Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What Do Children Need? By Mary O'Connell

How do we know what is really best for our children? Some of it comes down to gathering the best information, but that can be tricky * you can find an expert to support every viewpoint. In the end, much of it is intuitive, knowing as a mom or dad what makes the most sense for your particular child.

For me, as a parent and childcare provider, I was so happy when I found out about LifeWays, for it seemed to be a path that not only resonated with the way I intuitively parented already, but was also supported by lots of research as well as common sense wisdom. Thirteen years later, it is remarkable to find that these principles and practices of caring for and educating the young child are now supported by even more research, as the fields of brain development and child development become more advanced.

One interesting thing I have been reading more about lately is the life force that is present in every one of us. The Chinese refer to it as the chi (Qi), the Japanese the Ki, the ancient Hindus called it the Pranamaya-kosha (*sheath of vital energy*.) This life force is the focus of acupuncture, reiki, and other forms of Eastern medicine. Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian philosopher and social thinker who is known as the father of Waldorf education, called this life force the etheric body, which supports the health and vitality of our physical body.

As parents and educators, we can help our children by supporting their etheric (or life-force) body, so it can do what it needs to do to keep them healthy and strong throughout their lives. The interesting thing about the etheric body is that it has different purposes at different points in our life. Steiner taught that the etheric body*s primary function in the first seven years of the child*s life is to support the rapid growth and development of the child*s physical body. Steiner tells us that once the child is around age seven (usually first grade), the etheric body is not needed as much by the physical body, and it is freed to support activities like thinking and memory. This is the basis behind the practice of Waldorf educators to hold off on academic instruction like reading and math until the first grade. It is why we do not teach academics at LifeWays. However, this isn*t just a Waldorf construct. The practice in many countries outside of the U.S is to save academic learning for first grade and beyond.
At a lecture I recently attended at a large mainstream childcare conference, I learned that this view is supported by the latest brain research as well. The research shows that, before age seven, the right and left hemispheres of the brain are not fully integrated, or working well together, and the left (analytical) side of the brain is not well developed at all. Both of these developments are important for activities like reading, and teaching a child to read before the brain is ready is not only challenging, but can be detrimental.

The most current research also shows that the brain of the young child develops optimally when:
the child has freedom of movement and plenty of exercise,
the child feels safe and is cared for by consistent, loving adults,
the child is fed healthy, nutritious foods
and the child experiences daily routines that are rhythmic and predictable.

Sound familiar? These revolutionary brain research conclusions are also the foundations behind the principles and practices of LifeWays. And when you layer this modern scientific brain research with Steiner*s view of the etheric body, you see that the recent push to get young children into academic learning environments is a dangerous thing. If we call upon these life forces to engage in the work of thinking and memory before they are ready, we pull them away from their work in supporting the development of the physical body. Perhaps the extreme increase in children experiencing ADHD and anxiety disorders can be partly explained by American society*s rush to educate our youngest children in academic pursuits.

*The next time our society causes you to question your decision not to purchase the *Teach Your Baby to Read* video or makes you feel pressured to enroll your child in an academic K3 program, know that you are doing your child a wonderful service by resisting this academic push. You are strengthening your child*s life forces, allowing his brain and body to develop naturally at its intended pace, and you are giving him the best possible foundation for future learning.

*There are many varied answers to the question, *What does a child need?* But, I*m sure of one answer. Every child needs and deserves a childhood.

Childhood: Risk Needed, By Emily Hall

One day, I looked back into the suite a minute after beginning to set the table. Amari was standing on the table, stretching up to throw blocks out of the open window. He could not have fallen out- he is too wide to fit and too short to reach. Amari and the open window could have been hazardous for the blocks- as anyone who has seen a toddler experimenting with gravity can attest. But the table was the real danger in the situation. The Child Development Center reports that: *Falls are the leading cause of nonfatal injuries for all children ages zero to nineteen. Every day approximately 8,000 children are treated in U.S. emergency rooms for fall-related injuries.* Despite the logical risk of the table, for some reason it was the open window and its proximity to outside that disturbed me the most in the moment. The everyday risk of climbing onto and falling from a table- that was an indoor risk. Not as dangerous as outside. Despite the fact that every day, children visit the emergency room for fall related injuries, it was a window too high to fall out of and its proximity to the nature preserve that scared me.

I am not alone in my miscalculation. As a child, I fell from a piece of playground equipment and broke my back on the concrete. At the same school, I was given a time out for rinsing my hands in a puddle of rain. The playground equipment was seen as *safe*-man made. The puddle? Dangerous! Messy!

Parents and caregivers worry, worry, worry. We are constantly assessing risk, sometimes wrongly. We are human. Children have the difficult job of learning to navigate gravity. Caregivers and parents have the difficult job of letting them. Unfortunately, sometimes a scrape or bump is the only way to learn. The outdoors is seen as the greatest risk, with its dogs, strangers, rivers, and roads. Indoors is viewed as less risky. If you read through a childcare center medical log, you will see that children fall, pinch their fingers, and bump their heads as much inside as they do outside. In fact, bumping your head on soft dirt is much more comfortable than on a hard floor. And instead of a plain old white ceiling, outside you can see the sky.

Venturing outside the fenced in yard takes a brave caregiver. It is not a risk to be taken lightly. Some children just aren*t ready to come when they are called. When everyone is ready to listen, the plants grow fast in a wet year, hiding children from view. Tots change their minds at a moment*s notice about whether they are willing to listen. The trails erode quickly if there is a big storm. Dogs run loose in the woods. People have parties and break their glass bottles. Bees sting. Being in nature requires extra vigilance from the caregiver.

I have never seen a medical log entry at LifeWays about a child cut by broken glass. I have never experienced it. We turn around if we see glass. I ask dog owners to keep their animals away. If I am alone with the children, our group stays near the center. I have a cell phone. It stays within a heartbeat*s reach. Yes, there have been bee stings. Sometimes feet go in the river. Knees get scraped. Twigs scratch. But then, we see a hawk, deer, cardinal, mouse, snake, squirrel, kitten, rabbit, or the occasional coyote. We build houses from sticks, climb trees, write our names with sticks in the dirt, pick wild salad and paint in the rain. We sled and make snow angels, drink cocoa and share fairy tales about Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, and the gnomes. Life is risky. Bad things happen sometimes. And then you learn how to assess risk better, you find a different place to play. You climb a tree instead of playground equipment. You decide that falling down outside is better because despite your skinned knees, the air is just better in the woods.

The Basic Needs of Children, by Rhoda Kambandu

What do children need? As I sat down thinking about what ideas to share on this topic, I found myself quickly overwhelmed by the broadness of this question. As a parent, what I perceive as my children*s needs may differ greatly from other parents* perceptions of their children*s needs. However, I think that there are basic things that all children need in order to thrive, and these include nutritious food, adequate shelter, love and affection, adequate sleep, a safe environment, as well as structure and form to their lives, and discipline. For me, the question becomes how can I best meet the needs of all the children entrusted to my care? Children thrive when their lives are well-ordered, with predictable routines and rhythms. They thrive when they are served nutritious meals, are allowed enough sleep and active, free playtime outdoors. At LifeWays we strive everyday to provide these things to the children in our care. Children have a need to feel connected to the adults in their lives. Having consistent, long-term caregivers who they can imitate as they grow is important. When I was in college, I nannied for a family with three children. I was one of several nannies who had lived with them in a short period of time, and it was evident that having so many different caregivers had taken its toll on the children.
Figuring out what children need requires trusting your instincts and having the patience to wait for answers. It*s not always immediately clear what these needs are, because the needs change as the children move from one stage of development to another. There are many opinions from many quarters about what children need. It becomes difficult to sort through all this and find what works best for our own children and the children in our care. Having a clear understanding of child development and knowing what we can reasonably expect from children in all their stages of development can help us to better understand not only the needs, but also how best to serve those needs. The mixed-age concept at LifeWays gives us an opportunity to obverse children at different stages, and this allows us to better meet the needs of the children.
I am grateful to LifeWays parents who trust us with their children. It*s honor to do this work.

Health, Wellness, and the Importance of Childhood Illness, by Jaimmie Stugard

There are many times that parents must strike a balance between what they know is best for their child, what is most convenient for the family and societal demands. When our children are ill, this balancing act can feel like tightrope walking in roller skates. Having an ill child can be an
emotional ordeal, an inconvenience or a bonding experience. Most often it is all of these and more at the same time. While we may seek to protect our children with preventive medicine such as vaccines and vitamins and medicine that is intended to treat their illness (fever-reducers, cough medicine), we may never eradicate childhood illness altogether. Why must our little ones become ill, we wonder?

While each illness serves its own function, it can be noted that mild and moderate childhood illnesses seem to strengthen the body. I have known some children who seemed to catch every virus that was going around when they were very young, but were rarely sick as they got older. I once knew a little girl who got whooping-cough around the age of 3. The cough seemed to drag on forever, but when she recovered she seemed more vibrant and healthy than before she got sick. For the next seven years, she rarely caught even a minor cold. Many parents have noted that a childhood illness is the precursor to a developmental milestone. A fever or flu may be followed by a baby's first steps or a language boom.

Yet, one of the most pressing matters for modern parents is sick child care. Many of us feel that we cannot miss work to care for our sick children. For some, there is a very real risk of disciplinary action. Some employers may even refer you to a local hospital's sick child day care. Many "baby guides" for expecting parents put sick child care at the top of the list for what they should be looking for in a day care. I can't imagine how putting a sick baby in a room filled with many other sick children and exposing his already weakened system to a wide variety of illnesses would define "quality care."

Recently, my son got a stomach bug and I knew that he really needed a day of R and R. Our family is fortunate to have a grandparent nearby who is a nurse and has a very strong relationship with her grandchildren. Since grandma was available and mama and papa needed to go to work, I brought him to granny's first thing in the morning. "But, you are my mom and it is your job to take care of me when I am sick," he protested. While I knew that a day at home with mom would be the best remedy, I felt blessed to be able to leave him in good care trusting that he would spend his day sipping tea, eating toast and reading books with grandma.

It seems that our hurried, money-minded culture allows no room for illness or recovery. During cold and flu season, the television is ambushed with ads for medicines that will get you back on your feet, skipping all the way back to your cubicle. While it is one thing for an adult to wear down their body this way, it is another matter altogether when we inflict this attitude upon our children and their growing bodies. Shouldn't we allow our children to be sick and nurture and care for them until they are well? Don't we all have tender memories or our parents nursing us to health with compresses, baths, ointments and affection?

One inclination is to medicate the child to make him (and us) more comfortable. For example, well meaning parents sometimes give their children a fever-reducer out of fear that the fever may damage their child's organism. Yet, the fever in itself is a healthy immune response to illness. The elevated body temperature is nature's mechanism for fighting off illness and infection. A feverish person may appear lethargic externally, because their biological forces are focused on internal healing. If the fever is artificially reduced, the child will have a false sense of wellness and will no longer be in the restful state that allows his body to focus his energy internally. The illness may be drawn out or become more severe because the fever was not allowed to do its job, so to speak.

One helpful piece of advice that our pediatrician gave was to use a fever reducer when the temperature was alarmingly high (at least 103 degrees). The medicine should reduce the fever temporarily. When the medicine wears off, the temperature will most likely begin to rise again. If the medicine does not reduce the fever, it could be a sign of something more severe and medical attention should be sought immediately. A fever can be a reaction to many types of illness. In every case, the child's behavior and appearance is the strongest indicator of how to treat the underlying illness. If we mask a fever with antipyretics (fever reducers), we may not be able to accurate assess the situation. Fear and anxiety are never helpful in these situations, so always call your pediatrician if you have questions about your child's illness. A feverish child ought to rest at home until their fever has subsided (unmedicated) for 24 hours. Too much stimulation without adequate rest may result in relapse.

While we may not be able to completely avert sickness, there are some simple things we can do to maintain health. A strong daily rhythm that revolves around eating nutritious food, sleeping and waking supports growing bodies. As does ample free play and movement, outdoor play, fresh air and connection to nature. Warm clothing and bedding made of natural, breathable materials protects the child from illness and is as essential as proper hygiene. Further protection is offered when we prevent over stimulation by reducing television, video games, loud noises, harsh lights, sugary, processed foods and overwhelming activities (there's a reason the carnival only comes once a year) . Of course, loving, consistent, nurturing relationships are the cornerstone of a sense of well-being.

What We Learned From Our Parents, by Jane Danner Sustar

Sometimes Nonie will call me mama. Then, very thoughtfully, she corrects herself and says "Miss Jane" or "LifeWays Mama." All the children have done this at one time or another. I do not take it very seriously. But I remind the children that Mama is a very special name for a very special person in their lives. Then I smile. It always brings a warm smile to my lips when they slip up. I feel like I am doing my job.
*My father died two years ago and my mother is slowly following him. They were good people. Our house was a very tradtional home. My mom was a math teacher but gave up her teaching to become a stay at home mom. My father was a university professor. I used to think that it was very odd how little I learned from my parents considering they were both teachers. Now that I am at LifeWays, I think differently. My mom woke up every morning, and we had oatmeal, two pieces of toast, two eggs, two pieces of bacon and a glass of orange juice, unless it was Saturday or Sunday. On Saturday, we had waffles or pancakes. On Sunday we had donuts, and what my father called "sugar sh-tties", or Captain Crunch to the rest of the world. I spent most of my young life in our backyard or downstairs in our basement where our playroom was. We spent days down there putting on plays, building forts, fighting, laughing until *******our mom called us up for lunch. We then rested for an hour, then went *******downstairs to the basement for the rest of the afternoon. When
*****Dad got home, I would go with him to take the dog for a walk adn then I set the
*****table for dinner. When I got older, I had to make dessert. According to my dad,
*****a meal wasn't worth eating if there wasn't dessert. At nine o'clock, we all went
*****up to bed. Dad read us a story and tucked us in.
******Thursday was the day we went to Treasure Island, a huge grocery store
*****on HIghway 100. My mom would leae us in the toy section while did all of her
*****grocery shopping for the week. Friday was bread baking day. She would bake
*****seven loaves of bread, one for each day of the week, but we could not eat it hot ******out of the oven because "warm bread causes cancer!" my mom would say.
*****Lately, Anjuli has been quoting my mother because, of course, I tell her the same thing my mother told me, "You must knead the bread until it is as soft as a baby's butt." Saturday was always cleaning day. The big kids, my four older brothers and sisters, cleaned the bedrooms. The three little kids, myself and my younger brother and sister, cleaned the basement. Sunday was church and yard work day. Late in the afternoon, my father would pack up all the kids and the dog in the station wagon while mom prepared dinner. We would drive out to some little secluded area of wilderness and go for a walk. We would gather flowers or mushrooms or tree leaves in our pockets and when we got home my dad would look them all up in his little pocket field guides. He had at least of dozen of them.
*One of my favorite memories of my father is when he stopped us during one of our wintery Sunday walks. It was dusk and it had just started to snow. Whispering, he said, "Do you hear that?" We all shook our heads solemnly for there wasn't a sound in the woods: no birds, no squirrels, no chipmunks. A soft smile spread over his lips, "snow," he said. Sure enough, it was so quiet you could hear the snow hitting the ground. I was reminded of that last week one morning when it was snowing. The Robin's Nest Suite were the first ones out into the play yard and Anjuli stopped us, Otto, Isabel, Orion and I, and whispered, "It's beautiful!" We all smiled and nodded.
*What did you learn from your parents in your first six years of life? I doubt there is any brain research that can quantify it all. My parents gave me a daily rhythm and a weekly rhythm, good food, plenty of outside play, warmth, and regular bedtimes. I learned how to bake, to cook, to clean, ot set the table, to rake and shovel, to care for our animals, to grow and prepare food, to get along with my brothers and sisters, to be repsectful of others, and to be grateful for what we had. Those are the things I can point to. Somehoe I also learned that the world was a good place and that when I fell, someone whould help me up and kiss my boo-boos, that I was a good person. My parents never formally sat down to teach me anything, except maybe math in eighth grade -- but that is another story completely. And yet I have learned small subtle things that I have carried with me all of my life. I was somehow ready for school but perhaps more importantly, I was ready for the adventure of life.
*Everything I do at LifeWays is a tribute to my parents, in a way. My task as a caregiver to your children is to partner with you and try to create a home away from home. Whenever your children slip up and call me Mama, I think maybe I am close.

Miss Jane