Friday, August 28, 2009

Personal Space

Personal space is a difficult concept for a child (and, let’s face it, it’s even difficult for some adults). How much space do we need to feel comfortable? There’s the abstract space, and there’s the physical space.

Katie Loves Kittens is deceptively simple in the way that it explores respecting someone else’s space, both in the physical sense and in the abstract sense. And as children prepare to leave the comfortable surroundings of their homes, where they know the rules, and enter into a daycare or preschool or kindergarten classroom, where each fall there’s often a new teacher establishing new rules, and a new set of children to meet and get to know, this book can be an extremely helpful conversation-starter.

As adults, each of us has our own sense of the situation in which we feel most comfortable. Someone who lives in the country is accustomed to wide open spaces and may walk for a half mile without encountering anyone else. A city person, on the other hand, is used to getting bumped occasionally on a busy sidewalk (accidentally, of course) or crowding onto a train just inches from a fellow passenger, or having to step aside in the narrow aisle of a grocery store to let someone pass. As adults, we learn to instinctively preserve that cushion of space, but for children, who are often less conscious of others (both their proximity to others and also that they may have a different point of view from others), it’s much more difficult to articulate what they need. Their discomfort often comes out as a blurt: “Don’t touch me!” or “Ow! You’re stepping on my foot!” or abruptly fleeing from a peer who makes them uncomfortable.

But there’s also the idea of personal space in the abstract--giving someone room to get to know you and allowing a friendship to evolve. Some children make friends easily and are immediately comfortable with others, like Katie the pup in Katie Loves the Kittens. Others take more time; they’re more circumspect and want to observe through a child’s actions whether or not they can trust this new person, much like the kittens whose affections Katie tries enthusiastically to win. Of course this is all unconscious in young children; they don’t often realize the way they come across or why they react as they do to others. That’s why this book is so useful in approaching the topic of respecting others: most dogs are naturally affectionate and boisterous and forthcoming, while most cats are instinctively more independent and standoffish until they observe a situation and come to trust a person or another animal.

Katie and (by the happy ending) her kittens allow children to look at both sides. They can see that, whether they are more like Katie or more like the kittens, they can learn to get along with the other children and begin to form friendships in their own good time.

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