Tuesday, September 14, 2010
What I have learned most though the Waldorf philosophy and the work of LifeWays is the key concept of less is more. By providing children with a simple environment both aesthetically, and in quantity of materials, children’s play can expand. Children do not need bright walls, endless toys, and media sources to enjoy play. In environments such as these, children are bombarded with sensory overload. Elaborate, manufactured toys can take away from a child’s ability to create and pretend. When children are presented materials such as cloths and wicker baskets, they have the opportunity to create their world of play around them vs. plastic toys that have a predisposed use by a child. Simple items allow children to explore the materials, interpret and play with them in a way that is meaningful to them as individuals.
Simplicity occurs in the daily rhythm as well at LifeWays. There is a natural flow to the day from one moment to the next which provides a sense of security and calmness to the children in knowing what to ‘expect next’. I can recall previous childcare experiences where the schedule was rigid and children were rushed from one activity to another in order to follow what was to happen next, with what was ‘happening next’ being yet another activity determined by the adult. A day at LifeWays is a complete contrast to that experience. Although there is a “schedule” we follow, it is basic and more so a skeleton, to be filled in by ideas and activities brought about by the children. There is always room for change and it develops as the day goes on.
The curriculum provides simplicity in that it evolves around what the children are interested in both as a group and individually. Unlike other childcare or preschool programs that push academics, or have a preset timetable of what children should know and when they should know it, LifeWays focuses on what the children are focusing on and are cognitively ready for. The curriculum changes and develops as vastly as the children do.
It is because of the intentional focus on simplicity that children have a more productive, positive experience at LifeWays in all realms of development. What I have noticed through my contrasting experiences in childcare is that children at LifeWays have a greater ability to focus on their play, and do so in more detail. They are able to less stressfully move throughout their day because they are aware of the rhythm that occurs within a day. I believe this is because of the lack of a manufactured, over processed environment, as well as a child directed curriculum that provides children with what they need.
We’ve heard a lot about simplicity over the last few years. In these difficult economic times consumed with corporate bailouts, debates over health care, a widening gap between the rich and poor, extensive unemployment and soaring debt, just about everyone is yearning for ways to live more simply. However, as much as our society pays lip service to a newfound simplicity, this trend doesn’t necessarily trickle down to the way many folks are raising and educating children.
We continue to “race to the top” in our schools by putting supreme importance on standardized tests ahead of characteristics such as kindness, hard work, and imagination. We as parents feel pressured to give our children every possible experience, so we drag them from one enriching activity to another, feeling guilty that if we leave anything out we are falling down on the job. As a result of these trends, our children have less time than ever just to “be.”
Remember when you were a child? I remember hours spent playing outdoors with the neighbor children, making “potions” out of our moms’ old perfumes, arguing over the rules of large group games and ultimately coming to some sort of resolution that worked for everyone. So much was learned from these experiences and negotiations. When do children get the opportunity to do these things today if their lives are so scheduled with “edu-tainment” they don’t have the time to simply be bored?
Our world is an increasingly complex place. Everyone has theories on how education can meet the needs of children in the 21st century. After spending the last eight years watching what children learn from playing with their friends at LifeWays, I have become an outspoken advocate for the right of every child to have several hours each day devoted to free, unstructured play. Indeed, it is the only type of education that I feel will help children develop thinking and problem-solving skills that are elastic enough to imaginatively envision solutions to all of the challenges they will face as adults.
Thank you for choosing this type of education for your children. And thank you for being part of our LifeWays community. Your children will thank you someday, as well, for giving them the opportunity to learn in a way that is outwardly simple, yet inwardly rich.
Too many choices and too many words can be confusing for children. Children speak best in gestures, because gestures are the first language. Babies instinctively reach for and nuzzle their parents. As they grow, babies imitate language by babbling without knowing the meaning of words. A few words, followed by a gesture, are the easiest for them to understand. ‘It is time to put on your shoes’, followed by assistance with the shoes is a clear way of communicating. Linking movements with language teaches what words mean. Giving a child a choice about putting on the shoes will lead to a battle of wills. A gently sung reminder that ‘it is time to put our shoes on, not to talk’ is all that is needed. As Rahima Baldwin Dancy writes, “If you want to teach a certain behavior to your child, one of the best ways is to actually do it in front of (or with) him. This demands that we as adults get up and actually do something, instead of giving the child orders or directions.”(253) Sometimes the only answer to the constant speech of televisions, radios, computers and electronic toys is.. silence. Children imitate the speech they hear in the media. However, the living adults around them are their primary example. Quiet insistence on acting on our words and being true to them is vital to a child’s executive function, or ability to recognize their right to choose.
In the play yard this morning, the caregivers were discussing how they bring simplify and create space for the inner voice. A fireplace or a candle altar as the center to a room instead of a television, spending the weekend quietly at home, or observing nature together were some ideas. After all, the influx of advertisements that families see driving down the street is enough to be exhausting. A simple fall spent watching the wind sweep away the leaves creates space for big and small people to grow. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I will see you lovely families taking hikes in the fall woods as always!
Tis the gift to be free
Aaaah, a new season begins at LifeWays Lake Country! The school-age children who visited us over the summer have returned to school, and our dear preschool friends have “Crossed the Bridge” from LifeWays to their respective kindergartens. We caregivers (myself, Miss Ashley, and Miss Ramona) and our caregiver/cook Mrs. Mies find ourselves surrounded by younger faces ranging in age from 3 months to 4 years. The transition to a younger set offered us a perfect opportunity to…simplify!
We began by de-cluttering the living room space, leaving just enough toys to occupy the children during what is usually a transitional time there. Then, on to the suites! Knowing that most of our children are toddlers and two-year-olds, we left them just enough shape sorters and puzzles, baskets and buckets to “dump and fill” to their hearts’ content without making a huge mess. We asked ourselves, do we really need two cradles, eight baby dolls and twelve blankets? Are three bins of blocks necessary?
After our work of simplifying, we stepped back and watched the children play. They certainly had enough to keep them occupied, and having two to three of each item sufficed when a few children each needed her own baby doll, puzzle, etc. Furthermore, and richly satisfying, was the way that the toys were used purposefully by the children. A child could clearly see what she needed, reach it, and use it in her play…and even know where it “lived” to put it away at cleanup time.
Working in this way with the children has also helped me to remember to de-clutter my own home (not an easy task for us pack-rats; is anyone out there with me?). Do I really need to have four sewing projects strewn about? Do I accomplish anything with piles of paper on my desk? Or can I simplify by putting just a few items clearly before myself, and then work on them purposefully. Tis the gift to be simple…
Later that day, after much coaxing, Elliot swam for the first time (excluding the tub and back yard wading pool). He giggled with glee as he and papa glided through the lake water, finding bits of seaweed here and there. And, as the sun began to set in the sky, Elliot saw an amazing sight --- his first firefly! Indeed, the yard was covered with glowing bugs that seemed to magically vanish just before he could grasp them. He had never been awake past sunset in the summer before, and his sense of wonder seemed to permeate the entire group of mostly childless adults.
Over the years we have declined many invitations to barbecues, fireworks, concerts in the park and festivals to honor our family's rhythm. At times, I wondered what we were missing. But, our experience at the lake strengthened my inner sense that we needn't rush through our lives, eagerly pressing experiences on our families. As the days unfold, so the world reveals itself to our little ones (and big ones, too). Sometimes when we pause to gaze at the sky, we see shooting stars. We delight in these fleeting, magic moments... when we are still enough to be aware of them.
While our love for our children may compel us to share the entire world with them as soon as their tiny eyes open, they needn't be barraged with outings and special activities. The IMAX and the circus have little to offer our youngest children. A morning helping mother hang out the laundry is, in itself, an enriching activity for a young child. An infant lies in the grass soaking in beautiful colors of the clothes drying in the wind as the butterflies fly overhead. A little toddler delights in handing the clothespins to mama, while a preschooler may prefer to "build" by clipping the pins together. A game of chase between rows of colorful linens enlivens a magical morning. The presence of a child seems to bring out the sacred in even the most mundane tasks, whether or not the adult has the presence of mind to notice. As they grow, our children will have many "firsts." With each passing day, week and year, they will have deepened their capacity to enjoy and experience each new wonder our world has to offer.
Back in those days, Prairie Hill Waldorf School had a service auction each year as a community builder as well as a moneymaker. People offered their services to each other – cookie baking, singing, poetry reading, you name it – as auction items. (Ruth Zinnecker’s rolls were always a hot item, commanding a handsome price for that service.) One year, my sister bid on and won “three men and a chain saw.” After much thought and planning, she decided on a play house. And then after more thought and planning she came up with a very simple design. A two tiered platform which sort of wrapped itself around the beech trees. It was always shady and cool in the hot sun, but also provided shelter from the wind on the cool days as well. There was ample opportunity for transformation in the simplicity of its design. By stringing yarn through the branches, those platforms became the deck of a ship or a stage or a house or a school or a space ship, anything that was needed. Her two girls and my three children would play for hours. Barb and I would sit at the picture window of her kitchen, unobserved observers, and watch the dramas unfold. Usually we were only needed for snack and lunch. Occasionally, we would have to intervene when something became dangerous, but not often. We got a lot of the world’s problems solved in those days.
It is the same now watching these children that are not my own. My favorite time of the day is outdoor playtime in the play yard. I love to watch Noni swing on her vine. I love to watch Isabel sit in the sand totally absorbed in her digging. I love to watch Giselle and Gwena and Eden play beauty parlor using sticks to comb each other’s hair. Orion is usually using me as a baby jungle gym these days, and Otto is lying nearby talking to the trees and the sky. Anjuli and Abrianna are running and running around and around the sandbox getting away from the daddy long legs that are chasing them. Chaim and Phin will be by the rainbow bridge, Phin seeing how high he can jump and Chaim becoming part of the space ship or the junk yard that the other boys are building. Natalie, our newest child, has just been watching. She likes to breeze up to Miss Tammy and look at her, as if to reassure them both that they are familiar face to each other. It is time for free play and it is amazing to me all the things the children come up with in the same little yard with the same people and the same toys day after day.
To me this is the essence of simplicity, our theme for this newsletter, and the greatest gift I can offer busy and working parents. I am the watchful, but removed, caregiver to their children, a guardian of play, so to speak. As parents, how often do we get to stay home all day long and do nothing but watch our children play? Our tendency is to think they will get bored and that the children need more and more to stimulate them. It always surprises me how even my older charges pour into the play yard after KinderHouse or KinderForest and quickly reabsorb themselves in the play of the play yard. In his book, Simplicity Parenting, Kim John Payne describes a condition he, as a school counselor, calls soul fever. It describes children who are fried out doing and going too much. One of his remedies is to establish “do nothing” times for our children, quieting ourselves and our children’s activities (without the use of media) in much the same way that we quiet a child’s activities during a physical fever.
I recently enjoyed one of those increasingly rare moments myself. My middle daughter and I struggle, to say the least. After much lecturing, I saw I wasn’t making a dent in her armor. So we just got in the car one day, angry and frustrated, she and her brothers and I. Silently, we drove out to Lapham Peak. It was a blustery early fall day and golden with yellow leaves. We could barely talk to each other, but Lapham Peak is a park we all love. As we stomped through the familiar paths, Gustav challenged us to see who could catch the most falling leaves. You must try it sometime. The wind would shake the leaves into rainfalls and we would run this way and that trying to catch them. It was the first time I had seen my daughter laugh in days. It hasn’t changed our contentious relationship, but it has given me a golden picture of who she really is. If there ever was a girl with soul fever, it is her, and here she was laughing and dancing in a golden shower of leaves. That is the picture of her I hold closest to my heart, my child at play.
Saturday, August 14, 2010
Reverence for the young child is ever present in a LifeWays program. Our home away from home approach not only sets our environment apart from other childcare centers, but nurtures a deep respect in the caregivers that can be paramount to the child’s development. That is not to say other childcare centers do not demonstrate respect for the young child, however, a deeper level of respect is exemplified in a LifeWays setting.
What lives in a LifeWays caregiver is an appreciation of the world around him or her. When I first visited a LifeWays center, I observed the interactions between a caregiver and the children in her care. I was intrigued by the caregiver’s presence and the way she carried herself. The quality of her movements and gestures were ever so slow, present and respectful. Her speech was clear, gentle and soothing, especially with the younger children. A mutual respect was shown by the children in her care, and the power of imitation became more apparent to me as I watched. The environment was calm and peaceful. The hum humming of her voice was soothing to all in the room. It was a wonderful observation and the beginning of my LifeWays journey.
During my LifeWays training I was asked to reflect on the importance of imitation and its influence on the young child. For the most part, it is through imitation that the child learns how to live and develop relationships. I began to understand that the way I care for and nurture the children will be the same way they will nurture and care for each other. The way I communicate with my peers - with respect, good manners and joyfulness - is how a child will communicate with others. How I approach nature and its beauty is how a child will appreciate nature. As we bless our meals and are grateful for our food, thus the young child becomes grateful.
I’m uncomfortable to admit that before the LifeWays training, this important principle was unfamiliar to me. I came from a traditional background and was inspired by an academic view. In my previous work, I was often asked what curriculum I was going to produce for the children in my care and how it complied to the state standards and other requirements that childcare centers need to conform to. Of course, I had faith that in providing an academic environment we were producing high quality care. This is what most folks perceive to be the key to a bright and successful future for the developing child. During the past four years, I have come to change my view on what makes a child successful. Slowly my focus began to change and this has come from a deeper understanding of myself. I have become more open to meditation. It seems that a spiritual aspect began to emerge, for I could see the brilliance of the young child and his or her own ability to grow into a healthy human being.
LifeWays caregivers are advocates for young children. We as caregivers try to preserve the magic of childhood and provide a natural and stress free environment. The child can naturally “play” and emerge from an egocentric being into one who is part of a larger world around him. Self-growth happens naturally when we get out of the way and offer the child a media free, open-ended play environment.
Reverence is something that is not taught to us in textbooks. It develops with the appreciation and respect of all things. In childcare, it begins by allowing a child to interpret the world as she sees it. We at LifeWays do not merely teach children facts; we help to foster many other attributes such as creativity, imagination, curiosity, good will, and gratitude. I am often in awe of your children and the beauty they naturally bring to us.
Blessings to you all!
By Mary O’Connell
The theme of our winter newsletter is “How do children benefit from being at LifeWays?” I have asked each staff member to share her own insights and experiences with regard to that question. For me, the New Year always inspires goal setting. As parents, I think it’s a worthwhile exercise to do some goal setting with regard to our children now and then, just as we do for our finances or our careers. We can’t really determine if any childcare program or school benefits our child until we identify what it is that we want for them.
If you ask a parent what his or her long-term goal is for their child, often the parent will say, “I want my child to grow up to be happy.” We all want that for our children, but realistically, we can’t really ensure our children’s happiness. Happiness is a very individual thing…I’m sure we can all think of some adult we know who seemingly has it all, but is very unhappy, and vice versa. Whether or not our children grow up to be happy people isn’t really within our control.
So I challenged myself to identify three goals for our children that are attainable, that will impact their lives in a positive way, and that might actually improve their chances at happiness. Here’s my list:
Let’s raise children who are able to love.
Looking back on your life to this point, I’m sure the things that mean the most to you are your relationships with people, not the grade point average you got in high school or the job promotions you’ve gotten. So while preparing children for school and careers are important, giving them experiences at forming real relationships is crucial.
The only way to help children learn to love others is to provide them with long-lasting relationships with people who love them. To give them the opportunity to be angry with a friend and learn how to work through that tough spot to restore the relationship. To let them experience frustration with someone they don’t always see eye-to-eye with, and learn effective strategies for compromising. To help them through the separation sadness they feel when their parent leaves with the comforting arms of a caregiver that really knows them.
Relationships aren’t always easy. Allowing children to encounter these challenges when they are young while in the presence of a consistent loving caregiver and suite “siblings” allows them to build relationship skills that they will use for a lifetime. I often wonder how these skills are honed in a childcare or preschool environment where numerous staff members come and go frequently and children are moved from room to room as they age. At LifeWays, I see growth in the children’s capacity for love everyday. I am amazed at how these children love their caregivers and each other, how tenderly they care for the babies, and learn to use their words with each other instead of their fists.
Let’s raise children who are free.
Rudolf Steiner, founder Waldorf education, said, "Perceive the child in reverence, Educate the child in love, Let the child go in freedom.” It’s our American birthright to be free, right? And yet so many children grow up “un-free” in their thinking. They sit by passively while their heads are crammed with facts and figures in school, learning what they need to know just to get through the next test, not really taking charge of their own learning. These children often become teens and adults who follow their peers in an unquestioning way, not asking themselves if the behavior they are choosing is really in line with the values they want to live by. They don’t seem “free” to choose a different path.
Michaela Glockler, M.D., in her book, A Guide to Child Health says,
“Raising a child to be free means taking appropriate timing into account. Anything
we introduce too early catches a child unprepared, unready, and unable to handle
the new element independently. In this case, we “train” the child instead of
empowering her. Conversely, any skill or subject that we introduce too late
no longer catches her interest; as a result, she cannot fully appreciate its value.
The consequences are dependency in the first instance and indifference in the second
–two different ways of being “un-free”.
How do we raise children who are independent, engaged, and who think for themselves? At LifeWays, we take Glocker’s advice about timing seriously. Everything has its season, and the season of early childhood belongs to learning how the world works, where our food comes from, exploring movement and language, learning how to dress yourself, how to take care of your belongings, how to treat your friends, how to respectfully ask for what you need…I could go on and on with the lessons learned every minute at LifeWays.
Of course, young children can be “trained” to do academic drills with flashcards, but at what cost to the child?
Let’s raise children who are ready to learn.
The child psychologists call this “executive function”. Good executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child’s IQ. While it has a number of different elements, a big part of executive function is a child’s ability to self-regulate. Children with self-regulation skills are able to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline.
Researchers have identified a single, powerful tool for children to develop self-regulation…unstructured play… a LOT of it. In fact, according to a recent study, sustained imaginative play that lasts for hours is best. Why? During make-believe children engage in what’s called private speech: They talk to themselves about what they are going to do and how they are going to do it. They evaluate what worked well and what didn’t. When researchers compared preschoolers’ activities, they found that this self-regulating language was highest during make-believe play.
Conversely, they found that the more structured the play, the more children’s private speech declined. Today’s children spend much of their time doing things that do nothing to improve self-regulation: watching TV, playing video or computer games, and taking part in structured activities. This change in how children spend their time over the years has actually had an impact on their ability to self-regulate. A recent study compared the self-regulation skills of children today to those studied in the 1940’s – today’s 5-year olds are acting at the level of 3-year olds 60 years ago with regard to self-regulation!
At LifeWays, the children do have hours devoted to unstructured imaginative play, both indoors and out. We have heard from parents and grade school teachers of LifeWays “alumni” that these children were well prepared for school as a result.
Firstly, I am grateful for the consistent, loving homelike environment LifeWays gave to Antonia. LifeWays caregivers were Antonia's second-mothers. She often called me "Miss Jaimmie" and her teacher "Mama." This made me know how well loved she was, and that she perceived LifeWays as a safe and happy home.
As Antonia grew from the suite baby to a big girl helper, I saw her complete her first journey through stages of maturity. She gently and gradually gave up her babyish ways, replacing old behaviors with new ones. There were no startling jolts so often imposed on children going from one year of schooling to the next.
At LifeWays, Antonia learned to get along with other children in a confident, positive and constructive way. She had gone from one who received the lion's share of attention as an infant, to one who gave her attention to caring for little ones around her. One who shared her toys, who cleaned up willingly, who worked out conflict and who gladly obeyed the rules and routines of LifeWays.
And, when the time was right, she was ready to give up the comforting routines of LifeWays and take on the exciting new challenge of five-year-old kindergarten. When Antonia entered public school kindergarten, her behavior stood out from her peers. Her teacher often remarked that Antonia was a joy to have in the classroom.
I credit the media-free environment, storytelling and structured routines of LifeWays for giving Antonia such a good foundation for kindergarten. When she got to school, Antonia knew that listening to grown-ups was a good thing for her to do. She was good at paying attention to the natural human pace of the teacher, rather than being accustomed to the faster pace of electronic media.
Antonia's academic progress has remained very good. She recently received her first formal assessment as a first grader. Her highest mark was in "working cooperatively in groups." LifeWays taught her to value her peers and teachers, and to have confidence in dealing with others. I feel these lessons will be with her for a lifetime.
"In a large class of 29 first grade students, I could see immediately that I had a solid group of children, leaders, who were interested in learning and who excelled in every subject. In my previous class, I had an occasional scattering of such children but in this new class many students seemed to be not only eager to engage but also balanced and flexible, despite their various temperaments and personalities. They were cooperative, kind and forgiving, and helpful to others. Because of their ability to receive, digest, and transform the information I presented, we were able to cover an unusually broad range of skills during class time. The entire situation was quite extraordinary.
Upon further inquiry, it came to my attention that most of the children in this core group had all attended the Lifeways early childhood program before entering Kindergarten. But it was not only the children who were well educated prior to their arrival in first grade, I also found the parents of these students to be well versed in the philosophy behind our education, forming a trusting and supportive circle around the class and its teacher! I credit both our own school's Kindergarten as well as the Lifeways program with helping parents to understand, early on, the importance of a healthy and whole foods diet, low media exposure, creative play, and the healing qualities of time spent outdoors surrounded by nature. The Lifeways Children and their families are indeed on an early road to a life of academic, emotional, physical, and social success."
Nancy Price, Waldorf teacher
Jaimmie Stugard, LifeWays Caregiver
"If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men marvel and adore...." Ralph Waldo Emerson
A wholesome childhood is filled with beauty and wonder as the world reveals itself to the little one's budding senses. Consider the newborn babe cradled in his mother's arms, as he leaves his birthplace and experiences the Wide World for the very first time. Though he can't see clearly beyond his mother's loving face, surely he begins to have an inkling of the vastness of this new world. The fresh air flows into his lungs as the luminous sun welcomes him to the Wide World. The trees, the shadows, the birds singing, the scent of the lilacs... All new, all beautiful and perfect.
This first outing made quite an impression on me as a new mother. It became quite clear that I would be seeing the world through my child's eyes throughout this new phase in my life. The car exhaust, the big, barking dogs, the fluorescent lights, the smell of the cleaning aisle at the grocer and the neighbor's profane shouting all seemed more offensive than I remembered. Yet, I knew that the baby in my arms could only accept these "offenses" as What Is.
As a parent and caregiver it is of utmost importance to me to show them What Is beauty and truth first. When our children behold the beauty of the world around them and the graciousness of those who care for them, they will come to love their world and humanity itself. They will revere life. As they grow older, they will naturally become more aware of injustices of the world and they will have the capacity and strength to have a positive impact. This strength is rooted in their love of the world that they have experienced as beautiful and good.
The warmth of the blossoming forest after a long winter... Blessing every delicious meal that Miss Monica places upon our beautifully arranged tables... Snoozing in the cozy shelter of our suites as lullabies weave through the sound of the rain falling on the windowpanes... Witnessing the compassion of a toddler (who has struggled to climb up the hill) go back to help a friend and struggle together to conquer "the mountain"... Families coming together for a seasonal festival... These are a few of the experiences of Goodness, Beauty and Truth that nourish us day after day at LifeWays.
Reverence Sown with Each Seed
Monica Stone, LifeWays Cook
Earth who gives to us this food
Sun who makes it ripe and good
Sun above and earth below
To you our loving thanks we show
Blessings on our meal
And peace on earth.
At LifeWays, we sing these words to give thanks for the nourishment we receive at each meal. It not only teaches children to appreciate the delicious array of food before them, but to show reverence for their relationship to the natural world. This song of grace draws an important connection from the dinner plate to the earth, a connection that often goes unrecognized in today’s society. With the ever increasing bombardment of over-processed, unnatural foods, it is easy to lose sight of where such things derive. I believe that it is important for every child to understand that fruits and vegetables do not sprout from cans, or even magically appear in the aisles of a grocery store, but begins its life in the soil.
The LifeWays garden plays an integral part in allowing children to see and experience first hand the wonderful process of growing food. After afternoon snack, the children are always excited to take the day’s food scraps out to the heaping compost pile. It lets them witness the full cycle of the garden and instills a sense of environmental stewardship. This year they will each have the opportunity to plant their own seeds, observe the garden as it grows into a bountiful harvest, and of course eat the fresh, organic produce that they have sown.
When we come together at the table and sing our song of grace, my hope is for each child to feel a deeper connection to the food they are about to enjoy. When the children sing “Earth who gives to us this food”, I hope they picture the beautiful garden they helped to grow. And lastly, I hope each child feels reverence for the relationship they hold with the natural environment.