He bolts bear-like across the room, the weight of his “knee-less” crawling posture evenly dispersed to the hands and feet. Pausing, he examines a block or a sponge or a metal lid, or the sounds created when pounding the objects together.
I watch this flurry of activity and ponder the magnificent simultaneous functions at work that enable his curious spirit: the physical balance required to move without falling; the cognitive curiosity propelling him from one object to the next; the sensory cravings calling for novel sights or sounds or textures. Clearly, he is in charge of his learning.
Of course, I am responsible for the environment with its soft, carpeted floors and compelling materials. I designed the structure – open spaces of time to explore, bookended by predictable snacks and meals. And my presence validates that exploration is safe and worthy and honorable, but my presence is also quiet and as distant as his comfort level (and my overall parameters for safety) permits. He is in charge of his learning.
With a fall, I come close, but I don’t smother. You hit your head on the table when you were crawling. You seem sad. I’m here if you would like a hug. I’ll sit close so you can come if you would like. My arms are open for you if that would be helpful.
With safety in question, I come close, but I don’t immediately remove a non-imminent danger. You found a small cube. I will help you use it with your hands. I have this block if you would like to chew on something.
With a full diaper or a runny nose, I come close, and I offer help. I can see that your nose needs wiping. I have a tissue to wipe it with. Do you see the tissue? Can I wipe your nose? Would you like to feel the tissue with me? Would you like to help me wipe your nose?
In these moments, he learns that he is in charge of his body. He learns that his body is capable and worthy of respect. He is in charge of his learning.
That babies are capable learners and confident communicators is a characteristic often overlooked by their protective and nurturing community. To honor a baby’s opinion about the timing of a diaper change, or the speed at which he feels ready to move, or the desires he has to construct learning out of atypical materials supports a clear message that he is in charge of his learning. What a gift!
A baby who grows up with a solid awareness that he is capable of acquiring knowledge, that his curiosities are worthy of exploration, and that he is able to get his needs met with the support of his community, is a child with the skills to lead a successful life, resisting victimization and nurturing wholeness and integrity.
My nine-month-old son Desmond has not been placed into positions that he cannot get into or out of on his own (exer-saucers, walkers, held by his hands while he “walks”). Because of this, he has a strong internal sense of his body’s ability.
As a practice, allowing babies to control their learning requires a conscious decision to remain present while staying out of the way. Society and advertisers try to convince parents and care providers that a child’s development depends on our continued involvement and orchestration. The decision to stand back and make space for children to control their learning might possibly be one of the most significant life choices you can make for them, and pave the way for their future success.
Note: I use male pronouns throughout to simplify reading (instead of his/her) and because I am writing specifically with my son in mind.
Emily Plank is a play-enthusiast, expert block-tower-builder, skilled problem-solver, and accomplished storyteller. She is an in-home childcare provider and preschool teacher, and loves putting early childhood education research to the test with her crew at Abundant Life Child Development Home in Iowa. She serves as a mentor to other child development home providers in her county and spends evenings and weekends training other early childhood educators across the state through her own original workshops and trainings. An avid writer, Emily blogs for the families of children in her care and the early childhood community at large at abundantlifechildren.com. She lives in Iowa with her husband and three very spirited young children.
(Emily, thank you for your rich and colorful description of respectful care…and the charming photos of Desmond!)