating what our internal organs do, plus the role of water in moving things around and out of our body. 'Child Art Retrospective' has a whole series of posts showing how an investigation of anatomy led to a layered art project, where over a period of weeks the children first painted their organs, then over the top their bones, then when that was dry added muscles and blood vessels... have a look; you might want to try this as a long-term project.

You can also talk about times that children have hurt themselves and drawn blood- is blood the same as water? Do you think blood has water in it? Where does the water come from in your blood? What would happen to your blood if you stopped drinking water? What does blood DO? And so on. Don't forget to listen to the answers when you ask these questions, and respond to what they say without laughing at anyone- it's all about letting them hypothesise, and gently inserting a little intentional teaching where you can.

If you can get hold of a length of clear plastic tubing and tape it to the mouth of a squeezable clear plastic container (some kids' ice blocks come in these- wash one out and away you go), you can experiment with filling the container with red-coloured water and 'pumping' it like a heart so the water goes down the tube. (This is definitely an activity for the water trough outside!) Have a play around with whatever recycled resources you have at hand to make your little 'heart' and 'arteries'- it's worth the effort.

Oh, and if you have your wits about you next time someone skins a knee, you can seize the teaching moment and talk about how blood is wet, how it runs and drips and oozes... so much vocabulary to use around this intriguing subject.

Children are usually fascinated by blood and after talking about this, you shouldn't be surprised if there's a lot of red paint used in art projects. :)

Here's another question you can ask them, leading from a 'they drank it' response- is it only animals that need water to drink?

Activity: 'Growing a Jeweled Rose' has some beautiful photos of their science experiment with white flowers placed in coloured water. The flowers continue to 'drink' the water and the colour will be transferred to the flowers. Magic!

Follow-ups: Set up three seedlings in pots on the windowsill or outside where they'll get light, but no water except what you give them. Anything that grows okay indoors in your climate will do.

Label your plants with pictures and words to show what you're going to do with each one. Each day you'll give one plant no water (a picture of a watering can with a cross through it), one some water- enough to keep the soil damp (normal watering can with a sprinkle coming out), and one lots of water, ie flood it (watering can gushing and splashing)- and see what happens over a week.

Discuss the results with the children. What would happen if the Earth had no water left? What would happen if the whole world was covered in water? Is it important to make sure plants have the right amount of water?

Look at some non-fiction picture books of different types of landscapes- include deserts and rainforests. Make collages of different landscapes, using natural materials including sand and leaves. (Silver foil can be good for 'water', especially with blue or grey cellophane added on top.) This can be a great group activity.

Maybe your kids will theorise straight away that the water dried up because of the hot sun. If not, do a bit of intentional teaching! Talk about sunburn. Talk about peeling noses, where your skin has had all the water taken out and cracks and curls like the mud at the bottom of the crocodile's waterhole. And then it's time for another experiment.

Activity: Let the children choose some items that they think have water in them, and try 'drying them up' on a tray in the sun. You will need to plan ahead- read the book early in the day, and ask the kids to watch out for things to add to the drying tray while playing and at meal times. You might end up with a tray containing a wooden block, a grape, a small plastic toy, a drinking straw, a piece of watermelon, a slice of carrot, an ice cube in a cup, some flowers or leaves... the possibilities are endless, but I would also include a mud pie. Take a photo of your tray.

Now find a nice hot spot where the items won't be tampered with, and observe the tray with the kids each day, taking another photo. You should end up with a series of photos which show how some things dehydrate in the heat of the sun. See if you can keep your experiment going for long enough to make the mud pie crack like the bottom of the animals' waterhole in the book!

If you just don't have enough heat in the day to do this, put the tray in a very slow oven- but make sure you ditch the plastic items or you may have a mess!

Follow-up: How did the water get back in the waterhole at the end of the book? (Note that the book doesn't say- so this is a perfect opportunity for speculation!) Talk about clouds and rain. Look at the sky each day and discuss the clouds you can see. Try to identify which ones have rain in them.

Well, that should keep you all busy for a week, don't you think? :D But just in case you need more... here are heaps of other ideas from fabulous EC bloggers!

Teach Preschool : Child Central Station : Living Montessori Now : Aunt Annie's Childcare : The SEEDS Network : Flights of Whimsy : Pre-K Pages : Kreative Resources : I'm a teacher, get me OUTSIDE here! : Share & Remember : Music Sparks : little illuminations : Greening Sam and Avery : Putti Prapancha : Early Play : 52 Days to Explore : Little Running Teacher : Look at My Happy Rainbow : Rainbows within Reach

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Driving through stop signs, and more on obedience

The dialogue on obedience still hasn't stopped! It's flying round and round the blogosphere in ever-diminishing circles, and nobody is changing anybody's mind. Children are too disobedient these days, says one; children are too regimented, says another. They're out of control. Or, They're expressing real needs. 

And never the twain shall meet.

Somehow, in the midst of reading all this, I had cause to remember the day some nine years ago when my learner-driver son drove straight through a stop sign, while I rode shotgun with my mouth hanging open in shock. It wasn't just any stop sign, mind you; it was one of the most notoriously dangerous intersections on the whole Central Coast. People got killed there with monotonous regularity.

Children are out of control...

Oh, he heard about it from me, don't you worry. I screamed at him to pull over, and then I blew a gasket. As you do, when your life's just flashed before your eyes. I mean, it's not like he didn't know that stop sign was there. He just thought he had the situation under control; he made a judgment call.

And I guess that's why the incident came to mind this morning when I was reading, yet again, about obedience. I think that's the sort of thing that some parents fear, when they choose a parenting path that requires complete obedience from their child. They want to make sure their child doesn't drive through the metaphorical stop signs of life. They fear that they'll raise a sub-standard citizen, unless they force their child to comply with every demand. And they blame every tableau they see of strangers' children 'misbehaving' in public on the parents' failure to cultivate unquestioning obedience.

If only they could time-travel a little, and stand where I stand for a moment- with a grown child, looking back.