Teaching from a perspective of natural learning is as much about what teachers DON’T do, as it is about what we DO do.
The other day as I watched the children playing, following their own desires and plans, feeling such strong autonomy and agency, I looked on with wonder.
“I want to take pictures of everything you’re doing,” I said, “and tell everyone about your impressive work!”
One boy, tying sticks together in bundles for the chair that he and another 4 year old had designed, looks up at me with an amazing expression of validity, confidence, and pride.
I thought about how young children rarely get the kind of recognition for their work that we, as adults, always hope to get in ours.
Both boys sit on the leaf covered forest floor, working together to figure out their plan, asking for help when they need it, from each other, from adults, from other friends in the woods.
“Now we have 2 bundles of 2 sticks. We need to tie these together.” “Then we’ll have 4 sticks tied together!”
The mathematical thinking rolls off their brain so seamlessly, interconnected, purposeful to what they are doing. It’s addition, it’s multiplication, it’s concrete, and it’s meaningful to them.
One child decides that she is hungry, which prompts one of the boys to begin cleaning his hands for snack. He gathers his backpack from a tree that he deemed the bag rack, to which all the other children followed along, hanging their bags on just the right tiny branches to hold the specific weight of each.
I think about how in the days and months to follow, we will likely see their mathematical awareness grow out of their own volition. The other boy continues his focus on tying the sticks together. He is not interested in eating. He doesn’t even want to have continued discussion right now, about math, about his design, about anything.
My job in this moment is to wait and watch. It is not to interrupt his focus with a “teachable moment.” It is not to expand his thinking and problem solving about how exactly he will get all the sticks to eventually resemble a chair, more specifically, the chair in his mind, not mine.
Sure, there will be thousands of other opportunities to draw out learning for this child and others in so many developmental content areas, but right now is not that time.
If I were to do, what, we as adults, feel so compelled to do, and ask him more questions, offer “helpful” advice about how to do what I think he is trying to do, or direct him to follow what the other children are doing and have snack at a prescribed time, I would be stopping all the valuable learning happening within him in this moment.
So instead, I focus on what is actually happening, what I can understand about what his brain is doing right now, what I can intuit based on my years of experience with children and years of research in early childhood learning.
He is tying. He is tying!!! The amount of fine motor coordination that it takes for a 4 year old to tie a knot is at the highest level of fine motor skills marked in the preschool category. It is not only hand-eye coordination at a sophisticated level, it is 2 hands working together in concert with precision which creates connections across the mid-line of the brain, building abilities for body integration, balance, plan-to-action competence, and focus.
He delicately balances the bundle of gangly branches across his legs, slides the string behind, crosses the string ends in the front, and then swoops one end under the other and pulls.
At one point the string is too small, but I don’t say anything. I don’t point out a solution to his struggle. I don’t even ask him questions about why the string might not be holding the sticks together.
For another child partaking in this same exercise, I might ask questions. I might find a way to scaffold the problem solving process. I might cut some longer strings next to the child as they/she/he struggles with the smaller length, but not for this boy, not right now.
He is calm, focused, and successful all by himself. He doesn’t need help right now, and my offerings would actually be stealing his success from him. So I just keep watching.
One thing that I can do to expand his learning is to pay attention, show fascination, be IN it with him, so I choose carefully when and how to echo his processing, when and how to give words to his internal experience.
He is problem solving at the highest level of development slated for preschoolers. He continues in his problem solving task until he reaches solution. He asks for help, clearly, specifically, and only when he needs it.
“Will you hold this rope, while I cut it?” he asks me, still balancing the branches on his lap, string delicately held in position by the control he is exhibiting in his body. The next level in his problem solving development would be to describe what he is doing, to reflect on his attempts, and point out what worked and what didn’t. So THIS is where I offer my teaching skills.
“Oh, I see!” I say, “that’s interesting, the other string that you have there, isn’t working.”
“Yeah,” he replies, “it’s too short. I need a longer one.”
“Hmmm, how can you tell how long the string needs to be when you’re cutting it?”
He doesn’t answer, but he is thinking about it. I can see him comparing the lengths in his head. The short string is in his lap. The other string that he is in the process of cutting from the bucket of one long string. Finally, he pulls the string from the bucket (as I hold the end because he asked me to), and he stretches it across his lap to measure it against the other short string.
“Ooh, I wonder if that one will work?” I ask. My purpose here is not to express my curiosity, but instead, to give words to the question that I see/feel/intuit/guess that he is asking.
“Yes, because it’s longer, see?” He holds the strings across each other, looking back and forth at the ends of each to check his assessment. Eventually, he decides to cut a number of strings the same size and put them in a bucket for easy access. He asks me to hold the spool of string so he can cut more as he measures them out.
He has now moved on to an ability of problem solving generally marked at the kindergarten level. His language use, reflection, comparison, and perseverance shows brain/body development that has had countless opportunities to mature.
He is regulating himself, his muscles, and his emotions. He regularly exercises his problem solving skills and has regular interactions with the feelings of frustration and accomplishment that come with that experience. He has not only honed a continually growing feeling of resilience, he knows how to ask for help to carry out his projects, and he knows how to use language to describe and reflect on what he is doing.
He is creating an object from a vision in his brain. He is constructing and building using tools. He is learning the properties of specific materials and how to use them for his purposes. He is measuring, categorizing sticks of similar width and length, and adding to get a specific result.
All of this happens within the timespan of about 15-20min, which is also a developmental marker. He can stay with a planned project for a sustained period of time. As an adult, as a teacher, I find these 20 minutes miraculous because our full school day is 9 ½ hours long, and every single 20 minute interval is a new learning experience such as this one.
My job is NOT to provide these experiences. My job is to notice that they are constantly happening. My job is to value the everyday work of children. My job is to have the knowledge and experience to know when to give something to the child and when my well-meaning contribution is actually taking something away.
My job is to create an environment in which the child’s natural learning drive can flourish.