Monday, August 20, 2018

Life's A Beach

I know I'm neither alone nor exaggerating when I say that I love the beach.   As I resident of Long Island, I am never far from the beach, and even in winter will often walk the boardwalk.  And as much as I enjoy all the seasons, I can't deny feeling that most of the year is a prelude to summer, when I can finally sit in the sun, on the sand, and dip in the water.  Experiences at  the beach are multi-sensory and for me, intensely spiritual.

Growing up, my family went to the beach almost weekly every summer.  My father liked to fish, but got seasick, so he fished off the shore at Jones Beach.  We would get there early in the morning and stay all day.  I was mesmerized by the beauty and power of the ocean and would make up songs to sing to the waves (okay, I was that kind of kid), just describing its strength, sounds, taste, sparkles from the sun.  And at some point I realized that those songs were a form of prayer.  That in admiring the ocean, I was praising its Creator.  If the ocean is so stunningly beautiful and majestic, imagine what its Creator must be like!  And now that I think of it, look at the interplay between heaven and earth, the way the waves reach up to the sky, how the sky uses tides to pull the waves heavenward.  Isn't that what we're all reaching for?  I'll never forget a Donavan concert I went to years ago (anyone remember him?  "Mellow Yellow").  It was the late 60's  and he was advising the audience not to do drugs.  He said he understood the desire to get high because "we're all fallen angels and we want to get back to heaven".

As a parent and grandparent, one of my greatest joys is sharing my love of the beach with my children, and in doing so, teaching them how to navigate the ocean.  As it turns out, this is an excellent metaphor for living a meaningful life.  For example, we start with our toddlers standing at the shoreline to feel the water reaching for their feet.  But they quickly learn that standing still puts them in a rut.  At the ocean and in life it's important to keep moving, keep trying, choose a direction.  Otherwise we can get stuck in meaningless routines and feel like we're going nowhere.   Once our children are old enough to wade in a little deeper,  we teach them to pay attention to their surroundings.  I tell my kids to look for our beach blanket and to keep it directly in their line of vision.  The water tends to pull us sideways and often we need to  wade back from where it carries us.  In life too, we learn to keep our sights on our goals and values.  It's easy to get carried away by life's distractions and we often need to realign our actions with our true intentions.  

An older child is ready to ride the waves.  At first, this can be terrifying.  The waves are tall and strong and our instinct is to run from them.  But running from them will cause them to fall on us and knock us down.  Instead, we need to move toward the incoming wave, to face it and meet it before it breaks.  Then, it lifts us off our feet and sets us down again.  It's exhilarating!  In the same way, as hard as it is, we must face our fears head-on.  Forcing ourselves to try something that seems scary will only make us stronger.  As a new early childhood director, there were many times when I had to fight my nature to do my job; things like disciplining teachers, alerting parents to potential special needs, advocating to the board or other administrators for appropriate class size, best practice, etc.  To accomplish this, I followed the advice I gave above, ie., I kept my eye on my highest value, which was the best interests of the children.  And in doing so, I became stronger and better able to handle more complex and troubling issues as they arose.  (And they always do.)

Just like time, the ocean is always moving, never still.  Nothing lasts forever.  If we get knocked down by a wave, we know that it will eventually recede so we can get back up again.  We go through scary times in life, we feel pain.   But hard times recede, pain ebbs or we learn to manage it.  When I was in labor with my first child, I was shocked and frightened by the intensity of the pain.  The midwife told me to ride it like a wave.  She said it will grow and crest, and then finally recede.  She was right, and I managed fine.

The ocean is mysterious.  There's a whole world underneath it, about which we know very little.  And even though we know the ocean ends at another shore, we can't see it.  We can't see the other side.  Like life.  We don't know everything.  We believe there's more on the other side of life but we can't see it or touch it.  The best we can do is make the most of what we can see and to continue learning as much as possible to make our experience, on the beach and in life, as safe, fun, and meaningful as possible.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Nonverbal Communication

 I  volunteer at the Long Island Children's Museum, a magical place where children actively engage in tons of fascinating and fun exhibits. Week after week, I have a blast interacting with children of all ages and entering their world of wonder, curiosity and play.  This week, I worked in Tot Spot, a play space dedicated to the youngest museum visitors.  While a facilitator conducted conversations with parents in a separate area, I and other volunteers monitored the babies and toddlers.  I connected with two youngsters in particular, a 9 month old girl and a 2 year old boy.  Each of them had some difficulty separating from their parents, but I managed to win them over and they both became attached to me.  The boy had only a few words and the girl was non-verbal.  Yet we communicated with ease and  really enjoyed each other.   That got me thinking about nonverbal communication.  I know it's essential  to children's sense of security and connection, but how specifically does it work?

For the most part, our interactions with others, including children, are natural and spontaneous.  We initiate or respond to conversations and actions freely, without lots of forethought.  So it's difficult to look back and identify the specific behaviors that led to my connection with the two small children at the museum. But that's what I've tried to do because I think it can help us learn a lot.  

I met the girl first.  She was sitting in a stroller while her older sister moved around playing.  I suggested to the mom that she put the baby in the cushioned pit with infant toys.  I got into the pit with her and starting rolling a toy to her, saying "Whee!" We made eye contact.  She grabbed the toy and tossed it.  I used simple language to talk about what we were doing as we continued this game, and that was it!  We connected!  Eventually another baby bumped into her and she cried, so I scooped her up and took her to another area.  That's where I  met the boy.

I sat the baby on the floor right next to me, near some shelves of plastic foods.  I took the foods out one by one, named them, and gave them to her to hold.  As she dropped them, I put them in a basket and she continued to explore.  The little boy was also taking food from the shelves.  I asked his father his name, and used that often in speaking to him.  I made eye contact, and basically narrated what he was doing.  "You're putting broccoli in your basket...Your basket is almost full.."  I challenged him to try new things "Can you walk in the garden?  Would you like to plant the banana..etc." (you had to be there).  Anyway, I continued chatting with him and the baby, and they both played near me.  The baby was bouncing up and down as she grabbed new toys, and the boy and I were laughing as he tried new activities.  

I've identified 5 strategies that helped me communicate with these nonverbal children: 

1.  Enter their world.  With the girl, I got into the infant pit and played with the toys.  With the boy, I narrated his actions and used simple questions to extend his play.  With both, I brought my body down to their eye level.

2.  Make eye contact. Smile. It's magic, it works. 

3.  Keep your body relaxed and your voice pleasant.  I was there to help them have fun and keep them safe.  Both of those messages are relayed by tone of voice and body language.

4.   Treat the child like a communicative partner.   Talk.  Narrate what he's doing.  Ask simple questions.  Wait for an answer, even if it's nonverbal.

5.  Respond appropriately to their body language and facial expressions.  When the baby cried, I moved her to another area.  When she was bouncing and grabbing, I knew she was happy.  When the boy stiffened up after I suggested he try the slide, I let it go.  When he looked for more toys to put on the conveyor belt, I knew he was having fun.

Nonverbal communication is a powerful teaching tool.  Young children are experts at interpreting our body language, tone, and facial expressions.  We don't need to tell them  how we feel and what we value, because they know by watching us.  I recently read that if our nonverbal communication differs from our verbal communication, a child will believe the nonverbal cues.  If we want our children to trust us, we must be genuine with them.  At the same time, by understanding what our children are communicating with their behaviors, tone, gestures, and facial expressions, we can meet their needs for security and connection and open the doors to rich learning and growth.