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The Art of Observing The Natural Child

Updated: Sep 23, 2022

The Art of Observing The Natural Child

By Philip Mott


One of the challenges raising our young children is that time seems to go so quickly. After laundry, feedings, play, time with family, not to mention living life in general, it can feel like children grow up in the blink of an eye. There are some ways I’ve found to slow down father time, to “stop and smell the roses,” as it were. You won’t need scenic views or hours of prayer and meditation, just some time with your child in a safe place where she can explore freely.


Let’s be honest; children are much closer to wild animals than civilized humans. I’ve often been laying on the floor with one of our infants to have them lick whatever object is in reach, howl or bark, babble and sing randomly, and climb on top of me to grab my clothes or pull my hair. I’m like a wildlife photographer who has stumbled upon a young lion cub just playing by herself.

There’s a word we use to describe the emotions we often experience while observing our kids in this way: Awe. It’s that same feeling you get when you’ve found yourself in front of vast scenery, or you’ve experienced something completely new. Scientists think we experience awe when the brain is processing far more than it usually is. And since the brain is taking longer, it actually gives us the feeling that time has slowed down. (1)


Here’s how:


Set up a “yes” space

You need a space where your child can be safe without you needing to interrupt her, a space where the rules are obvious or at least very clear. Redirecting a child during play will often interrupt them, and it may take several minutes before they find something else to focus on. It’s a space where if she had to ask permission, the answer would be, “yes!”


Clear some time

You will want to have some time to be free of distractions yourself. This time is mostly for us. Time often seems to slow down when we can join them with no distractions of what tasks are next. Keep the phone on silent, be ready to snap some candid pictures, and get in a comfortable spot.


Let her explore

The only agenda for this time is to be open to the way your child is already learning and communicating. You’re not trying to teach anything; you can do that later. She can sit with you, crawl or walk around, play with safe objects, move things around, etc. Sometimes you’ll want to laugh, and sometimes you’ll be in awe of what is unfolding in front of you. Sometimes you’ll feel that you observed nothing, and that’s okay too. Remember, the goal is to see how she is communicating, not getting her to communicate anything specifically.


Become aware of your own emotions during this period. Many children will react to this new observation time by clinging and asking you to play. How you engage depends on you. If you want to play, play. If you’d rather not, then don’t. If you are starting to feel frustrated like it’s not working, be aware of that. You might consider excusing yourself and coming back to it later.

There were times when my emotions or distractions have gotten the better of me, and I couldn’t be present with them. I was there physically, but I was thinking of something else. Whenever I become aware of this, I try to pretend I’m in the wild again, watching that little lion cub who is allowing me to be part of her world for a time. Times like these have created opportunities for many of my favorite pictures of my children and some of my favorite memories. A lot of older people will wisely advise you, when they find out you have young children, to cherish the younger years. Hopefully, now, you’ll have a better idea of how to do that.


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1 Tse, P.U., Intriligator, J., Rivest, J. et al. Attention and the subjective expansion of time. Perception & Psychophysics 66, 1171–1189 (2004). https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03196844


ABOUT THE AUTHOR Philip Mott was a reluctant learner, turned elementary teacher, turned homeschooling father. After graduating high school with a GPA of 2.2 and then shifting often between jobs, he pursued higher education at the age of 26 and worked to earn a spot on the Dean’s List each semester. Five years of teaching led him to realize the timeline imposed on students was incongruent with the way learning most often happens. His experiences drove him to explore learning methods that honor the learner, the teacher, and learning itself. Philip lives in Indiana with his wife and three children and writes parenting and education advice for families on his website, www.philipmott.com.

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