The view from our new apartment - a storm rolling in across Lac Léman.

The view from our new apartment – a storm rolling in across Lac Léman.

My family just moved from California to Lausanne, Switzerland.  We are excited about all of the opportunities that await us in our new home, but we are realistic about the time it will take us to adjust to the big things (new language and school system), as well as the small things (the metric system and living without a car).

Not surprisingly, I have visited the grocery store nearly every day in the last eight since we arrived. I have also baked chocolate chip cookies, brownies, and apricot cookies with the kids.  I find it thrilling to take a task I know quite well – baking chocolate chip cookies – and adapt it to a new context. (Did you know there is no brown sugar in Switzerland?)

But more than baking for the thrill, I know at its core, I am actually holding to what I know in a context that is wholly new.  I don’t yet speak French – though I’m learning – and the simple acts of locating a grocery store on the map, researching ingredients like natron (baking soda) and vanilla paste, and mustering the courage to ask the store clerk for help locating the ingredients I need (Je parle seulement un peu français. Je veux acheter la pâte de vanille.) are good baby steps into my new cultural context.

I wouldn’t start adjusting to a new culture by enrolling in a PhD level course in astrophysics, and I wouldn’t even try to get my fill of the news by picking up Le Courrier.  But, brownies?  I can do that.  It’s just hard enough that it tests my new skills, but familiar enough that I can be successful, even baking in Celsius.

Building on something I know well as a way create new knowledge is the way human beings are designed to learn.  From birth, we attach new learning to previous experiences.  For infants, that range of experience starts out very small and grows by leaps and bounds daily.  This basic premise – that human beings learn best when they build on prior experience – has powerful implications for our interactions with young children.

  • Why would we teach babies to read before they have mastered the spoken language?
  • Why would we expect babies to sit before they have the strong core muscles developed through months of movement on the floor?
  • Why would we force two-year-olds to share before they have experience giving a toy away and getting it back?
  • Why would we train a preschooler to sit with worksheets when her body is programmed to move and climb and run?

Everyday, my comfort zone grows, extending my learning further and further.  Yesterday, I was able to ask the store clerk if I was supposed to put my apricots (grouped for easy purchase into a small cardboard carry box) in their own produce bag, or if it was sufficient to leave them in the cardboard container to ring up. Though today, I accidentally spent $15 on a handful of figs at the farmer’s market.

Children grow in the same way that I am adjusting to my new culture.  Their growth can seem slow at times, and our own excitement for the world, or our desire to give them every opportunity sometimes means that we expect them to grow unrealistically quickly.  Let’s remember the important work they are doing in the very small steps they take.

And, if all else fails, make another batch of chocolate chip cookies!