The Nursery Age Child

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This book aims to facilitate the understandings of nursery age children, that is, children around three, four and five years, and their parents. Children of these ages are particularly fascinating. The wealth of their growing minds is apparent in their play and in their widening capacity to express themselves in words. It is a time of much discovery and experimentation, accompanied often by excitement and anxiety. There is something open-minded and open-hearted about children of these years.The author's views on nursery age children have been based on observing and working with them over the past twenty years, in various settings, including their homes, nursery schools and hospitals, and as a psychologist and child psychotherapist, in assessments and individual psychotherapy. She has also learnt much in working with families and with groups of parents.The book is influenced and informed by the writings of Sigmund Freud, Donald and Clare Winnicott, Anna Freud, Selma Fraiberg, and Jean Piaget.

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Chapter One: The child's view of himself

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In some respects, the nursery age child, rather like the toddler, is itching to try new experiences, to carry on exploring the world around him. By nursery age, I mean the years ranging from about three to five.

The nursery age child is developing a sense of what he can do; this includes the discovery that “I make an impact on the world and on others,” as well a sense of being able to make things happen in a realistic way rather than through purely imaginary play The child is continuing the profound and crucial process of becoming his own person, a person with his own view/s on things. Such perspectives are characterized by an admixture of fantastic and realistic thinking, the beginnings of reasoning and heartfelt desires. The nursery age child has one foot in the world of magic and fantasy, and the other in the world of reality, testing out how things work and noticing the consequences of his actions.

The young child’s thinking and language is developing at a pace. In this way, the child can give shape and meaning to his own experiences and perceptions. Often, there is tremendous excitement and joy in discovering aspects of the self: “I can make up games;” “I can think up stories;” “I can do some things that my sibs and parents do”. There is also the key realization of limitations—”what I am not able to do”. The nursery age child once again faces the pain of having to work for a skill, or wait for a time when he will be ready to give it a go with more chance of success. When this happens, the child usually looks to those around him to check their reaction. The parent or older sibling or teacher can soften the blow of the disappointments and setbacks discovered on the road to self-expansion. They can help cushion the frustration and sustain the optimistic hope that the child will be successful in the not too distant future—a message of “Oh dear, not now, do try again later,” can be given.

 

Chapter Two: The child's view of the world around him

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The nursery age child is venturing out, expanding horizons and building a sense of independence. There is movement away from the orbit of the parents, carers, and the physical confines and rhythms of the home environment.

I observed one three-year-old girl who kept on lagging behind her mum, stopping to explore the world. She was looking intently at the movements of a small beetle. It was if she were saying, “I want to explore at my pace. I want to be captivated by the movements of a little insect finding its way across an uneven pavement. I don’t want my concentration interrupted.”

And, indeed, this deep concentration and determined focusing of attention plays a vital role in one of the key activities that is becoming more elaborated at this age, which is play with the self and with others.

It is vital for the child’s growth that the parents do sometimes step back to allow the space and time for the growing child’s curiosity to emerge, to be awakened and sustained. The parent has a difficult task in that she has to learn to hold back and not to intrude or take over the play. She can view the play from a distance and be aware of it, perhaps even interested. If invited in by the child, she would do well to participate by following the child, or wondering alongside the child. She needs to refrain from teaching or correcting. She has to find the patience in herself to wait to be asked, thereby giving her child the freedom and the pride in finding out at his own pace. This sensitive attunement to her child and respect of her child’s discovery of the world will pay dividends in the child’s development of his own unique creative self.

 

Chapter Three: Discoveries and discovering

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My view of development is that it follows a zig-zag path, with spurts forward alternating with slips backwards. It does not proceed smoothly in one direction; there are backward slips, falls, and sometimes phases of hesitation, rest, and even of no movement. Growth and development require much courage; worries often accompany taking new steps, although excitement may also be found in the jumps into the new. The child who is caught up in the minutiae of fear, doubt, and hesitation may be helped by the parents’ longer-term view, whose eye is on the end in sight. The nursery age child experiences these pulls forwards and the pushes backwards; what needs to be kept in mind by the parent is the overall forward movement, that progress is usually superseding staying still or falling backwards.

Donald Winnicott, a paediatrician and psychoanalyst, wrote of the complex sides of the child’s personality: his is a multidimensional view. Winnicott writes,

… each child of four is also three and also two and also one, and is also an infant being weaned, or an infant just born, or even an infant in the womb. Children go backwards and forwards in their emotional age. [Winnicott, 1964, p. 179, my italics]

 

Chapter Four: Separation

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Coping with separation is another crucial developmental achievement, and one that the nursery age child has been struggling towards and grappling with during the toddler years. The capacity to stand on one’s own two feet has its foundations in the numerous experiences of closeness with mother. Separation is based on the feeling of being with another person, on togetherness. There is much in separation that is paradoxical, in that one can only be without the other by having enough of them inside one. After the early experiences of being loved and understood and having one’s needs regularly read and met, young children learn to be alone in the presence of mother: for example, playing contentedly by themselves while mother is talking on the telephone, or unpacking the shopping, or preparing lunch. It is quite fascinating to see the child every now and again lifting his eyes and checking that his mother is still there: the intervals between checks get longer and longer as the child feels safe in the knowledge that his mother is now held inside him, in his mind.

 

Chapter Five: Sleep and its complexities

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A good night’s sleep is not achieved once and for all. Sleep can be affected by the ongoing preoccupations of the young child. There are many issues that may contribute to sleeping difficulties at this time of life. Anxieties around separation, concerns about the child’s relationships with his parents or with his siblings, as well as dilemmas in expressing strong feelings, may all show in sleeping problems. Ideas stirred up by watching television, or by witnessing an unusual event in the day, or by encountering something puzzling and new by which the child feels touched, can all affect sleep and cause temporary problems. Sometimes, the parent can help her child by listening for and talking about what has stayed with him, and by trying to put the worrying bit that is preoccupying and/or exciting for the child, literally buzzing around his head, in a kind of perspective. For example,

Four-and-a-half-year-old Tommy said he could not sleep because of the hammer. His mother remembered that he had visited the doctor a few days before. He had fallen, and, as part of the examination, the doctor had tested his reflexes with a hammer. At the time, Tommy had showed no particular reaction. His mother asked whether there was something about the hammer that he did not like. He replied that the hammer made his body jump and that felt funny. Slowly, he and his mother worked out that Tommy was worried that his body could suddenly start to jump or go wobbly again. He was much relieved when his mum explained what the doctor had been doing and why he had done it. It seemed that Tommy was anxious that he, after his fall, was losing control of his ability to move and stop his body.

 

Chapter Six: Additions: relationships with siblings

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Much has been written on the subject of sibling rivalry. The child’s world undergoes a massive change; indeed, for some children, it can feel as if the world has turned upside down and will never be the right way up again when they realize that there is to be an addition to the family. Of course, the hardest part of it is that children have no choice in the matter; they may experience the pregnancy of the mother and her preoccupation as a betrayal and as confirmation that they were not good or sufficient. The new baby can be perceived as endangering what seemed to be a settled and safe relationship to mother and father. The nub of the fear seems to lie in the child’s anxieties that his connection to his mum and dad will change or be lost. The task that faces him is his need to discover and, indeed, re-discover that his own unique place in the hearts of his parents can be maintained and even continue to grow. The child comes to learn this through experiences, not only by being told and reassured. The new baby can be felt as threatening and lead to feelings of dislike and even hatred, as well as curiosity and pride and love. The news of this momentous change in family life is likely to be met with mixed feelings by the young child. In time, the negative and uncomfortable feelings can be accepted and worked on by the child and his parents, and lead to more affectionate feelings.

 

Chapter Seven: Words and thinking

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It has been apparent in the preceding chapters that children’s minds are very much at work on puzzling out their experience of the people and world around them. The words the nursery age child is beginning to use reveal the quality and depth of his thinking. The child’s play with toys is accompanied by play with ideas, which are expressed in experimenting with communicating by talking. The parent can find her child’s new capacities exciting. She may feel relieved that communication with her maturing child relies less on inference than during the toddler years. She may come to realize how such new developments also require patience and an ability to tolerate puzzlement on her part.

Some children start to “join in the conversation,” frequently prompted by the wish to speak as their siblings do. It is not unusual for a younger child to speak at a younger age than his older brother or sister did. Siblings may encourage the younger child to use words, and spur on his development. The young child may need help from siblings and parents to clarify what he is saying and to gently correct him.

 

Chapter Eight: The imaginary and the real

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In the previous chapter, we saw how nursery age children are beginning to move from literal to more symbolic thinking and understanding. In this chapter, my focus is on the imagination, that is, the child’s world of fantasy. Imagination, for the most part, is a valuable asset. Paradoxically, at the same time the world of fantasy develops, so does the child’s capacity to test out and know the real world.

Developing imagination is vital for the growing child in that it shows a mind that is expanding and elaborating, making distinctions and is therefore becoming enriched. The capacity for imagination shows itself in the child’s play, and in his creativity i.e. daydreams, the very things he makes, the stories he constructs. Some children possess fertile imaginations. Parents may need to act as mediators between fantasy and reality, helping to ensure that their children do not become overwhelmed by their excitement or anxieties. Other children may have poor imaginations; parents may then play a role in encouraging the development of ideas and in extending play, by initiating exploration and inviting the child to join in with the thinking. Imagination can provide avenues for self-expression and self-discovery; it can also be used as compensation for the harsh realities that some children find themselves in. Flights of fancy may have an unreal quality about them, but they may also contain an ingredient of hope.

 

Chapter Nine: The sense of “I” and self-esteem

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The building of a sense of “I,” of identity, is a lifelong task. Some of the earliest foundations of this “I” have been laid down in the first two years of life in the interaction between parents and infant, and parents and toddler.

Self esteem is the value that the child has of himself, how well or badly he regards himself. Both the sense of identity and the sense of inner confidence which is part of self esteem are closely intertwined with relationships, with the attitudes of important others around, and with the child’s sense of his growing body. The parent who encourages her child to try new experiences and who invites her child to express his feelings, helps her child to develop healthy self-esteem. Genuine words of praise from his parent can motivate a child and make him feel that his efforts are valued. The parent also helps her child by drawing the line, keeping firm limits and an eye on safety. By safety, I mean not only physical safety, but also the parent’s providing an atmosphere in which her child can learn through making mistakes and in which her child can enjoy discovering what he can understand and do. Nursery school age children can draw enormous comfort and reassurance from knowing that a parent is present who is aware and engaged. Of course, parents cannot be available 100% of the time; but it is the child’s sense of the parent’s availability and his memories of experiences of his parent being tuned in to him that are key to the child’s sense of his own value. Neither chaos (that is, anything goes) nor rigidity (that is, overly strict rules and lack of flexibility) contribute to an atmosphere of safety and self-confidence for the growing child.

 

Chapter Ten: The world of relationships

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The quality of nursery age children’s relationships is changing, both within the family and beyond the family as they get to know other children and adults in the community. Going to nursery school introduces the child to a wider world, to children of different cultures and children who come from families that have different ways and mores. The nursery school may be the child’s first experience of a group of children of similar age. He is faced with the challenge of finding a place in a group of similarly aged children. The experience of having to share nursery school staff with many others may also raise anxieties. This is especially so in children who come from small families and who are used to more exclusive attention. Children in single parent families, or in families where another language is spoken, may also face anxieties about being in a group that they may experience as too large or as strange. However, there are also many wonderful opportunities that come with broadening one’s social circle. Children can be stimulated and enriched by other children’s ideas and different perspectives. Gradually, play with other children facilitates the development of empathy, an ability to appreciate situations and experiences from others’ points of view. Dramatic play and swapping of roles can encourage empathy. The child can experience what it feels like to be, for example, the leader and the follower. He begins to view the world and interpersonal situations in a less egocentric manner, that is, according to his needs and desires. He begins to be more of a companion to other children, a partner in making up games and roles. Nursery age children sometimes choose playmates on the basis of a shared common interest, that is, enjoying washing and dressing dolls, or becoming Power Rangers or mighty knights to the rescue, or playing dressing up in a more secluded place, such as under the stairs or in a corner.

 

Chapter Eleven: Big school

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The prospect of entering primary school is an important moment in the development of the child and his parents. Anxiety, excitement, pride, and doubt may all accompany this next step for parent and child.

Not only is the child broadening his experiences of the world by entering a new educational and social system, but the parents are also expanding their social circle by getting to know other parents. Parents may find themselves feeling a new competitiveness with others, drawing comparisons with how other children are developing. Some parents may feel judged by others in unhelpful ways: for example, being considered lax or too strict in discipline. Other parents may seek and find solace in hearing other parents’ experiences and dilemmas, and come to see the new circle as supportive. It can be most reassuring to know you are not the only mum who has lain awake feeling both excited and worried about how you and your daughter will deal with the first few weeks of “big school”.

Expectations and anxieties from their own early school experiences may come alive again for parents. The parent may confuse her own experiences with those of her child. She may assume that her child will follow the same course as she herself did. She may need to become aware of such blurring in order to hear and see her child’s own reactions. Similarly, distinctions and differences between siblings’ reactions need to be allowed for: for example, that older brother Jack may have been cautious and shy in the first few weeks of big school, whereas Danny seems enthusiastic and to be enjoying the new setting.

 

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