Can We Talk?

Can We Talk?

Four-year-old Ellie and I were watching a stink bug crawl up a window frame.

“Where do you suppose he’s going?” I asked.

She paused. Then she said, “Probably to find some food.”

“Probably so,” I agreed. “I wonder what he eats.”

“I don’t know,” she replied.

“Me, either.”

She brightened. “Why don’t you Google it?”

She looked around, then brought me my phone, and we did, indeed, find out what stink bugs eat.

It was one of those wonder moments. Have you noticed that whenever there is a real conversation with a preschooler, a wonder moment is often involved? Funny how that works.

In fact, conversation can be one of the best teaching tools you have. Conversation can occur anywhere in your Mission Friends classroom. But the really fertile ground is in activity interest areas. Which is why you will often find suggestions for conversation starters in Mission Friends curriculum materials.

Often, there are suggestions for items to place in activity areas—pictures, puzzles, props, figures, etc.—and they are there to help preschoolers understand something about the missions area or spiritual concept. But the effectiveness of these materials can be hit or miss until you add the secret ingredient: conversation. Not just verbal instructions of how to complete the art activity, or making sure all of the puzzle pieces are available, but real conversation that brings the preschooler into the process of thinking about the concept.

To be sure, conversation is not the same thing as the teacher doing all the talking, even if she is imparting great wisdom. By its very definition, conversation is the informal exchange of ideas. When you pause long enough, and even prompt a preschooler to chime in, you give him a gift. When you listen to his response with respect, and respond back to him with genuine interest, it’s like putting a big, sparkly bow on that gift. You can sometimes even see his face light up with the joy of it.

A child’s self-esteem can rocket up when a grown-up truly enjoys conversing with him. Plus, as a bonus, you can evaluate whether he is understanding the concept as you intended.

So here are a few things to keep in mind about conversations.

  • First, they are most effective when they happen one-on-one or in a very small group. You can still teach with more students in a group, of course, but conversation tends to disappear when very many people become involved.

  • Next, a conversation can be planned and directed, which is why you find lots of questions starting with why and how included in Mission Friends materials. (Questions that require only a yes or no answer can squelch a conversation in a hurry.) But a conversation can also pop up spontaneously, so always be ready!

  • Though eye contact isn’t absolutely necessary (Ellie and I conversed with our eyes on a stink bug), eye contact can send a signal to the preschooler that a real conversation is taking place. Some of us have probably had practice at the “pretend conversation”—you know, when the child is talking, and we “mm-hmm” and “uh huh” along with her, but our minds are working on something else. I know I’ve been guilty! True conversation involves a grown-up stopping other things, focusing on the child, and listening to what she is saying.

  • Conversations are sometimes unpredictable. In an exchange, two people have the opportunity to steer the direction, so it can take unexpected turns. Since time is limited in Mission Friends, there may be times you want to eventually steer it back to the topic at hand. But also remember that when a preschooler talks, he is inviting you into his heart and mind. You may want to think twice before you automatically cut him off.

  • Last, conversations don’t have to be lengthy to be effective. You may be wondering how you will have time to sit and converse when there are busy preschoolers all over your Mission Friends room! Here are some keys.

    • Have supplies ready when the session begins, so you can focus on your teaching.

    • Have in mind your desired outcomes for the session, so you’ll know what you hope to have conversations about. Then you can be aware and spot opportunities, even if they come and go quickly.

    • Consider dividing up the areas among Mission Friends teachers, so that one teacher is engaging preschoolers and watching for their safety in some areas, while another teacher does the same in other areas.

Let us know how you do it!

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