Learning From Children

“You can observe a lot just by watching.”  That quote attributed to Yogi Berra, the renowned baseball figure, came to mind while watching a baby/parent group in session.  Adults and babies, a year to fifteen months old, were all on the floor surrounded by appealing blocks of primary colors.  One mom stacked some blocks and waited expectantly.  The child looked up at her and seeming to find permission gleefully knocked over the tower.  This became a game they then played.

The teacher leading the group decided it was time to change activities.  A large, clear plastic container used to store the blocks was brought out and put in the center of the group.  The teacher announced that it was time to put the blocks away and demonstrated by picking up some of the blocks and putting them in the container.  The children quickly caught on, joining in by picking up blocks and tossing them into the container.  They clearly loved this activity and many rushed to get more blocks to toss.  One baby, barely walking managed to get himself over to the container but once there couldn’t let go of the blocks.  His mom helped.

In recent years many kinds of groups have been started for young children, even for babies.  Often we talk about these groups as classes and begin to think children are in school.  This can lead to a focus on more formal teaching and what we think children should be learning.  The idea of providing experiences that speak to where children are in their development can get lost in the process.

But we can learn a lot just by observing children.  The mom stacking the blocks was not trying to teach her youngster how to stack blocks.  Rather, she got it – the child’s feeling of mastery came from knocking them over.  Later, it was clear how pleasure in this activity was channeled into further social development.  The children were actually helping to clean up, doing it together with other children in a way that was fun.  The mastery experienced in knocking over the blocks was transformed into tossing them into the container.  What a useful insight that can be carried over at home.  Instead of nagging children as they get older about cleaning up after play, here is a way to incorporate the clean up into the play from babyhood on.

Another example turned up while observing a group of two year olds.  Again, everyone was on the floor.  One little boy was wearing overalls with a strap that to his annoyance kept falling off his shoulder.  He seemed unable to get generic Zocor it to stay up.  In a quiet way that seemed most tactful, a little girl came over and lifted the offending strap back onto the boy’s shoulder.  Lest anyone read a sexist bias into this, the next time the strap came down it was a little boy who came over to fix it.

The point is, the children spontaneously were helping another child.  No one told them to do this – the impulse to help came from within, not from without.  I often have seen this even with still younger children who go over to comfort a crying child, or try to give them a toy to help them.  In another instance, one child was clinging to her baby sitter away from the group, unable or unwilling to join the others.  Another child left the group to bring her an object related to the group activity, inviting her through her action to join the others.

Observing children, one can see how to build on their behavior and interests to develop the attributes we value as part of social development.  Even behavior that may look negative, like throwing blocking or getting too close to others in play, may have the seeds of social and other skills that we can nourish.  We can learn from our children what and how to teach.  You can observe a lot, just by watching!