Young Children: Capable, if given the chance!

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“It’s necessary that we believe that the child is very intelligent, that the child is strong and beautiful and has very ambitious desires and requests. This is the image of the child that we need to hold. Those who have the image of the child as fragile, incomplete, weak, made of glass gain something from this belief only for themselves. We don’t need that as an image of children. Instead of always giving children protection, we need to give them the recognition of their rights and of their strengths.” Loris Malaguzzi.

Having worked in a Reggio-inspired program for four years, I endeavor to hold this idea in my mind as I teach young children, and as I teach adults. Young children are amazingly capable. They can learn anything at their level of development and as members of a larger culture. By providing support for what they are capable of, we honor their essential natures.

Recently, I have been thinking about DAP. What does developmentally appropriate practice mean to each of us? I think that, in spite of NAEYC’s very positive and specific guidance for us as Early Childhood Educators, schools and parents who want to honor DAP have differing images of children in their minds. I see so much that is good in the practices of my adult students, and among my ECE colleagues, but also I sense that many of us still tend to see young children as individuals who need protection, nurture, and dare I say, sheltering. The image Loris Malaguzzi presents in the quote above certainly contradicts this image.

In the NAEYC literature, 12 Principles of Development and Learning, the eleventh principle, “Development and learning are advanced when children are challenged” strikes me as particularly important. From self-help skills (pouring water, and counting out crackers at snack, to pulling up their own pants, with appropriate scaffolding) to project work (planning and creating a part of a project a child sees as needed, each contribution demonstrating not only skills, but ideas as well), young children are vastly more capable than we habitually see them. Perhaps, as Malaguzzi implies, we want to see them as needing more help, so that we can fulfil our own need to nurture (full-disclosure: sometimes guilty myself!). But we do not give them our best if we do things they can do themselves. Neither should we over-protect them.

Do you allow preschoolers shovels that actually dig a hole in dirt? Do you encourage them to climb trees, and hang upside down (yes, with an adult under them—licensing rules must apply after all)? Are they feeding and handling class lizards, or doing meaningful jobs (stacking chairs, sharpening colored pencils, sorting toys)? Are each of these activities enveloped in secure relationships with knowledgeable caregivers who are just as interested in what the children want to do as they are?

Here we have the path to a developmentally appropriate practice that allows children to go as far as they can because they want to; because they hold their caregivers’ esteem in high regard. No, “good job”, or star chart can make up for a lack of genuine involvement by adults and older children in what is important to young ones.

What inspired this blog post was a video of a three year old girl birthing a lamb. You may have seen it. If not, I hope you will be as inspired as I was. As you watch, consider how the adult (perhaps mother) holds back from diving in to take over, and uses questions and encouragement to allow this child to complete her work. The sense of capability, accomplishment, and self-respect she must have felt dwarfs anything that has come from a teacher saying, “good job” to a piece of artwork. Please take a look, and let me know what your response is.

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