Sunday, January 15, 2012

Profound Consequences

Last week I offered a workshop on the value of play to parents involved in the Parent Education Preschool in Roseville, California, one of the many cooperative preschool programs across the country.   At a cooperative preschool, for those not familiar with the structure, parents are actively involved in supporting professional teachers in the classroom and in other duties essential to the school’s operation.   Because there is an expectation that parents are learning, along with the children, about the importance of these early years, cooperative preschools regularly offer parent education programs. 

It was not until I was on the plane, back to Chicago, that I had the idea that would have made the workshop complete.  This post will have to be my chance to finish the lecture.

At one point in the workshop I was explaining the (sometimes) subtle things that parents do, while playing with young children, that development experts have identified as effective teaching practices.  I used the example of playing with a puzzle along with a young preschooler.

It’s quite common for young preschoolers, in their excitement, to choose a puzzle that is too difficult for them to complete on their own.  They see the puzzle and, in haste, dump out all the pieces on the floor.  We all know what happens next. 

The child, on his or her own, is overwhelmed by the number of pieces and doesn’t even know where to begin.  There could be a meltdown or, more likely, an abandoned puzzle left on the floor as the child moves on to something that he or she can do. 

Any caring adult that witnesses this moment does not let the child melt down or move along to the next toy.  But, at the same time, that caring adult does not simply tell the child what to do to complete the puzzle.  It’s a bit more complicated than that.  You can picture the scenario:

As the child is sitting on the floor in front of the puzzle, frustrated and about ready to give up.

Adult:  (sitting next to the child)  “Just pick one piece.  One piece. “ 

The words may be enough to guide the frustrated child to select one piece to work with.  If not, the adult might point or take the child’s hand and caringly help him or her to select a piece. 

Adult:  “Exactly…..start with one piece!” 

The child starts trying to force the piece into the first slot that is encountered in the puzzle.  The piece, of course, doesn’t fit and the child becomes frustrated again.

Adult: “Try another place.….. Try another place.”   

Once again, the words may be enough to guide the child to keep trying different slots with that one puzzle piece, but, if not, the adult might try pointing or leading the child’s hand.

Adult:  “Why don’t you try that place?”

Given the difficulty of the puzzle, the piece is unlikely to slide easily into place.  In that case the child again becomes frustrated as he or she tries to force the piece into the slot.

Adult:  “Turn it a little bit…….Try turning it a little bit.”

Perhaps the verbal cues will help the child successfully place the puzzle piece into the slot.  If not, the adult takes the child’s hand and gently helps turn the puzzle piece, guides it to the correct location, and then releases the child’s hand just as the puzzle piece slips into place.

Adult: “Look!  You did that all by yourself!” 

Any adult who has spent time with a child has been involved in a scenario like this.   Over and over.  But, for me, the best part is still to come.  There isn’t an exact replay of the script.  The adult isn’t simply on automatic pilot for the second piece of the puzzle.  The child will likely be a bit more successful on this try, but still need some help and guidance from the adult. 

In other words, the child is not capable of completing the puzzle on his or her own.  The adult does not simply complete the puzzle for the child, but helps the child –to whatever extent is necessary – to complete the puzzle.  And that degree of help changes from moment to moment. 

In my workshops I always mention that development experts have identified the process I just described as the most effective teaching practice.  I also like to point out that it is a process that adults are naturally inclined to engage in as long as they aren’t distracted by an incoming text or a television show playing in the background.

It’s a simple process, but it takes our proximity and our attention.   

I also like to mention that as the children move along to grade school, they encounter the same teaching techniques.  But, of course, there is not going to be a big wooden puzzle involved.  It’s going to be some sort of math calculation or algebra exercise.  (That’s why students are asked to show their work.  This allows teachers to identify the moment in the process where students need assistance.) 

But only on the plane did it strike me that I missed the biggest point. 

When we engage in this sort of playful interaction we are doing more than teaching our children the tasks before them.  We are helping them learn how to learn from us.  In the playful process described with the puzzle, young children learn important lessons about strategy and perseverance.  That’s obvious to anyone watching. But they also learn how to listen for cues, sometimes subtle, from caring adults. That's a lesson they carry with them throughout their learning years. And, for the good of our species, they learn how to share those cues with the next generation when they become adults themselves. 

It’s a simple process with profound consequences.