Last Updated: January 27th, 2019

Preschoolers learn much more about socialization, studies show, than those who remain home.

Working in the aftercare program in a preschool, I find that one sticky aspect of the socialization process for kids  is learning to put toys away when a child is finished. This goes on at home, too, of course, but in our preschool sandbox, it often isn’t clear who originally used  the shovels, buckets, dishes and trucks left out over the course of a day. And so, around 3:30 in the afternoon, we all clean up together. For a while, we’ve been giving out glass coloured “jewels” as incentives.

Why do we use incentives? Let me illustrate with an anecdote. Once, some years back, when I began to supervise sandbox cleanup, I did away with incentives, which in those primitive days were mere stickers. I gathered the children one afternoon and announced, “OK, kids, it’s time to clean up!”

Someone said, “Do we get stickers?” and I said, “No! We’re doing it because it’s our job to put away what we get out!”

Well, I tell you, I never saw so many previously bright, energetic children suddenly go dead in the eyes and seem to need sleep, or maybe even have some vitamin-deficiency disease like beriberi! Suddenly, no one seemed to know what anything was, let alone how to find the crates containing similar things.

I watched this pellagra-appearing group for a while, and then, thinking of the time and the need, said, “All right, we’ll give out stickers,” and all of a sudden, the children were miraculously healed and the sandbox was tidy in five minutes.

For the last year or two, our preschool resource centre has been getting plastic bags of these jewels, of different sizes and shapes, and they’re a MUCH better incentive than stickers! In fact, they’re TOO good!

Now, everywhere I step, I pass children offering like Mumbai street urchins to perform a small task “for a jewel.” I see girls walking with cups held out, looking like enchanted princesses, gazing down at the sand or at the wood chips in the slide area, scanning, scanning for jewels.

Some of our most intelligent and aware children have fallen under the lure of the jewel. One girl, a wonderful artist who is almost five, I have great hopes for in her life. I’ve already imagined her as the college student she’ll be someday, and wished I could talk to her about some of my favourite authors. In her eyes I’ve sometimes seen an almost grown-up understanding and compassion.

But now, whenever I see her, she has her head down, looking. Once, I took her by the shoulders and smiled as I mocked, trying to shake her awake. “There’s more to life than jewels!” I said in pseudo-urgency, but I felt a tiny bit of the real thing. I believe her reply was, “Are the jewel fairies coming today?”

The “jewel fairies” are the teachers, including myself, who will sometimes sprinkle a handful or two of the small, glowing objects onto the sand, and then drag sand across most of them with a foot, to put a little more challenge into the game.

Another girl, having found a little bonanza scattered by the jewel fairies, and having filled her cup as only a very eager searcher with good motor skills could, instead of brimming over at the benevolence of these “fairies,” asked me, “Can I have a really big jewel?”

I told her I didn’t have any jewels, which at the time was true. “But I want one!” she remonstrated. The jewels had bedazzled her young mind. She just wasn’t able to forget that vision of the BIG jewel that was tantalizing, tormenting her.

And so lately, preschool has become something of an object lesson about all the things we’ve read in various scriptures. Were I a policeman or a social worker, I would see these things from a different perspective. Working with small children, it’s all “cute” and much more innocent…and yet…

There’s another tool our preschool uses, something called Heart-prints. These are big pink heart-shaped pieces of paper with adhesive on the back. A child receives one when he or she has done something thoughtful, something generous, something compassionate.

I’m starting to think maybe even in the sandbox they’re a better idea than jewels.

image: Peter Richardson (Creative Commons BY-SA)