Sunday, August 4, 2013

Of Puppies and Preschoolers

Piper the Ivy Gnome.
Preschoolers are fascinating creatures - and a little intimidating if you don't understand them. This past week I was thrown into a swimming pool of preschoolers. In other words I led a class of squirmy 3, 4 and 5 year olds at our church's Vacation Bible School. It was there I discovered that preschoolers and puppies have quite a bit in common.

Day One:  My two good helpers and I greet the kids in the preschool room. Like any good teacher, I am armed with a sheet of carefully prepared activities:  stories, crafts, songs and games meant to teach the little guys about God and His love for them. Within 10 minutes, no, five minutes, I throw my lesson plan away. Waist-high children mill and babble. One crying, a couple whining, some squealing, toys being dragged off shelves. Chaos, a teacher's mortal enemy, has reared its ugly head. This is not about teaching, I say to myself, this is about keeping miniature people from a pint-size riot. What was I thinking when I agreed to do this?

Inside me panic is rising. Until now my teaching has been limited to older children, teens, young adults, adults and...puppies. Wait a minute....puppies! Tiny little flash bulbs go off in my brain. Even as I watch the preschoolers I can recognize uncanny similarities between them and my puppies. Yes, I will approach the problem as a puppy raiser would, maybe it will solve this dilemma. Hmm, harnesses and leashes are out of the question. Too bad for that! 

Days One - Four:  These were the observations, skills and tools in my PR repertoire that I used to make our class of preschoolers roll along and keep our time together enjoyable:
  • Keep commands short and simple.  SIT and STAY (with a hand signal) work great on preschoolers.
  • Let them get their wiggles out.  Just like puppies, little people need to move and play.
Piper retrieves the Wubba on a long line.
  • Read facial expression and body language.  If a child's face is open, learning will happen. If her face is closed, she doesn't hear you and doesn't care. Dogs will show similar expressions.
    Piper's open expression means he's ready to listen and learn.
  • Blocking stops them in their tracks.  One little girl was getting ready to do a feet-first cowabunga onto a cardboard building. Without thinking I automatically blocked her, and saved the building. The same method works when Piper dives for dropped food.
  • Your focus has to be stronger than their focus.  If you want the kids (or puppy) to do something, you have to patiently keep at it and eventually they will do it. Later they will be glad they did! 
  • Though you can't use leashes, ropes work great.  To take the kiddies through the hall and downstairs to the snack area without scattering, we had them hold on to a long climbing rope with knots.
  • Short attention spans = short teaching sessions.  Obedience training puppies is all about this. 10 minutes is too long.
  • If a preschooler or puppy can't leave others alone, distance them.
  • A slow voice and slow movements help calm excited little guys.
  • Their vocabulary is very limited.  I spent the longest time getting the preschool group to form a line, only to realize later many of them didn't know what a "line" is! Remember these are PREschoolers. In the same light how many times have I repeatedly said a word or asked for an action my puppy didn't understand?
  • Reward good behavior instead of correcting bad.  When a child was quiet and listening I paid attention to them, let them go first, etc. The others pick up on this rewarding fast! When Piper stops barking, I tell him he's a good boy and keep telling him as he remains quiet.
  • Set boundaries and follow through.  Important rules (like no hitting) need to be enforced. Although I couldn't crate a child, one child did go in time out and another was sent to his parent/guardian. Crating is my last resort when Piper refuses to listen and gets rowdy.
  • Puppies and preschoolers like routines.  Routines are comfortable. I like them too!
  • The less distractions the better.  A room with no toys, a play field without other kids, a darkened room where each child has a tiny flashlight candle to bring them close together - all these helped. Puppies focus better in low-key environments too.
The preschoolers, my two great helpers and I all stayed VERY busy, had fun, and yes, we even did some learning. Some of you are probably wondering if I brought 4-month Piper along to the preschool room. Uh - no! If he had been older I would have tried, but Piper was a preschooler himself just a few short weeks ago. Mixing young puppies with preschoolers could have led to a Mt. St. Helens-type eruption. Instead Piper stayed home in his crate or was puppy sat and was all the better for it. But I am grateful that Piper and all my pups helped me unlock the door to that amazing stage in a kid's life - the preschool stage.
Visiting Ohio State University.

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