At Big Circle, our daily community singing ritual, we’ve recently incorporated a Peace song, and this feels particularly relevant and important at this moment in the world. We want to take the opportunity to invite our entire community into awareness, perspective, and gratitude. Our Treehouse Learning community has an abundance, of resources, privileges, and opportunities, so much so that we sometimes lose our perspective of the bigger picture in the world around us, including kindness, compassion, and empathy for others. Instead of gratitude for the daily gift of waking up alive with a body, it can be easy to find things to complain about or criticize.
What would the world look like if we began with gratitude and truly valued gratitude as a life skill as important as multiplication or literacy?
A focus on gratitude is not to minimize any of the very real challenges faced by individuals in our community, including children, staff, and individual families. This is not to minimize the real challenges we face as an early childcare center, or as residents of a polarized country where even the adults running our government seem to struggle to collaborate, cooperate, and remember that we’re all ultimately on the same team! This is not to minimize the suffering of anyone, anywhere, but to access gratitude and remember that every single human you’ve ever met has struggles and challenges.
This is to remember that we are all part of the world, and at the same time, the world is far bigger than each of us.
Let There Be Peace on Earth, and Let the Peace Begin With Me
Currently, so many people in our world are suffering. In fact, it is easy to numb ourselves to the human toll of war, violence, and conflicts in places that are far away from us, and focus on our own very real problems. In fact, many of us are acutely aware of the negative impact on our own mental health in simply seeing images of the wars around us, and we certainly want to shelter our children from any witness to violence and suffering.
But let us all not forget how many millions of children are caught in the crossfire of war, and remember that the parents of these children also have hopes, dreams, and aspirations for their children, just as we each hold for our own children.
And let us do our part to sow the seeds of peace in the communities where we are, right now, today.
Let us begin with gratitude, offering thankfulness and gratitude for all that we do have and beginning by simply noticing what is going right before we critique the things that are wrong. Let us hold space with compassion that while our children face little risk from airstrikes or bombings, they face a very real risk to their mental health, including rising suicide rates and skyrocketing levels of anxiety and depression. We all have a duty to support the resilience of all children, including protecting their right to simply be children.
Our deepest wish for all of our children is for them to thrive. We want each child’s single wild and precious life to be interesting and meaningful, and full of joy and goodness. Though we each have different specifics of what thriving is, at the core is generally a sense of holistic well-being for our children (and everyone):
We want them to move through the world as their best and authentic self (the sweet souls we first met the days each of them were born), with a positive self-concept, a sense of agency, competence, and capability, where their needs are being met at least a substantial majority of the time. We hope for each of them to share their contributions with the world, and have the tools to shift their thought patterns when they get stuck in non-beneficial patterns. We also hope that they go through life relatively unscathed, not perpetuating some of the same challenges we ourselves face, or see playing out in the world around us. And of course, we seek to protect them and keep them safe. Everyone in the world seeks safety.
We live in an unpredictable world, and we believe that the most powerful thing we can do for our children is build a foundation of resiliency or a felt sense of internal safety to cope with life’s challenges in a beneficial way (with beneficial outcomes for an individual, others, and the world). This means we support them with the skills they need to cope with uncertainty, challenges, or variable conditions. This means we equip them with opportunities to move through disappointment, missed expectations, and delayed gratification.
Resilience does not have an opportunity to flourish when we simply seek to remove the obstacles or eliminate challenges. Instead, we develop resilience, like a muscle, as we navigate through life’s inevitable challenges. It is accepting and moving through the Big Feelings, the resolution, the repair, or the return to a state of well-being that helps us grow our resiliency muscles.
Peter Gray, a respected researcher on the nature and value of play has written an entire series called Play Makes Us Human exploring the research (peer-reviewed research as well as an extensive interdisciplinary approach), and shares in depth about the aspects of play that support resilience and well-being (positive physical, mental, and emotional health, with individual and collective, community needs met). For those interested in learning and the research behind play, find more here: Peter Gray | Substack
During the time of life when children’s brains are building neuropathways and patterns at such a rapid rate, children begin building patterns and understanding of the way the world works, and forming lifetime thought and behavior patterns essentially rooted in our childhood belief system based on what we experienced. Our role at Treehouse Learning is to create positive, relationship-based experiences within our classroom and program community, through a pathway of play-and-experiential learning with the intention of cultivating growth mindsets, growing resilience, and building a toolkit of positive coping skills.
Cultivating Resilient Children: A Soil and Garden Metaphor
During our recent tree-planting experience, the children have had opportunities to learn about soil, water, roots, and living systems, including our food systems. We connected the tree-planting experience to each of the various roles and contributions to our community, remembering that even the worm has a job to do, because a living system needs everyone!
We planted a diversity of 9 different tree species, each one selected because it is well suited to withstand the conditions in our particular Boulder County watershed. They are hearty because they grew in a local nursery in Ft. Collins, where they became adapted to Colorado conditions throughout the year. These trees grew in good soil, under superbly optimal tree growing conditions, already conditioned to withstand the variability of conditions emerging from our environment. These trees came to us extremely healthy and resilient, and the soil at Treehouse Learning is as ideal as we could have hoped for. The actual soil here is full of worms, and with a topography supporting water naturally flowing through the property (just keep in mind that the immediate area to the north of Treehouse Learning was previously a wetland swamp).
These 12 trees have all of the advantages and privileges that a tree could hope for. We trust that these trees will grow up to be strong and solid, spreading big shade branches all around (and apples too!). We picked resilient species well-adapted to this environment, and expect that these trees will thrive at Treehouse Learning, sharing beneficial gifts with our entire community along the way, including reversing the heat island effect, creating biodiversity, improving air quality, and supporting mental health.
Trees Sheltered in Greenhouses Don’t Become Resilient
Trees that are grown solely in greenhouses indoors lack the opportunity to develop the resilience to withstand adverse conditions, whether a drought, an invasive species, climate patterns, or storms. As a community, we consider Treehouse Learning as an entire living ecosystem where we are helping support the conditions for a really healthy soil in which these children can grow and flourish, doing things that are beneficial to the world.
Our Treehouse Learning community has many tools, privileges, resources, and opportunities to support optimal conditions for our children, but sometimes we forget that navigating through life’s inevitable challenges, disappointments or adversity also has a purpose and meaning, as well as a learning opportunity. We believe all children, especially our children, need resilience and adaptability in order to thrive.
Eliminating challenging conditions is not the same as equipping our children to cope with variable conditions and challenging situations. When we can process and effectively “make meaning” of a challenge in beneficial ways that lead to a positive and pro-social self-concept, we build resilience and practice developing positive belief systems about our own ability to move through challenges. We hope children have the following type of internal self-talk:
“How do I feel right now? How do I want to feel? What do I need? I can change my thoughts, I can change my feelings, I can change my body.”
We integrate specific skills and tools through playful learning experiences because that is how children learn best, but at the root of all these tools are to support, nourish, and encourage each child to grow in ways that are positive and beneficial for the entire world, including your child!
For a more sobering, but equally important read, we highly suggest another one by reacher Peter Grey connecting research between negative mental health outcomes characterized by the decline of play, teen suicide rates, and academic pressure from outcome-oriented testing and educational systems (which weren’t actually designed to benefit children’s well being).
What can you do at home to support your child’s well-being and resilience
Turn off the screens: Even with high-quality or interactive programming, screens do not require the engagement of your child’s creativity or imagination. Instead of a tablet, try a wordless picture book, and ask your child to tell you the story in their own words.
Sing with children, and have dance parties: Listening to music is fundamentally different than making music with your bodies, or moving your bodies with your children.
Engage with them in back-and-forth conversations: When asking child about their day, use open-ended questions, rather than ones that can be answered with a Yes/No, or a single word.
Consider the SOCK method for asking your child questions that are Specific, Open-ended, Creative, and Kid-Friendly. Here are some examples below:
What was silly about today?
Who did you spend time with today?
How did you feel at lunch today?
What would you name today, if it were the title of a book?
What was the most surprising thing that happened today?
What was something kind that you did to help someone today?
What made you feel good inside today?
Practice Gratitude: Make it a point to notice the good, and name it out loud. Children will do what we model, so when we begin with gratitude, even for simple things, our children will do what we do.