“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.

Play

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.

Play 2

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DIY Child Management

Today I taught myself how to remove a door from its hinges. I hadn’t started out my day with the intention of doing this, but it became one of those days. Beginning with my 3 year old awake at 4.30am it was not how I had thought my weekend would start out.

For several weeks now, my 3 year old son has developed a fascination for repeatedly hitting and whacking his toys against his bedroom door in response to being put there to calm down. He is quite a clever wee thing as he has worked out that the louder he hits the door, the quicker Mum or Dad come running…..for fear that the newly painted (newly bought) door will quickly succumb to holes and damage. As a result of this behaviour, he was warned that if he was going to continue to do this, he would no longer have the benefits of a bedroom door. Now, in my career I have met many children who have required the adults to put in place clear warnings as well as follow through with the resultant consequences. More often than not, the children, when offered a choice as to a positive or negative consequence as a result of their behaviour, the positive choice is the usual outcome. Even doing the ‘count-down’ to follow through with the warning results in children scampering to meet the deadline.

And then I met my son. It is as almost as if he chooses to wait until I reach ‘3’ (the dreaded number) to see what comes next. If offered two choices (one being a positive outcome, and one negative) he will choose the negative, just to see if Mum will actually do what she has said will happen next. And this has meant that I have had to be on top of my game every single time. Every single warning I give, I have to be sure I can follow through. Consistency is the absolute imperative in order to ensure that my son grows to understand the values and expectations we have in our family. Much of the behaviour we get from my son is when he is exhausted and sleep deprived. Unfortunately, as parents, we are usually just as exhausted and sleep deprived at this point too! This makes following through with any warning that much more difficult.

So having threatened the removal of his bedroom door several days earlier, I found myself in the position of having to follow through with this warning today. Tired, exhausted and completely unreasonable my poor wee man was unable to make any good choices, instead choosing to go head to head with every limit placed upon him. So I made a quick assessment of the situation as he raged behind his closed door. I took a look over my daughters bedroom door and calculated the basic tools I required. By the time I had located them in the shed next door, my son had worked his way out of his room and had begun to annoy his sister. The sight of the hammer in my hand was a curious distraction from tormenting his sister and although still in full verbal flight he managed to ask what I was doing.

It was my intention to use speed and efficiency to increase the effect of the warned consequences to the ongoing door assaults. But I was quite the novice at door removal and given the angle needed to be taken in order to hammer the hinge pins out, the speed of my response decreased rapidly. I had my sons attention as I walked past with the hammer. I held his attention as he stood on the other side of the door listening to the banging begin. But as the banging went on for a lengthy time, he wandered off looking for other ways to entertain himself as he grizzled. I continued to work on the three hinges, finally loosening the door.

As I lifted the door off and relocated it to the hallway I passed my unwell daughter encamped on the couch. Her eyes widened but no comment was made, which made me consider that the image of her mother walking past with a bedroom door must not be all that unusual in our household. I simply winked at her, to which she returned the response and carried on. By the time normality had been regained in our lounge area, my son had returned and ventured back into his room. He commented that his door was missing, to which I replied that he had been warned. I offered him the reminder that when he was able to calm down in his bedroom then he would be able to have his door back like a big boy.

The lesson this taught me today was not only that I am capable of removing a door (although not ready to challenge a world record time as yet); the key to my sons learning is my consistency. Following through with my warnings every.single.time. is an exhausting and challenging process, but completely necessary in order for my son to learn that there are boundaries in our household. That rules and expectations are there for a reason. By implementing logical consequences, I am choosing to avoid a punitive, unsupportive approach to my son’s behaviour. Our relationship remains positive because the consequence is fair and reasonable. He may not like the consequence (and this is the point), but he can’t argue it doesn’t make sense. For the most part, this is life as an adult. We do things, good or bad, and the resultant consequence is good or bad. We don’t have anyone (as long as we are inside of the law) growling, berating, hitting or hurting us into realizing our error. But we have to live with the outcome. This is my approach to teaching ‘life’ to my children. This approach breeds a sense of responsibility rather than a bitterness when punishment is imposed. The key to the success of this approach, however, is consistency. And the delivery of consequence with calmness and love. Which sometimes is the hardest of all to achieve!

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Growing Children’s Brains In Their Sleep

From the day our children were born, and in the case of my step-son coming to live with us full time, we have insisted on a consistent bedtime routine. There were various reasons for why we developed the routine that is still in place today. The biggest reason though, was to ensure that our children knew how highly valued sleep was in our family. This is, in part, due to the fact that we have highly active children (in body and mind) and as such, they required a very clear indication from the adults in charge that there was a definitive difference between their awake time and the time they were expected to be sleeping. It also ensured that the household had both a time each day that was devoted to our children, and then refocused to ‘adult time’ in the evenings. Toys were packed away, destruction cleaned up and the tv channel safely tuned to programs not-for-little-people’s-eyes. Moments of sanity in a quiet house.

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We noticed from an early age that our children were far more responsive, curious and motivated with at least 11-12 hours sleep every single night. Our children also appeared to have an internal alarm clock rigidly set to 5.30am, no matter the time they went to sleep the night before. Because of this, we developed a bedtime routine that began with bath/shower time around 4-4.30pm. By the time bath, dinner and stories were read, the lights were out at 6pm.

It has amazed me, though, the surprise I am met with when I share that my children head to bed at this time. Later bedtimes for children particularly under 8 years of age seems to have been normalised. The idea that children are left to play, or stay up with the adults in the house until 8, 9 or 10pm when the adults retreat to bed is becoming increasingly common. So what, then, is the impact on these children in their brain development and growth when time asleep is becoming less than time awake?

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Ongoing research is now confirming that the amount of sleep a child has is as equally important as the type of diet and exercise they receive. Younger children need more sleep than older children, although teenagers return to needing a considerable number of hours as their bursts of growth needs are met. In general, children between the age of 5 and 11 years of age need between 10 and 12 hours sleep every night. Given that these children are usually making their way to school by 8am every morning, after a hearty breakfast and preparing their school bag, the need for 10-12 sleep would put their bedtime at approximately 6-7pm the night before. By having this quality sleep every night, children will be better prepared to face a busy school day filled with important learning and social interaction – the work of childhood. The weekend should not signal a change to this level of sleep required. Too often children arrive at school on a Monday morning almost in a ‘hung-over’ like state, as the lack of sleep hours received catches up with them.

It is not so simple as packing the children off to bed as the lights go out at 7pm, however. For children to have quality sleep a consistent bedtime routine is vital. This is a time of calming and quietening down, with the inevitable just round the corner. It is also potentially the most precious time of the day between parent and child. It can be that time when your child receives your undivided attention instead of commonly sharing it with their siblings. If, as parents, you are wanting to support the healthy growth and development of your child’s brain…….turn electronics off during this routine. Engage with your children over a story following a bath or shower and dinner. Allow your child’s brain to calm, rather than being overstimulated with the flashing screen of a TV or mobile device. Climb into bed alongside your child and model the joy of reading books with them. The key to the success of such a routine is its consistency. Do this Every. Single. Night.

Your children’s brains will be all the better for it.

For more information read the latest research here.

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To Any Child’s Parents

There are little eyes upon you
And they’re watching night and day;
There are little ears that quickly
Take in everything you say.

There are little hands all eager
To do everything you do;
And a little child who’s dreaming
Of the day they’ll be like you.

You’re the little tyke’s great idol;
You’re the wisest of the wise;
In that little mind, about you
No suspicions ever rise.

They believe in you devoutly
Hold all that you say and do
They will say and do it your way,
When they’ve grown up, just like you.

There’s a wide-eyed little angel
Who believes you’re always right;
And their ears are always open
And they’re watching day and night.

Source: Unknown

For the Love of Boys (In Our Classrooms)

My 3 year old son is a source of daily entertainment. So much so that he continually provides me with an array of inspiration for the Cheeky Kids blog. And yesterday was certainly no different.

Donning his bike helmet, he informed me to ‘watch out’ as he was about to ‘do something dangerous’. Initially I didn’t understand what he meant by ‘dangerous’ being that the word is actually quite difficult to decipher when exiting the mouth of a 3 year old. So I carried about my business, not too concerned. It was when his head (helmet still attached) appeared at the kitchen window, asking for the ladder, that I then worked out what he had meant by ‘dangerous’.

As I inquired further, he explained to me that he really wanted to use the ladder to climb up into the window on the second floor. When I looked alarmed, he reassured me that it was ‘ok Mum, I can do it, I will be brave’. As I managed to convince him that was a little ahead of his time, he then moved focus to requesting the ladder be placed next to his brother’s sleep out, again in a bid to reach the roof.

Imagine the image of this little boy, bike helmet firmly clipped on, looking up at me promising me he would be ‘brave’ insisting on following through with the plan he had to be ‘dangerous’ that afternoon. The teacher in me flashes forward to considering how on earth any future teachers would contain him within the four walls of a classroom. 18 months away from turning 5, I find it terribly difficult, and somewhat heartbreaking to think that he will be required to enter into a classroom to sit still on a mat, listen to instructions by a teacher, be required to read books and write stories about things that barely interest him. Moreover he will then be measured against his peers, and against a scale that determines what is expected of him in relation to one day attaining NCEA qualifications.

Generally speaking the school starting age of 5 years does not suit boys. Of course, there are always exceptions to any broad statement, and in making this assertion I don’t wish to deny those boys ready at 5 their unique start to formal education. But from my experience and observation of new entrant/reception/kindergarten classes, it is the boys that teachers are finding the most difficult to engage in the ‘formal stuff’. These boys find it difficult to sit still, engage in any written activities and at times socially interact with their peers appropriately. From observation, the boys I see in these rooms, given toy cars, cardboard boxes, blocks, play dough, or toy dinosaurs (the list is infinite), will choose to engage for far longer periods of time than in anything structured. In short, they want to explore, create, imagine, play (and blow things up) with their mates all day.

There is growing evidence supporting the claims that boys are making up the numbers of students underachieving and disengaging from school. There are a variety of reasons the evidence points to as to the reasons for this disengagement. Kathleen Palmer Cleveland in her book Teaching Boys Who Struggle At School explores these reasons, and offers some solutions. One area she outlines are the four ‘styles’ of learning and their correlating risks associated with academic underachievement. These styles are:

1. The Practical Doer:
Motivated through mastery, by getting it right and the joy of collecting and sorting information
2. Thinker-Knower:
Motivated by mastering knowledge and the joy of intellectual challenge
3. Interpersonal:
Motivated by connecting, interacting with others, providing practical service and using resources to be helpful
4. Self-Expressive:
Motivated by imagining, making a difference in people’s lives and the joy of growth through empowerment and artistic self-expression

Each of these styles has been attributed with a percentage of risk associated with underachievement at school. A boy with an interpersonal style of learning has a 63% risk of underachieving, those who are self-expressive 24% and the practical-doers have a 12% risk of underachievement. Thinker-knower boys have a 1% risk of failing in school (Cleveland, 2011).

So what are the implications of this evidence for the classroom teacher our boys encounter when beginning school? Perhaps the first task is simply observation. Providing activities for the boys to engage with of a transition-to-school-nature in order to allow the teacher to simply sit and watch. To get to know the boy as an individual learner and person rather than another child to ‘get started’ at school. Observing their developmental readiness and the way in which they engage with activities. In other words, what lights their fire?. For then, teachers can be most responsive to their boys needs in the classroom. And if, through observation, it is clear teachers have boys with an interpersonal style of learning in their group, then activities that encourage this must be available. If we as teachers expect quiet, ordered, compliant and studious classroom environments we may be in fact limiting the potential of boys with these interpersonal learning styles. Self-expressive and practical-doers also need avenues to explore new learning. Imagining and creativity should not be squeezed out of our classrooms because of the need to fit within a set of standards. Opportunities to ‘do’ and ‘practice’ practical activities should also be available to our boys in order to satisfy those who learn through experience and inventing, rather than simply reading or writing.

In summary, boys are arriving at school simply not ready for the way in which our current education system works. They need a considerable amount of time exploring, playing, creating, inventing, breaking, making, shouting, yelling, running and jumping before any of the sit-down, read-and-write stuff. The key for teachers is in their understanding of the boys they have before them and how best to mitigate these implications within the first year (or sometimes more) of a boy’s schooling. By understanding the way in which boys engage may help determine the sorts of activities, and therefore expectations we have of our boys in the junior school classrooms. I would hope that when my 3 year old begins his school journey, he will still be allowed plenty of opportunity to be the interpersonal, self-expressive, practical-doer learner that he is! I can hear junior-school teachers battening down the hatches around the country as I write! But never fear, bike-helmet compulsory!

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Growing Great Readers

Please take a look at my latest article published today on Parenting Informer “Growing Great Readers”. A must read for teachers and parents of young children.

http://www.parentinginformer.com/growing-great-readers-early-childhood-literacy.html

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High Noon at the Library

Today started a lot like this:

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progressed through to this:

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and shortly before noon arrived at this:

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Much of my day revolved around a battle of wills with my youngest, yet most fiery and independent of all three of my children. They say that the twos and threes are a time in child development where the will exerts itself and the child learns to understand what they have control over in their world, and what others are responsible for. Unfortunately for us, my son began his road to independence at age 6 months, when he flatly refused to take any food from a spoon that we were holding. If he was in control of the spoon, then the food was consumed at lightening speed.

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Whens he going to get it – I don’t need the help!

Of course we were not to know that this was a precursor to the following years in which our mantra became “pick your battles”. Over the next 3 years we would be faced with moments when we let his will exert itself, other times when we negotiated and finally moments when there was no choice but to tow the party line of “Mum is the boss”. On those occasions, we went in (mostly) prepared, usually with full body armor, ear plugs and a suitable exit plan should we find ourselves in a public place.

Today was one of those days when I moved quickly through all stages of ‘will-negotiation’. It was a 10% day so we started from 4.30am having some inclination of what was ahead of us. It was not necessarily the early start that gave it away…..more so my constant need to repeat such phrases as ‘shooting clothes hangers is an outside game’ and ‘throwing is for outside, not inside’. In those out-of-body moments my warning light goes on and I prepare for imminent battle.

20130518-182633.jpgThe question is – who has the laser?

So this morning, with warning light engaged, we piled into the car to head off for a brief trip to the local public library. Initially lulled into a false sense of security due to the unusually high level of cooperation demonstrated on our trip into town, I actually began to relax my guard as I perused the library shelves……even briefly considering the option of heading to the adult shelves in search of my own reading material. That was perhaps my biggest mistake.

Just when my arms were full of books, my daughter was lined up with books ready for renewal, and my teenage son (having also dumped books at my feet) nowhere to be seen, that my youngest informed me that he needed to go to the toilet. And then he literally ran off. I vaguely heard in his departure “but I know where to go, I can do it by myself”. As I saw him head for the entrance to the library I realised that he thought he knew where to go, but in fact we were not in our usual library. We had headed to a different, much larger one that he was unfamiliar with. Dropping the books in a pile with instructions to my daughter to stay put I raced after him as he came back in through the library entrance. Upon sight of me, he quickly reiterated his initial statement that he had this covered. I did see mild panic cross his face when I pointed out he didn’t know where the toilet was as this was an entirely different library……but it quickly disappeared when he stated that didn’t matter as he could find the toilet by himself.

At this point I had visions of a large puddle appearing on the library floor and seemed to have a far greater sense of urgency in locating the toilet than that of my son. I could not stress enough that this was not the time for negotiations, that if he followed me he would be met with relief. But his will kicked in and he stood ground. So I feigned defeat (another tactic with a previously high success rate). I suddenly took a great deal of interest in the stack of large-print books to my left. In doing so I noticed he had managed to navigate his way to a point where the toilet signs were obvious. My next manoeuvre was to get him to the ladies and not the mens so that I could still monitor the entire event. “That’s it….this door here, you found it by yourself awesome!” But it would seem my mere presence implied war, so any suggestion of mine was met with extreme opposition.

Somehow, (still not entirely sure how) I won the round of ‘what’s behind this door’ and we negotiated our way into the ladies. Before I could remind him not to lock the cubicle door, he was in (by himself) and door locked. I was told to ‘leave me’ as he attended to business. I reminded him I was not going to leave him in the toilets, but that I was outside waiting for him. Further protests ensued, but at this stage I was just grateful we had made it there without any major incident in public view.

It was not over by any means. As time ticked by and it was clear the original purpose in being there was accomplished, my attention turned to exactly what he was doing in a locked cubicle. I reminded him I was outside waiting for him. Again, he protested his independence. I then issued my bottom line statement ‘I will be here until I see that lock turn and the door open’. A little head appeared from under the cubicle door. His reconnaissance was met with an image that clearly confirmed the battle lines were drawn.

20130518-182714.jpgI was not to be messed with.

The lock turned and before he knew it, the door was open and he was in custody, frog marching out of the bathroom and protesting his objection to the intervention that had occurred.

It must’ve been the combination of audible protests and their mother’s face that indicated to my other two children that our time at the library had come to an end. Our ‘exit plan’ kicked into gear without a hitch and we all were able to leave the area in one piece, with no one harmed and, as a bonus, full book bags. Walking pace quickened as we reached the car, buckled in and began the long and rather loud drive home.

20130518-182807.jpgWe didn’t look back