Early Childhood

“What Do We Do With the Mad That We Feel?”

Questions and Reflections From a Veteran Pre School Teacher

How do we help our children feel safe?

How do we help them understand their feelings?

How do we show and express our confidence in their ability to be kind?

How do we model compassion?

Each day across the land, preschool teachers and parents of young children struggle with these questions. In light of current events, even those of us who have been at this for a long time feel as though we are still wrestling with these questions.

A parent recently reminded me that Fred Rogers had some relevant insights about what children see on screens. In the wake of the recent horrific events in Pittsburgh and Louisville, and the fires in California, and inspired by a classroom filled with Superheroes on Halloween to reflect — on children, violence, and “saving the day,” I offer these reflections.

In our classroom this autumn, there was an explosion of Power Ranger play. Since this consisted mainly of weapons, large sudden movements, and fighting, I paused the play, and asked some of the children some questions. This led to great conversations and artwork among a few of the children, regarding both Power Rangers and a Big Foot monster, who had also entered their play.

One thing that really struck me was that the only thing the children were able to tell me about Power Rangers, aside from their different colors, is that “they fight.” Or, “they fight bad guys.” The term “bad guys,” seems to mean simply, the “others,” the “not us.” At this point, that is their take-away from whatever they are watching on screens. So that is what they are bringing to their classmates who have never seen shows with fighting.

Superheroes and “bad guy” play are not new, nor is violence in our country. In my kindergarten classrooms decades ago, alongside children who had parents deployed in the Gulf War, or in jail for violent crimes, I was dealing with Power Rangers. To be honest, it’s a challenge to have certain TV characters infused into our classroom of 3 and 4 year olds. It is even harder now than it was 25 years ago, because screens, and hence the graphic images of fighting that the children see, have become both larger, and smaller and portable, and more prevalent. Images of both real-life and make-believe violence  — in our living rooms, in cars, even in children’s bedrooms — live side by side on these screens. 

Although in our classroom the Power Ranger play has dissipated somewhat, it’s still there. The “Monster” play continues, and is particularly frightening for some of the students. A couple of my older students have learned to say, “it’s just pretend.” But for these same four year olds, and certainly for three year olds, pretend monsters — as well as teeth-baring fictional wolves, an angry-looking witch, or any one of a number of images that might be marketed for young children – can and do feel extremely threatening. Distinguishing between pretend and real is a complicated process, and does not even evolve along a predictable continuum. One minute, monster play can elicit shrieks of joy from a child; the next minute, the same child is running into my arms for comfort. In the light of day, monsters stimulate laughter; when darkness falls, tears.

Imaginative play is the work of young children, and for our three and four year olds, it is an exciting and constantly evolving and developing exploration. It grows their brains, builds social skills, and leads to joy and excitement, frustration and fear. In a group of 16 young children, we can see all of these emotions simultaneously. As teachers, we constantly scan and monitor, join and guide.

Getting the children to pause their play, and talk and paint about it, was just my initial response. I imagine in the future we might be having conversations in our classroom about different kinds of power — about being strong and capable, and about distinguishing between superpowers and real powers. We have started to have conversations about the FEELINGS we have — feelings that might cause us to hurt others, or to help others. And we will always have sand and art materials available for them to express, play out, and record their feelings.

Mr. Rogers points out that when bad things happen and when people are hurt, it is reassuring to “look for the helpers.” We want to teach the children that WE can BE the helpers, and that fighting and hurting others is not helpful; that it is, in fact, harmful. Even when others are not hurt, we can always practice being helpful. It is possible to develop our “helping” powers.

I offer a few videos. I hope you might spend a few minutes watching them. If nothing else, Mr. Rogers reminds us that being present with young children, and available to listen and talk about what they are feeling, as well as what they might be seeing on screens, is so important. Even though some of these clips are from decades ago — before ipads, smartphones, enormous HD TV’s, and the current hate crimes — I think he is also a good reminder to limit and very carefully control our children’s exposure to screens. 

The questions will always be there. So will our love for our young children.





By |2018-11-19T14:02:37-04:00November 19th, 2018|

What’s the Big Deal About “Wonder”?

“A ladybug on the gym floor!”

Early childhood educators love the word “Wonder.” We talk about a child’s sense of wonder and cultivating that wonder. Books have been written on “The Wonder Years,” and we have famously labeled four year olds as “Wild and Wonderful.” Indeed, every day this wonder in young children — in the form of a ladybug found on the gym floor, a prism rainbow on the wall, newly formed ice on a puddle, the gurgling of water under a grate — sustains us in our work with young children. Our B2’s wonder is contagious!

In Hawaii …

Over our Spring Break, I was again so fortunate to be able to travel to a far-away land, this time across the Pacific Ocean for two weeks on the islands of Hawaii. Each day brought new sights, smells, tastes, and sounds, from volcanoes, geckos, and sea turtles, to Kalhili Ginger, fresh Mahi-Mahi and Ono fish, tree frog peeps surrounding us through the night, and bamboo groves rattling in the breeze. For two weeks, I floated in what I will always remember as a “Wonder Bliss.”

One day I had a little revelation about Wonder that seemed especially relevant to my work with young children. I had driven 1.5 miles over lava rock, on what could barely be called a road, in order to get to an oasis of a beach we had read about in our guide book. At the end of this bumpy primitive road, we were surprised to find a parking lot full of cars, and many people lugging picnics and towels, just as we did.

As we ate, I watched a couple of young men snorkeling in a cove near our picnic table. Clearly, they had been at it for a while — wearing full wet suits with various straps and gear attached. After a while, they emerged with a few octopuses hanging from their belts! Before they emerged, I had seen them shed their wet suit shirts and spend several minutes floating and snorkeling in the very shallow reef water. They had been on a fishing expedition, but I didn’t realize until I myself got into the water why they had been hanging out for so long in that cove.

I was hot, so I put on my prescription swim goggles and ventured into that water. It was cold and wonderful, so I dunked down. I was immediately surprised and rewarded with three bright yellow fish with black stripes! Wow! I dunked again, and spotted black and white ones! Again, and I saw a large and shimmering blue-green fish. I kept floating and dunking, finding more and more. I lost count of how many different varieties of fish lived there in that little cove. A rainbow of colors, a full spectrum of geometric patterns of all sizes! This silent underwater world absorbed me completely. And I had discovered it!

After some time, I left the water to tell my husband about the great surprise I had found. I was absolutely thrilled. But I was also chilled, so I covered myself up with hat and big shirt, and went for a walk down the beach to dry off. I headed towards another cove in the distance that intrigued me. Having to choose between hot lava rock, hot sand, and stony water on my bare feet, I was looking down a lot — so until I was about 30 feet away, I didn’t notice an enormous creature lying on the sand! It was certainly as large as a baby elephant!

From my research afterwards, I learned that this monstrous creature was a Hawaiian Monk Seal. These are endangered, and there are only about 1500 of them left on earth. I also learned that they come onto the beach in order to give birth — which was almost certainly why I saw this one there on that lovely beach. And when I told my husband about it, I was not exaggerating — they do weigh hundreds of pounds (even when not pregnant).

So what does all of this have to do with young children? This day on the beach reminded me that the thing that makes wonder even more joyfully intense and memorable is the element of surprise, and the sense of having discovered something oneself. When I dunked down into that reef water, I had never been snorkeling before, and I had absolutely no idea that I would see all of those tropical fish. When I set off on that walk down the beach, of course I had not even an inkling that I might run into that awesome monk seal. I felt the thrill of an explorer, and I will forever remember that day.

A few days later, we did go on an official snorkeling trip along with dozens of other excited tourists. Somebody taught me how to use snorkel gear, and I stepped off a boat into a huge reef filled with countless tropical fish. I loved every minute of it, but I’m glad that my very first experience with tropical fish was on my own, and by surprise.

Back at BCD in Massachusetts …

we took the B2’s on a walk around campus one day. For four long months, the snow had prevented us from trekking down the path and crossing the bridge over the little stream to get to our favorite pine grove and hillside. But now the snow had mostly melted, and as we approached the bridge, a sound stopped us all short! The children were hearing a new and mysterious noise! Of course I knew what it was — the little stream from last fall was now a rushing river, cruising over its rocky stream bed. But the children had no idea what that sound was … water??? We walked to the bridge, and wow! In an instant they became explorers, discovering the magic of a swelling stream. They exclaimed, “WATER!” They watched, entranced. They lay down on the bridge on their bellies to look; they wanted to get as close as possible to that rushing water.

They were surprised, and enthralled! The next day at school, the first thing P. said to me was, “Can we go on a long walk?”

Wonder Bliss

When we work with young children, one of the reasons we provide opportunities for open-ended experiences is so that they can experience the depth of joy and learning that comes from discovering something themselves. There are countless ways we can recreate the “explorer” experience in the classroom. Instead of being told what to expect, or how to use the paints, or what a finished product should look like, curiosity will motivate them to discover these things themselves, and they will create a product (or a process), that is uniquely theirs. Through this opportunity for adventure, they experience surprise, wonder and absorption. They gain confidence to take the risk to try new things — the desire to go on ANOTHER long walk — and the joy that comes from creating something truly their own.

By |2018-04-19T14:14:06-04:00April 19th, 2018|

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