To risk repeating a tired cliche, children know far more than they’re given credit for. Frankly, many of their natural impulses move them along developmental trajectories swimmingly until we jump in and pull them off track. Take eating, for example. Did you know that typically developing children are born with the mechanisms to get food? (crying for mama paired with a powerful sucking reflex) The natural sense for when they are full? (turning away from the bottle or breast) And taste buds that differentiate safe and unsafe foods? (sweet = safe) And then there’s motor movement. Children – without interventions from us – will learn to stretch, roll, grasp, stand, run, skip, swing from the monkey bars, stand on one foot, and dance a powerful, impromptu, and uninhibited jig. (Believe me — one such jig was danced in an oh-so-powerful and uninhibited manner this very morning!) What about their insatiable drive for knowledge? Manifesting in early infancy as an imitative protruding tongue, in toddler-hood as the oft declared NO!, and in the preschool intensity with the sand and water table – children passionately construct knowledge of the world around them like little sponges soaking up everything that brain wiring and hands-on experience affords.
As I spend my days accompanying children on their quest to grow and learn, I am struck by how much innate wisdom they posses. And I am struck, as I reflect on my own life, at how many of those lessons I used to hold as a child have been smothered as I have grown – not completely extinguished, but in some serious need of oxygen and kindling to ignite again. If we – the child’s whole community of parents, educators, neighbors, and friends – were to stop and watch, these are the lessons children would share with us.
1. Fear is the enemy of exploration. I have spent the last three months knee-deep in some phenomenal work on the role of risk-taking and healthy development. (Don’t worry…you’ll be in on some of the great stuff I’ve learned!) Well documented in recent work is the reality that we a fearful culture (Cairns, 2008; Gill, 2007; Guldberg, 2009; Lindon, 1999; Mercogliano, 2007). Less understood, but the subject of much of my recent reading, is the link between that fear and our children’s future as the next decision-making generation. Warwick Cairns points to a study showing 43% of U.S. parents feel children should not leave the house alone until they are 14 years old (p. 33). I don’t know about you, but that statistic shocked me! My children are still young, and I don’t know when I will feel comfortable sending them to the store unaccompanied, but I expect it will be long before they have reached the legal Iowa driving age. Worry and fear play a critical role in directing our behavior, and not all fear is negative. Appropriate fear around heights will keep you safe from falling. Caution around wild animals (for example, the cougar walking through Iowa City a few months back) will keep you safe from becoming an unwitting lunch. But exaggerated fear, poorly informed fear, and incapacitating fear will keep you (and your children) from developing necessary skills of independence. If you haven’t left the house alone before you turn 14, how will you be equipped to drive at 16? Leave for college at 18? To complicate matters, what looks like rational caution to me might look like looney irrationality to someone else, but discerning the necessary from the incapacitating is critically important.
Enter the young child. Spend a day with someone under five years old, and you will find a spirit of adventure that offers a fresh look at what we typically approach with caution. A child will teach you that the things of nature are not bent on your ultimate demise (mosquitoes excepted), and that, when treated with appropriate respect, the natural world affords more learning opportunities than the plastic, petroleum-based world of our safety-stamped comfort zones. A child will teach you that fear of failure stops us from trying, and given a supportive and open-ended environment, mistakes shape our intellectual, emotional, and social domains in ways that successes do not. A child will teach you that fear of connection keeps us distant, looped into patterns of self-doubt and questioning. All people are capable of kind acts and mean attacks and that the meanness is a cry for connection in disguise. Children teach emotional authenticity and unreserved social connection – experiences that we often fear.
2. Passion is the source of life. Developmental psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, offers these wise words: “When a person’s entire being is stretched in the full functioning of body and mind, whatever one does becomes worth doing for its own sake.” (Gronlund, 2010, p. 25) This defines childhood. Children don’t wake up in the morning and go through a mental checklist: Let’s see now, what to do today…I need to do a little work with conservation of volume, so I think I’ll fill and pour for a while at the water table. Reading Brown Bear, Brown Bear a few times could really help me solidify my developing concepts of print. I think I will physically express a need for that blue truck, and then learn that hitting doesn’t really work to get me what I want. I might even practice buttoning today! Ridiculous, right? Fueling their inner passion for exploration directs their experiences and fosters learning. For a child, there is no distinction between work and play, and when children are in the zone of learning, there is a certain palpable buzz resulting from passion actualized.
Here’s the secret that children offer. Find what it is that you love, and orient your whole being towards its completion. A child will teach you that it is possible to construct knowledge while messy, develop skills while barefoot, or train language with your pants on backwards and inside out, but only if you want to be those things; hunger or fatigue or a full diaper or leftover spaghetti on your face might derail an entire morning if you don’t want to feel that way. A child will teach you that distractions interrupt, and things like forced clean up times after each activity break the day into artificial blocks of time that don’t necessarily respect the mental flow; passion is not limited to small chunks of time. A child will teach you that any object can serve as a prop for any situation, and adult definitions like “block area” or “dramatic play item” don’t define an object’s purpose at any given moment. A child will teach you that age doesn’t always mean skill, and just because a child is 1 or 4 or 16 months doesn’t mean their bodies are doing exactly what their same-aged peers are doing; we would do well to let a child’s passion emerge out of her own self.
3. Friends are powerful teachers. Last week, we were playing in “the forest” – an area in our yard comprised of open-ended materials. Addie was working with a section of gutter pipe and a tennis ball. She rolled the ball into the tube, and it got stuck in the middle. She reached her arm in to retrieve the ball, but was unable to stretch far enough. Puzzled, she looked around for help. She found Cadence and Tekoa nearby, and explained the problem and the three girls set to work. It didn’t take long before someone picked up the tube by one end and the ball rolled out. The experiment was repeated several times, testing the theory that a raised tube would release the hidden ball – which it did – and together, the three girls put vocabulary to a pattern, accommodating a newly discovered law of physics into their schema of the world.
Through our friendships, we form ideas about the world and about ourselves. In our increasingly individualistic society, we need the support and push back from our friends to provide necessary feedback about our life path. A child will teach you about how friends care for each other’s physical bodies – bringing band-aids and ice packs for wounds, offering hugs and kisses to soothe sorrows, delivering gentle back rubs to wake a sleeping friend. A child will teach you how friends care for each other’s developing spirits – balking at the injustice of a stolen toy or dragging feet at the commands of a disrespectful onlooker. A child will teach you how friends nurture each other’s developing intellect – sharing knowledge about the world, complicating each other’s play scripts, and engaging in the back-and-forth nature of daily play.
May your life be abundantly full as you follow the wisdom of children.
Cairns, Warwick. How to live dangerously: why we should all stop worrying, and start living. London: Macmillan, 2008. Print.
Gill, Tim. No fear: growing up in a risk averse society. London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2007. Print.
Gronlund, Gaye. Developmentally appropriate play: guiding young children to a higher level. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press, 2010. Print.
Guldberg, Helene. Reclaiming childhood: freedom and play in an age of fear. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2009. Print.
Lindon, Jennie. Too safe for their own good?: helping children learn about risk and lifeskills. London: National Early Years Network, 1999. Print.
Mercogliano, Chris. In defense of childhood protecting kids’ inner wildness. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 2007. Print.