Browse Month

July 2012

Three things we buy for children that sound like a good idea, but aren’t

Just because I live in the present, it doesn’t mean I have to like it. When I look at the TV that is created for our children, the amount of time the average child spends with a working parent, the level of distraction these parents submit themselves to, and the products we surround our children with, I truly wonder at the motives of the architects of this situation.

Q: When is a bed not a bed?
 A: When it is a toy. A toy that completely undermines the first rule of infant sleep hygiene – bed is a place for falling asleep, sleeping and waking up in.

This product is designed to milk parents who are struggling to get their children to sleep in their own bed. ‘He doesn’t like going to bed – he just wants to play’. ‘He falls asleep on the couch and I lift him into his bed’. ‘When he wakes up in the night either I let him into bed with me or he’s up the whole night’. These are the kinds of things I hear all the time in my job.

Some children find it hard to wind down at the end of  the day. Some children lack the emotional tools to understand that it is ok to be alone for a little while in your room. These children are not going to be helped in any measure by a bed such as this.

“Black sky” double-decker pram of doom
Which baby would you rather be? Front or back? I’d go for back every time. True, you might come to the conclusion in the end that the sky is black (unbelievably this product’s name is ‘black sky)’, but at least you might be able to get some proper sleep in there.

Quite simply, our prams face the wrong way. Can you imagine what it is like down there? Feet clattering. Cars, buses, fire engines, all careering along, just feet away. No control over the direction of travel. Exposed to the elements, until someone decides to wrap damp, smelly plastic around you. And that someone – how to get her attention? What is she thinking at the moment? What is she looking at? Is she looking at the same thing as me? This is a recipe for increased levels of anxiety and delayed development of language and joint attention. And studies do seem to be pointing strongly in that direction.

Baby ipod ‘aptivity’ case
Young children want to play with electronic toys. And no wonder – they are transfixing enough for us. These children are living miracles! Steve Jobs is ‘changing their OSes‘! Unfortunately, the online generation of the future also see us as a cause and effect toy.

Baby apps and so on are great if they are used for very short periods of time and if the experience can be explained and shared with another. However, we all know that this is not how these things are used. They are a babysitter that robs our children of the ability to find wonder in the normal, the prosaic. Maria Edgeworth, in Practical Education (1798) got it spot on:

When a nurse wants to please or to pacify a child, she stuns its ear with a variety of noises, or dazzles its eye with glaring colours or stimulating light. The eye and the ear are thus fatigued without advantage, and the temper is hushed to a transient calm by expedients, which in time must lose their effect, and which can have no power over confirmed fretfulness. The pleasure of exercising their senses, is in itself sufficient to children without any factitious stimulus, which only exhausts their excitability, and renders them incapable of being amused by a variety of common objects, which would naturally be their entertainment.

The rationale for interaction groups

Some children are hard to engage with. They want their episodes of play and interaction to give rise to warm, familiar feelings. They want their cognitive landscape to be of their own design. In terms of the ideas they are prepared to have, they are in a warm, fuzzy feedback loop. We might see the domain of their experience as being worryingly limited, but if that experience is everything to a child, then that child is all-powerful and all-knowing. Intrusions and impositions are generally unwelcome. He just can’t accept that a decent idea can come out of something as intrinsically random as a person. If we don’t find the right way to make him feel comfortable, the ideas and the experiences we seek to offer him run the risk of becoming a source of irritation. He could already be fading us out, back into the background.

So when we are working in one-to-one with a child, and when we are helping that child as part of a very small group, he will explore new mental territories with more vigour if we can dress the experience in familiar clothes. In one-to-one, this means echoing what he does does, enjoying it, and trying to make him understand that we are enjoying it. The closer we can get to his way of thinking, the easier it will be for him to incorporate and attribute any variations, extensions and explanations we might occasionally proffer. He will find it easier still if he sees us as being interesting and emotionally available.

In a social interaction group, the above still stands, but the rules and structure, repeated within and over the short sessions, themselves feed into the child’s wish to have some degree of ownership over an essentially familiar experience. In one way then, the aim of a block of social interaction groups is for the patterns and rhythms that underlie them to be as apparent to the children as they can be. To this end, we:

  • Use visual timetables. These give the children a readout of what the current activity is, and how far through the activities they have come.
  • Repeat roughly the same activities, in the same order, from session to session.
  • Have a definitive sense of completion and finality after each activity.
  • Promote repetition within activities by offering opportunities for each child to have a turn, and then to experience the activity again as an observer.

The lower the level of a child’s attention and social interaction skills, the more play all of the above will have. It never stops being true though – everyone knows that children generally do better when their environment is thoughtfully structured. Adults who work with children would do well to remember this as they go about deciding just how much novelty they can get a certain child or group of children to take on board in a given session.