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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The power of nature: fighting kids, troubled adults

A while ago I was down south nannying for a friend. You probably remember me mentioning the two adorable little girls who were in the middle of a huge sibling rivalry stage. It's a really common problem, but to me, seeing it up close, it just resembled what happens during a spell of miserable weather in the preschool room at childcare; after a while, kids just need more ego space.

I can remember taking my class out into a soaking wet slippery playground one day the instant it stopped pouring with rain, just because they were in far more danger of harming each other inside. Yes, someone slipped over and cried, but at least nobody split their head open on the corner of a bookcase when they fell due to running around crazily indoors. Children are just as susceptible to claustrophobia and the irritation of forced company as we are.

And so I fell back on that knowledge while I was nannying. Every time those purry little pussycats began acting like tigers, showing their claws and laying into each other in word or deed, I'd take them outside. For a while, they'd continue to compete and squabble. But then nature would work its magic on them.

First, as you can see in the picture above, they'd find their own space; I can't begin to tell you how important that is. Kids do need some ego room. They're no more fond of being crowded on top of one another all day than we are.

After a while, once they'd calmed down, they'd really get involved in and fascinated by the properties of the natural world. The temptation to share their discoveries would be overwhelming; it would draw them together, whereas ownership of a brightly-coloured, manufactured toy always seemed to tear them apart.

Nobody owns nature, you see. But it is endlessly fascinating.

In the end, they would find a way to co-operate and play together without fighting, at least for a while.

What's not to like about that?

This strategy worked over and over again. Even when the outdoor space involved some manufactured equipment, the strategy worked.

They'd start out doing things in their own space...

...oh yes, there was still an element of competition there- who could go the highest was important for a while- but soon they started to compete against themselves instead of against each other. Can I go higher than last time?

SO much healthier.

And then, with their angst worked out, they'd find a way to play co-operatively. Hurrah!

Do you see how they've used natural objects imaginatively here, to invent their own game? The long stem of bamboo was a 'found' object in the park. You don't need expensive goalposts and nets.

(You do need a ball, but there are ways of 'inventing' one of those, too! Ever made a ball out of old work socks, rolled, twisted and folded? It even bounces!)

Here are my little tigers again, on another day-

first playing in their own space...

and then co-operating.

That's a valuable message for anyone who's having issues with their kids fighting. If you get them outside and they're STILL fighting, find a larger and less populated space. The day I took these kids to another very popular local playground, which had fabulous equipment but was crowded with other families, they fought harder than ever. We got out of there quick smart and found them some ego room!

But the value of this message doesn't just apply to our kids. This was brought home to me very recently, when I had back-to-back visits from two seriously traumatised adult friends.

I live in the forest, you see. Here, nature is all around us, and even the house is a sort of outdoors-when-you're-indoors house, with big verandas and lots of big doors and windows. And when my friends come here, suffering from their various heartaches, they all discover a magical quality here.

First, they can sleep. There's something about being in the outdoors nearly all day that promotes relaxation, whether you're out of your mind with worry or not. It's quiet here. It's beautiful. You can let your worries drift away when you're in a quiet and beautiful place.

Second, they get involved with the outdoors, because the outdoors is where we are every day; there's always something to do here. I mean, look at these.

We're doing some building works here at the moment, which to an environmentally sensitive person like me means leaving a minimal carbon footprint- using materials off our own property. So these trees had to be respectfully and carefully selected, felled and the bark stripped off.

Well, there's nothing like thumping an ironbark log with a blocksplitter to get out your feelings of frustration and anger with a failed relationship. There's nothing like ripping and prising the loosened bark with your bare hands, and finally exposing the beautiful surface of the wood, to make you feel like you're really in touch with the earth. It gets things back in proportion. You realise that your entire worth and ability isn't tied up in any one person or event or activity; you just made something naturally beautiful appear, with your own focussed efforts.

And you filled your lungs with air, and you stretched and worked your muscles, and while you did it you were surrounded by the songs of unseen birds and the rustle of leaves in the wind. Suddenly nothing seems quite so bad.

I watched nature help to heal my two friends while they were here. They went home calmer, happier and more prepared to deal with their problems.

And I thought, we Early Childhood bloggers are all trying to encourage people to get their kids outdoors, but what about the adults? What about the parents, what about the childcare workers? How you look after the children in your care depends so much on your own state of mind. Are we all taking time out in nature to heal our hurts?

Go and find somewhere beautiful nearby. Maybe you'll have to drive for an hour to get there, but find that quiet and beautiful place. Don't just take your kids there- take yourself there.

Because hello- you deserve some peace and healing too.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Playing with guns

Every time I go to work, I spend part of my day bashing my head against a brick wall. I'm not alone- I know that. I think that if I took a vote amongst Early Childhood workers about the playground rule most often broken by young children- the rule which is the most completely futile and requires constant, constant reinforcement without any hope of long-term success- it'd be this one.


You can play at being a policeman. But
you can't play with a gun.
I was a 'no guns' mum. I'm a peace-loving person. I'm distressed by criminal gun use, from robberies to massacres- aren't we all? I cringe at legal gun use too, from policemen shooting mentally ill people by mistake (yep, that happened here fairly recently) to the condoned violence of war.

I hate it when I see on TV every single night the suffering caused to ordinary people by real-life gun use. I hate the way guns are used to solve problems in books and on screens. I don't want that quick-fix, no-think solution modelled to the world's children. I don't want the world's children growing up with guns being normalised like that. I don't want kids to think guns are toys.

So when my son was young, I had a rule. (Lots of urban parents have this rule in Australia, though it's probably different in other demographics.)

No toy guns in this house. 

I started out my Early Childhood career as a no-guns teacher, too. I fitted right in; nearly every centre where I worked had a rule about that.

No guns at school. 


We don't shoot our friends, not even pretending. 

All very well in theory; but as I've discovered over time, our homes and our care centres exist within the real world, not in some fairy-floss land constructed by well-meaning adults. There are guns included in the spy and soldier and cowboy costumes at the toy shop, and guns used in superhero movies and cop shows and cartoons, and real guns on the news. There are guns in the hands of police on the street, guns in the hands of soldiers and in the holsters of security guards. There are dads who play Paintball with paint guns, and there are big brothers who play shoot-'em-up video games with virtual guns.

This is the real world, and in the real world children copy what they see others do. That's what children are hard-wired to do; it's one of the ways they learn.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

I won't give up on you: connecting with a 'bully'

The little girl is crying as she runs to me.

"Luke tried to pull down my pants!"

Luke has been in strife all morning. He's been punching, he's been pushing, he's been jumping out from behind the fort and making the little kids cry. It's pretty normal behaviour from Luke.

Every playground is a small
His peers are fed up with him. Nobody wants to play with him. The teachers are fed up with him too, and this pulling down pants- well, we're all shocked by that. It's the last straw.

I give the little girl a cuddle, tell her Luke did the wrong thing, settle her ruffled feathers. Tell her I Will Deal With Him. She goes back to play quite contentedly, now the rules are being adhered to.

I walk nonchalantly over to the soft fall, where Luke is racing around at top speed, and as he climbs the stairs of the slide I catch him up in my arms. It's the only way to get his attention when he's in this mood- sneak up and catch him. If I tell him to come to me, he'll run away. He knows he's in trouble. And he's the fastest runner in the school- if he doesn't want to be spoken to, he'll keep out of reach till some other crisis catches my attention and the moment passes.

Of course he struggles and shouts as I carry him over to the quiet area, where we can sit down. "Put me down! You're hurting my gizzards!" he yells, but I've been caught by that one before and watched him dance off laughing as I've let him go, fearful lest I be accused of rough handling.

Not this time. I know my hold isn't painful, I know I'm not being rough, though he's a well-grown, muscular boy and awkward to carry. I make it to the bench, sit down with him on my lap.

"I WANNA PLAY!" he shouts. "LET ME GO!"

His voice is loud in my ear, but he's not struggling. My hold around his waist is firm, but my hands are gentle.


"We need to sit here till you can stop talking with your hands," I say quietly. "It's okay to feel angry. But you need to say it with your mouth, not your hands. It's not okay to hit, and it's really, really not okay to pull the girls' pants down."

I stroke his arm silently till he stops yelling and relaxes a little, resigned to being kept here for the moment. I unfold his clenched fist and run it softly over the back of my hand.

"I need you to use gentle hands, like this," I say.

And I use my gentle hands to stroke his back as I hold him, trying to speak the message without any more words. He gets words thrown at him all day by the adults. He deflects words easily, staring boldly into your eyes while he goes right ahead doing the wrong thing.

But when I talk to him through my gentle hands, Luke starts to cry. Not angry tears, but great big heartbroken sobs. As he sits there shuddering on my lap, it's as though he shrinks back into his real size, his real age; he's not some monster, some oversized schoolyard bully towering over his peers. He's a vulnerable four-year-old child, confused and not understanding how to fit into his world.

I'm constantly surprised by the children's real size; I see them on the street, in their parents' company, and I do a double-take at their smallness. I watch them all day as they go to and fro within their little society of equals, the adults standing like pillars on the perimeters of their world, and I forget that they're tiny. I think we all do. Watching their microcosm at work, it's easy to forget the scale of things down there and use our adult labels on them. Lazy. Bully. Violent. Shy. 

When really, there's just one label that's useful: learning.

Luke is having trouble with his lessons- not the academic lessons, oh no; he's good at those. But the social lessons are way beyond him. I suspect that I know why; I suspect that what he sees at school and what he has modelled to him at home are so different that he can't reconcile it into right and wrong. His code is all over the place.

And that's not his fault, and I won't blame him for it.

I've seen Luke shamed before his peers, for repeating words that are part of every second sentence in his home. I've seen him shouted at and put in time out, for doing what's fully acceptable at home. Words, words, words. Anger trying to put out anger.

Oh, I'm not saying it's easy, dealing with a kid like Luke- it's not. The other children have to be protected. We have to be careful what he teaches them from his own unsavoury learning. But I will not give up on him; I will not make him feel worse about himself for failing to fit in to this little society.

Too often adults do give up on children like Luke. I know that my gentleness will be dissolved by the realities of the rest of Luke's daily life, and he'll come back tomorrow hitting, and pushing, and probably still trying to pull the girls' pants down. For many adults, looking at other people's children, that's enough to make their patience expire. It can seem hopeless.

So they'll label kids like Luke with adult terms, because it's easier to talk in black and white and give up on him than it is to deal with grey. They'll blame him, and they'll try to shame him; they'll look at his background and say "There's nothing I can do". Maybe one day they'll exclude him completely, so he ends up shuffled from one little society to another, fitting in nowhere, learning to feel content with standing out as the bad boy.

I've seen children like Luke expelled. Repeatedly. From preschool.

But Luke stands half a chance here. I'm not the only one who meets anger with gentleness. I'm not the only one who refuses to give up on him. And so I can sit here, stroking his back while he sobs, trying to connect, trying to explain how this world works.

Some other children come over and ask what's the matter with Luke. He's been crying a long time.

"He's feeling some really big feelings," I say, "and he's sitting here with me till he can use his words to talk about it instead of saying it with his hands."

They accept that readily. Some even smile at Luke in a friendly way; perhaps it helps them connect if they understand what makes him do it, too.

After a while, I say to him "Are you ready to go and play yet?"

He shakes his head violently, and I realise that now he's soaking up the gentleness, enjoying sitting on my lap- maybe even feeling safe there.

"Don't you want to play with Mitch?" I ask, naming a boy he seems to hang with quite a lot, and he shakes his head again.

I go through the names of all the other kids I've seen him playing near. He shakes his head each time.

I realise he doesn't feel connected to any of them. Not at all. It makes me infinitely sad, and more determined to connect with him myself.

"You don't have to like the other kids," I say. "That's okay. But you can't hit them or pull down their pants."

He's still crying. That's okay. I don't try to stop him. He doesn't want to play, he just wants to sit here.

So we do.

"You could play by yourself if you want. I was watching you on the playground yesterday. You can pull yourself all the way to the top of the fireman's pole. You're very strong. Or I could get you a football- I know you're really good at kicking the ball."

Luke stops crying around then, when I start telling him some good things about himself. But he won't leave my lap, this big strong hunk of active boyhood. We sit there for half an hour and he never even wriggles.

When it's time to go inside, I carry him on my hip, sit down for circle time with him still on my lap. Right now, he seems to want to be little. He is little, though he's the biggest kid in the room.

We're playing a colour matching game today.

"You can do this," I say to him. "You're good at colours."

And he's off. He's the first to name the colours, he jumps up and is the first to find the right colour in the room. And he doesn't punch or push or pull down pants for the rest of the day- not once.

It won't last, of course; I know that from experience. But I wonder what would happen if Luke had a daily dose of gentleness when he arrived, if he was swept up into an adult's arms for a cuddle and some quiet words to help him move from one world into another. If he was reminded every day of his strengths, reminded to speak with his mouth not his hands, reminded that it's okay to cry and seek a kindly adult when feelings overcome him.

Later in the day I catch his eye, and he holds up his arms to me for a hug. It's so unlike him that I almost burst into tears.

Love is the answer, even if the answer only lasts for a day. I won't give up on you, Luke.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Risky play, dodgy rules and the fine art of climbing trees

"Why aren't we allowed to climb the tree?"
A forbidden tree at
another centre.
It's tiny!

Sometimes a child pins you down. Brock (aged 4-going-on-40) had cornered me at the base of the forbidden tree, with no other kids or staff nearby, and fixed me with a very direct stare. I had a suspicion that I'd been set up.

See, even though I'm just a casual, the kids have got to know a few things about me. One is that I tell them the truth. Another is that my risky play threshold is unusually high, compared to what they're used to. And the third is that I'd rather be right there with them, interacting with the kids and supporting their play and laughing and answering questions, than standing around talking to the other adults.

So by putting me on the spot- me, the mere casual- Brock was showing a level of belief in me that I didn't want to abuse. I felt like I owed Brock the truth, but of course I also had to walk the fine line of professionalism. It's a constant problem when you don't see things the same way as your more established colleagues, this choice between authenticity with the kids and keeping your job.

Forbid climbing trees?
No way!
And yes, climbing the tree has been forbidden at this centre. I don't agree. I've never agreed. But it's not 'my' centre, and I have no power to make radical changes to the ethos there; all I can do is discuss, suggest and nudge. It's a centre that's come a long, long way in terms of risky play, and the 'no climbing the tree' rule is a bit of a hangover from the bad old days, when the yard was essentially risk-free and deadly boring.

This is a public playground.
The girl who's highest up is 5.
The irony is that the centre has a brand spanking new risky playground- the best and most adventurous I've seen in any centre. Nobody bats an eyelid when the children leap off the high platform of this structure, which is as high as any child could climb up the tree in question. But still, the tree-climbing rule remains.

Honesty is the best policy. I decided to show Brock how the tree looked to the people who'd made the rules.

"I think it's because your teachers are worried that you'll get hurt," I said. "If you fell out, you might fall on this wooden platform or on the ground over there. It's pretty hard. It's not as soft as the bark under the playground."

Kids and trees.
It's natural.
Brock looked at me somewhat dubiously. (Like I said- 4 going on 40.) He put one foot in the lowest fork of the tree, and when I said nothing more, he started to climb.

Now, before you have conniptions here, we're not talking about a big tree or a tree that's particularly treacherous to climb. It's a great climbing tree for little kids. Various limbs have been trimmed off over the years, leaving perfect footholds up to a point not so far up where it becomes impossible to climb higher. And as ever, I was spotting for him- close enough to catch him if he got into trouble, but not interfering in a way which would break his thought processes or confidence.

So up he went, to the point where he could stop and look around with no fear of losing his balance. (Seriously, folks, he was only about a metre off the ground.) The grin on his face was infectious.

"You're a good climber, Brock," I said. (And he was.) "Now that you're up there, I can show you some other things that worry the teachers."

Some trees are more risky than others.
Don't let kids climb gum trees- the limbs
have a tendency to snap without
warning. But isn't it glorious?
And so I pointed out a cut-off branch that could scrape his skin or catch at his clothes and cause him to lose his balance. I pointed out the hard pebbles underneath one branch. I pointed out the sharpish edge of the iron on the shed roof nearby.

"Your teachers don't want you to get hurt on any of these things."

Brock gave the various dangers a scathing look or two. He seemed as unconvinced as I was. (I mean, we're talking about a child who's very competent physically; he never looked anything but completely in control as he went up that tree.)

What the heck, let's be totally honest, I thought.

"And they worry that if you get hurt, your parents will be cross with us for not taking better care of you."

The blue eyes made full contact with mine again. I felt like I'd made some sort of breakthrough; the rule was somehow making more sense to him.

"I'm being careful," said Brock.

Some of us are still climbing
trees long after we're all
grown up...
And then he proceeded to talk me through how he'd approached climbing the tree. He pointed out the footholds and handholds he'd used, and how he'd chosen which one to use next. He went up and down that tree giving me a masterclass- Tree Climbing 101.

A few other children had wandered up by now, and they were listening intently. Two of them decided to try their hand at following Brock's instructions, with mixed success; I pointed out how tall Brock was, how long his legs were, how they might have to wait a little longer till they grew taller.

I was pleased to note that the new arrivals didn't ask me to help them. That's another thing they've learnt about me- I won't promote them beyond their ability. I want them to listen to their own gut feelings, and self-regulate- or in other words, stop when they start to feel unsafe.

And that's exactly what they did. Nobody got higher up that tree than they could manage. Nobody hurt themselves getting down. This is something that I've read about in books, but it's also something that's reinforced over and over again as I watch the children playing on their new playground. If you trust them to self-regulate, and shut up instead of expressing your own fears, they won't go beyond what they can handle.

These trees have been played in
by my family for generations.
So let's cut to the chase here, because I'm sure some of you are tut-tutting at me for allowing the kids to break a centre rule. Should I have stopped Brock from climbing the tree, just because that was the rule?

I care about the children's safety more than I care about rules. Let me tell you what would have happened if I'd told Brock to come away from that tree and stop climbing it.

First, he would have tested me, partly because he would have sensed that my heart wasn't in what I was saying. (Believe me, kids can tell right off whether you are speaking from somewhere real or just toeing the party line.) He would have started climbing the tree, because that's the sort of kid he is, and I would either have had to look like a fool and protest weakly while he defied me, or physically remove him from the tree- which would have been distinctly less safe than letting him keep going.

You try lifting a well-grown 4-year-old child who's clinging to a tree above your own centre of gravity, and see how safe it is- for both of you.

Second, if I'd succeeded in stopping him, he would have appeared to comply by walking away, kept one eye on me till I was interacting with some other child, and then gone round the corner and climbed that tree without a spotter. Knowing that he would get into trouble if he got caught, he would also have been keeping one eye out for teachers instead of giving his full attention to getting up and down the tree safely.

In those circumstances, he would have been far more likely to fall.

And think of the teaching and learning that would have been missed if I'd insisted on the rule being followed. How wonderful it was to see a small child teaching his peers! How great it was to give these children a chance to test themselves, and to learn to stop when they felt unsafe. They were listening to their internal voice. They were self-regulating their risk-taking.

And so I advocate that when you're considering whether to ban an activity on the basis of risk, be brutally honest with yourself and with the children. What are you afraid of? And are you actually doing the children an educational disservice by banning the risk?

I'll let Brock have the last word. As he waited for his turn to go up and down the tree again, he turned to me, eyes twinkling.

"I like this tree better than the new playground," he said.