What can children do? What are children capable of?
And the corollary –
What can children not do? What are they not capable of?
We’ve been led to believe that we “know” the answer to these questions.
We know what is “typical” for 3 year olds, for 4 year olds. Early childhood education is beholden to “developmentally appropriate practices”, a phrase which has gripped the field tightly since the 1980s when it was first introduced. These “developmentally appropriate practices” are established as “we first think about what children are like within a general age range [such as…] the number of puzzle pieces 4-year-olds typically find doable” (Kostelnik, p 20). For the most part, we see that this generally works – 3s teachers and PreK teachers each know which type of puzzles to put out that will allow their (different-aged) children to feel competent yet challenged. This knowledge lets us provide increasingly challenging environments as children grow; it gives us an “appropriate” roadmap for children to follow.
Yet, if we dig deeper, there is a problem here. Critical researchers within early childhood push against the notion that something can be deemed “appropriate” for wide swaths of generalized children. In this view, the “imposition of a standardized model” leads to “a standard childhood” (Burman, p 55). At a cultural level, when we expect 4 year old to behave, or preform, in a particular manner, they tend to do just that. Exploring how this happens (how cultural expectations translate into individual development) psychologist Michael Cole writes that “culture is exteriorized mind; mind is interiorized culture” (Cole, p 292) – children (individuals) become what we (culture) expect them to become.
Our expectations of “what children can do” leads us to develop a cultural environment which not only predicts their development but restricts their development. Further fleshing this out, our understanding of “what children can do” has led us to create a culture in which children are “isolated from the rest of the world and regulated through a controlled exposure” (Canella, p 30). Perhaps unintentionally (or even perhaps intentionally!) as we have created “norms” for childhood (and we created these quite recently – the field of “child development” is barely a century old), we have “drawn every more distinctly…the boundaries between childhood and adulthood” (Mayall, p 3).
The isolation of children into places of “childhood” leaves us restricting the “culture” which is internalized in the child. It leaves children with a narrow, limited cultural landscape. Rebutting this notion, comedian Mitch Hedberg said, “Any book is a children’s book…if the kid can read!” (Yes, I did just quote Mitch Hedberg). When children encounter a wide range of cultural expectations, their developmental follows suit. Give children books – not just children’s books.
And so, bringing this back to the local level – you will see children in our classrooms doing tasks that we might not assume to be the work of children. Our school is not a place where we say, “Children can’t do that” but instead “Let’s see what they CAN do!” This is a place where young children pour their own water, set up their own lunch, clean up their own messes, zip up their own jackets, negotiate their own problems, and create their own solutions.
When we see children as competent, we do not remove hurdles from children’s lives but rather engage them in confronting them. Following Cole’s formulation (“culture is exteriorized mind; mind is interiorized culture”), what results is a cultural landscape in the school that recognizes the child’s capacities and promotes them. As the year unfolds, we increasingly hear children remark, “I can do that” or “Let me try”; we see children reflect back the culture they encounter at school. The child’s competency begs us to remove the “controlled exposure” that Canella writes about and instead give the child the fullness of the world – including the parts that we don’t think they are yet capable of.
I invite you to explore what tasks and activities the “controlled exposure” we create in childhood keeps your child from doing, and give some of them a try. Real scissors, real screwdrivers. Using money, swiping a metrocard. Setting the table, clearing their place. Carrying their backpack to school, thanking their teachers on the way out. Sweeping up a mess, making their own bed.
So, What can children do? What are children capable of?
Perhaps instead we should be asking,
What do we let children do? What do we allow children to become capable of?