Last month, Tanja and I attended a workshop of teachers sharing ideas for Halloween themed learning activities. One of the activities mentioned was "pin the tail on the black cat" or "pin the nose on the pumpkin". These games are variations of "pin the tail on the donkey". There are ways to vary the game for different age groups, but the game is traditionally played with players taking turns being blindfolded, spun around a couple of times and then pointed in the general direction of a big picture of a donkey (or cat, or pumpkin, etc.). The player is holding a paper tail and attempts to pin the tail on the donkey. Players take turns seeing who can get the tail closest to where it should go. As a language activity, it works well if you play in teams with team members giving the blindfolded player directions (up, down, left, right, etc.)
The game can be a lot of fun, but for young learners the blindfold can be quite scary and children under 6 often don't want to play. We brought this up at the workshop and one of the teachers (I'm sorry I forget her name!) gave us a great tip that made me think a great deal about how I introduce all new activities for young learners.
She told us that when she plays this game with her students, for the blindfold she uses a soft, silk scarf that she is wearing around her neck. The fact that the scarf is the teacher's, and that she was wearing it comfortably and it came from her neck is comforting to the students. Instead of a new, scary blindfold produced out of nowhere, they get to wear something brings them closer to the teacher and they are much more likely to feel comfortable playing the game.
It was a powerful insight to me, and I thought about all of the "new" elements that can be introduced into class and how those elements may seem harmless but can be very intimidating for young learners.
In today's New York Times, there is an article which is another reminder of how intimidating the world can be for children. Bugs are scary...sure. So are strangers, and barking dogs, and the dark. Heck, most of those things are scary to adults.
But how about this one? Automatic flush toilets.
Automatic flush toilets have grown in number over the years and with the proliferation has come a fear that is surprisingly common among children. Toilets are already very mysterious to children, but toilets that flush by themselves, seemingly at random? That's creepy. Some children are so freaked out by these toilets that they refuse to go anywhere near them. A company that sells small plastic pieces designed to cover the infrared eye on the toilets has sold over 110,000 units.
“One feature of things in the world that make kids anxious is unpredictability, and things that are new or novel,” said Philip Kendall, director of the Child and Adolescent Anxiety Disorders Clinic at Temple University. “A novel experience for kids can be when that machine flushes automatically. They didn’t touch anything. It can be a bit shocking. Most people get over it, but kids are a little less prepared to do that.”
Novelty can be exciting and intriguing. It's certainly healthy to encourage curiosity in the classroom by introducing new elements and activities. But remember the automatic flush toilets when you plan on introducing something new. It seems so harmless but it can be incredibly intimidating. When I'm introducing something new in class (some rhythm sticks, puppets, bubbles, etc.), I put them someplace visible when class starts, and I'll draw attention to them long before we use them. When I introduce a new activity, I'll let the students watch me do it first and try to gauge whether or not any of the kids find the activity intimidating. When I introduce a new song, I'll let it play in the background from the beginning of class so the children become familiar with it before we sing it together.
Do you have any anxious children in your classes or at home? Do you do any activities that haven't been as well received as you had hoped? Take a minute to think this week about what may be causing anxiety in your classes, and what steps you can take to reduce that anxiety.