How many today?
"We having pretzels?" GW asks as I set out our food. "Song!" says SC. I smile and begin one of our meal time songs. Once it's finished I say, "We're having zucchini and pretzels. Hmmm, I wonder how many we should have today?" We have been working up to this question for months, essentially since we started eating in a seated position at the table. The process began with me placing food on their plates in the beginning, then saying "One for you, one for you, one for you." as I served our meal. More recently they have been serving themselves and I say at the beginning "Let start with 2 pretzels and just one scoop of fruit" or " That's a small spoon, two scoops to start." Now they are ready to start the awareness of amount and enjoy counting out "1-2-3 pretzels!" or "Tomma, one scoop!". When they are the ones who set the limits, then self-regulation occurs much more easily and naturally. It also builds upon our sense of community when there is an agreement on the amount.
Giving ownership over themselves speaks directly to their desire for power as they are all now in the middle of their toddler years.
Meal time is also when I am able to establish and encourage table manners, respect and consideration of others. As with our work on self-regulation, this is something that has been built slowly out of time, and often in the beginning simply looked like me making observations of what everyone was doing. "Oh look, T is eating all of his beans!" or once we had more language, "Remember if you would like more you can say "More Please!" (while making the hand signs.) The boys truly watch each other, either directly or from the corner of their eyes, and are able to learn from each other. We set the expectations for each other about the space around our bodies, how to focus on our meals by keeping our feet under the table, and even what it looks like when we're done. I began the trend and now they are the keepers of the ritual of our meal.
While teaching and loving manners, the boys also have a chance to build on their awareness of their peers. Since we all sit very close together there is the inevitable kicking of feet and touching of food, so eating together gives us yet another angle to practice our grace and courtesy of being together. A great example from the other day was between SW and GW. I heard GW starting to make uncomfortable sounds, squirming and furrowing his brow. I said, "G, it seems like you're unhappy, what's going on?" "SW kickin' me! Ah ah ah!" I smiled and said, "Oh well, remember you can tell him space! You can do it without touching him, lets try, I can help!" We did it together and then the roles reversed, as often happens while these boys are testing out the reactions. Soon everyone else wanted to make their own space bubbles and started kicking under the table too. It made our meal time a bit frantic and crazy, but the next day there was one moment of kicking, a quick "I need space!" and then a return to eating.
Toddlers live by knowing what comes next, so it is only natural that I take the time at meals to constantly complicate and challenge the boy's routine to give them the ability to practice patterning and sequences. My passing out dishes has become going to wash hands, grabbing dishes one at a time, sitting down, waiting for everyone to be ready, singing a song together, dishing up food and eating. This ability for them to know what comes next serves their inner desire for order in their environment, allows them to feel safe and secure, yet also begins an ability of logical sequencing to get to a desired result ( I want to eat, so I need to do this and this and this). Logical sequencing is the basic for mathematics, so really by complicating their daily routine I am preparing for them to be algebra pros!
It feels so great in our small toddler community when all of these come together as a natural process . When we learn from each other, we create an environment of respect and caring trust that expands into all corners of our day.