The Advocate for Childhood
By Sandi Phoenix
Let’s discuss ‘that child’ found in many education and care settings. However, let’s not label him ‘that child’, and respectfully use his real name, Jacob. Jacob is spirited, energetic and a non-conformist. When all the obedient children are sitting on the carpet, Jacob is playing with dress ups and refusing his educator's attempts to control him. When he and other children are happily playing outside then asked to come inside, the other children resign to compliance. Not Jacob. He refuses to abandon his outdoor play time, to come inside and hear a story he has heard a thousand times. He knows that he’ll just struggle to sit still anyway, so the story will be constantly interrupted with his educator's attempts to behaviour ‘manage’ him into what is perceived by the adults in his room as ‘listening behaviour’. He would much prefer to keep moving, climbing, running and jumping in the outdoor space, as children of his age need to do. So he does.
Freedom is a basic human need. Basic. Human. Need. Jacob’s freedom cup needs filling (See the Phoenix Cups Resources for more info) and in a learning environment that is frequently emptying that cup, he becomes exceptionally creative at compensating for that. He will get freedom. He will insist on it! You see, Jacob is not like most of the other children who will grudgingly obey. He is not seeking the extrinsic reward in the form of praise from his educator. He is motivated intrinsically to play, move, learn and grow in the outdoors. He has a deep urge to interact with the natural world. When he is outdoors he is wholly in the moment, connected and in flow. He loves the smell of grass as he lies flat on the ground catching his breath, the sound of the wind as it rushes through his hair and the feeling of mud squishing between his fingers. He can wonder for an hour at the movement of an earth worm, the secret missions of ants, the scuttling of a bug. Jacob has been on this planet for 4 years. He learnt to walk just 35 months ago and has not stopped running, jumping and climbing everywhere with rigour and enthusiasm since. He cannot get enough of what this new, exciting natural world has to teach him.
However, Jacob knows, that at 10 a.m. each day his educators will transition all twenty-two children in his class inside where the children will be herded through a room routine that involves all children sitting, listening, lining up, waiting, hand washing, eating and sleeping at the same time. Once his educators manage to get him inside, the doors will be closed. He will be trapped. Jacob’s strong need for freedom means he despises this feeling. Jacob is outgrowing his midday sleep time. Regardless, he is forced to stay on his bed in a darkened room. Some days he grows tired of the restlessness and falls asleep, while other times he is increasingly agitated and acts out. Each child in this class has an individual rhythm which is not visible because they are not given the time and agency to move through it. Most of these children are accepting of adult’s expectations to be compliant, to obey their every request. Not Jacob. Jacob is an advocate for this group. He will stand strong in his convictions. He is still learning how to get his needs met without impacting on the needs and rights of other people, so his behaviour is likely to be considered disruptive. Nevertheless, Jacob will demand change.
Throughout the course of the year, Jacob’s educators will be forced to reflect on their practices, consult a behaviour specialist, attend professional development, network with colleagues, find a mentor, request support to include him and even learn about new concepts for understanding children's behaviour, like The Phoenix Cups. Eventually, Jacob’s teachers will learn new things. They’ll realise that providing a flexible program that respects each child's individual rhythms is not only respectful but possible. They will fill cups. They will decide to allow children to move inside or outside for most of the day. This will see some children still playing outside under the shade of a tree at midday, while others choose to move inside earlier. It will become apparent that transitioning Jacob and all the children to a meal at once while Jacob is deeply involved in play outside will result in behavioural challenges. For this reason, his educators have learnt to respect his deep level involvement, then nurture it and foster it. So, eventually morning tea becomes an unhurried flexible routine where small groups of children at a time sit with an educator when they’re ready and enjoy their meal in a social setting that allows for sustained shared conversation and meaningful interactions.
Jacob’s educators will learn about sensory development and understand children’s need to move to develop and integrate their senses. They will discover new knowledge about the developing proprioceptive and vestibular senses and realise this development is much more important in the early years than a ‘school readiness’ program that focuses on developmentally inappropriate outcomes (for Jacob) of phonics, scissor skills, counting and letter recognition through rote teaching and indoor activities and forced group times. As a result of their new understanding about children’s development, the educators will increase physical challenges in the learning environment with rope ladders, higher climbing frames, and start allowing children to lift, push and pull heavy things, climb the trees and hang from the branches like they’ve always felt the urge to do. Jacob’s educators realise they will need to know about the benefits of supervised risky play then how to articulate this information to families. Their research around this soon inspires them to stop risk managing by removing risk and start making informed risk benefit analyses. Jacob’s educators' have now realised his need to run fast, move big, climb high, so they will access natural open green spaces in the local community once a week (to start). The children respond to this time in nature with joy and enthusiasm beyond any other part of the program. It’s soon realised that the children’s interest in nature needs to extend into the program every day, both indoors and outdoors.
Jacob has, in effect, transformed the childhood experience of all the children in his learning environment. He’s an activist. He burst into the lives of his educators and shook things up. Practices that had continued simply because they were always done that way were reflected upon, rethought and evolved. New ideas were considered. Evidence and research was consulted. Change happened. Fast. In less than a year, Jacob has inspired change that will outlast his time in this space. Jacob is an advocate for childhood. He has a lesson for everyone he meets. He will resist, inspire and reconstruct the childhood experience for himself and his peers. He is a revolutionary.
By Sandi Phoenix
Principal Facilitator at Phoenix Support for Educators
Please see our Phoenix Cups resources for more information. Click here to go to our Phoenix Cups shop.
Credit to Dr. Siobhán Hannan for the term "revolutionary".
See this article and others in the ACA QLD Early Edition