Lessons from the Nursery
Updated: Jul 9, 2020
In our society it is the rich, the powerful, the celebrities and the money-makers that we are supposed to try and learn from – those who wear Dior pyjamas and use Prada loo-roll. These are the Important People of this world.
But not in the world I live in.
Because I work in a nursery.
I entered this ‘world’ last September as a teaching assistant with no prior classroom experience. In September I start a teacher training course – but I wanted to write this before any official training so that I could put forward my own personal impressions and intuitions ‘untainted’ by study and the professional opinions that are more usual in such an environment.
I’ve noticed that what with spending 30 hours a week with children, it is the children, and not the celebrities, that I am becoming more similar to. I find myself shouting “meeee!” at every opportunity and occasionally missing the toilet. (I’m joking).
But a part of entering myself into this setting has included reflecting on my work in relation to my faith. In the nursery, there is a degree to which the adults provide a picture for the children to imagine what God is like. As we work at the place where love, authority and justice meet, we model something of ‘God’ to them. Of course we are only human, and learning to move on from my many mistakes has been one of my most important lessons this year. But even so, as I have had the privilege to stand in that position I think I have experienced a little more of what is God’s heart for us ‘children’, and how we were intended to live. Among other areas, I have learnt a little more about love; about different personalities; about boundaries, speech and creativity…
Lessons from the Nursery
Firstly and most importantly. Love is written on the face of every child who is and has been loved consistently by their families. A lack of love is equally evident even in the bodies of the children who have already known pain and rejection – the way they walk; the way they carry themselves – you can tell they have been malnourished in love. Love is as important as food for the wellbeing of these children.
I have a picture of that love every day in front of me, when one boy in particular sees his father at the door. With total self-abandonment he runs with his arms wide open and a huge smile on his face shouting “Daddeeeeeeeyyyyy!!!!” and his Daddy scoops him up in his arms and kisses him with an equally huge grin. And that happens every day.
Patience and discipline will keep the nursery calm – but only love transforms. It is love that leads me to embrace a child at the exact moment I want to reject and push them away, just as the other children have done. It is my love for that child and for what I see in them – who they can become – that leads me to spend many hours with the most difficult children – with those who purposefully hurt other children and themselves. To play with them on their level for more than just 5 minutes; to look into their eyes and smile, and show them that I enjoy their company; to hold them tight as they kick and scream – or cry, restraining them, or rocking them gently, or hugging their body against my body as we sit on the carpet and I breathe in and out slowly until we are both calm. I think of two children in particular who have been transformed this year. They still have their issues – massive issues. But both, who even seemed to be retreating into a world of madness, I see coming in and smiling, and even playing with the other children. This is the power and importance of love.
With these children in particular, I have learnt what it means to leave all the other children to focus on the one who needs it – like the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep behind to find the one who is lost. Of course I will – because I care about them, and they need it.
Following on from that, I have learnt this year a little of what it means to especially love every child. How could I have a favourite child, or prefer one to another? Each child is totally distinct and incredible, and different to every other child – possibly even more so than adults because they have not yet learnt to ‘cover up’ their personalities to fit in.
Already at this age I see some who are more task-focussed and some who are more people-focussed. For some all hell could break loose around them and they would still be doing their puzzle; for others a puzzle might seem like a good idea – but, “Wait! What’s she doing in the home corner? And look! You’re not allowed to do that! Teacher!!!” – and the puzzle is very quickly forgotten.
For some, the colours of the painting table is the favourite spot; for others it’s all about cars driving and flying up to smash into each other; others enjoy creating neat lines of bricks or shapes that fit together perfectly – and still others are just desperate to get outside to ride the bikes, climb, run and so on.
As someone who is more on the hyper-sensitive (high-sensitivity) end of the spectrum, I have been interested to note how already some children are more sensitive than others. There are certain children – boys and girls – who cover their ears or cry out when there is any loud noise, or complain, “It’s too noisy!” if the classroom volume goes up a little. It is often these children who freeze when they first come to nursery – either that or go completely wild, climbing over everything, screaming or crying and knocking things over. I wonder if it’s just the impact that the sensory experience has on them – the busyness and bright colours; the sounds of children playing; the feeling of being bumped into – and so on. Some don’t talk at all for the first weeks or even months of being there, but as they relax, they can get on fine in this setting. In time I suspect this sensitivity will very likely be forgotten in them, as they learn to get by in the ‘survival of the strongest’ world that often naturally develops in the school playground. But for me personally, it is the more sensitive children that I naturally have an affinity with – I am all too familiar with what it feels like to freeze and not have anything to say when entering a new environment – but I am also comfortable in that situation because I know that like the children, as I relax and settle in, I will get on just fine.
Part of making an environment where children of all personalities can feel safe and flourish is in creating and keeping clear boundaries. There are many reasons why a child who knows the rules might choose to disobey. It can be that in the moment a rule just doesn’t seem so important. For instance the rule of “no running in the classroom” has little relevance when being chased by a [child dressed as a] tiger – especially not one that is drooling and has two front teeth missing Dracula-style such as is often found in our nursery.
At other times, there is a need for the child to submit. Some children are used to ruling the roost at home with their behaviour, but they need someone to have authority over them so that they feel safe enough to take the risks that are both part of learning and part of belonging. They need to know that the nursery is a place where things can only go so wrong – emotions can only go so out of control before an adult will take charge and make things ok. And so I have seen children mid-tantrum who when taken firmly by the hand and told “That’s enough” have immediately begun to calm down. They just needed to know that someone was in charge.
Rules and boundaries can be like a rope put around the edge of a field that a child is not allowed to step over, because outside of that rope they can get into danger. But such a rope will do nothing if there is no incentive to stay in the field. On the other hand if there is a huge bouncy castle right in the middle of the field to keep their attention, the rope will rarely be needed, as most children won’t go near it anyway. Rules and boundaries on the outside are important, but the more powerful behaviour management I have observed comes from the inside – in engaging a child’s attention enough that they won’t misbehave anyway.
Spending a whole morning one-to-one with a child who has been seriously driving everyone up the wall prevents me from demonising them and defining them in my mind as a ‘bad’ or even ‘unlovable’ child, as I get the chance to see their personalities and potential again. But it is also significant for the child. At a stage in life when how they are to be defined is hanging in a balance – as a ‘good child’ or a ‘naughty child’ (more usually known as a pain in the arse), giving them this time allows them a chance to practise the good in them – to reinforce patterns of good behaviour; to practise making conscious choices with an adult, rather than just drifting into trouble as a default setting. If the child’s behaviour has been attention seeking, only such attention as this, that is given freely and not forced in reaction to bad behaviour, will make up the deficit they feel and allow them to grow.
Important in their growth is the development of language. Until this year I was unaware of the power of speech. A child who cannot speak can only communicate through actions and noises – can only demonstrate frustration through hitting and screaming. Such a child cannot tell the other children not to take their toys or break their constructions, and so the other children are deemed as a Threat to their world. As language develops they must make the transition from communicating with their hands (that are NOT for hitting) to using words to express what it is that they want.
But even this is not enough to take the children from being enemies to helping each other and becoming friends. When a child shouts at another “gimme that now!”, the response is usually for the other child to hold it tighter, and become defensive in the face of an attack, even if it was not something they wanted. But when a child says “Can I use that please?” they pose no threat and the response will be to either hand it over or explain otherwise. To appear strong with a demand leads only to fighting, but to have the security to ask in uncertainty and weakness leads to cooperation and friendship, and turns out to demonstrate strength after all. I never knew manners were so important.
Another area that is important for their growth is ‘Expressive and Artistic Design’ – because every child is creative. For example consider painting. There are not some children who can paint and some who can’t – painting isn’t something you can get wrong. There are different styles, however. Some children have to use all the colours, while others want to cover the whole paper; some will consistently use only one colour; some just enjoy the feeling of slowly smoothing the paint over the paper never mind the results; some paint to tell a story, covering the paper in orange to show a big fire before covering it all in blue as the water puts it out. Painting in this way is something only children can do. As adults we are too aware of what we are doing; we are results orientated; we see patterns, letters and shapes everywhere. I have tried to paint like a child, and it is hard to make anything that even comes close – but then again, I am not supposed to paint like a child, because I am supposed to paint like me. Just as each child paints differently, creativity expresses who we are, it cannot express anyone else.
At what age to children stop being able to paint and creativity become limited to an artistic few? Because at the age of 3, everyone is creative. (Could it be that the way we educate children actually suppresses natural expressive creativity rather than nurturing it?)
Lastly, I have learnt that anything is possible. No, literally – anything. On Wednesday, I initiated making a giant crab later named Chooker out of a hula hoop, newspaper, some plastic packaging and a lot of masking tape. A year ago, not only would I never have come up with such an idea, but I wouldn’t have known where to start! But now I have learnt to look around myself, and just have a go – because really there is nothing to lose. If I had not learnt anything else, the year would have been worth it for that.
I have outlined just some of the areas I have learnt about this year – and in each area, I have learnt more about people in general, as well as about myself. Rather than making these lessons explicit, I leave you to contemplate and draw out lessons as you would like. But here we see that it is not only the rich and powerful who we can learn from, but children of only 3 or 4 years old. In many ways they have a lot to teach us, if only we are willing to learn.