In today’s world, we face a lot of boundaries and barriers. From plexiglass dividers and tape on the floor to face masks. The definition of a boundary is “a line that marks the limits of an area, a dividing line.” But humans are not designed to be distant from each other. We are designed for closeness and touch. A simple hug causes the release of hormones that improve mood. It also brings about a feeling of happiness, boost the immune system, and reduce stress. Receiving a smile triggers a response from the reward center of the brain and makes us feel good. It also tends to cause us to smile in response, releasing yet another flood of feel-good hormones. We are biologically designed for the sharing of these wonderful feelings. But, giving and receiving hugs and smiles these days is a challenge.
It takes a great deal of self-control for grownups to restrict the need to be close, to hug, or to show a smile. It is an almost insurmountable task for young children still learning their bodies and how to control them. Children learn through experiences, and most of those experiences are physical. Yet during this unprecedented time, we are having to restrict that physicality, thus limiting their natural instincts for learning.
Learning Boundaries Through Physical Experiences
Consider a child who squeezes between two friends in line. More than likely, he will get a negative response from one or both friends. Whether that response is verbal, physical, or a facial expression, he has learned that squeezing in didn’t feel good to his friends. He has learned his body took up too much space. He also learned some limits of that space when he felt his body bump the other bodies. Through trial and error, he may consider a larger gap in the line the next time. Or he may have learned that he should move to the end of the line.
I taught a little girl who had decided that hugging everyone on the playground was her best choice. She was rebuffed by at least half of the recipients of this outpouring of love. This taught her an important lesson about how her friends feel about that activity. But the lesson was cut short when the teachers had to step in and remind her that she needed to choose a different form of affection for her friends, one that didn’t include touching. She was crushed.
These are just a couple of examples where young children crave physicality because they are hard-wired biologically to use their bodies to learn. They use their bodies to learn about the limits of their own space and other’s space. So, if the pandemic means that children must maintain a distance, how can we help them learn this critical skill in a safe way?
Teaching Boundaries During A Pandemic
First, we can help kids learn about their own boundaries by strengthening their body awareness. Body awareness is the understanding of the body, its parts, where they are located, what they do, and how to manipulate them. It helps kids build both gross and fine motor skills, helps them sit in a chair and hold a pencil. Body awareness is learned by doing, so we can support them with simple games that involve the purposeful movement of individual body parts like “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” or “Simon Says.”
We can help kids understand boundaries by strengthening their spatial awareness. Spatial awareness works with body awareness. The terms are often used interchangeably, but they are different. Spatial awareness is the ability to recognize how much space the body takes up, how much space the body needs to maneuver around objects and people, how to move the body through space, and how to understand space. It depends on body awareness to make judgments about space, but that is where the connections end. For example, a child judges where his body is when he gets in a line to go to the playground, using his body awareness to make that judgment. He must also determine if the space available is big enough for his body, using his spatial awareness. We can help kids practice spatial awareness with easy activities like crawling through a tunnel or moving through a maze built out of blocks.
One of our favorite games to practice both body and spatial awareness is Color Touch.
GOALS: Children should know their colors and most of their body parts.
SKILLS: Body Awareness, Spatial Awareness
EQUIPMENT: Several colors of poly spots, construction paper, or paper plates – enough for each child to have one of each color.
SET UP: Scatter the poly spots or plates all around the play space.
TRANSITION IN: Have the children go to a starting place with their toes on a line or their backs against a wall. The starting place should be as far from the spots as possible so the children will get some aerobic movement when moving to the spots.
- Do you see the spots on the ground?
- Are they the same color?
- Do you think you know most of your body parts?
EXPLAIN THE GAME:
I will call out a color and a body part. When I say “GO,” you will go put that body part on a spot that is the color I called out. For example, if I said “Put your thumb on green – GO,” you would run to a green spot and put your thumb on it. Find your own green spot – there are enough for everyone! Once everyone finds a green spot for their thumb, you run back, and we will try again.
Thumb = green
Elbow = blue
Knee = red
Heel = pink
Ear = yellow
Belly Button = orange
TRANSITION OUT: Have the children pick up the pieces of paper and return them to you.
Once we can allow children to share a spot, you can use this game to strengthen spatial awareness even more. Put out only a few spots of each color so the children must share each spot. Then the children will have to negotiate sharing the spots and determine how to fit several children around each one. Children also get a chance to do some deductive reasoning. When they realize where the right color spot is because they see their friends gathered around it.
As we continue to navigate pandemic-related restrictions, look for ways for children to develop key skills that are usually built through physical closeness.