This week’s blog is written by Phoebe Cos. Phoebe is a preschool educator at the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center.
Baby shark (doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo), Mama shark (doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo), Daddy shark (doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo) –Preschool Song
The first time I sang this song in my three-year-old class this year, one child cut into the song halfway through and said, “We missed brother shark! What about him?” This question made perfect sense. We were singing about a shark family and the child is a brother in his family. This child, like many children, felt very strongly about their responsibility and place in their family and wanted that role to be acknowledged. When a child gains a new sibling, their family dynamic changes and it is understandable if that change can be hard to cope with.
This winter, my class showed an interest in babies during our ocean unit. Many of the kids in our class have younger siblings and were concerned when they learned some ocean animals are never taken care of by their parents. To further discuss this concern, my colleague, Katie, and I ventured over with our class to the National Museum of Natural History’s Nature’s Best Photography exhibit to meet and learn from some great white sharks.
We chose to first talk about sharks, as it engaged with the larger topic of familial care through a topic the children were familiar with discussing: ocean animals. The sharks made their appearance as three vivid photographs by nature photographers. We started by looking at the photographs and two toy sharks. Using these objects, we briefly explained that sharks take care of their babies primarily before they are born like finding hidden places to lay their eggs or (for sharks that give live births) feeding their babies through umbilical cords. We learned that humans also feed their babies before birth by umbilical cords and found our belly buttons where our umbilical cords used to be.
For comparison, we next turned to human babies. Drawing a baby doll out of my backpack, I asked, “What do we need to do as humans to take care of our babies?” Many of the older siblings and cousins in our class quickly raised their hands, wanting to share their life experiences: “We need to rock them, like this (cradling arms)”; “Don’t yell around them”; “Sing them songs”; “Feed them milk”; “Change their diapers”; “Not throw them”. We noticed how a lot of these human care practices happen after a baby is born and how some can be done by brothers and sisters, as well as by parents. The children noted that many of these practices existed, because babies had a hard time moving or communicating on their own yet. The children each took a turn cradling the baby doll gently, adding a physical element to their cognitive and social emotional learning. Many children took great care passing off the baby to their neighbor and were proud when a teacher or friend noticed how gentle they were being.
We are lucky enough to be part of a school that includes infant classes and thought we might be able to discover some more ways that humans take care of their young by visiting one of the classes. Our first stop was to the infant director’s office to ask some questions about how she sees teachers helping out the infants in our community everyday. After the hands-on engagement and listening portion upstairs, the class was excited to ask her questions. From my experience, children get excited and inquisitive when they are able to have a special conversation with an expert. More voices and sources for children to access allow for a greater exploration of a topic. An expert does not need to be exclusive to a certain academic field; experts that we have talked to here at SEEC include geographers, curators, construction workers, dentists, Metro workers and librarians to name a few.
After discussing how we can take care of the babies in our school with quiet voices and calm bodies, the director led us to the infant classroom, where we met them at the doorway. Children noticed that the teachers talked to the babies and that when some babies fell, the teachers would check on them. At SEEC, our preschool center is not connected to the center that houses the infants and twos, so after half a year of being in the preschool center, many children enjoyed visiting their old school. “I’m not a baby anymore,” said one child as we walked back to school. “Now I’m the big kid.” The feeling of responsibility that comes with being older in a room of younger humans carried great importance around our classroom when we came back to school. One child said that if he ever gets a baby sister, he will rock her so softly and gently and sing her to sleep. Another child said he helps his mom with his brother.
To recap the day, we set out a large Venn Diagram on the floor and compared what was the same and different between how sharks and humans take care of their babies. This exercise gathered all of the information found throughout the morning and prompted the class to use their cognitive and language skills to compare and contrast the different traits we’d learned about.
A baby doesn’t need to be coming into a family to have conversations about taking care of younger humans. Children encounter children that are younger than them all the time, be it at family reunions, story hours or on the playground. It is valuable to create an awareness of how humans take care of each other at different ages. And if a baby is joining a child’s life in the future, these discussions and physical practicing can prepare a child to take on their new role as brother or sister shark in their family with pride and a feeling of importance.
Recommended Books We Love About Taking Care of Babies
Peter’s Chair by Ezra Jack Keats
The Baby Sister by Tomie DePaola
Mr. Seahorse by Eric Carle
Waiting for May by Janet Stoeke
Julius, Baby of the World by Kevin Henkes