Learning to Nurture

What does it mean for a child of 4 or 5, who is constantly immersed in being cared for, to have the responsibility of caring for something else? What does it look like to practice empathy and perspective-taking?

Four and five year olds are still very ego-centric, but they are at that exciting point where they able to start to understand that others have different perspectives, thoughts, feelings and needs. They are also at a point where the peer relationships become very important, so the desire to connect with friends goes hand in hand with the need to be open to the needs and perspective of that other person. It becomes clear that moving beyond "but that's mine!' or "I want to do my idea," is crucial in developing mutually joyful and satisfying relationships. In other words, empathy helps us make friends – true friends.

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For most young children, much of their life experience is about being taken care of. The roles of the caregiver, be it mommy, daddy, pet owner, etc., are incredibly familiar. The role of baby or baby animal needing care also are very familiar. In Early K this year, we have endless variations of these roles. Mommy and baby, caretaker and orphaned animals, owner and pokemon, fairy families and wild dog families. These collaborative imaginary games happen in dramatic play, block area and outside everyday, multiple times a day. They bridge the familiar with the unknown and provide a place to try things out. It is amazing how firm the pretend mommies can be sometimes: I wonder what it feels like to try that role on! These roles are also an entry into ideas of perspective taking and empathy. 

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Right now, for most early kindergarteners these things are doable in play, but when the stakes are real – "I want some of those blocks you have," or "Can I get in front of you in line?" – perspective taking is much harder. The children are working hard on being able to let go of some of what they want, whether it is a physical object or an idea, in order to support and give to another.  

One day, in the rocky space, K found a ladybug. He really wanted to show it to everyone, but was concerned about losing it and so was not sure about letting others hold it. There was a great deal of jostling and frustration as children instinctively put their hands out to touch it and to hold it. Of course they all wanted a turn (lots of turns), and it was so hard to give the ladybug up once you had it. Part way through, the ladybug dropped and a collective gasp went out. The children found the ladybug again, and some children thought that the ladybug should not be held by so many people because she could get hurt. This was a great opening into the needs of the ladybug. This was not just about what each of the children wanted, because at the heart of wanting a turn was really wanting to care for the ladybug.

Putting the needs of the ladybug at the forefront somehow shifted the energy to sharing rather than competition and what surfaced were the most incredible and gentle 4 and 5 year old hands. The care that was given to this small creature was astounding as the children put their own feverish desires on hold.

It was as if the world slowed down.

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Since that ladybug day, the children of Early K have shown a keen interest in small creatures – and a desire to care for them. We, as teachers, have wondered: What would it mean for these children to practice perspective taking, nurturing and empathy with small non-human critters? Could this help them grow these skills? As they grow, will these skills transfer towards the development of their relationships with one another? We are looking forward to providing more opportunities for nurturing, and we wonder what it will bring forward for this class of children.

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