Power & Freedom #1: Pencil Sharpener

Our 2 year old program has fully merged with our Nursery next door.  This week I’ve been transitioning out of our original 2 year old program and into a key person role with most of the new 2 year olds, which I will start in full after this break.  There’s been a few rough days as I get used to a new routine but overall I’ve really been enjoying it.

One experience sticks out from this week and it make me think about children’s need to feel power and freedom in their lives.

0985709099Pencil Sharpener

A lot of our coloured pencils were getting dull so I dug out an automatic, battery operated pencil sharpener a coworker has in her cupboard.  When I sat down on the floor to start sharpening, I quickly had a small crowd of six 2 & 3 year olds around me to see what I was up to.  Of course they all wanted to have a go at using this exciting contraption and of course, this soon turned into bickering, pulling and attempted snatching between each other.

Five years, maybe even three years ago, I would’ve gone out of sight to sharpen the pencils, avoiding the need to referee such an unnecessary conflict.  I would’ve said it was better for all parties involved to avoid drama like this.  I’d get it done quicker by myself anyways and I’d save my valuable patience for other parts of the day.

Anyways I’ve been moving away from that line of thinking and I decided to this right on the floor.  To make this pencil sharpener work the kids had to put it in the right sized hole, set the switch on the right setting and hold it in with just the right amount of pressure.  Most didn’t seem to get the fact that it was sharpening the pencils, they seemed mostly interested in making the pencil spin around and the noise the motor made. I’m not sure but I would most all of them have never used such a contraption.  It must have been a fascinating object for them to investigate and figure out.

I’ve been learning to look at situations like this as valuable life practice for the children and myself as well.  Not just practicing sharing a pencil sharpener but how to practice dealing with emotions when having to share space with all these pesky other people.  When the bickering and pulling started, I instinctively put on my benevolent enforcer/”sportscaster” hat: “You all want to use this pencil sharpener.  Since we only have one, you’re going to have to take turns.  How about N has a turn now and in a bit it can be A’s turn?”  I didn’t have a timer and I was arbitrarily deciding when each child’s turn was over, “you really like using the pencil sharpener but now it’s A’s turn.  Please give it to them and I promise you’ll get a turn again in a bit.”  Some kids were better at complying with my order than others.  I ended up snatching it out of a few kid’s hands because they weren’t listening and I felt silly and hypocritical then as I snatched the sharpener out of their hands.  The truth is I have not fully grown out of the authoritarian mindset that most all of us have been born into (I very well might never, but I write blogs like this to help me reflect and grow more).

I’m not sure exactly when or how the situation calmed down but I think it was a combination of the initial “new thing!” excitement wearing off, my repeated refrains of “I know it’s hard to wait but I promise you will get another turn,” and them getting the system of the turns going in a circle around the table.  Once this initial clamor for the sharpener died down, I felt more at ease and was less a “benevolent enforcer” at the table.  At some point I started replacing my arbitrarily-timed orders to fork it over to the next kid with something along the lines of  “when you’re finished, please give it to H” and so on.  The responded to this so much better and I am going to return to this point in a bit.

It is worth repeating how into this sharpener they were.  It makes sounds!  It spins the pencil around – but only if held with the right amount of pressure!  Some of them started to notice the pencil shavings coming out into the clear case!  There’s two different sized holes and a switch that changes how it operates!  There is so, so much to investigate, manipulate and figure out

As adults we should try to put ourselves in children’s shoes as much as possible.  What if I were in the middle of an utterly fascinating activity – let’s say a good book – and somebody came in and said “my turn” was finished and they had the physical power to enforce this order?  On top of this, what if my brain is still in the process of developing and I think the world revolves around me and literally can’t control my impulses?  Does somebody admonishing me with single word orders to “share!” mean anything at all to me?  What do I learn from this person snatching the book out of my hands as I did to these children at first?

So as the kids and I calmed down, a working harmony developed and they all took turns and started to willingly pass it to each other.  One young three year old boy who is known for being veryquick to hit and push began to explain “it’ll be A’s turn, then my turn, then H’s turn, then E’s turn.”  The turns lasted longer and my reminders to “please pass it to so-and-so when you’re finished” became less frequent.

I am not beating myself up for my benevolent enforcer role at first.  We only had one pencil sharpener, they all wanted to use it and I absolutely agree that part of life is learning that the world does not revolve around us.  That said, the way we help younger people come to learn this hard lesson for themselves is by letting have more power and freedom in their lives and giving their interests more respect as well.  There is a world of difference between “it’s A’s turn now,” (and if you don’t hand it over now I am going to snatch it from you) and “when you’re finished, please give it to A.”  They are both essentially directions, but one respects the  child’s interest in the pencil sharpener as something worthwhile and not just “childish behaviour” that needs to be managed and controlled by us to minimise behaviour that’s annoying to us.

On another note, I am more convinced than ever by arguments by Peter Gray and others that children learn best in multi-age groups of children with few, if any adults present.  I wonder what would happen if I did not intervene at all in the use of the pencil sharpener?  The obvious answer here, that I only to by reflecting on all this, is to work towards having  an automatic pencil sharpener always being available in the room so they can investigate and use as needed.  Maybe our only adult role would be sure it doesn’t get lost or broken?  In my dream setting I will open one day, the only rule would be “it’s okay unless you’re about to hurt someone or break something.”

Children’s interests, emotions and lives are not a commodity for us to tinker with or manage to avoid being annoyed by.  To learn to live life well, children need to be allowed power and freedom to actually live it for themselves.

EDIT: Somebody commenting on facebook rightly questioned why I was making them share it at all.  Normally I all about not forcing sharing of any toys.  The interest and the clamor I found myself reverting back to an older, ingrained adult “share police” role that I am still unlearning.

My next piece in this series is going to be on kids throwing sh*t off a ledge!


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