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The Hummingbird Syndrome: Children Who Flit About During Play Time
By Sandra Crosser, Ph.D.

You know Erin. She would make a perfect hummingbird, flitting from one activity to the next, stopping just long enough to dump a puzzle, stir the sand, stack a few blocks, and then quickly make a few strokes at the easel. Along the way she makes it a point to warn Scott about the danger of cutting himself with scissors, tell Jenny she is stacking the blocks too high, and berate Jason for using the wrong colors in his "ugly" picture. Erin's flight completed, she crashes to the floor and loudly chirps that there is nothing for her to do.

Erin is four and you suspect she is already in trouble. Because of her behavior, the other children tend to avoid her. Her teacher suggests that Erin may have been Dana Carvey's inspiration for his popular Church Lady character-self-righteous, inflexible, demanding, and a bit of a show-off.

Why Do Children Behave This Way?
Erin's social-emotional development may indicate that she is negatively resolving a developmental task or crisis described by Erik Erikson (1963, 1980) in his theory of lifetime emotional development. According to the theory, people are faced with specific emotional conflicts during various seasons of their lives. Individuals tend to resolve each of these conflicts or crises more or less positively or negatively. If the crisis is resolved in a generally positive manner, a virtue, or good feature, becomes part of the personality or character. If the crisis is resolved in a particularly negative manner, the virtue does not become part of the personality and some predictably negative characteristics begin to emerge.

Sometime around the age of four the child faces a crisis Erikson termed initiative vs. guilt. When resolved positively, the child gains the virtue of a sense of purpose. She is confident in her ability to make a plan and carry out that plan. Play becomes purposeful and concentrated. The child builds confidence in him- or herself.

Can Erin Develop Initiative?
Erin is not doomed. Given appropriate experiences, she can rework this crisis toward a more positive resolution. However, she cannot control the manner in which adults respond to her efforts. Therefore, it becomes the caregiver's responsibility to fashion opportunities for the child to become creatively involved in an environment that promotes individual initiative and makes it likely that the child's efforts will be successful. The young child must experience encouragement and success as she attempts new activities. When parents and other caregivers support the child's plans and self-initiated activities, they are helping the child toward a positive resolution of the crisis and promoting the child's sense of initiative. Children who have this sense of initiative feel confident in their ability to make plans and carry out those plans.

How Can Caregivers Promote Success?
There are many ways an adult can facilitate a child's efforts to succeed. Some practical strategies caregivers might use include scheduling large blocks of child-directed play time in a carefully prepared environment, modeling planning behaviors, encouraging verbalization of plans, engaging children in curricular planning, using children's literature to increase awareness of how others plan, and encouraging children to share their plans and problem-solve together.

1.       Schedule a long, uninterrupted period for free choice play time. When blocks of time are too short, children do not have adequate time to become deeply engaged in an activity. Plans are thwarted. Christie and Wardle (1992) recommend a minimum of 30 minutes of uninterrupted time because, given shorter play times, children tend to be unoccupied observers or engage in simplistic play. Sufficient time for play extends the complexity of the activities and gives shy or apprehensive children the time they need to feel comfortable joining others.


2.       Structure the environment so the child will be likely to experience success. Frequently change theme-based dramatic play centers to facilitate planning (Soundy & Genisio, 1994). Provide materials and equipment appropriate to the child's level of skills and abilities. For example, make certain that scissors will cut easily. Include left-handed scissors for lefties. Provide a variety of materials and supplies at a level where children can obtain what they need without asking for help. Place tape, paper, markers, string, staplers, yarn, rubber bands, and a treasure box of "found" materials such as cloth scraps or foam meat trays in the same inviting place every day. When a child knows she has access to items that will help her make her idea a reality, she is more likely to think of ways to solve the problems she encounters along the way.


3.       Avoid teacher-directed play. Expect children to create their own play experiences within the stimulating environment you have carefully prepared. Then ask enabling questions. What could you do with the wood and nails? How could you make menus for your restaurant? Could you use these rubber stamps to help make money for your store? What could you use to make the boxes stay together? What things will you need in order to give the doll a bath?


4.       Adults can model planning and problem-solving strategies for children. When making plans to accomplish daily classroom chores, teachers can think out loud for the benefit of the children. Use words such as plan, change, decide, problem, solve, first, next, last when describing strategies. Metacognition, or monitoring our own thinking, can be taught to children. When children are exposed to adult ways of organizing their thinking, they are able to adopt those strategies to reorganize their own thinking successfully (Liberty & Ornstein, 1973). Children can become more efficient at thinking about their own thinking if they are exposed to adults who model mental organizational strategies.


5.       Ask children to verbalize their plans. Occasionally encourage individual children to tell you what center they will choose to work in first that day. Then ask what they plan to do. Tell children that you are excited to see how that plan will work, then check in on the play from time to time.

Hohmann (1991) observed that children in a center setting varied in the complexity of their planning as well as in their abilities to verbalize those plans. While some children initially may only be able to point at a toy, others may be able to name what they plan to do or even describe the activity in great detail. Verbal representations of intentions may range from brief sketches to complicated blueprints. However, given practice and models to imitate, children can become skilled planners.


6.       Engage children in curricular planning. Use the interests of the class in making decisions about the subject matter for the year. Even if the curriculum is rigidly dictated, children can become involved in planning field trips and suggesting ideas for how the group can find answers to its questions.

Parties can even be an opportunity for children to plan. What games will be played? What will be served? Will parents be invited? If your school or center puts on performances for parents, create opportunities for children to become involved in the decision-making. What favorite songs will be sung? Will they recite any fingerplays? How will the invitations look? How can the classroom be made ready?


7.       Use children's literature to increase the child's awareness of how others plan and solve problems that arise in the process. As stories are read, ask children to verbalize the character's plan or make predictions about whether or not the plan will succeed.

Invite children to problem-solve for story characters. For example, in Ezra Jack Keats's The Snowy Day, Peter's plan to save his snowball does not work. Ask children to think of what Peter could have done with the snowball so he would be able to keep it for tomorrow. Sometimes characters change their plans as the plot progresses. Encourage children to tell how or why the plan changed. Did the change make a better plan?


8.       Encourage children to share their plans and problem-solve together. Set aside a time at the end of the day for children to show and tell others about what they did. This is one of the most meaningful uses of show and tell. Elicit additional ideas and questions from the group. Be positive. Encourage problem solving. If a plan didn't work, have the group offer suggestions that might work tomorrow. Then try out the ideas.

Helping Individual Children Learn to Plan
In the case of some children, like our hypothetical Erin, the wise adult might work with the child individually. Life experiences may have taught Erin either that her ideas are not worthwhile or that she is not capable enough to accomplish what she sets out to do. The caregiver can combat Erin's feelings of guilt by individually helping her set realistic, accomplishable goals. A few minutes spent with Erin in a planning conference each day will demonstrate to the child that her ideas are valuable.

Through skillful questioning the teacher can assist the child in formulating a plan, organizing the steps that will be necessary to follow, and locating the equipment and materials that will be needed. The teacher might need to help the child get started and then check in on the progress from time to time. The child will be able to sense that the caregiver has faith in her and will offer assistance when necessary. Start out with a simple plan that takes minimal time to accomplish. As the child builds confidence, plans may become more complex.

The caregiver needs to reinforce the fact that the child made a plan and finished it. This can be accomplished in several ways. For example, Erin could dictate a simple record of her accomplishments in her own plan book. Perhaps she could show and tell her project to the class. The teacher could highlight children's self-initiated projects in a class newsletter.

Classroom hummingbirds who flit from one activity to the next need to be assured that they are capable of initiating and completing their own special plans for play. Through thoughtful intervention, the caregiver can facilitate a positive resolution of Erikson's initiative vs. guilt crisis, enabling children to engage in purposeful, constructive play so vital to the young child's social and emotional development.

Sandra Crosser, Ph.D. is an associate professor at Ohio Northern University.

Christie, J.F., & Wardle, F. (1992). How much time is needed for play?Young Children, 47 (3), 28-31.

Erikson, E.H. (1963).Childhood and society. (2nd ed.) New York: Norton.

Erikson, E.H. (1980).Identity and the life cycle. New York Norton.

Hohmann, M. (1991). The many faces of childhood planning. High/Scope Resource, Spring/Summer, 4-6.

Liberty, C., & Ornstein, P.A. (1973). Age differences in organization and recall: The effects of training in categorization. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 15, 169-186.

Soundy, C.S., & Genisio, M.H. (1994). Asking young children to tell the story. Childhood Education, 71(110), 20-23.

Suggested Books for Children

The Big Seed, by Ellen Howard
Blueberries for Sale, by Robert McCloskey
Caps for Sale, by Esphyr Slobodkina
Carrot Seed, by Ruth Krauss
A Chair for My Mother, by Vera B. Williams
Katy and the Big Snow, by Virginia Lee Burton
Look, by Michael Grejniec
Miss Tizzy, by Libba Moore Gray
No Roses for Harry, by Gene Zion
Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, by Charlotte Zolotow
Spaghetti for Suzy, by Peta Coplans
Strega Nona, by Tomie dePaola