Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Organic Learning

Recently (okay, today), I read this post about the use of calendars in preschools...and how maybe enforcing this kind of rote learning of time concepts might not be as great as we thought.  The post is on Heather Shumaker's blog -- she's also the author of "It's Okay Not To Share," a book I believe I've mentioned in a previous post.  Shumaker writes about what she calls the "Renegade Rules" of childrearing; things like, well, allowing kids not to share. :)  Most of the renegade rules are counterculture (our culture anyway), but not at all counter-intuitive.  Her point, I believe, is that kids will learn.  Period, full stop.  So, we don't need to shove learning down their throats.  All we need to do is provide proper environments to allow (what I would call) organic learning, an opportunity for the child to stumble upon the concept in their own time and in their own way.

Reading some of her ideas has caused me, not only to think about my future as a parent, but also to reevaluate what I do as a professional.  As a speech pathologist, I work with children who have a variety of special needs beyond their speech or language difficulties.  I've worked with many children on the Autism spectrum, children who have Attention Deficits, and children with unlabelled learning difficulties but who struggle in school.  Through all of this, I thought I have strived to allow my clients to learn in the most natural way possible, but looking back I know this probably isn't the case.  Sitting at a table with a single, sometimes unfamiliar adult, is not the normal way children learn.  I should have been tipped off by the fact that with some of my kids, our first goal was learning how to sit quietly and respond to commands like "Give me," and "come here."

Now, for those of you in this or a related field, I have to specify that I am no behaviour consultant.  Behaviour consultants are the professionals that works exclusively with children on the Autism spectrum.  They tend to have a more behaviourist view, and use a lot of discreet trials for learning.  This works well for children on the Autism spectrum, so there is no judgement here about the use of those kinds of structured situations, but I wanted to specify that that is not what I do.

However, I am often at that end of the spectrum of therapeutic techniques.  It's just easier to feel like you're isolating a certain skill if you've got a structured activity.  And it's easier to feel like you're measuring it if you're sitting at a table where you can easily tic off wrong and right answers.

But, if as Heather Shumaker says (and everyone already knows), children learn best in natural situations with minimal adult control, why should children with "labels" be any different?

I'm sort of veering off track here (baby brain!), but let me give an example to try and get back on track.  :)  One of my first things I do when I come to a new preschool, or even sometimes a home, is to ask if they've got a schedule or calendar posted.  "This will help your child know what to expect and when to expect it," I would state expertly.  And, to some extent this is true, especially for children with Autism.  But, really, children's knowledge of time as we understand it is fairly slow in developing.  I mean, kids don't even start to use past tense usually until around 3 years of age.  And even then it's often, "Last year," instead of yesterday, or "100 million hours ago" instead of a few minutes.  "Monday" is the same as "Saturday," unless an adult reminds them that "no, on Saturday there's no daycare, remember?"

So, really, why do we teach kids the days of the week and the numbers on a calendar if they have enough trouble remembering that after nap we have snack, and after snack we go home?  They can, as Shumaker pointed out, still learn time and number concepts organically by playing natural counting games on the playground, being told what activity comes next, or talking about what they did that morning when mum comes to pick them up.  (these are, by the way, all things I also do in my therapy.  Like I said, I'm not totally a sit-at-the-desk kind of therapist. :) )

To play devil's advocate, I'd like to answer my above question about why we teach kids calendar concepts.  While I agree with Shumaker that the whole task of sitting down at circle and going through the days of the week might be a bit inappropriate, I do think that using calendars to show big events coming up can be very useful.  For example, if there is going to be a big change in schedule, like a field trip or grandparents' visit coming up soon, it can be helpful to cross days off of a calendar to visually show the passage of time.  Granted, you aren't going to say, "On the Tuesday the seventh of October, grandma is coming."  You can, instead, say "Look, in eight more sleeps, grandma is coming!"  Then, after every 'sleep' you can cross off another day and count how many are left.  You can even show things in relation to each other.  For example, "In 8 more sleeps, grandma comes.  She's coming right after we go to the museum."  In this way you are teaching number concepts, as well as time, by giving it meaning, but you aren't explicitly and rote-ly (yes I did just make up that word!) teaching it.

What do you guys think about teaching time to little ones?

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