In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt. -Margaret Atwood
Observing children is beautiful.
When people ask, “What are you passionate about?” My honest answer would be, “Watching children play.” However, there is a slightly creepy connotation to wording a passion that way stops me and I often spit out some more socially excepted verbiage like, “spending time in nature, play-based learning or even something broad like mindful parenting”. Ok, nobody really even asks what people’s passions are .. but they should!
But truly, observing play is such an incredible thing. It is like watching a series of mini miracles happen before your eyes.
Each movement leads to more development. Each word used connects to a bigger picture of the world. Each experience of free-play forms a unique little human.
Free-play in nature, in particular, sparks immense joy in children. And as parent, the opportunity to understand who your child is as a person during these moments outside is incredible. If children experience nature on a daily basis as a young child, they are in peace when they are outside. I have found as an educator, of children with behavioral and social needs, and as a parent that time outside releases something in them and you can see the true spirit of who they are.
One of my favorite lines in a book, Buddhism for Mothers of Young Children, is, “Who is my child in this moment?” This question is something that I try to ask myself multiple times a day. The practice of reflection and honoring their growth and true self has helped me connect and learn my daughter’s personality.
Charlotte Mason, a mindful educator of the 19th century, spoke beautifully about observing children. In her book, The Outdoor Life of Children, she said, “This is all play to the children, but the mother is doing invaluable work; she is training their power of observation and expression, increasing their vocabulary and their range of ideas by giving them the name and the uses of an object at the right moment-” Her perspective is that it is the parent, or the educator, needs to be there for the children to observe their learning. They need to allow time for free-play but also be near for reflection and discussion. The balance that she creates is wonderful and requires such a conciois effort. This balance is also discussed in Simplicity Parenting by Kim Payne. The line, “When we talk over and under and around a child- when we talk too much- there’s less space for their thoughts, for what they have to say” really stands out to me. Allowing the child to be deeply engrossed in play is a mindful practice. When do you speak and explain? When do you observe silently? When do you document? And when do you simply watch? These are questions only you can answer and reasonably change given the child and the situation.
But what do you observe? Everything.
How do their hands grasp the shovel?
How they move around the root that they fell over yesterday?
What new words are they saying when they sing a song to themselves?
What new skills are they learning when you introduce water to their bucket?
Do their eyes sparkle when they see a butterfly floating by?
Do they search the same area of the yard for the ant they saw last week?
When do they check in with you? When do they desire physical contact? When is eye-contact reassuring enough?
When do they realize they have walked to another area of the woods and you are out of sight?
Take a week to be mindful of your observations. You may even want to use a notebook to write them down after you walk back inside or when your child is engrossed in play. Notice the changes. Notice the patterns. And notice the incredible gift of playing in nature that you have given them. Remember that this is a practice and something to work on daily. You will notice that as you observe, you will become better at seeing small changes in your child’s development.