The decorations from Applefest made a comeback this week. Our hard-working custodial staff gathered up all of the corn stalks from the festival and prepared them for final transportation to the dumpster or compost pile. (Un??)Fortunately, our class found the pile first.
One child knew right away what treasure lay buried within the stiff green layers. Once corn was officially discovered, husking (or “shucking” as Mrs. Forst says) became the activity of choice.
The first few days of school are filled with risks. All of us, from the Pre-K student to the most senior teacher, feel this. Our children have to navigate a new set of routines, manage new personality dynamics, make friends, keep friends, decipher the emotional tone of their new class, and figure out who they will be for the next few days. Taking acceptable risks when steering through all of this can be daunting. Grown-ups can put it into words, “What if I fail?” Children usually aren’t able to put it so succinctly.
“Risk” has a bad rep most of the time. People generally relate this word with failure or danger. Now try to refocus your lens. Instead, imagine risk as possible variables in an experiment. True, one needs to weigh the danger (emotional, social, physical, or otherwise) inherent in the particular component, yet, without testing variables, we cannot evaluate the effectiveness of our behavior.
In class, a child chooses whether or not these risks are worth it:
Waiting for a peer to speak to them first
Waiting for a teacher to call on them
Yelling/Calling out the answers
Speaking up for their own rights (i.e. I don’t like this game. I don’t want chase you.)
Asking to go to the bathroom
Saying goodbye to a parent
Raising a hand during meetings
Attempting to write their name
Drawing a picture
Joining a group or single friend in play
Making a mark on a piece of paper
We want our children to be comfortable taking the risks that promote growth. It is for this reason that we create an environment that welcomes mistakes, experiments, discussion, and observation. All of the children in our room are capable of great things. We want to make sure they are willing to build the attempts to get them there.
Have you ever watched a baby conduct a social experiment? You know, the kind where he/she drops a spoon from the high chair nine thousand times during breakfast. That is persistence. It can also be quite frustrating for the adult involved. However, the baby is quite content to drop the spoon over and over and over. He/She is learning many things during this activity.
Spoons always fall down.
Somebody will pick up the spoon and return it.
When the spoon drops, people make sounds.
The spoon did not disappear off the face of the planet.
Falling spoons make people smile/cry/yell/giggle/pull hair from their heads.
Imagine the baby only dropped the spoon once. What would be learned? How many connections to the effects of a fallen spoon would the child be able to make? The answer is not many.
Our brains learn through making connections. We connect new stimuli to memories of previous experiences. We connect current information to the current input from our senses. (How do we feel? What do we smell? What is our emotional climate during this experience?) As we interact we connect possible ideas, or hypotheses, to present circumstances.
Supporting all of this thinking is a willingness to continue to experiment even in the face of mistakes. This is persistence. Babies don’t think twice about attempting the same action ad infinitum. It is only later, around four years of age, that we begin to see our selves as “not good” at certain things. We begin to believe that only those with “talent” can accomplish a task.
In Pre-K we are right on the edge of that bubble. Many of the children still believe that they can learn anything. We want to encourage that feeling because the truth is, they can. Anything we wish to do well requires practice. Persisting at daunting activities must be practiced, as well. We must allow children the opportunity to face low-risk failure (a puzzle piece doesn’t fit, a friend gets angry, the milk is spilled, it turns out that 20, 30, 60, 40 is not how you count) now. The price is not high and they can easily make another attempt. With practice, persistence will remain second nature.
Our study of friends has brought up many questions. It has been illuminating to hear the solutions that the children provide. Working together is one of the struggles we encounter often in Pre-Kindergarten. When the children are sitting in a group discussing possible solutions to this quandary, they quickly come up with logical, kind ideas. However, in practice, emotions are sometimes too high to allow children to process solutions on the spot. For this reason, we intentionally provide the class with opportunities to practice working as a small group to solve a challenge.
Below you will find a video of three children designing a way to reunite a family of pandas. Within this clip you’ll find our children practicing a wide range of essential life skills (focus, perspective taking, communicating, making connections, and critical thinking) as well as other executive functions (planning, organizing, impulse and emotional control, and working memory).
The most exciting part for me was watching as they persisted with a challenge even in the face of failure. Twice, their idea completely collapsed Not once did they give up.
Persistence is a key attribute for people of all ages, but especially young children. They use this skill to power through the many challenges they meet throughout the day. This could be anything from dressing themselves, writing their names, building a tower, or learning to jump rope. While these might seem like simple tasks, it takes a great deal of concentration and tenacity in order to complete the task at hand. It might not turn out exactly as planned at first, but persistence allows the child to continually work towards achieving their goal.
This also is great time for children to learn that mistakes are an important part of the learning process! Finding out the strategies that do not work, help us learn what does!
Case in point: What do you do when your hula hoop gets stuck in a tree?
You could just leave it up there, but then you would have to find something else to play with. So, what’s the next option? You try to figure out how to get it down, right? Maybe simply jumping for it will do the trick.
No such luck. How about throwing another hula hoop to knock it off the branch?
At first, it looks like this strategy isn’t going to work either. What’s worse, you are running the risk of getting a second hula hoop stuck in the very same tree. Just then, without warning, SUCCESS!! The original hula hoops falls to the ground and the crowd goes wild!
Without persistence, the hula hoop would still be stuck in that tree to this very day. But instead, determination and tenacity reign supreme and the hula hoop can be used once again!
One of the most important things that children can learn is to persevere when confronted with a challenge. As our small children grow into excelling adults, we want them to see set backs as learning experiences and opportunities for growth. Challenges come in many forms. Some are innately obvious and some can be a bit obscure. Pre-K is a wonderful ground for observing all of these.
From the first moment your babies breathed, they were attempting to make sense of their world. They had to make many mistakes along the way. Remember when they were so very little and their arms and legs seemed to wildly flail about without any real purpose? Each movement taught their brain something about how they could interact with the world or control each muscle. Zoom ahead a few months and watch a baby learn to sit. They fall. They get up. They don’t give up just because it is hard. We are wired from the beginning to be tenacious.
Yet, somehow, as we age, we begin to start reflecting on our actions more. Children begin to see themselves as “good” at some things, and “not good” at others. For some children, and many adults, this translates into finding ways to circumvent tasks and activities that do not come easily. A fear of failure dictates the types of things we choose to do.
For this reason, Winchester Thurston and many other acclaimed independent schools make persistence a major goal for each of our students. From Pre-K forward, we work together to encourage our students to revel in a challenge. By teaching our children how to approach all aspects of life as an experiment and how to view failures as simply data to inform our next decision, we guide them to a true gift: permission to grow.