When was the last time you threw an all-out fit because things didn’t go your way? The grocery store was out of the cheese you needed, and you laid down on the floor and kicked your feet and screamed at the top of your lungs until someone came to your aid? Chances are, you haven’t had an episode like this since you were a toddler. The reason? Self-regulation. From the earliest games of peek-a-boo to the preschool games of chase – the play we engage in with children and the play they engage in with each other all helps them learn to regulate their strong emotional reactions. And guess what? Children who develop a stronger sense of self-regulation are far more successful later in life.
One of the things we do regularly (in addition to all of the play we do that builds self-regulation) is talk explicitly about our strong emotions and brainstorm strategies for how we might deal with them. We use the language of becoming “unbalanced” or “needing to re-center”. We talk about the way strong emotions make it difficult to use our problem solving brains, and we need to re-center in order to make safe and productive choices. One of the strategies we learn about is finding space away from friends to be alone. Sometimes solitude can be helpful for re-centering. (As a side note, sometimes solitude is unhelpful — to work through strong emotions, a child will frequently need the company of an adult or other trusted friends. Choosing to be alone is always strictly the choice of the person feeling strongly and it is never punitive.) What I have been realizing is that while “space” is an option for re-centering, I never had a dedicated “Space Place.” Children would cry out for solitude and choose an unoccupied place in the room to refocus only to find that their chosen spot instantly became a coveted play space! I tried to protect the child’s need for space, but I was often called away by some other urgent matter (accidents, meal prep, bottle feeding, etc).
So we made a permanent place, and called it our Centering Area. Here is what our centering area offers:
Small, confined space. The footprint of the centering area is about 18 inches wide and 30 inches deep. In fact, we fashioned the centering area out of a corner that often became stuffed with pillows and blankets and was used as a cozy spot anyway! Just big enough for one child-sized body. For small bodies, the spaces we play in can become overwhelming. I have often stopped in the middle of the morning and laid face-up on the floor, just to get a sense for what the smallest members of our group must experience. Wow! Loud, bright, a little unpredictable…especially with everyone’s energy filling the air! Perspective changes when you look at the world from a different vantage point. This is one reason why children like to use blankets to build forts under tables or behind chairs. Small spaces hold an allure for small bodies. “I’m your size!” the spaces say. “Come snuggle in here!”
Objects for Sensory Exploration. We have several objects in the centering area to engage the senses. Children who are overwhelmed often need physical ways to expend their pent-up energy. As an alternative to kicking, biting, hitting, pulling hair, or any number of ways children rely on to exert their physical antsy-ness, I have stocked the centering area with these objects:
1. A small, square stone. This is one tile of a set of repurposed tile samples I acquired at Reusable Usables (seriously, this place is great!). Natural materials are soothing for children, and the stone remains cool to the touch. When we tried out the area for the first time, we discovered that putting the stone up to our cheek was a comforting process. Strong emotional experiences often leave our bodies hot, and the stone helps bring our body temperature back to normal.
2. A small ziploc bag of playdough. The dough in this bag is to be used while in the bag. Kids use it to mold, smash, poke, and knead. Just like a stress ball functions to alleviate stress, so does this bag of dough. Children are offered “dough play” as a way to help recenter, so in our maiden voyage to the centering area, we stressed the importance of leaving this dough in the bag. “If it would help you re-center to play with dough, this can happen at the table.” So far, I haven’t had any problems with stray dough finding its way deep into the carpet fibers.
3. Blob timer. You know, one of these things? Watching one drip two minutes has a seriously calming effect.
4. Scratchy thingy. I have no idea what the original purpose was for this thing. It looks like one of those foot mats that also de-muds your boots. Regardless, this mat also came from Reusable Usables, and it has provided wonderful sensory feedback for the crew. I suppose any stiff bristled brush would work (something designed for de-silking corn or scrubbing pans)
5. A touch-and-feel book. With a reading level below that of the preschoolers who use the centering area, this book serves to further calm the senses of emotional children.
Noise Cancelling Earmuffs. For children who are overwhelmed, there is little escape in our noisy and energetic space. We all experimented with the earmuffs when we first explored the centering area and discovered that having our ears covered makes our breathing the predominant sound in our heads. Listening to one’s own breath functions to slow breathing and provide a point of meditative focus.
Visual Boundaries. I demarcated the space with the blue fabric stapled to the wall, a soft comfy pillow, and a strip of masking tape to mark the entrance. Clearly defined boundaries keep the space protected for children who are using it to center.
On the first afternoon that our centering area was open, we had an impromptu group visit. I oriented all of the kids to the space, and we laid out the boundaries for its use. This was a joint process of limit setting – we all discussed respectful use of the space and came up with the following guidelines. First, we can all learn in an environment where everyone’s needs are met, so while it may be tempting to visit a friend who is using the centering area, we respect our friend’s need for solitude by staying out when someone is in. Second, materials in the centering area are only used in the centering area. The earmuffs are very popular, as you might guess, and for a while after our centering area opened, children were pretending to be angry so they could go re-center. Once I made it clear that you did not have to be angry to be in the centering area (you can go anytime!) and after the novelty wore off, the earmuffs stayed in their place without reminders.
After a few weeks with the centering area in place, I don’t know how we’ve survived for so long without it!! We have even used it occasionally as a problem solving spot: for friends who are stuck and can’t figure a way out of their impasse, they go together to the centering area to work out their disagreement. Relocating in a heated moment can sometimes help you “unstick”.
I’ve been amazed to watch how a carefully designed space supports budding self-regulation skills. Not a day goes by without a child, mid-emotional-uproar, marching off to “re-center”. If we could only all be so self-aware.