When I was a child, I played outside from morning until night, running, making mud pies, creating plays, jumping rope, playing “school” on the steps of the church, skating, and riding a bike when I could find one. I would see groups of adults at church or in community meetings in the 1940’s, and all I saw were ladies in girdles and tight clothes and men dressed in suits and hats, talking, and I dreaded the day that I would enter that world. I dreaded getting older because my mental picture, in 1948, was that those “stuffed” and often “stuffy” adults really were like me and wanted to be running and playing, and that someone, somewhere, was making them dress and act that way.
I’ll leave the subject of girdles for another time, as I celebrate elastic waists in clothes, but I wish that someone had told me that the things that you enjoy greatly at one age change as you change and as your interests and abilities develop. I think that most of us just take that for granted as we age, but do we forget the needs and stages of our children? Playing is as much a developmental stage and need for children as any other stage of learning.
Five or six years ago I was in Lexington waiting to have an x-ray done; the day was cloudy, and the young technician was showing concern that rain might keep her child’s birthday party from being held at the city park. When she mentioned that her child was turning four, up perked my ears! I have spent many years with three and four-year-old children, and talking with them and about them is one of my favorite pastimes. Imagine my shock when, on the day when she should have been rejoicing about her child’s birth and life, she, instead, was worried about her child being behind. She told me that the people at her child’s school were concerned that her three-year-old could not cut with scissors or write her name! She was truly distressed over the “experts” and their opinions.
I did my best two-minute speech, but she was still burdened, because she truly felt that her three-year-old should be doing kindergarten work! What she didn’t know was that the true experts know that the fine motor skills of most children that age are often not developed enough for them to enjoy those activities and that if the materials are available, when the child is ready, he/she will choose to do them. This is especially true for boys, whose fine motor skills are often 12 to 15 months behind girls in the same class. That is great, because he should, at this age, be developing his large motor skill abilities by doing lots of running, throwing, and balancing. I don’t think I convinced the technician that it was perfectly all right that her little girl couldn’t cut and write yet. The experience saddened me in the same way that I am saddened to see 11 year old girls pushed into make-up and middle school proms. This experience also prompted me to want to shout from the housetops, “Please let your children be children; refrain, please, from comparing or pushing them.”
Adults should not expect three-year-old children to cut out figures or shapes, color in the line, or model identical art products. Adults should value any design from the child, not expecting a representational product.
Although I was trained to be an elementary and high school teacher, I have spent much of my adult life teaching preschool children. I have learned more in this endeavor than I did in college or graduate school. This past quarter-century has been a learning experience for me as I try to better understand the pre-kindergarten child. The most important thing to remember is that preschool is not a junior kindergarten; it is a time of huge brain development, and the children learn by exploration and play. The ideal environment for this age group includes:
1) SPACE ( to explore items of interest)
2) LOVING INDIVIDUALS (who are thrilled to see the “Aha” moments occurring, both in cognitive and social areas) and
3) FREEDOM OF CHOICE (to enable them to develop happily at their own speed)
The study of brain development has enlightened us and shown us many ways that a child learns. It is an intriguing study. Everyone knows that children can learn a lot; what everyone doesn’t know is that learning is an individual endeavor, guided best by those who understand age appropriateness and individual appropriateness. I have been asked several times to explain what it means to be age appropriate when teaching. This is of great interest to me, because I am very passionate about children being excited and happy about learning, whether at school or at home. It is as simple as practicing in our homes and classrooms things which our children, no matter what ages, are:
1) READY to do,
2) ABLE to do and
3) FIND INTERESTING and CHALLENGING.
Just as you would not expect an infant to like to jog or an adolescent to sit around in a coat and tie and talk with adults, you should not expect a 3 year-old to automatically be able or ready to enjoy cutting or writing letters. Three-year–olds are no longer toddlers, but they will behave like toddlers sometimes; at other times their language skills and motor skills will be like that of the four-year-old. We should neither expect too much nor too little. To care for and educate a group of 3’s parents and teachers need to fully understand the developmental continuum from toddler hood through the preschool years.
I never did learn to like girdles or tight clothes, but I have grown to love to sit and talk with interesting adults; mud pies don’t delight me anymore! How interesting it is to watch children develop and unfold like flowers. Exploring and seeking adventure are the work of the young child, and even though they can be forced to act like older students, that is not best for them. My great joy is to see children who love to come to school, who love to be with their friends, who learn to relate to adults other than their parents, and who develop a love for learning new skills and concepts. Just as a sincere gardener needs patience as he does everything possible to ensure that young tomato plants grow and develop in a way to someday produce wonderful tomatoes, we as teachers and parents need to be patient, understanding, and yet diligent as we help each little one grow and develop into the individual that God intended him to be. As it is in our gardens, to observe and guide the growth, and not force it, are our goals.
(You can reach Pat Bryson at firstname.lastname@example.org)