Sunday, June 22, 2014

Play Lays the Foundation for Thinking

“I don’t think. I just do it.” Commented one five-year-old boy.

We grown-ups have a hard time turning off our thinking. Our analytical intellect is always busy and acting as if it were the king of the mind. For the young child, thinking and intellect are in their infancy and total engagement with what is at hand is their primary interactive modality. Hence they are able to truly play. When a young child transforms themselves or various objects as a part of play, they fully live into that change without an ‘observer’ past of their mind commenting.

As adults, we want to see possibilities of an action before we do it. Young children are far more impulsive. They discover the possibilities only in the doing of the action without any intention, external purpose or consideration of possible results. For the young child, play is full engagement with the activity. Play is their way of being, it describes their consciousness. They have free creative forces that are available to transform self and world. For them, the relationship between perception (what is outside) and concept (what is inside) is mobile and flexible.

The young child ‘s central mode of learning is imitation. They are imitatively busy and their consciousness is spread out into their surroundings. They are at one with all - with their sensory experiences, with the world around them. One aspect of early childhood play is active and eager imitation of the creative forces of the world and of the people around. 

The three year old child begins to put her own uniqueness on the objects around her. The stimulus for her activity comes from outside, as also with the toddler. An object at hand reminds her of something she has already experienced, and that object is transformed into the object from her memory. The young child receives stimulus for play, stimulus for imitation, from the adult around them who is engaged in real life activities. This is how she learns about the world and develops real skills. I think it is important for adults to be playful with young children, and to make time to play with them. However, because of their imitative learning style the building of capacities and skills comes more from the child seeing the adult engaged in ‘real’ work than from the adult on the floor playing.

The play of the three-year-old is not really very social. They like to play near other children, but it is not yet really a playing with others. It is very much vertical play - up and down, and next to. This stage of play is the fantasy stage of ‘this can be that.’ For example:

The four-year-old - “Look. I found a guitar.” (A stick that to me only vaguely looks like a guitar)

The six-year-old - “I need a guitar for our band. This stick is a guitar.”

With six-year-olds, the play is more intricate, more filled with intentions, and more social. A group of six-year-olds might spend the whole morning making the rules and planning for their play. With six-year-olds the stimulus for play has become an inner one rather than being stimulated by objects in their surroundings. Before she plays, the six-year-old has an inner picture, an imagination. Her play is preceded by a mental image, an idea. The stimulus for play more and more arises from inner activity. Play has also become more social and rules are a big part of this developmental stage.

Six-year-old Sally - "I was supposed to be the mother and now Jill is a mother and there is supposed to be only one mother."

There is a recognition that this is play and not “reality,” even though the child can still enter in fully and lose themselves in their play. A typical six-year-old request; 

"How about you be the....., and I’ll be the......" 
This developmental sequence is significant and worth reiterating because play lays the foundation for thinking. First the young child’s play is fantasy that is determined by her surroundings. As she develops, imagination begins to arise. Now play is determined by the child’s inner picture, by her own budding world of concepts. When we are in the world of concepts, we are thinking. Creative play imagination transforms into the ability to form images which then transforms into thinking.
"How about I'm a horse and my name is Jack."

This is one big reason that plenty of time for free creative play is important for child development in the early years, whether it is at home or in nursery, pre-school and kindergarten programs. Play lays the foundation for thinking. 

[Please don’t get too hung up on the ages I mentioned above. Ages of stages are always approximate.]

P.S. If you find this interesting, your friends probably will too. Please forward it to them.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Looking for a Middle Path

Acknowledgement: In the sharing of my ideas and observations there is the risk of seeming as if my ideas are ‘the one and only way’ to think about the subjects at hand. I may come across as sounding like I think that I know something. I do not want to offer any recipes. I do want to offer my ideas and experiences, and actions I have chosen. 

I am continually trying to overcome the human affliction of thinking that what I am thinking are the right and only thoughts possible. For this post, and all past and future posts, I offer my apologies and acknowledge my communication shortcomings. 
‘Nuff said.

The other day I saw an announcement for a class for parents that would teach how to develop “listening and cooperation” from their young children. To me, the flyer said that what they were going to learn was how to be more authoritarian and bossy, and that 'listening and cooperation' in this context meant that the children would do what the parents told them. That isn’t what I think of as listening and cooperation.

Don’t get me wrong. I think boundaries are important. In previous posts I have addressed the importance of establishing boundaries for the children, and ideas of how to respond when the children say ‘No’ to what we are wanting. Discipline is a challenging realm for parents and children alike. First and foremost discipline makes me think of self discipline in the adult. Parents are older and have a more developed brain, and have had more time to develop some self discipline. It is up to us to teach the children by example how to manage challenges when things don’t go as planned or desired. 

Authoritarian parenting offers lots of guidance and direction for the child by the parent who is in control, but not so much parental warmth. The child experiences this as being ruled by threat - 'something bad will happen to me if I don't follow orders.' Young children learn primarily by imitation, and how we adults deal with the realm of ‘discipline’ is absorbed by the children. 

The main motivational techniques developed and passed down over thousands of years are threatening and bribing, AKA the stick and the carrot.  Anytime you get your needs met by a strategy of rewards, bribes, guilt, threats or punishment, the result is a loss of connection, immediate and/or longterm. All of these strategies are coercion. When our child doesn’t do what we want, what strategy does our unconscious habit-self want to do? Most of us use both threats and bribes in various situations. Which is your default mode? What did your own parents use?

The extreme opposite parenting style is that of giving the young children full autonomy to do what and when they want - freedom to be led by impulse without boundaries. This type of parent thinks that loving their child translates into letting the child do whatever the child wants. Perhaps there is a lot of warmth and love from parent to child, but little guidance and leadership. Here love is the predominant parenting intention and the parent doesn’t offer much in terms of guidance and boundaries. Too much freedom and choice for the young child leads to insecurity and a later lack of self confidence. The child needs guidance from adults. Without this guidance, the child is insecure and confused. Young children simply cannot understand in the same way as adults because their neurology is not fully developed. Boundaries create a feeling of safety and protection for the child.

How do you speak to your young children when they do something other than what you want? Scolding, threatening, and moralizing aren’t effective, neither are lecturing and reasoning. Freezing up, walking away and ignoring are also unsatisfactory for both parent and child. “Don’t, don’t, don’t…” is too often what the children hear. Instead we can present a positive alternative in simple words, accompanied be actions. Instead of saying, “Don’t run inside,” you can try, “We walk inside, we run outside.” Instead of “Don’t slam the door,” try, “We close the door gently,” in a quiet voice while demonstrating. “Hands are for work and play and taking care of others,” while gently stroking the hands that have hit, is a favorite of mine. Patience is essential because we will have to repeat many times over many days before we start to see changes. It’s important to keep in mind that young children are not naughty or bad! They are by nature adventurers and explorers searching for understanding of the world. When we understand and remember that, our job of guiding and leading is easier. We can keep our calm and patience longer and the children experience our love for them through our actions and words.

Here are some techniques that people unconsciously use when things don’t go the way they want. If you learn to live without these habits, I guarantee that your interactions with your children will go much more smoothly and you will feel a stronger connection. Do YOU do or have any of these?
  1. A need to be right and have the last word
  2. Attempting to control 
  3. Blaming and shaming
  4. Retaliation and Punishment
  5. Bribes or Threats, Demands, Ultimatums, Should/Shouldn’t
  6. Withdrawal from challenging situations

I have exaggerated the two extremes in parenting style so I could delineate a middle way between authoritarian parenting and stand-back-parenting. This is what I like to call loving firmness (a la Margret Meyerkort). Loving firmness means we try to determine the real needs of the child, and lovingly create and hold the boundaries we think will best serve those needs, and the needs of the others in the child’s life. Loving firmness means guidance and love as equal intentions for the parent. Loving firmness is a middle path that fuses love and warmth and interest with guidance and boundaries to deliver to the child what the child needs. Children are more likely to go along with what we want when they feel our love and our interest in them. They know when we are seeing their potential rather than what we think is wrong with them. Just like all of us, young children thrive on interest and recognition. If we connect with our children and listen to them truly, and then create boundaries that will serve their needs, then the children are more likely to cooperate.

“At the end of the day, there truly is a “one and only way” to care for young children...It is the way in which you, as an individual, can be your most creative and honest self, based on practices, inner and outer, which encompass a deep understanding of the developing child, and in which you are filled with love...” (from an article by Cynthia Aldinger, Executive Director of Lifeways North America)  

Let me know what you think about all this. 

P.S. And please forward it to your friends.