Holding to What We Know

The view from our new apartment - a storm rolling in across Lac Léman.

The view from our new apartment – a storm rolling in across Lac Léman.

My family just moved from California to Lausanne, Switzerland.  We are excited about all of the opportunities that await us in our new home, but we are realistic about the time it will take us to adjust to the big things (new language and school system), as well as the small things (the metric system and living without a car).

Not surprisingly, I have visited the grocery store nearly every day in the last eight since we arrived. I have also baked chocolate chip cookies, brownies, and apricot cookies with the kids.  I find it thrilling to take a task I know quite well – baking chocolate chip cookies – and adapt it to a new context. (Did you know there is no brown sugar in Switzerland?)

But more than baking for the thrill, I know at its core, I am actually holding to what I know in a context that is wholly new.  I don’t yet speak French – though I’m learning – and the simple acts of locating a grocery store on the map, researching ingredients like natron (baking soda) and vanilla paste, and mustering the courage to ask the store clerk for help locating the ingredients I need (Je parle seulement un peu français. Je veux acheter la pâte de vanille.) are good baby steps into my new cultural context.

I wouldn’t start adjusting to a new culture by enrolling in a PhD level course in astrophysics, and I wouldn’t even try to get my fill of the news by picking up Le Courrier.  But, brownies?  I can do that.  It’s just hard enough that it tests my new skills, but familiar enough that I can be successful, even baking in Celsius.

Building on something I know well as a way create new knowledge is the way human beings are designed to learn.  From birth, we attach new learning to previous experiences.  For infants, that range of experience starts out very small and grows by leaps and bounds daily.  This basic premise – that human beings learn best when they build on prior experience – has powerful implications for our interactions with young children.

  • Why would we teach babies to read before they have mastered the spoken language?
  • Why would we expect babies to sit before they have the strong core muscles developed through months of movement on the floor?
  • Why would we force two-year-olds to share before they have experience giving a toy away and getting it back?
  • Why would we train a preschooler to sit with worksheets when her body is programmed to move and climb and run?

Everyday, my comfort zone grows, extending my learning further and further.  Yesterday, I was able to ask the store clerk if I was supposed to put my apricots (grouped for easy purchase into a small cardboard carry box) in their own produce bag, or if it was sufficient to leave them in the cardboard container to ring up. Though today, I accidentally spent $15 on a handful of figs at the farmer’s market.

Children grow in the same way that I am adjusting to my new culture.  Their growth can seem slow at times, and our own excitement for the world, or our desire to give them every opportunity sometimes means that we expect them to grow unrealistically quickly.  Let’s remember the important work they are doing in the very small steps they take.

And, if all else fails, make another batch of chocolate chip cookies!



Categories: Emergent Curriculum, Respect, Travel with Children | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Holding to What We Know

  1. imaginesue

    Thank you again, Emily. I love following your adventures. I want to emphasize a point you made indirectly in your post: Learning isn’t linear. We all make advances followed by seemingly backward steps. From your post:

    “Yesterday, I was able to ask the store clerk if I was supposed to put my apricots (grouped for easy purchase into a small cardboard carry box) in their own produce bag, or if it was sufficient to leave them in the cardboard container to ring up. Though today, I accidentally spent $15 on a handful of figs at the farmer’s market.”

    This applies to Cathy’s question above about potty training. Many children play with their potties and make some “progress” for a while and then lose interest. The vast majority of people figure out potty training eventually.

    One of the things I love most about your viewpoint, Emily, is your patience with – even reverence for – the process. Your new community is so very lucky to have you and your family.

  2. Baking and jam. Both my ‘go to’ comfort activities. And now I understand why. What a lovely way of helping us to understand what is going on with our children. Thank you.

  3. Cathy miner

    hi! I loved reading about your thoughts on learning new things. I have a 19 month old son named Tyler and I have always approached his development with the attitude of showing/ introducing/ exposing before they necessarily have the ability to do it yet. We started propping books in front of him before he could sit, signing to him at 4 months and singing and reading to him pretty much always. And I was repeatedly surprised at how suddenly and quickly he absorbs these things, processes them, and them hits a milestone before I expect it. When he said “umbrella” at around 12 months he and I both broke out into laughs and squeals of joy! And no I didn’t quiz him with flash cards – he just picked the word up from a favorite lullaby.

    Anyway, there is a question in here – which is related to potty “training” – is there a right time to begin? is 19 months too early? my mom mentioned it wasn’t too early to start so I bought my son a little simple potty. My thought was also that since he is very verbal and really likes learning new concepts, and always that he has started telling me when he has pooped, that maybe we may as well try. After I explained what the potty is, he immediately got into sitting in it and pointing down saying “poop” and “pee.” He shows people how he can sit in it and actually likes to select exactly where in the house he wants to put it ( I can’t say I love it in the dining room, but ok)

    My husband thinks this is cute but thinks it is too early. And I actually do not mind diapers at all, and his childcare is all at home so there is absolutely no rush to transition out if them. But part if me thinks maybe it makes sense to go for it while he is showing interest? If we wait several months will he lose the curiosity about it? Will it confuse him that there is this potty chair for him that does nothing?

    would love to hear people’s thoughts and experiences.

    • We never had a potty at home for my son because he liked to sit on the toilet, ‘pretending.’ When he was in daycare (2 days a week) they took small groups of children at a time for nappy changes; stripped off the old nappies and put them all on potties while they put the new nappies on them one at a time. If they weed in the potty, they got a sticker but there was no pressure.

      When my son was about 2 1/2 he had a dry nappy all one day, doing all his wees in the potty. The same the next day. They tried him out of nappies the following week and he was drenched!(LOL, there was a reason I wasn’t going to try it at home!) But the second day he was dry and that was that.

      Easy for us, but not the same for everyone.

      I would say that if he is happy with the potty, then let him be – there is no guarantee that he will use it in the end, though!

    • I’m sorry, Cathy – I never got to your question! I’m sure you’ve found a solution, but in any event, here’s my take:

      Children will learn to use the toilet when they are ready. I don’t think there is a reason to push them to start too early, but some children *are* ready early, and it would be disrespectful to ignore their signs. (If you search online for a potty training readiness checklist, you should be able to gauge what kinds of skills are prerequisite.) One of my children learned to use the toilet just before age 2, one learned around 16 months, and the other was two and a half. All three children continued to wear diapers at nighttime well beyond the time they stopped wearing them during the day (age 5-ish). For two of my children, we never had a small potty – they just used the regular toilet. But one of my children was so tiny that she really couldn’t manage the scale of the large toilet independently, though she was plenty successful with the toilet once she got there.

      I’m sure this is way past helpful! Thank you for your comments!!
      Warmly, Emily

  4. Julie

    Your words are spot on. I appreciate how you show that even as adults, when we learn something, it is by taking baby steps and then stretching a bit… and celebrating successes and learning from teachable moments without anger. You will be such an amazing family for all the students around you!

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