I believe in the invisible hand that helps, in gifts that can be savored in the moment, even when no one quite remembers later on.
I work three mornings a week with 3-5 year olds in Holyoke, Massachusetts. It’s a state funded grant program that places therapists like me in pre-schools, where we try to identify kids who may need extra help before they get to kindergarten. I visit 4 different centers every week, and over the course of each year I probably get to see three to four hundred children. Over the seven years I’ve been doing this work, I’ve seen almost two thousand children.
This work feels important, and sometimes can even change the arc and direction of a how a child moves and relates to their world. It’s that amazing potential for rapid growth and change that draws me to working with kids this age. Give a child a boost and that small gift lasts and grows with them, even though a year or two from now few of them will remember me.
I’ve adapted a routine to work with small groups of kids, usually just three at a time for 20 minutes or so; small groups leave room for individual attention to each child, but holds the chance to teach sharing and cooperation, too. It’s real simple stuff we do, active jumping games with a 99 cent beach ball, or sit down games with small wooden blocks and tiny people figures. I think the teachers in the pre-school must wonder why I never seem to get bored with playing the same games over and over with kids, but I never tire of watching the excitement in the eyes of a child who learns to jump and catch a ball at the same time, or sit with small blocks and people figures and build a perfect little train on their own.
Our sessions always start with movement games. Each child stands up on a blue step stool as we begin. As soon as I see a child step up on the step stool, I’ve learned something about them. Most children at age three can take that seven inch step without much trouble, and they can jump off, too, landing with both their feet hitting the ground at once. Once I see they can keep their balance standing up on the stool, the fun begins. Using the beach ball (it’s hard to miss) we start to play… can you punch the ball back to me, can you slap it, can you put your hands together and hit it back; how about trying to jump while you punch it? Try hitting it with your head! There’s lots of variations, but I start to see very quickly who can figure out how to jump and move and who can’t. Some kids struggle; they need both hands holding onto the stool to step up on it, and they tire quickly. Or maybe they just don’t have any idea where there arms are, so they can’t hit the ball, or catch it or throw it; those are the kids I’ll be seeing every week, while the other kids, the ones who know how to move, will get a chance as often as time allows.
Over the course of a few months, kids learn those simple skills… when you’re three and a half, it’s a long way to the ground from a step stool, and it feels like your flying when you’re out there in the air in that moment before you hit the ground. It’s that moment that I believe in, and those tiny hearts brave enough to take the leap.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.