Roll your eyes as much as you like, I truly trust young children.
And my trust in them is a foundational part of my values and pedagogical toolbox.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean leaving hammers and nails around in a nursery and trusting children to figure out how to safely use them by themselves.
Rules in EYFS
Nor does it mean trusting young children to cross streets whenever and however they like, or to trust in a two-year-old’s ability to not hit or kick someone.
It certainly doesn’t mean young children don’t need clear boundaries.
Rather, trusting young children means understanding that they are physiologically hardwired to seek out the experiences, sensory input, movement and, above all, relationships they need for their healthy emotional, cognitive and physical development.
They don’t do it on their own, by any means, although (whether our teacher egos like it or not) they are the main actors in the process.
Early years children seek out experience
Even for trained early years educators, so much of young children’s behaviour can be baffling, at times frustrating.
They can climb on shelves and up slides, throw things that “aren’t for throwing”, want to mix sand and water and anything else, make random piles of toys, use their feet to smash chalk on to the ground instead of making marks, spin in circles, run down corridors, squeeze entire bottles of glue out on one piece of paper, paint the same piece of paper so long it falls apart, paint their hands and arms, knock down other people’s block towers and so much more.
They can be so childish.
The words “no,” “stop,” and “don’t” can become very common.
I am not advocating banning these words, although, as Lisa Murphy says in recent episode of the Childcare Bar and Grill podcast, we could take a note from the world of comedy improv and learn to say “yes, and” more).
Switching from 'no'
Take climbing, for example. Applying the “yes, and” to a three-year-old on a bookshelf would sound something like: “I can see you really need to climb right now, let me show where you can.”
You don’t have to let children climb on the bookshelves, but you do need to trust they are climbing on things because they need to, and it is on us to give them challenging and varied opportunities to climb.
Most young children are compelled to climb all over because, first and foremost, it is fun. Along with this, it is an integral part of how they are hardwired to develop their physical strength, coordination, ability to focus, executive functions, self-regulation as well as self-identity as someone who is a capable person.
You don’t need to let children climb up slides if you don’t like, but you should trust there is a legitimate reason why it is such a common urge.
In my experience, it is an incredibly valuable opportunity for physical development but also their social and language skills.
When one child wants to go down and another one wants to go up, they are not only learning to navigate around each other physically, but they are getting a real-time lesson in the fact that they are indeed not the centre of the universe and their peers have wishes and views that they have to negotiate with.
This means we need to be near, especially early on, to offer phrases like “Tell Saqib, ‘Please move’” or to explain, “I think Julia will give you a turn after she goes, Saqib.” In the past six or so years of revising my views on how slides should be used, I don’t think I’ve had a single accident (even a minor one).
Obviously, the rules and decisions in your room or setting are yours to make. I do not want you to adopt my or anyone else’s views wholesale but I do want you to consider your reasoning as well as knowledge of child development behind your rules in regards to climbing, slides or anything else.
Making the rules
Young children’s childish behaviour is anything but a deficiency. It is part and parcel of how they seek out the necessary experiences, sensory input, movement and, above all, relationships they need for their healthy emotional, cognitive and physical development.
Without any training in sensory integration, the proprioceptive and vestibular senses, synaptic “blooming and pruning” and other basics of early childhood development, I initially thought my job was to mainly “break children in” or, in nicer words, “socialise” them and tamp down on their childish urges.
I’ve since learned enough to see and truly trust that young children aren’t baffling, cute but empty-headed little beasts. They are going through a part of their lives that we might be long past, but they are actually us, full and complete humans in the here and now.
We humans tend to thrive when we feel seen, heard and trusted. Young children are no exception.
David Cahn is currently a SEN teaching assistant in a Year 1 class in Leeds. He is on Twitter at @DavidN_Cahn