The Stuff of Childhood

By Sara Zacuto

“Trust yourself, yes, but also trust children. They know what they need to do.” ~Bev Bos

There have been many times in my teaching career that a parent has come forward expressing concern over what their child is doing all day at school. They have asked why their child doesn’t want to paint, or work with clay like the other children. This concern is often tied to anxiety over school “readiness” or worry over their child choosing to reject more adult-led activities in favor of something they have initiated themselves. They have said things like they “just play” all day long, or have expressed disappointment that their child doesn’t ever bring home any art projects. They have asked why we don’t just make kids sit down and do each activity that is offered. That’s what they are here for, right? To do projects and be creative and make things? Especially in schools that are Reggio or Waldorf inspired…where there is so much emphasis placed on art and materials.

Generally these questions are asked more frequently by parents of boys and, more specifically, the boys who tend to gravitate toward more rough and tumble types of play. The boys who climb, and swing sticks, and dig, and run. The boys who need to move and wriggle and release their energy in big and loud ways. The boys whose interests tend to make people feel uneasy, or out of control, or maybe even angry. What are these children learning? What benefits are they reaping from being here if they aren’t actively engaged with project work that produces beautiful or interesting things to bring home? Are they missing out because they aren’t doing all the same things their peers are doing? Or will they be at a disadvantage in the future somehow? Here is where a healthy dose of trust and letting go come into play.

As a parent, I completely understand the allure of keeping the stuff that your child creates as mementos, as keepsakes of the precious time where their ideas and creativity are unhindered. I understand why that feels important, I have a closet full of drawings that my children have done throughout the years. And I also understand, if it’s your child’s cubby that is empty at the end of the day, how that can feel unsettling and lead to feelings of uncertainty. The problem is, of course, that seeing what (or how much) a child can manufacture has become a way of measuring their learning, or perhaps more critically, a way of evaluating what they spend their time doing. If your child creates things that you can point to and hold it’s much easier to feel that they have done work…they’ve been productive. A painting or a string of beads is a palpable object that can give us a clearer window into their day, and make us feel like they’ve done something of worth. But why do we sometimes value these things more than the more intangible acts of playing that are equally as (if not more) efficient at building our children’s brains, bodies and relationships?

It has taken me a long time to feel comfortable addressing this concern with parents, mostly because I have felt uncertain about contradicting their desires for their children, or perhaps even guilty about not meeting the expectations that they have as people who pay good money for their children to be in an enriching environment with caring, attentive adults. It used to make me question whether I was doing “enough” as a teacher.  But time and time again I have found (and research has continually backed up) that what children really need to flourish is our focused and authentic attention, and long, uninterrupted periods of time to play. The level of engagement we maintain in our relationships with young children, and the richness of our conversations we have with them is far more impactful than any object they might create. Not to say that their art, or ideas are not valuable… they certainly are. Aside from giving children opportunities to develop skills and new motor abilities, they often provide teachers with a wealth of knowledge about a child’s interests and levels of mastery that a child wouldn’t necessarily be able to articulate conversationally. Children show us who they are by what they work on. And why place more significance on the things they make versus the experiences they have?

 I’ve often said that even if a child was sitting and digging in the sand all day, they are learning. Often what looks to us like impracticality, laziness, destructiveness, or conflict is really just engaged and passionate children figuring out how to solve complex problems. And when children appear to be doing nothing at all they might actually be taking a break from something they found overwhelming, resting, or regulating themselves. Maybe they are reflecting deeply on something we don’t even know about. Their wheels are always turning. Their minds and bodies are taking in so much stimuli and they have to constantly work to put it all in context and make sense of it. There are boundaries and safety to consider, and their own emotional states and those of others. Each day they build on what they learned the day before…an on and on it goes.

The truth is, our children can feel our discomfort and disapproval even when we do our best to keep it inside our own heads. But if we step back from placing even the slightest pressure on them to do or be things that they aren’t, and instead tune into who they are and what interests them, their burgeoning sense of self and purpose will be validated by the people who matter most in the world to them. And that is a powerful message to send…the kind that will galvanize their efforts to make their way in this world, and do so joyfully.

One thought on “The Stuff of Childhood

  1. This is beautifully written. Your analysis – that our preoccupation with what our children produce is predicated on our desire to evaluate them – is extremey insightful. When children grow older, the same relation governs the assigning of grades in school. This quantification of time and experience, as you suggest, overlooks true enrichment in favor of a regime which sees children (and all humans) as instruments of production and consumption rather than as full human beings. The philosophy you espouse is an important way to oppose that.

    Liked by 1 person

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