Tag Archives: problem solving skills

A river filled with crocodiles

5 Nov

Children are truly amazing. I am, once again, teaching a 4 to 5 year old group. It is a learning situation for me as well as for the children. I spend a long time every night preparing for the next day and yet their interest is often caught by the unprepared things that happen in the class. The unprepared, spontaneous discussion on what should we do to be a good friend. These children very seriously declared that you should not hurt someone, you should always speak kindly and share your toys. Profound wisdom that they can take into adulthood with them.

I also started with a programme to help them focus and increase their self-control. Every morning we start by sitting with crossed legs and breathing slowly in and out. We greet each other with a morning song and talk about what happened at home. In the three weeks that we have been together, I have learned that laughing and playing are powerful tools to get children to focus. We sing and dance every day. We listen to stories and do art, and they play. Playing is so precious at this age. They are willing to do all the things I ask of them but in the end their question is, “May we go and play?”

When we were small, we did not need to ask. In fact, we were chased out of the house to go and play. When we were in primary school, no one ever asked where we were going after school. You only had to be back when the sun went down. I know the world has changed. I also know that I had an incredible childhood. It was filled, not with possessions, but with experience. I can remember one day discovering  a shallow pool filled with enormous bullfrogs. We went back there to observe and watch the bullfrogs until they mysteriously disappeared. Today there is a huge hospital built on this site.

I know we cannot bring back the carefree days of our childhood. However, we can make it easier for young children to be children. When I hear that children as young as three have to do ballet, formal music classes, mathematics and learn to read and write, it fills me with sadness. They should, like the troop in my class, go out and play. The other day they built a river, filled it with water and swung over the river with the rope swing in the tree. I do not think that anyone of them has ever done that in real life, but their imagination enabled them to live that experience. And who are we to say they do not learn?

We should allow our children to create memories for the day that will surely come when they are sad and alone. Then they can remember making a wide, dangerous river, filled with crocodiles and swinging over this river with the help of their friends. Is that a waste of time? No. As long as we know that we need friends; and that you must not hurt your friends; and share your time and resources; we know that we learn for the future.

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.

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.

The importance of art

8 Oct

One of my hobbies is to study the development of children’s art and their creativity. Children’s creative processes have intrigued and fascinated me through all my years of working with children. This blog is the first in a series devoted to art and creativity development in children.

Creativity is not the sole domain of art. Creative thought lies at the foundation of problem solving. Visual art is viewed as an important way to help people develop creative problem solving skills.

We all want our children to have creative problem solving skills. In professions like engineering, construction and even in human relationships, creative problem solving skills separate those who excel at their professions from those who only “work”. Why is this important? The hallmark of entrepreneurs is the knack to look beyond the obvious possibilities. Creativity sparks the possibility of seeing options. Obviously, to see a variety of options and to choose one, assume the courage to take a leap into the unknown. Creative thought does not automatically lead to success. In fact, failure is more often the result.

Research on creativity in young children states that art plays a very important role in the development of creativity. By the term “children’s art”, I refer to the personal, first-hand experience (seeing, feeling, doing, hearing) of the creative process. Sadly, as adults we often emphasize the end result which inevitably entails the copying of another person’s experience. Obviously, this practice nips creativity in the bud.

What then are the requisites for the development of creativity? We could start by looking at the universal development of children’s art. It is a well documented process; and just as crawling is important for walking and running, scribbles are important for drawing, painting and creating. The scribble is not just random marks on paper. Children as young as 18 months will make circular “pictures” on paper, using one colour. The next step is a circular scribble in more than one colour. After this phase, children start to scribble several smaller circles, which in turn leads to the beloved “head-foot man” of which there are several variations.

Children as young as 24 months can indicate that they can observe a difference between drawing and text. This, of course, is no indication of being ready to write. It only shows the keen observation skill of a two- year-old. Smaller circles arranged in a more or less straight line is the beginning of writing. After this phase, the typical head-foot figure emerges. Normally the early image of a head-foot man is a round circle with two eyes. Many times the eyes are outside the head circle. This all is developmentally normal and indicates the young child’s growing awareness of space and position in space. Is this art? Strictly speaking, yes. The child is depicting his or her experience of the self in the surrounding world. This exploration of space, media and emerging writing skills are absolutely necessary to be able to be creative in the true sense of the word.

Creativity is a process. We can be creative if we have knowledge, skills and an opportunity where we can apply this knowledge and skills in a new situation. The toddler and young child are gathering knowledge about the use of space (paper), crayons, paint or collage. Repeated experience will lead to a more effective use of the space and the media. The important thing to remember is that as the young child’s “art” develops, her observation and perception of herself and the surrounding world are also improving. Voila! One day, out of the blue, a picture like this one of the chameleon catching the fly appears. This is basically a head-foot man adapted with four legs and a long tongue sketched after the child observed a chameleon in the garden.

The child’s sense of self and the ability to have a positive image of him- or herself depend very much on the adults’ ability to not interfere with the child’s pictures.  The well-known educational scientist, Sugata Mitra, said we must be like loving grandmothers, stand behind the child and say: “This is wonderful, did you do it? Show me, can you do some more.” In other words, do not interfere with the process of development. The tiny, budding seed of creativity depends on the child’s feeling of “I am unique and fantastic and I can”.  (By the way, colouring books are creativity killers. Keep them far away from young children. Rather give them clean paper, soft pastels and lots of opportunities to explore their own creative process.)

I will share some more aspects of this intriguing process in next week’s blog post.

Photo credit: Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/laffy4k/404321726/in/photostream/