Play dough tables

I have been thinking more about incompetence/competence since my last post on the subject and how it affects people in different ways.

When you observe nursery aged children (around 3 years old), most have a natural unconscious incompetence.  They have no idea of all the stuff that they do not yet know, of the effort that they may need to exert in order to learn to read and write, blow their own noses and to ride a bike. They are ignorant of the challenges that lie ahead and most well-supported children approach each new day with enthusiasm and a drive to grasp as much experience as they can. As I watch my 2 year old granddaughter, I see no evidence of an awareness of how tough things might be.  She embraces all that comes at her, explores it with enthusiasm and if it does not make sense/proves frustrating either asks for adult help or moves onto something else. It does not yet worry her that some things are still out of reach.

 As children add to their experiences, some retain this “bring it on” attitude whilst others become fearful and unwilling to take risks.  If you ever visit a good nursery you may spot that just inside the entrance there will be something undemanding – something that will not freak out an uncertain child.  I always made sure that the first activity any child would see was a playdough table, complete with a few tools (especially knives because what 3 year old can resist a knife?). Alternatively, it could be a sand tray or some tempting water to splash one’s hands in. This is a deliberate tactic to make sure that any child entering can immediately see that here is a place where there is something familiar and manageable.  Put some complicated maths equipment, writing implements or even picture books at the door, and there may be one child who thinks “ but I can’t count/write my name/read – this is not  a place for me.”  I have yet to come across a child who thinks “ but I can’t squidge a blob of dough/poke some sand with a stick/stir up some bubbles”.  These are safe activities that have no right or wrong, where anyone can feel comfortable.

I believe that this is important and it is often overlooked. Some, although not all people, adults as well as kids, need to have the opportunity to feel competent – ideally unconsciously so, but consciously at a push.  When they walk through the (metaphorical) nursery door they need to experience something that they recognise, where they feel confident that they can relax and perform without fear of ridicule or criticism. To extend the playdough analogy, some will walk straight past the playdough, because they have fully mastered playdough and are eager to try to set up an electrical circuit or re-create a cable car system using 2 empty boxes and some string tied between 2 chair backs.  Some might walk straight past the playdough one day, yet linger another day because they were rushed at breakfast, shouted at because they were slow to put on their shoes and are having a Bad Day.  They need to regroup in the nursery environment and set the dial back to competent, before moving on to more demanding things.  Some may always stop at the playdough every day for a year because it is a safe place and they find the transition from mummy or daddy to teacher hard to handle. Some bilingual kids need to stop and prod around for a bit while they make the switch from their home language to an English speaking environment, and retreat to the playdough if they feel overloaded at any point during the session. They need to feel competent, if only for a few minutes, before continuing with the hard work of learning something new. Every individual is different and just because 90% of them don’t need the playdough for very long, you keep it there for the few kids who do need it. Telling them that they “should be” or “ought to be” ready to tackle the number blocks straight off is not only self-defeating but damaging, because if they do not feel ready, then some less robust children will have failed before they even start, which is a message that should never be delivered to anyone. You may even have to offer the number blocks in the playdough for a few individuals, because trying new things is so challenging for them.

I suspect that many will scoff at this theory and argue that by pandering to such insecurities we do children no favours. As for handling adult learners with equal care and ensuring that whatever is offered during a learning session, there will always be some activities that do not mean that any individual is thrashing around in the swamp of “conscious incompetence” for too long – then that is just ridiculous and such lightweights should not waste everyone’s time by turning up at all.  But they would be wrong.  I have witnessed dozens of less-robust children, including ones who had suffered real trauma, stop at the playdough table for reassurance every day and blossom into the most marvellous, confident individuals. They just needed to experience competence before handling the uncomfortable feelings of incompetence.

The message for educators of anyone and of anything, is always ensure that everyone has access to  the equivalent of a playdough table at some point during a lesson. Some will never need it, some will need it occasionally when their confidence has been knocked, and some may need to return to it again and again for a long time. And for those that do have a wobble during a lesson and end up with less confidence than when they started, then make sure they visit the playdough before they struggle to put on their shoes and coat at the end of a session. It makes coming back tomorrow so much easier.

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