Conversations for change

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Conversations for change

Saturday, 12 September 2020 | Ayushi Sharma

Conversations for change

Author, motivational speaker and consultant in early childhood education, Dr Rebecca Isbell, tells Ayushi Sharma how policymakers, educators and parents together can nurture young minds to think creatively and adjust to an increasingly complex world full of technology and diversity

They say it takes a village to raise a child — under normal circumstances. And you can certainly imagine what a pandemic, which is definitely not normal, would call for. Today’s children are facing challenges that were unheard of even a couple of decades ago. More children are out of schools than ever, confined in their homes. But on the other hand, we are witnessing the tipping point of online education with the explosion of mobile and digital technology, especially in a country like India, which has skipped an entire generation of technology. We are nurturing a breed of independent thinkers while we navigate the blurring lines between work and life as we know it.

Such unique times call for the coming together of policymakers, educators and caregivers to build a better tomorrow for the world’s children. This is exactly what ISEY, one of largest global summits by KLAY in the ECCE (Early Childhood Care & Education) space, aimed at recently — addressing modern-day issues of early childhood and charting future courses of action. The summit, When The World Unites For Children, saw author, motivational speaker and consultant in early childhood education, Dr Rebecca Isbell, as one of the key speakers. We talk to her to find out what we can do to spark conversations for change. Excerpts:

What according to you are the modern-day issues of early childhood?

As knowledge about children and development increase, there has been more interest in the early years of their learning. Many research and scientific studies have identified that children are capable learners with brain connections being formed at an amazing rate during these critical early years. Brain imaging and observations have also led to understanding that ‘windows of opportunity’ exist during the early years, specifically in language, thinking, social and emotional and visual domains. Therefore, this is the prime period for these important competencies to be developed, which will impact future learning.

The understanding of these critical early years has led many countries to recognise that learning begins early and establishes the foundation for future development. We need quality programmes for children that are designed specifically for their special stage of development. Research, studies and experts have led us to conclude that learning and development in early childhood is not the same as for older children or adults. Children need their learning to be active, to be focussed on their real world and to include concrete materials that can be explored, manipulated and filled with play. An essential component of these quality programmes is interactions with adults, who understand their unique way of learning and can guide experiences that are meaningful. One of our challenges is helping parents and community leaders understand that children are not ‘small adults’ and the approaches we have used with older ones are not appropriate for the younger lot. Their environment must encourage and support their ways of learning.

What can we, as influencers of change in the education space, do to create a better tomorrow for children?

As our world is changing at such a rapid pace, it is essential that we nurture young minds into creative thinkers and problem solvers. In their lives, they will be dealing with issues that we cannot even imagine today. There will be no books or experts who can give them the answers to these new and difficult questions. They will have to be problem solvers who can identify possible ways to deal with the issue, take action and adjust if their solutions do not work. Creative thinkers and problem solvers are developed and supported in the early years as they gain confidence in their capabilities and learn to use their thinking abilities in appropriate learning environment.

How do you think we can nurture young minds into creative thinkers?

First, we must recognise and value children’s creative potential. We will have to engage in conversations about their interest, listen to their questions and then discover possibilities. We can design rich environment that include ‘open-ended’ materials where they can choose to follow their interest, do it in a different way and make choices. We can have conversations with them, listen to their ideas and discuss possibilities building on their questions, interest and responses. As adults who interact with children, we need to develop our own creativity so we model ourselves as a thinker who knows how to solve problems.

As children learn to navigate through the online and the offline world, the paths leading to adulthood might be taxing and confusing. What’s your take on this?

One of the essential life skills for the 21st century is critical thinking or problem solving. In a world that is bombarded with so much information and a variety of entertainment, both children and adults must be able to determine what is true and what is real. Developing the ability to think critically is important in making sense of the world they live in and filtering through the vast amounts of information.

The virtual world is usually looked at in a bad light for children. However, if we look at the current situation, technology has proven its worth. What do you think about it?

The virtual world may be expanding for children, especially during this 2020 pandemic. But it must be remembered that they learn best through real experiences, manipulation and exploration of materials and having language interactions with people. They need to play with others, with ideas and with concrete materials. While they do that, they learn how to collaborate with others, shape the happenings and get to know what works the best for them. Technology is a part of our world but it is not the way children learn best.

We are all aware of how social media has controlled our lives in one way or the other. What do you think of its impact on children?

Social media is just one tool of communication. There should be a balance in the child’s world with conversations with real people, writing on computers or paper, stories told and retold, participating in collaboration with peers and expressing their thoughts in a variety of ways.

Parents constantly face the dilemma of giving in to their child’s demands versus what’s right for them. So, is it equally important to address parents’ concerns over certain challenges that they face while handling teenagers?

Being a parent of a teenager can be difficult, but it is important to establish some attitudes and patterns when your child is young. Teach them about daily chores like cleaning up, washing tables, talking about characters in books, discussing their problems and feelings. You don’t wait until they are 14 and then ask them — ‘tell me about your feelings’. Start the conversations, routines and expectations of behaviour when they are little.

The new National Education Policy of India provides a broad perspective to early education. How do you think it will impact the education system since children won’t be confined to traditional methods of teaching?

I have just completed reading the policy of India. I was pleased to find that the policies identified in the Early Childhood Section recognise the important elements that I believe will move India’s educational system into the 21st century. If these policies are supported, Early Childhood Education will be universally available to all children. This means that all kids will have the opportunity to benefit from participating in quality programmes that will be designed to strengthen their abilities in a holistic manner. It will include opportunities to enhance language, literacy, science, mathematics, social skills, collaboration and problem solving while integrating the arts and the cultural heritage of India. The early childhood programmes, as recommended, would include health and nutrition elements that are essential for developing the mind and body of children. Research has shown that an important component of a quality programme for them is to include teachers who are specifically trained in the education and development of children. This essential requirement is included in the policy document and should be supported.

The plan to support continuity from preschool through primary school would ensure that the gains reached in the early years could be built on and expanded in children’s later education. This will enrich and expand the offerings and choices that should be available in the later levels and advanced schooling. These can have a positive impact on children and help develop them to be creative thinkers, communicators, collaborators and critical problem solvers, ready for the demands of the 21st century.

Can you suggest a few ways or techniques for a child’s creative growth?

Perhaps, here are some ways to support children’s creativity that I prepared for the parents:

  • Recognise that youngsters are capable learners when experiences, conversations and activities are matched with their level of development and actively engaged in shaping the process.
  • Observe your child’s interest at the moment and follow that curiosity supporting ideas, questions and finding books to connect to this topic. Note their interest may change frequently and that is completely fine.
  • Read to your child every day. Set the stage for the story with a few questions before you start. Read with expressions, voices and pause to respond to any questions during reading. After the reading is completed, talk about the characters, sequence and moral of the story. Always provide time for them to evaluate the story and share their feelings. Include in your reading list some books that provide examples of creative thinking or problem-solving.
  • Play with your child. It is an important way for children to learn about the world and how it works. When playing, follow their lead, take a minor role and allow them to determine the direction of the play. Through play, children learn they can influence their world, shape the happenings and adjust as is needed. Gaining the ability to influence the play helps them learn that s/he has the ability to shape their world.
  • Provide choices during the day so your children can gain experience in making decisions and deciding the best option. Simple decisions about ‘what will you wear today’ or ‘what book do you want to read?’ help build their confidence in the ability to decide things.
  • Offer a variety of materials to use when drawing, constructing, creating and writing. Open-ended materials can be used in many different ways and the way it will be used is determined by the child. Examples: cardboard boxes, coloured construction paper, collection of markers, pipe cleaners, glue, novel items (lids, tubes, bolts, containers.)
  • Participate in interactive conversations. These responsive languages are wonderful ways to develop language and vocabulary. Research shows that children are developing language at an amazing rate, but conversations need to be interactive, impacting the exchange. Think of serving and returning the ball in a tennis game.
  • Expose your kids to different experiences and people. They learn quickly from different people and new experiences. Plan for the happening before it occurs. Talk to them about what you are going to do and include new words to explain. Help them decide what questions they may want to ask and things they want to know. Reflect on the experience after it has occurred.
  • Remember to include the music, art, drama and movement. Children enjoy music and movement from infancy into childhood. These experiences should be appropriate for their developmental level. For children, a short time that is joyful is better than a very long session that is too confining for a young developing body. 
  • Encourage your child’s creative ideas. When your child suggests a different idea or a novel way of accomplishing a task, support these possibilities. Help him/her learn that there are different ways of doing things and it is OK to make mistakes. 
  • Plan proper time for your child to be with other kids. When playing with other children, they learn to cooperate and collaborate. These are skills that take time to develop, so understand sometimes there will be conflict or disagreement and they should be able to work it out if possible. Part of developing social skills is learning how to adjust and adapt to working with others.

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