“Making and Doing” – The Key to Helping Your Preschooler Learn Initiative

We’ve been busy this summer getting ready for a family wedding. Our oldest son was married in July and we are thrilled.  Their Colorado mountain-view ceremony was beautiful. Not only are we delighted with our new daughter-in-law, but we got two teenage step-grandchildren out of the deal!

I have been wanting to write about a problem that plagues parents and teachers alike: lack of personal initiative in children. I’m always asking myself, how does this creative lethargy get started? It’s like a spiritual disease- their energy and enthusiasm snuffed out at such an early age. Here’s my take.

I sat yoga-style on the family room floor, eyes closed. Water trickled down my back. My four-year-old daughter clattered around me in her grandmother’s cast-off high heels, alternately dipping her comb into a glass jar and running it through my hair. She combed and patted and poked bobby pins into my scalp. “Sit still!” she fussed. “You never like to sit still!”

I enjoyed watching her stretch her imagination. All I had to do was let it happen. I knew that preschoolers need parents who allow them to pretend and make and do. It’s how they learn to take initiative.

The alternative to learning initiative, according to psychologist Erik Erickson (1902-1994), is learning guilt. This stage, the third in Erickson’s model of psycho-social development, represents “Purpose.” The four-five year old child is really asking, “Is it all right for me to be who I am? Is it all right for me to do things in this world?”

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My neighbor across the street used to shout through her window screen every ten or fifteen minutes. “Arthur! You come back here this instant or I’ll whip your behind. Do you hear me, Arthur?”

She must have thought she could parent without leaving her living room.

Little Arthur would lumber back up the side walk, arms swinging at his sides. “OK! OK! I’m coming!” But the second his mother turned her head, probably to watch a TV show, the preschooler ran off again, just out of sight. The game went on every day that summer. I wondered why his mother just didn’t bring him inside where she could keep a better eye on him.

When she did go outside, it was always to scold. Never so that he could delight in showing her something of interest – an insect or mud puddle.

What a missed opportunity!

Arthur needed encouragement in making and doing and imaginative play –activities that psychologist Erik Erickson (1902-1994) believed are important for the preschool child’s developing sense of initiative. Erickson was also a certified Montessori teacher, and by training, understood the child’s spirit to be a driving force in his learning.

Passage through each of Erickson’s eight stages of psychosocial development is contingent on the individual having successfully gone through the previous stage, beginning with Hopes: Trust vs. Mistrust (ages birth to 2); Will: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt (2-4); Purpose: Initiative vs. Guilt (ages4-5); Competence: Industry vs. Inferiority (ages 5-12); Fidelity: Identity vs. Role Confusion (ages 13-19); Love: Intimacy vs. Isolation (young adulthood); Care: Generativity vs. Stagnation (middle adulthood); Wisdom: Ego Identity vs. Despair. (Borrowed from Wikipedia – because I haven’t seen my college textbook copy of Erickson’s 1950 classic, Childhood and Society, in about thirty years.)

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The problem is that some parents don’t help their kids get off home plate. They don’t go the distance.  They don’t know that it’s the child’s nature to want to learn and do. All parents have to do is be there. And watch it happen.

When the adults in a child’s life are self-absorbed, whether on the computer, text messaging, watching TV, running out the door – even  smoking cigarettes – the child who is just beginning to show initiative has to take a back seat. It’s too much trouble to go looking for frogs, or to gather materials for making tea party hats. The parent says, “Not now.” Or, “We’ll do it some other time.” Or worse yet, “Why would you want to do that?”

And the child feels guilty for having come up with such ideas, and loses the initiative to pursue what initially excited him. He loses faith in the people he hoped would help him find a way to catch frogs and make tea party hats. The people he trusted to help him be more.

When no one cares about the things children are interested in, during the time in their development when those things must matter, how can the child prepare for the next stage – building competence? It’s like expecting them to build a tower with blocks before they have mastered hand-eye coordination.

Susan Hoffman is Director of Stars Montessori Academy in San Diego, Calif., and the mother of five. “A safe environment in which children can learn and explore is the key to giving the child lots of experiences. That child already has it all within him,” she explained in a recent telephone interview.

But the parent is very important, too, Hoffman said. It’s the parent who gives the child the freedom to explore, following the child’s curiosity. You might discover they’re interested in caterpillars. “You just kind of guide them – they say more things than you can imagine.”

Hoffman believes it’s all about freedom within boundaries. Provide for the safety and health of the child, but give the child enough freedom, she said.

Arthur’s mother gave him freedom, but without safe boundaries, sending the message that it was not safe for him to explore.

Without boundaries, Hoffman said, “The child could get hurt, or isn’t all he’s meant to be. He may become afraid to touch things, or that things will be taken away. You’re there as a resource. Get curious with them! You can give them more information. It’s endless. But the child is really what makes it all worthwhile.

“When kids get up in the morning and there are just a bunch of rules – don’t touch this, don’t touch that –  they stop being joyful, they get depressed, or fearful,” Hoffman said.

Rules can be unspoken, as well. As a teenager I babysat for a professional couple that lived around the corner. At Christmastime, the mother left an ornament-making project for me to do with the two boys, ages two and four. Chris and Mike colored the paper cut-outs – the Wise Men or nativity figures, I think.

I lifted the children and helped them fasten the figures to the branches. The kids didn’t care that their cut and paste contributions contrasted with their mother’s fancy glass balls. “Won’t your mommy be surprised?” I said.

She was surprised, all right. I will never forget her condescending sneer as she plucked the ornaments from the tree in front of the kids. “These will have to go!” she said.

I’m sure four-year-old Mike understood that his best efforts were not good enough for the family’s Christmas tree. Why had she told them they could make the decorations in the first place? Homes like Chris and Mike’s – where the Christmas trees are decorated to adult standards, and magazines and throw pillows are never out of place – reflect terribly limited possibilities. They exist like store windows – all for show.

Once when I was substitute teaching in a fourth grade classroom I had a little boy who slunk down in his chair, his chest caved in like a “C.” His tired expression resembled an old man ready to give up the ghost. When I spoke with him, he seemed intelligent and very polite. But all day he barely lifted his head, didn’t smile or show initiative. I wondered if he always seemed so depressed, as though nothing in the world mattered.

Kids with no drive, no kick in their step, no curiosity, have had the initiative sucked out of them a long time ago. So how can a child go on to the next stage, building competence, when his creativity has been thwarted at every turn?

Without initiative, learning becomes a chore. The boy’s teacher and parents probably could not understand why he showed no enthusiasm. I’ll bet they pulled their hair out, offering bribes and rewards, and threatening him with the loss of privileges. Perhaps they had him tested for special services. Someone always had push and prod, “Come on, let’s get this done.”

But isn’t that what we should expect when caregivers curtail the child’s natural desire for exploration and creative play during the preschool years? When the adults in charge control everything the child does?

I like to see homes in which children’s work is evident. Where books are stacked next to a comfy chair, ready for reading on a welcoming lap. And a project, maybe a castle fashioned from an appliance box, sits in middle of the floor, awaiting imaginative young minds.

I was determined to make my children’s efforts count. And as they grew up, they didn’t wimp out if they had to make a cake from scratch, or create a birthday card from construction paper. They were eager to do it. And I cannot tell you how much my husband and I enjoyed it. Those moments were infinitely special to our family.

By making and doing with children, and encouraging their ideas, parents teach initiative. Kids learn to finish well. If they don’t have one thing on hand, they find a substitute. Because “making” is really more important than the finished product.

Just a note: You might think making and doing has to cost a lot. It doesn’t. While Hobby Lobby is a great store, Good Will and garage sales are God-sends. No matter what children want to do, a parent can usually find a way to help them.

Grandma may have old high heels and purses and dresses for playing dress-up. (My mother-in-law passed down several sheer nighties that turned my daughters into fairy princesses!)

Around the house we always had raw materials – skeins of yarn, a left-over ream of paper donated by a friendly print shop, wood scraps from a cabinet-maker in town, leather scraps and mosaic tiles from garage sales. There was always something they could use for craft projects.

So. What can your preschoolers do?

  • Play pretend, dress-up (Goodwill, grandma’s cast-off clothing can be stashed in a crate, trunk or basket). Kids like to play house, grocery store, restaurant, train, bus, museum, veterinarian, etc.
  • Create with arts and crafts materials (paper of all kinds, crayons, colored pencils, markers, paint, paste, popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, felt squares,  scissors, rick-rack, sequins, etc.)
  • Sculpt with play-dough (home-made recipes are inexpensive and easy)
  • Use an end bolt of newsprint from the local newspaper (only costs a few dollars) for outlining the body,  learn to recognize facial features and clothing details; make maps of the neighborhood, design forts, houses, etc.
  • Make and play under blanket forts, using the kitchen or dining room table
  • Decorate and play in an appliance box play house (parent cuts the windows and door)
  • Make stick or sock puppets and have fairy tale puppet shows (make appliance box into a puppet theater)
  • Make  “bush houses” (these can be anywhere in nature where children can find a log, tree stump or stone to sit on, toss a blanket over a branch, and use like a  mini-campsite)
  •  Measure and sift sand
  • Make mini roads and irrigation ditches in dirt, pour in water
  • Construct with wood scraps (sanded a bit) for pounding nails and constructing things
  • Prepare simple snacks: slice bananas, make crackers and nut butter
  • Set the table
  • Host a tea party – make invitations, tea, cookies and hats
  • Wash dishes in a basin on a small, sturdy table
  • Put away silverware
  • Polish furniture (With clean cloth – no toxic products)
  • Wash stones
  • Make a rock garden
  • Search for fossils
  • Plant and grow seeds
  • Water plants
  • Move to music of different tempos and moods, identify musical instrments (Try Peter and the Wolf!)
  • Sing and do finger plays
  • Make birthday cards
  • Sew buttons onto cloth held taut with embroidery hoop  (with supervision and using a child’s thimble)
  • Play “Mystery Bag” (guessing by “feel” what is in the bag)
  • Use scent jars (Parent adds  various scents to small jars,  lids fastened. Children can open one at a time and guess what it is: mint, cinnamon, clove, etc.)
  • And always, always, there are story books! FFG

For more ideas: The Preschooler’s Busybook, by Trish Kuffner; Teaching Montessori in the Home: The Preschool Years, by Elizabeth Hainstock; Show Me How! Build Your Child’s Self-Esteem Through Reading, Crafting, and Cooking, by Vivian Kirkfield.

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