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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?

Friday, September 23, 2011

On being consistent and fair- or not: the stories of Hiroko and Mia

We all know that consistency is terribly important when we're working or living with children.  We all know that you can't have different sets of rules for different days, or for different kids- that's not fair.

(Er... do we?)

I mean, consistency is part of great discipline, isn't it? Your kids have to know what to expect, and they have to get that same response all the time, or they'll keep pushing buttons and testing boundaries.  And they have to believe that you're being fair, not preferring one child over another.

(Oh, really?)

Okay, I'll stop teasing; it IS true, to some extent.  I'll give you that.  But we have to apply common sense.  We have to be a little careful that by being too consistent, we're not being unfair.

(Pardon me, I hear you say??)

Let me explain that oxymoron, before you burst something vital in your grey matter.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Helping your children hear praise and gratitude

Today I want to tell you how I knew I really loved my current partner.  I can say with confidence that it was the first time in my life I'd really loved, rather than being 'in love' or 'in lust', and I think it's worth sharing how I knew that.

You might wonder what that's got to do with childcare. The link is that word 'love'. For many of us, the love for our child is the most intense and unconditional love we'll experience; some parents describe being 'in love' with their new baby. Yet I can see that many parents and carers' loving intentions get lost in the process of trying to fit the 'perfection paradigm'- the perfect amount and method of encouragement, the perfect level of boundaries, the perfect number and type of activities, and so on. 

Relationships can be like that, too.  We can lose the love in a pointless quest for perfection.  Maybe if I share this little story, I can toss a bomb at some habitual behaviours which are totally counterproductive when we really love someone... like our child.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The value of telling our stories

I've spent this morning clearing my head by walking around our beautiful bush property, thinking about the issues that provoked yesterday's clamour. (And yes, I had a good night's sleep, thank you!) As I've said before, it's easy to take an initial position of defensiveness when we're attacked unexpectedly- but it's wise to be self-critical when we cause dissent and take time to examine the value (or otherwise) of what we're doing.

An anonymous angry comment on one of my posts, obviously by a colleague, attacked me for 'gossiping' (presumably this referred to me saying openly to a friend the same things that I've heard others say behind their hand, things that my colleagues admit they're concerned about but are scared to say openly). 

To that, I repeat that some things that impact on the children's welfare need to be brought into the light and discussed freely.  Should I have raised the matters discussed with my superior first? Most would say 'yes'; but as a casual staff member who was aware that I might not have the full story, I felt there was value in ensuring that my view wasn't out of step and based on too small a window of experience  by finding out if another respected colleague shared my opinion.  Is that gossiping? I think not, given that the issues raised had professional impact.

The sad part here is that someone felt impelled to draw attention to themselves by sharing what was a private exchange between colleagues with my boss, before challenging me personally.  That's cowardice.  That's playing games.  That's not about the children's welfare, it's about advancing one's political position.

The same anonymous writer called me unprofessional (an allegation I've dealt with in my previous post) and suggested I'd contravened 'centre policies' by telling some of the anecdotes I've shared with you. I have very strong views on that- views which can be supported by peer-reviewed research. 

And so we come to blogging, and the power of our stories.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Advocacy versus 'professionalism': Aunt Annie pays the price

It's been a bit of a crazy day.

First off I got a call from one of my bosses to say that my services would no longer be required at that centre.  In other words, I was 'sacked' (if a casual worker can indeed be sacked).

The reason given was 'comments made on (my) blog and Facebook'.


Wow, okay, whatever... somehow I don't think that would wash if I was a permanent staff member, but a casual worker is always vulnerable to snap decisions like that, which cut across our human rights (like free speech).  I didn't argue; there was no point.  She can decide whether to employ me or not on any given day, and the answer is 'not' for my sins.

Yes, I'm okay, thank you- in fact I'm fine, because second cab off the rank today was another wonderful 'window of opportunity' opening up for me, perfectly timed (thank you karma!).  I'm excited about it already.

But I do think the issues of freedom of speech and frankness of opinion are well worth blogging about, because as carers and parents we have a responsibility to be advocates for children- and I want to acknowledge that it can be a dangerous task.  Everything I have written in this blog is written with an intention to be that advocate, but I just got the chop for my trouble.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The power of music to soothe the troubled child

If you've read my profile, you'll know that I was originally a school music teacher.  I've always done heaps of singing, finger plays, rhythmic chants and body percussion with the children, but lately I've been bringing my guitar in to work.  It's a leap of faith to do that; for a musician, putting their musical instrument in the reach of very small children is like baring their heart in a room full of knives. There's always a risk that something will go very wrong.

So there have to be some pretty strict boundaries when the guitar comes out, and when 'Talon'  and some of his peers are around, adherence to rules is rather random. That's putting it politely. Yes, it was a risk to open the guitar case in that particular company. But I did it, over a few highly structured group times.

The first time, that guitar went back it its case pretty quickly, because it simply caused too much excitement and impulse control was at a premium.  I find that the guitar is actually good for making me set firm boundaries- I can be a bit of a pushover at times- because I really couldn't bear it to be broken.  It was a great tool for teaching the children self-control, because they really wanted to see it and hear it and touch it... but if they didn't sit and wait their turn, it got put away at once.

There's a lesson there for me, too: don't be a pushover! It's not good for the kids!

Eventually we got to the point where the room leader asked me if I'd play guitar in the yard as an interest-based activity. Well, that freaked me a bit. It's one thing to allow your beloved instrument to be in the presence of seated children, but a yard full of screaming, running kids- many of whom have serious behaviour issues?

But I did it. And this is where the magic starts.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Breaking the nagging cycle

Most of us have had the experience of telling a child to stop doing something over and over and OVER again.  It can be maddening when we KNOW the child knows that their behaviour is outside the boundaries, but they still keep testing us.

Now, remember that very young children- toddlers and younger- generally haven't developed a sense of right and wrong yet. I'm not talking about them; I'm talking about children who are old enough to have realised that certain behaviours are outside the rules. (This seems to develop somewhere in the 2- to 4-year-old bracket, but it depends quite heavily on individual environmental and developmental factors.)

The most common approach to repeated misbehaviour in this preschooler-and-beyond age group is to keep repeating the boundary message, in the hope that the child will respond. We hope against hope that we won't have to go further- give that threatened punishment, administer a smack, withdraw a privilege, shout- whatever our standard disciplinary approach might be. So we descend to nagging, even though we know from experience that it doesn't work.

My standard line on this is 'if it's not working, stop doing it'.  Let's face it, even adults do stupid/wrong things now and then for fun, whether it's inviting an instant coronary by eating a whole pack of Tim Tams or base-jumping off Mount Rushmore, and having someone tell you repeatedly that it's wrong just makes you irritated and rebellious.

So what else can we do?

The other day some boys in the preschool yard were playing superhero games with sticks. Now, the centre rules demand that sticks be thrown over the fence. These boys have been reminded of the 'no sticks' rule till the teachers are blue in the face. They simply throw the sticks over the fence while you're looking at them, and then find another stick the moment your back is turned.

How did I solve the problem? 

Being a role model: a 24/7 challenge for parents and carers

It's easy to forget that those little eyes are always watching us.  It's even easier to forget that those little ears are always listening to us- especially when children get to the age where they seem to develop selective hearing. (Believe me, selective deafness is about lack of response, not lack of hearing.)

Because I work as a casual at the moment, I've been quite transient in my contact with some groups of children.  This can be a challenge for the children, for the regular staff and for me.  And it also opens up some huge holes in the role modelling by the adults involved in the childcare equation.  Often, adults are downright rude to each other in full view of the children; all that time spent telling the children to be kind to their friends (hmm, you can read what I think about that use of the word 'friends' here), and yet they themselves sometimes treat the other human beings around them with blatant disregard for their feelings and rights.

It seems to me that many of my reflections about those 'holes' also apply to parenting; the way our children's primary carers behave in front of them is crucial to their future behaviour and attitudes. So let's have a look at a few aspects of adult behaviours, through the eyes of the children.