The Power of Silence

In college, we are taught to observe, listen to the child, and scaffold their learning through observational comments and open-ended questions. Unfortunately, many of us go out in the field remembering only the latter: We ask too many questions, give too many comments, and offer suggestions without pause.

I have worked with educators who were so passionate about playing with children, they led most of the activities.

They jumped too quickly on each little movement that the children made, not taking the time to figure out what the children were really doing or what they were really interested in during that moment.

For instance, a child laid down on his side and said, “I’m tired,” as he reached his hand out toward the educator (who was surrounded with toy food). The educator answered, “Pardon? You want a midnight snack?” and picked up a toy food to hand to him. He put his arm under his body as he turned over on his stomach and said again, “I’m tired.” She replied, “Oh, you want the lasagna? Here you go.” He got up and took the lasagna offered to him, forgetting that he wanted to pretend to sleep.

Another time, a child stacked some building blocks. I asked, “What are you building?” She said she was building a castle. Later, an educator walked by and said, “I like how tall your tower is.”

What happened to following the child’s interests and letting them lead their play?

What happened to letting children come up with their own ideas?

Sometimes we get too preoccupied thinking about how we could keep the children playing that we forget they are autonomous and are creative in their own respects. Sometimes we overthink the idea of scaffolding and take over the children’s play by dictating to them what they are doing.

This week at placement, I heard the frustration in a child’s voice when I asked her what she’s making in the home area and she said, “[Someone] thought I was making pancakes, but I’m not.” (I did not hear who it was that thought she was making pancakes, but it sounded like somebody’s name). So I asked her again what she is making without offering a suggestion and I listened to every detail she has thought of about cooking: adding salt, pepper, waiting for two minutes before it’s ready, adding more salt and pepper, mixing the pot, etc. She had such a rich understanding of what it is like to cook beyond making pancakes. She even knew that salt and pepper are tiny particles; so she scraped small pieces off a chunk of play dough. Whoever that someone was who assumed she was making pancakes made a mistake of glossing over the child’s imagination and not listening to what she has to say.

To be fair, I was like that someone: I asked children, “What are you making? Are you cooking lunch?” I did not even let the child tell me if he/she was cooking lunch or dinner, or maybe he/she was not cooking at all. I jumped into conclusion because I knew it was almost lunch time. But do young children know that? Not unless they are told by an adult that it’s almost lunch time. And, sometimes, even then, they still go on their merry way making and cooking whatever they feel like.

I believe that I listen enough to children, but I’ve always felt I should talk and interact more. The manager’s words at my placement site changed my understanding and approach to children.

I told her about my trepidations at the centre: how I’m afraid of speaking to parents and caregivers who come in to our centre, how I have no idea what to talk to them about, and how I feel scared to play with the children when the parents are nearby. She told me that I should use the children as vehicles for conversation and that I should never force any conversation with the children or caregivers. She said, “Mirror what the children are doing. Follow their lead. Do what they do. If they hand you an item to add to your creation, ask them what they would like you to do with it. Let them know that they are in charge of their play.” She explained that the children would eventually communicate to me as we move from parallel play to associative or cooperative play.

I realized: When we start with parallel play and allow the children to lead the play, we show the children our interest to be a play partner and that we mean no harm to them. Similarly, the caregivers get to know us and learn to trust us with their child. That’s when authentic conversations start.

I followed the manager’s advice the next week I was in.

The awkwardness has not left me yet, but working at the early years centre has become easier for me to do. I have had long conversations with some caregivers. I have also played longer with some children. And I did not feel compelled to ask questions or provide observational comments all the time.

I also applied this new understanding at work. I spent more time watching, listening, and observing than telling children what I think they are doing. I learned so much more about the children.

What do you think of this message?

Be still long enough to notice how the children play or interpret the materials.