Ebony is 20 months old, and this means she has a lot of energy. She likes running, and walking backwards, and walking on her knees. She likes climbing up and down stairs, going down slides and doing somersaults. Most importantly, she likes doing all of this stuff alone. I can watch, of course, but should I dare to offer a hand, she will firmly tell me, “No, no, mummy, no, no. Eba!”
And that’s fine, I’m happy to sit back and observe as she accomplishes new tasks. I know that, when she reaches that top step, or lands at the bottom of the slide, she will look over at me so I can share in her achievement.
Now that she's more active, I've been looking for new activities to take her to. Places she can climb, explore and see other children. On Tuesday, we attended a local group called Little Monkeys. The room was set up with wooden climbing apparatus that filled me with nostalgia for my primary school years. There were benches to balance on, ladders to climb and mats to fall on: it was perfect.
Ebony walked right past the soft play area, and straight to the wooden equipment. I don't like to direct her play, so I try to just let her explore in her own time. She climbed onto a bench and asked for my hand to help her balance as she walked along it. Then she noticed a ladder, so she walked over and confidently climbed to the top. This took her to a raised slide. She navigated climbing up to position herself on the slide, and then pushed herself down. It took her a few minutes, but she managed it alone. Then she walked back over to the ladder to do it again.
At this point, the Little Monkeys leader came over to talk to me. Ebony was, once again, negotiating her way onto the ladder. The leader was looking from Ebony, then to me, then back to Ebony. After a minute of Ebony trying to get into position on the slide, the leader could bear it no longer and held onto Ebony to help her up, "Shall I help you because you can't manage it?" Ebony looked displeased, as you might expect from an independent toddler. I explained that she’d actually already been down once, so would be able to do it again without help. The leader let go, and Ebony climbed up into position and slid down.
Ebony looked over at me and smiled, wanting me to share in her achievement, I smiled back. The leader, obviously thinking I was a cruel and neglectful mother, whooped loudly, “Wow, amazing, well done, Ebony!” This loud and enthusiastic praise continued for the rest of the session, accompanied by questioning glances in my direction to highlight my lack of pom-poms and loud cheering.
A little while later, Ebony was doing somersaults on a mat, and the leader came over with a sheet of paper and a pen, and announced it was ‘badge work time’. “Can you go through this tunnel, Ebony?” she asked. Ebony paused momentarily to say, “No,” and then continued playing on the mat. “Come on, Ebony, through the tunnel. Can you get through the tunnel? If you go through the tunnel, I can give you a tick on this piece of paper, and then you will get a badge!”
Ebony looked up again, “Nooo.” The leader looked a little stressed by this blatant disregard for the badge work, and turned to me, “Is she scared of tunnels?” I explained that no, she isn’t scared of tunnels, she’s just having fun somersaulting at the moment. The leader walked off to persuade another child through the tunnel.
Ebony loved the apparatus at the group, and the freedom to explore. But she doesn’t need a badge to be proud of her activities. She felt proud when she slid down the slide, because she had worked hard to climb up. She was happy when she somersaulted on the mat, because it’s fun to do somersaults. She smiled when she came out of the tunnel (later, when the leader wasn’t watching of course), because going through tunnels is fun. The reward from all of these activities, is the activity itself. She doesn’t need a tick, or a badge, to enjoy doing that. In fact, offering rewards can have the opposite effect, so I would rather avoid a reward system like this altogether. I don’t want Ebony’s enjoyment to come from a tick, some praise and a badge, meaning that she explores only when these are available as rewards. I want the reward to be the new experience, so that she will always climb, explore and investigate, even when no-one is around to congratulate her.
I don’t understand this obsession with reward systems for children. Toddlers love exploring, and a group that feeds that love is, in my opinion, invaluable. I want to take Ebony to play on the wooden apparatus I remember from my youth, but I want her to be free to explore it at her will. I don’t want her to be forced to explore things in a certain order, or in a certain way, in order to be rewarded by a rigid system. I think all exploration is important. Ebony climbing up onto the slide for the first time, is just as important as the time she tried to climb up the ladder backwards only to get stuck on the second rung. She wouldn’t have received any ticks for the latter, but she learnt just as valuable a lesson.
So, the question is, do we return to the group and explain to the leader that we don’t want to take part in the badge system, or do we avoid the group altogether?