What All Children Need

Extract from Caring Spaces, Learning Places

| March 2011

What All Children Need

All children need a rich early childhood, richness accessible to them: their special gifts and special needs.


“The child’s mode of being in the world is such that the world becomes an invitation. It is things in the beckoning world that invite the child, that awaken his curiosity, that invoke…him to make sense of that multitude of experiences lying beyond; in short to become, through his play, both an actor and a meaning maker” (Suransky, 1982, p. 39).

There is a world of things for every child to interact with if permitted: some living, some hard and cold, some tiny, some shiny. Edith Cobb described play as sort of the fingering over of the environment in sensory terms, a questioning of the power of materials as a preliminary to the creation of a higher organization of meaning (1977, p. 48). Even the poorest environment is rich with the stuff of experience to finger over, if it is made safe.

“Treasure was something you found in the alley. Treasure was something you dug out of the dirt in a chaotic, half-forbidden, forsaken place removed from the ordinary comings and goings of people who earned salaries in the light: under some rickety back stairs, near a falling down pile of discarded lumber, with people yelling at you to get away from there.

“…In Spring I pried flat rocks from the damp streambed and captured red and black salamanders…In the fall I walked to collect buckeyes from lawns. Buckeyes were wealth” (Dillard, 1987).


The world confronting the child is, as William James called it, a ‘great blooming confusion’ which the child has to organize by putting into it some orderliness and meaning…. The big adult world, the macrocosm, is too large, too complicated, and often threatening to the child who cannot cope with it; and so he focuses on the microcosmic world of play, as Erik Erikson stated some years ago, a world that…he can encompass through toys and play materials. To these he imputes his often childish beliefs and expectations and also his feelings, but by repeated explorations he gradually relinquishes some of his more fantastic beliefs…. When he tries to make the world conform to his childish beliefs and expectations, he is repeatedly confronted with the actuality of situations and events, and ever-present… threats and sometimes painful consequences. But he can do this restructuring of the world only if he is permitted and encouraged to try, to persist until he learns what can and cannot be done; and play provides a minimum of risks and…penalties for mistakes.

“Play…is a way of learning by trial and error to cope with the actual world” (Frank, quoted in Caplan and Caplan, 1973, pp. 107-108).

As widely observed by Montessori and others, play is children’s work; it is their job. The danger however, is to see play too instrumentally and lose sight of its life-giving value. As David Elkind pointed out: “Children need to be given an opportunity for pure play as well as for work” (1984, p. 197). For Elkind, play is the antidote for the “hurried child”; play is nature’s way of dealing with stress for children, as well as adults.

Play may be plunging, mind and senses nakedly open, into experience or a more measured endeavor. Play is self-initiated, spontaneous, and voluntary; the child must remain in control because the play is building upon understandings, cognitive structures, and stress. Play can be facilitated and encouraged, but it can’t be forced. When forced it really does become work, in a grown up sense.


Play does not teach children how to cross the street safely, the ABCs, or how to multiply fractions, or bake a cake. Children need teaching from the adults and other children in their lives. The most effective teaching accompanies active learning. Nathan Issacs wrote:

“Direct learning—always through exploration,experimentation, and the striving for fresh achievement—must in fact be steadily re-stimulated and aided to advance further and…further, until the help of planned teaching becomes its own next need and active demand” (quoted in Weber, 1971, p. 188).

The emergence of Lev Vgotsky (Berk & Winsler, 1995) as a major influence on early childhood education has restored the appreciation of the importance of teaching to child-centered education. Children need a mixture of direction and freedom, direction that mentors provide by guiding children to a positive direction and by providing the scaffolding (sequencing and steps) for their emerging ideas and skills. The teacher often has to present children with materials and experiences that allow them to move ahead, rather than simply allowing them to do anything in the hopes of discovery. All exploration is not equal. Children need experiences that offer new problems and subsequently lead to other problems and they need adults and more competent peers to facilitate discovery and mastery.

There is one truth about every educational setting: teachers talk too much and listen too little. In The Joy Luck Club (Tan, 1987), Amy Tan describes a querulous old aunt, not as hard of hearing, but as hard of listening. Children need teachers who know that what motivates children is to have their questions answered, not the teacher’s. Teachers who stimulate more questions than they ask are truly teaching.


“A child is privileged, I think, to have different people moving in and out of the family circle: different in ages, occupations, places of residence, temperament, even in morality” (Eble, 1966, p. 24). It is through people that children become fully human members of society and discover how the social world works and their place in it. The development of emotional intelligence (Salovey & Sluyter, 1997; Goleman, 1995) and moral intelligence (Coles, 1997) begins at birth and grows out of the interactions children have with caregivers and peers. A diversity of people both enriches childhood and prepares children for a widening world.


“The natural world is the larger sacred community to which we all belong. We bear the universe in our being even as the universe bears us in its being” (Thomas Berry, The Dream of Earth, quoted in Louv, 1991, p. 173).

Is there that much harm if the outdoors becomes simply a passageway to be hurried through or viewed from a window, or merely a site for exercise or picnics? Our development as human beings is stunted without wide experience in the natural world. How do we become wise or spiritual without understanding our ecosystem and our place in it? How do we become sensual without an outdoor life and an appreciation for hot, wet, fragrant, silky, resilient, oozing, hard and soft, rough and smooth states of matter? How do we become physical and develop a sense of freedom without exposure to wide-open places to run and leap and climb? “Where will the future stewards of nature come from?,” (Louv, 2005, p. 145).


“If he has the chance to develop manipulative and creative skills, to share in the social and practical life of his home, to be active in learning at school, he gradually comes…to believe that he can contribute to others as well as take from them, can make a real return for what has been done for him when he was weak and helpless…. Only active learning, however, and active social participation and…interchange with those who love him and give him…responsibility can build up in him a confidence in his own future” (Issacs, 1948, p. 234).

“Every human being, whether child or adult, seems to require significance, that is place in another’s world…. The slightest sign of recognition from another at least confirms one’s presence in his world” (Laing, Self And Others, 1969).

If a child is not going to be considered an important individual at six months or as a four year old, just one of eight babies or 20 four year olds for a long day, how will he or she develop the sense of security and personal power to navigate life? A child feels significant when she is known, her individual concerns are paid attention to, and she or he is increasingly given some responsibility for something that matters. Every child needs to make his mark and most will—but it is up to us to influence whether the mark will be the frantic bite of the toddler or the defiant assertion of a graffiti artist, or a mark of achievement.

Young children have increasingly fewer responsibilities in our society. They rarely experience caring for someone or something, or performing real work that is more than an exercise for their own development. In homes and in programs, children benefit from responsibilities as participating members of the setting.


“It is utterly part of our nature to want roots, to need roots, to struggle for roots, for a sense of belonging, for some place that is recognized as MINE, as YOURS, as OURS”(Coles, 1970, pp. 120-121).

“An authentic sense of place is above all that of being inside and belonging to YOUR place both as an individual and as a member of the community, and to know this without reflecting upon it” (Relph, 1976, p. 65).

Children need somewheres to be and belong to, somewheres with familiar people and objects made substantial with the weight of meaningful past experiences of love, learning, laughter, and care. A child who attends a child care program from infancy through young school-age years will spend more time in child care than all the hours of schooling, and in their early years may spend more waking hours in child care than at home. Child care centers and homes are places where childhoods happen.


Nothing will have more of an impact on a child’s future than family; what the child experiences, feels, learns, hopes, and dreams flows from the family. Children need to be in programs that respect and support the family that the child comes with; programs that recognize and appreciate individual and cultural differences, values, and ideas.


Human beings are not designed to be lone animals. Isolated families do not flourish. We live in communities; and the sense of community is nurtured or stunted, in early childhood, in our family life, in our life in child care and school, and in our family’s experience in society. Children thrive in a community of caring and learning deeply rooted to the community beyond the walls of the child’s home and programs.


Alvin Ailey created the American Dance Theater and produced extraordinary works of beauty, one of the first modern dance companies to introduce to the world Afro-American dancers and musical rhythms—soaringly beautiful dances that captured the human experience. At his funeral he was eulogized by his principal dancer and successor, Judith Jamison. With tears streaming down her face, the strikingly tall and beautiful dancer told the hushed crowd that his gift was that in all the hard demanding work, “He made us believe that we could fly—and we did.”

That is our job as we design children’s environments, to create a nest for children as they navigate the demands of growing up and to make them believe that they can fly in the world which they will inherit. We help provide them security and the freedom to adventure. At both a conscious and unconscious level, the child has to feel secure here and now, but at the same time learn that the world out there is not an insurmountable risk, but a place that she can and will learn to manage, learn from, be a part of, and love.

The drive to protect our children is profound and easily can extend to scotchguarding their lives. Reality is difficult. It is messy and loud and profane. There are people with warts and frowns, and decidedly mixed virtues. But childhood is a time when we help children begin to live in the world and love the world; and we can’t do that fenced off from it in a world of two dimensional glowing screens and plastic balls and slides. Scrubbing and polishing every raw experience in the name of health and safety, or protecting innocence scrapes away the natural luster of childhood. Some of the wonders and joys of childhood that fuel the best in our adult selves is unavoidably birthed in bumps and bruises and tears.

Reprinted from Caring Spaces, Learning Places (Exchange Press, 2007)

with permission from Exchange. Visit us at

or call (800) 221-2864.

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