This week, a short staff gave me the opportunity to stay in the art area again, though the more significant interactions happened incidentally in that area. A flower was put out, but only Nicole went by to make an observational drawing. Instead, children came to and went from the craft table and painting easels, where they interacted with each other.
An. and L. were at the craft table when L. saw a friend (S.’s sister, I think) walk in. While L. went over to give her a hug, An. looked at them blankly and seemed unsure what to think of it. When L. came back, she immediately said, “You’re my best friend. She’s just my friend.” Although I was struck by the empathy, I was even more surprised that L. said this without having apparently seen An.’s expression. My sense was that L., instead of reacting, anticipated this feeling of minor jealousy, which requires more active awareness.
The closeness between them likely facilitated this reaction, but two more incidents revealed how sensitive they were. C. had taken an egg in a cup outside, and shortly after, we all saw her rush inside, crying and running to Karen. They all paused midway through their work and watched C.. The conversation roughly went:
L.: I never saw C. cry like that.
An.: Yeah, I wonder what’s wrong.
B.: Maybe she want her mom.
An.: Why does she want her mom?
B.: Sometimes they cry when they want their mom.
L.: But she came from the sand area.
The conversation continued between them as they explored possible reasons for why she was crying. On the one hand, they themselves seemed outwardly unaffected by C.’s state, though perhaps non-verbal cues and expression also develop over time. Even so, they all empathized with C., which fascinated me from a theory of mind perspective. They explored hypothetical situations of what potential causes, considered how those would affect them, and reasoned that against C.’s observed behavior. This process of thinking made me realize how tightly connected several aspects of development are: in empathizing with C., they needed to project themselves into her point of view and reason through counterfactual worlds to guess what had happened.
This ability to take another perspective happened in a less emotionally involved situation soon after when Ae. had brought in a beetle in a plastic egg. Thankfully, it seemed as though most of the children hadn’t developed any sort of disgust towards it and eagerly looked at it. Ae. pointed out that “It can’t get out because it’s slippery,” watching the beetle desperately try to climb the sloping sides of the egg. When the excitement died down, he put the top on the egg. At that point, I mentioned something like, “The beetle might get lonely inside the egg because it can’t get very far if you close the egg.” What followed was:
J.: We could let it out in the classroom. (Pauses) It would be a giant world.
Me: Why would it be a giant world? It’s not giant to us.
J.: Because it’s so small. The room would be giant to it.
In this case, I was impressed by how she not only took the mental perspective of the beetle, but also absorbed and considered its physical shape as well. In fact, the perspective of it being small required that she, in some sense, imagine the beetle trying to interact with the room, either walking through it or using the objects in it, since the perspective of being close to the ground doesn’t necessarily make the room big.
The conversation continued when Al. jumped in with another comment:
Al. (with a disgusted look): It could get into our food.
(Several other children looked disgusted)
Me: Yeah, that wouldn’t be very good. I don’t think I would like eating a beetle.
Another child (from the background): Frogs eat them.
Me: That’s true. Maybe if we were frogs, we would like to eat them?
This particular idea had much wider agreement with the children, which I think has 2 interesting aspects to it. First, we discussed in cognitive development how children form a “belief-desire psychology.” Presumably less advanced than empathy, infants slowly develop the ability to distinguish their own preferences from the preferences of others, reflected in having different desires. In this case, that resulted in understanding that as a frog, they would like the beetle that they typically don’t like. Second, this particular example seemed easier to engage in since it was closer to a fictional situation. They weren’t necessarily projecting into another person but simply imagining a hypothetical world. This sort of thinking seems closely related to the dramatic play that the children are, of course, wonderful at. This particular example is the most direct link I’ve seen between their play and the skills that emerge from it.
The last episode I want to relate came when L., J., and An. were painting. S. came in, walked up to everyone, and said, “You can’t talk.” After he left, J. came to me and said, “He said to me ‘you can’t talk,’ and I didn’t like it.” I asked them why he might have said that, and when no ideas came, I proposed that maybe he didn’t want to talk to anyone and therefore didn’t want anyone to talk to him, either. L., very acutely, responded instantly, “Then why is he saying that to us?” When the subsequent discussion didn’t enlighten us, I suggested that someone go out to ask him why he said that. J. chased him down, came back, and told us, “He says he’s ‘laning’.” An., clearly unsatisfied, asked what “laning” was, which I had no answer to and proposed that perhaps this was just some game he was playing.
J. then went out again and came back with a new revelation. “He says it’s too loud, and he wants it to be quiet.” We all accepted this, but since it still didn’t answer our question about “laning,” all three went out to talk to him after finishing their paintings. The final revelation came when they came back and told me that he was “laying eggs” and needed quiet for that. After class, Peckie confirmed this with me since S. had found something that needed quiet to lay eggs.
Although their process didn’t engage with possibilities as deeply as the previous events, they demonstrated the same empathy and were concerned for why S. was behaving as he did. The problem solving began from their own discomfort but soon became focused on trying to understand what S. was doing, and this time, they talked to him directly to get an answer.
This week was also my first chance to run a snack table on my own as Peckie was filling in at another table. For the most part, I didn’t find it too difficult to maintain control, except when there wasn’t any particular topic to focus on. A big difference from usual was their willingness to engage with me. When Peckie is there, the children will often come forward with their own stories or observations, which becomes a point of discussion. This time, however, I felt as though I needed to be more directed in asking about what they had done, and between their reluctance and less familiarity on my part about them individually, we drifted between topics quickly. It didn’t help that the chosen book was the very short “Tough Boris,” and the post-book awkwardness was a little tricky to work with.
The Schickedanz reading this week, however, brought up the good idea of discussing the book after reading. In past readings, I’ve struggled to know when to inject my own observations and discuss the book while reading. Although intended to get the children more involved, “stopping to point out word meanings detracts from the pleasures of hearing the rhythm and rhyme” (Schickedanz 226). I’m also unsure how sensitive the children are to the difference between my comments and the actual text of the book. In the future, I’ll probably try to push discussion to the end and see if we can cover the same content as I would have during reading.