Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Thoughts on Early Learning, Jaimmie Stugard, LifeWays Caregiver

Thoughts on Early Learning from Miss Jaimmie

Children learn through exploration, imitation and relationships. A very young infant has no sense of himself as an individual. To him, there is no boundary between his own body, his parents and the world around. Gradually, he becomes aware of his ability to impact the world. He learns that he can manipulate objects by swatting and eventually grasping. He learns by his loved ones' response to his coos and cries that he can affect another and indeed that his beloved is another. What begins as observing a parent's response gradually develops into deeper social understanding. A toddler continues to play this call and response exercise to enhance his social skills. For example, when he hits another person, there is a negative response (the other child cries, he is scolded, etc). Each time a child "calls", he is seeking a predictable response to teach him how to properly interact with his world. This is why we strive to be both patient and consistent when helping our little ones develop socially. For a child questions with action and finds his answer in reaction.

When children are permitted to actively engage in their world, they are able to truly learn. Experiential learning leads to an understanding that regurgitating facts cannot provide. Day after day, I observe children exploring nature in the forest, finding slugs and snails and worms. Here I see them identifying and sorting without any overt instruction from myself. They are keenly aware of which sticks are big, bigger and biggest without ever cracking open a workbook. Nor do they need flashcards to teach them that the sun is round. Which is not to say that books and worksheets are necessarily bad. As a child, I loved to fill out the workbooks that my father brought home from the print shop. It was fun to play school and feel accomplished for correctly matching the dog to his bone. Looking back, I think I especially responded to these books because I knew that my father made them. But, I am certain that I would not have enjoyed them nearly as much if they had been homework rather than playwork.

Occasionally I am asked how I teach children their colors, days of the week, numbers and letters. To some, the days of the traditional play-based kindergarten and preschool seem like a fond memory. While parents look back on their own kindergarten fondly, they worry that it is not "enough" for their own child to get ahead in this day and age. Learning through doing is always my answer. Rather than asking a child to count objects in a book, I ask her to help me set the table for snack. We always begin by counting together how many people we will have in attendance that day. As the child sets out 7 chairs, place mats, cups, spoons and bowls she is able to have a real and tangible experience of the number 7.

A child's interest in letters can be nurtured by helping them identify letters that have meaning to them, like their name or the letters on a stop sign. In our suite, each child's drawer, hook and utensils (hairbrush, toothbrush, etc.) is labeled with a symbol as well as their name. This helps the children have a sense of where their things belong before they are able to recognize their name. When the child is ready, she will begin to become more aware of the letters that accompany the symbol and will eventually learn to recognize her name. Oftentimes, an older child will ask me to spell out "Happy Birthday" or "I love you, mom and dad" while coloring. While I am always happy to answer, I am careful not to drill a child or put pressure on him to read. Rather, I strive to foster their early literacy skills through storytelling, puppetry, and clear, articulate speech.

The days of the week are "taught" through living in the rhythm of the week: Monday is set-up day. On Tuesdays we snack on granola and hike in the woods. Wednesday is painting day and on Thursday we bake cowgirl cookies and savor the aroma of Miss Jane's delicious rolls. "Fort Friday" is also clean-up day, a day for working together to wash the furniture, floors and walls. The children delight in spraying and scrubbing with homemade cleaner (water, lavender and a drop of tee tree oil) and crocheted cloths. Then comes everyone's favorite days, Saturday and Sunday - Family Days.

Since young children learn through imitation, it is crucial that the adults closest to them are striving to be worthy of imitation. When a child is learning to speak, he needs to imitate right speech. A child who is struggling to control his impulses or anger needs to see the adults around him displaying this self control. Child rearing can be an emotional experience because our children are our reflections. They are like little mirrors that shine back our beauty and our blemishes. Rather than shrinking from the challenge or allowing ourselves to be racked with parental guilt, let us stand upright and demonstrate our striving, compassionate, curious, humorous and loving humanness.

Learning From Play, by Mary O'Connell, LifeWays Director

I’ll never forget the moment when my two boys were young (1 ½ and 3 years old) and I served them a lunch of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. I looked on in horror as my two innocent, beautiful, sheltered little boys each chewed their sandwiches into a shape that looked like a gun and started shooting at each other across the table! Where in the world did this play come from?
This moment was the first time, but definitely not the last, when children’s play has been puzzling to me. Over the years, I’ve encountered many play scenarios that have made me scratch my head, some of which have elicited a reaction in me of wanting to stop the children and make them play something else. Other times, I’ve just watched as a perplexed observer. One time in my home day care, a child attended a funeral of a distant relative. For days after this, all the children played “death”. One of them would be the dead person, and the others would lay him or her out, put flowers around the deceased, sing songs, wail, and sometimes a parade (like a funeral procession, but with performers) would ensue. It felt so morbid to me. I wished they would stop and go back to their usual play scenarios, like mommy, daddy, baby and doggy. And, eventually they did. After about a week, they seemed to be satisfied with the death play and they quite unceremoniously laid it to rest (pun intended!), never to be played again.
What do children get from play like this? As adults, we can never really know. What we do know is that children’s play is like thinking in adults. It’s how they mull things over, process experiences and emotions, and make sense of their world. And as uncomfortable as it can be for some adults to watch their rough-and-tumble little boy go through a pink tutu phase, or walk in on their daughter and a friend playing doctor, or witness their son and his buddy giving birth to their dollies, all of these play scenarios serve a purpose for the child. As adults, we must learn to respect and trust children’s play, guiding when necessary if it becomes obsessive , inappropriate or dangerous, but for the most part becoming observers.
Children are so imitative. Their primary mode of learning is to imitate what they see. This is why a Monday morning after a great Packer game can be a crazy place in an early childhood suite. When our LifeWays center in Hartland was open, we had a number of die-hard Packer families there. The little boys loved to wear their football jerseys to LifeWays, and we noticed that on the day after a game day – with little guys decked out in their Packer gear – it was the perfect storm. They were tackling each other all day! After much discussion, we decided not to outlaw the play all together, because it seemed to be something they really needed to do to process what they had experienced on the weekend. We simply asked parents to refrain from letting their children wear their jerseys to LifeWays, as the sight of the Packer gear seemed to increase the intensity. We also spent even more time outdoors, established clear guidelines about where the football play could happen, and how children needed to respect the space of children who were not interested in their rough-and-tumble play. (We also never actually provided them with a football, but they always came up with something as an imaginary football, or just played without one.) These few intentions on the part of the caregivers were enough to steer the play to a more balanced, healthier and less dangerous level, while still allowing the children to process “Packer Fever.”
Why not just say some types of play are unacceptable? This is sometimes what parents ask about gun play. Guns are violent and the root of much evil in our society, so why not just say, No Gun Play Allowed, Ever. This is a topic that was recently explored in our LifeWays North America facebook group. There were many varied responses of how caregivers deal with gun play, from completely forbidding it to giving it free reign, and everything in between. It became clear that there is no one answer to the question, and our responses are very personal, affected by our own feelings about guns, our life experiences, and the children we work with. Our staff has talked about it quite a bit, and has decided that we do not want to forbid gun play all together. First of all, we feel the “forbidden fruit” syndrome would creep in, with children playing guns behind our backs and lying about it when confronted. Definitely not the sort of thing we want to encourage at LifeWays. Secondly, gun play, just like every other type of play, serves a real need in children, especially boys. I don’t know why. But it’s real. Ask anybody who works with children, and they’ll tell you of an inherent desire for this type of play.
So, as a staff, we have agreed to greet gun play with the following expectations. We will not provide actual gun replicas of any kind for the children here, and if a child brings one from home it will be put away. Children will need to conjure up a gun out of their own imagination, using their hands, sticks, or whatever else they find. We will also not allow children to shoot at each other or any other human beings. This will be enforced less as a rule (once again, the forbidden fruit) but more as a re-direction by the caregivers. A suggestion will be made to shoot at a target instead, or to be hunters. Occasionally, you might overhear a caregiver say directly, “No, you may not shoot me. Guns hurt people.” This is said with as little emotion as possible, for we’ve learned that when we react from an emotional place with children, they can easily absorb these feelings and can become upset or feel insecure.
As adults, we have all kinds of feelings about guns. It’s hard to separate out our feelings about gun violence from a child’s real and innocent need to explore aggressive play. We immediately begin to worry that they will become a violent person, or that they will not grow up to strive for peaceful solutions to their problems. Often, I need to remind myself of my own childhood. Games like cops ‘n robbers and cowboys and Indians were a big part of my experience, as I grew up on a street where all the children my age were boys. And yet, I have not grown up to be a person who feels that violence solves problems. As in any area of life, we serve as healthy role models for our children and they will learn peaceful conflict resolution from us, as we practice it in our daily lives.
With all types of play, I encourage you to become an observer. It’s fascinating to see what play scenarios children come up with, and watch the play as it “morphs” into whatever they need it to be to help them make sense of their world. By limiting their exposure to the media, we can keep their imaginations fresh and their play free. This is important because media images are so powerful. And then, we can simply trust that the children will learn what they need to learn from their play. This is the greatest gift we can give our children.

The Bond Between Parents and Children, By Jane Danner-Sustar, LifeWays Caregiver

On Friday, June 17th I was interrupted while changing a diaper, when my sister called to tell me our mother had passed. Although it was not entirely unexpected, I still burst into tears and went into a slight state of shock. I got Otto cleaned up and dressed and I wondered around the suite trying to contain my emotion and attend to the children who were coming in as well as those who had already arrived. Both children and adults were incredibly sweet in their caring and concern.
When Sidonie arrived she told me that my mother would always be with me in my heart! I could not have hid my tears if I had wanted to, after that. Thank goodness for the wonderful women I work with and the amazing understanding of the parents in my suite. Miss Jaimmie came in and just said,” Go home, Jane”. And I went home to my mother. I worried as I left what the affect would be on the children who had seen me emote so strongly and I worried about the children who would come and not know why I was not there but I knew deeply and strongly that each one of those children was well cared for by the women whose care I left them in.
I know this sounds entirely too dramatic but now that I have lost both my parents and watched my children deal with the loss of their father, I am speaking from a place of some experience: When you leave your children with us at Lifeways, they feel it on a physical level. Because you are the greatest parents on the planet, the best I can ever hope to be is second best. That is not to say that Ava is not chasing Olivia around the tables two minutes after you walk out the door. Or that Beka isn’t catching fairies for us to sit on our shoulders by the time you get into your car. Or that Amitai isn’t engrossed in the building of his train tracks by the time you reach Humboldt. They laugh and they play and Orion puts his bowl on his head to show off for all of us at lunch time. Second best is as close to excellent as can possible be. However, when Otto or Natalie really falls hard the first person they want is momma or daddy. Sometimes when Gaston or Isabel wake up from their naps all tousle haired with a certain, “where am I?” look in their eyes, I know they are looking for their parents.
The bond between a child and their parents is a wonderful and mysterious thing so when you leave your children with someone else they will react with crying or indifference or anger or a myriad of other emotions. To me, that doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong. To me that means something is very right. To me that signals that the bond between you is alive and well. How can it not be? Like I said before, you are the most wonderful parents on the planet! I should know, I had a great pair myself. I miss them every day and I carry them in my heart with me where ever I go.

Interruption, By Emily Hall, LifeWays Forest Kindergarten Teacher

Last week as the Forest Kindergarteners were hiking past Story Rock, four deer ran by. We looked up, called to each other to make sure everyone saw them, and they were gone. "The Wild Hunter was chasing them!" exclaimed a friend. (Each morning we begin by going to Story Rock to hear the story of the Moss People- gnomes who live in hollow stumps, who are hunted by a big red dragon called the Wild Hunter.) For the rest of the day, as moms and dads came, the children would tell the part about the Wild Hunter and I would tell the part about the deer. Interruptions are not always as beautiful as a herd of deer in the midst of a nature hike. The phone rings, the doorbell buzzes, the cup spills, the plate breaks, the wasp stings. Some interruptions, like a butterfly landing in a grandmother's hair as she is taking her grandson home, feel like inspirations.
Life is full of both kinds of interruption. The experience of watching a beloved caregiver answer the phone in the middle of a favorite book, or stop to clean a baby's face before serving more milk, can be irritating for the children. Then the caregiver is treated to a volley of requests- for the story, for the milk. In the forest it is no different. A beeping construction truck echoes through the birdsong, an ambulance drives by, a tree falls across our favorite hiking path. Shoes untie, water bottles leak, zippers get stuck. The children forget a hat or a backpack and play must stop so we can go back and get them. The children, who learn from imitation and observation, become more resilient to life's interruptions by experiencing them.
During the story of the Moss People, a young friend spilled his hot tea on his leg and began to cry from the wet sensation on his leg. I put down my puppets and comforted him, as the children grew restless and talkative. I began to sing as I held the sopping boy on my lap. The mood of the group quieted and story could begin again. Interruption and irritation, waiting for what you want- these are the tools I use to teach. So that when deer run by, chased by characters from a beloved story, wonder can grow in the space tended by patience.

Education for Head, Heart and Hands, By Emily Hall, LifeWays Caregiver

When I first visited Miss Martha's kindergarten class at Tamarack Community School, my impression was of an environment filled with beauty. Large, open windows framed a small tree and a wooden play structure for climbing. It looked to be made of driftwood. The children impressed me as being open and gentle, as they sat near me and held my hands with quiet curiosity. Education for the heart and hands as well as the head was the philosophy I absorbed as part of the LifeWays training here in the Koenen nature preserve. Part of the training was observation of nature without judgement- a training in the ways of life.
Now, I observe daily as a young girl holds the purple thread Miss Monica is making into a skirt with a crochet hook. As the skirt grows toddlers run away with the yarn and Monica wraps it again into a ball. Handwork may be the most practical skill to observe for children learning to tie their shoes and quiet their bodies to focus on a skill. Fingerknitting, simple sewing, and knotting are tasks that engage hands and head. As the children grow they learn these things in the preschool programs. Learning these tasks with a familiar caregiver is an education for the heart.
Sitting on the floor to put her boots on, a girl spills a pile of woodchips and sand from her shoes to the floor. Monica instructs her to sweep it up. She sweeps up the sand with her toddler size broom and dustpan. A baby watches from her highchair as the girl finishes her task. As I observed the sweeping I noticed a similarity in gesture from caregiver to child- Jane and Jaimmie sweep with the same focused serenity! Observation of her caregivers sweeping had given the toddler a memory of what it was to put heart, hands, and head together to finish a task.
Modern life is losing such simplicity. Regulations enforce early academics rather than life skills and written language is given precedence over orally told stories. Local businesses like Loop and Kellner's Greenhouse, that value handwork and gardening, are closing. More and more young children are diagnosed with ADD and ADHD. Yet, studies done comparing children in industrialized nations to their third world counterparts uncover a startling similarity. What doctors and educators once thought was ADD might in fact be PTSD. The tiny stresses and hurry, hurry, hurry pace of modern life add up to a generation of children so stressed that they lose trust, openness, and ability to focus. Luckily, those three attributes are what have always impressed me about children at LifeWays. Education for heart and hands as well as head can help slow the pace and reduce the stress.

The Whys' to the Wise, By Tamara Treviranus, LifeWays Caregiver

As parents and caregivers, we have all experienced our little ones asking “why?”, which at times leads to a seemingly never ending stream of successive “ but why this…? Or why does that…?” (Has anyone ever tried to answer each one of these queries? Whew! Adults 0, children win!) Oftentimes, we are challenged to sort out the answer ourselves. “Momma, who is god? What will happen to me after I die?” and other thought provoking and soul expanding questions. Both children and adults learn a lot from these precious exchanges. I certainly at times feel quite humbled! For children, this can be a learning opportunity, a “teachable moment”, with regards to how our world works, yes, but also the foundation for the process of seeking and discovery.

When we as adults are asked “why” from a small child, sometimes it may seem challenging to come up with a very good answer. Is the response appropriate to their age and maturity level? Did I give too much or too little information? Was I too rushed to give a carefully thought out and warm response? I found it quite liberating to learn that we don’t in fact have to answer each successive “Why” with an age appropriate intellectual response. It IS important, however, that the quality of our response be given equal consideration as the content of our response.

“ I wonder why that could be?” said with a smile and warm tone gives the child the humanness and warmth they are seeking, and it also leaves open the imagination and heartfelt experience of the “ thing in question”. An information based response is sometimes better suited for an older child, while the younger child may require a response that answers the need for attention, warmth, and an appreciation for the imagination and wonder of the world. This being said, I also suspect that when adults share their passion for a subject with lots of information and facts and figures, that though the facts and figures may be lost, the passion and kindred spirit of a shared interest is retained in the feeling life of the child.

When we as adults find ourselves seeking, what is the response we expect from our partners, our families, our community, our god? Seeking and discovery is a lifelong process that we hope to honor and encourage amongst our youngest members of our community. We hope that our children will both explore ideas on their own and that they also continue to ask us questions!

Learning from Disappointment, by Rhoda Kambandu, KinderHouse Teacher

My 3 older daughters asked me if they could make some lemonade. I gave them a thumbs up and they enthusiastically went about setting up their work area and gathering what they needed. They spent a happy time taking turns squeezing lemons and limes, adding water and sugar and tasting their lemonade. Finally, it was ready. They had used so many lemons that they needed two pitchers for their lemonade. I told them they could put one pitcher in the refrigerator for use the next day and they could leave the other pitcher on the table for use at dinner that night. As my 10 year-old was cleaning off the table, she accidentally knocked the pitcher over, spilling all the lemonade on the table and the floor. She cried, “Oh no! I spilled it!” She had such a look of total disappointment on her face. What happened next was interesting. Neither she nor her sisters asked if they could still have lemonade with dinner. They had decided earlier that the lemonade in the refrigerator was for later, and they were sticking to that. When had they learned to handle disappointment so gracefully?

Disappointment is an unavoidable part of life. It happens to our own children and those in our care far more often than we'd like for them. Instinctively we want to protect them from ever experiencing disappointments, but this is not possible. What we can do for them however, is to teach them how to handle disappointment in a positive way. We can honor and validate their feelings, and comfort them when they experience disappointment. If possible, we can offer an alternative, for example if a much- anticipated trip to the zoo is rained out, we can plan to take the trip on a different day that promises better weather. It is most helpful if the alternative is sure to happen and can be arranged right away; it is not helpful if, for example, in trying to reschedule a play date, you end up having to wait for a call back from the friend's parents, thus prolonging, for the child, the feeling of being disappointed.

Another strategy I've found helpful in working with the children is not only allowing them the space to be sorrowful, but also allowing them the space to move away from the disappointment. I might offer to read a book with the child, ask if s/he would like to assist me in some work I need to do, or if s/he would like to do a project with me. Distraction is a wonderful tool to use with young children. The child soon forgets what had made him/her so sad and immerses him/herself in a new activity. In this way, the children learn to look forward to a better time.