Uncertainty+Safety=Growth: optimal environments for learning during sudden change

“[The Italian Prime Minister] said that schools and universities would remain closed as a result until at least April 3. Decrees banned jail visits and day-release programs for inmates, setting off riots across the country at 27 prisons. Guards were held hostage, and several inmates died in Modena.”

-The New York Times, March 9, 2020

The world continues to exist in crisis. While COVID-19 is dramatic in its scale and scope, so too are racism, poverty, environmental degradation, greed and violence. But unlike with so many other persistent societal ills, with the emergence and spread of COVID-19, the world now seems to be in a constant state of uncertainty, and sudden, disorienting behavioral change.

How many people have COVID-19? Is there a valid tool for antibody testing? Does infection grant immunity? Nobody really knows. When will school open again? More uncertainty.

So what do prison riots in Italy have to do with how we can best care for our children and families during this time of physical distance? How does a teacher or a parent provide leadership in times of crisis? It all comes down to needs, uncertainty, relationships and the experience of freedom.

Young children live in uncertainty. It’s how they learn. The best teachers also live in uncertainty, listening, waiting with their assumptions in check to discover what a learner can learn and has learned, and only then responding.

Uncertainty is risk and prediction. Uncertainty is models and science, projections based on information. When a child makes a prediction based on their experience and knowledge, when they jump off a tall tree stump or speak up in class, or connect multiple concepts that they are discovering, they are engaged in the most fundamental processes of learning and discovery. In those moments, we have documented that these children are thriving in the deeply engaging uncertainty of discovery.

For that reason, uncertainty can be joyous and provide near limitless space for growth, if there is safety. What is safety for young children and families? Beyond the most basic rights, it is foremost being trusted to solve problems and say what you think, being in an environment that allows you to shine at your brightest, if you want, to be heard and seen, and to be able to take care of yourself to the best of your ability.

Safety is clarity about the things that are clear, and acknowledgment of the things that aren’t. Safety is being heard and seen. Safety is knowing what’s going to happen next. Safety is knowing the boundaries. And safety is being allowed to take risks.

For children safety is all of those things. It’s also the safety of being a part of a group with needs and expectations, but also with guarantees: the expectation of warmth and food and social exchange, of being treated fairly. Roles and responsibilities, routines and rituals.

So while the best teachers thrive in a state of uncertainty and discovery, not following a script or rigid curriculum, they also create safety, consistency and a rock solid foundation of love. The best teachers are aware of the needs of every individual, meet each child where they are, and then balance those needs with the needs of the group. They base their decisions on what they have seen and heard. The best teachers know that relationships are what count.

Safety is relationships and, if learning is safety, then relationships are learning.

We know that children need love to thrive. They need relationships to thrive. They need their abilities, depth and complexity to be heard and seen to thrive. Importantly they also need unmediated relationships with peers. Time to hear and listen to each other, to experience joy and risk together, to generate their own rules and safety and stories of the world and themselves together, to grow together. The child’s self-initiated, uninterrupted, joyous engagement is play.

And in these moments of play, adults can discover who children truly are, what they are truly capable of. In these moments of discovery relationships change. Trust increases, joy increases.

Right now, we must come together as parents, educators, communities and as human beings to provide children and families with safety. We have to begin with the needs of each family, the basic needs of food, shelter, support for children with special needs, and for families suffering from the traumas of unsafe homes. But in addition to that urgent work, we can also change how all of us view and interact with our own children.

With patience, clarity, listening, responsiveness and the love that that means, we can create environments at home where even young children are independently engaged, not with pre-planned “activities” or adult-suggested and guided “projects” or content or devices or our emotional needs, but with their own ideas and feelings, with other children and with meeting their own needs.

When deprived of every other semblance of freedom and the experience of individual freedom granted by authentic relationships, we will all begin to riot. It will begin with our children. It will devastate us. In this uncertainty each of us faces unprecedented challenges, but in this uncertainty, if we can create safety for ourselves and those we love, we also have a chance to thrive.

Resource: The Anji Play Play Guide to Caring for Children During Extended Family Confinement

CEO, Anji Education, Inc. and Chair, True Play Foundation. East Bay California based educator, author, translator and interpreter of Chinese, and dad.