As soon as children begin verbal communication they learn to divide the world into categories. Things with wheels are automobiles. Things with four legs and wagging tails are dogs. Children’s books and programming focus on the importance of recognizing opposites. Things are hard or soft, hot and cold, big or little, open or closed.
Those of us who have spent a lot of time with children know that sometimes they have trouble recognizing our adult distinctions. The difference between an apple and a pear may obvious to us, but to a young child the differences are less apparent. Likewise, abstract concepts like big and small are very much situational distinctions and it takes a while for children to grasp that our way of naming things is highly contextual. In other words, what’s big in one situation is pretty small in another.
One of the greatest joys of working with children is watching them discover the things we forget. They love to find the moon and the sound of thunder fascinates them. We adults may not pay a bit of attention to the bird on the limb, but it gives them unspeakable joy to be able not only to see it but also to name it. They speak with pride when they can identify a dog, or a cat, or cow. They are learning to divide the world up into ideas and characters and categories and they can’t wait to show us.
I’m a mother of three young children and I work with toddlers for a living. It’s an honor to help them learn what makes red, red or how to name concepts like fast, funny, and happy. I teach them songs about opposites and I help them learn needed structure in the classroom. But while I’m helping them find the words for expressing the difference between, say, water and grass, they’re busily teaching me that sometimes we adults get a little too hemmed in by our divisions.
Children see commonalities in the most unexpected places. Give them a chance to dress themselves (without laughter or judgement from adults) and they’ll go for a combination that defies any adult’s sense of fashion. If you ask them why they chose that particular get up they almost have an answer about why the plaid looks great with the flowers or why mismatched shoes are actually a good idea. We often laugh and write it off as they not understanding how color coordination works. Which is true, I guess. But what’s also going on is they’re making their own choices in a framework that hasn’t been socialized to see certain things as natural companions. Clothes are a simple example, but an important one. After all, if you’re two you have very little freedom to make choices. Clothing is usually one of the first places we see choices emerge.
They’ll combine foods in unorthodox ways; they’ll take a toy out of the package and have little use for the “correct” way to use it. If you pay attention you begin to realize that this experimentation is more than just cluelessness about the world. It’s the way they learn. It’s the way they become themselves. They are scientists, inventors, artists, storytellers. They have their own sense of what is beautiful, and if we think we have nothing to learn from their freedom and creativity then we’re the ones in need of some direction.
I learned long ago that sometimes we adults often treat children as receptacles for our pain. We have a lot of unresolved issues and heartache regardless of who we are. So often I see adults down right obsessed with this notion that children are just waiting to get something over on us, even children who haven’t learned how to speak. Children are seldom out to get us, at least not at this age. They’re just trying to figure out the world and see things we’ve long since forgotten.
We need to be there to show them these distinctions. We are their teachers. But as any good teacher knows, real learning always goes both ways.