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Observation and Patience...paving the way for understanding

Part 1: Observing your children

Perhaps the two most important factors to understanding anything natural are: observation and patience. If you talk to a naturalist, ecologist, wildlife biologist or climate scientist they will tell you that while experimentation can be done, their primary mode of research is to patiently observe. They may observe the same area repeatedly for days, weeks, or years, or observe many locations at once through automatically recorded data. They must have patience in order to discover the patterns and changes that happen before their eyes and over periods of time, in which many scientists have contributed to an extended set of observations. Scientists who study humans are no different, psychologists, pediatricians, dentists, and orthopedists get better at making diagnoses of an individual based on the amount of time they have observed both the individual and the length of experience they have observing a wide variety of other people.

You may be saying, sure, but what is the point of telling me this here or now? I mention these concepts of observation and patience here, because as a parent and/or educator, you are no different than the scientists listed above. It is a large part of your job to carefully observe the children in your care, and then have the patience to understand the patterns they are demonstrating, the changes that are occurring within them, and then determine the action or inaction required.

Now it should be noted that what many of us think of as observation is not observation at all, especially when it comes to our children. Human emotions are usually tied to emotions of those we are close to and those within our care. We often end up making judgements or assumptions about what we see, before we have been patient enough to fully understand what we are watching. If you reference the dictionary, there are several definitions of the verb, to observe, but the one that best describes what we must do comes from the Cambridge Dictionary, which states: to watch carefully the way something happens or the way someone does something, especially in order to learn more about it. The last part of this definition is perhaps the most important...we are not just watching to watch, but rather to learn something more about the child we are observing.

Maria Montessori, a scientist by training, spent many hours objectively observing children and to her surprise discovered many aspects of their inner lives that none before her had understood. She found that if children are to reach their potential they should have free choice to do the work that interests them and meets their developmental needs, they should then have many opportunities to repeat these exercises. They should have access to real adult work using materials that are sized for them, such as sweeping, wiping tables, washing dishes and clothes, and preparing and serving food. Some early observations of children in a classroom showed her that neither rewards or punishments were very effective in “controlling” children, as they were either oblivious to them or quickly disregarded them. Instead, she discovered that treating children in a way that maintained their dignity was essential to their well-being. When dignity was maintained, children more often maintained self-discipline.

You see, when we take the time to observe our children carefully we can learn more than we expect.

Like many of you, I have an active child, one who seemingly never stops. My son, 5, runs and jumps and spins, at all times of day, inside and outside. But, if you slow down your own mind, pause your own work, and just watch you may discover something amazing.Things were starting to feel crazy, like I could never get a rest, like tears were coming more than usual, like he was always needing attention. I realized our routine no longer matched his natural rhythm.

I pulled back, I decided to see what would happen if I just let him make some decisions about how the day should flow, simply by not directing the activities. The next morning we woke up, snuggled, dressed and had breakfast as usual. Then I watched. My son slipped back into his room and played Legos for almost 60min. He built and played pretend behind his closed door, uninterrupted by myself or his sister. He was doing the work he needed to do at a time that he needed to do it. When he emerged he was content and fulfilled. He was ready for a movement break, which was easy to accommodate since I had plenty of time to work with L (18months) and get the morning housework done.

The day rolled on and the crazy picked up around 4:45. I watched him spiral up as I made dinner and was helpless to stop it. I finally felt like the behavior was not safe or productive and told him so. I suggested he choose something off the shelf to do and offered 2 or 3 options that I thought might appeal to him. He selected one quickly, as if he had really only been out of control due to a lack of ideas and direction. He chose play dough and people and then happily played independently until dinner.

Not every day since this one has been perfect and finding a routine that matches the rhythm of both children is a constant challenge, however I know that if I stop and observe with patience we have many more good days than bad ones.


The Secret of Childhood, Maria Montessori

Brain Rules for Baby: how to raise a smart and happy child from zero to five, John Medina

The Gardener and the Carpenter, Alison Gopnik

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