A young boy with a big smile that showed off his missing front tooth came to the sandbox and stood there looking at me, then the shovel, then the buckets, and then at me again. “You can play with all of these if you’d like,” I said to him as I moved to one side, showing him all of the sand toys we had just dumped on the sand area. As his face lit up I heard a loud voice calling, “James!” An older lady across the playground hollered his name while adjusting her spectacles. James yelled back, “I’m playing!”
“Come over here!” she hollered again. As James turned around to play, ignoring her calls, she eventually stood up and walked the 300 feet to take him out of the sand area. The scene was less than flattering but I can attest James did not go home without a fight.
I’ve been running a family daycare for over 15 years. My fellow teachers and I take daily walk with 12 young children. We visit beautiful parks and playgrounds nearby. The possibilities for enjoyment are endless. At the park, we have picnics, do art, play in the sand, paint our faces, and socialize with other children and their caregivers. Our youngsters get a chance to release their wiggles and practice safety among themselves and others. We are the bunch that brings all the sand toys, the chalk, the bubbles, and occasionally, the ice pops.
We often make new friends at the playground- curious little buddies looking to play with us. Throughout the years we have met many like James.
I always go back to that memory of screaming James dragging across the playground and wonder why his nanny wouldn’t want James to play with us. Why wasn’t she sitting near James in the first place in order to play with him herself? For all I know, James has a very contagious disease and his nanny was lovingly just trying to protect the other kids… but I doubt it.
Scenes like James attempting to socialize with other children and being misunderstood in the process are more common than you think. I can only play Dr. Freud here and retell stories based solely on my experience. The town I work in is home to very affluent families and has a plethora of enrichment activities. Regardless, I still see caregivers doing much less than their own title attributes them: “give-care”
I strongly believe that we, as a society, underestimate the importance of high-quality early childhood care and experiences, let alone the role socialization takes in the early years.
How can a young child ever understand or learn how to socialize or behave in different social situations and interactions if they never get the exposure they need?
Children make sense of their world through situations they experience themselves or situations they witness through us.
Children communicate very differently from adults. A young child does not encounter another child at the park and politely ask, “Do you want to play with me?”
A young child interested in some sort of socialization often resorts to nonverbal cues. You’ll see a child shoving, pushing or snatching toys. To the naïve eye, this comes across as the child being rude, violent and poorly supervised. In the eyes of a keen observant caregiver, that child just wants to play with the other child. These are great moments in which we can show a child how to approach another or how to initiate play. Moments like this greatly foster language development and communications skills.
Last summer, while playing on the sand, one of my little girls was digging a bit too harshly, making the sand go up in the air. When that sand gets in someone’s eyes, game over. Before I could lower my girl’s shovel and show her how to dig safely, I heard someone yell from across the playground, “She’s throwing sand! She’s throwing sand!”
I noticed a small boy sitting next to us. Maybe he belonged to that nanny and she was worried about the sand. She did not get up from her bench where she was chatting with other nannies but she did yell some more. I proceeded to show my young friend how to dig more carefully. I waved at the nanny to come and join us, but she was already turning away to continue her conversation. I knew in my mind what I wanted to tell her if she ever came over. “You show children what you expect from them. You can’t just say no. Young children can’t process a negative”
A few years back I realized that the problem with mediocre childcare is really the fact that sometimes we hire our caregivers to just keep our children alive. We want someone to feed, clothe, bathe and somehow conduct a predictable routine for our children. Nowhere in any childcare job description do you see the importance of overseeing early exposure to art, literature, guiding emotional intelligence or developing attachments while mentoring a strong early childhood foundation.
The lack of high-quality childcare extends past babysitters or nannies. I’ve seen firsthand what seem to be qualified daycare teachers not even trying. I remember hiring a teacher once who had come from working with children as a nanny for several years and then had transitioned to two different group family childcare settings. She had her records checked, her application passed with flying colors, and she even came with an unexpired first aid and CPR certification. She immediately took the 15 hours mandated health and safety training, after which she enrolled in online training in different areas of child development training. My new assistant would feed, change and transition children smoothly to different activities, but when the time came to interact and get involved, she would stand against the wall and quietly supervise. I explained to her the importance of getting down and playing with the children, how precious it is to develop attachments and get to know them better. I also modeled the desired behavior, but it was just not in her. Reading to the children came as strangely as doing a magic show for them. There was no effort, no dialogue, no understanding for early childhood or the mere interest to learn more. She was not a good fit. You’d be surprised how many people heavily involved with young children aren’t a good fit, I believe this is because we don’t understand what a good fit looks like.
Last year I applied for a local scholarship through CCCW. In my proposal, I wanted to work with providers to bring inspiration to the part of the curriculum where we sit down and play with the children. For my first class, I set up the room as a typical daycare classroom; my intentions were to inspire teachers to get down and play like children. I saw images in my head of teachers walking in and being excited about all the toys and books I had for them to play with. About 10 teachers from a local daycare center showed up, their faces puzzled as they entered the room cautiously. They carefully walked around tables and mats, wiggling around as if the play centers were made of glass. I invited them to play because I understood that being overly curious and handsy does not come naturally to adults. I set up every center with a challenge as a prompt to begin exploration.
To my surprise, no one, not one of the 10 daycare center teachers. were able to complete the challenges or even play naturally. The most I could make them do was touch the toys. I expected the few millennials that attended to play more and be more excited about the toys than their phones.
Do a few personal observations reflect any real underlying problem in the quality of early childhood care?
We really do not know what to expect from childcare professionals, and that’s a problem. There is a big difference between a well-meaning responsible adult in charge of a child and an early childhood professional that knows well their powerful influence on young lives.
When we don’t raise the bar for childcare, our children miss out on key experiences that will help them develop in a more wholesome way.
A good caregiver can turn frustration into excitement and stress into understanding. Children learn every moment of their existence. That’s why every moment should be filled with relevant and powerful information. We often forget how fragile a child’s mind is and how important it is to fill it with good and useful information.
Children are our greatest challenge. When we have or work with a child, we mentor and care for a brand-new human. That is exactly what children are, brand new, out of the box, members of this world. They don’t know much more than what their primal instinct tells them. Children constantly rely on their survival instincts. To thrive, children must create attachments with parents and caregivers. It is crucial for their emotional well-being and healthy development that they develop early on a sense of belonging and trust.
Finding a good candidate or facility that possesses high-quality caregivers can be a bit frustrating for parents since it seems like a lot of child care jobs are filled with the need to work for money more than the need to work for the children.
That said, it is still the parent’s responsibility to seek and expect high-quality care. What kind of care are parents looking for when hiring a caregiver, looking for a daycare, or when they stay at home with their child for the first 5 years of life? Changes in care will only come about when there is a demand for something better.
If having a clean driver license, criminal record, and references are still in your job description for a potential caregiver instead of being a “given,” then you need to rethink what kind of people and experiences you want to expose your child to during the first 3 years of their life. This is a brand-new brain: what type of information do you want your child to process? What types of experiences do you want your child to absorb? Maybe parents need to understand early childhood a bit better before bringing a mentor into their child’s life.
It’s time we educate ourselves about the importance of early childhood experiences and the impact they have for the rest of a child’s life.
As parents, we have the power to choose the influences and impressions our children experience during their early years of life. You want music and language to surround them. You want your child to learn voice tones and modulation through a soft and caring voice while listening to stories in books or stories of life. You want them to be accepted and understood even when they can’t understand themselves. You want your child to feel loved and safe always, and to see the world through caring and accepting eyes. You want them to feel free, to try, to fail, to make mistakes and to simply experience life without limits. You want your child to laugh every day but to understand it’s ok to cry as well. This world is very complex to them. This world is immense. This world is their home and our job is to help them make sense of it.
Find someone who understands this. Find someone who embraces young lives and understands that working with children makes us wiser and makes us better. Find someone who knows this is a challenge but that the rewards are even greater.