A couple of years ago, my Children’s Music Network colleague Liz Hannan invited me to observe her circle times as a music specialist in Montessori schools. She was using some of my materials and wanted some feedback.
It was a very interesting experience for me. Liz is a skilled entertainer, and the children were entertained to the max! But there are different kinds of excitement. Taking on the excitement of a performer is different from the excitement generated from within, when you feel yourself expressing yourself, growing and developing your own voice. So I shared some of my ideas with Liz about how to do that. Here are a few:
1. Be a facilitator, not a performer. Watch the children. Match their energy and movements. If you catch them where they are, you can bring them someplace new.
2. Allow silence. Be aware of the moments when something new is happening, and allow the silence for that to be. But. . .
3. Keep the flow. Keep the energy moving. If the energy seems to be getting stuck, just redirect it. Don’t break the energy of the circle for “discipline” or lecturing of any sort. Keep everything you do and say inside the “story” of the circle.
4. Keep a balance of chaos and order. A certain amount of chaos is necessary to break up the old orders and allow new ones to form. But too much chaos creates anxiety. The teacher holds the balance.
Here are some of Liz’s notes to me some time later:
Now and again a child will do something and take the entire circle into it. Laying down in the middle of floor initiates a pile on. Or howling initiates a den of wolves on a moon lit night. They are being children and enjoying their WAH...Wonder and Happiness.
Liz knows her group; she can feel that the chaos is not out of bounds. But the classroom teacher may feel that the children are being disrespectful of the music teacher and exert a disciplinary action.
The teachers used to interrupt in order to regain a calm and neat circle. They would “bust the WAH” in exchange for order. Then I would begin again with a new song, move, etc.
Of course, a sense of general order and safety needs to be maintained. But it is much better to do that within the “story” and flow of the circle. Every time you break the energy, you have to get it going again. And it is confusing – even chilling - for children to experience their “WAH” as something that is wrong. They can start to feel bad about themselves, to mistrust their basic impulses.
No more...! Now I observe what the children are doing. Then I join them. And then I re-direct to a calm and quieter space.
Example... Wolves howling at the moon. I crawl into the middle of the circle, look up and howl. (That alone usually get their attention because I have changed the normal expectation of "Busting the WAH!")
Then I quickly look around as a startled wolf on alert and freeze. THAT definitely gets their attention! They look where I am looking. I very quietly howl and they imitate. I yawn, stretch and slowly back up to my place in the circle. The children do the same.
We honor the childlike behavior and avoid busting anything. Teachers are in awe and love it because they do not need to get involved.
What are the children learning in Liz’s circle?
First of all, they are able to learn because they feel safe. Their impulses are honored and directed and their expressions are respected. And they are having fun.
Second of all, they are learning to listen. They are learning by imitation and action in a non-verbal way. This is a far more direct way to learn, and a lot less open to misunderstanding.
Thirdly, this kind of give and take, between expressing oneself and following the directions of another, helps to develop a quality that we prize highly: self-regulation.
Self-regulation is different from self-control. When we control ourselves, we are keeping ourselves from following an impulse by creating a stronger force to counteract it. Self-control is not fun. It is tiring. It is sometimes necessary, of course, but self-control is something we exert when our impulses are not good for us. It is an activity that divides us from ourselves.
Self-regulation, on the other hand, is like a well-running car. There is no need to oppose an impulse with an opposing force. We simply to observe and adjust the flow of energy. Self-regulation does not create drag – merely direction and enhanced flow. Unlike self-control, self-regulation feels good.
In a highly controlled environment, where no chaos is allowed to disturb the established order, self-regulation is a hard quality to grow. But a little chaos, redirected in a positive way, is real ground for learning.