Sunday, October 23, 2011

Whose Rules are They?

As adults and teachers or caregivers, we tend to prefer a sense of order. Which means we like rules and have them to apply to all sorts of situations. One rule that is used often in child care and preschool is that tables and chairs stay together. To go a step further, generally children are expected to sit in a chair while they are working at a table. To be honest, I used to have these rules in my class.

You might wonder what led me to eliminate that rule several years ago. I attended a conference several years ago sponsored by the Ohio Association for the Education of Young Children. While I can no longer remember the presenters' names, I do remember what I learned from a session on toddler activities.  These two ladies shared some wonderful ideas which led to a discussion of rules for toddlers. When setting rules, they considered two things: Is it a safety issue and if not, is it something they could live with. They shared that their toddlers had started taking the play dough to the dramatic play center. They had previously banned this practice but as the children continued, they decided to re-evaluate.  They decided they could live with a little play dough in the carpet so the rule was eliminated and everyone was happier.

A few years later, I started learning about the teachings of Magda Gerber, who advocates for unstructured, uninterrupted play time for infants and toddlers. Gerber advises parents and care givers to "allow and trust babies to be initiators, explorers, and self learners." Instructing a fully engaged child to sit in their chair can inadvertently interrupt their thoughts and explorations, sometimes causing them to lose interest altogether. This simply reinforced the idea that toddlers should have simple rules and be able to freely explore.  

I am constantly re-evaluating and adjusting the rules based on what I know about toddlers in general and the group currently in my care. There are now six basic rules, mainly reminders to the staff. The only rule regarding chairs is that children must be sitting when eating, in order to lessen the likelihood of choking. Every now and then, though, I hear a teacher tell a child that the chair needs to stay at the table or they need to sit down while they paint. After a while, these teachers generally become comfortable with children choosing to do otherwise. It helps when they get to see what those same children can do with a chair.

If chairs always had to stay at the table, we wouldn't have children coming together on their own to have circle time and sing songs.

There would be no trains, buses, helicopters or airplanes for the whole class to ride in. 

There would be no child-led story time.

Likewise, if they always have to sit when doing art or play dough, there would be no discovery that glue can form 'rain drops.'

We wouldn't be able to spread our creation out when we run out of space or get the right leverage to make it do what we want.

With the youngest toddlers, I have watched them play with chairs simply as chairs. I have been watching the youngest two in the group come to the table and sit down when they notice other children at the table. Usually this would happen at meal times and I would have them leave the table because they had already eaten. After a couple weeks of this, it dawned on me that they were coming to the table simply because they could. It hadn't dawned on me that, at home, they were being put into their high chairs, cribs, etc, since the average household isn't filled with child-sized furniture. Just being able to get in and out of the chairs on their own, safely, was a learning experience. So now when they come to the table, I welcome them to sit down and chat with their peers.

The older toddlers are quite fond of tools. They go around the classroom 'fixing' things all day long. Now it is quite common to find one of them lying on their back, under the table, 'fixing' it. I could stop it because they might get stepped on or someone might trip over them. But, if that does happen, I will deal with it as a teachable moment. And I will continue to re-evaluate the rules, making changes when necessary. Until then, let the exploration continue.

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