I thought I’d start by telling you about a wonderful person who entered my life when Sam was about four months old. I didn’t invite her round. I can’t even remember how exactly she came to be there. Somehow she ended up on my sofa, drinking my tea, and Sam and I ended up on her caseload. Now, today, she is my firm friend. Then, she was our Portage Worker.
Back then, when everything around me seemed out of control, Portage, and the gift of that friendship, was one of the many things that helped me regain equilibrium, to be the mother that my boy needed me to be. Back when he was four months old, there wasn’t much more to be doing for him other than the feeding, sleeping, changing thing, but that meeting gave me something all teachers love. It gave me a list, somewhere to aim for and a way to get there. It also introduced me to a set of educators who saw no reason why any child should not achieve, or even exceed their supposed potential, and they had the kit to do the job.
And these wonder tools?
From that moment I never bought or borrowed any toy that didn’t serve a dual purpose. Whatever it was we were working on, or working towards, we had a toy to match. As my first-born, Sam didn’t have to compete with anyone else for my attention; I Portaged his little socks off.
This is not to say that I didn’t leave Sam to his own devices at all. I am a firm believer in kids being able to entertain themselves (in particular, so that mummy can do things like the ironing and cook the tea); as a teacher I like children who can get on with what they are supposed to be doing without following me around like a row of little ducklings after mother duck. And anyway, playing independently was on the check list.
As a baby, Sam liked nothing better than to wave things about, and the more noise they made the better. A survival blanket proved to be just the thing that meant I could eat my tea in peace, and he could exercise those little arms and legs, soft and flexible thanks to his low muscle tone. Later, a far better deployment of stacking cups was banging them together – or throwing them around my tiny hallway where, with all the doors shut, they bounced and clattered to great effect.
I taught Sam all sorts of things by playing with him. He learned all about putting things into containers and taking them out. He learned all about matching the shape to the hole, developing the sort of fine motor control that made posting possible. Singing nursery rhymes with him provided me with the ideal opportunity to indulge in a bit of physio, as well as turn taking, counting, rhyming and signing; all those other things that children learn when they sing ‘Wind the Bobbin’ or ‘Five Currant Buns in a Baker’s Shop’.
One of the most successful things, for both me and for Sam, was the way that she encouraged me to interweave our play with the things we would ordinarily be doing. I might have raised my eyebrows at the thought of getting him to find pairs of matching socks when we were thinking about the concepts of ‘same’ and ‘different’ because I wanted to get a job done, but the principle remained. I don’t like messy play – but I was happy for Sam to splat his way through meal times. I wasn’t having no truck with a tray and jugs and ‘pouring activities’, but the tea set went in the bath and I have ‘drunk’ cup after cup of ‘tea’ in matching cups and saucers.
I suppose it’s partly because I like there to be ‘purpose’ behind what I do with children. I’ve never really done play-doh, but I love baking. I find art activities with very young children difficult because it’s all about the process, rather than the product. After Sam merrily painted the paper, and then the table, the chairs and part of the wall, I rather lost my enthusiasm for easels in the house. He could do that at nursery.
But it turns out that he didn’t do a great deal of painting at nursery. I was surprised, because I remember my childhood home plastered with the creations of my sister and I, but mark making was never really Sam’s bag. There was my kitchen wall, all empty and waiting to proudly display…and it’s still waiting. Sam is not a particularly creative type, you see. He’s not especially active, in the curiosity stakes, either. He’s much more passive. He’s a waiter. A watcher.
One of the greatest, and most frustrating things about Sam is that he demands I slow down. I am not a slower-downer. I’m a rusher. Once I decide I’m going to do something I want to get on with it straight away. But he shows me that there is value in taking things one step at a time. I probably knew it, on a superficial level, before he arrived in my life, but now I know it for sure.
I know that my disquiet when teachers provide children with ready cut pieces of paper for their Science experiment, so that they can Get On With The Learning, when we present them with a ready-made Maths game so that they can practice their adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing, when we abandon the development of handwriting because everything is on computer, when we rush them on with progress, progress, progress, we are missing a trick. We don’t need a separate activity to develop fine motor control. We just need to do cutting, sticking, glittering – all those old fashioned traditional activities I never for a moment thought I would have to justify. Now that I’m back in the classroom I understand why Sam was presented with a Pindora’s Box. I’m sorry. We never did any of it at home. I just bought him Playmobil and let him ‘help’ me peg out the washing.
And thanks to him, and her, I understand a whole lot more about learning. I was always keen to tick off each item on the list, to zip on to the next level. She wouldn’t let me. She gently and kindly pointed out that what Sam could do, when I was holding the toy for him, nodding and smiling, cheering and applauding, was totally different to what he could do when he sloped off on his own to play unobserved. I may have shown him how a zip worked, but it is only recently that he has finally conceded to the request to do his coat up. It’s not unlike classrooms. What they can do there, under the watchful and supportive gaze of their teacher, the heights of description, the feats of knowledge, the capital letters, the full stops, the different levels of punctuation, is a different kettle of fish altogether to a thank you letter.
Slow down. Wait. Watch.