Forest Kindergarten Teacher Training 2018
The Foundation Course readings open a doorway of knowledge into the developmental inner-workings of the young child's mind and physical senses. In walking through that threshold I see many paths of knowledge leading me toward an evolving capacity to support each child in their own journey of developing their full human capacity, with as little interference from an underdeveloped motor-sensory system as possible. The common threads I found throughout all of the readings center on the stages of physical, psychological and cognitive development of the young child; biological expectations; importance of free, imaginative and risky play in the formation of the self; movement (motor-sensory development) as a cornerstone to higher thinking (emotional-cognitive and verbal-intellectual development). I would like to focus my thoughts upon the biological expectations of the child, which include movement, imitation worthy activity (meaningful work), and a caregiver to model or entrain human behavior and culture.
Movement is a biological expectation. “Repeated movements help to strengthen the neural pathways that run between the brain and the body.” (Blythe, pg. 11) Without movement in the body, the brain cannot develop the structures of thinking. Movement develops the foundational senses of balance and place-in-space (vestibular and proprioception), which give the individual the foundation for a sense of self, “this is called proprioceptive learning, or knowledge of the inner self, which is gained directly as a result of movement experience.” (Blythe, pg. 16) In the first few years of life, the movements and physical development of the young child parallel the development of the reptilian and mammalian brain centers. “In this way, movement is an integral part of life from the moment of conception until death, and a child's experience of movement will play a pivotal part in shaping his personality his feelings and his achievements. Learning is not just about reading, writing, and maths. These are higher abilities that are built upon the integrity of the relationship between brain and body.” (Blythe, pg. 11) This coupling of movement and brain development is most easily seen in the creative, imaginative play of early childhood. As the child plays, she is moving her body in increasingly coordinated ways, this coordination feeds the progression of the play; as she moves in novel ways she is able to imagine herself in novel ways, which inspires further effort in coordinated movement. Play is movement given meaning, “so the more extensive and complete the child's interaction with the outside world, the greater the development of knowledge within.” (pg. 35) Movement develops the child's sense of who they are, and this sense of self is integral to the development of higher thinking and emotional regulation.
Movement is taken to it's highest form by children engaging in risky play: speed, agility, strength, dexterity, focus, listening, and awareness are all engaged to a heightened degree. The movements of the body must be mastered and controlled; intense focus and determination can be seen on the 8 month old who is undeterred from attempting to crawl head-first down stairs, and on the 8 year old who has mastered the balance of careening down the 'giant hill' on a skateboard. “The child knows instinctively what he needs to develop and he goes about it through play with whole-hearted enthusiasm.” (pg. 33) In risky play the development of self is deepened through the regulation of emotions. Emotion in the young child can be experienced as overpowering, and can even create trauma. In order for the mammalian brain to integrate and regulate the raw sensory input from the reptilian brain, emotions such as fear, anger and sadness must be repeatedly experienced and repeatedly overcome. “Children are designed by nature to teach themselves emotional resilience by playing in risky, emotion-inducing ways,” and in free play, each child gauges their own level of intensity, reaching the edges of their own limit, and coming back to baseline. (Gray, pg. 40) In this way it seems that dangerous experiences are also a biological expectation, and survivability depends upon the ability to regulate strong emotions, often in proximity to others experiencing the same strong emotions. Children love to play at risky chase, hiding and rough-and-tumble games together, learning to overcome emotions as an individual within a group.
Being in such a receptive state, the young child relies upon adults to act as a beacon to draw their attention, and then allow for the child to engage in meaningful interaction or play. And being so open, the child's unguided sensory system is easily overstimulated and overwhelmed. This state will engage the child's survival and protective instincts, and an open state of learning is now undifferentiated from emotions of stress and anxiety. In order for children to be receptive to learning and exploring without interference from the survival brain, we must help them to achieve a state of calm. According to dictionary.com, entrain means “to carry along, as on a train” and has a biological definition, “to adjust (an internal rhythm of an organism) so that it synchronizes with an external cycle, such as that of light and dark.” Joseph Chilton Peare in The Biology of Transcendence defines, “entrain: unites our systems for thought, feeling and action.” (pg. 25) He offers that there is a state of harmony at which the brain is at it's optimum state to learn and appropriately respond to the environment. This state of harmony is often experienced, by children and adults alike, while singing together or listening to a visually rich and well-paced story. “It has been suggested that neurological changes occur when people chant of sing as a group: 'Their central nervous system activity becomes synchronous; they become like, or of, one mind.'” (Blythe, pg. 29) While singing in a group I often experience a felt-sense of calm and peace, and I similarly observe that the facial expressions and body language of children reflect this state of calm and open receptivity when we sing together. Storytelling can activate this state of entrainment using a harmony-inducing vocal pace and tone, as well as rich imagery. “Every effort you make to circulate these pulse-beat rhythms in your stories affirms some of the most fundamental laws of our nature.” (Mellon, pg. 47) Again, using the rhythmic quality of language opens a channel for the child to receive the rich tapestry of the story. Nancy Mellon suggests using this entrainment technique to offer transformative possibilities for challenging or troubled emotional states. It is possible to meet the listeners in the mood they are expressing, entrain them, like passengers, and offer them passage to a new land of experience. “When you are exploring a 'bog' mood, for example, you might wish to express this mood more thoroughly, and to find ways out of it through the use of imagination that stays true to the individuals participating in the group.” (Mellon, pg 47) In other words, go down into the bog with them and carry them to a vista of new possibilities upon the rhythm of the story.
It seems that in all of these readings, the emotional and sensory attunement of the caregiver or early childhood educator, to the rhythms of meaningful and relational interactions, is more important than the content of what is taught. What the caregiver or educator models is more important than what she says. The caregiver must have achieved, and be acting from, a state of self-awareness or development of self, in order to provide a model for young children in their development of self. “This is best achieved by the presence of adults, happily and purposefully occupied, accompanying the children quietly as they play.” (Jaffke, pg. 10) And it is most important to remember that children's innate drive to develop is intact, and that the caregiver must be constantly tracking the direction of each child's developmental drive in order to provide the environment and modeling the child is seeking. Many of our modern educational and parenting philosophies expect the child to be able to think like an adult, appealing to logic and reasoning at an early age, rather than providing, and quite literally acting in place of, the child's yet undeveloped intellectual-cognitive capacity. “When caregivers call in the help of this more mature thinking before the children have reached the age of six or seven years, they are not heeding the natural steps of the development of thinking.” (Schoorel, pg.18) To make matters worse, along with expecting the young child to master rational thought, often the developmental drives of movement, imitation, creative and risky play are suppressed in the name of what are thought to be more valuable educational activities. But when biological expectations are not met, the full development of the motor-sensory system and all other higher cognitive functions cannot be achieved, which often results in behavioral and emotional challenges as the child attempts to become an individual member of the social environment. There is a biological expectation in the young child that there will be models and caregivers ahead of every developmental curve, and that these caregivers will provide opportunities to entrain, to climb aboard and be carried along in the human expression of self.
Understanding what the child biologically expects in order to fully develop and connect with their individual expression of self, allows me as an educator, primarily to get out of the way of a child's healthy developmental drive. Second, this knowledge gives me a basis for providing a meaningful and creative environment rich with developmental opportunities. Third, the knowledge of biological expectations gives me a lens to track and unravel unproductive, repetitive and potentially disruptive behaviors that point to uncompleted developmental drives in the young child. The knowledge of how movement, modeling and entrainment work together provides me with the creative material to craft experiences for children that manifest as satisfying and enriching their sense of self, the same sort of experiences that our ancestors' children would have sought, after all “nature never abandons a system that works!” (Pearce, pg. 20)