Why Is This Thing in Every Preschool?

Hi Readers — This guest post really got to me. Maybe because I’m an American Studies major from way back, I love thinking about what our modern day artifacts say about our culture and psyche. Today’s author, Mary O’Connell, is the director of LifeWays, an early childhood center in Milwaukee, and she noticed a new item that has become a must-have in preschools and wondered: Why this? Why now?

Before I present her essay, let me add that she and Cynthia Aldinger wrote a new book, Home Away From Home: LifeWays Care of Children and Families, all about bringing a little relaxation, nature and normalcy into day care (or at least, that’s how I read it). To order the book or find out more about LifeWays, which offers training and support for childcare providers in the form of newsletters, consulting, workshops and child development trainings, please visit www.lifewaysnorthamerica.org.  And now — on to the essay!

A GRAIN OF TRUTH by Mary O’Connell

I have recently been scratching my head over what has become a compulsory item in the modern preschool classroom: the Sand Table, an indoor table filled with sand that children can pour, dump and run their trucks through.  It seems that what began as a novel concept some 20 years ago has become a necessity in a quality preschool program.  When early childhood colleagues from conventional childcare settings come to visit LifeWays, the early childhood program in which I work, they ask, “Where’s your sand table?” as if the absence of one is a red flag that we’re not providing our young apprentices with all of the vital experiences they need.

Now, as a caregiver of small children, I love sand play. But as a caretaker of the space the children inhabit, I’m not sure who thought it was a great idea to provide it indoors.  After all, how many homes do you know that have a sandbox in the living room?

Here’s the question that seems reasonable to ask: Can’t children play with their sand outside, the way they’ve done for generations, along with the sticks, mud, puddles, ice, and other great tactile experiences that Mother Nature provides for them?  I’ve come to the conclusion that a sand table, however incongruent with a clean and tidy living space, has become a requirement in the early childhood classroom because it’s the only experience many children have with the natural world. Sadly, most children do not experience daily outdoor play in nature.

If it’s drizzling, chilly, or anything less “desirable” than 75 degrees-and-sunny, most preschool programs keep children indoors, opting for the sand table and the other modern miracle of childcare, the “Gross Motor Room” — a cavernous space with padded walls, riding toys and an overwhelming din, as children expend their energy in a frenetic McDonald’s playland fashion.

When I was young and my friends and I began running around with this level of energy, my parents promptly sent us outdoors to play, where our shouts, cries and adventures were met with wide open spaces, and where our play often became more purposeful and less frenzied.  The natural environment invited us to do more than run around like chickens with our heads cut off. We made mud pies and potions, created games, poked around in the creek with sticks, climbed trees and took physical risks that taught us a lot about our own strengths and limitations.

How unfortunate that we have so removed children from their roots they are being raised under “house arrest.”  How sad that we feel we need to provide every possible experience in a manufactured, synthetic way because we’re too afraid, too controlling, or just too lazy to bring them out into nature.

I am so grateful for LifeWays, a group of childcare centers and homes across the country where children play in nature on a daily basis for long periods of time because it’s considered as vital to their development as a healthy diet and enriching learning activities.  We go out even when it’s raining or snowing or hot or cold or anything else less that “perfect.”  The benefits are immediately visible, as the children at our centers are often more coordinated, independent, verbal and imaginative — and less hyperactive — than their Sand Table/Gross Motor Room counterparts.

My dream is that we’ll come to a place in parenting and early childhood education where we’ll all realize the virtual world we’ve created indoors is a poor substitute for the natural world right outside our homes and classrooms.  In my dream world, early childhood colleagues and prospective clients will enter a preschool classroom and inquire, “Why aren’t the children playing outdoors?” — M.O.

What's right with this picture?

Up With Boredom!

Hi Readers! The other day I wrote a column on ParentDish called, “Just Chute Me.” I was saying — I thought — that we really do not have to play with our kids. We have to love and nurture them, yes, but unless we are really psyched for a game of CandyLand or make-believe, there’s no reason we have to do it. Kids can and should be able to entertain themselves.

Well I got a lot of blowback about how play is essential for kids. (Yes it is. That’s why they should learn how to do it.) I also kept hearing that any decent parent knows it is our job to get down on the floor or join our kids in the  sandbox, so that they can see we really love them.

It was hard to read all the comments, because many suggested only a lazy, awful parent balks at participating in playtime.  Also, that kids feel unloved unless we “show” them we care by doing the things they want to do, endlessly, even if we are tired or bored or busy.  A child’s desire to engage should always come first, many commenters implied. It would be interesting to see what would have happened to our species if we took this attitude when subsistence farming. (“I was GOING to plant next year’s wheat, but junior wanted to play tag and it’s so developmentally crucial!”)

I actually think there is something to be said for parental preoccupation. Not to the point of negligence, but definitely to the point of forcing the kids into a certain basic self-reliance mode.  A woman named  Emily Geizer agreed, pretty much, and wrote this defense of kiddie boredom. She’s the creator of Child Perspective, a site parents for parenting solutions that takes questions from readers, and also A Crash Course in Mindful Parenting.  Here’s her piece:

The Benefits of Boredom by Emily Geizer

Do your kids a favor. Let them get bored. Painfully bored.

Boredom is good for kids. It forces them to entertain themselves, which ignites their creative intelligence. From this, they learn that they can solve their own problems. This is HUGE!

Some parents will suggest boredom leads to trouble, or that we should want to play with our kids. True on both accounts.

But, since most kids are good kids (and hopefully yours is!), boredom usually leads to ingenuity rather than trouble. Bored kids recover by turning to books or art. Their initial frustration, if left unfettered, forces them to turn inward to solve their own problems.

While parents do need to connect with their kids, connection is different from entertaining or micromanaging. If you are a chronic child entertainer, then it’s time to change your game.

This doesn’t mean cutting all ties with your kid. Do take time to meaningfully engage with your child. But stop providing his entertainment! Set him free to discover his own ideas and interests. Gradually remove yourself from the role of entertainer.

  • Keep “doing nothing” or “relaxing” as viable options for your kids.
  • Limit all screen time significantly.
  • Send your kids outside, in all kinds of weather.
  • Get out a book and invite your kid to read.

None of us intend to raise kids who can’t figure out how to entertain themselves. Yet, a highly-sheltered, over-structured childhood is a by-product of the society in which we live. This results in kids who are dependent on constant direction. In other words, they have not learned to play by themselves or entertain themselves. Our kids have become entertainment junkies.

When your child complains of being bored, remind him that bored people are people who can’t figure out what to do. With all the confidence in the world reply, “I’m sure that you can find something interesting to do or simply relax.”