Are we obsessed with children’s interests? No, we’re not.
Here’s an article I ran across this week:
Reading that title I preemptively started rocking back and forth and whimpering in anticipation.
The article is actually a very good description of how many educators whiff the opportunity to help children dig into their interests (“whiff” as in swing the bat but fail to connect with the ball).
A better title would be “Why do we keep giving kids OUR ideas and lame activities instead of helping them make their own ideas happen?” — because the problem isn’t with children’s interests, the problem is in how we respond to them. Let’s toss out the bathwater, but please, please, let’s keep the baby. Children’s interests are key to generating the important ideas this writer values.
The problem isn’t supporting children’s interests, the problem is how we respond to them.
If we respond to every question or spark of interest with a flurry of our own ideas, we take away children’s autonomy — we make their ideas unnecessary. When autonomy goes, motivation and engagement follow.
The writer of this article bemoans the fact that teachers aren’t engaging with children’s thinking — a definite problem. But why turn on children’s interests? Or our interest in their interests? That’s moving a further step backward — now we want them to do challenging work in an area that WE have chosen. We’re not just saying, “Your interests are crap — here, do this instead” … we’re saying “School/learning isn’t about doing things that interest YOU.”
The last thing we want is to have children think of learning as something that has nothing to do with them.
You won’t see children’s best work if you maintain 100% control over what they do and how they do it. You won’t help them become self-directed learners and doers. And you risk children coming to believe learning is “stuff other people give you to do and then they judge it and tell you whether you did it right or not.”
The writer describes an unfortunately typical response adults have to a perceived interest — we do not want to do this:
“A recent example was an educator who noticed a small group of children playing ‘restaurants’ in the sand play area — on one occasion — and interpreted this to be children’s interest at play. The very next day she had set up a dramatic play area in the shape of a restaurant and was ready with activities for menu making, cooking and a party for the mums that Friday. However, when the children arrived, they completely ignored the restaurant and went off on another ‘interest’ based play activity for the day.”
All that work of creating a restaurant in the dramatic play area should, of course, be done by the children themselves — and it should happen organically, not because an adult suggests it. For it to happen organically, the environment must be ready, the interest must be genuine, and the adults hanging around must be attentive and appreciative without getting in the way.
As we say so often in the master class, the process itself teaches you how to support children’s interests. If the interest fades away quickly, if you overstep and they tune out, if it is abruptly dropped because of a lack of space or materials — all of these outcomes help you figure out how to do better the next time. To become better, you must practice.
But this doesn’t mean children’s interests aren’t key to the enterprise; it just means you need to do a better job of supporting children to make their own ideas happen.
I’m concerned about why “interest” is in quotes up there (and elsewhere in the article). Are interests not real? Not worthy of our attention? Are children’s interests so fleeting they aren’t worth bothering about? Is the writer saying the teacher in the example is confusing anything the children focus on for five minutes with long-term interests? (I’m hoping it’s the latter.)
Agree 100% with what the writer says here:
We should seek those experiences that children return to time after time — and listen deeply to what children are telling us about the attraction of these experiences and how they might help us better understand our work with these children — rather than popping in and out of our meer cat holes looking for the puzzle, book, game or activity that we can give to children as our input in to this serious endeavour of searching for new meanings.