Teaching Young Individuals

happy girl

If you have a degree in early childhood education, you’ve probably spent hours and hours studying theories galore of child development. Piaget, Freud, Erikson, Dewey, Gesell, Montessori, Vygotsky and on and on and on.

And hey, I love those guys (well… some more than others). They each have something to teach us about how young children learn and grow.

But there comes a point where you need to leave theory behind and approach each child as an individual. That point is when your students walk in the door.

It’s good to know, in general, what a four-year-old is capable of doing, understanding, and learning. But it isn’t “a four-year-old” who’s telling you a made-up knock-knock joke – it’s Parth. And it isn’t “a four-year-old” who’s pretending to be a frog, hopping around the room with wild exhilaration – it’s Jayla. Seeing a child in terms of her age or developmental stage can really blind you to her individuality and creative potential – and actually repress the expression of that creative potential.

 The great American psychologist and philosopher, William James, made this point more than a hundred years ago.

         “Probably a crab would be filled with a sense of personal outrage
if it could hear us class it without ado or apology as a
crustacean, and thus dispose of it. ‘I am no such thing,’ it
would say;  ‘I am myself, myself alone.'”
(James 1901)

Each person wants and needs to be seen and appreciated as an individual. Without this appreciation, she’ll never feel free to express her unique creativity.

I can’t count how many times I’ve seen a young child do something, create something, or come up with an idea which I would never have thought a child his age was capable of. Or how many times I’ve confidently told workshop participants that a certain age group was not developmentally ready to handle a certain activity, and had teachers say, “Oh, I’ve done that with my class. It was no problem!” (As each child is different, each group of children is also different.)

Another way we blind ourselves to each child’s individuality is by generalizing about boys and girls. Of course we know, intellectually, that the stereotypes of active, noisy boys and quiet, cooperative girls are misleading and limiting. Our culture is so saturated with these preconceptions, though, that we really need to be vigilant about keeping our minds free of them.

Remain open to the possibility that each child can surprise you.

(Adapted from my book “Teaching Creativity” (Whitmore Books, 2010).)

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