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.