Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Engaging the Child’s Potential

Few words are roomier or more full of optimism than potential. It is the wide-open territory of what is possible but not readily visible. We apply it liberally in many contexts, as an adjective, “potential funder,” and as a noun, “a possibility something might exist in the future.” Potential allows us to anticipate what might happen in economic growth, businesses, medicine, media, politics, and education. When it comes to specifics, however, things get vague. Potential sinks into easy clichés, often about the general unrealized ability of the individual as if mentioning it activates it. Potential is one of those words, it seems, that gets by on the optimism it exudes rather than on the clarity and specifics it offers.

If we value potential and believe, in particular, in the child's potential, we need ways to engage it readily and easily. We can do this through relationships, interactions, experiences, and environments, indoors and out; in museums, zoos, libraries, schools, afterschool programs and clubs. Without taking a closer look at the child’s potential to first understand it, we will invent and apply strategies with little avail.

Believing in children’s potential relies, above all, on taking them seriously–not casually or superficially–but fully taking into account their remarkable capabilities in making sense of the world. Being impressed with children’s strengths and resourcefulness is not at all difficult. Be unhurried and listen to children at the store, on the bus, in the back seat, at the park, or at the museum. They ask questions, find patterns, make new connections, and express fascination with what they see, hear, touch, and smell. Notice as a child lets a butterfly rest on her fist, talks with the butterfly, and follows it as it flits away. Follow a child’s joy in testing a hunch and expressing a discovery. Pay attention to the empathy contained in small gestures even young children display towards others.

The more we pay thoughtful attention to children, the more we discover extraordinary strengths and capabilities, rather than finding weaknesses and limitations.
…there is strong evidence that children, when they have accumulated substantial knowledge, have the ability to abstract well beyond what is ordinarily observed. Indeed, the striking feature of modern research is that it describes unexpected competencies in young children, key features of which appear to be universal. (National Research Council. Eager to Learn: Educating Our Preschoolers)
Many Potentials
We refer to the child’s potential as if it were a single, undifferentiated realm. Even an individual child’s potential is a complex network of promise and possibilities, capabilities, innate interests, and talents. The concept of The Hundred Languages advances a view of potential that is not confined just to one language or way of learning. Potential is expressed through playing, speaking, listening, dancing, imagining, and thinking; to symbols, images, colors, movements, and sounds. Clearly potential crosses domains of a child’s  social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development. We can also think of various potentials such as play potential, creative potential, or relationship potential. A museum’s learning framework might also highlight aspects of the child’s potential of particular interest. 

Potential is not only elusive when we view it as one large undifferentiated quality, but is also difficult to engage as a large positive mass. Vygotsky’s, zone of proximal development (ZPD) provides one glimpse of engaging the child’s potential. ZPD is the distance between the levels of capacities expressed by children and their levels of potential development that are achievable with the assistance of someone who is more competent in those areas. The help provided goes just slightly beyond the child’s current competencies to what is possible, but not yet fully actual. An adult or a more advanced peer can provide that nearby competence to allow the child to stretch a bit farther.

A child’s potential does not exist in a vacuum nor does it spring forth without an intriguing invitation. Rather, potential unfolds over time in response to a wide range of opportunities children can follow as far as their motivation, agency, and resourcefulness will take them, which is undeniably far. If we are interested in engaging children’s potential, we must be open to recognizing additional capabilities and resources in children than we expect to see or we risk never glimpsing what the potential might be. We must not only hold an image of the child as curious, capable, competent, and rich in resources, but also not allow ourselves to be limited by a view of the child as needy, incomplete, and inadequate. We must listen and observe with active and open minds and hearts, and avoid assuming we understand too quickly. 

Alive and Responsive to the Child’s Potential 
Besides a better understanding of the child’s potential, something we must continuously work to evolve and deepen, we need to sharpen our awareness of opportunities to support and engage it. In museums–as well as schools, libraries, playgrounds, zoos, afterschool programs, etc.–we have abundant opportunities to create experiences that respond to the unknown but fresh questions, interesting ideas, and lively imaginations children bring to any encounter.

Everyday children reveal their remarkable capacities in countless ways in the varied experiences, rich environments, inviting exhibits, and supportive interactions and relationships we offer. As we plan program activities, design exhibits, wander through galleries, observe and evaluate projects, and interact with children, we should be wondering and asking ourselves about how we are engaging children’s potential. For instance:
City Museum, St Louis MO
  •   How does the sky-high climber build on the child’s confidence and allow them to set–and reset–their own challenges?
  • How does the light lab support and extend the child’s taking her ideas further, and in unlikely ways? Provide clues for about her capabilities?   
  • How do materials in the studio allow children to express and represent ideas they are grappling with? Do these materials change in response to their investigations? Do they make processes visible?
  • How does the grocery store or market reflect back to her insights about who she is? Widen the range of interactions with other children?
  • How does the ball coaster allow children to seek out novelty and newness? Invite questions? Test, try, and revise ideas? See evidence of their resourcefulness?
  • How does the animation station allow the child to plan? Follow interests? Make choices? Become absorbed in noticing and wondering?
  • How does a staff person’s pausing, observing, and engaging with a child allow that child to stretch a bit further? Accomplish something until now only imagined? Allow her to accomplish something?
There are countless considerations in creating experiences and interactions that engage the child’s potential. Whether the child is making, building, climbing, digging, blowing bubbles, reading, drawing, or dancing, we are more likely to engage their potential when we:
  •  Allow time for children to approach, explore, and become absorbed in activities and spaces. Building, unbuilding, and rebuilding take time. Doing and understanding take time. Growing capacities takes time.
Photo: Tom Bedard
  • View children in a future context as well as the present moment. Rather than offering activities to keep children busy now, shape experiences that grow a sense of possibility and efficacy.
  • Are nimble in making possibilities available. We must pay attention; be open and responsive to children’s strategies for exploring; rejigger the experience; step out of their way; and let them follow their agency and resourcefulness to some place we have not imagined for them.
  • Engage our own potential. In order to create a mindset of possibility for children, we must be open and ready to learn from them and reach our currently unrealized abilities.
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