Building Blocks: A Lesson in Letting Her Lead

building blocks

This is my new approach to teaching her: Give her something that stimulates her mentally, then sit down and have my coffee. Win-win.

I'm half-joking. But I'm serious about how well this worked this morning. Left alone, she is able to focus on the task at hand, whatever she feels that may be. When I'm too near, she is distracted as her main goal becomes trying to get my attention. My full attention. Look away and you'll hear a crash, a splash, or a more explicit "Mommy, look at me!"

Today, the task at hand was building a tower by stacking boxes.
Look! How fun! (For Mom and Dad.)
It's not a new activity. She's had stacking cups, blocks, and rings since she was six months old (they were, after all, listed as the "Best toys for babies 6-12 months old"), but she's never really been interested in using them for that purpose. The best thing about open-ended toys is also the worst thing about open-ended toys: they're too darn open-ended. The stacking cups have been buckets, bath toys, boats, and baby doll beds. They've been used for pouring, mixing, throwing, smashing. But stacking? Hardly ever. We tried, as new parents who always followed the rules, to show her how it was done. Look how high we can make this tower, E! Look, you have to do it carefully. Look, how fun this is!

But a child that is taught how to do something she is clearly not interested in doing (or ready to do) is a child that is bored and unreceptive. So, the cups and blocks and other stacking things were used for many other fun and innovative things. Just not stacking.

Until today, almost three years later, when I brought out this set of stacking boxes. For one thing, they were new. Shiny, in beautifully bright colors. What's more, they were not hers. Tell her that something is "for baby Jacob" and it instantly becomes the toy du jour. And because I didn't say, "Here, why don't you stack these?", she did not see it as an activity she had to complete. Which, I guess, made it into an activity she wanted to complete.

I left her in the garden to finish my coffee. And, suddenly, it was quiet, a sure sign that she was up to something.

She was trying to figure out the order in which to stack the blocks. This was new. She had built with blocks before—castles, houses, bridges, zoos—but in those activities, the order of the blocks was not so important. She thrives in those environments, where rules are optional. But, the tower has rules. When she put the larger box on top of a smaller one, the tower did not get any higher. How strange! She tried another one. Too big, it toppled over. Curious! She tried reversing them. Aha! It worked! But, there were more boxes. Finally, she asked me.

This is the part where I usually come to her and help her and "teach her" by showing her how it's done, but today I had coffee to finish, so I did not. Boundaries, remember? So I simply said, "E, the bigger ones go below. Why don't you try to see which one is bigger?" Laziness? Yes. But I also remembered a quote by Magda Gerber that I'd seen floating around the Montessori/RIE boards:
"Be careful what you may get in the way of what they're learning."
magda gerber

"This one, or this one?" she said. Layer by layer. Higher and higher. Previous storeys had to demolished. No big deal. At one point, she had to start again. Possibly frustrating, but she did it. Block after block.

building blocks

And then there was only one block left.

"Trust in the timing of your life." I'd loved this quote ever since I'd heard it. I'd always thought it applied to love, relationships, motherhood, work, success, opportunities, and personal growth. I'd never thought it would apply to homeschooling, or more importantly, raising a child.
"Trust in the timing of her life."
It's a good thing I'd forgotten to teach her how to stack, hadn't hounded her about stacking, had only felt like a total failure as a parent for the first few months of her being stacking-challenged as all the other kids photographed on the toy store packages beamed proudly at their perfectly ordered stack of blocks. All the steps before had mattered: learning about big and small; learning about inside and out, about top and bottom, above and below; learning to be careful when placing an object on top of another; learning how to be patient and not to give up when you reach a roadblock; learning to believe that you can do it on your own. 

And then this happened, this moment of perfect happiness. And I looked just in time to see it.

the last block