Pull Up a Chair

Hedda SharapanI’ll never forget something Fred Rogers once said. We were watching a video of a child care scene. The camera focused on a few children at the sand table who were throwing handfuls of sand and giggling. I had the feeling those children knew the rule about keeping sand in the sand table, but it was obviously too hard for them to control their impulses. A teacher was nearby, but busy with children in another area. She heard the commotion at the sand table and headed over to it. The children stopped throwing the sand -- she hadn’t yet said anything!

That’s when Fred said, “See how the children were able to bring their behavior back into control -- just by knowing their teacher was right there.”

How important your very presence is! Fred believed so strongly that “it’s through relationships that children grow best and learn best,” and he always looked for moments to point it out, like at that sand table.

So much happens by just your being there. I remember seeing a gifted preschool teacher who had pulled up a chair so she could sit with a boy who was only somewhat engaged with some small blocks on the table. As she sat there, she sensed he was stuck in his play.

She brought over a container of toy animals and people, gave him a bit of encouragement, and he started to create a set of fences and cages for the animals. And he was really proud of what he made. What a good example of Vygotsky’s “scaffolding” – a boost that helps children advance to a higher skill level in their play, thinking or ability. When you’re sitting there and can observe what’s happening with a child, you’re better able to offer meaningful facilitation to help that child become more engaged in richer play.

In the video, that’s what the teacher did – when she pulled up a chair. As you watch, think about the benefits the children get from her seated, focused, caring presence.

Here are some of the important gifts you’re giving a child when you “pull up a chair”:

You’re building a relationship

We all know how important eye contact is for saying “I care about you,” and when we’re in a chair, we’re at eye level. I worry that children too often get “knee contact!” because we’re standing. Then they can’t see our facial expressions which convey so much to them, especially when they’re not yet very verbal.

When we sit, we’re also saying “I’m settling in here to be with you because I care about you, your thoughts, feelings and ideas.” That’s what “Mister Rogers” did at the beginning of each program, when he put on his sweater and sneakers. He let children see that he was putting aside other concerns and settling in for a “visit” with them (sort of like “pulling up a chair”).

You’re building language skills

How do you help children develop language skills -- through your everyday conversations with them, by responding and rephrasing what they say, and by asking them open-ended questions. When you sit with a child, you can get a conversation going. You can also work on increasing a child’s vocabulary, like the teacher in the video who described the cupcake as “scrumptious,” adding the definition,“It means very, very delicious.”

You’re building social skills

In another child care center I observed, one of the teachers kept a chair at the block area. That’s where she sat during free play because with this group of children, she had seen too many conflicts erupt in the block corner. She had learned that when she sat there, she could help them stay in control and also help them develop skills for conflict resolution and problem solving. Their cooperative play increased – from her comments and sometimes just from her very presence.

Fred Rogers believed deeply that children learn social-emotional skills in order to please the people who care about them. So when you “pull up a chair” or find another way to give a child your full attention some time in the day, you’re giving that child a real gift…and it can turn into a real gift to you, too, making your days smoother.

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