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Little ones need to try

By ANGIE SMITH • Jan 11, 2018 at 5:00 PM

It has been a decade since we have had a baby within my family. I now have a 7-month-old, grandson, Carter, to love and teach.

I had forgotten how exciting each new milestone is — recognizing voices then faces, first social smile, first coos, rolling over, sitting up, first word, first wave, crawling, cruising, walking, first sentences, coloring a picture, first joke, first poop on the potty, writing the letters in their name, buttoning a button, balancing on a bike, all the way through taking that first spin in the driver’s seat of the car. The process a child follows to learn a new skill is roughly the same for each stage of development.

Just this weekend, I was working with little Carter on waving his hand. You can tell that he would like to wave back. He will reach out his hand in response, but he can’t quite open and close it or wave it side to side.

So there we were sitting on the floor together, my hands in front of his face, opening and closing them or waving them left to right, while I repeated “hi.” He would often smile, would occasionally say “hi,, but for most of 15 minutes of this he was intent. His eyebrows were furrowed. His eyes were set. He held his hand out and would look from my hand to his hand. He has figured out that he can make his hands do stuff, but he cannot make it do this waving thing yet. And he wants to. But he must work the repetitive process to map his brain to do this new thing. There are no shortcuts. He needs help and he needs to practice. Carter will get it. Soon. And we will celebrate with him.

Every child at every stage needs some version of this. Babies, toddlers and preschoolers need lots of time with adults to demonstrate, help them and coach them through new skills. They learn by studying us as we model a skill. Then they need us to take them by the hand and guide them through the skill. They may then need us to offer instructions and reminders, or to help them troubleshoot as they encounter challenges. Then they need us to get out of the way — to allow them to try, practice, struggle, have breakthroughs — then they will master it.

Easier to say than to do. It takes so much patience in the middle of hurried routines to allow a child to practice zipping his coat or tying her shoe. It is hard to watch a crying baby who hates tummy time flail from side to side stuck in his attempt to roll over. It is hard to hear a child say, “I can’t do it” and to insist that she try. However, a child’s “zone of proximal development,” moving a skill from a place they must have help to a place they have complete independence, can only grow if we allow them this slow process.

We don’t want our babies to grow up too fast; all children deserve a relatively carefree, playful childhood. But we all want our babies to grow up. As a general rule, if your child could try a task or wants to try a task, you should allow them to try that task.

Being a grandparent reminds me of the importance of slowing down to allow, assist and encourage growth in our children. Because I am only his grandparent, I have the time to spend 15 minutes on the floor practicing waving (instead of making the baby food, for example). Being an educator, I am reminded that our children are usually so much more capable than we realize. It might not even occur to us that those little hands are capable of zipping their own coat (that, and we just have to get out the door).

I remember starting my daughter in 3-year-old preschool. I remember my astonishment that the teacher allowed and expected the 3-year-olds to try to pour their own juice. There were many, many, many spills, but no one got hurt. Presenting them the opportunity to pour juice gave them the challenge and chance to be independent with this essential life skill.

Then there were the scissors; they were safety scissors, but still. … She seemed so young to work with scissors. She never got hurt, and by the end of Pre4 preschool she was a whiz at cutting. Children want and need to be challenged. Their brains are so “plastic” from birth through age 5; it is critical for lifelong learning and growth that they be surrounded by adults who capitalize on this time.

Choosing a preschool or kindergarten for your young child is important. Their first school experience must challenge them while nurturing them, engaging them and keeping them safe, so they learn to love school and feel empowered to learn and try.

Sometimes, we don’t know how much to ask of them. Early childhood specialists do. You will be so surprised by how many new skills your preschooler and kindergartner will master in one year’s time.

The Norwalk Catholic School Early Childhood Center starts registering for the 2018-2019 school year Jan. 24. Join us for our open house from 10 a.m. to 1p.m. Jan. 28 at 77 State St.

Local columnist Angie Smith is the director of the Norwalk Catholic School Early Childhood Center.

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