Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Shared Thinking

I wrote most of this months ago...so finally thought I should share it with you all!

I don’t talk much about my studies here. That’s not because I don’t enjoy them. I do. I guess I am usually just so busy studying, that by the time I am done I don’t feel like talking about it all over again. But I was thinking about my Early Years Degree this morning, going over some of the concepts we’ve been discussing in our online forum group. And I had a bit of a revelation. Concepts that I am learning in class do not just apply to teachers! Duh. You think?! The learning we look for as teachers, we can also look for as parents. I know I do. I utilise the things I am learning in my Degree often in my interactions with my son.

So I thought there might be a few parents out there who would be interested in what we’ve been learning in class.

Namely, shared and sustained thinking. In essence, what we’re finding is that children learn in relationship. They can certainly make connections on their own, and often do so. But they learn best and most through relationships with other people and things. They need it.

Daddy and Munchkin involved in a favourite past-time: reading the machines book together! 
Shared and sustained thinking is all about building a relationship of conversation with a child. Not just a quick, “Hi, how are you?” and moving on. Sustained. Allowing a bit of time and space for children to express their thoughts (when you have limited language at your disposal it can sometimes take awhile to get an idea out, you know!). It’s about providing space for them to return to an earlier topic, sometimes again and again.

Shared. Not one-way, or one-sided. Not just listening to them babble and saying “Ah-ha, yup.” (I know, we all do it at times…a very useful strategy when you really have NO idea what they are trying to say!). Not just talking and talking, giving instructions, telling them what to do or how to think. Nope. Shared. Mutually beneficial and mutually enjoyable. Really trying to connect with what the child is thinking and connect them with what you are thinking.

Shared, sustained thinking.

We highly value play as a means of learning in the early years in New Zealand. I totally agree: freely chosen play is essential. Kids need space to be themselves. Play gives them that. They can create, imagine, imitate, negotiate, and relate all in a safe setting that they have some control over…their own games. But alongside this, and equally important I believe, is the need for us to come alongside them and share their thinking. This is what extends their learning, takes it to the next dimension. It is all too easy to tell the kids to “Go off and play,” to get them out of our hair. Who hasn’t done that? There are multitudes of things that need to be done, and limited time in which to do them. The kids will be happy playing for awhile. True. But sometimes they’d gain so much more from playing with you. From having a conversation with you. Asking those hairy questions and just thinking through some answers with you.

I've been guilty of sending Munchy off to play already, and he's only 18 months old.  "I'm cooking dinner, go and find your book."  "Mummy has to hang out the washing."  So now that I'm thinking about it, I'm trying to find ways of involving him more in what I'm doing, in talking with him even when we are engaged in separate tasks, and in expecting him to respond and want to be with me.  This does get messy.  I have discovered that a plastic mat under the chair at the kitchen bench is very useful.  And that I need to remember he can reach almost the entire way across the bench to whip a mixing bowl out from under my fingers!  And sometimes (okay, a lot of the time!) I find it really tediously SLOW.  Oh my goodness, I had no idea how much a toddler's involvement could slow you down. Everything takes twice as long, at least!  But we share together.  Sometimes we play.  Sometimes we work.  Sometimes we do both together.

The breadmaker died (it has since been fixed, thanks Dad!) so Munchy helped with the kneading.
So cute!  Although throwing the tin of screws all over the floor then trying to eat them wasn't so cute.  Sometimes I wonder why I involve my son.  Then I remember how important he looked helping hold that hinge, and I just have to let him help me again. 
Shared, sustained thinking is just that. It is us sharing with our kids. Sharing our thoughts. Sharing their thoughts. Talking. Questioning. Thinking. It's an incredibly powerful tool in building that special bond between us. And, as a bonus, this shared thinking allows us to more accurately see what is going on inside our beloved little one’s head. It’s exciting, getting to share in new discoveries every day!

Cool playdough creations.  I just LOVE playdough!

This is what I wrote in class about shared thinking (remember, from the perspective of an early childhood teacher):

"I believe that in order for this sustained thinking to take place, I must actually BE INVOLVED in children's activities and games, not just a static observer. I like the idea of sustained themes being present for children, perhaps an area of the kindergarten set up that has things collected from last week's field trip, with new library books strategically added, a microscope, some paper, glue, pens, etc for any creating...children can then return to this as they please, teachers can add things to it as children and teachers come up with new angles on things they want to find out or do. (edited: this applies at home too – you could put the takeaway containers from last night’s dinner on the table, with chopsticks and menus and see what happens – you might end up invited to a restaurant for lunch, you might be asked why the containers aren’t coloured, the possibilities are endless!)

Talking with a child about what they are doing, why, what they are getting out of the activity. Adding a new thought, perhaps just one. I do this with my son. His favourite games involve spinning things or rolling things. So we frequently find him with the lid from a jar on his little table, trying to make it spin around. I have often done things like, "What if we try it up this way?" or given him a different object to try spinning, or spun something myself without even saying anything to him. Just extending on the activity he is already engaged in, using some language around it "round and round," enjoying his enjoyment, and sharing in it with him. By starting this now, we are already opening a dialogue that will continue as he grows."

This shared thinking doesn’t mean you have to be constantly involved. You can still pop in and out of games at times, while sorting the washing or tidying the bench. Shared thinking can take place even when we are involved in different activities. Munchkin plays around my feet while I am making soup in the kitchen. I talk to him while we are both busy doing our own thing. “What have you got there, can Mummy have a look?” He hands it to me. I comment on it and hand it back, and return to cutting carrots. I tell him about what is going in the soup. He might be too young still to understand all the words, but he will be taking it all in subconsciously, learning the rhythms and nuances of our language. We are engaging in a form of shared thought, even though we are involved in different activities!

What do you do when you are honestly too sick to move and yet have to look after a small boy (and it's raining!)?!  Set up water on the kitchen floor of course.  And watch from your armchair, hoping he heeds the instructions to 'keep it in the kitchen!'

So for all you parents, grandparents, extended family, friends and teachers out there: Have a meaningful conversation with a child today. Stop. Listen. Engage.  Pass on your knowledge.  Relive some of your youth.

I am passing on my tent-making skills to my son.  My own mother taught me well.  Tent making is an excellent diversion on a wet day, provided you aren't too fussy about your lounge for a few hours!

Then can you come back and share your secrets with me?  I'd love to know how you engage with your kids, your tips and tricks for meaningful conversation.



Elizabeth said...

Hmmm - we haven't done tents yet! Might just be what we need this week as it looks wet, wet, wet!

MaxineD said...

I have always found that the skill I learnt in my training were applicable to raising the family too.