Friday, February 14, 2014

Growing with Experience

Volunteering at a migrant school in Suzhou, China
New experiences can be a formidable obstacle; especially for young children. Young children have less prior knowledge on which to draw information from. They may have difficulty predicting an outcome and that can result in a perceived, or very real, loss of control. The inability to control or influence a situation can be frightening for a person at any age; but imagine a child who lacks the beneficial assurance of "surviving" similar circumstances in the past. Every first swim class, first ride on the bus, or first new friend can be a dramatic adventure into the unknown. I'm sure as parents you're much more qualified and prepared to deal with these unpredictable situations than I am. However, as a provider of many of these new experiences for children in Kazakhstan, China, and the Middletown YMCA I feel I can be a qualified advocate for providing new experiences for children.

Some of my students in Baltabai, Kazakhstan

Everyone develops differently. Some children are comfortable in new situations, while others take time to adjust. However your child develops, there are theories of cognitive development that lend some insight into the process influencing a child's behavior. Jean Piaget's stage theory (1932) implies there are four stages of development in children. You can take a look at the four stages in this simple chart. Since 1932, criticisms of this theory included the rather streamlined focus of overall development. This is known as "domain general", which means learning is developed consistently over all the domains, or intelligences. There is a belief that these domains develop independently of each other and everyone develops these intelligences uniquely. This theory has also been criticized as of late, as do things amongst progression of technology and more information.

Visiting some of the Horseback Campers

Although the Stage Theory has been debated, Piaget's thoughts on how children process and internalize outside stimulus (assimilation and accommodation) are still utilized. Assimilation describes a situation in which a person receives new information and inserts it into previously identified knowledge (schema). This new information might not be consistent with reality because it is made to fit into the current knowledge of the child. This can be observed when a young child learns the word for dog. That child might call all animals dogs because his/her current schema does not differentiate between specific animals. Accommodation is the process of adjusting the current schema appropriately based on new external information. Using the prior example: the child now recognizes that the duck in front of him/her has very different characteristics than a dog and thus, cannot be called a dog. Ideally, both processes are working concurrently. Children are first accommodating new information using their senses, and then assimilating this new information into their current knowledge.

Most of us know that new experiences are beneficial to child development. Understanding the processes involved in this growth are essential in creating appropriate opportunities for your child to develop. It is difficult to watch a person struggle to accommodate new information and then discover how to assimilate that information into their existing perceptions. How can we set up children to succeed in these new environments? Children should be encouraged to challenge themselves, but success should be achievable. They should be comfortable in their environment and encouraged to explore and discover for themselves. They should be given the necessary tools to start and create new relationships; whether being encouraged to give high fives or sharing similar interests in group activities.

Friends, teachers, parents, and coaches all offer different learning perspectives. As a youth sports instructor and an assistant camp director at YMCA Camp Ingersoll I see relationships form and children develop every day. Many campers are experiencing basketball, hockey, archery, ropes, the pond, and camp crafts for the very first time. At the YMCA, we intentionally create peer interaction and challenging but achievable goals for our participants. We work to provide a fun and inviting atmosphere children can become more comfortable in every day. We are also offering some brand new programs this Spring, which can help to prepare you child for camp, school, or just plan life. Visit the Middlesex YMCA's website to learn more about our programs.