Waldorf and RIE: A Beautiful Pairing

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Protecting Childhood in Our Modern World: Early Childcare in the Light of Anthroposophy.

I have decided that it might be nice to publish my final paper on Early Childhood Education from Sound Circle Center. It is a little lengthy but worth a read. Let me know your thoughts! Enjoy!

Protecting Childhood in Our Modern World: Early Childcare in the Light of Anthroposophy. 

Four essential characteristics that can be implemented into mainstream childcare

Introduction

In Autumn of 2009 Helle Heckman, director of Mixed-aged Kind came to lecture here in Seattle and spoke of how our children were not entering Kindergarten after a long stay at home while mothers cooked and cleaned and children played; children were entering care very young, during a crucial age for growth and bonding. Then after years of multiple caregivers we finally receive them in Kindergarten programs, in great need of the work we do. I knew that what she spoke was the truth; our children have needs that we are not meeting! Childcare from an anthroposophical point of view is relatively new and it has been a little controversial. It is viewed that the child should be at home with the mother of father. In an ideal world, this is very true! However, we do not live in an ideal world.

I was privileged to visit Nøkken for two weeks and work directly with Helle Heckman, who then directed me to the work of Bernadette Raichle. I took a workshop with Bernadette Raichle, which was deeply inspiring to me, as she shared similar views and passion as Helle. These programs are based on the work done by Rudolf Steiner and Emmi Pikler[1]. Through researching their programs and the work of Steiner and Pikler, I have attained what I see to be the four main principles to giving holistic care to the child from birth to age three. Waldorf childcare is a new idea that has been taken up by prominent leaders in this field. In Denmark, Helle Heckman has created Nøkken, a mixed-age Kindergarten with children from 1-7 years. In New Zealand, Bernadette Raichle has created Awhina, a day nursery for children 6 months to 3 years. I chose to research these models because of the experience I have with them[2].

Through this paper I will share the benefits of how and why Waldorf Early Childcare can be beneficial to the young child. In my research I have discovered that there are four areas of which we can use as a foundation for building a care center that focuses on the needs of the growth period from infancy to around 3 years. I will then share my exploration into how we can implement these aspects into a mainstream childcare center to better serve the young child that is not able to benefit from Waldorf Early Childcare.

Four Foundational Aspects

 

Upon speaking with Bernadette Raichle and Helle Heckmann about how they support the child and based on what mainstream research has shown, these aspects have stood out as major areas of improvement in mainstream models. While we all know that the mother is the best option of care in the first years of life, this is not a fact of life. In 2005 roughly 70 percent of children under the age of 5 were in non-family care. Childcare is on the rise as careers become more demanding. It is our job not to shun these mothers but to understand the work that goes into raising a child and having a full-time career. We are here to provide support and understanding and to help the parents. Raichle states “the feelings of the mother are the biggest concern after the child. The child and mother are bonded and we must support and respect this.” In this new work that we do, we can make it the best possible option to serve the parents and to serve the children. The four areas that we may work with the children are: the relationship of the child to the environment, the relationship of the child to the other children, the relationship of the child to their caregiver and the relationship of the child to their growth process.

In Waldorf it is primarily the Kindergarten and Preschool that is the focus of Early Childhood trainings and schools, but can it be different? Can we build a mixed-age training so that we may provide the support that is needed?

Relationship of the child to environment

Clinical experience and developmental research reveal the importance of environmental stimulation on children’s social, emotional, physical and cognitive development. There are examples of extremes of environmental care (e.g., children raised in orphanages) that provide clear evidence of the impact of a lack of stimulation on development. The poor developmental outcomes of children who experience extreme early sensory deprivation reveal that the need for novel, stimulating experiences is not ‘biologically extravagant’, but required for survival and successful development.

Sensory stimuli that young children require does not need to come from being entertained by adults of from interactive toys. The stimulation infants and young children need comes from the everyday care and experiences such as being held or swaddled, exploring a textured object, tasting breast milk or a new vegetable, smelling mother’s breast or a rose petal, looking at objects or people, or listening to a caregiver’s singing. All of these experiences occur naturally in the environment, and no special toys, tools, or technology are required to provide the range and variety of experiences a baby naturally seeks out for healthy development. Therefore, what children need to grow and develop adequately is typically provided for during everyday experiences in the context of a relationship with sensitive caregivers in the child’s natural environment.

Simplicity is essential for the very young child as is the care of the environment. How we prepare a space greatly affects the child and how they perceive their environment. We know that a space is best when naturally lit with simple surroundings and toys but we must go a step further in this. When we clean and prepare a room everyday, the pace at which we do this is crucial. If we rush around and create flurries of energy, the young child feels this and will become agitated.  Everything we touch in the environment must be cared for with a sense of unhurried reverence. When we fill the environment with peace and calm, this is a loving gift that we are giving the children. As Bernadette Raichle so lovingly states “The task of the day nursery for the young ones is to take care of the child. The bigger task is to re-awaken the need for protection of the child.”

Relationship of the child to the other children

When our grandparents stayed home with their mother’s, it is likely that they had many siblings and cousins around them and that the children in a community were much more connected than they are now. There was so much to learn in all of that good mixed-age play, and mom could count on older siblings to help with the infants and toddlers.  One of the essential things we have lost during the individualization of our culture is the mixed-aged children’s relationships that are built in home situations. Not all is lost however, this is work that we can take up and re-create. Nøkken specifically addresses this very need.

This past summer I had the privilege to visit Nøkken and work first hand with Helle Heckman. Here I saw the beautiful potential of the mixed age program. In Denmark the citizens are privileged to have one year or maternity/paternity leave after the birth of their child, so infant care is less of a demand. Because of this Nøkken takes children at the age of one and they stay with the program until they leave for first grade. All of the children spend the morning walk together and interact with all the ages of children and with all four caregivers. The caregivers give space so that the children may succeed in caring for one another. It is such a beautiful thing to see a 5-year-old rush over and help a one year old that has fallen down or needs help or to see the 2 year old sit and watch the older children play together, observing the social skills. From these interactions there are crucial skills they learn. The older children learn empathy and learn to care for the younger children, skills that will translate into their own parenting when they are adults. The young child learns the proper manners and behaviors from the older children, at such an imitative age, they pick up so easily how to properly play and work. Because this cycle has been going on for more than 20 years, generations of childhood wisdom are passed on over and over to incoming children. The same rhythm has been in place for so long that the caregivers and the children always have it deep within their bodies making it a therapeutic experience for all. Helle spoke a great point: We have the grades children with one teacher from 1st to 8th grade so why are we splitting up the young child’s care?

Relationship between caregiver and child

One thing we can do to truly serve the children is practice bonding and attachment to the children in our care. Switching between multiple caregivers during the first years of life have negative side effects on the child. One of these is Reactive Attachment Disorder based on the Bowbly Theory of attachment. Bowlby[3] believed the task of the caregivers in the first years is to offer the child a secure base to build solid, emotional bonds.  The quality of the primary attachments affects the child’s functioning throughout life.  The child forms an internal working model about the world based on his/her first primary relationship with the caregiver.  It becomes a map for all future relationships.

If a child did not develop secure attachment with a primary caregiver by age two, it may have serious negative consequences for the child’s social and emotional development. Some of these side effects are a lack of emotional bonds in relationships later in life, a lack of empathy and detachment or lack of interest in life.

Bernadette Raichle has established a Primary Care system at Awhina. Up until three years the child has a primary care person who does all of the care for that child from feeding to changing to napping. Primary care does not mean exclusive care; everyone in the environment knows that the one individual is that child’s main person. So the other caregivers help the child, but the child is bonded with that caregiver. Here in the U.S. it is common to have separate classes and teachers for each age group: infants, toddlers, preschoolers, pre-kindergarten and finally kindergarten. That separates the child from their caregiver many times and the children do not like this. They have bonded with a caregiver and are distraught when they have to move up to a new class; they are distraught because they are trying to tell us something: They have a fundamental need to be connected!

Relationship of the child to their growth process

Another crucial element to the development of the young child is the way in which they learn motor skills. In 1930, Emmi Pikler started research on how children best develop these skills. She found that children who received little or no help learning to do activities such as roll over, sit up and stand fared much better than those that were encouraged or taught how to do so. In writing about Pikler’s work, Susan Weber[4] states, “that the very basic elements of competent behavior are self-dependant initiation of action, independence of performing the action and the effectiveness of the action-in which the formation of contact with others is deemed the primary capacity above others.” In our work with young children it’s important to let the child do activities themselves. If we are always doing the activities for them, they will never become self-reliant and suffer in the long run from lack of confidence in their bodies. When I visited Nokken, it was seen as essential that the young children complete tasks on their own. A sleeve was helped on or off with little assistance, but the child completed the task in the end, thus building confidence.

Magda Gerber[5] speaks of Selective Intervention, which means knowing when not to interfere with the child. When the children get into a difficult situation (such as climbing, or putting on shoes) it is important to wait until they resolve it themselves. She speaks of being near the child so they know we are available but when we leave them be it lets them know we have confidence that they can do the task themselves. If a child is having a hard time, we can speak to them and ask if they need help. In this case it’s important to do a small part of the task and then let the child have some sense of completion. This is not only about giving the child a chance to develop motor skills, this is above all giving the children our respect and trusting that they are capable individuals.

How we can implement these 4 ideas into established care centers in Seattle.

 

Ideally, It would be the best idea to start a little home program for small children, however I chose to focus on how to change the state of current mainstream care centers with the hope that if this work could be taken up, more children would be reached and helped. In care centers in Washington, there are strict rules determined by the Washington Stare Department of Early Learning Licensing. These rules are in place to maintain safe environments for children, so it is a good thing to have a department looking after our children’s safety. However, it is sometimes hard to meet the children’s fundamental needs within some of the restrictions.

Licensing requires that in a center, for the infant and toddler we provide materials and opportunities for large and small motor skills and a wide variety of learning and play materials that are easily cleanable. It states that the environment must be free of clutter. The room must also be well lit, but this can be done with daylight-balanced lights. This is all that is spoken about the environment, so there is quite a bit of liberty to create a cozy, simple space with natural toys.

When we look at the relationship between the children to themselves, it is actually encouraged by licensing that the children do activities that strengthen self-awareness and control. It’s a matter of giving ample time for the child to do these activities. It must be put in the schedule of the day that the transitions will be very long to help the children develop the skills they need to become confidant in himself or herself. This is not really a matter of working with licensing; it’s a matter of educating directors, caregivers and parents that self-initiated activity will ensure the growth of the child’s fundamental needs. It is often the case that when a child becomes distressed, the adult will rush to them to finish the activity. This does ease the immediate distress, but causes more distress and harm in the long run.

The child’s relationships to other children and to the caregiver are both issues that come against a wall. It is of course encouraged to form bonding relationships between child and caregiver, but this does not help with the consistency of care. This is a place in which we must get creative to help with this issue. According to licensing, in a center there are strict rules to which ages may be together. From birth to three is the crucial age where bonding takes place and this is the stage that is spilt up the most. An infant under one must be separated from children older than this age. From 12 months to 29 months this is considered a toddler and 30 months to 5 years is considered a preschooler and these 2 age groups must be separate to maintain maximum staff to child ratio. There are two exceptions that allow for some combining of these ages. You may combine walking toddlers, preschoolers and school-age children as long as the class size does not exceed twelve children. You may also combine infants with older children for one hour if the class size does not exceed eight children. Based on these requirements, you could have a class from walking age to kindergarten age. Since infants are not allowed to be with the older children for longer than an hour, they could perhaps visit when numbers are lower, but it’s generally the case in childcare centers to fill to the max that licensing allows. So the infants are still in danger of having as little as 3 different caregivers during these first 3 years (mother and teachers). It seems, as this issue is so paramount that the only real solution is to work with licensing and try and make a change and bring more awareness to the negative effects of lack of bonding.

 

Conclusion

I have a background working in mainstream childcare. The whole time I was in the centers, especially with the infants, my heart would ache a little at the way they were treated. Like little objects that produced the results adults wanted. Often these results were achieved through shame or punishment. After coming to Waldorf, I was confused for some time about where my place was. I knew what my options were, but I saw the need of the child under 3. This year, having worked with Helle and Bernadette it has given me hope that my passion for helping and protecting the young child is something that we can and should be working towards in the realm of such a beautiful philosophy as Waldorf Education.

Through the four foundational aspects we can serve the children that must leave their homes at an early age and through Waldorf Early Childhood philosophy, we can create a loving home-like environment to nourish the soul. As stated before, the controversy of Waldorf Childcare is the view that the child should be home with the mother. For whatever reason, the appeal of staying at home to raise children has been somewhat lost. In time perhaps, through our work with these children and the joy we ourselves have in home-like tasks, we can re-enliven the great and beautiful responsibility of the homemaker for future generations.


[1] Emmi Pikler was a Hungarian pediatrician who devoted her life to the development of the young child. Because of her work, she was invited by the Hungarian government in 1946 to create an orphanage for children from birth to three years old whose mothers had died in childbirth or from tuberculosis.  This center was called the National Methodological Institute, or more familiarly ” Loczy, ” after the name of its street location.

[2] I would also like to point out that the Lifeways program has also taken up this work, but was not an area I researched at this time so I suggest further investigation into this if you are as moved by this topic as I am.

[3] John Bowlby (February 26th 1907–September 2nd 1990) was a British psychologistpsychiatrist and psychoanalyst, notable for his interest in child development and for his pioneering work in attachment theory.

[4] In New Hampshire, Susan Weber has created Sophia’s Hearth, a childcare center with children from 3 months to 6 years. Sophia’s Hearth has a foundation in the RIE method and a RIE training is offered at the center.

[5] Magda Gerber was born in Hungary, and received a master’s degree in early childhood education in Budapest. Gerber incorporated many of Emmi Pikler’s theories into her own philosophy, which she termed RIE. In 1997 she wrote Your Self-Confident Baby: How to Encourage Your Child’s Natural Abilities from the Very Start and in 2003 she wrote Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect.

Holding Baby with your Heart: No Babywearing Required!

To begin, I would not describe myself as a babywearer, but I do wear my 9 month old from time to time. For instance, it is much more convenient than a stroller when going in and out of shops. It is also a necessity when I garden in the front of my house, as he would crawl away and get into the less baby friendly plants I have there. When he was a newborn I held and wore him quite a bit for my own comfort, but I always made sure that he had time on his back on his own to move his body. I recently read an article suggesting that babies NEED to be worn in a carrier for the first 9 months of their lives; I do not agree with. I do not agree that we are neglecting our babies basic needs if we give them time on their own, in fact, I believe that we ARE meeting their needs when we allow independence to freely move their new bodies and experience the new world on their own.

“Young babies need both to be held and to be able to move freely in their cribs. Often parents believe holding is good, being left alone in a crib is not. I believe babies need both. There are sound physiological reasons why a newborn should not be held all of the time. To begin with, he must adapt to his new capabilities outside of the womb, by kicking, stretching, curling and uncurling his body. IN a crib (or playpen) he can do this at will-and with ease.” ~Magda Gerber

The thing that got to me a bit in this article was how it criticizes the idea that infants CAN be happy alone in a crib or on a blanket. Some babies, such as mine, were OVER stimulated being held by us all the time. When we finally listened to him instead of listening to parenting methods and books, we found that he thrived from having time to himself. That being said, she does point out a lot of positive things about what babies need. She speaks of the simplicity and quiet that newborns need and the importance of touch in infancy and childhood. I think that it is good to have this information for balance; between giving them physical and emotional attention as well then letting them have some space to themselves. Wear your baby from time to time if that is what you like, but perhaps think of the benefit even tiny newborns might receive from even 5 minute intervals of time alone (in a safe place) on their backs to move on their own accord. Lisa Sunbury articulates nicely: “Ideally, young babies are placed on their back not just for sleep, but for play time as well, because this is the position that most supports their bodies, and in which they are most relaxed, and free to move.”

I believe that Elizabeth, the author of this article, does make a good point, babies DO need a more womb-like protection for the first year (or more) of their lives. But this does not necessarily have to mean a physical womb-like protection. There is a kind of ‘holding’ we can do as mothers and caretakers that takes place in our hearts and minds; we can create an atmosphere for the child that is filled with the warmth and protection they need. When my son is out on his own in the space around me, I am always ‘holding’ him with me; in the way I move and the songs I sing and even in my quiet meditative thoughts (when I can keep them calm and tame that is). In Anthroposphy, the image of the Madonna and child is a meditation for how we relate to young children. I interpret this as creating a peaceful and spiritual ambiance for the child as well as a protective, loving presence in our actions and our thoughts. Even in how we work with our environment and objects within by carefully handling everything with slow, patient movements to imbue the entire space with peace and calm.

Magda spoke of how when we sit and observe our children in their triumphs and challenges, sharing in their discovery of their unfolding world, this is how we give them the quality time they need. On one of Janet Lansbury’s blog posts, she writes about how “wants nothing” quality time “can encompass a wide range of experiences, but all we are asked to do is pay attention and have no agenda of our own. It can mean being quietly available as a baby explores patterns of light on a blanket beneath him, or standing nearby while he has a screaming meltdown because he cannot have another cookie. It may be trickier to see the benefit for parents and caregivers in this latter scenario, but it is clarity. When we pay full attention to our child for intervals each day, no matter what the tone of our exchange or the outcome is, we are giving him the quality time he needs. We are doing our job.”

It is in these quiet movements of reflective observation that we can connect with these new beings. We can create a “womb-like” and spiritual environment for our little ones and create connection through observation. It is with these two things in mind that I spent my time with young children as a teacher and now with my son as a mother.

If you do choose to wear you baby around a lot, spine safety for the infant must be taken into account, as well as proper posture for the wearer. There are certain carriers and positions that could be harmful for your child, such as forward facing positions and unsupportive/uncomfortable slings and wraps. I think baby-wearing is a matter of ones own choice, it works for some and that is fine but when physically holding your baby around the clock doesn’t work for you anymore, that is just fine as well and you will both benefit from some space.