Why Observe Children at Play?

My days seem so much longer during these weeks of social distancing. How about you? Without the regular commitments that keep us on the run and all the people home all the time, days seem to go on and on and on.

But while being home together, some of this ‘extra’ time we’ve been given can be used to practice our observation skills.

 

Educators use observation in classrooms to better understand how their students learn.  Observation helps them tailor the learning environment to each individual child. What they observe helps them better meet the needs of each of their students.

The Benefits of Observation

But observation is not just for teachers.  Parents can also see benefits from observing their children at play.  By watching, without influencing or interfering, we can gain insight into the connection between our children’s motives and behaviors.  Understanding what is triggering a behavior can help us help them navigate their reactions and feelings. 

In a recent article on being home for extended time with preschoolers, Teacher Tom encourages, “Instead of feeling like you need to fill their days with “enrichment,” I urge you to instead simply observe them at play: no “good jobs,” no unsolicited advice, no using the moment to answer email or check social media. Ask yourself, what are they teaching themselves right now? What theories stand behind their play? What are the driving questions they are trying to answer? I like to think of it as listening with all of my senses, with my full self. What will you do with the data you collect? Nothing. Be satisfied that you now know it. Better understanding our loved ones is an end unto itself.”

That is really the key: observation leads to better understanding.  Ready to spend a little time observing? Here are some tips for observing children at play.

Choose a time when your child is playing independently.  Sit where you are not a distraction and avoid calling attention to yourself.  Have a notebook and pen handy in case you want to write down your observations.  If your child tries to engage you in their activity, reassure them that you are nearby, but are busy doing your work.  

Observe what your child has chosen to play with.  What do they choose?  Do they use a single toy for long periods of time, or move about the room playing briefly with many different toys? How do they play with them? Do they invent new ways to use their toys, or use them the same way each time

Observe their interactions with others.  If you have other children in the home, how do they interact with others? What role do they take within the group? Do they initiate play or wait to be invited? What types of activities do they enjoy with others?  What do they enjoy doing alone? Do they look for your direction and attention? How do they ask for help? 

Observe their use of language. How do they use language?  Are they easy to understand? Do they make their wishes known verbally?  Are there other ways they express their needs? If you observe multiple times over the course of a week, do you see patterns of behavior?  Are there clues that lead up to a meltdown or a tantrum?   

Observe how they move. How much do they climb, run, skip, and jump?  Are they confident or hesitant in their movements? How is their balance? What physical activities do they enjoy? Does physical exertion change their mood?

Using what you observe

Teachers use the things they learn through observation to structure classroom experiences for individualized learning.  As parents we can use our observations just to know and understand our kids a little bit better, as Teacher Tom suggests.

But we can also use what we learn by being intentional about observation to adjust our parenting. Do you notice that meltdowns happen just before 11:00 each morning?

Would offering a snack and a change of scenery at 10:30 help ease them through this time of day?

 

My 6th grader was struggling with middle school last Fall.  So many classrooms and teachers, lots of responsibility for getting herself and her things where they need to be when they need to be there.  By observing when she struggled the most, I deduced that she was overwhelmed with the responsibility of all those choices. So we pulled back a bit on the independence and took away some of her choices. You could almost hear an audible sigh of relief. 

Some of what we observe confirms what we already know about our kids.  But some will provide new insights and maybe even an ‘ah ha’. When we take a step back, and spend some time observing our children we give ourselves the gift of intentional time spent understanding them better.

 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own.  You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

Fostering Independence in Toddlers

Two year olds get a bad rap.  It is all too common to label this stage of development “the terrible twos”.  But after four years of teaching in a toddler classroom, I am convinced that much  of what we call ‘terrible twos’ is simply the growing baby’s frustration at the limits placed on him by the well-meaning adults in his life.

By the age of two, babies have figured out that they are both physically and neurologically separate from their primary caregivers.  They have learned to control the movements of their limbs, and have developed the ability to grasp and manipulate objects. They’ve learned enough language to begin to communicate their wants and needs with words and speech.

They still have a long way to go, but they are not the helpless infants they were a short while ago.  Caregivers, living day in and day out with this growing child, can sometimes stay stuck in an early stage of development, not always recognizing how capable the toddler has become.

Babies come into the world so very helpless.  We spend 365 days that first year helping, and then helping some more, as they learn to roll over, sit up, and eventually crawl and walk.  That’s a long time to form a habit. And it doesn’t stop there. They will need help with so many things for years to come. So naturally, when they seem suddenly ready to be independent in some aspects of caring for themselves or their environment, we don’t always notice. 

Their awareness of their growing abilities, coupled with our tendency to see them as the helpless infants they once were, creates an environment ripe for conflict.  

Giving our ‘terrible twos’ the opportunity to demonstrate their growing developmental skills invites their cooperation and reduces frustration – both theirs and yours.  We can foster independence in toddlers by making a few small changes in our daily routines.

Here are 5 easy ways to give your toddler more autonomy and invite them into the process of family life.

  1. Attach a coat hook (or two!) to the wall at toddler level, so they can hang their coat themselves.  Provide a small bench below it to sit on when removing shoes. Store shoes and boots under the stool where they are easy to reach and put on when needed.  
  2. Create a routine for coming and going that is consistent.  For example, “we always hang our coat and remove our shoes or boots when we walk in the door.  We always sit to put on our shoes before we walk out the door.” Here’s how to teach your toddler to independently put on a coat: Have them lay the coat on the ground with the inside facing up.  Have them stand at the neck facing the coat and reach down, inserting both hands into the sleeve openings. Once their arms are inserted into the sleeves, have them swing their arms over their head, bringing the coat up and over their head.  The coat will fall down their back and their arms can then be lowered. Voila! Coat is on. If the coat has a zipper, get it started for them, but let them pull the zipper pull up. (You may need to hold the bottom of the zipper to provide resistance.)
  3. Move the cutlery to a low drawer, and invite them to help set the table at mealtime by taking silverware to the table.  (If you are reluctant to set them loose on everyone’s place settings, store their utensils, plates, bowls, and cups in a low drawer and invite them to set their place at the table while you set the rest.)
  4. Have a small whisk broom and dustpan stored where it is accessible to them.  Hang it on a low hook, or store it in a cupboard that does not have a child lock on it.  Invite them to help with cleaning up spills, using their broom.
  5. Build in extra time.  Above all, give yourself and your toddler more time to accomplish tasks together.  Sometimes toddler frustration is the result of being hurried to complete a task at which they are not yet fully proficient.  When we are in a hurry we are less likely to wait patiently while our two year old practices a new skill. Building in an extra 10 minutes gives us time to be patient and wait, allowing them to try, to practice, and to get better at it. 

Consistent routines, operating at ‘toddler speed’, and helping them do it themselves can all work together to foster toddler independence and reduce frustration all around.

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own.  You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.