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Why Ask Why?

Why Ask Why? – February 8th, 2017

Question: I’m a pre-K teacher, and my director keeps telling me I need to “interact more” and “talk more” with my kids. I love my class, but I really don’t feel like I need to constantly be interrupting them, as long as they’re behaving. Why do so many people insist we constantly talk at children?

Answer:  Try this little experiment, just for a moment: think back your earliest memories of day care, school, or home. What stands out for you? Was it toys, or places, or people?

For most, what we remember first and what makes the strongest impressions on our lives is our relationships with other people. And when we’re little, those relationships are built through lots of repeated interactions over time. Neuroscience research is revealing more all the time about how the brains of children are formed primarily in the first 2000 days of life, and how the vast majority of relational patterns – how easily we form bonds with others, how quick we are to trust, how well we can regulate our emotions – are formed in those early years too.

So that’s one reason to interact with young children as much as you can: you are literally building the parts of their brains that they will depend on all their lives to have strong, healthy relationships with others. Of course, their peers, families, and wider communities are doing that, too. You’re just one piece of the puzzle.

But you do have a unique role in the lives of children in your class. For however many hours a day they are in care, you are the most important grownup in their immediate environment. When you’re four years old, getting an important adult to give you sustained attention is pretty much the best thing ever, and something you will go to wild lengths to achieve (which can be why so many behavior problems arise when children are not getting enough attention).

By the time children are 4 or 5, they often can play together reasonably well, especially if there are enough materials and interesting activities. But you can still enhance their play, and teach them all kinds of things in the process. For example, if some of your kids are in dramatic play, go sit with them and listen to what “roles” they are playing, and suggest things they might be able to do or say in that role that they hadn’t thought of. Asking open-ended “why” questions to explore their thinking helps build language and reasoning skills.

For example, lots of kids like to use dramatic play to take care of babies, or take them to the “doctor.” Asking questions like “what’s the doctor going to do?” or “what is the baby sick with?” can stimulate more complex play scenarios. When they run out of ideas – because, after all, their life experience is pretty limited – you can suggest something else: “Why has the baby been throwing up? What do you think we should do to help her?”

Just sitting down with children and asking what they’re doing, no matter what materials they are playing with, tells them that they are valued, that their thoughts and actions are important to you, and also gives them a chance to practice explaining their activities and thoughts out loud. Saying “nice job!” to a child’s block building is nice, but much less effective in terms of developing their brains than asking “I’m curious why you put those big blocks there? Can you tell me about it?”

And chances are, you have enough kids in your room that you don’t have to worry that playing with them will keep them from learning to play independently or with their peers. There aren’t enough hours in the day to spend lots of extended time interacting with every child, every day. So join them as much as you can. It’s actually one of the perks of the job: you get to play too!