Happy Fall everyone! This time of year brings the gradual change of seasons as well as change to our family here at LifeWays. We have wished many children well on their next step of heading off to school and have welcomed many new families to our suite. This time of year can bring excitement, anticipation, fear, and stress for the whole family. New relationships are forming amongst the children here at LifeWays and therefore it seems an opportune time to discuss the social arts.
The Social Arts, and all that entails is a HUGE topic! In a nutshell, the Social Arts refers to how we work to get along with each other. In a child’s world, this may include learning to share toys or loved ones, learning how to be inclusive in play, speaking kindly to one another, respecting one another’s space, using words to problem solve rather than our hands (hitting). In the adult world, this may include…all of the same things! Navigating relationships is a lifelong process. The saying goes, “All I ever really needed to know I learned in kindergarten”. Yet today (please pardon my cynicism here) it appears that many adults have not yet been introduced to these basic social skills. Comprehensive and thoughtful guidance for children in the social arts is one of the most important gifts of learning we can impart.
To illustrate working with the social arts with very young children, please consider the following scenarios:
A little girl named Molly delights in getting a reaction out of her friend Patrick by snatching his favorite toy. Patrick responds by asking for it back only to be met with a smirk while Molly tosses it out of reach over the fence. He then angrily pushes her down. Molly, full of hurt, tearfully seeks out the comfort of her caregiver.
Three boys, Dominic, Samuel, and Joshua are playing in the sandbox. Samuel and Dominic are happily digging a hole to the bottom of the sandbox. Joshua is sitting on the edge of the hole causing sand to fall back in whereby slowing the progress of operation “getting to China”. Samuel and Dominic repeatedly ask Joshua to move. He continues to test by kicking dirt back in. Finally they yell at him and say he can’t play. Insulted, Joshua comes to his teacher to “tell” he has not been allowed to play. (And ALL children at LifeWays know the mantra “everyone is allowed to play.”)
Or maybe there is a situation where some of the children are simply being exclusive and mean. There might be a child who is still drawn to playing with a classmate even though he treats her poorly. Maybe there is a child inclined to hit without the slightest provocation. How does the caregiver handle these situations? Can we practice a restorative justice model of child guidance as opposed to a more punitive approach? What would this look like? A strictly punitive approach may be to institute only a time out or remove a toy from play. However this has not given the children the chance to learn a more acceptable way of behaving. It has only shown them that what happened caused punishment. To offer a child a chance to help rebuild what was knocked down, offer a hand to get up from being knocked down, fetch an ice pack for an injured friend are all examples of showing children how to be good friends.
It is difficult as a caregiver to see children treat each other poorly, but with consistent modeling of kind behavior, it is beautiful to see when friends who have previously had conflicts are able to use words to state their feelings and ask their friends for what they need. It is very helpful to be part of a program that honors relationship-based care and the time and space to provide thoughtful observation. Because we consistently spend time with the children we care for, we can see their patterns and the effects of group dynamics on their behavior. Imagine if, in the previously mentioned scenarios, we only saw a child being pushed down or told he could not play, without witnessing what led to that response.
These situations are of course “small beans” in the spectrum of what parents and teachers face when caring for children. Later, in grade school and high school a strictly punitive approach takes the form of a series of a rigidly laid out discipline plan that may end in expulsion. In contrast a high school that practices a restorative justice model will likely have the two parties talk it out, find a solution together and write a contract that speaks to the needs and concerns of all involved. Perhaps if we educate the littlest ones in the social arts, this will plant a seed that may be tended throughout the years to give our children the skills, self esteem, and self knowledge that will serve them as they grow.