Turning Nothing into Something: The Little Interactions Matter

Austin Matte, one of our Beginner Bridge teachers, originally wrote this blog post for the Upstone Montessori School blog — a school based in Nashua, NH that Austin will be opening in fall of 2022! We are so excited for Austin and wish him the best of luck in this exciting new chapter — until then, we feel very lucky to have him here at Wellan until the end of the school year. If you know anyone in the Nashua area looking for a Montessori school, spread the word about Upstone! Thanks for sharing this blog post with us, Austin!

 

A child’s parent stopped me as I was walking by the other day. “Hi, Austin. I don’t know what you have been doing with Amanda [her 3-year-old], but she cannot stop talking about you at home.”


“Oh really?” I say.


“Yes, really. Whatever you’re doing, it’s leaving an impression on her.”


I was flattered. But the most interesting part, and perhaps why she had an air of delightful surprise in telling me, is that Amanda is not my student. I have her in class with me each day for no more than 30 minutes. Well, for no more than 30 minutes while she is awake. She comes in from another class just for nap—her mat is all set up when she arrives, she lays right down upon entering, and is asleep shortly thereafter. She then wakes up at about 2 o’clock, and is back in her room by 2:30.


How is it that I leave a strong enough impression on her in those 30 waking minutes that she continues on about me at home?


I’d be remiss if I didn’t first mention that this is due in some part to the fact that I, as a man, am novel. Of the number of teachers Amanda interacts with—or even sees—on a daily basis, I am one of very few men. (This is a particularly salient issue in early childhood education. I could not begin to count the number of times a student of mine has accidentally called me “Dad.” I find it endearing every time.)


More to the point, and the reason for my writing this post, is that for those 30 minutes when I am interacting with Amanda—and in general when I am charged with overseeing the well-being of young people—I am fully present.


After she wakes up but before she returns to her class, we converse. I ask her how her nap was, what she dreamt about, if her stuffed bunny is also feeling well-rested, if she knew that she was snoring so loudly, etc. etc. It can be silly at times, but it’s always child-centric. I treat my students as my peers, and they respond well.


Others might perceive this time between waking up and getting back to class as a “nothing moment;” i.e., a time in which there isn’t much that needs to be done, and nothing is scheduled. In this case, students just need to wake up, pack up their sheets and blankets, use the restroom, and move on with their day. On paper, it’s that simple.


Though, as it turns out, much of our existence on this planet comprises these nothing moments. We’re always moving from one event or activity to another. We’re always waiting for something, driving somewhere, etc.


If you take the perspective that these moments are simply waiting periods before the more exciting stuff, you’d be squandering so much of the only resource you have which cannot be renewed.


Or, on the other hand, you could view this and other moments like it as opportunities to get to slow down, settle in, and enjoy being with those around you. As with anything, you get out what you put in.


It is particularly important to do this with young children. They don’t yet know the ennui that we adults can experience, or have learned to experience, from time to time when “nothing” is happening.


In fact, for them, it’s the opposite. Everything is new. They are always ready to engage. Regardless of how monotonous you think something may be, they are still actively processing their environment and absorbing all the minutia.


In taking advantage of these down times by engaging in meaningful ways, there’s something in it for me too. Part of why I love working with young people is that I get to explore the thoughts of unindoctrinated, articulate, curious, and positively dispositioned human children. This gives me great insight into human nature; I in fact understand adults better after having worked with children for so long.


For all his imperfections and curious theories, Freud was on to something when he tied adult personality traits to childhood experiences. Scholars would agree. Montessori parents probably would too.


This is all not to say that young people need to be constantly entertained by an adult in their free time—absolutely not. Something closer to the opposite is probably true. They ought to have the opportunity to, by themselves, figure out how to actively engage in something. To go from nothing to something. Modeling this behavior will start them off in the right direction before you cede the reins.


So, I first invite you to tune in to these “nothing moments.” Be aware when they are happening. Then, don’t run away. Don’t grab your phone. Don’t turn inward.


Embrace these nothing moments as a chance to banter, to get to know your child, student, or present company a little better. For young children, it is critical that they receive this input, especially during this period in their development. You could make up a collaborative story, offer to play a game of Uno, inquire as to what laws they would make if they ruled the world. Get creative. They will usually converse about pretty much anything. There’s no topic that’s off limits.


In taking this tack, over time you will gain a little insight into what humans are like, and a lot of insight into how that particular child views the world.


Most importantly, you will in fact be helping to shape this view. You will be encouraging the child’s positive development through modeling. In addition to affording them the chance to build their vocabulary, you will encourage them to engage in creative thinking. You will demonstrate that “boredom” is a choice. You will pave a path toward active engagement with the world around them. You will convey to them a way of being. As Amanda’s mother reminded me, you will positively affect them in ways you can’t predict. Plus, you may even enjoy it.

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