June 7, 2018

It’s more than just a spoon.

by Jennifer Horner, Doodle Bugs! Director of Education Development

One of my favorite parts of my work is the exchange of perspective. When I “teach” other adults, it’s almost always through the approach of a “let’s talk about this topic and see how we can stretch each other through a conversation.”

So as I observed a group of toddlers during lunchtime, a colleague and I started exchanging thoughts about what we were seeing. She commented on how the educators were great at acknowledging children’s attempts to communicate, encouraging back and forth dialogue. Their little smiles as they nibbled and chewed were telling of the fact that they enjoy mealtimes together and conversation was encouraged.

We relished in the moment, because the beautiful connections we were seeing between child and teacher is what our work is all about – respectfully being present with children, meeting their needs, and teaching through all the little moments of the day. I saw so much potential and begin to think out loud: “This may be an odd thought bubble, but I’m wondering — how often do you think they talk about their eating utensils?” My colleague replied with an equally curious “hmm, I wonder, too.”

I thought about toddlers’ use of their utensils that day in ways I hadn’t before, noticing their uniquely different approaches and wondering why. Why did some of them grasp the utensil with their entire hand while others delicately balance it between their thumb and forefinger? And why are some of them completely disinterested in the tool altogether? Is it purely about their developmental readiness?

As I thought, I rewound mental videos of the way my son’s infant teacher magically used spoons (yes, spoons) to build confidence, interest, curiosity, fine motor muscles, and even social skills.

Regardless of whether or not her tiny learners could use the spoon at the time, she considered it a learning tool and provided early exposure. One spoon was used to serve the meal and a second spoon was placed on the high chair tray for exploration (to look at, touch with a finger, attempt to grasp, and eventually hold and use.)  She narrated everything she was doing while using language to describe their sounds, movements, and expressions, too. I remember my son not showing much of an interest in a particular new baby food, until he got to hold his own spoon. This created just enough of a distraction for him to try it. It was amazing to see the progression of skill with repeated exposure to this simple tool –  a spoon.

Whenever possible, she would also invite a friend to “help” feed another friend. This involved her holding one child on her lap while she fed another in a high chair. The one in her lap typically was a younger friend who was still on bottles, observing how eating worked. Both children were always enthralled with the face to face social encounter, which made mealtime so much more meaningful and rich in language and laughter.

Fast forward to toddlerhood – how do you think this early exposure has benefited her little learners? Lots of early childhood research tell us that young children are capable of absorbing way more than we can fathom, and greatly benefit from repetitive experiences in safe, secure, nurturing environments. I think it’s safe to assume that Miss Lisa’s students probably moved on into toddlerhood continuing to show interest in these tools; refining their coordination and mastering their technique, all while building confidence one spoonful at a time.

Whether it’s a mealtime tool, a book, a paintbrush, or a beautiful oak leaf, there’s so much opportunity to show children how to explore things in their world with greater intention. It’s so much more than just a spoon.

Special thanks to Lisa Knopf, Doodle Bugs! Lead Infant Teacher of 20 years, who has inspired my work and nurtured my perspective in profound ways.