“We Are Not Playing Now We Are Learning”

I was recently observing in a classroom, having being alerted to a child who, at 5 years old, was struggling to complete the tasks expected of her by the teacher.  In fact, in the teacher’s eyes, she was being ‘non-compliant’.  As I observed, the child self-selected a task outside of what the teacher had asked her to do.  As the teacher moved to intervene, she stated to the child “No, we are not playing now, we are learning”.  I was absolutely stunned.  This teacher, in one sentence had managed to contradict the very nature of childhood.  That learning and play are two separate entities, and that one must certainly not engage in play (and presumably any frivolity that comes with it) when one is committed to the serious task of learning.

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This seems to be the prevailing attitude of our current education system.  What stunned me the most with this teacher was that she was young and trained in a degree that covers a student age of 3-8 years of age.  I had assumed that this meant she would have a clear understanding of the work of children, and the literature and research around the importance of play and the subsequent learning that comes from this.  I am forever learning not to assume anything in my work.  There seems to be a belief by society in general that up to the age of 5 years, children can have a bit of a play – a bit of a lark about – but come time for school then that nonsense really has to cease in favour of the important stuff.  The real learning.  The ‘get-ready-for-NCEA’ attitude narrow-minded focus.  It does seem to feel like childhood is a very endangered species.

What is a shame even more than this, however, is that this focus is starting to seep into many early childhood facilities.  Daycare facilities are now re-branding themselves as ‘Educare’ companies, offering to ‘prepare your child’ for school.  While I am all in favour of having children school-ready, it is the definition of this that concerns me the most.  School ready should encompass a level of socialisation, independence, level of oral language and an understanding of the reasons why we go to school.   When a 3 year old is expected to be compliant in the ‘classroom’, this is displaying an ignorance about child development that is difficult to stomach.  Companies responsible for the provision of care to children under the age of 5 should take their responsibilities extremely seriously.  They are in the position of preserving childhood, not extinguishing it in favour of the pressure to have children learning the ‘important stuff’.  They should be advocates for the children they care for, teaching parents and the wider community about the important life-long learning that occurs in these early years, and how we, as families, can assist our children with their milestones.  And above all, they should work hard to correct society’s perception that earlier is better.  That if children are pushed harder, sooner, they will be achieving quicker and better.  And when they get to school at 5, they won’t bother with all this play stuff – they will be busy doing actual learning.

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What 5 year olds need, particularly when they have come through a system such as an Educare facilities, is time to explore, discover, create and connect with the world around them.  To inquire.  To question.  To delight and to consider.  Of all the ‘subjects’ of childhood – play encompasses all these skills.  And so much more.  At 5, students should be in classrooms that have the flexibility to encourage students in their play, not to stop them at the first step.  That are resourced enough to allow children to explore their ideas and create from their imaginations.  This is not in conflict with the need to have children learning to read, write and develop their numeracy skills.  But if in an environment where children are engaged in true play, these tools will be used in context and with purpose.  Children will have real reason to draw on and develop these skills.  They will be learning through their play, not separately from their play.

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The Quiet Abuse of our Modern Children

In the grand scheme of things I have not been working in the education profession for long. I am not a ‘seasoned’ teacher with a significant number of years under my belt. In the time I have worked in education, however, I have worked primarily in an area where one would see the very worst in child behaviour and emotional well being. I have met children with lives outside of school filled with violence, neglect and poverty. Children who, as a direct result of their parents actions, have been traumatised to where their lives will never be the same again. This level of abuse against children has always captured the eye of the media, for its shock and stun factor with the general public. As a society, it is agreed without doubt that this is a completely unacceptable way in which children should experience their childhood years. And so the big sweeping statements from central government are made, the policies are created, the government agencies are sent out in troops and these offenders (where possible) are rounded up with children relocated…..often into equally unsuitable home settings.

But there is a quiet and subtle abuse that  appears to be significantly increasing yet to capture media (and therefore government) attention. Neglectful Parenting will also have life-long, and inter-generational impacts on society that we are yet to fully comprehend. But neglectful parenting does not seem to be understood in its entirety. Neglect comes to the attention of our government agency charged with child safety when children’s basic human needs are not being met. Primarily food, shelter and supervision from adults. What does not seem to be considered as neglectful within these categories is the inability of adults to love and give attention to the children they are responsible for. Yet, anecdotally, there would seem to be an ever increasing number of children walking through the school gates who are experiencing a level of neglect that is having a detrimental effect to their emotional and social well being. They come from a home where they have food, are clean, and have basic clothing requirements (mostly) met. But they do not have an emotional connection to a significant parent. As a teacher, this is by far the hardest level of neglect to address in a classroom.

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Children from these home environments typically struggle to manage themselves socially and emotionally on a daily basis. They are anxious, defensive, reactive and can display what seems to be an overreaction to minor issues. They do not have the resilience that a child from an emotionally-secure background would have. Simply, they are lost. Lost in a world in which adults are not there to provide calm and comfort, love and care. For some, they learn that when they demonstrate a need for comfort (such as crying, or raging) an adult is not there to respond to them and keep them emotionally safe. For others, they may have had this initially, but as they lose the ‘cute-factor’ of babyhood, they have to ‘toughen up’ and ‘harden up’ and so subsequently lose a model of appropriate emotional response to the trials and tribulations of life ahead. Some children are simply so tired because their lives outside of school are either rushed with parents juggling from one job/event/appointment to the next, or because parents are so unpredictable and have little routines at home to communicate a sense of order for their children. And there are a growing majority of children coping with the emotional burden of adult worries, particularly where relationships have broken down and separations have occurred. For these children, their childhood is not only impacted with the loss of their two-parent family structure, but they are then burdened with the care of their (usually) Mum and her emotional needs of company and companionship.

What is of most concern is that there would appear to be a generation of children growing up that simply do not have the skills to cope with the rigors of adult life. As a result of these types of neglectful parenting, they will enter adulthood without a secure emotional foundation on which to build positive and fulfilling relationships with others. They will have needs that will go unmet. And this will then begin to impact on their ability to appropriately parent the next generation. Thus the snow-ball effect will continue. Predictably there may be far reaching effects into areas such as adolescent and adult mental health, crime rates, rates of teenage pregnancy, divorce statistics and so on. If we do not meet the emotional needs of our young, the problem will become society’s as they reach adulthood.

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There does not appear to be an easy answer. It does appear that the snowball has already begun its alpine descent, and is quickly gathering momentum (and size). What would slow its pace somewhat would be a nationwide focus on preventative, rather than reactive care for parents and their families. Making it acceptable for parents to acknowledge that this job is horrendously complicated, complex and damn hard work. Allowing parents to share their struggles without judgment of their abilities. Having a government department not focused just on the bottom of the cliff, but getting in early and providing parents with education around the fundamental emotional needs of children in the first few years of their lives. Providing families in the midst of separation with education around how to not burden their children with the adult problems going on around them. In short, protecting children from adulthood and all that it comes with for just that little bit longer. Allowing children to experience a pure childhood……with a sense of emotional security that ultimately builds resilience and self-identity. All while modelling to children a pattern of responsive parenting that they can then adopt in adulthood as they become parents themselves.

It is time parents were given the opportunity to reflect on the quiet form of abuse that is neglectful parenting. Parenting is so much more than feeding, clothing and sheltering children. It is so much harder than that. It is about stepping outside of yourself and putting your children first. In every part of your day.

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Endless Energy

I often wonder what it would be like to have a camera recording the antics in our household at nighttime, when the rest of the hemisphere sleeps. In fact, if it were a night vision, movement activated camera, it would be working overtime most nights. My children very rarely sleep through the night without waking. I, on the other hand, believe I have got the art of responding to child requests without actually waking completely down to a fine art. Except, in cases of extreme exhaustion. At which point I am not responsible for the default mode I slip into.

What I am amazed about is the endless energy my children seem to have, despite their disturbed sleep. Last night was a particularly bad night, with my son waking almost every hour. He was not content with just me being awake with him. At 4am he decided it was time for his sister to wake up as well. So in an effort to have at least one child sleeping slightly longer, I climbed into bed with my son to settle him and buy a few more precious moments of sleep. However, the moment my head reunited with my own pillow an hour later, the sound of tiny footsteps down the hallway brought about a change in my usually calm, reasonable demeanour. My logic and knowledge around how I should respond to what was amounting to a 3 year old exerting his will at a ridiculous hour, could not compete with my utter exhaustion. When it was clear his argument for waking was to check on the location of his bubble mixture, I went into default mode. There was no text book response to this. Instead, he was ordered to return to his room. His protests and tears no longer had effect. He was told how cross Mummy was and that it was in his best (safety) interests to find his way back asap. For added effect, the default single finger-wagging also ensued. This, upon reflection, should be a warning sign to any members of my family. Hand on hip and finger wagging means Mum has reached the point of no return.

Of course it was at this point that my husband came to, and heard my less-than-censored rhetoric following our sons departure from the room. It was perhaps when I suggested what my son could do with the bubble mixture, my husband realised it may be important for family safety to get up and let me sleep.

Which brings me to my original amazement. After managing to sleep following the shift-change with my husband, I was woken to the sounds of squeals of delight and laughter in our living area. The same children who had utterly exhausted me in the night with their disturbed sleep and illogical requests about bubble mixture were happily playing as if they had slept like angels. I, on the other hand, emerged from the bedroom with visible bags under my eyes, feeling like a train wreck. I could not fathom how the children sustained these levels of energy. It just simply was unbelievable. What I did know was the the day about to begin would be a long one. My energy levels were exhausted and my ability to respond to the children in a positive and responsive manner would be seriously stretched for that day.

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Pink Potato Stamping

My children really enjoy anything to do with painting and art. Whether this is because of the modelling they receive from their very talented artistic father (it certainly isn’t from my side of the family), or just an inherent desire to create…….they are forever wanting to paint. Because of this, we have a large box of paints, brushes, card and paint trays that are never far from their side. But last weekend I thought we might do a variation of the theme, by introducing them to the idea of mixed media art.

I try very hard to value all the artwork my children create, but inevitably the sheer volume of artwork can simply not be displayed proudly for all to see … we simply don’t have the wall space. So last weekend I thought I would try an idea I saw on a wonderful blog I follow called Lil Blue Boo. So off we went to the Emporium in search of small stretched canvases. Returning home colours were selected, tarp put down in the carport and the canvas preparation began.

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Predictably my daughter hoarded all the reds, whites and purples….which were quickly turned into various shades of pinks. She certainly learned a great deal about blending in her canvas preparation. Our youngest (3) is still very much at the exploratory stage. Which paints go where, what happens when we mix colours and of the most fun is what happens to the water when cleaning the paint off the brushes! As for our teenager, he has definite artistic talent, despite his lack of confidence. He was left to independently create, and so decided to pass on the potato stage, preferring to concentrate on the creation of a landscape piece.

After many laps of the carport and concrete pad on bikes and scooters while waiting for the backgrounds to dry…..it was time to bring on the potatoes. The children watched in amazement as I manipulated the sharp knife into the requested shapes. Trust in my ability slowly grew after the initial standard diamond, circle and crescent shapes were crafted. Requests began to become more adventurous….including the kids initials and the ever popular ‘love heart’. After quietly congratulating myself on my feats of potato carving, the kids were into their stamping.

I must admit I found it very hard to sit and let them create. I had an image in my head of how I wanted their canvases to look. Because of this, I lost sight of the very fact they weren’t my canvases. And the point wasn’t really now they looked in the end….but the process they had experienced in getting them to where they were happy to say they were finished. I had to really bite my lip when my daughter decided to begin her stamping with yet another pink.. The same colour as the background. She did not foresee the issue with using the same colour one on top of the other. But she quickly modified her colour choice when she could see it was it going to work out as she had planned. If I had told her, however, it would not have allowed her to reflect on this herself.

My son learnt that by dunking your potato stamp in the paint the shape became muddled on the canvas. Again, this learning was simply through trial and error. The personality he is he would only do the opposite of any suggestion I would make out of a need to help. And as for my 14 year old…..he produced an amazing landscape piece, with his learning coming from accepting the genuine compliments he has received as a result if it. A hardworking morning for myself and my husband, that what would’ve appeared from the outside as a bit of painting with the kids. But a minefield of new learning opportunities for our three cheeky kids!

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