My 4-year-old works hard to keep up with his two older brothers. We were recently building towers with blocks together, and my youngest son couldn’t get his creation quite right. His tower just wouldn’t stay together. I could feel his frustration bubbling, and his big emotions soon erupted into tears.
As a parent, I immediately wanted to soothe him, and I quickly reminded him that everybody makes mistakes. That frustrated him even more. He pointed out to me that his brothers were successfully making tall towers, while his buildings kept crumbling.
To preschoolers, getting something wrong often results in frustration, a feeling of failure, and an explosion of big emotions. Making a mistake while building a block tower may seem like a blip on the radar to grown-ups, but problems like this are very real and incredibly significant to our children.
The next time he hits a roadblock, we’re going to explore how being wrong can help us learn something new, just like the characters do on the new PBS KIDS series, “Donkey Hodie.”
As a mom, I love seeing how the character, Donkey Hodie, relates to young children, modeling how to process mistakes and learn from them. Many of the common challenges preschoolers face are from not being able to do things yet — they are things that kids will be able to do with a little more practice and a few more years of growing.
While the solutions to many of these problems (like falling block towers) require working on a skill, many of the challenges young kids face require help from the grown-ups in their lives, so they can learn how to manage emotions, practice empathy, and use self-control.
Here’s how to help your child learn from mistakes:
Encourage them to try to figure out what went wrong. Offer hints that might point out the problem, like: “I see that you have a few small blocks stacked under lots of large blocks. What might happen if we put the large blocks underneath?” In the “Bobski Bounce” story, Donkey is determined to complete Bob Dog's famous bouncy ball challenge, but she needs to figure out the mistake she's making first. Her takeaway? My mistakes help me learn and get better at something.
Break down tasks. Challenges can feel overwhelming and consuming to all of us, especially young children. Let your child do things incrementally so they can more easily complete their tasks. The next time I’m playing with my son, I might say something like, “What would happen if we slowly stacked one block at a time?”
Set short-term goals. Preschoolers often want to jump straight ahead. Reminding them that it’s okay to work their way up can be an encouragement and help them feel secure, and accomplishing short-term goals can help keep longer-term goals in perspective. Maybe my 4-year-old can’t build a giant tower, but could he build a small one? And then a medium one? Get creative and help your child set tangible check-points. In the “Art Show Today” story, Donkey wants to make art for the Someplace Else art show, but she keeps making mistakes. Each time, she turns the mistake into something new. I’m now helping my kids remember Donkey’s self-affirmation: When I make mistakes, I can keep going and reach my goal.
Make it a game. When in doubt, make it fun! Sometimes, turning a challenging task into a game that is easy enough for them to master can be an easy way to help your child turn their mistakes into learning opportunities. I could challenge my son to a race to build a five-block tower, and then a ten-block tower, and so on, gradually making it just a bit more challenging.
Being able to bounce back quickly and tackle mistakes without losing self-confidence is an important skill for preschoolers to learn and is a good indicator of resilience — the ability to overcome challenges. It really is true — we all make mistakes! As grown-ups, we can help support our kids in bouncing back and trying again. As they grow, they’ll become more resourceful and discover that they’re capable of solving problems all on their own!
I love spending quality time playing with my kids, but I want to make space for them to make their own mistakes and learn from them, too. One way I can empower them to handle disappointments and failures is by equipping them with positive self-talk messages to draw from when they hit big and small bumps in the road. I love the way Donkey puts these affirmations into practice.
Here are some examples of positive self-talk for when you make mistakes:
- I need to figure out my goal — what I really want to do. Then, I can try different strategies to get there!
- If something I try doesn’t work, I can try again.
- Sometimes I get tired or bored trying to solve my problem. I can take a break and try again.
- It’s okay to ask for help when I need it.
The wonderful thing about resilience? It’s something that can be learned and developed, and early childhood is a prime time for doing so. Falling blocks are inevitable, but as supportive parents, when we show empathy for our children’s feelings, we can help our children overcome challenges by empowering them with problem-solving strategies that help them manage their emotions. And giving hugs. Lots of hugs!