I watched them in the crowded, noisy coffee shop. The toddler slowly wandering back and forth from the door, and her brother, about a year older, climbing up and jumping down from the “stage” platform used for music in the evenings. A few moments later, the little boy swung from the chain which separated the child’s play area from the rest of the coffee shop, and blew bubbles in his chocolate milk. Patrons greeted the little girl as they came in, and she immediately ran back to the safety of her parents. Mom and Dad tried to talk to each other, getting up from the table every couple of minutes to retrieve their children, correct their behavior, or offer them something to eat. The parents attempted a conversation while the children did their best to entertain themselves in the “big people” place.
Young children have become regular patrons of coffee shops along with their parents. So how do these environments affect young children? What hints do children give about their own needs? How does a parent balance her own needs with those of her children?
From the wandering behaviors of the little girl in our scenario, to the jumping and swinging behaviors of the older brother, these children were telling mom and dad they needed to MOVE! Children’s muscles grow from regular exercise and exploration, and their brain connections flourish as they explore tactile environments, such as community parks or neighborhood playgrounds. These places are designed for children, and offer both safety and challenges for children in an atmosphere of peaceful exploration.
These kids were also demonstrating behaviors that showed the environment, although pleasant for the adults, was actually stressful for children. Eye contact with every stranger is tentative, as the child must evaluate whether or not this person is “safe”. The child’s play area, easily observed by an adult, was a visual barrier for the child to see her parent, and anxiety was clearly present as the children brought toys outside of the play space to “check in” with mom and dad. The childlike behavior of blowing bubbles in the milk, and swinging from the chain actually brought looks of disapproval and words of reprimand from mom and dad. Textures were cold and hard, and the noise prohibited rich, meaningful conversation with or between children.
So in this commonplace environment, how can you maximize your child’s learning ?
- Teach your child how best to navigate this new experience with you as their guide. This is not the time to “meet Maria for coffee”, but to introduce your child to appropriate behavior on the way to a more kid-friendly place.
- Talk with your child about entering this “big people” place and what you will do there as you wait for your friends to arrive.
- Explain that you will stand in line together, order your drink from the barista (a new vocabulary word), and allow your child to choose between milk or juice. Tell your child, “ Now we wait for our drinks to be made”, and you show him how to sit or stand out of the way of others.
- Look around and point out what people are doing in the coffee shop; some are working on their computers, some are visiting with friends, some are talking on their phones.
- Talk about the kinds of food or drinks for sale, and offer the vocabulary for what you see; a fireplace, a platform for music, a table made of wooden pallets, or shiny metal tables and chairs.
- Resist the temptation to pull out your smartphone and check your email or hand it to your child. Both of you need to be fully present.
- As your drinks come, model how to say thank you to the barista and head out for the park or playground. Meet other parents there and share the thoughts and challenges of raising young children and know that you have helped your child gain skills that will carry him a lifetime.
- By the way, there will be days when the prudent thing to do will be to DRIVE THROUGH on your way to the park. Not every day is optimal for every learning experience!
Note: Make time another day to have a “real” conversation with your friend/partner in this very adult setting. Taking this time away will allow you to grow as a person and become a more successful parent.
A successful childhood begins with a successful parent.