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?
Elle: It’s good to share.
James: I know, I know.
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!
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!