Manage episode 261941770 series 1282026
The Power of Example
Often, when small children become bored and distracted, at home or in nursery school, adults will decide that they "need more structure." I tend to be wary of that term, since those who use it generally mean only one thing: some adult standing over the child telling him what to do and making sure he does it.
Many young children do indeed need to be introduced to tasks and activities that take time, concentration, effort, and skill. But this isn't a matter of "giving" harder tasks and making the child persist until he or she is finished. In such situations the controlling factor is the will of the adult, not, as it should be, the requirements of the task. Instead, what young children need is the opportunity to see older children and adults choosing and undertaking various tasks and working on them over a period of time until they are completed. Children need to get some sense of the processes by which good work is done. The only way they can learn how much time and effort it takes to build, say, a table, is to be able to see someone building a table, from start to finish. Or painting a picture. Or repairing a bicycle, or writing a story, or whatever it may be.
At the Ny Lille Skole, the wonderful small school in Denmark about which I have often written, the six adult "teachers" had all done many kinds of work before they began teaching, and all brought to the school a number of visible and interesting skills. One woman was a good musician and dancer, another a skilled weaver, several of the men were good at working with tools in both wood and metal. One teacher was actually making himself bass viol at the school. It took a long time: it was a serious instrument. Some of the older kids worked with him on the project; younger kids hung around, helped a little, asked questions; still younger children watched less attentively, for shorter stretches of time. But even the youngest children were aware of that project going on, and kept track of its progress.
Children need to see things done well. Cooking, and especially baking, where things change their texture and shape (and taste yummy), are skills that children might like to take part in. Typing might be another, and to either or both of these could be added bookmaking and bookbinding. These are crafts that children could take part in from beginning to end. Skilled drawing and painting or woodworking might be others.
Adults must use the skills they have where children can see them. In the unlikely event that they have no skills to speak of, they should learn some, and let the children see them learning, even if only as simple a thing as touch typing. They should invite children to join them in using these skills. In this way children can be slowly drawn, at higher and higher levels of energy, commitment, and skill, into more and more serious and worthwhile adult activities.
When parents point out to me that their work is not as impressive in its progress as, say, that of a boat builder, I use my own work as an example While writing is less easy to understand than the work of a carpenter or farmer, it is not necessarily opaque or meaningless to a child. Writing is a process that takes place in time. I begin with raw materials and scraps of notes, write rough drafts, correct them, change them, finally produce a smooth draft, turn this over to someone else for further editing, and see it go into galleys or some kind of proof sheets and eventually find its way into the finished newspaper, magazine, or book. Even if what I write about might not make much sense to children they will surely be interested in many of the things I actually do. At every stage of the process outlined above, parents who are writers might show their child what they have done and talk a little (as much as the child wants) about what they are going to do next, and why. In the end, they could show the child their articles when they finally appear in print. They might even keep all their notes and rough drafts for a particular article, and on a big piece of cardboard paste up an exhibit showing everything from the first steps to the final product. This would also be an easy and interesting thing to do in schools; it would show students what none of them now know or could imagine-the amount of work that goes into serious writing.
It is this sense of process over time that children want and need to learn about, and much of this is visible in most kinds of work. Even if parents can't show children their actual workplace, they can show them similar places. For instance, for the child of journalist, any small offset press would be fascinating: the noise, all those things going round and round, the paper flying out with stuff printed on it. A mystery! But children would see that a grown-up understands it and controls it, and thinks that maybe someday, if they wanted, they could too. They would also learn that their parents did not think of them as too small and stupid to be included in a central part of their own lives.