Blog: Nurturing Children Together

The Power of Presence in Early Childhood

“This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.” -Mary Oliver

For awhile now, the idea of the power of presence has been visited and revisited in my thinking about work with young children. Last year, during our professional development course led by Karen Baker at Allen Creek, we studied play, and I learned about the concept of “watched play.” It was a familiar concept to me as a parent and a teacher of young children, because it is something that children clearly crave and need, but what I learned from the seminar is why it is valuable to children. There seems to be a common urge for adults to encourage independence in children, and unfortunately, this can get in the way of the need that children have for adults to simply be attentive. We adults can get distracted by so many things: our phones, our own needs, the needs of other children, making plans, the drive to train our children to become achievers. I hope to make a case for the power of just being there, and paying attention.

On a blog post about the gift of presence, Parker Palmer reminds us that “the human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is.” I believe this sums up a child’s most basic desire: to be seen just as s/he is. As their caregivers, we can do that. Yes, there are ways that we will need to guide them, and there are boundaries they will need help with. But, we can also just be there to attend to their being and notice what they are doing and how they are doing it. Noticing who they are is a gift we can give them. Presence in this sense is more about being than doing. It is about bearing witness to who they are, about helping to carry the burden and delight of emotions, about validating and affirming. It allows for a connection between the child and attending adult that has a sort of silent power. This power gives the child the message that someone is thinking about him or her, it helps them to develop self-regulation, helps with mentalization. From the child’s perspective, this experience is interactive, even if the adult feels s/he is not “doing anything.”

Watched play can be awkward for some adults. It can feel unproductive, especially to those who tend to be driven by achievement. Some parents or teachers want to have things they can do or say to feel like they are being an active participant in the child’s development. It may be helpful to have some phrases that encourage the connection of attentiveness. In my experience, I find it helpful to make observations about what the child is doing, saying, or feeling. Simply stating it assures him or her of the adult’s presence and attentiveness. Beginning with “I notice . . . “ can be a useful way to get started. I also find the practice of saying, “thank you” to the child to be helpful. “Thank you for showing me . . . “ “Thank you for telling me that.” “Thank you for waiting,” etc.

Dr. Susan Sherkow studied the concept of “watched play,” and describes it as “a state of mutual engagement from the child’s perspective, and therefore interactive.” She found that simply the presence of an attentive adult can validate a child’s identity, and eventually help to improve their capacity to be alone. The experience for the child allows him or her to regulate their emotions and their impulses confidently. It allows the child to begin to differentiate between self and other, and to learn how to interpret and respond to others’ behaviors. In the process, the child internalizes these learned skills, which makes their eventual independence more possible.

The power that presence has on a child’s development is not just related to their play experience. Children need this presence from the adults around them when they are experiencing big emotions, too. Hand in Hand parenting teaches a concept called Staylistening. This is a method of just being with a child while s/he experiences big emotions. Patty Wipfler of Hand in Hand parentings describes the need for Staylistening here:

We are so accustomed to seeing the world only from our own vantage point. If we don’t feel sad, no one else should, either. But children’s feelings are like their own personal weather system, which is affected by forces often unseen by you.
To tell your child he should feel happy when he is sad is roughly as effective as telling a rainstorm to go away. Phrases like “I’m sorry you feel so sad” or “I’ll stay right here with you while it’s hard” give your child permission to address and work through bad feelings. Phrases like “It’s only a torn paper. Quit acting like such a baby!” only shame a child. They work against your goal of helping your child rebuild his sense of well-being.
As you listen, you are not necessarily condoning your child’s feelings, nor are you spoiling him. You are helping him recover. Children cry only when they are too upset to think. Feelings of upset can overpower a child and drive him to do things that don’t make sense. As you listen, you drain the power these feelings have over your child. His own good judgment will return once you’ve listened thoroughly.

The chaotic life of a parent of young children and the atmosphere of a classroom with 10-15 young children can make it seem impossible to carve out time and space to create this kind of attentiveness. However, it can be as simple as a shift in perspective about what the child needs, and about the value of what we have to give them: our presence and our attention. It doesn’t have to take long. It just requires intention.

Talking With Children About Fire Drills

Anticipation of required fire drills and the actual experience of them can be confusing and frightening for preschoolers, and children are best prepared for the experience if they first hear about it from their parents.  What follows is a description of happens at many schools, followed by a few suggestions for how to talk with your children about the drill. 

On the day before the drill, the teachers will talk with the children in their classes about the drill and answer questions. On the day of the drill teachers will again tell children, at the morning meeting, that the school will be practicing how to leave the building if there is a fire so that we can be safe. Someone from the office will push the smoke alarm button in the main hall and the high pitched beep will alert teachers and children that the drill is happening.

Each class will line up at the room’s outside door, teachers will make sure all children are present, then each class will walk out, pass playgrounds, parking lots and other familiar landmarks to a particular spot.  Teachers will once again take attendance, and one of the school helpers will let everyone know when the children and teachers can return to the building.

Our experience at Allen Creek Preschool has been that children manage fire drills well, but that their thoughts, questions, and anxieties about the reason for the drill, whether or not there actually will be a fire, and whether they and their loved ones are safe, emerge afterwards, sometimes even several weeks later.  Because fires are unpredictable and scary to all of us, it can be hard to know how to reassure children that they will be safe.  As with all real life fears and uncertainties, it is important to talk with children in as matter-of-fact way as possible, at their developmental level, about what is happening and why.

A few days before the drill it is a good idea to tell your child/ren that there will be a fire drill at school the coming week and to describe the steps outlined above.  Ideally you can discuss this during the day at a calm moment when your child is rested and fed. 

When they ask why we need to do this, the message to convey is that the adults know how to keep them safe and that it’s always good to practice being safe.  We do a lot of things to stay safe: sit in car seats, use seat belts, wear shoes outside, stay away from the hot stove, wear helmets when we ride bikes, hold hands crossing the street, etc. We also know how to be safe around fires, such as around campfires, candles, or fireplaces.  If they express worry about something bad happening, again it’s best to reassure them that the adults in their lives do everything possible to help them be safe, and know what to do if things go wrong.  You will be there for them and their teachers will be there for them.

While children need to know that practicing is a good way to stay safe if there is a fire, details about fire disasters and what happens when a building burns down or when people get burned are not necessary or helpful, and can cause more anxiety.  Reading children’s books about fire fighters is fine; showing images of actual buildings on fire is not.  If you think it would be helpful for your child to act out a fire drill at home, you may consider doing some low key pretend drills, designating a door in your house to go out, making a beeping sound, going to a safe spot in the driveway or by the street.

Finally, children may show signs of distress or worry through behavior such as being irritable, reluctance to go to sleep, waking up at night, or not eating as usual. Because they are not fully able to understand the impact of scary events such as fires, children sometimes have private, bigger-than-reality notions of what might happen, and need us to reassure them that all is okay. Children do best when they know what to expect and when they know that the adults who take care of them are in control and know what to do.  

If you have any questions at all, please do not hesitate to talk to your children's teachers.