Young children and their sexual development

12 Sep

Young children’s awareness of their bodies and the resulting sexual exploration is something that makes many parents and teachers very uncomfortable. Even though we know that it is normal, our spontaneous reaction is to act prohibitive. Like all things in life, and especially like all things that have to do with the normal development of children, we have to be careful not to do more harm than good.

Babies explore their bodies from a very young age. When they are toddlers they discover their mouths and its ability to help discover other things in the world. They put objects up their noses and in their ears, and they look at their navels with great interest. But the moment they start exploring the other openings in their bodies, the emotionally important adults in their lives get uncomfortable. Please do not think for one moment that young children are unaware of this discomfort. Whether we voice our discomfort or just keep quiet, our reaction is interpreted by these young explorers that there must be something more to these openings. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place!

Babies are not born asexual like the cherubs in cathedrals. As adults we tend to view the sexual exploration of young children from our own experience as adults. The sexual acts of adults are driven by desire. The sexual exploration of young children is driven by the urge to find out. How young children react to this normal developmental phase will depend on the adults’ reaction. If we react punitively, we immediately start building an attitude viewing sex as wrong and something that should not be enjoyed. Remember that children explore what their brains need to explore. If we handle this calmly and unemotionally, they find out what they need to and move on.

Young children use masturbation when they are bored, sad or tired. Like all things in life there should be rules. These rules are very simple: it is all right to masturbate, but you do it in private, you do not do it with someone else and we also do not touch each other.

Sometimes, in the school situation, we see young children where this process has been handled in a punitive way. Children always pass on what they receive. If they receive love and acceptance from us, that is how they relate to their friends at school. If we act harshly and punitively, especially if it is in reaction to normal exploration, we push these children into situations where they will act punitively towards other children. Children exposed to developmentally inappropriate videos, games or pictures also play these scenes out to understand better. Parents think it is all right for children to view inappropriate material because they anyway do not understand the actions on the screen. However, even if they are too young to understand, violence (and adult sex is often interpreted as violent by children) has a menacing influence on the development of children, pushing them into a developmental phase for which they are not ready.

Parents always ask how do we know what our children are doing is normal? If we handle sexual development as normal and provide rules, children do not act with guilt. We should never close the door of conversation and communication on anything children do. If you feel uncomfortable talking about these issues with your young child, consider getting help. Many of us are products of parenting styles where conversations on sexual development were considered evil and sinful. Please do not put the same burden on your child.

To end on a light note, here is a story from my childhood about children on holiday at the seaside. The children arrived home to tell their mother that they swam in the nude with another group of kids. The horrified mother asked: “Were they girls or boys?” Full of the innocence of young children, they answered: “We don’t know, because they did not have any clothes on!”


Play or Decay, Kids!

20 Aug


Hi Folks! Here’s a spankin’ new study that won’t surprise you:

Children who spend more than three-quarters of their time engaging in sedentary behaviour, such as watching TV and sitting at computers, have up to nine times poorer motor coordination than their more active peers, reveals a study published in the American Journal of Human Biology.

The study, involving Portuguese children, found that physical activity alone was not enough to overcome the negative effect of sedentary behaviour on basic motor coordination skills such as walking, throwing or catching, which are considered the building blocks of more complex movements.

“Childhood is a critical time for the development of motor coordination skills which are essential for health and well-being,” said lead author Dr Luis Lopes, from the University of Minho. “We know that sedentary lifestyles have a negative effect on these skills and are associated with decreased fitness, lower self-esteem, decreased…

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Imaginative play

28 Jul

Observing young children is certainly one of the most interesting and revealing activities that parents and teachers can do. Recently, we acquired new climbing equipment for our baby class at school. We bought a climbing gym with a small, low slide and a car made from a drum, tyres and a steering wheel.

Three of our babies turned one year old in the last few weeks and all three these little boys are walking. As soon as the boys saw the car, they made a beeline for it. One of them, Amman, climbed into the car (with the help of his teacher) and assumed the driver’s position, hands on the steering wheel and body leaning forward. I stood about 15 meters away from him. He looked up and made eye contact, and  while still driving with his one hand, he lifted his other hand and waved at me. When I returned the wave, he got very excited and let go of the steering wheel for a moment and waved with both his hands. He then resumed driving.

This little boy turned one year old the previous week. The ability to imagine the drum-and-tyre car as a real car, to make the appropriate noises and to involve someone else in this imaginary game, is the start of a process of development with far reaching implications. At this very young age he is starting to develop symbolic thinking. The moment a young child uses a piece of equipment and changes it into something real by his or her play, we can talk about symbolic thinking.

We often see 18 month old toddlers picking up small blocks and using them as cell phones.  They will even use their hands to do something else, clenching the “cell phone” between their shoulder and ear while pacing up and down, imitating a parent. Playing imaginary games is different from kicking a ball, climbing a tree or sliding down a slide. Imagination involves an internal language and internal visualisation of the imaginary scene. As the child gets older these imaginary games become more intricate, the games involve “props” and other players that must be initiated in the game planned in the child’s imagination. These games have rules and take place in a certain space, while incorporating a continuous process of symbolic thinking. These games also create opportunities for language development and mathematical understanding that have long-term implications for life.

We often think of the value of imaginary games as mainly social and emotional. According to Stuart Brown, games that develop and strengthen spatial skills, an awareness of rules and the use of language, have implications for adult functioning in diverse situations like engineering, being a parent and starting a business.

Symbolic thinking is for example, critical in learning and appreciating poetry, as well as understanding and seeing relationships in literature. All of these things are important for doing well at school. According to research, preschool block builders and players do better in grade 10 Algebra, than those young children that did not participate in this essential preschool imaginary game.

Play is continuously under pressure. It is not waste of time, nor childish and worthless, but a human activity of great value. May we never forget how to play!

Creating capacity for the future

3 Jul

Most people think of the years before school as waiting in the wings for real school to begin. This attitude creates the opportunity for practices such as formal reading and writing, teaching young children “Maths” and exposing them to formal worksheets and colouring-in activities. Unfortunately, many people believe that these activities will ensure that children do well at school.

In spite of numerous knowledgeable voices, there is still a strong belief that the younger you start, the better the end result will be. This belief takes no notice of the fact that young children learn in a very different way from adults. It also does not take notice of the fact that playing is absolutely essential for the learning of young children.

Creating capacity for the future means that we have to be aware that young children’s brains are still developing. What exactly is the nature of creating capacity for the future?

Playing imaginative games that are self-initiated can create the capacity for sophisticated social skills like being able to compromise, to negotiate and to put your own wishes on hold because the group wants something else. Rough and tumble play, where young boys (and girls, if we allow them) wrestle and play rough games, prepares men for the boardroom strategies (Stuart Brown in “Play”). These games all have rules and playing by the rules prepares us for life as nothing else can.

Learning to explore and finding out about the world prepare young children to take risks, to make mistakes and to take responsibility for rectifying their mistakes. In this process children learn to trust themselves and to believe in their ability to do things. In terms of academic prowess, being an independent, self-motivated learner is an incredible advantage. These are the characteristics we need for future scientists and explorers.

There is also the very important skill of being able to “read” other people. This skill can only develop in the presence of other people and especially in the presence of peers.

Research in the last few months showed that children that played with blocks in the preschool phase did better in Algebra in Grade 10 than young children who did not play with blocks. The “wasted” time spent playing actually has a cumulative positive effect. The older people get the more important these skills become and the greater the influence on their lives.

If we put pressure on children to learn and practise things like reading, writing or Math before they are developmentally ready to learn these skills, they very often experience stress, frustration and sometimes anger.  As teachers and parents we need to remember two important things: the one is that young children very seldom mature simultaneously; the second thing is that most children need time to develop in their own way.

Let us not pressurise our children to grow up. They do that so quickly in any case.

To bee or not to bee

8 Jun

ImageLast week, I read in the news about the youngest competitor ever in a Scripps National Spelling Bee, the 6 year old Lori Anne Madison.  According to the Mail Online she is an exceptionally gifted young girl with varied interests and an affinity for the written and spoken word. I do not want to belittle her accomplishments – it is indeed impressive that such a young person is so capable in spelling.

But I do question the value of spelling bees. Wikipedia states that “The earliest evidence of the phrase spelling bee in print dates back to 1825, although the contests had apparently been held before that year. A key impetus for the contests was Noah Webster’s spelling books. First published in 1786 and known colloquially as “The Blue-backed Speller,” Webster’s spelling books were an essential part of the curriculum of all elementary school children in the United States for five generations.” The 1824 edition of Noah Webster’s “The American Spelling Book: Containing the rudiments of the English language”, can be viewed online. Included in this book, are the elements of sound analysis in the English language; pronunciation guides, syllables and accents, participles, derivates, comparatives and other grammatical concepts.

So, what started out to be a part of the curriculum to teach English spelling rules to students, has grown into an absurd competition with participants awarded for remembering the word order in little used English and foreign language words. Take a look at this list of winning words from the Scripps National Spelling Bee:


Don’t misunderstand me – I am a closet dictionary afficionado. I love reading about the etymology of words. I can probably think of worse things on which students can spend all their time, like playing computer games. But I can certainly think of far better things. What is the use of spending hours and hours a day, practising how to spell words that you will probably never use? Even a highly precocious 6-year old will not find most of these words useful in everyday conversation. E.g. If you play a musical instrument, you should know what an appoggiatura is; but when would you ever use it if you did not play an instrument? Why not rather spend that time learning a second, or a third, or a fourth language? Is it not much more useful to be able to speak an entire language, than to be able to spell hundreds of words from a score of foreign languages? Or why not spend the time mastering a musical instrument? And what about good old-fashioned developmentally appropriate activities, like playing outside, building with construction sets, or baking cookies?

I believe spelling bees are just another symptom of our society’s preoccupation with competition, testing and measuring our children’s worth. But sadly, in this principled demarche, I might as well be speaking a special unintelligible Ursprache in trying to convey my pococurante feelings towards spelling bees to the afficionados…

What makes us human?

24 May

In the NewScientist of 21 April 2012, there is a very interesting article on what makes us human and why we are different from most animals. This article pinpoints 5 characteristics that make us human in a unique way. Three of these are present in young children and remind us of Alison Gopnik’s words that young children are the research and development phase of humanity.

The first characteristic is being playful. This is my personal favourite. Although many animals play, no species pursue such a wide variety of play over such a long period. Although the nature of play changes as we get older, humans still play into old age. What makes human play different, is the great degree of imagination that is generated in play. If we look at the pinnacle of play in the preschool phase, it is imaginative play that provides children with the opportunity to socialise, compromise and learn from mistakes. Play isn’t simply for fun (Marc Bekoff). Through play, young children develop muscle strength, rhythm, coordination, balance and spatial skills. Even more important is the ability to develop a theory of mind as well as a social instinct. To me one of the most important benefits of play, is the ability to develop creative thinking and problem solving skills. Children playing without interference of adults learn to trust their instincts, and they learn from the mistakes they make. The article comes to the conclusion that play is a sort of simulator that allows us to imagine and try out different scenarios with little risk. One of the benefits of imaginative playing is the development of symbolic thought. The young baby, holding a wooden block to his ear, pretending to talk on a cell phone, is replacing a real object with a symbol of that object. The development of symbolic thinking underlies the development of reading, writing and math.

The second characteristic is one that parents of young children are very familiar with. It is the ability to sort the surrounding environment and experiences into categories. Children are natural scientists looking for meaning in the world around them. The much loved, often repeated question of young children: “But why ..?”, epitomizes this scientific quest. This question eventually links up with the symbolic thinking with the purpose to understand the world better and to be in control of the world. The question “why” is fundamental to the young child taking apart a toy to see why and how it is working; a much more enduring reward than putting batteries in a toy!

The next characteristic is the tendency to make rules. Anyone observing imaginative play in a group of 4 to 6 year old children will notice that making rules is a major part of the play. In fact, this is one of the benefits of play. If we look at this benefit longitudinally we can assume that to play by the rules is a building block of morality. Although rules differ from society to society, and whether we agree with the rules or not, rules are an inherent part of every society. Children playing are thus, without knowing, preparing themselves to function within a particular society.

We often think of children as being in a process of becoming a human being. But by their nature, children are already finely tuned humans.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

2 May

Dr Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and teacher, started her first preschool in the early 1920’s. She was the first person to make the furniture and learning environment child friendly. She was also the first person to say that children learn through playing with each other. One of the things that Maria Montessori did was to observe children in their play without interfering in their play.

Jean Piaget was a Swiss developmental psychologist that became interested in how children learn by observing his own children.  He was the first one to say that children learn in a completely different way from adults. His advice to teachers was to create an environment where young children can play and where the role of the teacher was to observe and not to interfere.

This is exactly what modern brain researchers and learning specialists say. The only difference is that Montessori and Piaget’s position was based on thorough observation and modern researchers like Alison Gopnik, Stuart Brown and Sugata Mitra base their position on irrefutable evidence of brain research.

The question we must ask is then why do people in light of almost 100 years of evidence still insist that playing is a waste of time and worksheets are a valid way to introduce children to the rigors of primary school?

One of the things we know from brain research and from evidence in schools, is that the lack of vigorous, physical play has precipitated an avalanche of learning difficulties. A more hidden result is that a lack of play leads to a diminishing ability to think symbolically. That in turn influences creative thinking and the ability to read, write and do well in Math. Stress and the effect of stress on learning have been researched very thoroughly in recent times. When learners are subjected to situations where they experience stress, or when teachers (and parents) use stress to “motivate” learners to do better, the stress level increases so much that no learning can take place.

Why do teachers and parents persist in ignoring research? Maybe it is because education is so caught up in a conservative mode of thinking, or alternatively that teachers and parents do not read and take notice of the abundance of evidence. 

In our preschool and primary school we apply the results of brain development research. We have reached the stage where we label our program a brain-based learning programme. The results are spectacular. The best reward for us as teachers is that our learners are really hooked on school!

I often wonder what Dr Montessori and Piaget would say if I could meet them over a cup of coffee?