The shakers are square and colorful. My son loves to hold one in his hands and bounce up and down, listening to its rhythms. Once a week, when we go to his toddler play class, he gets a shaker to play with as he explores the obstacle course for that day. Since we've started the class, the teachers have encouraged the parents to take the shakers from the babies and place them a few feet away. This tactic "encourages" the children to move through the tunnel, bridge or climb the baby wall. But every time this strategy is presented, my stomach turns. Forget that it encourages children to look like puppies playing fetch; there's something else that bothers me.
Yesterday, the teacher set up a climbing mat, a balancing plank, a small tunnel and a slide. Before the class started, my son discovered the mat, crawled up and traveled through the course with a huge smile on his face. He laughed when he looked through the tunnel and saw my smiling face. He slid down the slide with ease.
But then, when it was time to go through as a class, the teacher put a colorful ball a few feet in front of him, tapped the mat, and said, "Come on! You can do it!" He pushed himself a few feet backwards and turned his head away.
"He did it a few minutes ago," I said, "before the class started."
She didn't hear me. "Come on!" she said.
He reached for the ball and she pushed it a few feet away from him again. "You just keep putting it further and further out of their reach," she advised, "until they reach the goal."
Very uncomfortable, I let her use this strategy with my son to see how he would react. Frustrated, he let out a squeal when the toy was moved away from him. He sat up, not even paying attention to the obstacle course that only minutes ago, had delighted and excited him. She put him on the slide and held his hands, pulling him to the ground. He made some angry noises and when he got to the bottom, promptly crawled away.
That was when the light went off for me. As an educator, I was taught to encourage children to be intrinsically motivated. In this baby class, the shakers and balls are acting as extrinsic motivators. The obstacles are colorful and fun, but for some reason, the teachers feel the need to distract the babies and give them something else to look at while they move through the obstacles, making them unaware of what they are really doing. Already, at this young age, we are teaching our children that intrinsic motivation, doing something just for the sake of doing it, is not enough. We need something to 'get us through,' an extrinsic motivator that allows us to ignore the joy in the task and focus on what we get at the end.
This is what really bothers me.
My son was having a great time exploring his surroundings, but still the teacher felt the need to give him a distraction. Maybe some kids wouldn't make it all the way through if they weren't chasing a ball, but who cares? What is the real goal here anyway? Chasing a ball, or the pride that comes from crawling up a baby sized rock wall?
I wonder if this sort of encouragement affects a child's ability to pay attention later in childhood and in life. We keep piling on more things for our children to look at, to do and to touch. We teach them early on to distract themselves from the beauty that is around them. It's our fault; we're not reading their signals. I'm just as guilty. I put my son in the car; I give him a toy. But we're missing the point. When children are young, they're satisfied with what the world has to offer; looking out the window, checking out the other patrons at restaurants, and climbing up the obstacle courses at playgroups. The world itself is enough. Everything is new; everything is awe-inspiring. But we are so quick to give them a toy, a video game, something else that we've determined is more interesting. Are we conditioning them to be constantly looking for more? Soon, our kids grow to young adults who need to be doing five things at once. The little things, the things that once held the power of wonder and amusement, are now just a fuzzy background for the next great distraction.
So the next time we're at our playgroup, I think I'll just let my son direct his own discovery. He doesn't need a shaker to "get him through" the obstacle course. The obstacles are going to have to be challenge enough. And I have to say, I think they will be.
Sarahlynne, MEd, is an experienced teacher and a Parenting Guru for Yahoo! Shine.