Monday, September 19, 2011

Listening to Children’s Thinking

A few months ago I was shopping in Target. In the next aisle, I heard a child say, “I want to look in that mirror to see if my face is in that mirror too.” Looking around the aisle cap, I saw a girl about 3 years old leaning out of the seat in a shopping cart while her mother pushed the cart. I pulled out a scrap of paper, scribbled down what she’d said, and waited to hear more. The mother pushed on. I relished this privileged glimpse into the amazing everyday thinking of a young child: if my face is in the mirror at home, is it also in this mirror? In other mirrors? In all mirrors? What does that face in the mirror mean?

I love to listen in on children’s conversations at airports, playgrounds, restaurants, stores, and hotels, as well as in museums, nature centers, and zoos. I often overhear remarkable comments that I record and share. Others enjoy these quotes, laugh, and sometimes share something they have overheard a child say.

To call these anecdotes cute or funny does not take them or the children who have said them seriously. Yes, they are delightful and they do have a charm and freshness. Yet, the more I listen to children, the more I find examples of remarkable thinking as they make sense of their world. These quotes become anecdotal evidence of children as thinkers and learners. They provide insights into how children construct their understanding of the world in the ordinary, everyday moments of their lives.

These and other anecdotes reveal children more as they are and very likely as more competent and resourceful than we usually view them. Both are relevant in planning for children in museums, zoos, nature centers–and schools. First-hand information about children deepens an understanding of this part of a museum’s audience. An appreciation of young children as competent thinkers and active learners is invaluable in exhibit development and design, writing parent labels, planning programs, and training staff to engage and interact with children. Anecdotes like these go well beyond generic developmental profiles. They bring reality, fullness, and visibility to what a child formulating questions, testing a hunch, or discovering a new meaning might actually look like.

In My Dreamscometrue
We expect that children will become readers. But questions like the following put a spotlight on moments in that process when a child is constructing an understanding of how sounds, letters, and words work together.
“Mom, how do you spell ‘W’?”

Children’s growing awareness of letters and words comes through in this question asked, not surprisingly, by 4 year old. A question like this reflects a growing awareness that letters are associated with sounds and that letters and sounds make up words. The distinction between a letter, a sound, and a word, however, may not yet be clear or stay fixed. Eager, fueled by curiosity, and cued to questions about what letter a word starts with, children look for and link clues about words and sounds asking, as a 5 year old boy did, “What does “B” start with?” 

Babies, it seems hear spoken words as a continuous flow of sounds. Gradually, a child recognizes familiar sounds within the stream; these become words a child knows and uses.  But young children also continue to use several words as if they were a single word. Three words continue to be one word for a 6-year old girl who promises her sister, “And I’ll keep you in my dreamscometrue.”

These questions and words are reminders of how very complex learning sounds, letters, words, and phrases is. Adults could treat them as mistakes and correct them. On the other hand, these questions and children’s speech are evidence of how they construct an understanding of language, how they listen carefully, notice patterns, and apply rules to become competent speakers, readers, and writers.

Thinking About Objects
Ordinary moments fill a child’s day, holding countless opportunities to notice, wonder about, and explore basic relationships that operate in their world. We may think little of it when a baby repeatedly drops a spoon from the highchair; a toddler pushes a car up a track; or a group of children shape dinosaur worlds in the sand. Yet, from the falling spoon, spinning wheels, and miniature worlds in shifting sand, children develop hunches and explanations about materials and their properties and how different conditions affect them. They make observations, link them together, test and retest assumptions. With experience, they develop, revise, and organize ideas about movement, causality, perspective, and changing conditions. 

In a motel lobby, a 5-year old girl pointed to a red line on a highway map. She turned to her younger brother and said, “That’s a road. Roads make cars park.” This explanation draws on an observation the girl and many others make: cars park on streets. The unusually ascribed causality that streets make cars park might come from evidence that cars park virtually exclusively on streets; or perhaps painted parking lines seem powerful; or perhaps the agency of drivers parking cars is less apparent.

We know four-and-five year olds have a strong interest and great delight in categorizing and organizing objects and events; but what does it look like? Five-year old Jake laid out a kind of timeline of world history to his mother when he announced, “Dinosaurs. Baby Jesus. The Knights. Me.” In his short history of time, Jake has correctly sequenced some major figures in his world. He has noted the dinosaurs and knights that fascinate him, Baby Jesus who is culturally significant for him, and, of course, himself.

Even at a young age, children are revisiting observations about their earlier experiences and activities. Seven-year old Andy’s changed perspective on his 5-year old world came through when he said to his playmate, “Barry, do you remember when we thought our block was the whole world?” The difference between how big the block seemed then and really was (at least in this 7-year old’s view) suggests how actively children revisit, revise, and, in fact, notice changes in their thinking.
Building theories about when the fan will blow off the hat

Children are constantly and intently paying attention as they learn language, navigate how to relate to others, and make meaning of their everyday experiences. We might also listen as intently to them. 

Music Hat or Dancing Hat?
Interpreting what a child might be thinking is, admittedly, speculative. We don’t know for sure whether Jake’s timeline of world history is just that. But a record of what he or another child said, the context in which he said it, and his approximate age, invite conjecture and a healthy regard for alternative interpretations about what he was thinking or his meaning at that moment. These anecdotes also support respect for children’s competence.

Glimpses into children’s thinking fascinate me, but I’m also interested in listening for insights into how, for instance, they see themselves, the competencies they are proud of, what interests them, and the possibilities they see in materials and objects.

“Why do you have a dancing hat on?” " It’s a music hat.”
I was in the Providence airport this summer when many families were coming home from beach vacations. Several parents compared vacation notes while their four-year-old daughters gradually struck up a conversation. One girl was wearing a derby-style hat decorated with animated musical notes. The other girl asked, “Why do you have a dancing hat on?” Her new friend answered, “It’s not a dancing hat. It’s a music hat.”

That apparently important distinction intrigued me. I wanted to hear more and couldn’t help but wonder, what are they thinking?

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