Friday, August 15, 2014

Active Participation in the Toddler Room

Cohort 9 is in a unique position among the current Tumbleweed cohorts, as the whole group is starting as toddlers.  Because the children in Cohort 9 are coming to Tumbleweed as toddlers rather than infants, some of the things I ask them to do or participate in every day are new to them and rather unexpected.

One thing that has delighted the group is the expectation that they be active participants in serving their own food during lunch and snacks.  They are learning to firmly grasp spoons to scoop food onto their plates.  During her first week, I would scoop some food onto a spoon and then let C drop the food onto her plate, but three weeks later, she can usually do the whole routine herself, looking to me for some guidance when the food is particularly difficult to scoop.  She's not only gaining hand strength and motor skills, but also taking care of herself in a very real way.

LP is particularly enamored with pouring her own water and milk.  I bring a large jar of water or milk to the table and pour a small amount into a petite pitcher just the right size for toddler hands to manipulate.  Again, we started with a modified version of this task: I would bring the lip of the pitcher right up to the edge of the child's cup and begin lifting the pitcher at an angle, asking the child to complete the motion.  Now the toddlers are completing most of this work themselves.  I sit down at snack and mealtimes prepared with a towel so the inevitable spills are handled cheerfully and easily.  It is great to see the children making choices about what they want on their plates and in their cups, and when.  The toddlers love to cheer each other on when a pitcher of milk makes it into their cups, so we are also supporting each other and learning through observation.

Serving food and drinks at the table has been met with enthusiasm, I think partially because at snack and lunchtimes we are all engaged with eating and drinking; there is no other goal.  Activities like putting shoes on, which can sometimes be seen as just part of a transition before we can get to our goal of playing outside, have been met with less delight and more confusion when I ask the toddlers to join me in participation.

When we sit on the porch to put our shoes on, there are times when feet are offered to me with the expectation that I will just get shoes on quickly, and when I ask for the child's focus and participation in putting shoes on, there is sometimes serious frustration.  Why won't I just put the shoes on now so we can get to playing outside?

My strategy is to present the transition as its own special and unique activity, an activity that deserves focus and respect, and an activity for which I have all the time that we need.  Let's put our shoes on together not just because shoes need to be put on, but so we can share this moment of struggle, attempt, and accomplishment with each other.  I am here to help with your shoes, and I also want you to be focusing and learning and trying with me.  Let's slow down and really think about what we are doing in this moment.  Let's not rush through it to get to the next thing.  Then, even if we sit on the porch contemplating shoes for quite some time, when you choose to close the velcro on that second shoe, we can share your pride in having worked hard and completed a difficult activity.  It was your choice to put those shoes on your feet and you did it!

We ask children to be active participants in their own care for a variety of reasons. It would be faster and more convenient to simply do these things ourselves, but by making the choice to participate, children take ownership of their bodies and the activities in which they are engaged.  Active participation teaches self-advocacy and when we listen to and discuss the choices a child is making it shows our respect for the child.  Having the patience and the time to approach these activities as pleasurable, exciting, and self-contained is not always easy, but involving children in their own care and asking them to be active participants is an amazing way to show and teach respect.  I am eager to see how active participation continues to motivate, frustrate, teach, and excite the toddlers of Cohort 9.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Saying goodbye

The past few weeks have seen a spurt of growth for our class and many bonding relationships form. Each child has begun to strongly express their own unique identities. This has led to everyone really gaining awareness of each other and forming closer bonds. With three of our loved children graduating and moving on this summer it has been interesting seeing the process of change sweep over our school. Each child has seemed to gain their own understanding of what saying goodbye means.

MR said, "WK, Im your best friend right? Who will been your friend when I'm gone?"

WK thoughtfully replied, "Hmm, DM will be my friend."

This thoughtful exploration of feelings has spread throughout the school and led every child to come to their own conclusions. What does it mean saying goodbye? What happens to your friendships when you leave? What happens when you go to another school?

These questions have been coursing through our heads in order to understand change in a healthy way.

T and M have also been asking questions like, are we still going to be friends or will I see you when I leave this school? After a bit of unease with this change, each student started to make a game of transitions, repeating conversations over and over such as, you can come to my birthday or you can come over to my house and we will play. T often starts playing with someone by asking, "Do you want to come to my house?" This has also caught on with other children as a way to invite play. By asking someone if they are a friend, everyone at Tumbleweeds has really been gaining awareness of the their class and how special it is to everyone.

These questions and more have moved through our school like a wave and as a result have accelerated many bonds and friendships in the past weeks.  Transitions at our school have always been an invitation and part of a routine that almost seems like ceremony when everyone is included and uplifted by what is occuring. This has also seemed to translate into our next difficult transition: saying goodbye.

A week later M was still processing her friendship with W. "Am I still your friend? Who is your best friend? Who is your second best friend?" As we move through each of our good byes one by one children will continue to process. Their ability to feel safe in this environment and express their emotions helps them to feel at ease with the range of feelings that comes with saying goodbye to someone we love- whether it is for a very long time, a very short time, or always.

The Comfort in Theory/The Power of Risk

In my MBA program, the last thing we do before earning our degree is known as a master project. I attend an application-based school and the master project is a culmination of everything we've learned throughout the year- in an applied manner. In class we discuss theories, of course, but we also challenge them, put them into practice, test them out, and decide where they might fit in within our own worlds. Much like my fellow scientists here at Tumbleweed, I live and breathe this kind of work. It's what I look forward to each  day and what has possessed me to continue along in higher education. There is a certain comfort in theory that can be so delicious to partake in, but applying those theories takes bravery. As adults, we often need a push to put theory into action. Sure, we can talk all day long about our dreams and desires, but we rarely act on them and even more rarely do so with the tenacity and passion that children do. Children are brave. They are, by far, the bravest people I know. Is it that they fear failure less? Do they not know what the possible bad outcomes are? Do they simply believe in themselves more than adults do?

As we watch children take risk after risk and observe them putting themselves out there and trying their hardest, it's easy to reflect only on how brave they are. If you watch closely, though, you will see the intrinsic worry and fear that children often have alongside their bravery. Often they tremble and they may even shirk away from a risk that seems not so risky to us as adults. They, too, find comfort in theory. It's fun to talk about this or that, but taking it on? That's a very different thing. After all, bravery is not bravery if there is no fear to begin with.

So how do we engage their sense of adventure? How do we encourage their inner predisposition to bravery? How do we cultivate their awareness of risk without diminishing the value of taking on that very same risk? Many of the answers to these questions will seem simple.

We talk about what's happened, what might happen, and what is happening. Often having a conversation around possible outcomes or taking time to process an event as a group is all children, or anyone for that matter, need to feel ownership and control over a situation. Talking goes a long way in encouraging informed risk-taking. Often after something goes awry or goes especially awesome we debrief about it at circle time. We talk about what worked and what didn't work. The children reflect on how the experience felt to them and what they might have done differently or what they feel especially proud of having done. These builds connections between the past, the present, and the future in a real and monumental way. It helps to create an understanding of causation and the ability to imagine what ifs. 

We build environments that allow for exploration and adventure but are also physically safe. The environment goes a long way in helping children feel safe to explore and take risks. When you work somewhere that you feel trusted and competent in what you do each day, you are more likely to take on risks or try something new. The same is true for children. When their needs for consistency, safety, and basic necessities are met they are able to feel confident in taking calculated risks.

We allow space for children to take risks and be an active participant in their lives. Recently I was spending time with a family member of mine. I watched as she fretted over every decision she made- right down to deciding which drink to get at the store. I had flashbacks to my own days of being too afraid to make the simplest of decisions. When we feel powerless and only passively receive the outcomes of our lives, we are less likely to take risks. Picking out our own drink at a store may seem like an everyday task for most of us, but for a child this is the beginning of self advocacy, the birth of risk, and the essence of understanding the outcomes that come from even the smallest decisions we make. By giving children space to make their own decisions- small and large- and engage actively in their own lives we are encouraging them to be brave, to take risks, and to find out what happens next.

We simply listen and reflect as children express how they feel. Emotions are a huge, huge burden at times. Whether we feel excited, happy, sad, or frantic- it's a big feeling. Being extraordinarily happy is often just as scary as being exceptionally sad. The moment this clicked for me was an eye opener in how I approached people. Often when someone is sad I want to comfort. When someone is happy I want to join in and celebrate. While both of these are wonderful reactions, the most important thing to do first is to listen, to hear, to be present, and to reflect. Giving the other person time to honor their own emotions before you join in can go a long way in building trust as well as encouraging bravery and risk. Risk is much easier to take on when we feel cemented in the relationships that exist in our lives.

Of course, there are many other ways to encourage risk and build awareness around calculated risk, but I wanted to share these four with you for now. What about in your own households? In you personal lives? Throughout your work day? What enables you to feel confident in taking on risk?