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 an 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.

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.

Observation and Reflection: keys to understanding your child

Sometimes you can learn a lot about a child by simply observing them in action. As adults, we often end up reacting to our children.  We know what needs to be done and how to do it, so we are quick to offer direction, tell them ‘no’ or ‘don’t’, or jump in and do it for them.

Yet, when we take the time to wait and watch and then reflect on what we’ve seen and heard, we gain insight into their needs and motives.  Observation and reflection can make us better parents, by helping us see why they are behaving the way they are and what they are capable of.

Back when I was still in the classroom, I was having lunch with ten 2-year-olds.  We were gathered together around one large table. It was low to the ground, and each child sat in a small chair, feet firmly planted on the floor under the table.  I sat not quite so comfortably on a low stool at the same low table.

We each had a placemat, a plate, a glass of milk or water, a fork, and a spoon.  Our food had been moved from lunch boxes to our plates and we used our forks, or fingers, as we ate and talked together.   Suddenly the child across the table from me swept his arm across his plate, accidentally knocking over his glass, which toppled and spilled its contents across the table.  My “oh!” burst forth, but then I stopped moving or speaking and simply observed what would happen next. 

It was not easy to refrain from offering a comment or advice, or leaping up to grab a towel and stop the flow of liquid. We are so wired to be helpful.  Often without even realizing we are doing it, we leap to assist. But something in that moment reminded me of the power of observation – and I waited.  

The toddler across the table took a moment to observe as well, and then pushed his chair back, exclaiming, “I’ll get a cloth!”.  He crossed the room, got a cleaning cloth from the stack on the shelf, returned with it in hand, and began to wipe up the spill. When he had finished, he took the wet cloth to the laundry basket and returned to his seat, smiling.  

He knew exactly what to do – without me needing to direct or advise – because he had observed me and the other children wiping up spills many, many times before that day.  By holding my tongue, he was given the opportunity to bask in the pride of his own ability to solve the problem.  

Letting him fix the problem by waiting and observing let us both see that this young child was completely capable and needed no adult directing his actions.  

He sat back down and we shared a smile of satisfaction. He was proud of his ability to help and I was proud I’d chosen to observe and not rush in to fix it.

As adults, responsible for keeping our children safe, it isn’t easy to stop and watch or to wait and ‘see what happens.’  But practicing the art of observation, and taking time to reflect on what we observe, is a parenting skill that helps build strong relationships.

Observation: The What

As you observe your child in action, it isn’t necessary to take notes, document every action or utterance, or follow a prescribed checklist, although those things can sometimes add value. 

Ask yourself, “What do I see and hear?”  Simply watch your child and notice how he interacts.   

Take note (either write it down or mentally file it away) of what is happening and how your child is responding to it.  Are there challenges? How do they meet those challenges? What do they choose when they are playing alone? What do they prefer when they are playing with others?  When do they become frustrated? How do they respond to the frustration? Patterns will emerge that will help you see what it is that results in perseverance and what leads to meltdown.  You will find underlying causes for mystifying behaviors.

“As parents, observing can be tough. We aren’t always objective. It can be hard to hang back, and it can be the last thing on our minds as we are busy multi-tasking and managing busy family life. Yet, observing is truly the most illuminating gift—the gift of understanding our children,” notes Kelly Griffith Mannion, M. Ed.  

Reflection: The ‘So what’ and ‘What Next’

After observing, take time for reflection.  Reflecting on what you’ve observed helps you answer the question: “What does that mean to me?  What will I do with it?”

Reflection can help you make connections between behavior and what was going on inside the child.  As you reflect, try to identify what happened before, and what happened after. Is there a pattern?

Reflecting on the behaviors and emotions you observe in your child can deepen your understanding of your child’s inner life and create a greater connection.  Often as parents, we are in reactive mode, always trying to stay one step ahead of difficulties and challenges.  

Says Regina Pally, founder of the Center for Reflective Communities, “Reflective Parenting is a set of skills and guiding principles that encourage and support the use of Reflective Thinking in all the interactions parents have with their children. Reflective Parenting enables a parent to see the world from his or her own perspective and from their child’s perspective.” 

Taking time for observation and reflection helps us move from reactive parenting to reflective parenting.  Reflective parenting can foster positive relationships, allow for greater independence and growth in your child, and ensure greater satisfaction and fulfillment for you.

 

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.

Summer Free Lunch

This week I want to tell you about something that I love.

It is Oregon’s Summer Meals program, and in this time of uncertainty and crisis, I believe it’s one of the few things around that’s just purely good.

It might seem like I’m hyperbolizing (or, more likely, just inventing an excuse to use that word in a sentence), but I tell you it’s true. Why, take a gander if you will at the organization’s handsome and generous website, which provides an overview of the service and a tidy history as well as a sweet site locator to find meals around the state.

What do they do? Well, since it was created thanks to an act of Congress (remember those?) exactly 50 years ago, the USDA-funded program simply gives out free meals to children aged 1-18. Some sites also sell meals to adults, and some offer activities and educational opportunities before or after. That’s it.

Why is that magic? The awesomeness is in the details: how many public programs can you think of that don’t ask you to register your kids, meet eligibility requirements, sign up for further something-or-other, or commit to anything? Really! You just show up and they feed your kids. The end. No follow-up, no stigma around needing the assistance. I think that’s mighty special.

My kids, who eat a lot and are sometimes in need of assistance, have enjoyed free meals in parks and libraries around Linn and Benton Counties. They’re not picky or anything, but they have pronounced the offerings both varied and pleasing. I believe them.

If you have kids, a finite amount of financial resources, and/or it’s just too cockadoodle hot to make lunch, I suggest you check out the Summer Meals sitch.

So, what are you waiting for?

Except for maybe morning?

 

Play By Play

Here is something that kids should be doing more of:

Playing.

At school they need to double down on:

Recess.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to suggest that they should be eating ice cream for all three meals. I’m not an anarchist. Just thinking about developing brains.

Let’s pull back a little bit. Or zoom in. Whatever. You’ve seen those little announcements on the packaging of toys that claim their product is helping children to advance their motor skills, memory, hand-eye coordination, and what have you? Well, there’s some truth to that, potentially, in the same way that Count Chocula is part of a balanced breakfast (really! Can be!).

Without examining the veracity of any particular products, it has to be admitted that they do help kids develop if kids play with them. But just as the finger that points to the moon is not the moon, it is not the toy that provides the learning but the act of playing itself. In that sense, a rock’s as good as a Leappad for our purposes (a bonus is that if you throw a rock, it won’t break!).

Recently I’ve noticed a phenomenon at our house that illustrates this perfectly. It’s the noticing that new, not the phenomenon. The older girls, ten and twelve, continue to play with our set of wooden blocks as much as, if not more than, the younger ones. They have continued to be available, rather than put aside for more “age-appropriate” (this usually means “more electronic”) toys. So, they’ve just kept playing with ’em.

And, I believe, they continue to hone their spatial recognition and gross and fine motor skills just as much now, at their own level, as they did all those years ago when they first figured out how to stack them (and of course, immediately knock them down again).

Crucially, I think, there has never been any sense that the blocks are something that they could outgrow; that some toys were just “for babies.” They’re just another tool at their disposal.

By the same token, since the picture books are still on full display for the six and eight-year-olds, their older sisters continue to put them –new acquisitions and old favorites alike– in rotation along with their endless fantasy novels and 19th Century classics.

One of my (amazing) professors in the Education program at Western advocates for the use of picture books all the way through high school (and by extension college, given that she, you know, used them. In a college class). Once we get over the stigma of directing our attention to something that was made for younger people, their value and beauty are simply obvious.

 

Screens Revisited

It’s time to raise my quarterly alarm about the effects of screen time on children. Don’t worry, I’ve already laid the basic foundation of ranting, so I won’t get into that here.  Moreover, I have offered up an alternative use for a smartphone or pad that will allow you to make dinner unhindered while eliminating the perils of the screen (ie: cover it up and let it talk).

Well, it’s time to be alarmist again. New research as presented by psychologist Sue Palmer supports previous warnings about “links between excessive screen-time and obesity, sleep disorders, aggression, poor social skills, depression, and academic under-achievement.” Along with this, “a rise in prescriptions for Ritalin, a drug for attention deficit and hyperactivity – a four-fold increase in less than a decade.”

So much, so familiar (at least, I hope it’s familiar: enough so that parents would not put their child/toddler/oh-my-gosh infant to bed with a tablet). But here’s what I found interesting about this particular article.

Writes Palmer, “It’s not just what children get up to onscreen that affects their overall development. It’s what screens displace – all the activities they’re not doing in the real world.” In other words, if they’re swiping a screen they’re not interacting with others. They’re not looking around at the inscrutable people and things around them. They’re not experiencing (take a deep breath) boredom, that charmed state that has led, historically, to all the great artistic and scientific breakthroughs (and not a few of its greatest crimes).

In other words, if your small children are captivated by and absorbed in the screen in front of them (we know how that works, don’t we, fellow addicts?), then they are missing out on all the perception, interaction, and processing that makes a brain grow, and that prompts them to seek out new information and challenges in the world.

Perhaps most important of all, they’re missing out on that most essential element in child development: play.

Writes Palmer, “Each time babies or toddlers make something happen on screen, they get the same sort of pleasure hit as they would from a cuddle or a splash in the bath. When they can get instant rewards by swiping a screen, why bother with play that demands physical, social, and cognitive effort?”

I recently picked up a used copy of Neil Postman’s classic work of cultural critique, Amusing Ourselves to Death. I saw that it was published in 1985, long before civilian use of email, and looong before social media, search engines and streaming claimed victory over the 21st Century human cortex. Postman’s dire prognostications about the melding of public life and entertainment technology are becoming more relevant by the second. Not bad for a grumpy old cuss.

At the risk of sharing in the general grumpiness, I imagine that our children will be at least as resentful of our current compulsive phone-gazing behavior as previous generations were about growing up with the TV as the altar of the house. Let me just raise my hand right now.

Guilty!

I can’t wait to hear what they have to say.

On Chores, Revisited

A couple years ago I wrote about our first attempt to institute chores for the family. In that article, I described how my wife and I had decided to approach chores and how they aligned with the values of our family. I wrote, “In my house chores are presented simply as expectations: they are what needs to happen in order for the home to run smoothly. There is a place for everyone to chip in, and we emphasize the importance of each chore in our day-to-day home life.”

Reading back on this, I see that this theory still holds up. In the article, I also detailed the chores chart I had made, with chores listed on a whiteboard and movable magnets for each child, to be rotated according to age level and need. This means that each child would have different chores from day to day. I can only imagine, when designing this system, what I was thinking: that the variety would keep them from being bored, or the novelty would be exciting, or something.

Well, that just didn’t work.

It wasn’t a disaster or anything. It was just too complicated for the kids (the little ones especially), and too much homework for the adults (ie: me). We gave it a go. But soon the kids were complaining about their own assigned chores or coveting those of their sisters (or just refusing to participate in my rigged game). At the same time, the magnets started falling apart and wouldn’t, you know, magnetize anymore. So after a few weeks, my brilliant chores chart fell by the wayside. Okay, it actually just fell off.

I don’t remember how much time went by in the interim, but eventually, my wife struck upon a way to make the chores list work within the structure of her homeschooling day. Instead of rotating chores, each child now had their own laminated sheet with a list of duties. They could mark them off as they went with a pen, or draw pictures around them, or pull them down and lose them under the sofa. Their choice!

Anyway, having a stable and routine set of chores turned out to be just the ticket. My wife divided them into two sections: morning, before school, and after lunch, before “rest time” (that period of one to two hours where the kids can have downtime with an audiobook, a DVD, or some reading). It took a while to get it going, but by now it is almost in their muscle memory. They know the expectations and, though they sometimes just don’t want to do it (who doesn’t), it had made chores into what we intended: they’re just what we do to help the household work.

My favorite part is that the list makes it easy to succeed: “wake up” is an item; as is “eat breakfast.” Amazing how the points add up.

 

 

Kitchen Think

I had one of those moments the other day. I had asked my eleven-year-old to help prepare lunch, something involving the stove and the broiler, and was giving her instructions when I realized that I didn’t need to be telling her what to do.

Not only was she perfectly capable of measuring the ingredients, watching the time, and reasonably avoiding burning herself. She was also already carrying out the instructions. My continuing to “help,” in fact, was only getting in the way.

I stopped short. I felt pride, and a little bit of shock, and found myself pulling back from the moment–to what a journalist would call a higher elevation–and saw that the little girl I had been raising and guiding was now at least as competent a cook as I am. And I didn’t learn any of this until I was in my thirties.

While I was up there, above the kitchen at around 10,000 feet, I started thinking about how my role as a parent had been shifting and reconfiguring itself all along. Those tasks, those bits of information, and those thought processes which used to require close supervision and physical proximity were now hers to explore, to push against, and expand to the limits of her new older self. My gosh, I thought, she’s approaching adulthood before my eyes.

As I have come through my own journey as a parent raising four daughters, I have been through a similar process. With each new stage and new situation, I come up against my limits and have to start again, as a beginner on a new level. Some parents I know talk about having favorite ages, or conversely, struggling in particular ways with the developmental challenges of three, or seven, or twelve. I can’t say that I have a favorite age (or one that throws me for a loop). I like babies. I like toddlers. And so far, so good in the interim between that and teenagerdom.

I do look forward to being able to share more of my life and myself with my children as they become old enough to process it. To someday have adult conversations about how we got there, and what we took with us or left behind.

Standing in the kitchen with my large-hearted, sensitive, stolid, quietly competent eldest daughter, I realized that teaching her to make a tuna melt was no longer enough. So what’s next? Will she tell me? Or do I need to spend some time here, at the edge of myself?

The Food Post

If there’s anything to get one in mind of food in families, it’s Thanksgiving. Don’t worry: I’m not going to offer advice about how to present leftovers in endless combinations (though I bet the internet has something to say about that). In fact, the only thing I have to say about our Thanksgiving is that we had four (4) pies. So clearly we won.

No, the reason this came up is that at dinner tonight (a completely non-leftover related affair) our five-year-old was displeased by what was on offer and was invited to wait in her room until we were done and I could help her get ready for bed. I later learned that she had changed into her pajamas, brushed her teeth, made her bed, tidied the floor, and made a drawing, so she was clearly not malnourished.

I won’t say that this is a common occurrence. It’s not. But nor is it unheard of. I can think of a time in the recent past when three out of four children opted out of a meal because of objections to a dish, an ingredient, or a method of preparation. And that’s fine. As we say, “There will be food again at the next meal.” Reliably and regularly. And we will attempt to make that meal as balanced and healthy as possible (with the exception of ice cream for dinner, which I haven’t written about for a few weeks). So if a child refuses offered food, it’s really a drop in the bucket.

Growing up, my nemesis was onions. I would not eat them in any capacity, for any reason (though strangely I always liked onion rings AS LONG as the breading did not come off). My mom, who did most of the cooking, didn’t put a lot of thought into accommodating my prohibition but was pretty good about warning me. As a result, I learned to deal with it as much as I was able and only very rarely gave up on the meal. My dad would marvel at my ability to find every trace of onion in a slice of supreme pizza; I would leave a neat pile on one side for future use in landscaping projects.

The frequency with which we deal with refusals of food is related to the sheer number of new foods we introduce to them. We don’t expect kale or beef liver or spaghetti squash to “take” the first time. Or even the first five. It may not happen ever. But given the variety our kids have seen on their plates over the years, the number of times they felt they had to throw in their napkin and walk away has been statistically quite small.

So, food allergies and sensory issues aside, the reason a child may “only eat chicken nuggets and pizza” or whatever is that this is what keeps ending up on their plate. Might I suggest taking a gamble that they will eventually try something new–if not now, then at the next meal?

 

Tending the Childhood Garden

Most of us would appreciate having some rules for good parenting; some ironclad procedure to follow in order to give our children the best of what we have. New research in the burgeoning field of neuroscience is taking what we know about the brain, how it works, and how it grows, and giving us some clues. But because it’s the brain we’re talking about, there are no simple answers.

What has been emerging is some support for certain approaches over others. And often this research brings us back to older ways of thinking about children and what they need to grow, thrive and succeed.

Alison Gopnik, in her new book The Carpenter and the Gardener: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children offers this very thing. Her central metaphor contrasts the model of the carpenter–the parent who attempts to construct their child through micromanaging and fine-tuning–with that of the gardener, who allows space and nourishment for a child to grow in the way it naturally wants to. Guess which one is more effective?

I have written about the metaphor of nurturing as cultivating the things we want to grow. We give our positive attention to the traits we want to encourage rather than focusing on the negative traits we would like to see less of. This is both a good and useful thing. However, there is more to it than that, and also less.

As Gopnik tells us, it is easier to allow children to do what they do best–learn–than try to will them into the shapes we want to see.  It sounds great, and quite a relief besides, to just move out of the way and let children grow. But that’s when we see that some approaches work better than others.

I encourage you to read the linked article, which provides a great summary of Gopnik’s research. And, of course, to read the book (I have it on hold at the library). Here’s how it breaks down:

  • Let children under 6 just…play. Academic preparation is just not effective for small children. It’s not a matter of getting them ready earlier, because that’s just not where they’re at. They learn through play. So give them ample opportunity to do so.
  • School-age children are ready to learn. So give them things to learn: cooking, building, cleaning, making. Show them, watch them, and offer ways to improve their skills.
  • Teenagers benefit from practical skills. Less homework, more real-world experiences. Teens used to enter the adult world through apprenticeships, and we can offer them internships, community service projects, and guided projects such as putting together a newspaper or, heck, starting a garden.

In each of these stages, children learn by doing. Our job as parents is to let them do it, in a safe and nurturing environment.

Sounds simple, right? Simple work is often the hardest. But really, the hard part for modern parents is just letting it happen.

The Family Taste

A while ago, I wrote as a music geek about which music I’ve introduced to my kids, and which I haven’t. As I mentioned, I disagree with a lot of my peers who find it important to pass along their “good” taste to their children.

In our house, music tends to be functional rather than ornamental: I play the same recording of Mozart Violin Concertos (by Kremerata Baltica, in case you were wondering) pretty much every Saturday morning, because of the way it tends to complement quiet productivity. And my current go-to bedtime music is From Sleep by composer Max Richter: it is literally music made to sleep to. And as a further sleep aid, I have dug up my Buddha Machine, which plays repeated short loops of ambient music. This recently backfired when my nine year-0ld pointed out that something was wrong with the Buddha: “Dad, can’t you hear that undercurrent of dread?” Turns out the battery was running down.

For the most part, we try to let our kids find their own taste, in music as with books (we tend to keep a tight reign on what they watch, which is maybe another post). Having come across this article, however, I’ve been thinking some more about the topic. I was struck in particular by the pull quote from the piece by film critic Peter Bradshaw, which read “Watch a movie with a five-year-old and it becomes more potent.”

Though they tend to cycle through a collection of favorites, mostly Disney fare, or shows like The Magic School Bus–whose value I acknowledge, though it makes me want to rip my eyeballs out–there are a few films I will always watch with them. Last weekend, at home alone with the kids, we sat in a pile and watched Muppet Treasure Island. Yesterday it was The Princess Bride*. I realized that these films had taken on a special significance for my kids because of the fact that I was present with them. I hadn’t meant them to take on this weight, but it happened anyway. I don’t think I could have done it on purpose.

A similar thing happened with The Lord of the Rings (the books, not the movies) because I had been saving a boxed set of the trilogy for years, in case my eldest daughter wanted to read them. They had become a long-time topic of conversation, and by the time she had come of age (we had decided she would have to be in double digits), she couldn’t wait another minute. By now she’s worn the bindings off the original set and the new ones aren’t long for this world. I feel proud and nerdily triumphant that she loves the books so much, but here’s the irony: I’ve never gotten through them myself.

A few months ago, on a whim, I took home a Tintin book to show to my girls. For those not familiar, The Adventures of Tintin is a series of boys’ comics published in French in the 1960s and translated into English. I had checked them all out from my school library and they still hold nostalgic real estate in my heart. My kids had not been introduced to comics (though they had discovered Garfield, which was probably inevitable), so I thought this might be a good way in. All four of my daughters, from age five on up, jumped in immediately. Now it’s all Tintin all the time. This had been a casual experiment, but it was wildly successful; so much so that I’m getting a bit worried.

I still haven’t touched Star Wars. But I’ll keep you posted.

*I fast-forward through the Wesley torture scenes, by covenant with my wife; however, I still let them see Inigo Montoya take his bloody vengeance. Someday we will be able to talk about the moral problems of revenge. But not now.