By Patricia Reedy
I was invited to give a keynote address at an Embodied Parenting conference held January 17, 2015 at the Roundhouse Community Arts Center in Vancouver, British Columbia. A joint project of the arts center, a consortium of Reggio-Emilia inspired early childhood centers and Julie Lebel, a Canadian choreographer and mother of four-year-old twins, the conference brought together artists, parents and educators to explore the intersections of human interaction in and through art-making, performance and teaching. It was a unique and inspiring experience.
Preparing for the conference reignited my fascination with early childhood development. I returned to Berkeley excited about Luna’s partnership with Alameda Headstart, co-teaching Saturday morning three-year-old dance class and writing about attachment and play. In this article I share some thoughts on early learning, my reflections on being back on the teaching saddle, and some food for thought for parents and teachers of our youngest citizens.
It is widely known that young children develop and learn through three main processes: 1) Children learn in relationship with other humans—beginning with a key attachment to a parent or primary caregiver, later through relationships with peers, teachers, neighbors–friends and foes. 2) They learn through Exploration and Play–through relationships with objects and space and through trial and error. Their innate curiosity drives them to seek out new experiences and practice both the tools and behaviors of their culture (such as in role play), and also simply to discover. 3) We also know that they learn through MOVEMENT. This is related to relationship and play, but it is unique in that it is initiated through a biological drive. Piaget and the early developmental theorists found that cross-culturally children tend to engage in the world through similar physical interactions at roughly the same age. The burgeoning field of brain science has supported these earlier developmental theories—continuing to reveal the relationship between body and mind. It makes sense, then, to follow children’s natural propensity to learn in these ways. Child-rearing practices might be more rewarding, and ultimately successful, if we maximize children’s tendencies to learn through movement, play and relationship.
I’ve had the fortune to study neuro-developmental, mind-body work with the somatic and Laban practitioners Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen, Peggy Hackney and Anne Green-Gilbert. Bonnie is the foremost expert in the study of early development, beginning with embryotic maturation and moving through infancy. Throughout the first two years of life, young humans engage in a spiral process using the same 8 neurological patterns to advance agency on the world. Sometimes referred to as the “Brain Dance” the patterns are: breath, tactile, core-distal, head-tail, upper-lower, body half, cross lateral and vestibular. Typically developing children do these patterns naturally. Parents and teachers can learn to support them in daily routines or through curriculum. Somatic practitioners and dance therapists help children and adults repair lost moments or arrested development through rehabilitative practice with the patterns. Others, like Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, continue scientific inquiry about them for decades.
Educators and parents have the opportunity to witness first-hand the many ways children learn through exploration and play. At first, everything is novel and explored, then becomes familiar and practiced. We get to watch children make connections between the known and unknown right before our very eyes. Every day.
Educators who value exploration and play are able to see how curriculum emerges from it, through the careful attention of a trained observer. The mentors of my youth emphasized the importance of developing strong observation skills and later, I recognized the power of the Observation/Reflection process: as an artist—the art of seeing; as an educator and parent—the art of listening; as a program developer—the art of the inquiry/reflection cycle.
Reflection and Observation are parts of the same process. Self-reflection allows us to critically examine our own beliefs, our reactions to situations, our behavior and ask ourselves if our thoughts, words and deeds align. Self-reflection keeps us honest. When we examine our teaching practice or our parenting, we see where we get our buttons pushed—if we can be patient, loving and forgiving with ourselves we can make small toggling adjustments in our behavior—coming closer and closer to walking our talk. Paying attention through keen observation helps us see what is going on at home and in our classrooms and make in-the-moment decisions to shift perspectives, open up dialogue and new possibilities. When observation and reflection are aligned, the process becomes less about analysis and sorting children into certain pre-conceived “boxes” and instead becomes a rich tableau of possibility. I see the connection between the reflection-in-action we use in parenting or teaching and the skills of improvisation. Finding that “aha” moment, and going with it, is at the root of improvising, parenting, teaching; and, maybe, just engaging in a rich life.
That feeling of joy and being-in-the-moment found in teaching three year olds returned immediately on that first Saturday back. Katherine and I are crafting skillful, developmentally sound lesson plans each week, but in reality, the curriculum necessarily must include the child’s curiosity and current interest, her blossoming sense of autonomy and her vibrant sense of ME. An outside eye watching my class might not find a sense of order or purpose—but active learning is going on at the three-year old level. This requires of me a level of alertness, observation and presence that is extremely rare. I love it because it makes me feel so alive—something I seek out in meditation and nature, but have only experienced at this level with my own child or performing on stage.
Moving forward in my role as Luna’s Director of Teaching & Learning, I feel the best way for me to help teachers improve their practice of working with very young children is to support their efforts to develop a habit of seeing the child for who she is at any given time, and reflecting on whether or not any action is actually needed. The ego-centric three-year-old thrives by being seen and appreciated for who she is right now. While it is sometimes difficult for we adults to stand back and do nothing; sometimes nothing is the best course of action.
Tips on Observing & Reflecting
- Move among the dancing children. It is helpful to remember that 3-year-olds don’t necessarily understand the concepts of being in a circle or standing in a line. They want to dance very close to others or run freely in the open space. It is helpful to ask yourself if they are safe and be OK with just keeping your eyes on them.
- Stay open about the order of your lesson. Three year olds are totally in the here and now. By capturing their momentum—going with their flow, you may actually cover more of your planned concepts than if you try to make sense of them in a chronology that 3-year-olds can’t comprehend.
- Delight goes a long way. Most of us choose to teach this age because their liveliness is captivating. Enjoy it! Have fun! If you’re having fun, most likely so are they.
- Recognize feelings that come up for you, note them and reflect on them either in the moment or as soon as possible after class. Are you uncomfortable if children don’t follow your directions? Do you get lost or panic in what appears like chaos? Are you comfortable with parents? It is OK to have fear. A regular practice of noting and reflecting will help you find that very fine line between child-centeredness and utter chaos and time your interventions accordingly.
- When things aren’t going as planned, you can always fall back on simply stating what you see. Whether it is “I see an upside-down shape,” or “I see Miranda needs to check on her mom,” or “I see two children dancing very close to the mirror, let’s move out so no one bumps,” children will feel seen, and you will have created a bridge to a relationship with you as a learning ally—keeping them safe and encouraging them forward on their own trajectory.