Let Them Be Brilliant!

UCityModelYoung children are amazing, if we allow them to be. Look what they can do!

This photo shows a model of a neighborhood in University City, in the St. Louis metro. Bordered by streets with painted lanes, this little urban patch contains buildings, a park baseball diamond, vehicles, and the children's own early education program, Urban Sprouts Child Development Center.

That's right. Preschool kids built this. They explored and observed the area around their building, made drawings and built the model. Yes, they had adult support, but mostly via questions designed to lead them to their own discovery, and not as much concrete help as you might think. This is not one of those models built by adults and passed off as the work of children. 

This is the real deal. The artists and architects for this little model neighborhood are all four and five years old. 

Children are brilliant, if we allow them to be. So why don't we?

This question is at the heart of what I do and why I do it. Why don't we allow children to be as amazing as they are? Do you doubt that we limit their potential?

I am willing to bet that you cannot count the times you've heard an adult say to a child -- or said to a child, yourself -- some version of, "Don't express yourself in that way right now." The number would be too high to count.

Don't stare. Shush! Not now, I'm busy. Not now, there are people. Be quiet. Settle down. Don't ask so many questions. Don't be a smartmouth (my favorite-- we want them to be dumbmouths, maybe?). Get away from there. Put that down. We don't have time for that. Sit still. Don't move. Just. Stop. Talking. Sometimes worded gently and insterted kindly into the child's brilliant flow of learning, sometimes delivered with the sting of a slap in the face, we grown-ups have a million ways to shut them down.

Okay, I get it. First, kids are busy. A four-year-old child can talk from the moment he wakes up to the moment he falls asleep, except for eating and bathroom breaks. I swear, they don't even take breaths. They certainly never heard of ending a sentence with a period. "And" is their replacement for all verbal punctuation. They run, literally, anytime there is nothing obstructing their path or holding them back. (The handle at the top of a kid's backpack is SO convenient!) They're loud and messy and relentlessly interested and curious...until that day when they do finally just. stop. talking. Sometime around 11 to 13, right? 

Second, you're busy. You've got stuff to do. It's on a list. The things on the list have deadlines. You've got a calendar of appointments and schedules and errands. You've got email and a Facebook wall to read, a Pinterest wall to fill, a marriage to maintain, a mortgage to pay, and a Boy Scout troup to run. You've got a job, other kids, a spouse whose not paying attention, a crappy boss, a best friend with drama, and whatever else is going on in your complicated adult life. I get that. 

Here's the thing, though: from the moment they are born, children are learning. That's why they're so busy! The human brain is, literally, wired together after birth. We buns are not all the way baked when we come out of that oven! Remember what was once called the nature/nurture controversy, over how much of who we are is genetically vs environmentally determined? That controversy from the first half of the 20th Century has been long resolved here in the first quarter of the 21st. It's the environment, baby, hands-down over genetics, that determines who we are. 

So what does a child learn when she brings you the excited babbling of her brain, as it crackles with the electricity of millions of new neural connections every second, and you tell her you're too busy to listen, to engage? What does he learn when he has great ideas or intense emotions to share and he can't get you're attention off the TV screen, the computer screen, or the phone screen? What does she learn when you laugh at her current insight, or call it cute? What does he learn when you inexplicably become angry at his brilliance? She learns something in each and every moment, but is it what you want her to learn? If I could wave a fairy wand and create anything, it would be the ability for adults interacting with children to know, in every moment, what that child is learning right now. Like a little thought balloon over their heads....

Personal childhood story time -- When I was eight, my parents divorced, leaving my mom a single parent of five, ages 4 to 12. She had a Bachelor's degree in English Literature which, in 1962, could buy you a position in a typing pool. Support from her parents enabled her to spend a year getting a teaching certificate before going to work as a high school language arts teacher. Think thousands of essays, research papers, essay tests, and short stories to read and grade over the remaining years of my childhood and youth.

For most of those years, Mom had a fabric doorknob cover on her bedroom door, made of felt, as I recall. It said -- and I am not kidding you -- I love you. Go away. Looking back, I'm sure what she was trying to teach the five of us is that she loved us. In fact, shutting herself in her bedroom and grading papers sitting in bed was an act of love. It kept the roof over our heads and food on our table. But the lesson that she did love us is not what I learned back then...and not for a long, long time. Can you guess what I did learn?

Now, I'm an adult and I interact with children. I've been a teacher, auntie, great-auntie, godmother, and friend to scores of children, so I know how we grown folk do. I wonder sometimes, is it really that we're busy? Is it sometimes that we're afraid?

Children are so amazingly in touch with themselves for the first few years, and we -- so often -- are not. We've lost touch with ourselves: with the vulnerability of our needs, the strength of our position, and the passion of our longings. Some of us have become almost like people in a fancy clockworks. When the hour chimes, the doors open, and we wheel out and march or dance in perfect formation with the other characters in our story of life. They move this way, so we move that way. They bend and dip, and we do it right along. So many of us move mindlessly through a choreographed day...what do children learn by watching us, I wonder. I think children, with their vulnerabilties, strengths, and passions, scare us just a little. They "remind us how we used to be," as Whitney Houston sang.

Maybe you could start to think of children's "interruptions" in your daily dance as golden moments of opportunity for you to slow down, exit auto-mode, and come into the Now. Think of children as keys that unlock a door back to your true self. That's where young children live all the time, you know, in the present moment, experiencing themselves in relationship to the world around them. They are not yet living in their heads, following the clockworks.

What if you could let go of the importance of your busy-ness for a moment? What if, when they bring you a dead butterfly, a big idea for an invention, or a face full of tears and drama over circumstances that seem as nothing to you, you take it all as seriously as they do? Here's my experience: I feel brilliant after such moments. I feel as full of hope and possibility as that young child. I feel I have touched the divine.

Children are brilliant and their brilliance is infectious, if we let it be.

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If you're interested in seeing some other child-driven projects by young children and learning about the project-based approach to education, which optimizes children's potential, here are a few YouTube video links for you to check out:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s7qZ-DsarNY (a robot project in a preschool)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KCU775GpK3A (a short introduction to the project approach)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XPufslCRifw (for the truly committed: 1-1/2 hour video of a long-term project in the city of Reggio Emilia, Italy, to build a water amusement park for birds, with all research and design done by young children -- it's truly amazing if you have the patience for 90 minutes! More for educators, perhaps, than others?)

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