Ways of Caring
By Beverley Hartman, Head Teacher
Relationships are the keystone of early childhood education. This year, the East AM teaching team considered the framework upon which our philosophy is based. As our team explored the critical importance of quality interactions, Ways of Caring emerged as our unifying theme. We delved into the many ways in which three elements — people, practice and program — interconnect to establish and support caring relationships that are the foundation of our community.
Children, parents and teachers enter into positive and productive relationships by creating a climate of trust that in turn facilitates learning. The adults in the program make the first move in the careful dance that occurs as teachers seek to become a person of trust for the child.
It begins when the teachers meet with parents to learn about the rhythms of the family and the child’s cultural preparation for school. We then help the child perceive the start of a relationship between parent and teacher and feel comfortable in the transition to the new setting.
The adult relationship gives the child permission to enter into interactions with an unfamiliar adult. Often, the teacher is the child’s first friend at school and later serves as a link to other children. The parents’ confidence and good feelings about the program are transmitted to the child. A high degree of freedom of choice, freedom of movement and freedom to play come only after the child is free of worries and has had a successful transition to group life.
Ways of caring represents an open invitation for parents to participate at many levels.
Parents and relatives volunteer to help with basic materials and to lead special projects, sharing their own interests and work lives with the children in the classroom. Bing staff, students, volunteers and surrounding community members also donate their time and talents to the program.
In the 2003-2004 school year, parents contributed and participated in many ways such as: art projects, cooking, exploring a medical kit, giving a real baby a bath, language activities, presenting cultural traditions, reading to children and many informal interactions that show ways of caring. Our gardener Steve told us how to care for our new tree, and Peter, our entomologist, described the web of life in our natural setting. The fire fighters brought their truck and demonstrated their methods of taking care of people. It was an exciting hands-on experience to hold the hose and squirt the water! These visits increase understanding and enhance the children’s ability to use the Bing environment in dramatic play where they can try on these care-taking roles.
Teachers prepare the environment by presenting a clean and organized space with materials that are selected carefully for the children. The teachers “treat the children as honored guests,” putting into practice the philosophy encouraged by Edith Dowley, Bing Nursery School’s founding director. Greeted at the door, the child is welcomed and invited to participate. This initial exchange each session makes it evident to the child that he or she is important as an individual and as a member of the group. It matters that he or she is present because the teacher has smiled, looked into the child’s eyes and said “hello.” The teacher is genuinely glad to see each child. Children learn their part in this tradition also. The child gives an offering for snack and he or she is acknowledged for generosity and sharing. These predictable routines set the tone for the rest of the day.
In addition the enthusiasm of the parents during the transition is noticed by the child and helps the child take the beginning risk of experimenting with materials. The natural rhythm between the parent and child helps the observing teacher learn how and when to support the separation. The caregiving responsibility is transferred from the parent to the teacher. Teachers initiate play and use of materials, eventually serving as a link to other children. Teachers listen and observe and anticipate ways that provide support in this adjustment. Teachers coach, demonstrate, make inquiries and serve as a resource and mentor for the child.
Psychologist Eleanor Maccoby states, “The counterweight to attachment is curiosity.” In a prepared environment, teachers select materials that encourage the child to participate and become engaged. Play themes and teacher-initiated activities attract children to enter into the learning process. The outdoor play yards and environment designed especially for young children encourage productive interactions and promote positive behaviors.
During the past year, the children’s mailboxes enriched the Ways of Caring theme, by providing a means to transmit messages of caring to one another and to bunny Chou-Chou, who has his own mailbox! In early March, children Lauryn J. and Julia realized the need to expand the system to include mailboxes for teachers; the children themselves prepared the teachers’ images and names for the boxes.
Our theme of caring involves the “whole” child because our program addresses cognitive, communicative, emotional, physical and social development. Children grow cognitively by being able to understand the cause and effect of interactions and by beginning to problem-solve with people and negotiate the many elements of successful relationships. Occasions to interact in trusting and respectful situations enable children to learn to communicate through listening and noticing and then signaling their expressions of caring. Emotional development is frequently demonstrated in interactions. In her book Caring, Nel Noddings writes, “The child has a special capacity for love. Long before the capacity for sustained reasoning develops, there is the capability of tenderness, of feeling, and reciprocation.” In the physical domain, children learn to position themselves or manipulate materials as a support to others, whether it is patting a chair to show an available seat, holding a string for a friend to cut or running to get a ball for a child just beginning to play. Through observation and exchanges, children gain in being able to read the social map.
Integrating these increasing developmental abilities happens naturally in the nursery school environment. It is not too soon for children to realize the power in their actions. In the words of Mister Rogers: “Deep within us — no matter who we are — there lives a feeling of wanting to be lovable, of wanting to be the kind of person that others like to be with. And the greatest thing that we can do is to let people know that they are loved and capable of loving.”
When asked “Who takes care of you?” children, not surprisingly, note the nurturing they receive from their families. When asked “Whom do you take care of?” the children respond with ideas about parents and siblings and friends; they even include our garden bunny Chou-Chou. When a child is angry, hurt or sad, the other children are quick to notice and observe the adults, as they respond.
Whether emotional or physical, we notice that children draw upon these models and their own experiences of being nurtured to eventually take action to offer help to others. Particularly in mixed-age groupings, children notice when they can assist or guide a less experienced child. Children need these opportunities to gain insight into the feelings of empathy and sympathy, altruism and compassion, generosity and kindness.
The theme of caring is rich with opportunity and deep in meaning for us as a community. The teachers in East AM draw upon a wealth of guidance from the leaders in our field. John Dewey encourages teachers, “When the school introduces and trains each child in society into membership within such a little community, saturating him with the spirit of service, and providing him with the instruments of effective self-direction, we shall have the deepest and best guaranty of a larger society which is worthy, lovely, and harmonious.”
In the past year, Ways of Caring took many forms in our classroom program, but all of them began and ended with relationships.
Dewey, John. The School and Society and The Child and the Curriculum. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2000.
Maccoby, Eleanor E. Social Development: Psychological Growth and the Parent-Child Relationship. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.: New York, 1980.
Noddings, Nel. Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. University of California Press. 1984.
Rogers, Fred. The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember. Hyperion: New York, 2003.