The Gift of Time (and Space)
Updated: Jun 15, 2018
If you would have asked me over my many years of preschool teaching, what preschool offers children, I would have talked about the importance of play, and all the social and emotional learning that takes place. I would still say that now too. Oh my goodness, I love watching children learn to manage themselves and their ideas in a group of other children. I adore watching their stories unfold and their block buildings grow taller. I really, really do.
But this past year, I realized something else that preschool gives children. This does not mean that I believe that every child and family needs preschool to be successful, but if you do take that path, here is a little of the magic.
When we are at school, I have only one job. To help children. I help them play. I help them take turns. I take them to the bathroom. I help them label their emotions. I hand out their snack. Very often the help I am giving them is to not help them. I let them struggle. I let them fall, and I let them fail.
Here is what I am not responsible for at work. Cooking dinner. Making the bed. Walking the dog. Shopping for groceries. Making doctors appointments. Doing laundry. Talking to my mom. None of that. I do all of that on my own time. When I am home with my own children (who are now turning into adults).
And so, all that advice that is out there about all the things we are supposed to do and say to children, is vastly easier to follow during the six and half hours when children are the only thing I am responsible for.
Once Upon A Time; A Story About Me
One day, many years ago, I was teaching a class of four year old. I heard some raised voices coming from the block area. I calmly walked over, and said, "Oh, what is happening?" I listened as the children explained their ideas about the structure they were building, One wanted it to be a boat. The other, a house. "That is a problem," I said. "You each want to build something different. What are you going to do?" And just like that, one said, "I know! It can be house boat!" The other one agreed excitedly and they got to working together. I walked away feeling pretty...pretty...good. In fact, I walked away thinking, "Damn, I'm awesome at my job."
Fast forward a few hours later. I finished work. I picked up one child from the bus stop, the other from the babysitter. Perhaps I ran some errands on the way home with both kids in tow. At home, I started tackling the dishes that were still in the sink from the morning. Perhaps even from the night before. And then I heard some raised voices from the other room.
And do you know what I said?
"Can't you two go 5 minutes without fighting?!"
This from the person who hours earlier pat herself on the back for her expertise with young children.
Even then, in the thick of raising young children, I saw the difference in my behavior at home and at work, and I thought a lot about what that means, and why it is so. We are all on our best behavior at work, and we are more free with our tongues and our emotions at home. (I also laugh louder and hug harder at home than at work. So, you know, it's all good.)
I still think back to that story all the time.
There was one day this year, when I was alone with half my class while the other half was in the library with my two co-teachers. It was approaching clean up time, and I was a little worried about getting all the toys put away without any other grown ups in the room. And then I remembered, "We have time. If they take ten minutes to clean up instead of five, that's fine. We'll just read a shorter story." In preschool, my one and only job is to help kids. Sometimes that means helping kids clean up their own messes. And we schedule enough time for them to do it. There is no other appointment to be met, or call to be made, or email to write when the children are in the room. And so, it takes as long as it takes.
I love hand washing time with my class. (I'm a wild and crazy person, I know.) Because I love setting the expectation for kids to turn the water on and off by themselves. I watch them squirm and climb to reach the faucet. If they tell me the water is too cold, I tell them to turn some warm water on. And they do. Or I show them how. And then I get to say, "You thought you needed help, but you did it on your own!" Because I want them to know that they can do things that are hard, and that they are active agents in this world.
Sometimes I feel rushed that there are thirteen children who need to turn on the water, get soap, roll up their sleeves, etc. They are not always quick or adept at it. Then I remember, this is their job right now. To wash hands. My job is to teach them how. We have plenty of time to get to the next activity.
Children live in a world where they need grown ups to do so many things for them. Children are lucky to be surrounded by grown ups ready to step in when something is hard. Sure it's great to let children struggle and figure things out on their own, and to be independent. But children often take a long time to do things by themselves. And adults have many things to do, and they would like to do them with as few tears as possible. It is hard.
And that is where preschool comes in. For the families that I work with, it is a little bubble of time and space, where children accomplishing things is at the center. And if accomplishing things takes time, well that is exactly what our time there is for.