Monday, 9 September 2013

"Crying Wolf" and "Be Careful" is too Risky!

Spotting a family of ducks with a number of very young ducklings in Waikerie, South Australia, we stopped the car on the opposite side of the road to take some photographs. The adult ducks were immediately alert watching my every move. 

I crossed the road, they called out and their young immediately moved closer to the adults. I climbed over the fence, the adults called out again and the ducklings moved in between the two adults - the little family group rapidly started moving towards the road and the safety of the river. 

Reaching the road the ducklings stayed close together with both adults alert, 'escorting' their young as fast as their little legs could take. They remained calm but with a sense of urgency.
The little family crossed the road, down the embankment where the ducklings were sent ahead while the adults moved between myself and their young until everybody had reached the safety of the river and they all swam off calmly....possible danger (me and my camera?) averted.

As young as these ducklings were they immediately responded to the adult's warning cries - instant obedience which is necessary to protect these vulnerable young.  

I have seen similar protective behaviour in the bird world before. Baby birds in a nest will remain absolutely silent until the parent arrives with food which it will only do once the adult feels there is no danger. Some birds on the ground will noisily fly up to distract the intruders while their young instantly hide silently until the parent bird declares it safe to move on again. These young instantly react to the adults warnings, no arguments....their lives may depend on their obedience. This is part of their instinct for survival.

Many of our young children do not appear to have the same instinct for survival. Adults are constantly warning children to be careful - most children do not react at all and may in fact see this as a challenge and increase the behaviour! A child running away from a parent towards a busy road may run faster as the parents shouts louder, thinking it is a game! 

We use this phrase when we want:
  • children to be aware of others in the environment: " BE CAREFUL!" (not to bump the baby)
  •  them to be aware of their actions "BE CAREFUL!" (not to spill when pouring milk)
  • children to undertake risky tasks "BE CAREFUL!" (of the cars when crossing the road), 
  • children to be aware during play "BE CAREFUL!" ( of slipping when climbing the tree)"
  • and many other opportunities! 
Do we use this phrase too often and children, who are constantly being told to be careful, become immune to the phrase... has it lost its meaning? What do they need to be careful of? A snake on the ground or a flying saucer about to land on their heads? Are we 'crying wolf' too often? 

In a risk averse society children are overly protected, not allowed to experience or evaluate possibly risky opportunities for themselves. Adults use terms such as 'be careful' which are meaningless as they are heard too often and children no longer react with caution. The risk is that children are not able to judge and therefore react to REAL danger in an appropriate way.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Little Boxes - Little children.......

Walking along a city road in Auckland, NZ, with the inspiring Teacher Tom Hobson I noticed interesting contorted tree roots - shaped into a square – a slightly unevenly raised square! To me it appeared as if something or somebody had tried to contain the tree roots - the majority of the roots had been contained in the shape, they had ‘obeyed’, others had managed to creep out, they had pushed the boundaries! When the physical  boundaries were removed, the majority of roots remain distorted into their box shape; I wondered if they have been permanently affected, if this will negatively affect the tree at a later stage, will the growth be stunted, will the tree be more vulnerable or will this tree be stronger and healthier for it?

I reflected on these tree roots - is this what we are doing to our young children; distorting their growth by expecting uniformity and conformity. Does this mean we are placing these children in little boxes, lots of little boxes all the same? Tom started humming this well known song by Pete Seeger and I cant get it out of my head - thanks Tom!

Do we really want children to fit into an adult designed mould, to be and to act the same, not to question authority? I often feel that many adults do battle with these young children trying to get them to conform to the adult's standards instead of the adult understanding and valuing each child as being a capable, competent, unique and fully formed little individual with a mind, belief and will of their own. Some children will eventually contort themselves into one of these little boxes while others never quite fit. Surely the mature adult should be the one to adapt to the individual child’s needs, learning styles and motivational thinking, to bring the best out of each highly individual child instead of constantly battling to get them to fit into the boxes?

I am reminded of Tom's wise words: “We are preparing children for something; we are preparing children for their next year of schooling, we are not preparing them for life. Schooling as a conveyor belt system churning out children to fit into identical little boxes, filling up all those empty vessels and once they have been filled they are done." 

My concern is that as well intentioned as we may be - we are causing both short term and long term  damage to children by placing them into these little boxes....restricting their natural creativity and thinking. I love the creative freedom children display when released from adult restrictions......

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Bird/Baby Trainer - Why?


Exploring Auckland, New Zealand, with Tom Hobson is made all the more interesting because we do think so alike and we both relate what may often be seen as having no immediate connection, to our thinking about children and adults. I have decided to link to Tom's blog as I could not express my thoughts as eloquently as he does - thank you Tom for another insightful post.

"Children are born not only ready to learn, but knowing how and what to learn. They may well, if they know nothing else, be made to willingly put their wings to a trainer, if only to please their task-master because they do seek to please, but it's only when we finally take them off that a child can really learn to fly." Teacher Tom Hobson

Sunday, 18 August 2013

I am a Helicopter Parent!

"Helicopter Parenting" has become a negative term referring to parents who do not allow their children the freedom or space to choose and undertake challenges. Teacher Tom Hobson and I reflected on this over dinner last week after delivering one of a series of Inspired EC training session on democracy in early childhood - and I am still thinking!

I am always there for my children, prepared to drop what I am doing to support and protect – I would say I am hovering – does this make me a Helicopter Parent? If it does then I am proud to be a Helicopter Parent, my children are beautiful adults now and live on the other side of the world but I still hover from afar! Yes, they made mistakes, they fell and learnt to pick themselves up again, they are resilient, they are able to face the consequences of their actions and are responsible adults.  My parents too are helicopter parents – we had as much freedom as we needed, we survived everyday bumps and bruises and learnt by our mistakes and I know my mum is there for me even now!

I am a helicopter teacher too – what is good for my own children, who are very precious to me, is also good for the children I interact with, who are very precious to their parents.


The critical point is where and how the hovering is taking place. Physically close, not allowing the child out of sight, enabling the adult to react at the first sign of any physical or emotional struggle is very different to the adult who is mindful and aware without ‘interfering’ with the child’s growing experiences! There is a very fine line between interference and interaction, well-meaning adults often interfere and reduce or even prevent children from having what should be valuable childhood experiences. 

In nature animals and birds often hover around their young – always alert and aware. They allow their young increasing freedom – at times ‘kicking’ them out of the 'nest' for the benefit of all.

Hovering may be:
1. Controlling Hovering - physically close, alert, quick to respond to all perceived needs, distrustful of child’s ability to use their own judgement.
2. Neglectful Hovering - physically close but mentally distant
3. Respectful Hovering – physically unobtrusive either close or distant, alert, trusting children’s ability to use their own judgement and only stepping in when absolutely necessary.

Finding the balance can be hard as adults want to protect children from harm as well as guide and support them in times of challenge. Harm can be both emotional and physical – often only physical risk and harm are considered as these are measurable while the long term emotional harm may not be as immediately obvious and may be considerably more detrimental.

Children need adults around them who appreciate the value in letting children have the freedom to discover things for themselves - even when these may be hard!

I am a Helicopter Parent; I practice Respectful Hovering!


Tuesday, 13 August 2013

A Place to Experience Childhood

 A place to be a child......
or a place where "children can break their arm naturally"!

Or are these the same? In the present climate where so many adults fear for their children and there is a tendency to envisage worst case scenarios, the creation of the right natural play space in the centre of a large city is important. Children are becoming increasingly disconnected from nature and research has shown that this disconnection has long term negative effects.

Exploring Perth's Naturescape with Teacher Tom Hobson from Seattle Washington, allowed me to reflect on the coming together of 'wild nature' and 'manufactured nature' in this space that is creatively designed to allow children the freedom to explore and discover. I am a regular visitor and have written a previous simultaneous blog with Alec Duncan.

This is a place where "wild nature" meets "planned nature" - rocks placed to create a natural looking creek, trees planted to enclose spaces.

This is a place where "found nature" meets "manufactured nature" - water, rocks and vegetation added to hollowed out rock 'bowls', sticks and branches added to metal frames.

This is a place where adults play, where children play, where adults play with or alongside children.

This is a place where children of all ages can play together, where new momentary friends are made, where children can choose to play on their own, to observe.

This is a place where children can make a mess and get messy - mud play, water play, sand play.

This is a place where children can explore and experience the properties of materials - rocks, water, metal, wood, vegetation.

This is a place where play detectives can find evidence of play - rocks and sticks in unexpected places. 

 This is a place full of texture, colour, sound, fragrances, surprises!

This is a place where some experiences are not found and wait to be discovered at a later time or date.

This is a place where children can explore height, where they can climb, balance, jump, crawl, run, build, construct, design, create.

This is a place where adults can take a risk - physical risks as well as emotional risks trusting in their children's skill and ability to make judgements.

This is a place where children can challenge themselves naturally, where they can choose and manage their own risks, where they can demonstrate their skills as risk assessors.

Children will search for challenge and if the environment around them does not provide appropriate challenge children will create their own, often inappropriate, opportunities which may carry a far greater risk to themselves and to others.  

Children have a right to be trusted, to be seen as competent self risk assessors. They have a right to a quality childhood with range of sensorial experiences and challenges.

"Rather a broken bone than a broken spirit" is a quote often heard -  on our visit to the Naturescape a mother shared her view that this is a place where "children can break their arm naturally"!

The biggest risk is that there is no risk!  (Bundy)

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Play Detective

Finding Evidence of Children at Play

Creative play is like a spring that bubbles up 

 from deep within a child.                                                                                                                      Joan Almon


Speaking at a recent event I was drawn to the bush area of the school playground where I found evidence of children having played in this space over a period of time.

With great excitement I became a Play Detective on the trail of evidence of play!

A stick for mixing?
A secret hoard? Currency?
Natural and man made treasures?
 Finding natural elements combined in a variety of different ways brought back memories of my own rich childhood in South Africa. We created dens using gathered grass cuttings to form rooms and doorways. In this Australian space I found similarly constructed cubbies made using the fallen leaves of the She-oaks instead of grass cuttings. There is often a hierarchy in these structures, some positions are more valued than others; children have regular battles or wars with clearly identified rules established by the children and/or passed on from one ‘generation’ to another as children move on and leave the settings or the space. 

Cubbies with walls, entrances and other detail

It fascinates me is that although the actual natural or man-made materials used may differ I have found very similar evidence of children at play in many very different countries - South Africa, Scotland, England, Iceland, New Zealand, Denmark, Norway and Australia. I don’t doubt that I would find similar evidence of children's play in other countries...maybe I should explore more countries as part of my research project!

a rock barbeque?

It is the loose parts in our environment that supports our creativity (Simon Nicholson 1970 - Theory of Loose Parts). Loose parts are natural as well as man-made materials that do not necessarily have a particular function and which can be used alone or combined with other materials.

centred art?
fairy garden?
a mixture?
a meal?
shredded leaf potion?
Children naturally gather ‘loose bits' and tend to give them a 'value' based on how hard it is to obtain them; often these are used to trade or barter for other sought after objects. Stones, sticks, seeds, flowers - not just any but those with particular characteristic as identified by children. 

Objects are usually sorted, often using a variety of complex sorting criteria which may not always be immediately evident to the adult. 
blue flower collections?

a tower?
Children tend to look for find and choose a significant space such as a cleared open patch, a raised surface, hollow, hole or they may choose objects such as a leaf, drainpipe lid, brick, log, stone or a piece of bark, to create a space that will act as the ‘canvas’ or 'frame' for their creation. 

Arrangements are deliberate; circles, concentric circles or spirals, angular shapes such as rectangles and triangles (triangles are often 3 dimensional), lined up next to each other either in rows or in lines, stacked or layered on top of each other – each creation is carefully planned to the smallest detail.

a shop?
Often the objects used have been transported a fair distance away from the source – a stick, seedpod, leaf, stone when there is no evidence of other similar objects in the area – these are treasures specifically chosen by the children and transported to their chosen site.
In urban spaces or early childhood settings where there is a lack of natural loose bits children will use whatever loose bits they can find – Lego,bottle tops, plastic scraps, string, paper etc.
stick shop?

Children the world over play and learn in a very similar way when not directed by well meaning adults (ie no adults in their play space!) – irrespective of the curriculum the adults in that country have developed and then inflicted on children. What is important is that the play is allowed to happen over long periods of time without the children's creation being 'cleaned up' by adults so that they can evolve and grow.

As a scientist my nature is to wonder and theorise about what I see and experience; I believe children do the same - they are born little explorers fascinated with the world around them. I have also learnt not to express this wonder with some adults who do not share this with me just as some children lose that awe and wonder if they do not have somebody to share it with. Children deserve to be with adults who share this wonder of the world with them!

table decorations or a posting space?
rock treasures?
Play Detectives are researchers – what objects have the children used, why, where did they come from, what have they created, what could this represent, can we support and extend this interest?  By reflecting and analysing the evidence of play we can build up a knowledge and understanding of children’s thinking and their natural patterns of creative play.

a fire?
dinosaur eggs in a natural hollow?

I had found evidence of children at play, real play – self-directed, creative play over which children have ownership and respect for each other’s work. This play takes place over time with children able to go back and make changes on a daily basis. As the adult I do not necessarily need to know what they were thinking but do need to ensure that children have access to such open ended materials or 'loose bits' as well as the time and space to be creative.

 The richness I achieve comes from Nature,

the source of my inspiration. .                                                                                 Claude Monet