Next Step Therapy Blog: Give Your Child the Gift of ‘Experiences’

Tracy 1Tracy Cowles, CEO and owner of Next Step Therapy, submitted the following article – “Give Your Child the Gift of ‘Experiences.”

All pediatric therapists (whether they will admit it or not), have “favorite” little clients that they absolutely adore. Kids that they discharge from the program at three years old, never see again, but still think of ten years later. One of my all-time favorites was Bradley*. He wasn’t the best looking, smartest, funniest or cuddliest kid I ever worked with, but that little stinker grabbed my heart and dug in. I would pay money to know how he is now.

Bradley’s life was difficult in some ways, and not the norm. His father had never been named, and therefore wasn’t involved. Mom was very young, very troubled, and often absent. Bradley lived with Grandma. Grandma was a big woman (no fat-shaming on this blog since I’m carrying around an extra sixty pounds), and her size limited her mobility and her energy level. Grandma was also either on disability or welfare.

Despite those things, Grandma loved Bradley to pieces. As compared to many caregivers that I’ve witnessed who spent all day watching Judge Judy, on the computer, or on their phone, Grandma gave Bradley a nearly unlimited amount of her time and attention. Bradley was forever on her lap or beside her on the couch, and they played, read books, and cuddled. Bradley was clearly loved.

Bradley was developmentally delayed – he had trouble with the basics, like a limited vocabulary, difficulty putting words together, trouble with preschool puzzles. Due to these difficulties, Bradley was provided with a speech therapist (me), an occupational therapist, and a teacher, who all visited weekly for an hour. After several months of therapy, where Bradley made significant progress, one of the other therapists mentioned that she thought Bradley was intellectually challenged (i.e. had a low IQ).

I disagreed. I felt that Bradley was leading an extremely small and isolated existence, and that part of his issues (at least) were that he had very little life experience to work with. In two and a half years, Bradley had been at the Pediatricians office, Walmart, McDonald’s drive through, grandma’s house, and one of grandmas’ friends’ houses. Period. The family did not have a car, and therefore used the small vans provided by the county to get where they needed to go. Therefore, they only went where they needed to go. Many times, Bradley was left at home with a family member when Grandma had to go somewhere.

Think about this for a minute. Bradley is cruising three years old. He has never been to a restaurant, never been to a mall, never been on a “field trip” just for fun. No day care, no preschool. No car ride just to see the world.

Everything that has ever happened to Bradley happened in his own house, with typically one person present, with his small assortment of ten to twelve toys. Why couldn’t he do a puzzle? Because he had never had a puzzle. Why didn’t he talk much? Well, what did he have to talk about? Him and grandma, the ten to twelve toys (which he was sick of), and what they did for the day (breakfast, lunch, dinner, bath, potty, watching TV).

Here is what broke my heart, and endeared Bradley to me. Bradley loved to learn new things. He got so excited when I brought him something new. That kid tried so hard. I knew that if by some miracle I got to take Bradley home with me, and took him with my two sons to everything that we did, that Bradley would blossom. His world would have expanded and opened up.

It broke my heart that Bradley would go to kindergarten in two years, sit in a room with twenty-two other kids, and be clueless.

You see, when the teacher introduced a new story, maybe about going to the zoo, most of those other children in their first five years of life would have gone to one. They would know what the teacher and the story were talking about. Bradley would have to try to use his imagination and guess. Would Bradley understand that zoos were real, or would he think it was make-believe?

From Bradley’s perspective, all food came from either Walmart or McDonalds. He had no concept that there were specialty stores that only sold clothes, or shoes, or jewelry. He knew from books that there were such things as cows, but had no concept of how big they were, let alone how much their patties stunk. I could go on for seven pages about what Bradley didn’t know, but you get the point.

Does it matter? Yes, it does.

There are those of us that read at a seventh grade level, understanding the basics, able to ferret out the important information, able to fill out an application.
Then, there are those of us that read at a critical evaluation level, reading books for entertainment to take us to new and different worlds.

Reading at a critical evaluation level means being able to visualize the setting and the characters in your head, putting yourself in the heroines place….it’s a whole different level. Its asking yourself questions about what you’ve read, evaluating things like whether the main character was consistent throughout the book….being able to read a book and determine if it felt real. Being able to read a book and have its words change your point of view.

I believe with all of my heart that a child who reads a story about a beach, but has never been at a beach, struggles with new vocabulary and new concepts. They can’t “make” themselves be there. Likewise, a child who has been to a beach reading a story about the beach can feel the sand between their toes, feel the breeze on their face, feels the chill when they wade into the water, and tastes the salt on their lips.

Two entirely different experiences.

In general, the more experiences a child has, the more vocabulary they will be exposed to, the more “world knowledge” they will have (I know how that works! I know why people do that!), and the easier school becomes.

A simple trip to a sit down restaurant introduces the concept of waiting your turn in line, being seated by a host, a large menu with many choices, ordering in order, the concept of courses (appetizer, salad, main course, and desert), refills, tipping, and excellent practice learning to keep yourself busy while waiting.

Vocabulary can involve waiter vs waitress vs server, all of the food dishes available, why the foods are grouped the way they are in the menu, and the different jobs available at the restaurant (host, server, dishwasher, line cook, salad bar, manager). I’ll bet you never thought about how much information your child comes in contact with at a restaurant!

I want to make it clear that I am not disparaging Bradleys’ grandmother, at all. On the contrary, I admire her very much. He could have easily been in the foster system, but grandma stepped up. She provided for him, kept him safe and fed, and surrounded him with love. I simply wish that she had been able to help Bradley see the bigger, outside world, and all of the knowledge that comes with it.

I also realize that when we think about “experiences” it’s only natural for the “biggies” to pop into your head, like a trip to Disney World. While I think traveling with kids is fabulous, that’s not what I’m talking about here. Kids benefit from the most basic of experiences…if it’s new to them, it’s probably good for them.

Here are some examples of things to introduce your kids to, at low to no cost:

1. Farms – drive by, or look on the internet for farms that give tours.
2. Camping – don’t buy a trailer or rent a cabin – borrow a tent and camp out in the back yard.
3. Look up activities to do in your county and the neighboring counties on the internet: most areas have festivals, parades, light-up nights, etc. that you can attend for free.
4. Go to the library and get a library card. Many libraries offer story time and other activities for free.
5. Check out activities at your local YMCA. I am a huge supporter of swim lessons for all. Can’t afford a Y membership? Ask about their scholarship program.
6. Invest in bicycles for the whole family and tackle the local bike trails – great exercise and many experiences with geography, land forms, and wildlife.
7. Go bird watching.
8. Plant a garden, just once, so your kids can see how much work it is, and how long things take to grow. If you end up with seventy-five zucchini’s and two tomatoes….we’ll that’s a lesson in itself!
9. Many communities have “concert in the park” type shows. Take the kids and expose them to various types of music and instruments.
10. Get on your local shopping mall website. They frequently have weekend “shows” where they bring in racecars, campers, boats, etc. Totally free, but your child gets to see things up close.
11. Find and attend “open houses” such as maple syrup manufactures, factories.
12. Consider allowing your child to join a group such as Boy or Girl Scouts or 4H. Again, if you don’t have membership money, ask if there is a scholarship program. These groups frequently have weekly meetings with a “lesson” on a different topic every week (from bicycle safety to tying knots). They also provide many, many activities, from being in parades to camping to volunteer work.

This is a true story, and I hope it makes you think. I was PTO president/vice president for a few years at my children’s school. As such, I was partially responsible for providing the field trips that the students took annually. One teacher, in an effort to make our committee understand how important these trips were, shared this.

The previous year she had taken the 5th and 6th grade classes on buses to the Carnegie Science Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As they were driving through the city, a 6th grade boy piped up, “Wow, there must be a big funeral going on here today.” When the teacher asked why he would think that, he replied, “Well, look at all of the people in suits.” The teacher was flabbergasted. This twelve year old boy, living in a little rural county in Western Pennsylvania, had no concept that people wore dress clothes to work for professional jobs. In his world, dress clothes were for funerals, only.

Here’s my question: How could we even begin to think that this young man will set his sights on a job in banking, finance, or the law, when he clearly doesn’t even know those types of jobs exist?

Give your kids the gift of experiences, to help them gain world knowledge. You won’t be sorry!


*name changed to respect confidentiality

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