Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Who's in Charge?

Plugged into my iPod and carrying my lunch and reading book, The Price of Privilege, I entered Prospect Park, which is huge — like Central Park — prepared to have lunch, listen to music, people watch, and read. I entered where there is one long park bench (it goes on forever), and a group of caregivers was chatting while their child charges ran, milled about, and tested their distances away from the people who were giving care to them. This part of the park is beautiful, like walking into a well-managed forest. I picked an especially good bench position to set up “camp,” with the park entrance about 50 yards to my right and a children’s playground about 50 yards to my left.

On the eight-foot wide asphalt path in front of me, all sizes of little ones were walking, riding scooters, being carried, and riding in strollers. This day was a beautiful day to be in the park. I watched one child after another focusing on fidgety squirrels, birds looking for food, dogs tugging at leashes, and the underside of the trees that covered our area in shadows, protecting us all from the shining sun above.

As I was finishing my lunch with a bag of M&Ms, a little girl walked on the other side of the path in front of me. She was off the path, wandering around the trees. She was no more than 20 months. I can size the age of little ones because the two-year olds walk past my office each day at school going to and from the rooftop play area. I looked to see to whom she belonged and saw no one. She kept looking over her shoulder, so I assumed she belonged to one of the caregivers at the entrance to the park, about 50 yards away, where the group was sitting and chatting.

I kept thinking that someone would fetch her and help her with boundaries, but nothing happened. In fact, the child roamed even further away, towards the playground. Measuring the distance in my mind, I imagined myself sitting at the 50-yard line at a football game. At this point, I stopped what I was doing and watched the child wander down a small hill to get closer to the children playing, noticing that she is now a good 100 yards from where she belonged . . . and out of the caregiver’s sight.

Now I am ready to intervene either by yelling at the group of caregivers, “Who’s in charge of that little girl?” or to just keep watching her. The child walked closer to the play area and turned around and started to walk further away. I had a Montessori moment that said, “don’t underestimate the child’s ability to know how to navigate, but make sure she is safe,” so I just kept watching.

To my amazement, I could see her calculating where she was, where her “home” was and eventually taking steps in that direction. Finally, a caregiver sauntered past me toward the child and corralled her back toward the bench that was home base. Without admonishing the child, the caregiver walked past me — the one who was in charge . . . for a brief moment anyway.

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