Little Star Children: Strong, Courageous, and Bold!
Reflections on Michaelmas
The Michaelmas celebration is so much fun at Outside Kids. But the story has a particular meaning and resonance that can not only guide us through the winter but also through life! In this sweet tale, the star children come from high in the heavenlies, down the rainbow bridge, to plant a garden on earth. But they are met with a destructive dragon whose fiery breath burns up their seedlings. After St. Michael successfully transforms the dragon’s destructive powers into an aide for the star children, he bids them farewell. “But wait!” they plead. How are these little star children going to defend themselves and their garden in the future? St. Michael gives them a gift: capes of gold to make them Strong, Courageous, and Bold! The Star Children thank him and don their capes proudly. The story ends here but the imagination teems with the possibilities of all these star children can accomplish now that the dragon has been tamed and they have themselves been empowered!
During the festival, we dye our own capes of gold to help make us Strong, Courageous, and Bold! But what do these traits look like in real life, absent any heavenly knights and dragons? And how can we foster these traits in early childhood? Our guiding philosophies at Outside Kids, Lifeways and Forest Kindergarten, have some suggestions to offer:
Never do for a child what they can do themselves. This is a Lifeways principle that we like to adhere to in our practice! There are moments where connection is more important than developing a skill, but in general this idea has a lot to offer children. In modern parenting and education, self-esteem has become an important buzzword. There is widespread concern for quashing a child’s spirit or stifling their unique self. At Outside Kids, where we have been blessed to meet so many unique and special souls, we share that concern. Time and time again, we find that the best way to support a strong sense of self-esteem is to allow a child to become competent and capable. It is an invitation for us adults to step back and allow them to struggle a little. Of course, there are skills that are completely out of their reach: we can’t expect a two-year-old to button up their own jacket, nor a 4-year-old to unload all the groceries themselves. By modeling these behaviors and encouraging them to try things themselves, we offer our confidence in them. This mother puts it plainly in her open letter to other parents “Please Don’t Help My Kids.” At the playground, she notes, “They’re not here to be at the top of the ladder; they are here to learn to climb. If they can’t do it on their own, they will survive the disappointment. What’s more, they will have a goal and the incentive to work to achieve it.”
At Outside Kids, we will resist lifting a child to a spot they can’t reach for this very reason. Instead, we love to strategize with the children (“Is there something you could use to help you reach?” “Will your arm stretch any further than that?”). But we are careful not to rob them of their accomplishments. Once they have apprehended a new skill, we can share in their pride! This, rather than praise or indulgence, is a very firm basis for self-esteem. No one can take from you your own ability to ride your pedal bike or climb that tree.
Support risky play. Another way to allow children to develop the traits celebrated at Michaelmas is to withdraw a little when a child is engaging in an activity that would normally prompt us to advise, unsolicited, “Be careful!” The truth is, often they are being careful. They are learning to do dangerous things carefully. Before we speak, we might pause for a moment to observe their furrowed brow, their fixed gaze, their deliberate movements. These are indicators that they are focused and taking great care in the task at hand. Peter Gray, Ph.D.—a researcher of neuroendocrinology, developmental psychology, anthropology, and education at Boston College—asserts that engaging in risky activities in play is developmentally necessary. “The fact that [risky play] hasn’t been weeded out [by natural selection] is evidence that the benefits must outweigh the risks,” he writes for his column at Psychology Today. What are the benefits? The big one, according to Dr. Gray, is emotional regulation. When a child is balancing on a raised log, they are probably experiencing some level of fear while also working to overcome it. This is a central skill in anxiety management, something that more and more children are struggling with today. Throughout life, we will repeatedly encounter challenges that evoke a fear response, some minor like preparing for a big presentation at school or work. Others major, like keeping a cool head in a medical emergency. A child who is allowed to engage in this sort of play will be far better equipped for all kinds of situations, he argues.
One basis for our commitment to outdoor education at Outside Kids is the myriad organic opportunities for risky play that nature offers. These are not contrived challenges that we arbitrarily pose to children. Obstacles in outdoor play arise in harmony with the play and enrich it. Often, they are the point of the play.
Model resilience and responsibility. American writer James Baldwin once recollected in a memoir essay, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” More than any encouraging words, it is our actions that really speak to the young child. Their language and reasoning skills are not fully developed when they are so little. Imitation is their prime mode of learning during this phase. We must, as the Lifeways curriculum encourages parents and teachers, be worthy of imitation. Many great virtues spring to mind when I consider this principle but one that was not always so obvious to me is the value of allowing children to see me not only work, but struggle. For some reason, the word struggle carries a negative connotation in daily life. Perhaps we want to imagine ourselves surmounting all obstacles with great ease. But this is a dishonest self-image and an unhelpful performance for the children in our lives. Instead, we can take their watchful little eyes as reminders to maintain grace under pressure and handle life’s challenges and with perseverance and resilience. When we find ourselves frustrated, it can be helpful to us and to the children in our presence to remark, “Wow, this is really difficult!” “This is taking longer than I thought.” “Just a little more, and I/we’ll get through this!” The subtext here is although some tasks are hard, we are capable of doing hard things!
In this lovely essay about the role of purposeful work in a Waldorf Kindergarten, teacher Karen Smith discusses how long it took her to carve a wooden spoon for school use during daily play time over the course of nearly a year! Not only does tasking in the presence of playing children tend to support their play by rendering us busy but available, it also demonstrates to children that there is always work to be done. And as they grow, they will come to share in that work. Work can be hard, but it also offers the gift of membership in a household, workplace or on a team. Responsibilities build our sense of self. The big milestones of life are marked by new responsibilities: our first job, getting our driver’s license, moving into our first apartment, starting our family. No less valuable are the milestones that precede them: helping with dishes, pulling the beach wagon, doing our first load of laundry, cooking our first meal. By approaching these tasks with poise and purpose, even when they are hard, we can model a healthy approach to the work of daily life, the quiet courage that makes life richer!