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Child Development

More Than Just Teddy Bears

Transitional objects allow a child's inherent sense of self to emerge.

As a longtime educator of toddlers and twos, and a current Ph.D. student studying transitional phenomena and object relations, I have had the distinct pleasure and privilege to observe teachers in the school where I work, dedicated to celebrating the presence of transitional objects in their classrooms.

In one of my daily visits, I was delighted by the number of stuffed animals, rag dolls and teddy bears that were abundantly present and harmoniously integrated into the work and play of the children in the fours room. In a classroom where early educators might expect objects of attachment to be mandated to bedrooms, backpacks, and family travels, I witnessed the integration of these beloved objects in numerous ways and in a variety of areas in the room.

According to the New York University Psychoanalytical Institute, “the transitional object may be conceived of in three ways: as typifying a phase in a child's development; as a defense against separation anxiety; and, lastly, as a neutral sphere in which experience is not challenged.” I was amazed how the transitional objects that found their way from home to school did not challenge the teachers in the particular classroom I was visiting.

I observed one child clutching her beloved dog while reading a book to her friend — both she and her dog were actively turning the pages — and with every page turned, she looked down at her dog, lovingly and with great appreciation and gratitude for his apparent contribution and cooperation. Another child was squishing, squeezing and stuffing his Snoopy inside a wooden block and alternatively opening the refrigerator door so his dear dog could “chill out.” I was struck by the level of self-awareness this particular child had for his own self-regulatory needs and how to meet them.

On the rug, two children were constructing a magna tile rooftop for two animals — one floppy ear extended carefully up and out of the construction, while a rainbow colored bear covered in band-aids was laying on top. These children were deep in conversation about their “hospital” and how their loved creatures would get better. And across the room, sitting on the floor in front of her cubby, a young girl was combing her fingers through her raggedy doll’s hair, another child was sitting with her oversized gingerbread doll, holding a phone to her ear, and placing one next to her doll, as she nodded in agreement that Mommy would come back after lunch, and another child was sitting in the dramatic play kitchen, feeding and clothing her bear, holding it close to her heart.

These children were utilizing transitional objects into their work and play — personified instruments of self expression — and this was synonymously supported, acknowledged and honored by their teachers.

The term transitional object was coined in 1951 by D.W. Winnicott as “a designation for any material to which an infant attributes a special value and by means of which the child is able to make the necessary shift from the earliest oral relationship with mother to genuine object-relationships.” Transitional objects are self-chosen — a child’s first “not-me possession” — like a blanket, teddy bear, pacifier, doll. The reliance on such objects is rooted in sensorial elements that lessen the stress of separation, while they soothe and comfort the child.

A transitional object provides an understanding of human development commencing with infancy and early childhood. As children procure and utilize transitional objects, this becomes indicative of how they will interact with and maintain human relationships.

According to developmental psychologist Robert Kegan, human development is not possible without self-referential contexts and meanings. As Kegan states, “meanings are founded on the distinctions each person makes of the stimuli he or she engages with” — mainly the object(s) they receive, choose, or discover which have an internal life of their own. However, if the self-appointed object is refuted, critiqued, or denied in any way, attachment difficulties may arise later in life. The object allows for and invites emotional well-being, and without such an object, true feelings may be concealed, suppressed, or dismissed as the infant/child has no other means by which to cope with, comprehend, and contend with the world.

In the earliest of classrooms, transitions are experienced over and over. A parent says goodbye and the child responds in a cathartic release of emotion. It is in these moments where the healing power of transitional objects is fully utilized. A “Mother” offers her son an old t-shirt she has worn and the sensorial elements calm and support this child through the good-bye, as he metaphorically and literally holds on to the promise of her return.

As an early childhood educator, prior to the start of school, I visited every family in their home and asked parents what their child’s transitional object was. Most families shared that their child was “perfectly fine” and didn’t “need” anything. Once school began, however, I observed that those children who did not apparently “need” a transitional object were using self-chosen objects that they had discovered in the classroom. If Mom had left her scarf unintentionally, it became a security blanket. Other children would carry pillows or stuffed animals they discovered in the classroom, hold on to them tenaciously until the parent returned, and then release these items with utter abandon – flung in the air as the children ran to their mother or father.

In other situations, transitional objects were often apologized for by parents, and hidden in cubbies, or backpacks. An ethnographic study in a preschool in Sweden advocated the use of transitional objects, however, at the same time, this particular institution also implemented very specific ground rules in terms of how, where, and when the object could be used.

This particular response gives way to the debatable aspects of the use of transitional objects. Why are transitional objects perceived as socially unacceptable, restricted, and allocated to certain times and places? If taken in context as part of human development, if the object thought to make one stronger and more resilient in the face of difference and trauma, is removed or denied access to, it can actually create more anxiety and discourse. In fact, research indicates that those children who were deprived of object relations were often more susceptible to pathological disorders. In addition, the usage, availability and consideration of such objects can enhance the connectedness between child and adult and amongst children themselves.

How do transitional objects create meaning as they shape human development? Transitional objects are representative of every human developmental milestone – both for the individual self and the differential other. It is the “other” that is synonymous with the external source of identification — albeit mother/father — and also the first “not me possession” — the transitional object which is self-chosen by a child to provide comfort, solace, predictability, and constancy — representational of a stable and predictable world.

Transitional objects typify that which is rudimentary and sound. In essence, the object represents the process by which one can navigate life, and experience a homeostatic inner balance, a cohesive sense of well-being at every developmental milestone.

According to Mark Brenner, transitional objects continue through the course of our lives, as “sacred keepsakes” which pull us back to “a place and time of great solace and memory.” It is the dependence, identification, and attachment to objects outside of the self — photographs, wedding bands, mementos, music, art and culture — which define both nostalgic memorials, but more importantly, and astutely, define a state of connection and presence in the world.

However, if the cell phone, computer, watch, wallet or keys are left or forgotten — the teddy, blanket or bottle misplaced or misbegotten — one may feel disconnected, removed, displaced. It is the placement, allocation of and attendance to transitional objects, which connects us to a secure base. And it is the secure base of human development that I am drawn to celebrating in the early childhood classroom — where transitional objects not only bridge the connection from home to school, but allow for the emergence of a child’s inherent sense of self – supported, respected and honored by early childhood educators, which, according to psychologist Abraham Maslow, “matters more than anything else in the world.”

Colleen Goddard is a Child Development Specialist at Beginnings Nursery School in New York City and a Ph.D. student at Fielding Graduate University studying the significance of transitional objects at the beginning and end of life.

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