Michael Mendizza

Writer, Filmmaker

Story Plus Play


Language Development/Imagination, Parenting

Life is relationship. There is me, my authentic nature with its needs and curiosities and the cosmos expanding infinitely beyond me. What happens in the gap defines my life.

Children are sponges. Their rapidly changing brains and bodies compulsively seek new and different relationships that match the nova of neural connections exploding inside. We adulterated adults are in the Stone Age compared to the exponential brain growth found from the moment of conception to age eleven. Indeed the brain continues its expansive reach beyond eleven, but not as radically. The earlier in life the more profound and pronounced the changes, which means the greater the need for ever-changing appropriate things and relationships to engage.

When I say children are sponges I mean it literally. Maria Montessori described ‘the absorbent mind of the child.’ Children soak up and become what they engage, naturally. Soaking up and becoming is what childhood is all about.

The child has no choice. His and her body and brain unfold on schedule – worked out over millions of years. The real challenge rests with us Stone-Age adults, first to be sensitive and aware, moment by moment, of the miracle unfolding in our child and then, to meet each age and stage with the most appropriate response, 24/7. That is what being a parent means.

As I have said for years that Kids Are not the Problem. Kids are simply and naturally expressing this sponge-like evolutionary process. That’s what they are in the same way that puppies wag tails. The issue isn’t the child. Development is what’s happening in the gap.

To complicate things further the human child is the most complex neural system in the known universe, and that means capacity. The math suggests there are other life forms, hopefully much more intelligent out there, but that remains unknown. As the most complex neural system in the known universe every child’s capacity to absorb far outpaces we Stone-Age adult’s interest and ability to deliver, to engage. Kids have more energy, more enthusiasm, more curiosity, more wonder, more flexibility, more humor, and far more time than we do.

We can’t keep up, or so it seems to us. So we give them stuff as a distraction. And when they soak up that, we give them more complicated stuff, and eventually a device that replaces interacting with us, replaces engaging life, we give them a video, a phone that is a mini-video, or a tablet that is a phone, a video, endless so called games, a device that is also pulsing with invisible microwave frequencies that are vibrating in every cell of their developing bodies, so we can get on with whatever we are doing and not have to be the only water for their vast infinite capacity for sponging.

What are we Neanderthals to do, overworked with so many different transactions to attend to all the time? There is a huge gap in our capacity to engage and interact at the level the child needs and meet our needs too.

Realize that relationships are reciprocal. Energy and attention move in both directions. Your role is to engage the child in ways that challenge and stimulate their ongoing development process, which is changing every day, so you really have to stay in touch, one step ahead if you are skilled, sensitive and lucky.

Children hate simple distractions. Sorry, handing them a tablet loaded with videos and games is not good enough. They want and need shared meaning. I guess if you soak your body in the same microwave radiation and watch the same dumb video that would be a plus. But we don’t. That would negate our intent which is distraction. Face it. We are distracting the child from meeting their need to engage with us, because we are alive and therefore, hopefully, more interesting than a machine. We give them machines as a distraction from engaging with life.

Here’s a trick. Story is the key. Your challenge is to constantly invent stories that the child can absorb, and once inside them, play with in their mind and then act out in the world. A story can be a recipe for coconut cookies. A story can be how many red cars are on the road. A story can be what we are going to do next? Mix a story and a pile of blocks and bingo – off he or she goes building castles. Of course they want you to build with them and we do until we are bored silly with castles. OK, time to make up a new story. What they build is not the point. The shared meaning is in the story we share with our children. That is the key, sharing the story. The moment they drift off into a commercial video, shared meaning drifts off too.

At a very young age the natural and active storytelling described above transitions to recorded stories. I can’t stress enough the profound difference between listening to stories and watching a computer screen. Listening activates and demands that the entire symbolic-metaphoric-imaginative structures of the brain respond to the word-vibrations. This grows and developed the capacity of these unique brain structures upon which all so called higher learning depend – finding and then creating meaning from symbols and metaphors. Watching a screen brings the stimulus in through the much older and far less capable visual system, bypassing completely the higher, more evolved symbolic-metaphoric neural structures.

The best thing is for you to listen to the story too a few times. This established the all-important shared meaning. Then, as luck would have it, the little darling will want to listen to the same story over and over again, not caring what you are doing, because they know that you know what they are experiencing. This same principle can be applied in infinite ways throughout early and mid-childhood. Stay away from visual screen-based media. When interacting with it, do so together – the movie of the week, a special treat, not the main course of your relationship and play. Remember, the less screen time the better up to age eleven.

Surround the child with open ended toys, such as blocks, cardboard boxes, big plastic pipes, tubes, sand piles, things they can manipulate, change using their imagination into forts, underground cities, space stations, and fairy kingdoms. The key is for you to participate in the inner story. That is where the real action is. Maintaining and renewing this all important inner connection, this shared meaning, reaffirms that you see the child for who he and she is today and tomorrow. It translates directly into trust and mutual respect which is also reciprocal. Doing so eliminates the need for punishments and rewards. Punitive ‘no’ is eliminated from the relationship. It is completely out of place.

Sure it takes energy and attention to engage the most intelligent neural system in the known universe. But heck, it takes one to know one.

Michael Mendizza