A recent parent/toddler class was a jarring experience. While I was setting up the classroom with simple toys, platforms, climbing structures and objects, I decided to include a large, white plastic jar with a wide screw-on lid. I put several plastic chain links inside the jar and, as I later realized, closed it a bit too tightly.
The parents and toddlers started to arrive and I welcomed Jenna, a twenty-month-old girl, accompanied for the first time by her Aunt Lisa. After introductions, the parents settled in and the children began to play.
Jenna began bringing objects to her aunt, a common practice by toddlers. Jenna gave Lisa a stuffed dog and Lisa turned it around on her lap to face Jenna. Then Jenna handed Lisa some rings that were hooked together. Lisa took the rings apart for her. Jenna carried over a toy bus and Lisa rolled it on the ground. The pattern of Jenna hauling toys to Lisa continued. And Lisa, wanting to share in the play and show congeniality, responded to each gift of a toy with her own new action.
By playing for Jenna, even in this subtle and well-meaning manner, Lisa was making Jenna the audience rather than the actor. It is difficult for adults to see how easily their actions can dominate when they play with a child. When an adult does more than just respond to what a child is doing, the interaction expresses the adult’s interests rather than the child’s. While other toddlers were exploring, Jenna was watching her aunt.
I hoped Jenna’s attention would shift during our time of quiet observation. I reminded the parents that we would, for ten or fifteen minutes, attempt to empty our minds of expectations and projections and simply observe the children with as much objectivity as possible (a practice taught to me by my mentor Magda Gerber). I added that we should interact with a child if they looked to us to do so, but we should keep our responses minimal so as not to engage the children too much.
When caregivers practice this kind of observation, they gain valuable insights into the minds of children. Watching a child who is engrossed in exploring his surroundings, interacting with his peers, and experimenting with activities he designs, can be illuminating, even astonishing. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a live demonstration is worth a million in the way that it helps us to understand our child and his needs.
When Lisa stopped playing with Jenna, and just graciously accepted the objects Jenna presented to her, Jenna began to demonstrate inner-directed exploration. She brought the bus over to a large box filled with balls of all sizes and tested its ability to drive over the bumps inside the box for several minutes. Eventually she moved on to another toy.
While I was watching a second child, Jenna apparently discovered the jar I had placed in one of the large wooden cubes. I saw Jenna bring the jar, rattling with the links inside it, to Lisa. Holding the large jar with both hands, Jenna extended it towards her aunt, and I feared the worst. Kind-hearted Lisa would not be able to resist opening the jar for her. I spoke up, “Please don’t open that for her,” I implored. “Trust me.”
The next thing that happened nearly made me erupt in laughter. In response to my admonition to Lisa not to open the jar, Jenna turned and gave me a long stare as if in indignant outrage, but it was likely just surprise. She finally looked back at the jar, now in her aunt’s hands, but made no attempt to open it herself. Jenna did not appear to be frustrated. She has two older brothers and may have been accustomed to having others solve problems for her. This was all the more reason why I hoped Jenna would be encouraged to take more initiative.
But Jenna’s opportunity to experiment with the jar ended when Emily, a girl who had joined the class recently, walked over to Jenna and seized the jar. Emily carried the jar to her dad, who was in class for his second time; she appeared confident that he would save the day. Before he could act, I said, “You’re asking your dad to open that. I don’t think he can.” Emily’s dad, Jim, looked at me with an uneasy smirk. I shook my head slightly and smiled weakly. I wished I could have made a more honest statement to Emily about her dad’s jar opening abilities, but in my single-minded desire to make Jim resist her request, a little white lie had spilled out. Jim held the jar but did not open it, although I could tell how badly he wanted to do so.
At this point, I had asked two adults to go against their instincts when they wanted to help a child, and I found myself in a precarious situation. If this experiment did not have a happy ending, I’d have an entire omelet on my face. But I took solace in noticing that Emily, like Jenna, was not the least bit upset. She seemed perplexed by the strange way the adults were acting, but not discouraged at all. She made an attempt to unscrew the jar while her father held it for her. Then she brought the jar over to me.
Emily’s gesture eased my mind, because while I still felt like the villain in the room, I remembered Magda Gerber saying that when a toddler hands you something it is an indication that the child trusts you. “You’re asking me to hold the jar?” I inquired. As I held the jar Emily made another attempt to turn the lid. “You’re trying to open the top. It’s hard to open.” I then discreetly touched the side of the lid that faced me with my thumb, loosening it the teeniest bit. When Emily tried again she was able to slowly unscrew the lid and open the jar. She flashed me a look and I said with a smile, “You opened it.” A few moments later Emily put the lid back on and then opened it on her own again.
Children need the opportunity to solve problems on their own. Parents can create rather than deprive children of this opportunity by resisting an automatic impulse to ‘open the jar.’ Yes, it is counter-intuitive to refrain from assisting a child! But when we help a child to do something she might be able to do for herself, we are robbing her of a vital learning experience and ultimately not helping at all.
Children see adults as magical and all-powerful. And when we intervene in a child’s every struggle and fix every problem, we reinforce this view. But if parents and caregivers can believe in a child’s capabilities, and if they can let a child work to figure things out and even allow for frustration and “failure”, then the child will show us that she is indeed capable of more than we can imagine.
I share more about child-led play and problem-solving in my book: