I came downstairs to find my mom watching my daughter and our friend’s child playing at the sensory bin. It’s literally a bin full of dried beans, where kids can stick their hands in and grab and feel and push and scoop and play.
Now, think about it for a moment. Toddlers + a bin full of beans = beans everywhere, right?? That’s what I used to think, too.
I walked into the living room and smiled at the girls, “Having fun?”
They continued in their play, and then my mom made a remark about how nicely my daughter played with the beans. She was impressed with how my daughter would keep the beans over the bin and even cleaned up if they fell out. I explained that this was simply a result of training her.
There is no way you can stick a toddler with a bin of anything and expect things to stay neat and tidy unless you intentionally trained them to do so. I smiled with satisfaction. All those years of teaching in the classroom were really paying off. I hadn’t even realized it at the time, but months ago, I had used backwards planning to train my early one-year-old to have at it with a bin full of thousands of beans without making a mess.
What is Backwards Planning?
It’s just what it sounds like, and it’s something we all do at some time or another. It’s basically coming up with your final goal first, and then plotting out the steps backwards, one step at a time, to make that goal a reality. I first came across the official term for it in my teaching program. We practiced coming up with entire projects and units, first envisioning the end product, and then working backwards to make a unit to achieve the final goal. Ultimately, I think it helps you be intentional with everything you do. You waste less time doing thoughtless activities that don’t serve a purpose, and you add meaning and purpose to activities that would have otherwise been thoughtless and useless.
It may seem obvious, but I can’t think of how many times I’ve seen parents just plop their kids into a situation with no clear goals or expectations in mind. At the playground. At a birthday party. At school. At the mall. I’m afraid I will eat my words someday and be the desperate mother with a temper tantrum throwing 3-year old in Target someday… but I will do everything I know to try to prevent such instances by having a clear goal, and slowly working with my children to grow into that vision.
Backwards planning made a lot of sense to me, and I have always tried to apply it since. In the classroom, it gave us all a sense of direction when we knew what we were working toward, and it gave context to all the smaller lessons that might not otherwise seem very meaningful. Who cares where the comma goes? Well, let’s read this final essay from a former student, and consider how the meaning of the story changes when comma placement is ignored. Why are there so many capitalization rules?! Let me show you an example of a piece with great capitalization, and what happens if we disregard the capitalization rules. Once my students saw the end goal of where we were heading, and how these smaller lessons had an impact on that end goal, they had more motivation to learn it well so they could finish well.
Whether it was giving them building blocks to grow as readers or teaching effective writing techniques or explaining a math concept, I always tried to give my students the bigger context of where we were heading so they understood how this piece fit into their greater learning. Not only did this method help make learning more meaningful to my students, but it also kept me on course, and helped me avoid giving students busywork for the sake of keeping them busy. I always tried to make sure everything we did had a purpose.
And so it is with my parenting. Even though I work on a much smaller scale, the lessons are continuous and, I believe, life-changing.
Backwards Planning as a SAHM
A bin of beans. How life changing can that be? Well, according to this mom, it will help my child use the scientific method, build pre-math skills, fine motor skills, language skills, imaginative play… all while having FUN! So even though all I did was pour 15 pounds of beans into a plastic tub, I suddenly felt like super mom. High five, JoEllen!
But then I envisioned my child putting beans in her mouth, pouring them on the ground, strewing them all over the house… and I quickly put a lid on that bin and hid it away for weeks. She was just nearing one. She wasn’t ready for it yet, right? Surely these bins must be for kids who were past the putting-things-in mouth stage, who knew how to stay tidy. The 3+ crowd or something, right?
After a few weeks, though, I thought we’d give it a go. Maybe, just maybe, I could train this little one-year-old girl to play with it in a way that didn’t require me to get on my hands and knees every day, picking up beans all over the house. It was worth a shot. I thought for a moment and quickly came up with three goals for her:
1. No beans in the mouth. Ever.
2. Beans should remain in or over the bin at all times.
3. If the beans happened to spill or fall out of the bin, she should immediately pick them all up and put them back in before resuming play.
Maybe that sounds strict, and perhaps those sound like high expectations for a little girl who has just turned one. I don’t know. I’ve only really known one one-year-old in my life, so I have nothing else to compare with. I just know that if sensory bins meant constant messes, I would never take it out and my child would lose out on all the aforementioned benefits of such an activity. So if we were going to do it, we were going to do it my way.
Long story short, I trained her to follow those three expectations within a few weeks. We would play at the bean bin a little each day.
No beans in the mouth. Ever. The first day, I gently but firmly pulled her hand down any time she tried to bring the beans to her mouth. It wasn’t very often, but I made sure she got the idea– No beans near your mouth. I still sit across from her and keep an eye on her whenever we play with the bin because I don’t think we’re quite done with training, and because I don’t want to risk letting her put one in her mouth. She’s pretty great a swallowing stuff down in a gulp (especially if she’s eyeing a bowl of strawberries in waiting) so I don’t think it’s a choking hazard, but… consuming dried beans? Gross.
Beans should remain in and over the bin at all times. Whenever she held a fistful of beans and started to stray from the table, I’d gently tug her hand back over the bean and repeat, “Beans stay over the bin.” Similar to our blanket time experience, she’d sometimes shoot me a mischievous grin and move her hand away, as if to test and see if I’d bring it back. I did, every time, and she now keeps the bins in or over the bean bin about 95% of the time. The 5% of the time she strays, I stay nearby to herd her back in. This is also part of why I don’t think we’re quite done with training– but we’ve made great progress!
If the beans happened to spill or fall out of the bin, she should immediately pick them all up and put them back in before resuming play. This one took the most discipline on my part. Oftentimes, training your child means you, the parent, must discipline yourself to consistently follow through with the standard you are holding. You invest more energy up front for a greater payoff later. For bean bin tidiness, this means that every time beans spilled out, we stopped everything to pick up the pieces.
This ranges from a 1-minute to 5-minute activity all on its own. And requires much patience. Have you seen a one-year-old try to use her immature pincer grasp to pick up eight… fifteen… thirty beans? Plus, on a wooden floor, those little buggers can be hard for her young eyes to distinguish. It was especially slow-going the first few times, but once she understood that I was going to keep the lid shut on the bean bin until all the beans were picked up, she got moving pretty quickly. I’d hand her a cup, and excitedly count each bean as she plopped it into the cup:
*Ploink* “ONE BEAN! Good job!! There are three more. Pick ’em up!”
*Ploink* “TWO! Nice. You have just two more.”
*Ploink… ploink* “Three, four! All done! Thank you for picking up your beans. Now you can keep playing!” She’d happily resume her her play for about 30 more seconds until the next batch of beans fell to the floor. And we’d do it all over again. And again. And again. Yes, it would have been quicker to swipe them up myself and put them back in, but that wasn’t part of the end result I had envisioned, so I had to hold myself back and repeat the slow process with her over and over again.
She’s gotten quicker at it over time, and she also drops them very infrequently now. It might be a surprise that she doesn’t get upset or angry when I make her pick up beans. I don’t treat it like a punishment, but just a natural cause and effect– if the beans fall, we pick them up. I usually help her. If it’s just a few, I’ll hold the cup for her and point out where the beans are, which she is getting increasingly better at spotting herself. Sometimes, I sweep them into a pile so she doesn’t have to search too far and wide to locate them.
Other times, I secretly grab piles of beans and clean them up for her as she is concentrating on picking up one or two. I think of it as scaffolding the process for her: I don’t want her to get frustrated with clean up, but instead want her to see it as a simple, manageable task. If I force her to pick up 50 beans on her own, it will take so long that she might just get frustrated and angry with the process and give up. She might avoid or resent the task in the future. Rather than risk that, I try to scaffold the process and build up her patience and perseverance with the process. When we first started, I would just have her pick up 3-4 beans to teach her what to do. Now, we’re up to 15-20 beans. If there are more than that, I will just help her put them away to model helpfulness and also to keep the cleanup at a manageable level for her. The point isn’t to torture her and ruin her fun and play. It’s to train her to pick up after herself, and ultimately to play neatly so nobody has to spend too much time picking up beans every day.
It was all intentional. I could have just opened the lid and let her have at it. The result would be beans. Everywhere. All the time. (This is what usually happens when other kids come to visit.) Another option would have been to wait until she was older before busting out the bean bin. Instead, I came up with a few end-result expectations, and I carefully ushered her toward those goals. We’re not 100% there, but she is the tidiest little sensory bin player I have yet seen. And that means I am willing to keep the bin out for her to play with: win-win.
Other Applications of Backwards Planning
After my success with the sensory bin, I decided we were ready for bigger and better things. The latest project was to bring the colorful toy shelf into her space, giving her the freedom to take out whatever she pleases. I had avoided this before because I figured that meant she’d pull out thirty items, and I would have to put them back at the end of each day. No, thanks. But now that I’ve seen how trainable she is, I’ve decided we can try this.
My goal is to have her put all the toys back herself. Mounds of blocks, books, stuffed animals, balls, everything. It may be weeks or months of training, but my end goal is a child that is thoughtful about what she takes out, because she knows she’s going to have to clean it all up herself later. We’re starting with baby steps. I’ve only placed a few items in the bins, and I guide her in putting everything back in its place whenever it starts to get too crazy messy in there. So far, she is learning to recognize the names of the various items and is increasingly obedient to pick them up and put them back when and where I ask her to. Someday… someeeday I will squeal with joy and do a little happy dance when she picks them all up after herself without me telling her to. It’s going to happen. I’m determined. I’ve backwards planned for it!
When she gets older, I will probably pull more of my teacher self out and backwards plan some reading and writing projects for her. I will backwards plan summer projects and Bible lessons and music lessons and character development and sports training. She will learn the Great Story of the Bible, how to play music by ear, how to serve others, and how to shoot layups– not all at once, but one backwards-planned step at a time.
Being intentional takes some intentionality, but I think there is a great pay-off for it. If you’re going to be doing all these activities anyway, why not grow and develop your child toward something better? Have a goal in mind for the kind of person you want your child to grow into– helpful, kind, caring, loving, conscientious, hard-working, polite– and then take little steps all the way every day to usher them toward that goal. Not only will it make life better for you, but they will thank you for it someday!