Ages & Stages: Boundaries

How children discover where they end and others begin

  • Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K

0 to 2 Figuring Out Spatial Relations

by Carla Poole

Squeals of delight fill the air as six-month-old Amanda and her teacher play a tickling game. They share smiles and eye contact until Amanda looks away from Karen, sending the signal: "I need a little quiet time now." Karen reads her cues and lowers her intensity, giving the baby time to regroup.

Babies enjoy physical contact, and holding them helps to promote development, but teachers need to link their actions to the signals an infant sends. This helps Baby organize herself and discover, "What kind of physical interactions are comfortable for me?"

Becoming Aware of Others

Babies are clearly fascinated by other babies, but they tend to treat each other like interesting inanimate objects! Crawling babies often become a bundle of bodies, climbing on top of and over each other James, a contented 12-month-old, for example, crawls up to another baby and leans toward his fellow baby's cheek, mouth wide open. James is eager to make physical contact, but his open-mouth kiss may quickly turn into an exploratory bite! The baby's intent is not to hurt but rather to investigate.

At around 12 months, toddlers begin to understand spatial relationships and develop an awareness of distances between people and things. It's fascinating to observe a novice walker begin to judge distances. Little Melissa, for example, spies a favorite teacher a few feet away The toddler pauses, evaluating the situation as she considers letting go-"Am I close enough? Will I make it to her?" Gathering up her courage and balance, the child teeter totters over just making it to her teacher!

A toddler's individual temperament influences how close or far she roams from her teachers. An active or fearless toddler may move away without a backward glance. This toddler needs a vigilant teacher-it helps if you are quick on your feet! because she will get herself into situations that she does not know how to handle, like climbing to the top of a steep slide or bookcase. Conversely, a shy or cautious toddler may need extra encouragement to investigate. There is no need ever to push a quiet child to move away from you or into an activity that is uncomfortable for her. Just be sure to offer gentle encouragement so that she senses your belief that the world is a safe place for her to explore.

Growing Coordination

After around 18 months, the toddler's physical coordination begins to really take off! Typical nonstop toddler movement helps to build muscles, coordination, and balance. At 24 months, for example, Jason is now able to gently squeeze between two children sitting on the rug. Taking deliberate, small steps he slowly edges past them by walking sideways. This is a remarkable development when just a few months ago he would have tried to toddle through the children instead of around them. This time, he had the necessary coordination and patience for his impressive maneuvering. Next time, he may be too tired or frustrated and return to pushing past his friends-common behavior for twos. However with lots of encouragement and affectionate guidance, he is well on his way to learning how to manage his physical boundaries within a group of his peers.

What You Can Do

  • Be sure there is lots of open space for the toddlers to practice their walking skills. Since they are just learning, they need long runways for their takeoffs and landings!
  • Encourage chasing games and simple hide-and-seek games to give toddlers a playful way to practice moving away and coming back together, an important toddler activity!

3 to 4 Developing a Sense of Others 

by Susan A. Miller, EdD 

Egocentric young preschoolers often see the world from the confines of their own narrow points of view For instance, at story time, when Franklin sits down in front of Laura jean and blocks her view of the pictures, she cries out, "Franklin won't let me see the book." By age four, however children have broadened their social horizons and are aware of where their physical presence stops and the bodies of others begin. They play with several other children in cooperative groups and can look at things from another's viewpoint: "Don't walk over there," Aisha tells Patrice. "You'll break Timmy's tower and he'll cry."

An Expanding World

As preschoolers develop larger vocabularies, they scale social and cognitive boundaries. Greater receptive language lets the outside world in. For instance, Mario asks, "What's that sound?" His teacher replies, "That is a katydid." Armed with this new word, Mario interprets for his friend Joe, "That's a katydid." They exchange ideas as Mario suggests, "Let's hop away like the grasshoppers."

Threes are ready to expand their boundaries beyond their families, as evidenced by Fidel telling about a past event: "I rode the horse at the mall." Most fours are full of energy. They need to take risks on their own terms (though teachers subtly need to provide appropriate supervision). Shelby volunteers: "I'll take the crayons across the hall to Mrs. Ford's room if Leanne comes too." Having a friend along makes the child feel safe as he goes beyond the boundaries of his classroom.

If preschoolers can't physically go to investigate new resources, they need to have experiences brought to them. Josh enthusiastically explains: "When the firefighter came to school, I wore his big boots!" Later when Josh fantasizes about being a firefighter his imagination will know no boundaries!

Now Self Confidence

As children's sense of social boundaries grows, so does their understanding of their own physical limitations. Using his visual perception as a guide, four-year-old Akmel wonders about a new piece of playground climbing equipment. "If I swing my legs over to the firefighter's pole, will I fall?" he asks himself. After practicing for a few days with his teacher nearby, Akmel holds on tightly and swings his legs over confidently. "Look how fast I'm going now. I'm sliding way down."

Certain environmental or genetic forces may influence whether or not a child is confined by imposed boundaries or is able to broaden her horizons. For instance, normally exuberant four-year-old Tara may seem less inclined to be a daredevil on the slide until the ear infection which has diminished her hearing clears up. Marc, however doesn't let his permanent hearing impairment stand in his way. With adaptive equipment, including a hearing aid and keyboard, he is able to communicate with others. The other children in the class have been learning sign language too-something that levels boundaries between Marc and his classmates right now and also helps the children understand that they can look for solutions to help them surmount boundaries.

What You Can Do

  • Eliminate artificial boundaries by providing open-ended art materials such as big pieces of paper and paint.
  • Help children recognize the concept of personal space. Before you begin circle time, invite preschoolers to sit with their legs like pretzels and their bottoms on the floor and to use their arms to create a "bubble space" around them.
  • Break through language and cultural barriers by learning essential words in new languages and by sharing customs, holiday activities, and food experiences.

5 to 6 Learning to Operate in the World

by Ellen Booth Church

"He's sitting on me!" "I can't see. " "Why do you always knock over my building when you walk by?" "You are too close to me. Back off, will you?"

Sound familiar? These are the sounds of kindergarten children learning how to operate in a large (and often close) group. Their appreciation of personal boundaries is heightened at this age as they become more and more aware of what constitutes their own personal space and what belongs to others.

Defining Personal Boundaries

Fives and sixes are very vocal about their own space and place. They know when they are being "invaded," and they make it quite clear that they don't like it. (This is different from much younger children who can be more forgiving-or blissfully unaware-of intrusions on personal space.) Fives and sixes may not know how to fix the problem, but they do know it doesn't feel good.

Kindergartners are also becoming more independent than threes and fours, so they are not as "up close and personal." While they want to hug and cuddle, they do not demand adult touch and attention in the same way Whereas younger children love to run up to any adult who enters the room, lives and sixes are more cautious of new people. They might watch and wait before they request attention and then it may be from a more respectful distance.

The second step in the process of understanding personal boundaries is developing an awareness of other children's personal boundaries. Here is where some inconsistencies show up. While fives and sixes are very clear about their own boundaries, they are still egocentric enough to be less aware of others. This particularly happens in large groups when they may try to sit on top of each other in order to get as close as possible to the teaches book, or show-and-tell item. In addition, most kindergartners like to be first in everything. This can include wildly raising their hands at group time and being totally unaware of hitting someone in the process!

A child's growing knowledge of his own space and place is a self-awareness skill that assists children in developing a sense of kindness, compassion, and community-key elements we all use in living a good life.

What You Can Do

  • Use movement games for developing children's awareness of their own and others' energy fields. While moving freely to music, invite children to feel their own personal space "bubble" around them. Have them -dance their container or bubble" around the room. Ask: "What do you feel when your bubble gets too close to someone else's? How can you keep from breaking your bubble or others'?"
  • Demonstrate cause-and-effect relationships in personal boundaries. Help children see and feel what happens to others when they push or interrupt others. You might make statements such as: "When you step on others, they get hurt. Remember to put out your `antennas' when you are walking around other children's work, so you don't knock it over."
  • Try focusing also on children's voice volume as a type of personal boundary. What happens when we get too loud? How does that feel? What can we do differently?

This article originally appeared in the March, 2000 issue of Early Childhood Today.

  • Subjects:
    Body Parts, Early Social Skills, Social and Emotional Development, Physical Development
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