How to democratically create a project based day with your 4 to 7 year old

At this late preschool/early elementary age little ones are well on their way toward independence. They have made it past the twos and threes and they are getting more and more capable but the world is still a very big place for them. The expectations of their parents or caregivers have also gotten bigger. They might be going to school or starting formal learning at home. We try and teach them how to read and how to work with numbers. We want them to get dressed on their own and help with chores. We might be adding a new sibling to the family, forcing our once babies to become the brave new big siblings.

As adults we have so much on our minds, so many responsibilities and things we are keeping track of. But at this stage our little ones’ lives are still defined by play. They think everything is play whether it is bubble bath time, getting dressed, helping around the house, or doing a math sheet. But their questions and ideas are getting bigger and they often need a lot of input and feedback from the grown ups in their lives. They aren’t fully independent yet and understanding that we are not merely an extension of them is an abstract concept that doesn’t really compute. If we can understand their perspective we have the opportunity to transform a lot of conflict and whininess (which lets be honest we will mostly deal with by too much screen time!) and guide the little ones in our care towards competence and empathy.

Democratic parenting is meeting in the middle with mutual respect and compassion. It will not do away with conflict by a long shot, but it will at least create a strong foundation of trust.

So first, why should the process be democratic? If you are new to the idea of what a democratic family is and how it works, I highly (highly, highly!!) recommend listening to and reading Akilah S. Richards’s work. She has a couple books and five full seasons and counting of an amazing podcast, all of which will help you create a family that is equal and free for all members. Briefly (as is possible anyway, this is a big topic), children aren’t born subjugated. They have a strong sense of what is right and wrong for them and when the adults in their lives go against that basic survival instinct it causes harm and suffering. However, we, their protectors, providers, and caretakers also have a perspective that is valuable, not to mention our own stuff that we’ve got to deal with moment to moment. And democratic parenting is meeting in the middle with mutual respect and compassion. It will not do away with conflict by a long shot, but it will at least create a strong foundation of trust.

Second, why project-based? Well, remember how little ones at this stage still think everything is play? There’s no point telling them to stop goofing around when they are looking for their shoes or eating their lunch. It’s all a game to them! And maybe that’s the wisdom that they carry. The older we get, the more of that wisdom we lose hold on as the weight of the world settles on our shoulders. Life with people this age can remind us that getting through the day is one big project and the more we make it about practice and fun the happier we will all be.

The third important word is “with.” Even as these fledglings begin to flutter their wings they aren’t quite ready to head off on their own. At this age they are mimics who want to do everything along side their caretakers. So if we can understand that about them, we can work that into our design for the day, mitigating frustration when they keep coming back to us instead of completing some task we sent them off to do. Another important part of the word “with” is that it is not the word “for.” This plan won’t work at all if we do it for them. Then it just becomes another thing that is too big and too outside of their control. On the other hand, there are many things that they want us to do “for” them. Clean up their toys. Make them lunch. Find their coats and shoes. When we do too much for our little ones we can end up becoming their servants and entertainers. We pile more and more onto our plates until we become frustrated and our little ones are bored and lethargic. Instead we can turn “for” into “with” and they learn to make their own sandwiches, play with soapy water while the dishes get washed, and keep their own shoes and coats where they will be able to find them themselves.

Now, lets create!

  1. You can use anything to write your plan on, from a white board that you erase everyday to an easel with butcher paper or a notebook so you can keep a record as you go – or in my case, the back of a paper bag! Whatever you choose, the important thing is that your little one feels like it is their list. If they can write, let them do it themselves. If they are more at the coloring stage you can make big block letters that they can fill in. Let them cover it with stickers and decorate the margins.
  2. Under the date, make a section for “Ideas.” This is where the two of you brainstorm everything that they want to do in the day. Nothing is off limits in this part. It might start out something like this, “Ice cream, Watch TV, Do video games, Eat candy.” They suggest things and you suggest things. You might add, “Get dressed, Take a bath, Do two math sheets, Eat a healthy lunch.” You can ask them what makes them feel healthy and happy and encourage them to add it to the list. Circle the things on this list that you will be doing together. “Walk to the park, Wash dishes, Buy groceries, Read stories.”
  3. Now, since you are doing this democratically, and their day also involves you, make a section for the things that you need to do that they can’t do with you. Things like, “Make a phone call, Take a shower, Nurse the baby, Pay the bills…” you know, adulting stuff.
  4. At this point you have two lists with some things you are doing together and some things you will do separately. Match up the things you need to get done with the things they can do independently. Discuss anything that isn’t a good fit for the day, but make a plan for when they might be possible in the future. If you don’t have ice cream, put it on the shopping list and plan to have it for desert after a healthy dinner soon. If they have trouble turning off video games once they get started, plan to do that activity at the end of the day and make an agreement about how long to play them.
  5. Finally write numbers next to each item to pick the order in which you will do them. If you want to take a shower first, then write “1” next to the activity they will do while you do that. As you go through the day you can use the preplanned sequence to prompt moving on to the next thing. Your little one will have things to look forward to doing with you and will have had a say in what and when they do things independently. You can also make a section for notes about what to do differently the next day, or what to save for later.

Some kids are quite flexible and easily adjust to changes that will have to be made to the plan while others will have a hard time. Some will hold their caretakers to the agreement as if it was signed in blood under a full moon! But these are useful teaching moments. You made the plan together and you can discuss changing it together. You will gain more trust, respect, and empathy for each other as you go!

Look for as many opportunities as possible to turn tasks throughout the day into “with’s.” If you find your little one frustrated by how many hours you are spending breastfeeding the new baby, create a robust list of activities you can do with one hand that you both look forward to. If the housework has piled up, ask for their input on how to get on top of it. Here are a few resources to throw into the mix:

  • Turn on an episode of Cosmic Kids Yoga for your little one while you do your own yoga or stretches alongside.
  • Learn a new language together on Duolingo.
  • Find a show you can watch together – there’s a lot of quality kids programs that aren’t mind-numbing, and anyway, if it’s not good for you it’s probably not good for them either. Try Tumble Leaf on Amazon Prime Video, or Sarah and Duck on YouTube!
  • If your little one loves to be read to, but you find yourself nodding off after two or three pages, Scholastic has your back. They created a whole series of classic picture books read aloud by talented voice actors with amazing musical soundtracks. Check your library for DVD copies. You can find digital copies online, but availability goes in and out.

Most of all, have fun and have fun together!

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