We talk plenty about offering children rich experiences. Experiences lay the foundation for millions of neuronal connections in children’s brains. Naturally, they are important. Yet, an experience alone simply cannot foster intricate connections unless we layer these experiences one atop another. It is layering of each experience, more importantly, how we layer them, that will help children weave a big web of connections. These connections will then give way to self-directed exploration and comprehension.
The Experience Itself
We begin with the experience itself. When we take a 13 month old into the woods and simply let the child lead us, we will know instantly what attracts their attention. They might run towards a fallen pinecone, they might walk up and down a pile of crunchy leaves or halt in their tracks with wide-open eyes on hearing the raucous hammering of a woodpecker.
This is the experience taking over the child’s whole being. And, our job is to let the child be drenched in that experience. Simply share that moment together.
Yet, when we stop at experiencing that experience, the moment will be lost when the child moves onto something else. We need to seize that moment once the child has had the taste of it and relay it – “Wow, what was that loud noise? Did you hear it? I think I heard it in that direction. Come with me, let’s go have a look at what that was.” And, we now take the child along and feed that curiosity stemming from the experience. “Look at that, that is a woodpecker. Do you see it’s beak? Look how sharp it is. It is pecking away at the tree.”
Relaying the experience expands on it almost instantly. We do not want to miss this opportunity because the experience is fresh and happening as we sportscast it.
Young preschool children have a natural curiosity and the desire to make sense of their world. They don’t need learning that originates outside of themselves but are well-prepared to learn from everything around them—their environment is the curriculum. A good teacher creates a “responsive learning environment” that is full of opportunities to play and explore, while weaving instruction into activities in naturally occurring ways. But this requires teachers who are highly skilled—who understand development, can connect with children, and can create and feel into learning moments on the fly.Erika Christakis, What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups
Once the experience is complete and we are back from the woods, as adults, we typically tend to move on with our lives. But, what brings back those experiences? What could possibly take the child back to the woods?
Our minds instantly go to the incredible power of imagination yet many young children may not be as adept or ready to travel too far in their minds. So, we want to make use of a few props from our experience to facilitate that recollection and connection – a pine cone from the woods or a large piece of bark would work just enough. We need just enough to bring back the memories, to trigger further conversations and rekindle the excitement. We could even rely on photographs, illustrations or paintings. Using one of these, we narrate again and again adding ever more details and expanding on the experience – “Remember, we went to the woods the other day? Do you remember what we saw? I still have the two pine cones we collected from there. Let’s have a look at them.” And, now we use this as an opportunity to layer the experience furthermore. “This is a closed pine cone. It has tiny sharp needles jutting out from it. Look at this other pine cone, it is open. These are the scales. Do you see how sharp they feel? We must be careful while handling them or the needles might poke us.”
When we have memorabilia, we can always revisit them to recollect the experience. And we must revisit them several times to make sure the layer is sturdy.
Songs & Stories
From this point on, we can expand using the expansive world of songs and stories. Is it possible to find a book on pine cones or a book on woodpeckers? Can you find a way for your child to browse through different woodpeckers by putting together a picture series? Can you find a way for your child listen to the sound of a woodpecker? Is it possible to make art using the pinecones? These are all ways to further the experience by adding multiple expansive layers.
We can always revisit the place of the experience, in this case, the woods, but this time the child will not be a novice. They will be so much more aware. There will be so much more to look for, to pay attention to and learn from.
For young children, it is not just the experience but the layering that make it last. An experience is too fleeting unless we expand on it, recollect it, speak extensively about it and build stories around it. We simply cannot reap the most out of it unless we invest more in it. So, our role as adults is to be the bridge that will connect our children to the world. We must feed that curiosity, nurture that enthusiasm and show them ways to explore so they can take it further.