3 to 4: Learning to Give and Take

by Susan A. Miller EdD

Julia, a 4-year-old, is icing some small cookies with her friends. They are just about to eat their tasty snack when 3-year-old Inez arrives at preschool with her mother. As she joins the group, she frowns, never taking her eyes off the cookies. Julia finally pushes her last cookie to be iced toward the 3-year-old so she can decorate and enjoy this wonderful snack too. Inez smiles, and her mother says to Julia, "Thanks for being so generous." Julia's teacher, Mrs. Gonzales, explains, "You were very kind and gave up something special to Inez when you saw that she wanted the cookie because she didn't have one."

As a 4-year-old, Julia is beginning to be able to see things from another child's perspective. Many fours are starting to attach importance to being generous and helpful to people, especially a best friend, rather than always focusing on possessions and materials. For example, when two 4-year-olds want to work on the same board at the workbench, one might say to the other, "You can have the wood, but remember I gave it to you to help you out!"

One reason for exhibiting this helpful behavior may be to help ensure that the child who receives the board will continue to play with the child who has given it up; however children this age are also learning about reciprocation. They may try to collect on a generous favor at a later time when they find themselves negotiating over something else. At an earlier stage, sharing or physically giving up a possession is difficult, especially for young threes. It is a little easier if the child is sure the sharing is temporary and she will get her item back soon.

When threes are offered special opportunities to assist and work alongside the significant adults in their lives, they are usually motivated and willing helpers. While playing in the housekeeping area, Emily, a 3-year-old, observes Mrs. Anderson, her teacher, folding the washed doll's clothes. She offers an invitation to Emily, "Come help me." Given this choice to join her teacher, Emily gladly gives up her play to help. Smiling, Emily explains, "I help Grandma fold the real laundry at home too."

Sometimes preschoolers do not appear generous or helpful in their behavior simply because they do not feel responsible for a problem or they believe their teacher will take care of the situation. With their still-developing cognitive and social skills, they may not understand the problem, and, therefore, may even appear to be unkind as they ignore it.

In addition, young children's individual temperaments and learning styles may influence their generosity. Children who have strong interpersonal skills or are reflective may demonstrate generosity quite naturally while other children will have a more difficult time helping and giving to others.

What You Can Do:

  • Demonstrate generous behavior throughout the day. Inspire sensitivity towards others. If a child needs a marker to complete a project, thoughtfully offer him yours. As you model this kind behavior, describe it aloud. "I can see you really need a marker. Please have mine."
  • Coach children so they can learn to be helpful. Explain, "Mark is thirsty and doesn't have any juice. What could you do?" Help them become aware of problems and another child's distress. Analyze their responses with them.
  • Use stories as an effective springboard to discuss generosity. Clifford's Good Deeds by Norman Bridwell is a great choice.
  • Celebrate nature's generosity. Take a walk and notice how the apple tree gives us food to eat or flowers to beautify our lives. Draw a mural or take photos to document the children sharing nature's generous gifts (apple picking, cooking and eating applesauce).
  • Show children how to accept another's generosity. Say, "Thank you," or "You are kind," when someone performs a generous act.

5 to 6: The Joy of Giving

by Ellen Booth Church

Darlene was struggling with her art project. Five-year-old Trish, noticing, says: "Here, I have a few pipe cleaners. You can use them if you want." With a surprised look on her face, Trish silently accepts the offer and begins using them. Too shy to say "thank you," she later smiles at Darlene as she completes her work.

There is something very personal about giving and receiving help and generosity. In fact, it can actually be difficult for young children to give and receive due to the intimacy of the acts. These actions, which often happen spontaneously on a one-on-one basis, can have a startling effect on children. While Darlene felt comfortable enough to initiate sharing her pipe cleaners, Trish was a bit uncomfortable about accepting them. Because of this, there was very little dialogue between the two children-but their actions and facial expressions spoke volumes. Some of the greatest early childhood shared experiences come from these little gifts of giving and receiving.

The Joys of Helping

Developmentally, 5- and 6-year-olds are capable of learning the deeper values of generosity and helping. At younger stages, children want to be helpful in order to be rewarded with praise and acknowledgment from an adult. At the 5- and 6-year-old stage, the focus shifts away from helping the adult to helping other children. This is an important leap because there can be less of an obvious reward in this type of helping. After offering help to another child, the receiver of the gesture may or may not say thank you, or even appreciate the offer. Or there may not be an adult watching who can give praise. So the rewards for helping are often more intrinsic than extrinsic. This is an important shift, since, as children mature, they will receive less and less outer praise and will need to choose to do good deeds for themselves. During this stage, children are progressively less egocentric so they have a broader and more empathetic view of the world, which can make them more likely to appreciate the joy in giving or helping.

Generosity Makes Friends

At this age, generosity makes friends, and friends are very important now. Five- and 6-year-olds begin to realize that if they share or even give something to another child, she may be more likely to play with them and be friends. This gesture can be lovely and innocent and it can also be a sign of neediness or an attempt at manipulation. It is your job to watch for signs of both. Some children who have difficulty making and keeping friends will give away too much or may even offer things from home. Sadly, other children can take advantage of this giving but still not play. You can help children learn appropriate ways of making and keeping friends and encourage them to share small things or classroom materials.

What You Can Do:

  • Have plenty of materials on hand for children to use. Children will feel more naturally inclined to be generous if they do not feel their own supply is threatened.
  • Celebrate random acts of generosity and helpfulness. Watch for examples in the class and acknowledge them during your group meeting. When children hear others being celebrated, they will be more inclined to be generous themselves.
  • Demonstrate generosity. Use the word generous to verbalize your actions. By doing so, children will begin to add the word to their vocabulary through shared, concrete experiences.