Little People, Big Thoughts
When I first toured the Syracuse University Early Education and Child Care Center, the director, Joan Supiro, walked us around the kid-sized school. Anytime Supiro turned away from us, I mouthed “I LOVE THIS PLACE” to my husband. I actually cried during one moment in the pre-school room when I saw the arrangement of the space and the way the kids were free to play and learn as they wished.
The SU child care center does school precisely the way it should be done. In recent years, with the push toward standardized testing and school readiness, child care centers and pre-school programs have begun to look more like traditional school classrooms. But, in my experience, teaching “school readiness” in the younger grades means that the worst elements of school are emphasized: standing in lines, reciting letter sounds and memorizing numbers. In many ways, those are the easiest things to teach, and yet, I would argue, they deaden thinking, creativity and problem-solving skills.
I see the result of this in my high school classes. If we emphasize rote memorization and bland conformity, we get kids who are listless at best and resentful at worst. And why not? The skills we should be teaching when they’re young are those that truly help them get ready for the deep moments of school and life: thinking, observing, contemplating, persisting and imagining.
And the SU center does this beautifully.
Sadly, the center is only available to people affiliated with the university. So I asked Joan Supiro and pre-school teacher Mary Cunningham if they had advice for how parents could replicate some of what the center does, at home.
One way to heighten children’s intellectual development is to tap into their interests, Supiro and Cunningham say. Watch your child. Where does she spend time? What does she wonder about? If you’re not sure where to start, choose a universally appealing topic like ramps or holes.
Then, join your child and explore the topic. You might begin by looking at a book, allowing your child to pause on the pictures and text that interest her. Or place a few objects in front of her that relate to the topic. Working with clay or drawings can be useful as well.
Supiro and Cunningham use open-ended questions to learn a child’s thought process and interests. Their favorites are “Tell me about that.” or “What’s happening here?” or “What do you see?” or “What would happen if…?”
These questions allow the child to lead. Remember, you’re not quizzing your child to see how much he knows. Rather, you’re looking for evidence of his thinking. This is hard for us when the right answers are so ingrained in our brains, but the payoff for letting go can be big. If your child tells you that 2 plus 2 equals 5, it is worth figuring out why he thinks that. Whenever possible, ask “why?” In many ways, a wrong answer can be more useful and informative than a correct one.
Still, all of us Type A parents should take heart. There will be moments when we can swoop in with the right answer. Kids love information. (How many times has your child begun a sentence with “Did you know…?”) There are all kinds of tantalizing facts out there that kids want to know. And those facts can lead them to other discoveries. But are you the only one leading? If so, then you’re missing the point, warn Supiro and Cunningham.
Once you’ve started the conversation with open-ended questions and opened the door for discovery using objects or art, then you can use specific feedback to further your child’s intellectual growth.
Specific feedback is different from praise. Supiro likes “encouragement” over “praise.” Rather than assigning a judgment to a child’s method or product, simply describe it. Say “I see you holding your brush upright” or “I notice layers of color here” rather than “I love your picture” or “That’s beautiful.” Cunningham believes that by speaking to children as though they are operating with intention, we encourage them to do so. Our thoughtful description will let them know that we value their work as well as their intellectual process.
Next, don’t be afraid to take your discovery as far as it can go. In this age of sound bites and tweets, it’s important to teach our children to persist. Don’t push interest where there isn’t any. But, Cunningham suggests, “for most kids, the more time they spend on something, the more time they want to spend.” You may begin something that will enrich and entertain for years to come.
How is it possible to sustain an interest in holes? Supiro suggests asking “What’s the big idea?” Cunningham talked me through it: “If you put your finger in clay, it makes one kind of a hole. If you put something bigger in the clay, it makes a different hole. If you apply greater force, there’s a greater hole still. If you cut paper, you can peer through the hole, creating negative and positive space. The study of craters is really simply the study of holes.”
Imagine all of the ways to continue this exploration: Go to the kitchen and make bagels. Use modeling clay to create tubes, rings and craters. Look at the words in a book and discover how many holes there are in letters in the alphabet. Once you begin, you may find yourself unable to stop.
The kid’s in charge
But remember, let your child lead. And don’t belittle the little. As you can see, even small interests have big implications. Syracuse University Early Education and Child Care Center has created an open learning community where thinking in all of its forms is nurtured and celebrated. With a willingness to ask some open-ended questions, explore alongside your child, and see old things in new ways, you too can recreate this environment in your home. ■
Emma Kress, a teacher at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, has held a variety of educational posts at levels from pre-K to 12th grade. Send comments about this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.