Observe and Imagine, part 1

One of the qualities of good teaching is solid and honest observational skills. When we suspend judgment and simply watch children, they reveal so much to us. Their emotions and ideas are revealed in raw and authentic ways, particularly when the established environment and relationships lend themselves to a sense of belonging and significance within the group. With this back drop in place, young children are freed to deepen relationships, explore, and grow.

A quick peek into a classroom may look like simple play, but there is a complex infrastructure set up to foster that sense of belonging and significance and to beckon children to explore materials and ideas. Such provocations arise from listening to and observing children. As this work unfolds, both adults and children are poised to gain new knowledge and closer relationships within their community.

Recently, a pattern in imaginative play became apparent as observed a group of children and reflected on a series of notes. Much like other groups of three- and four-year olds, I noticed a growing interest in and propensity for super hero play. At first, it was simple dialogues- short queries that kept me up to date on Buzz Lightyear and Transformer trivia. It was apparent that this group shares a certain history in watching these videos, and a collective depth of knowledge. Little by little, the conversations with me expanded to peer-to-peer dialogue. And then were disagreements over seminal facts that often stumped me (Is Bumblebee a vehicle from Cars or part of Transformers? Depends on who you ask.). In the tradition of oral story telling, these stories were exaggerated, dramatized or expanded upon by the narrator, and seemed to change slightly with each iteration. While this was intriguing to me, it sparked passionate discourse among preschoolers. In an effort to quell the debate, I suggested some illustrations might let everyone share their ideas of this particular storyline.  (Photos to follow in a subsequent post…limited Internet service is causing some technical difficulties.)

sketching Batman

Research tells us this imitative imaginative play is one of the early stages in play scenarios and social play. By age 3-4, children have experience using materials in ways that represent what they have experienced – feeding a doll, push a fire truck, roaring like a lion. Using these external themes, Children can act out short themes by themselves or alongside a peer. There may be a clear, concrete plan, but as children get deeply engaged, they also become hyper-focused. Their ideas are their own and it’s hard to see the point of view of others. (e.g. The debate prior to sketching Buzz Lightyear). Nancy Carlsson Paige and Diane Levin, in their book, Who’s Calling the Shots describe this play as “more like static slides than a movie.”  Children are engaged in their play and not the real world. Things are black and white, Good guys and bad guys exist and it’s just that cut-and-dry.

By observing the content and progression of this type of play, it was clear that a critical mass of children were exploring those typical aspects of play – good versus evil, power, and social interaction. This play is rich with learning  opportunities. While it’s important for children to learn to navigate play together, it is still essential to keep a close eye and ear to what was going on behind the scenes. And the more I did that, the clearer it was that we had a dilemma brewing: how can we explore these seminal issues of power, use if imagination, and social justice themes while still abiding by our class guidelines that keep everyone safe and having fun?

Soon thereafter, we revisited our class guidelines at Morning Meeting. I asked, what’s one way you take care of friends when you play?”  Responses were spot-on:

Be nice
Share stuff
Ask ’em to play

I pushed further:  How can you take care of friends when you’re imagining to be someone else?


Whoops. This was over their heads. At three and four, applying conventional rules to pretend roles didn’t compute. I had to back up.

The next day, I started with small group conversations comparing pretend and real life. Some children did seem to understand that pretend is imaginary but we still have to take care, be safe, be respectful. Others seemed to think that pretending to be a dog, a mom, a superhero meant you transcends the rules of everyday humans. For the most part, chronological age correlated with how children saw the intersection of pretend and our rules. Those closer to four could see the connection, with some help; the younger ones were adamant that imaginary play offered them amnesty from rules.

Clearly, my language and strategies had to shift.

I began to phrase things like, “animals in the wild might fight and scratch, but in school, when we are pretending to be animals, we need to be safe.”Many days passed with this kind of direct identification, and I began to see and hear how more children understood that pretend isn’t a get out of jail card in the rules of life.

Stop back next week for the follow-up on how this story unfolds to include our own super heroes.

Meanwhile, if you want to read more, see Who’s Calling the Shots? How to,Respond Effectively to Children’s Fascination with War Play and War Toys

Painting, Chatting and Child Development

Between the ages of three and six, children are “egocentric.”  In the truest sense, they  interpret the world from their own point of view.  Their  world revolves around them.   As Piaget’s research showed, they tend to think everyone else  thinks or sees the same things they do.

Around the same time, the are also entering the early stages of cooperative play.  As Nancy Carlsson Paige writes in Taking Back Childhood, “..children this age often love to play together, and they usually play best when their interest coincide – that is, when they like to do or play the same things.”  As this interaction between two three-and-a-half year old  painters illustrates, children are just reaching out to others, but are still firmly rooted in their own world.

Elle and James (pseudonyms, of course)  are using craypas, liquid water-color paint and books with photos of leaves to paint leaves.  The only guideline was to one color paint at a time.

James (looking at Elle’s work):  I have green. Now I am going to out some yellow in mine.  (Dips in yellow jar).

Elle (looking sideways but not turning head):  I am going to put some green on MINE.  That okay with you?

James:  Yeah.

Elle: It’s good to share.

James: I know, I know.

side by side

The pair resumes working  and they  share amicably and then begin quietly discussing the colors on their leaves.

James: Look at my beautiful side, Um… look at mine!

Elle:  Look at MINE!

James: Ah, mine is beautiful, MINE IS BEAUTIFUL!

Elle:   This is how we make beautiful colors! I  have green now! LOOK!

James: No it WAS green!

Elle: Look Miss Lisa! We made green.

James: No, I tell ya, it WAS green.

Elle: Well, that’s how I made it!

James: That’s how I made it.

Elle: I made it!

working together, talking together

After experimenting with splatter painting, the two quietly and  independently bring  their paint jars to the sink to clean up their brushes and jars (but not necessarily the collateral splatters, until they were pointed out!)

To the casual observer, this interaction is simply child’s play. After years of teaching, Chip Wood’s workshop on Child Development Matters, provided some recalibrating of my teacher’s eyes.  Chip spoke so eloquently about the characteristics of development from ages 4 through 14 and how teachers and parents can capitalize on the strengths of each stage.  So while these two nearly -fours were beginning to talk to each other in meaningful, interactive ways, the conversation would slowly creep into a near-conflict as each child’s perspective began to take precedence.  Then as  their egocentric nature bubbled up, the ensuing silence allowed them to refocus on painting and the conversation would pick up again.  Other times, a seemingly small disagreement heated up and a simple question like, “what else could you do with the paint?” or “is there another way you could share?” helped these two painters quickly re-engage in a more calm manner.  As a result of reflective questions, these children were given the space to develop their interactions without the pressure to comply with absolute rules. These small conversations about paint and their work are practice for the give and take of cooperative problem solving that comes regularly in upper grades and throughout life.

Stages of development are cyclical, typically lasting about 6 months.  Checking  in on where your child is and how you can support him is  something you can schedule for around birthdays and half birthdays. Whether you’re a teacher or a parent, taking time to reflect on developmental hallmarks and growth patterns periodically can help bring out the best in children.  It also lets you to see their world better through their eyes and perhaps even get a chuckle or two along the way!

Friends, Friends, 1, 2,3 – Part 1

Friends, friends

1, 2, 3

All my friends are here with me….

This simple song has been a part of nearly week, if not day, I’ve spent with children for many, many years.  It’s simple, yet  welcoming, comforting, and optimistic.

How lucky are any of us on any day to be surrounded by friends?  As most  adults know, friends don’t come – nor stay – easily.  It’s an intricate process of give and take, yin and yang, lessons and laughs.  Ideally, each friend offers something and gains something in a climate of mutual respect and care.

That’s big stuff. Especially in early childhood. But that’s where it all starts.

Working together at three to make a collaborative collage.

Child development specialists like Louise Bates Ames, Chip Wood and Nancy Carlsson Paige remind us that research and reality show us that three- to six- year-olds are concrete thinkers who have yet to view their world logically.    Ideas are based on what they see in that moment, not an understanding that  a conflict doesn’t mean the end of a friendship.  Children this age view the world eccentrically – it’s all from their point of view.

Friends experience conflict and conflict is, by definition, is a road block.  With the careful signals and tools to navigate, teachers can help children begin to express their needs, momentarily take the point of view of another human being and resolve conflicts. It’s here that the primitive stages of cooperative play emerge, usually when the interests of children intersect.  But when they collide, that egocentric nature overrides an interest in playing with others. A multitude of positive social experiences will help children slowly think outside themselves to develop a repertoire of prosocial skills that invite and invigorate cooperative work and play.  It’s a process that takes years to unfold, but lays the foundation for healthy relationships, positive school experiences and rich endeavors outside the classroom.

As I work with three- and four- year-olds to model conflict resolution skills or social skills, my mind flashes to the future.   These wee ones are building a repertoire of social and personal skills that will shape them down the road.  I hope that their small group of friends is providing them fertile ground for sowing the seeds of confidence, reasoning, friendship and joy.

And then I think about how lucky I am to  be here with these little friends, watching them become bigger friends.


Check back next week for some snapshots on friendship over the years.  If you’re looking for a compelling new read on early childhood, check out my current favorite child development book, Taking Childhood Back by Nancy Carlsson Paige as well as the seminal work by the Gesell Institute  or Chip Wood.

7 Ways to Play This Spring

Outside Play this Spring

Crocus are now joined by daffodils and tulips. Pollen counts, like students’ energy, are high. Yup, it’s spring!   It may sound corny, but  the fresh, greenness of springing  is breathing new life into all of us. Especially the kids.  They seem to be full of life and energy as daylight lingers a bit longer.  Each afternoon, I overhear plans for outdoor play or ball practice.  In the morning, I hear more stories of practice, dinner outside, and bedtime creeping later and later.  Children seem to possess even more curiosity about the natural world and a far stronger urge to be outdoors now that spring has sprung.  It’s  time to capitalize on their innate curiosity and wonder and get outside to play!

Here’s my list, in no particular order, of some of the quick ways to celebrate the coming of spring and to play and wonder about the changes outdoors with children.

1. Puddle Stomp Don flip-flops, pull on wellies or go barefoot so you can  stop through puddles with unabashed excitement and no desire to stay clean. On the east coast, this could be done nearly any day so far! What do you notice in puddles? Anything living? Decaying? Floating? Sinking?

2.   Plan and plant a garden Pursue the catalogs, hit the farm store, till the bed, pluck the weeds.  Get ready to tend your garden and reap the goodies later this spring/summer.  Meanwhile, find a local produce co-op to stock your frig until your own harvest comes in.  Children love digging and will love taking care and nurturing a garden of their own. They’ll probably be more likely to try a new veggie or two if they grew it themselves, too!

4. Tune up the bike, skates, swing set, fishing poles, kites Invest in new chalk, balls, bubbles, dog leash.  It’s time to spend afternoons outdoors!  Teach your child, or have her, teach you to use that hoola hoop. Practice overhand and underhand tosses. Hop down an hopscotch grid. Take a bike ride around the block or around town.  Ah, breath….(then check out #7). Donate items you’ve outgrown to someone less-lucky to have such fun toys.

5. Dig in the sand Bury your feet, dig for shells, walk, eat a sandwich with tiny grains of sand and enjoy. Is the earth warming up or still cool? Doesn’t matter because you’re out of socks and boots!

6. Go for a hike, collect treasures Bugs, rocks, sticks, flowers. So much to look at and explore. Be sure to pack a magnifying glass and journal. Consider painting those rocks or sticks and add to your art gallery.

7. Sit, breathe, relax, repeat Enjoy the quiet peace of an early morning or evening. Our brains need down time to consolidate from a day’s work and stress, especially after a full day of learning and play.  Pull out cushions, hang the hammock or sit on the porch and enjoy the passage of time.  Collect your thoughts, wonder aloud, ask questions, and listen to what is said and what is not said.

Teachers  and parents who want to read more about the importance of play can  to read Go Play! Why Movement Matters and How to Make It Part of Children’s Days.  While you’re on the web, be sure to “like” the Wonder of Children page on Facebook, too.

Wishing you lots of fun and adventure this spring!

Joy Is You (We Want You to be Happy)

“Life is about finding our joy.”

happiness and joy

An acupuncturist said this to me over ten years ago and I actually laughed.  Maybe it was  my needle anxiety, but I really did laugh.  I thought she was nutty.    Life about finding joy? No, no, no. Life (for me),  was about work. Responsibility. Working hard. Wasn’t that the deal for everyone?

I was doing a brief stint as a stay-at-home mom, eagerly looking to teach after we relocated. I was constantly working. I was the one a bit nutty. Some would stay I still am, but my perceptive has taken a gigantic shift.

Seeking joy is not inherently in me. It takes effort. It’s penciled in lightly on every to-do list. Without that reminder, I’d forget. Luckily, I spend every day of my life with at least two fantastic kids, often several dozen kids who remind me – and sucks me right into their joy.  It’s a constant reminder that joy is all around us if we simply open our eyes, ears, minds, and hearts to it.

Life is changeable. It might be short. It’s fluid and can be interrupted at any point. Happiness is a gift and a choice.  That’s the compelling reasons to find the joy in each day.  Tomorrow might not bring the same opportunities for joy and laughter, so grab it while you can!

Fortunately, most children are blissfully unaware of how vulnerable we all are. Most live for the moment and when given the opportunity, they will thrive in the moment – taking in  as much as they can, asking questions, making connections, laughing, moving and living richly.

As I work with young children, the eagerness and joy to take on the world is a part of every breath they take and it’s contagious. Whether it’s a bowl full of rocks they explore while wondering aloud or stretching those shoulder muscles while painting at an easel ( he very same muscles that will later allow them to grasp and control writing tool), the children explore with joy and enthusiasm. Seeing the world through their eyes is invigorating, particularly when you are able to do so with the purpose of letting them grow in ways that don’t simply reflect your own goals or bias or agenda.

Often adults feel they are the holder of knowledge and experience and that our job is to pour said knowledge into the heads and bodies of children. However, when you take on the mindset that adults role is to guide, mentor, and wonder alongside children, it’s easier to share the joy and often, to learn something new about the child, yourself and/or the world.

On the other side of the coin, when children experience a pattern of distractions, their perception of the world shifts. It’s hard to find a parent who doesn’t feel busy, stressed or torn. We all are, but it’s essential we make time to put aside the to-do lists, the phone, computer, laundry or whatever, to be fully present with our kids. They may not understand our reasons for multitasking, but they sense they are not valued or are at least, unimportant in the very moment they are living in.  Children learn that it’s okay not to make eye contact, to mumble something that resembles a response but that doesn’t value them the speaker, that relationships don’t always matter.  I hear kids report and react in this manner far too often, either by self-deprecating remarks (“it doesn’t matter, my mom won’t even read it…”) or painfully honest opinions such as “well, actually they wouldn’t care if I got lost in a store because their life would be easier…”  Just maybe these little guys have lost some of that joy because they perceive a pattern of joy-less (or less joyful) life with the adults around them.

Happiness and joy are about being present. About being here, not there. (Remember Jon Kabot Zin’s book – Wherever You Go, There You Are?)

Joy and presence require us to clarify our priorities and stick to them. It means being authentic to ourselves an honoring our responsibilities, especially those to our children. It’s hard. It takes constant vigilance and commitment, but it’s possible.
When things are going well celebrate. Patty Digh suggests keeping candles to celebrate the little things. (My own kids tease me incessantly about this, but it’s one more way to get a good laugh!).  When things don’t go well, you’ve got to have a robust emotional bank account that builds resiliency.  And when things are somewhere in the middle, you can choose to look at the glass have empty or half full. If you do the latter, you’re bound to find some joy as well! We want them to be happy and we want you to be happy, too!

Need a little help finding a smidge of happiness, click here.