Cultivating Capacity to Contemplate Complex Concepts

By: Diane Kashin, EdD, RECE.

When my grandchildren visit I am constantly curiously observing. When I observe with curiosity I wonder why they are interested in the experiences that they find engaging. Reese who is three, likes playing with small, even tiny loose parts. What does this mean? If you are thinking developmentally, and fine motor comes to mind, it would be the obvious answer. It is not so simple. Children’s brains are complex. Their experiences and identity are uniquely their own. I don’t have the right answers when I wonder what Reese is thinking. I have theories and being curious keeps me observing intently, listening, and thinking.

Reese’s pretend play often involves taking care of others who are sick or in need of first aid. What does this interest mean? When I described her play to a group of early childhood educators, more than one responded to say that it meant that Reese wanted to be a doctor when she grew up. Perhaps, but if we are going to really consider children’s capacity to contemplate complex concepts we need to go beyond the simple answers. When we engage our brains to think about children’s thinking, it is a form of metacognition. It is intentionally thinking about thinking, the act of which will reveal that children are capable of contemplating complex concepts that can form the basis of an emergent curriculum.

My heart swells when I watch Reese pretend to be a teacher, as she skillfully holds up a book. I smile as I remember the many times, as an early childhood education professor, I shared the skill of holding a book so that it can be seen. If you are thinking that Reese wants to follow in her Bubbie’s (grandmother) footsteps to become an early childhood educator, again I would suggest that it is not so simple. There is complexity to be considered. Complexity is the quality of being intricate and complicated. This is a quality that we all share. When I observe Reese at play, I theorize that her interests are more complex and conceptual. Concepts are abstract ideas. I wonder if Reese is actually interested in the notion of being kind and loving? Was she thinking what it feels like to be in need and what could be done to befriend and help another?

I know Reese has loving and kind teachers. I hope she feels the love deeply and sees teaching as  an act of love. If this becomes a part of her identity she will be able to do good deeds, to make the world a kinder place. Tikkun olam is a concept in Judaism that speaks to repairing the world. Being Jewish is a part of my identity that I know so little about. When I become curious and want to know more about something that interests me, I look to my professional friends. I am so grateful for Deborah Schein, because when I told her about my interest, she invited her husband, Rabbi Schein on our call. The conversation inspired me to think about the need to repair the world from the inside. We can focus with children on what it means to be kind to ourselves, to accept and embrace our own identities while concurrently encouraging them to be kind to others. When we begin with and emphasize self then we can see beyond. This is what we can cultivate in early childhood education. When we cultivate something we intentionally work at making it stronger. Strength is a concept that Deborah has been contemplating lately. The idea of growing stronger to make others stronger, that is what cultivation is all about.

During our dialogue, Deb referenced an old children’s book by Joan Rothenberg, called Yettele’s Feathers. Of course, I had to order the book and it arrived yesterday. The story was inspired by an old Jewish folktale, and it evoked images of my ancestors. I could imagine what living together in a small town must have been like. It is a moral story, about how words can hurt and like feathers in a pillow, once released, cannot be returned. In the end, Yettele learns that others don’t want to hear her gossip. Instead, she finds her own voice and tell stories about her own life. The town’s children are enamoured and love to listen to her tales.

As a young teacher, I used to say, I was on a quest for the perfect preschool curriculum. The journey continues but now, I am seeking what would be a meaningful and important curriculum that can emerge from children’s experiences. There is no perfect. It is not that simple. I don’t have all the answers, but I know I must begin with self and spirit. I know to embrace love and kindness. Rabbi Jeff shared another concept called Gemilut hasadim which is the giving of loving-kindness. When the experiences children have are grounded in loving-kindness what interests might emerge? Do you think children will have the capacity to consider this deep and complex concept? When we take the time to listen closely and pause long enough to interpret play we can build theories about children’s complex thinking. What BIG IDEAS could emerge? BIG IDEAS like kindness and love are concepts that are meaningful to the lives of children.

Acts of kindness never die. They linger in the memory, giving life to other acts in return. ~ Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

9 thoughts on “Cultivating Capacity to Contemplate Complex Concepts

  1. Hi Diane Absolutely LOVE this!!! I’ve known Deb Schein for many years and have taken a couple of workshops with her at CAJE conference. Have you heard of the conference – new name though – NewCAJE. The conference this year is in New Jersey and I am gathering presenters for early childhood sessions. Would you be interested in joining us? I would love to meet you in person! Do you recall that we spoke during COVID – not sure what it was about at the moment, could probably find my notes, but the piles of notebooks and papers are overwhelming! Please let me know if that would be of interest to you… Shabbat Shalom Paula Hoffman


  2. Thank you for sharing your experiences with Reese and your thoughts about care and kindness as a part of love. I often wonder if we see ourselves in the curriculum and I have often asked this question of educators.
    How do you see your self (intentionally separated the words) in the curriculum?
    Many times educators were taken aback by this question. Yet it begs the following question
    Who am I?
    I wonder if knowing the self or oneself within the context and depths of critical reflection if one is able to examine the care, kindness and love in our knowing or connections to our identity. One’s identity is not superficial as the water droplets laying on the leaf after a shower but it transcends generations of narratives and the richness of the soil.


  3. This is a lovely proposal, love and kindness should be the first principle of every human system I think. I have a conviction, I think humans are naturally kind and human. I think children are purer in their kindness and interest to help one another and with enriching environments this grows and cultivates to be part of their lives. Not sure what happens with adults that we stop being human and pure naturally, it’s almost like we need to learn how to be human… completely ironic but true in most of the systema we’ve created. So definitely, children are able and capable of deep and complex human concepts by nature and we make sense of them(or not depending of the experiences) as we grow with every experience we live.


  4. Hi Diane, I wonder in your search for curriculum if you have found New Zealand’s Curriculum Te Whāirki and the work of Wendy Lee from Educational Leadership Project? Two of the curriculum strands are wellbeing and belonging- love and kindness sit nicely in there and arguably across the whole curriculum.


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