One of the puzzles of modern life is the gap between what we know about how children think and grow, on the one hand, and the daily lived experience of children and their caregivers, which rarely reflects children’s strengths or needs and can often be quite unpleasant. This is puzzling because young children are extraordinarily capable and, in some respects, their cognitive powers surpass those of the adults who care for them. For example, in one experiment testing creative problem-solving, preschool aged children were found to outperform college students. But, despite the abundant evidence of young children’s intelligence, competence, and innate capacity for learning, the stress and anxiety engulfing today’s littlest learners is palpable, presenting consequences for the adults who care for them.
The pandemic certainly plays a role in these concerns. But the pandemic has also exposed pre-existing problems that have merely become more visible. In America, 50% of young children have had at least one adverse childhood experience (such as a family death or poverty). Pre-school expulsions have exploded and prescriptions for psychiatric medication have also soared among our youngest children. Parents in many countries are reporting historically high levels of stress and decreased enjoyment in parenting. Early years teachers are burnt out and quitting the profession in record numbers.
The good news is that we can regain our equilibrium if we return to the basic ingredients of a healthy childhood. These are well-known and come down to two things that needn’t be rationed: secure, loving relationships and open-ended, unstructured play.
Relationships are the fuel of early learning; they build the architecture of the growing brain. We see this in what developmental psychologists call the “serve-and-return” style of communication between an infant and loving adult. This style works like this: an emotionally responsive caregiver notices a child’s cry for food or for a clean nappy and responds with loving attention (feeding, soothing or playful words, change of clothes etc.). Over time, if the caregiver is consistent, the baby learns to expect this caring, engaged response: “Oh, I see how this works! When I need something, my adult will help me.” Over time, the infant thinks, “I’m being seen and heard. I am valued.” This back-and-forth between the attuned, responsive adult and the young child builds what we call a secure attachment, and this emotional attachment is like a warm blanket for the developing brain. The exponential neuronal growth we see in the early years depends critically on this emotional connection between the adult and child.
Quality early years education is, fundamentally, about relationships. Caring teachers who understand basic principles of child development (“This is what a typical three-year-old can do”) and who also know and are attuned to the specific children in their care (“Here’s what this three-year-old is working on”), have a greater impact on children’s learning outcomes than many of the measures of quality in use today. For example, class size, physical environments, or specific curriculum. Rich, open-ended conversation is a vital part of sound relationships, and young children need sufficient time to experience warm, engaging language – to converse playfully with friends about topics they choose; to tell a rambling story to an adult without being rushed; to ask meaningful questions, even if “off topic”; and to receive meaningful answers.
Spark curiosity and imagination
One obstacle to quality relationships is inattention to children’s natural rhythms, which can sometimes seem baffling to adults. I’ve often used the word “adultification” to describe a lack of awareness of these rhythms on the part of many adults who can’t always see how taxing adult pacing and schedules can be for young children. To be fair, home life is often fraught because we have so many responsibilities and so little time; a dawdling child can be enraging to an adult trying to get out the door in the morning. Schools should in theory be able to design programming around children’s natural rhythms, but they are rarely designed to do so.
Contrast the unbounded, laser-like attention children are capable of when riveted by the goings-on at a construction site or under a log to the frenetic, disengaged energy we often see in an early year’s classroom. We sweep toys and materials away before many children have even had the chance to fully engage with them. We march children from one staged activity to the next, rarely trusting their own curiosity and interests to guide us. Teachers and parents often resort to all kinds of desperate strategies to cajole children to get through their tasks. When they don’t comply, we exert more control, which only delays the development of autonomy and self-regulation (one of the main goals of a healthy childhood). Increasingly, I’m hearing teachers tell children to “catch a bubble in your mouth” to make them stay quiet. I’ve seen teachers tell children to cross their arms over their chest to keep still. Few adults like these dog-training tricks and they can be a sign that we are out of synch with our children’s internal rhythms.
So many of the problems of childhood have to do with a mismatch between adult and children’s rhythms. We label these challenges “attention deficit disorder” or “slow cognitive tempo disorder” or “poor executive function.” I sometimes ask teachers to get down on the floor of their classroom and just look around from the height of a 4-year-old or try to put on a snowsuit with the motor skills of a young child. It’s sobering to reflect on how often we inflict an adult-sized world on our youngest children: adult pacing, adult schedules, adult expectations. We see their development through an adult’s eyes, imagining that we couldn’t possibly learn anything from an hour digging in a container of mud, so it must be time to whip out the maths worksheet! It boggles the mind how little outdoor time and gross motor play many young children have in their day.
Sometimes, of course, we have no choice but to foist adult rhythms on young children. We need to put food on the table. Reluctant children need to be put to bed. We have to teach kids how to read (one of the few early-years goals that really does require systematic, adult-directed structure for most children). But the truth is that with a bit more imagination, we could accomplish these non-negotiables with greater ease and less stress. If we trusted and empathized more with young children – if we chose to value, rather than resent, their unique ways of being and knowing – we’d have greater confidence in children’s abilities and would be able to see the amazing signs of learning that are hiding in plain sight. Life is easier for everyone when we leverage children’s natural learning capacities. Young children have prodigious imaginations. We might take a page from their book and try to imagine the world through a young child’s eyes.
Here 9 suggestions to reclaim the rhythm of early childhood:
1. Provide open-ended materials and toys:
- Wood blocks, simple art supplies, even a tub of soapy water and dolls to wash encourage children to think deeply
- Studies show that children use higher level language structures when playing with open-ended toys (such as blocks) than with single-purpose toys. A toy or kit designed for only one purpose can limit the imagination.
2. Encourage open-ended conversations:
- Ask meaningful questions, not “checking” questions. Unless you are teaching a very specific content area (such as counting), it’s unnecessary to ask “closed” or checking questions that have one answer. If you don’t need to know the answer to a question, it’s probably not worth asking. Here are some examples to invite children to think:
- “Tell me about your picture” (instead of “I like the house you made!”)
- “I wonder what would happen if you tried it a different way…”
- “Why do you think the ice melted like that?”
- “Tell me about how you do that at home…”
3. Observe your child to learn what they enjoy and think about:
- Provide digital-free moments at home (and reduce screen time in schools)
- Agree to put mobile phones away from 6-8 pm each evening
- Find a relaxing moment once/weekly to simply observe your child, without expectation. Bath time is a great for this activity. Just listen without judgment
4. Give children sufficient time to play or to explore new materials/spaces/ideas:
- Boredom is the friend of the imagination! Sometimes we think children’s attention spans can’t tolerate long stretches of play, but children express signs of “boredom” when they haven’t had time to dig deeply
5. Help children re-engage when play begins to unravel:
- Offer extensions to existing play rather than starting a new activity, e.g., offering beads or ribbons to a group of children building a block structure (These scaffolds can also entice reluctant children to try something others are working on)
6. Do fewer projects and give sufficient time for process:
- Help children to explore/investigate in stages, starting with planning (gathering ideas) and exploring materials before the construction phase
7. Rethink adult expectations:
- Does every child have to make the same project to take home? (Why? Are there alternatives?)
- Does the whole class have to gather in a circle at the start of each day? (What would an alternative community-building structure look like?)
- Does your child need to take that art/karate/swim lesson? (Can you let go of anxiety about building skills and allow a child to develop on their own timetable?)
8. Think of children’s behaviour as a form of communication:
- Suspend judgment when you are frustrated. Is your child being annoying or simply expressing a need to slow down?
- Even when a child is misbehaving, we can acknowledge that they are trying to communicate. Sometimes it even helps to say, “Thanks for letting me know how upset you are. I can see this is too much. Let’s go inside and rest.” (This is hard to do mid-tantrum, but labeling feelings can help an adult to reset the child’s rhythm.)
9. Go Outdoors!
- Nature’s rhythm is usually slow. It forces us to slow down.