The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright–
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.
The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done–
“It’s very rude of him,” she said,
“To come and spoil the fun!”
–The Walrus and the Carpenter, Lewis Carroll
Lewis Carroll, best known as the author of Alice in Wonderland, was also known for his silly and nonsense poetry. The opening stanzas of “The Walrus and the Carpenter” are one of my favorite examples. It’s immediately silly to almost anyone who understands the English words, or who has had the poem translated for them, because the joke is dependent on understanding basic laws of nature. The sun rises and sets. That’s daytime. The moon or stars come out and it’s dark. That’s nighttime.
If you walk on the edge of a cliff, you might slip and fall. That’s gravity. If you climb a tree too high, you might step on a branch that can’t hold your weight, and it will break. If you jump in a pool without knowing how to swim, you either stand in the shallows or you drown. If you sleep in until eleven in the morning, the sun doesn’t wait for you. If you leave a matchbox car in the driveway where the real cars usually park, it gets crushed.
These are basic rules about the natural, physical world that most people can’t remember not knowing. Do you remember when you learned that gravity worked? Most of us go through the process as babies and toddlers, gaining information by experience and a correctly working grasp of cause and effect.
Unfortunately, for a lot of children with RAD, FAS, or on the autism spectrum, they have only a patchwork understanding of these laws. If they aren’t understood, some kids will make up their own rules in the mental absence. This means a child who is living, walking around, and playing in a world with foundational lies about what will happen to him in the physical world.
If you have a baby or a toddler, your baby is working on learning and understanding these things! And most babies will learn without any formal instruction or therapy if they aren’t dealing with brain or neurological issues.
You know you have a kid who doesn’t have a developed grasp of natural laws if you hear them say things like, “I won’t fall off this cliff [that I’m leaning over precariously], I’m not stupid.” He says this because he has assumed that, rather than gravity being a force outside of him, that he can control some element of the physical world. Of course he knows not to fall. That would be dumb. But all the variables that make other humans naturally cautious around cliffs (loose rocks or moss to slip on, other people walking by, stiff winds, etc.) are unavailable to this child. It’s like living in a world where a kind of precise mental algebra is required with a kid who still thinks he can make 2+2=5 if he just wants it enough.
So, what do you do? What do you do with this kid?
You make him play.
Water play is a great way to start. As an added bonus, if you’ve got a daredevil who doesn’t yet know how to swim, it can be a lot less stressful than going to the pool (although I highly recommend giving kids a chance to learn to swim, from you or someone else).
If you have a little kid or toddler, just bowls of water and cups and spoons on the back deck or in the yard are a great idea. Strip down to a diaper or put them in a bathing suit, expect them to get soaked, and let them go to town. Demonstrate pouring and scooping water.
A slightly older kid is ready for something more advanced. Try making boats out of paper (here’s just one, you can find lots more) and floating them in a bin or the bathtub. If your child ends up a little frustrated at a poorly made boat, talk through it if he’ll let you without resistance, drop it if he’s getting too upset. Either way, that solid wall of frustration he’s hitting (even if he says stuff like, “This is dumb, I hate this,”) is not you failing to educate or entertain, it’s the wall of natural laws and he will have to encounter those, often with frustration, to learn that they are beyond his manipulation or control.
You can do sink or float experiments with a bin or bowl of water and random household items. Use a piece of paper to keep track of what sinks and what floats if you want. Most kids who do this will get really excited by the first thing that surprises them, and then they will want to put everything in. Let them try! Exclude stuff that would be ruined by water unless it’s something you feel like you can replace– even a small paper thing being ruined is a good learning experience. Spoons sink, wood floats, what about spoons with a wooden handle? Keep going for as long as your kids are interested. You might be surprised at what they assume will float or sink– don’t mock them or tease them about it right now. This is true mental process coming to the surface and it will shut down if they feel like it’s making them vulnerable.
If you have an even older kid, wash the car! Scrub the sides of your house! Even if you don’t have a hose, toting buckets of water or bowls of water back and forth between the sink and the outside for washing something will be good. Mixing soap, scrubbing, and rinsing are exposing your kid to scientific processes of muscle and chemical composition that are teaching him something solid about the world around them, about forces he cannot change or redirect. Buckets of water are heavy and the only solution to one that is too heavy is to dump some of the water out.
Repeated exposure to processes and experiences like this are laying new foundational work in the brain. It will need to be repeated if you have a child with neurological issues or delays. This path has to be walked so often that, by use, it begins to take over and replace the old paths of understanding. And if you don’t have a child with delays or issues, this kind of play still stimulates and encourages a kind of mental work and creativity that will spill over into their understanding and other play.
So, grab some towels or catch a sunny day, turn on some faucets, and get ready to get soaked!
P.S. Just as an FYI, I’m not a personal fan of sensory projects. I hate being wet, for one thing. I’m not the biggest fan of being dirty. But you don’t have to be a parent that loves these things to still do them and engage in them for your kids! If this isn’t your favorite thing, don’t skip it because it’s not your thing– try it once in a while to see what your kid thinks! And just be okay with not liking it much, just like you do about taking them to get shots or making dinner. You already do necessary things without loving the activity, because you love your kids and know that it’s good for them!