Why Vocabulary Matters!

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What is Vocabulary?

When a child is born, we surround them with language. We offer words, “Oh, look at that bird, that is a crow.” We move on and name a few other birds – pigeon, myna, sparrow and soon, our repertoire of birds is exhausted. We now look at every other bird and say, “See, that’s a bird!” This happens to almost ALL of us. When we take a walk in our neighbourhood park with our child, how many of us stop and show our child the different trees, shrubs, plants, flowers and birds? Do we ever stop to look around or do we just group all of these into ‘nature’? For most of us, every tree is a ‘tree’ and every flower is a ‘flower.’ But for young children who rely entirely on us to understand what their world has to offer, vocabulary becomes a necessity to connect with it completely.

Vocabulary is a collection of words. It is a list of words that we associate with objects, emotions, people. All of us have a database of words which we use to communicate with one another. For some of us, this vocabulary is rich, while for some others, it is limited. Vocabulary becomes so important when we want to understand something, remember it, explore it further, build abstractions and speak about it. We never stop to think of the limitations of a scarce database of words!

Our Obsession with Letters!

There is a serious concern that haunts each of us when it comes to teaching our children the alphabets. We don’t think as much about words as we do about letters. We start with letters very early. We sing the ABC songs when our babies are barely a few months and we read them a string of alphabet books. The day they identify the letter R or the letter P, we celebrate.

The truth is letters are important. Yes, we want our children to know them because they are the building blocks of words. But, what use are letters for a young child who has no words to build them into? What will the child talk about if she does not have the experience and word association to remind herself of that experience? With young children, we need to worry more about words and less about letters. This is because, without words, letters stand as isolated entities that have no meaning! Letters become important only when our children have a well-stocked repertoire of words that they then want to pen down or read about.

The WHAT child

Children under six are explorers. In their exploration of their home, their garden, their society they come across various objects. This sparks their curiosity and they eagerly ask us, “What is this?” We have all come across that young child, constantly asking us what, what, what! They parrot this as they move from one to another, trying to understand what their world is made up of. If our own repertoire is very limited, what can we feed our children? This unique aspect of human beings – naming everything from objects to emotions is what connects us with others. Without words, without a rich vocabulary, we are limiting the child’s further exploration and understanding. We are taking away from them the joy of communicating their discoveries with others.

Why does Vocabulary Matter?

A Word for Everything 

When we say the word flower, each of us conjure up an image of a flower. The flower in my head is the poisonous oleander. This is probably because in southern India, most of us grew around oleander flowers. Poisonous as they are, oleanders are found in abundance in South India. This is the image that comes to my mind when I hear the word flower. Now, when I say the word flower, each of you reading this has your own image of a flower. The images in our minds may or may not match. This is because we each have different experiences that conjure up an image. When I become more specific and say sunflower, immediately all of us draw up an image of a sunflower. This abstract image of the sunflower in my head may still be different from yours but we are all thinking of sunflowers. We have now narrowed down to the specifics. 

A word for everything is important because every word is a tag on which that whole experience will sit. Without that specific word, a child cannot carry the experience anywhere. If our child comes to us and says, “Amma, today I saw a big flower. It was yellow.” and all we can say is, “Oh you saw a flower. Very nice!” That whole experience stops right there. Instead, we say, “Oh, what colour was it? Was it purple? Was it yellow? Did it have large yellow petals? Did you notice a brown disc in the centre? I think you saw a sunflower. How wonderful.”

Later, we can talk about sunflowers and go back to observe it with more understanding because we have given a word for that particular experience of the child. 

Ability to Notice 

This is a skill that is lacking in most of us as we now spend more time looking at our screens. At the bus stop, we hold our child’s hand and are busily looking at our screens. At the restaurant, each of us is holding a phone and scrolling down. We don’t notice what is happening around us. Let us take the same example of the walk in the park, assuming we know the names of the different trees. When we have named these for the child, we will see ourselves and the child begin to notice more details. It is like getting to know a person. We have taken the effort to learn the name of this tree and the tree then starts to come alive for us. We notice its branches, how they sway differently from the branches of another tree. How the trunk has ridges and how the roots are as thick as the branches and so on. Without that word, we don’t notice further. We just move on with our lives because we know nothing about that object. 

Wonder! 

Oh, the joy of wonder! The ability to wonder should not just be a child’s gift but an adult’s as well. How many of us wonder? Do we ever curiously look at a bird and wonder why it flies so low, why does the hummingbird jump from one flower to another so swiftly? How are big birds able to lift their bodies? Wonder is the birth of all knowledge, without wonder, we are limp! A child can carry the abstraction of the object and the word in her mind and gradually begin to wonder about it. A word is a gate pass into wondering all about an experience. It is the beginning of all the why questions that an older child comes to us with. However, without the what’s the child cannot move onto the why’s.

Fondness & Love  

This is ultimately where we want all these words and experiences to take our children. This love for what they see around them. Let us take the same example of the park. If our child accompanies us every morning and we spot different birds and rest under different trees, these experiences create joyful memories. If someone were to cut that large tree under which you spent every morning with your child, resting, singing and laughing, won’t it be like someone is snatching away a dear friend? Would we not care enough to at least see if that can be stopped? We rarely ever pause and care about these things, not because we don’t have the ability to care but because we don’t know anything about life around us to even notice what is going on. 

A word is so much more than a word. It has the potential to lay the foundation for abstract thinking, imagination and intelligence. This is not to say we invest in a pack of flash cards and just offer ‘names’ to children. With young children, we offer words with experiences so that the word can sit on top the sensory richness of that experience. This way, the child can club all that experience into a single word. So, we need to take the effort to learn the names of words ourselves so that we can pass this on to our children. It is not just about ticking off a list, “bird, tree, car.” We need to invest a little more attention and care into marrying that experience with the word.

Dr. Montessori, in her book To Educate the Human Potential, said “We shall walk together on this path of life, for all things are part of the universe and are connected with each other to form one whole unity.”

Interdependence over Independence : Earth Day Special <3

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Today, we live in a world that is all about autonomy – I, Me, Mine. All of us strive to be self-sufficient; we do not wish to rely on others. Our family units are becoming smaller and smaller pushing us further towards self-sufficiency.  But, let us take a closer look at this ‘self-sufficiency’, this so-called independence that we all cherish. Are any of us truly independent? Are we ever to call ourselves self-sufficient, forgetting the innumerable factors that come together to sustain us?

When we look at a newborn, helpless & frail, solely dependent on us for love, comfort, food & security, we hold a vision for this life. A vision to enable these tiny beings to become independent. From very early on, we nudge our children towards doing for themselves – whether it is learning to dress, eat or move, our goal is to guide them towards independence. True, being able to independently do, think & be are critical to survival in this world. However, we celebrate independence as the goal, the destination. But this independence is only a means, a means that will hopefully take our children towards that intricate web of interdependence that holds us all together. 

So, instead of stopping at independence, our goal must be to guide our children to use their capabilities in contributing towards the web of interdependence. 

So, how can we highlight interdependence in young children? 

Young children derive immense joy in being able to do something by themselves. Anyone who has observed toddlers, will have noticed the pride they derive in being able to do – whether it is carrying an oversized pitcher of water or moving a tiny piece of furniture. This is often followed by the famous “Me do it!” phrase. While we nurture this independence by giving them the opportunity to do tasks & make simple choices for themselves, we can also guide them towards doing for others. 

Doing for the Home : For little children, home is the first solid & stable environment. In this home, every member is integral and doing for each other is what makes the home a warm, loving & joyful space. So, involve your children while you set the table, casually  highlighting, “Today, let’s set the table for dinner. One plate for amma, one for appa, one for thatha (grandpa), one for paaty (grandma) & one for you.” This is an example of a simple way to draw the attention of the child that they are helping set the table for their family. Similarly, activities such as dusting a shelf or collaborating in preparing a meal, either by washing the vegetables or by peeling or pounding, children can be involved in countless activities at home that put them in touch with their whole family. By peeling the potatoes that everyone will be having for lunch or dusting a shelf that sits in the living room,  children are contributing towards their family. 

Doing for the Environment : This environment, this planet is our home & as a member of this home, we ought to show other new members (our children) how to nurture & care for it. For very young children, filling a bird-feeder or keeping a bowl of water for birds & squirrels instantly puts them in touch with other beings. Having a few potted plants, or a vegetable garden and learning to water them, pulling weeds & caring for them tenderly shows them to treat other beings with respect, value & kindness. Even by avoiding wastage, at the dining table, while cooking and while using compost from simple vegetable waste as manure, or by consciously staying away from single-use plastic, we are constantly modelling to our children how our choices & our decisions are impacting our environment. 

Doing for Others : Young children are eager & enthusiastic little helpers, if only we let them. When we use children’s innate kindness towards doing tasks for others such as fetching grandma her shawl or helping appa (dad) carry a bag, helping feed their younger sibling, we are again highlighting how we can use our capabilities towards fulfilling others needs.

Stories : Lastly, something that always ties things together for little children is stories. Talk to children about people who have cared for this planet & treated it with the kindness it deserves. Talk to them about kindness and the joy of helping one another. Apart from oral stories, if we can read books to children about these, and hold conversations on their importance, such experiences will leave an impression on their psyche. 

Earth Day
The Water Princess

Why? 

If there is one thing our current circumstance of a global pandemic determines, it is that we are ALL in this together. Our actions determine the health of others around us; our actions determine the health of this planet. We want to raise children who are mindful of their actions on the environment. We want our children to hold the big picture – this is not their independence but their ability to use their independence of thought and action to support one another. Every choice matters; our children need to see us make choices that take others into consideration; choices that nurture and nourish the environment.

To quote Mahatma Gandhi,  “Interdependence is and ought to be as much the ideal as self-sufficiency. Man is a social being.” 

The Importance of Practising Gratitude with Young Children : Part 2 : HOW?

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Part 1 of this article focuses on Why it is important to practice gratitude with young children. In Part 2, let us look at  a few different ways in which we can practice gratitude with young children.


Children under 3 are different from those over 3. Very young children are less articulate and require verbalisation from our end. However, this does not mean we cannot engage in dialogue with them. We can use their coos and babbles or their few words as a response in our interactions. With children over 3, we can expect more response by encouraging reflection through prompts and also by presenting events of the day that urge reflection. 

How might this be?

  • With Children Under 3

Let us assume a parent is talking to their toddler at the end of the day. The parent can casually talk about some of the events of the day. “Today, we went to the park that has the giant fountain and you played with your new blue ball. Do you remember who got you the ball?” (pause) “Yes, thatha (grandpa) got you the ball. You laughed so much while playing with the ball. Tomorrow, lets go again to play with the ball and I can take a video of you to share with thatha. He will be happy to see that you like it.”

Initially, babies and toddlers observe and may coo, babble or say a few words in response to the conversation. It maybe something liketha” for thatha or “ba” for ball or something else in connection with the incident. Regardless of the response, the aim of this simple practice is to bring the incident back to focus, acknowledge the emotions experienced and highlight the intention behind the contribution (in this case, grandpa’s gift).

  • With Children from 3 – 6 years  

If older children are habituated to unwinding with gratitude, they might share some experiences. “I played on the swing with Mudra.” or “I liked the dosa today.” While helping children express experiences that spark a feeling of gratitude, we can also probe further to help them understand emotions around gratitude, building perspective. “Why do you think thatha came all the way to play cricket with you? (pause) Do you think it is because he cares for you and enjoys having time with you?” Children in this age group can also be helped to reciprocate acts of kindness with kindness. “How did you show/tell thatha you were happy he came?” Maybe tomorrow, when he comes, you can give him a hug.

Gratitude Part 2

  • With Children in a Community 

In a communal setting with several children, this can be done in groups. The adult can help the children in the group bring their attention to benevolent acts, such as “Do you know who washed all the hand towels for lunch today?” or “Radha Akka swept the veranda clean so that some of you can work outside after lunch.” By highlighting these acts, children understand that kind gestures are valued in the community and gradually begin to reciprocate with kindness.

In “Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude can make you Happier”, Robert .A. Emmons says, “The momentary experience of gratitude is not the same as having a well-honed grateful disposition : although at one moment their emotional experiences might be identical, a person who always seem to have a deeply grateful heart no matter what the circumstance is very different from another who is simply appreciative of a gift he has recently received.” 

So, what is important? 

  • Being Consistent

Routines are a reliable way for children to integrate a practice into their daily lives. Creating a simple gratitude practice for children and sticking to it makes this yet another bedtime ritual, much like brushing teeth or bathing. While routines do help children look forward to and predict their day better, it is our responsibility as adults to prioritise and value these practices until children are themselves able to to consistently fulfil them. 

  • Enabling Recollection 

Helping children reflect on their day allows them to look back at events in their lives and focus on those that make them feel thankful. As adults, we often look at events that make us complain, “Oh, the traffic was just horrible today” or “ I wonder why my manager always picks on me”. Instead, we can focus on simple things that light up our lives. Reflection not only allows children to gain perspective, but also helps them recollect incidents which is crucial in practicing gratitude.

In The Whole Brain Child, Dan Siegel says “ Memory is like so many functions of the brain : the more we exercise it, the stronger it becomes. That means that when you give your children lots of practice at remembering – by having them tell and retell their own stories – you improve their ability to integrate their memory.

  • Being a Representative of Gratitude

Perhaps, with young children, the most important of all is for adults in their lives to share their own experiences that spark gratefulness. “I am so thankful to Papa and you for waiting in the car for almost an hour to pick me up this evening.” or “I was so touched when you shared the last chocolate with your sister.”  This gives them examples of how, as adults, we also end our day with  gratitude.

The Importance of Practicing Gratitude with Young Children : Part 1 : WHY?

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The word gratitude brings to mind a feeling of thankfulness; an acceptance of circumstances and an acknowledgement of the gift of life.

But, does gratitude end with just the feeling or is it much more than a fleeting feeling of thankfulness?

When we choose to make a habit of gratefulness by adopting an attitude of gratitude, we are making a long term investment in the mental and physical well being of not just ourselves but of those around us, as well. A grateful disposition is probably the best gift we can give our children to take with them into adulthood. 

“It is gratitude that enables us to receive and it is gratitude that motivates us to repay by returning the goodness that we have been given. In short, it is gratitude that enables us to be fully human.”

Robert .A. Emmons,Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude can make you Happier

Gratitude & Children

With children under the age of six, gratitude begins as a subtle and indirect ritual which gradually becomes a more active and involved process. This can be as simple as a conversation at the end of the day between a parent and child or a teacher and a small group of children. The adult in the picture brings to focus some of the events of the day and helps the children pin emotions around them that focus on gratitude.

Young children understand a lot more than they can speak and by giving words to emotions that they feel, we give them the opportunity to narrow down these emotions to specific words. “Were you relieved when Mudra brought you a tissue when you fell at the park today?” or “You seemed delighted to set the table for dinner.” The words that surround gratitude such as joy, thankful, relief and happiness are simply highlighted in this practice with children.

Why?

  • Learning to Unwind with Gratitude 

Studies have shown that adults who spend a few moments each day journaling at least three things that they are grateful for have better mental & physical health, sleep & exercise better and tend to avoid depression. Although young children may seem inherently more joyful, practicing gratitude is a habit that will stay with them through life. It can be a simple bedtime ritual just like brushing their teeth.

In its own way, gratitude is a kind of prayer; instead of asking, we show our children to give thanks. Gratitude is a dynamic and open prayer where we recollect events of the day and be thankful for how those events have enriched and shaped us.

  • Acknowledging Collective Effort 

Gratitude helps children acknowledge that so many people and circumstances come together to sustain us.  Let us take a family, for example. Different members of the family support each other in different ways. Every member of the family is a contributor – tangible or intangible and every presence makes a difference. Many of us often take our closest family and friends, the ones who always love and support us, for granted. When we help our children acknowledge such presence in their lives, and when we ourselves acknowledge the same with our children, they begin to understand that life is made beautiful by the collective effort of so many.

  • Gratitude in the face of Adversities 

When a child has had a painful experience – falling down, an argument with a friend or sibling or losing something, we often try to either suppress or dismiss the experience. “Do not talk about the park or he will remember he fell down and start crying again” or “Stop crying! It is not such a big deal.” 

Instead if we talk about the experience, for example, “Today, what happened at the park?” (pause) “You fell down and cried. It must have been painful. Do you remember what happened after that?” (pause) “Yes, Mudra came running with a tissue and helped you. I am so grateful you have a friend like Mudra.” (pause) “Do you remember what we did after that? (pause) “We went to the doctor and he gave you an injection. You were scared. I held your hands and stayed close by. Did that make you feel better?” (pause) “Now, you are back at home and resting. Once you feel better, we can go back to playing in the park.” 

When we talk about trying experiences and help our children find hope even in those circumstances, it shows them perspective. It helps them always try and look at things to be grateful for even in adverse circumstances.

  • Spontaneous Thank You’s! 

How often we ask, rather nudge and even force children to say Thank You! As aware as we of the power of these words, we seem content with the words more than the feeling. With children, we expect instant responses.  While our children might say the words out of fear or compulsion, do we stop to think if they really are thankful? Instead, by talking to children through simple conversations such as, “I am so thankful for grandpa. He came all the way just to play with you”, we help them become aware that a certain person has done an act of kindness for another. It helps our children gradually build a habit of reflecting on the act of the other person. “Why did grandpa come? Does he really love and care for me?” 

When we think of it this way, we help our children build a web of emotions around benevolent acts. These will eventually lead to spontaneous thank you’s. Such thank you’s will stem from a deep sense of gratitude and give the words their true value.

“Childhood maybe the optimal time to promote healthy attitudes and the prevention of problems, and gratitude training could play an important role in any program designed to foster well-being. As in adults, gratitude may be a very valuable tool that children can use to negotiate both the ups and the downs in their lives.”

Robert .A. Emmons,Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude can make you Happier

As indirect as the practice of gratitude is with young children under the age of six, it is like a seed that we plant in childhood and nurture with love and care. This seed of happiness will eventually instil a genuine sense of gratefulness and is possibly one of the most invaluable gifts we can offer our children.


Stay tuned for Part 2 of the same article on the different ways in which we can practice Gratitude with Children under 6 at home and in communities. 

 

Dealing with a Child who Bites

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The word biting brings distressing memories to many parents of young children. Biting is a common phase that many young children go through as they navigate their initial interactions with the world. Through these interactions, they understand that they are independent beings capable of having an impact on the world. They explore limits around what is acceptable and what is not and gradually learn to communicate better.

While this is a process for young children, biting as a phase comes with a lot of stigma and shaming around parenting and the child itself. Understanding why biting happens might make it easier for us to look at is as part of a child’s development and address the issue instead of blaming and worrying. 

What triggers Biting?

Some common physical triggers 

Teething: Children begin teething anywhere between 3 and 12 months of age and by the time they are about 3 years, they usually have their full set of primary teeth. During the this phase, they experience sensitivity which makes them want to bite.

Oral Stimulation: When we look at biting, it is helpful to look at the diet we offer. Often,  food for children are overly soft and mashed which give the sprouting teeth hardly any work to do. This leaves the teeth unsatisfied and children look for things to bite such as their toys, another child’s hands or even an adult.

Some common psychological triggers

Attention: Many children bite in order to get attention. This is quite frustrating for parents who feel like they already give enough attention to their little one. When there are many guests, especially other young children, at home, your child may feel like she does not get the attention she usually gets.

Lack of Vocabulary: When children lack the vocabulary to communicate their joy, frustration or excitement, they may bite to say “Hey, this is my toy” or “I don’t want to play with you!” but may not have the words to articulate this intent. Biting is a way of communicating this intention.

Asserting Power: In situations where toddlers feel like they have no control, biting helps them assert their power. They do not have the capacity or brain development to rationalise the consequences of biting. By biting, they simply try to communicate that they are in control.

Exploring Limits: Most of toddlerhood is spent in children trying to understand what is acceptable and what is not. They constantly try and do things and look at us to see our reaction. This is their way of understanding how the world works. With biting, which often gets remarkable reactions, children love to see what happens and how far they can go.

Understanding Group Play: Many of us have observed toddlers having difficulty sharing their toys or even their space. This is not because they do not know what sharing means, but merely because their brain is not yet fully developed to practice sharing. The prefrontal cortex of the brain which is responsible for actions such as self-control is still developing in young children, making it hard to share. 

Biting 2.jpg

Doodle Credits : Abirami & Daddy 

Anxiety: Toddlers also bite when they are anxious. They may bite because they feel threatened or uncertain. This can be observed especially when they start at a new school or have some guests at home, birth of a sibling or a dog.

So what can we do about all the Biting? 

  • Firm not Loud

It is important to be firm but not loud. When a child has bitten, go down to their level, look into their eyes and say “NO”. This no will always remain a no and the more firm and consistent we are with it, the easier it is for the child to let the idea sit. They understand that we will not change our minds and that when they bite, we will stop them. 

  • Distract or Divert

Another helpful technique is to separate the two children. Sometimes, the child may just be overstimulated or excited, that they may end up biting. Taking the child for a walk or to a different place to calm down helps diffuse the tension. 

  • Breaking the Habit

Many children get into the habit of biting and this becomes second nature to them. It is important to observe what triggers the biting and try to step in before it begins. This will slowly lead to the child looking in our direction when they want to bite and we can then tell them from afar that they should not bite.

  • Opportunities to Bite Food

It will help to give the child enough food to chew on such as apples, carrots, chapatis, beans, etc. Eating fibrous vegetables or fruits will give their teeth the much needed work and satiate the need to bite.

  •  Attention

Typically, when a child has bitten another, we divert all our attention to the one who has bitten and this gives them attention. Instead, attending first to the child who has been bitten may take away the attention from the child who has bitten.

  • Stories

With young children, stories of children their age, with whom they can relate to, are helpful. These can be oral stories or stories from a book. It is helpful to have some books on biting that we can regularly read to and discuss with the child. Instead of having books that say what not to bite, we can choose a book that shows them the different foods that they can bite. This helps in positively shifting the focus to what to do instead of what not to.

biting 3

Doodle Credits : Abirami & Daddy

 What to avoid?

  • Biting back to prove a point

Sometimes, we are desperate that we end up ‘pretending’ to bite the child in hope that this will make them understand how we feel. This is very confusing for the child and often funny because, as discussed earlier, it is not that toddlers don’t know that biting is wrong but the self-control is still emerging.

  • Isolating

Isolating a child who has bit or giving them a time-out not only makes them feel cornered but also helpless. Instead, we can engage with them and show them what they can do. As adults, we do not like to be put in a corner and children are no different. Just as talking kindly helps us resolve our issues, talking to the child kindly shows them that we do not want to corner the child itself but only the action.

The most helpful tool for us as adults is patience and observation. As upsetting as it is for us to watch our child go around biting others, we must understand that this is only a phase! When we show children how to handle situations that trigger biting, they will learn to communicate better. Our biggest tool is observing their interactions. When we observe, we will notice when the biting happens and why and how it happens. This is the starting point as having the information is always helpful in handling the situation. 

Shifting Positively from NO to YES

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Words are a powerful human tool that have the capacity to evoke either a response or a reaction in another person. They can create a mindset that influences our approach to the world. When someone repeatedly uses negative words, we begin to look at the world through these lens and doubt ourselves, the environment and others. On the other hand, hearing positive words inspire us to act, be kind and open to the world. Yet, with such power at our disposal, how often do we truly pay attention to the words we use and wonder how they impact others in our lives? 

Babies spend the greater part of their first year soaking up life in its entirety. Since they are observant little beings, they occupy a lot of their time watching how the adults around them interact with their environment. This creates in them a fascination and an eagerness to get to know the world. So, naturally, when their bodies are finally able to match their intention, they move towards this wonderful environment they have been eyeing for months, only to hear adults say the word NO! 

What is this NO?

Initially, babies do not comprehend the meaning of this word NO. They look at our facial expressions and hand gestures and stop. When they go back to reaching for the same object and hear the same word a second time, they begin to see a pattern. The curious ones usually try and reach for the same object or a different one, yet again, only to see the adult’s reaction remains consistent for a third time. When our tones and hand gestures become stronger and firmer, some babies start crying because this is not their experience of how we usually talk to them. Some other babies find the whole thing rather amusing and do it repeatedly, much to the annoyance of many adults. Soon enough, all babies begin to understand that more things in their world are NO than YES and begin to grapple with this reality. 

Saying NO

Why is NO a Problem?

To understand this, let us look at what this word actually means. The word NO comes with a lot of power. We ideally use it when we do not wish to persist a situation any longer. It literally means Stop! End! NO! Considering that this two letter word carries so much power, it seems that we use it too casually, too loosely in circumstances that do not even require such authority or intensity. Our children hear the word NO countless times each day. By repeatedly using the word NO, not only are we crushing their spirit but also taking away the real value of this word. So, the problem with NO seems to stem from the frequency and context of usage and not the usage itself. 

According to Dan Siegel, Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, “NO leaves you feeling reactive, making it impossible to listen, make good decisions or connect with and care for another person. A focus on survival and self-defence kicks into gear, leaving you feeling guarded and shut down when it comes to interacting with the world and learning new lessons. Your nervous system initiates its reactive fight – flight, freeze or faint response : fight means lashing out, flight means escape, freeze means temporarily immobilizing yourself and faint means feeling utterly helpless.”

What NO does to a Child 

  • Since young children understand their world through exploration, repeatedly using the word NO subtly tells them that the world out there is not for them to explore and understand. Instead of letting them form their own ideas and views of the world, we are essentially passing on our prejudices and preferences.
  • Everytime we unnecessarily stop our children by using the word NO, we are feeding them this notion that the world is a place that holds many threats and dangers. This not only creates too much reliance on another person to navigate through life for them, but also curbs exploration altogether because of fear.
  • The more we throw in the word NO, the more our children begin to feel that they are incapable of handling the world. This leads to low self-confidence, self-doubt and an uncertainty about themselves. 

Dan Siegel, in the book, The Yes Brain : How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity, and Resilience in Your Child says, “Anything we give attention to, anything we emphasize in our experiences and interactions, creates new linking connections in the brain. Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows. And where neurons fire, they wire or join together. If you’ve been focusing a lot of attention on No! No! No! this is where neural firing flows, a No Brain reactive state.”

Shifting Positively from NO to YES 

  • Fill our children’s vicinity with more YES objects and experiences

Young children are fascinated by the interactions that adults have with their environment. This fascination stimulates action and they gravitate towards these objects. However, we constantly curb such exploration either out of fear or because we cannot manage the mess. Instead, if we rearrange the child’s environment with more objects that they can freely explore, we will make an immediate shift towards a YES environment. Instead of curtailing exploration, we will be aiding exploration and play.

  • Become Mindful of our Words 

When we begin to watch our words and reflect on them, we can take control of the environment we are creating for our children. The next time we are tempted to revert to NO, we can just pause for a moment and ask ourselves why we want to say NO. If a child is moving towards something dangerous, we need to instantly stop them. But, in most other situations, we can divert their attention to something that they can do instead of telling them what they cannot do. A moment of reflection will give us a world of perspective and inspire a more positive response to our children. 

  • Create a YES mindset! 

Our attitude matters! By overusing NO, we not only take away its power but create a NO mindset that holds our children back from the world. By shifting positively from NO to YES, we instil in children’s little minds an attitude of positivity that stimulates openness. What’s better, they begin to trust that they are capable of tackling the uncertain world out there and run towards life with josh, enthusiasm and joy!

In the Kitchen with Young Children

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In a lot of ways, a healthy relationship with food begins not at the table but in the kitchen where the transformation happens. For children to understand food as a whole, we need to show them where and how it is prepared. The kitchen is where the magic happens – raw vegetables are made into delicious stews and sabzis, flour and lentils are kneaded and cooked to create roti and dal. To look at food with knowledge, wonder and joy, we must collaborate with children in the process. This involves understanding the benefits of food preparation and preparing a space that will aid exploration and growth.

Some Factors to Consider before Preparing the Kitchen 

  • An Accessible Space

An important aspect of preparing the kitchen is to make it a welcoming space for the young child. This is a balancing act of having a few areas accessible, giving them responsibilities in those areas and then progressing to more. For children who are just toddling, having a few low shelves that they can independently access gives them the confidence to step into the kitchen and fetch what they need. They can also have a low table and chair to which simple tasks such as peeling oranges, or churning buttermilk can be carried to. As they grow and gain more confidence in the kitchen, a step stool can be carried by them to open the kitchen further for exploration. A step stool makes the sink accessible to do washing or the counter where we can collaborate in a variety of food preparation activities. Often, children end up asking us for simple things such as water or snack which they can independently fetch. A step stool frees such dependency and lets them access these without having to rely on us to provide everything.

Aishu Kitchen 3

  • Real Tools 

So often, children are given pretend tools that are made of cheap material and do not serve any purpose. By using these tools, children cannot accomplish the intended task even though they are eager to. Instead, if we offer them real, age-appropriate tools, we are giving the opportunity to understand where to hold, how much pressure to exert, how to hold and many other concepts which they can never learn by using a toy.

  • Appropriately- Sized 

Normally, everything in the kitchen is to the size of the adult. Just as it is difficult for us to do anything purposeful with ill-sized tools, it is hard for young children to use large and heavy tools to create anything meaningful. Not only is it dangerous, it is also frustrating and may lead to a lack of confidence in their capability. So, it is helpful to look for tools that they can hold in their little hands and manipulate.

  • Caution & Safety 

Safety is a feature that always needs to be taken into consideration when it comes to young children. It is a dynamic aspect that keeps evolving depending on the age and capabilities of the child. What is safe for a four year old may not be safe for a toddler and this comes only with observing the child act in the kitchen while also gradually increasing their scope for exploration. As adults who are responsible for our children, we must be sure to take the necessary precautionary measures to make the kitchen a safe yet challenging space for exploration and growth.

aishu-kitchen-2-e1558134998634.jpeg

What do Children get from being in the Kitchen? 

  • Fine & Gross Motor Refinement 

The kitchen challenges both the fine and gross motor skills of the child. Whether they are carrying the step stool or a jug of water from the sink to the table, they are constantly refining their gross motor skills. Kneading, pounding, mashing, whisking, grating and peeling challenge their fine motor skills. They also learn to build judgement and reasoning such as how much pressure to exert, how to carry or how to use their hands through these movements.

  • Plenty of Language

The amount of language children pickup by being in the kitchen is phenomenal. The kitchen is a lively place of action which allows for language to be created alongside experiences. As we involve children, we can use words for the actions we are going to perform, name the various ingredients or describe their features such as crunchy or creamy. Such language is not merely a build-up of vocabulary but one that is accompanied by experiences that add real meaning and value to each word.

  • Willingness to do for others

Michael Pollan, the author of Cooked : A Natural History of Transformation, says, “For is there any practice less selfish, any labor less alienated, any time less wasted, than preparing something delicious and nourishing for people you love?” 

Food is an expression of love and young children are eager to be involved in this expression. Just being in the kitchen and helping out in whatever way they can, allows children to understand that they are a part of their family and recognise that they can also have an impact on it. By collaborating in preparing a simple meal for their family, children derive a sense of purpose and willingness to do for others.

  • Attitude towards Food

When children handle raw vegetables, measure, mix and knead dough or wash and dry fruits, vegetables or rice, their experiences with being a part of the process changes their attitude towards food radically. They know what they are eating and slowly acknowledge the effort that has gone into making it. When they have participated in the preparation, they also have a personal association with the dish which makes it a lot more inviting.

  • Sensory Treat

Lastly, the experiences of being in the kitchen are nothing short of a sensory treat for the child. The aroma of the various ingredients, fruits, herbs and vegetables, the varied tastes, the experience of watching the way the ingredients blend together, the sounds of the mustard crackling, the sambhar bubbling or the tactile exploration of each of the ingredients together offer a wide database for the growing intellect. It paves the way for imagination which is the foundation of creativity!

The overall benefits of being in the kitchen outweigh the fears associated with it. In a well prepared kitchen, the child has abundant opportunities to learn and grow. It is an engaging way to bond with children and create lasting memories that will change their life-long relationship with food and the natural world.

The Difference between Unstructured Outdoor Play and Outdoor Play Structures

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What is Play?

The word play brings to mind exploring something with an open mind, discovering its properties, understanding what it can or cannot do and forming new ideas. For the child under six, play is a bridge that links them to the world. This play is the work of the child and through it, they form many new ideas about the world while also understanding themselves and their endless capabilities.

Outdoor play is an important aspect of play that introduces to the young child the wonders of the natural world. 

“Play is motivated by means more than ends. Play is constantly evolving and developing into new forms of play and play schemes. Play is also not passive but requires constant assessment and engaged minds.”

Angela J. Hanscom, Balanced & BareFoot

Unstructured Outdoor Play

The word unstructured by itself removes limitations on the child’s exploration of the outdoors. The outdoor environment has so much sensory stimuli that unstructured play allows the child to choose which stimulus they would like to be drawn to.

  • Bonding with Nature

In today’s world which is crowded by tall buildings, endless traffic and busy schedules, outdoor play provides a respite to the young child. It slows down time just a little bit, allowing them to freely play in the natural surroundings. This kind of play in the outdoors without all the layers of human touch is vital for the child to form a lasting relationship with nature.

  • Dynamic Challenges

When we leave the child to freely explore the natural world, they can set their own challenges depending on the stage of development they are in. A baby might simply be on a patch of grass, crawling and watching a butterfly or grasping a flower while a toddler might choose run on the grass, feed birds and pick fallen leaves. Older children with more controlled movements are free to set more complex challenges such as climbing trees, hiking up a steep slope or running and playing with the dog.

This kind of structure-free play frees up the mind to set challenges for oneself and devise strategies to overcome them.

Structure-Free Outdoor Play

  • Sharpening Judgement

Imagine the young child in a natural environment and think of the endless possibilities for building judgement. As adults, we sometimes forget that the child is building judgement through play. Every interaction such as crawling to a leaf, trying to catch a dragonfly, getting pricked by a thorn, feeling the prickly grass, falling down while running or jumping high for the branch with the fruit calls for calculation. These are essential for the child to hone and a structure-free natural environment will do a lot to constantly challenge the young child’s judgement.

  • Vivid Imagination

Because of the range of sensory input the child receives by playing outdoors, the abstractions they form are diverse. These lay a strong foundation for the budding imagination. An older child will begin to show signs of this imagination when they use leaves as medicines in their imaginary play, twigs as huts, straw for water boats and so on. This imagination which is more manifest in the older child has its foundation in that small baby who plays with the outdoor environment and understands it.

Outdoor Play Structures

Outdoor play structures on the other hand are specially designed structures to challenge young children’s gross motor skills, their vestibular sense and overall mind-body coordination. Some commonly found structures are swings and slides, merry-go-round, jungle gyms and climbing domes.

  • Fixed Challenges

Each of the play structures are created for a specific challenge. For example, the slide is designed for the child to climb/crawl up the ladder using calculated movements and then slide down at full speed. While sliding down, the child’s vestibular sense is stimulated.  The same goes for most other commonly found play structures. They are designed for fixed challenges and do not hold the same openness as natural environments with dynamic challenges.

  • Not Exactly Outdoor Play

While swings and slides which are large equipments fit better in an outdoor environment, they are not necessarily outdoor play. There is no element of nature involved in this play apart from some fresh air which comes naturally by being outdoors.

  • No Room for Imagination

A swing or a slide or merry-go-round does not challenge the child’s inner need for exploration. Play is something that must show different dimensions with each exploration. Imagine adults calling a treadmill or an elliptical ‘play’. These are specific gym equipments designed for specific purposes. Likewise, the outdoor park structures are specific equipments designed to serve specific purposes and they do not do anything else to feed the child’s imagination.

Why is it Important to Understand the Difference?

These days, when we use the word outdoor play, it somehow immediately translates to play in park structures. As we have seen, outdoor play is so much more than playing on a swing or climbing a jungle gym. Although play structures help challenge the child’s gross motor skills, they do not necessarily feed other areas of development which a natural, unstructured play environment fosters. While it is necessary for us to take our children to the neighbourhood park to challenge their gross motor skills, it is also equally important to plan and take our children to natural settings with raw nature unfolding. The structured outdoor parks with plastic grass, wood chips and foam mats are not the same as the uneven outdoor trails,the hilly slopes with wild flowers and shrubs, the stones and gravel which make the play a lot more challenging.  

“Playing in nature adds an element of adventure. Nature is unpredictable and exploring nature is always an exciting experience. Since playground equipment only serves a few functions, it often leaves little to the imagination. Having access to movable natural items, such as branches, rocks, sticks, leaves and pinecones adds a new element to play. Natural playgrounds tend to inspire creative play in children because there are endless play opportunities.”

Angela J. Hanscom, Balanced & BareFoot

When we expand our understanding of outdoor play, we will begin to look beyond the park fences and understand that outdoor play is the beginning of a lifetime of friendship, love and oneness with the natural world.

Share a Meal with your Child

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What is a Meal? 

A meal is a coming together of a group of people, sharing their day with each other, valuing each other’s presence, being grateful for the food that they are eating and leaving everything else to just be there for one another! A meal is so much more than eating; a meal implies a family! 

In the book Cooked : A Natural History of Transformation, Michael Pollan says, “The shared meal is no small thing. It is a foundation of family life, the place where our children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilisation: sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating differences and arguing without offending.

When a meal carries so much value, why is it that children, who are learning what it means to be a family, have little to no experience of eating as a family?

The Real Struggle behind Eating

With young children, eating is a continuous and isolated activity that is done at a different time from the rest of the family. It always begins with a parent taking a spoonful of food to the child’s mouth and ends with the child turning their face away. This is when desperation and impatience set in and to somehow navigate this trying time, we devise techniques and strategies to ‘trick’ our children into eating. 

The first is to try and distract them with a toy or two, or point to different things in the room and feed them without their conscious involvement. If this doesn’t work, we resort to the Ipad technique and while the child is completely engrossed in the visuals, we quickly sneak in one too many spoonfuls. If neither of these work, we resort to threats! Now, threats always come in varying degrees of intensity, from denying them access to their favourite toy to telling them that they will be left behind while the rest of the family goes to the park. The other technique is chasing them around the house while they distractedly run from one object to another with no recollection of having eaten. If none of these work, we resort to pleading, “Please have just one more spoonful for me” or “See, I am sad now that you are not eating.” After much coaxing, cajoling, tears and threats, our children finish one bowl of rice only for us to realise that the same techniques have to be tried again, in exactly a few hours!

While these techniques that we employ may temporarily do the trick and even seem harmless at the moment, they leave lasting impressions. If we want our children to value meal-time as family time, eat more consciously and develop a holistic relationship with food, we need to first have a place for them at the table and share our meals with them!

A family table with a one year old and two six-year olds.

Share a Meal with your Child – Why?

  • Being Valued 

Having a place at the table communicates to children that they are an integral part of the family and that their presence is valued. Families must make the effort to eat at least one meal a day together. Regardless of the age of the child, we can seek participation at the table. Even a six month old can nibble on a piece of fruit while being a part of the table. By having a place at the table, we communicate to the child that meal-time is family time.

  • An Opportunity to Imitate & Imbibe 

At the table, children get to watch how different members of their family (& friends) eat, how they pass around food, and take turns serving. Eating by themselves at the table also gives them the opportunity to watch other members and practice repeatedly. It is important to remember that children learn purely by observation and repetition! So, the more effort we take to eat together, the more opportunities for them to observe and learn.

  • Seeing Food as a Whole 

Children often eat without ever knowing what they are eating. In chasing and running from one room to the other and watching the Ipad whilst completely unaware of what is going into their mouth, children never get to actually see food on a plate. At the table, they get to see rice and beans, roti and dal, the various eating utensils and cutlery all come together as a whole. Meal-time is also when we can give them tiny tastes of the different dishes and let them experience the variety of our culture.

  • Learning the Art of Conversation 

It is important for children to be part of the conversations that happen at the table. While eating, we can show them how to acknowledge the effort and love that has gone into cooking. As children grow older, they will also begin to participate and contribute, thus becoming grateful for the food and each others contribution. At the table is also where we can draw attention to the different dishes and the ingredients that have gone into it. Involve them and acknowledge their response whether it is a coo, a babble, a nod or a phrase. This elevates the experience of eating and makes it joyful and something to look forward to. 

We must help children create a healthy association with food and cultivate a love for it. When eating comes with conversations, a place at the table, an opportunity to taste different dishes, it becomes much more than a dreaded affair that ends in tears. By sharing a meal with our children, we not only show them what it means to be a family, but also give them the freedom to take food to their mouth! We respect and value their presence and gradually, they begin to associate food with family time, conversations and an opportunity to feed themselves.

Finding Time for Free Movement in a Busy World

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Estimated Time to Read: 4 minutes


The Joy of Free Movement

Many of us have experienced the rush of energy that comes from using our bodies freely. The human body loves movement and every time we give ourselves the opportunity to move, it releases many hormones like endorphins and oxytocin which regulate our mental and physical wellbeing. Even a short stroll works wonders in calming and making us happier when nothing else is going well in a day. When this logic applies to adults, the same goes for children who need time to move freely. However, in this busy world, it is becoming increasingly harder for us to balance the time our children spend in some kind of device or container with unhindered, free movement. 

What are Containers?

To understand the problem with containers, let us first look at what they mean. A container is any device that contains or restricts a baby’s ability to move freely. They either place a hold on their full body movement or deny access to their hands. The most commonly used containers are car seats, strollers, bouncy swings, vibrating chairs, bumbo seats, exersaucers and mittens.

So, what’s the problem with containers?

Containers are fantastic for adults who just want to take a break. They keep the baby safe and entertained while we finish up our cooking, catch up on the news or simply chill with a book. But, the problem with these containers arises when we find it consistently easier to manage our babies when they are in it rather than when they are outside it. 

  • Distorted Body Image

When we repeatedly buckle our babies in some container, we begin to give them a very distorted image of their body. Ideally, when a baby moves freely, they understand the effects of their body in space. However, when they move only within the constraints of a container, the brain begins to include this container as a part of their body image and the understanding of just their body in space gets distorted.  

  • Reduced Synaptic Connections

The first year of life is crucial in making several synaptic connections in the brain and this happens when the baby is in contact with the environment. When they accidentally kick a toy or a bat an object, they realise the impact their tiny body has on the environment, leading to repetition and several synaptic connections. The less opportunities for free movement, the less interactions they have with their surroundings and lesser synaptic connections they form.

  • Cognitive Limitations

The human brain is a phenomenal tool with immense potential. The mind and body communicate with each other and the more we do to free the body, the more the child can do to feed their minds. A baby doesn’t know an apple from an orange by being strapped to a container and looking at them in picture books but by being on the floor, figuring out the distance to the fruit and crawling towards it, holding it in both their hands and finally discovering it’s many properties. A child’s knowledge of the world is built from interactions in it and the world is just not the same when they are being moved around from one container to another, without the freedom to explore. 

  • Gross & Fine Motor Lag 

More and more children are having difficulty being on their tummy, sitting up, crawling and walking. They are having problems using their hands to accomplish even the simplest tasks. The human hand and body are great tools that have the potential to do many things. A child can use their hands to paint, sculpt, cook or sew. They can use their bodies in a variety of ways to swim, dance, jump and run. For a child to reach such dexterity and coordination is not an impossible feat but a journey of firstly discovering their body and its abilities. If we free them from these containers, they are one step closer to reaching these possibilities.

How do we find a Balance?

  • Compensate Being Strapped with Free Movement

For every half hour that our babies need to spend in containers, we must try to compensate with an hour of absolutely free movement. Some containers for children are unavoidable and rather, essential, like a car seat. However, it will be helpful to let the baby free, the moment we reach our destination. If we need to drive longer, then we can plan such that our babies can have some free movement.

A family in the middle of nowhere, stopping to give their baby some free movement!

  • Free Movement Area

It is also helpful to have a movement area for the baby that can be both indoors and outdoors. This is where the baby can practice being on their tummy, kicking, batting, crawling, sitting and discovering their hands. Place simple objects such as a rattle, a ball or a fruit that will capture their attention and urge them to move towards it. Keep their hands and feet exposed as much as possible so that they can observe them, take them to their mouths and understand their possibilities.

  • Opportunity to Observe Others

It will also help to give young children the opportunity to watch people using their hands and legs. This can be anything from watching us chop vegetables for dinner, use a broom to sweep the floor, dance, exercise, knit, paint or wash dishes at the sink.

When we give our children enough experience to move freely and watch others move, they will begin to imitate and gradually gain control over their body. They will have the skill-set and confidence to step out of their small space and move in harmony with the rest of life.