Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Living Arts By Mary O'Connell, Director

“It takes a village to raise a child” is a popular slogan these days, and there is great truth to it. Some interpret this to mean that a child should be raised by a great variety of people and experiences, to surround him with all of the diverse learning encounters he needs. For the older child, this may hold a kernel of truth. But, how should the village support the very young child (and by young child, I mean infant to age six)?

I recently read something about rainforests that struck a chord in me. The tiny tree seedlings growing in the rainforest receive almost no sunlight, as they are covered by such a dense canopy of leaves overhead. They would perish, except for the fallen logs that lay on the forest floor. These “nurse logs” as they are called, provide a home for the seedlings. They provide protection from disease, rich nutrients for growth, and support for each young seedling as it grows.

What an appropriate metaphor for childhood! Our youngest children are not able to survive independently, and they rely on one or a few loving adults to be “nurse logs” for them, protecting them from harm, providing them with rich, nutritious care, and supporting them with loving boundaries as they grow. Unfortunately, in the world of modern childcare, conditions are often present that make this nurturing protection impossible. Large groups of single-age children are often cared for by adults who quickly change due to high turnover and frequent re-grouping of children to maximize profit. Aggressive academic curricula are put into place to meet state standards and impress tuition paying parents, leaving little time for the deep, free play and practical life experiences that stimulate children’s imaginations and strengthen their growing bodies.

Studies, brain research, and common sense wisdom tell us that an endless stream of adult caregivers and a rapidly changing menu of abstract concepts are not optimal for the developing young child. Rather, the village should exist to help parents and caregivers give the child a caring, nurturing, life-giving foundation for all future learning.

So what does the LifeWays village of support look like? The cornerstones of our curriculum here at LifeWays are the Living Arts:

Domestic Activity
Nurturing Care
Creative Exploration
Social Ability

Looking at the list, it doesn’t seem like a radical concept to me that these serve as the best foundation for the young child. We humans must first learn to love and trust each other, care for the places where we live, and learn to express ourselves creatively, right?

Believe me, these Living Arts can cause quite a stir with the modern American childcare establishment! I have had the opportunity to go into several traditional childcare centers recently to share with them our principles based on the Living Arts mentioned above. One director said to me, “Parents would not like it if we had their children fold laundry or wash dishes. They are paying good money for our staff to actually teach their children things!” It saddened me greatly that early childhood educators have succumbed to the modern societal delusion that caring for each other and our surroundings are superfluous activities, a waste of time, and not valid learning experiences.

But, I also had a glimmer of hope, as caregivers – the ones who are actually spending time with the children – were secretly finding me in the hallways and the parking lot after my presentation to tell me that they have been thinking these “radical” thoughts for awhile now. They were grateful someone is finally giving children what they really need.

I hope you enjoy the LifeWays staff’s articles on the Living Arts, as they explore the rich learning children and their adult caregivers share when Life is the curriculum.

With Warm Thoughts of Spring!


Thoughts on Materialism, Humanism and the Value of Work By Jaimmie Stugard, Caregiver

Recently, a plumber came to LifeWays to repair the garbage disposal (aka the dragon). At the time, we were getting dressed to go outdoors. As soon as they caught sight of the plumber with his toolbox, a group of little boys in hastily assembled outdoor gear were in the kitchen doorway watching the “worker guy.” One by one, I coaxed the intent observers back to their hooks to finish dressing. We fixed backwards snow pants and adjusted an upside-down jacket, put on a missing boot and a discarded mitten. Throughout the entire process, the little fellas kept inching toward the kitchen and stealing glances at the plumber (the girls were in preschool on this particular day).

When we finally made it outside and into the woods, the children immediately gathered up their “tools” to do their own work. Elijah filled a favorite hollow stump with leaves and bramble and then the children proceeded to unclog the stump with their sticks. The play evolved and the sticks turned into saws and hammers and shovels. The little plumbers became builders, mechanics, construction workers and gardeners. The entire morning was spent imitating purposeful work and playing peacefully.

While the children played, I sat nearby crocheting a washcloth. Little Otto came over and asked “Doing?” When I told him that I was making a cloth, his eyes lit up and he watched as the ball of yarn slowly became a cloth. Face-washing is a favorite activity in our suite. Each day when we come in from the woods, I fill a bowl with warm water and put in a drop of lavender oil and a special cloth for each child. The children wash their faces while we sing “Two little eyes to look around. Two little ears to hear each sound. One little nose to smell what's sweet. One little mouth that loves to eat.” When they are done washing, they come to me with a smile on their shining faces and ask if they are all clean. I help them finish if they've missed a spot and then they hang their cloth on the line to dry... As I finished crocheting the washcloth , I could hear the wonder in Otto's voice when he said, “Cloth?”

American children are surrounded with all sorts of things. Yet, there is a cultural disconnect between our possessions and their source. This materialism is quite understandable in a world where most goods are shipped from across the sea, purchased at a big-box store and tossed into the garbage as soon as they break or become a nuisance (and then shipped back over the sea as exported trash). When adults tend to our things (sewing, knitting, building, fixing, etc.) we cultivate the child's natural interest in how things are made and how things work. To observe and assist an adult in making or repairing an item brings a sense true value to the item. Moreover, it brings a sense of what it is to be human. People make washcloths. People make garbage disposals and pipes. People build houses and roads. People make gardens and farms. People make a wide world of things. And when something is broken, people can fix it.

Wonder, The Spiritual World and the Nature House By Emily Hall, Caregiver

At the end of the day, after the floor has been swept for the twentieth time, the wet clothes laid on the table or drying rack, the baby dolls have been dressed, the missing socks, slippers, shoes and hats have been found (or not found), I turn to our nature house- a dollhouse that I fill with seasonal items the children have gathered and story puppets.

One tired afternoon, as the anxious children anticipated the transition to home with the joy of seeing Mommy and Daddy, or the Mommies, or Grandma, and the sadness of saying goodbye, we tended to our nature house. It was in a sad state- piled rocks gathered from the floor of the room, disintegrating pinecones, winter gnomes, autumn tree, wool everywhere! I took it down and laid it on the floor. First, we gave all the pinecones back to the forest. Then, Maya, Aidan and Isaac chose a spring colored silk from the silk basket and I laid it on the ground of the house. Then, I opened our pressed flower book and the children chose flowers that our suite picked to sprinkle on the silk. Maya tucked the baby puppet into a birdsnest and gave her a blanket of spring flowers. We arranged Lady Spring, Father, and Mother Earth, then sprinkled the ribbons from last year's Spring Festival Tree on top of the house. We arranged Eliza Mae's rock collection and my shell collection on the ground. Isaac helped to felt a little woolen ball and cover it with sky blue silk. Wow! what a calm, happy feeling came through the room. Maya told me that she never wanted to leave.

At stressful times like the end of the day, or beginning of the meal, I turn to the Living Arts. Particularly the art of simple courtesy. We say "Thank you for our meal", and a moment of calm, of outbreath comes over the table of hungry children. That feeling is similar to the one that came over Maya, Isaac, and Aidan and I that afternoon. It was as though by tending the nature table, we thanked the spiritual world as well as tending to the physical world of our classroom. Sometimes, if Analisse is feeling upset, I see her climb on a chair and stand by the window gazing at our classroom garden of Easter grass. She doesn't try to pull the gardens down. Before, when the little nature house was in the window she would gaze at the rocks and gently pick them up. Ian was having a difficult transition before lunch and Miss Tammy brought him to me to make his Easter garden. He calmed instantly as he sprinkled seeds and dirt. If the children are tattling and whining, I will sometimes open the door and let the Tattle Bird fly out. The idea of the Tattle Bird and what he looks like and what he eats distracts the children from their tattling. The moment of acknowledging the invisible world and letting the negativity go calms the children and me.

Did you leave milk for the brownie outside your back door as a child? Do you have a little space where you and your child can create beauty together? Do you take a moment to say "thank you for our meal"? Then you have been practicing my favorite living/contemplative art- that of acknowledging the invisible helper spirits, of creating shrines and telling stories of the creatures of folktale and fable. You might be a skeptic and wonder at the value of talking to something no one can see. Then, think of it as a moment to tell a story that always stays the same and will develop your child's brain nerves through repetition. "Once upon a time, there was a tattle bird. He was always telling everyone exactly what they were doing. One day, everyone was annoyed and opened the door to let him fly out! Fly away, tattle bird! (then, the door opens)" Or, instead of a shrine, a moment to bond with your child and make something together. In our society's modern skepticism and value of paper based academics, we sometimes forget that there was wisdom in old fashioned storytelling, myths and fables, in gardens for children and in magic spaces that child and adult can share.

The children will sometimes tell me- but Miss Emily, faeries don't exist! Then I just say "I wonder....". Isn't wonder the realm of the scientist, the teacher, the next generation? In our modern culture, as humanity increasingly values technology, children are forgetting a sense of wonder vital to their play. Having a nature house full of magical found objects brings their reverence back. Later, in science class, when they are ready for academics, the children will bring the sense of wonder that limits boredom and focuses attention. Mary recently told me that the new ratings system assesor had never seen a daycare that had only live singing instead of recorded music. We value live singing because hearing a real person sing instead of a machine helps the children understand that music comes first from people. The ability to engage in and focus on an orally told story, even if it is of the mythical beings that modern people are skeptical about, helps a child to develop an attention span. I have never been more grateful for the LifeWays training and my knowledge of the Living Arts than when a child tells me she heard a mermaid sing, or that he glimpsed a gnome. I know then that the sense of wonder is still alive.

If you are wondering about the location of our nature table to revive you at the end of the day, it is on top of the white dresser in our suite. Feel free to leave some magical rocks or treasures there for us to wonder about.
Miss Emily

Living Arts in the KinderHouse By Rhoda Kambandu, KinderHouse Teacher

Ahh, spring in Wisconsin!
Every year I forget how slow spring is in coming. I let myself hope for an early one and I’m disappointed every year. Having grown up in sunny southern Africa, the idea of spring is still foreign to me, even though I’ve lived in Wisconsin for 21 years! Warmth is still so important for the children at this time of year. With the weather being as unpredictable as it is, the importance of being adequately dressed cannot be over-stressed.

In Kinderhouse, we try to offer the children as many warming and nurturing activities as we can. The living arts curriculum can warm our inner lives as our clothing warms our physical bodies. Living arts bring us a sense of homeliness. Folding laundry; brushing hair; creating gifts and playing to our hearts’ content are all activities reminiscent of home life. On Thursday mornings, we shape bread rolls from the dough that Ms. Jane makes with her children. The Kinderhouse children sit at the table and roll the warm dough between their hands. They do this over and over, roll after roll until all the dough is used up. They usually work quietly and the movement of their hands is meditative. When we’ve finished, they “wake up” and are ready to jump back into their play. I feel that this sort of focused activity does so much for the development of the children’s ability to see a task to completion. This ability is something that needs to slowly take shape within the child, not something that should be forced before the child is ready. Children come into their abilities at their own pace. Some children are able to turn out roll after roll. Others sit with the same piece of dough and knead it over and over again, and then hand me a misshapen mass which I gladly accept. In time, they too will produce a roll.

Creating gifts with the children for their families has been such a joy this year. Most recently, we wet-felted eggs to put into nests. The children were a bit unsure about the process of manipulating wool between their hands until it felted into eggs, but they persevered and the results were amazing. Elliot took such pleasure in this that he said happily, “Ms. Rhoda, why do we always do such fun things?” Isaac was an enthusiastic felter and produced 10 eggs! Antonia was unsure about the texture of the wool in her hand, but she continued to explore with it and finally became comfortable in her task. The process of making a gift for loved ones is so heart-warming for both the giver and the recipient. The children take such pride in their work. For me, the process of creating is so much more important than the end-product. There is a lot to be learned in sitting down to work through a task, figuring out how to do it and enjoying oneself. While they worked, the children talked to one another, telling each other about past and present injuries, and creating impossible scenarios in which these injuries took place! It struck me how well these 3 and 4 year-olds can hold themselves and complete their work without having to touch their neighbors or fall out of their chairs. This is something that the play-based learning curriculum found at LifeWays gives to the children. In their work and play, they are learning to manage themselves as they interact with their peers.

I am grateful for the opportunity to work with the Kinderhouse children at LifeWays. We’ve had a terrific year and I have been the better for it. I have enjoyed my time with the children immensely, and as our time together draws to a close, I would like to thank you all the Kinderhouse parents for allowing me this time to spend with your children.

In warmth,
Ms. Rhoda

Thoughts on the Living Arts By Tamara Treviranus, Caregiver

The domestic arts are an essential part of life at home and a significant part of our lives with the children at Lifeways We rhythmically navigate through our days, punctuated by the practical tasks at hand such as baking, cooking, laundry and cleaning. When asked what it is that children learn and gain from this type of environment, there are many answers. Of course they learn some of the things that are categorized in mainstream childcare and educational systems, such as counting, sequencing, small and large motor skills. Children learn to count their friends to set the table, they develop small motor skills in folding laundry and helping chop fruits and veggies for snack, have a science lesson in planting a garden.

What intrigues me most about providing a home like environment which invites the children into a larger communal effort, is something that goes deeper than anything that can be measured or quantified. What it gives to the children is an opportunity to be not only part of, but a contributing part of the community. This speaks to the children, not only in their development of mind and body, but in their developing sense of personhood. If offers the sense of satisfaction it gives us as humans to be a part of something, to have something to contribute, to be of value. When the children in our suite help with folding the laundry, their experience is much more than folding corner to corner, stacking likes with likes. The experience for the children, in their heart I believe, is that of being a helper, of pride and appreciation.

Thanks to all of our families for being a part of this wonderful community.


Ms. Tammy

The Living Arts By Jane Danner-Sustar, Caregiver

I will not write about brain research in this article, I promise. This month we are writing about the “living arts”. The living arts are a core principle of any Lifeways Center. It is the idea that children need to be surrounded by and participate in the work that makes a place a home. This means that on any given day you might find Anjuli and Maya mixing muffin batter or Gaston kneading bread. At lunch you might find Natalie and Orion sweeping or at least swinging their brooms and dustpans around in sweeping like gestures. You may find Otto and Amitai washing and washing and washing their dishes—hence the bags and bags of wet clothes. Isabel spends her morning caring for the baby dolls. She swaddles them and feeds them and carries them around on her back. Even the big kids love to help, though Eden and Sidonie like to punctuate their chair stacking with an eye roll and a heavy sigh. Chaim punctuates his help with a mischievous but radiant smile. He likes to stack his chair and everyone elses before I have the chance to ask.

Helping doesn't stop with my leaving. All the children will quickly put their cots away and wash their hands given the chance to be Miss Erika's helper. Together Eden and Isabel and Miss Erika chop vegetables, set tables and make popcorn. Miss Erika will be greatly missed when she leaves for a new job this summer.

Of course the living arts is primarily about the care of the children. How we diaper a child is as important as doing it. Everything is about building connections. Nap time and lunch time are precious times to hear all about Isabel's dog Princess Beauty or how Anjuli's cat Peppercorn scratched her until the blood came pouring out or the lovely dress that Sidonie's teacher gave her. (We hear much and listen to everything with a grain of salt.) I love that I have this time just to talk to the children while we fold laundry together or brush hair after nap or while we eat our lunch.

Last week we started our garden! After much frustration trying to get Orion out of the garden and work next to me I had him stand right in the middle of the garden and stamp the ground after I planted the seeds. Seeing me work in the garden has awakened renew interest in it. Nothing is so intriguing to a two year old than to be told not to touch or walk on or jump on something. I was showing Isaac and Zhi the little hosta buds peeking up through the dirt and six littles one were immediately stepping all over them to see what we were talking about. (Miss Jaimmie suggested growing creeping charlie in the garden!)

I see the children thrive here at Lifeways. I see the sparkle in their eyes. But I am curious...I asked Annalis' dad yesterday, in jest but also quire seriously “when other adults are talking about their children reading at two, do you feel the same pride in saying 'Annalis has learned how to unload the dishwasher!'” We are doing something real and tangible by caring for each other and the place that we borrow from The Quakers. We are building deep strong rich roots.

Miss Jane

Back to the Garden: A Living Art By Monica Stone, LifeWays Cook

With the sweet scent of spring in the air and flowers just peaking out of the soil, my thoughts turn toward the garden as I contemplate the living arts. I pause and think about how growing one’s own food used to be such an integral part of daily domestic life. Before the rise of industrialized agriculture, sprawling supermarkets, and prepackaged meals, the majority of the population not only prepared and cooked their own food, but cultivated it on the very same fields on which they lived. It was undoubtedly very hard work, but it was meaningful work that reflected a relationship between the land and domestic living. I think of the Lifeways garden in these terms. It restores the relationship between land and home, engaging children in the meaningful work of planting, harvesting, and preparing foods as part of their living arts practice.
Gathering soil, water, and recycled egg cartons, Lifeways children began this year’s gardening season by planting heirloom sweet pea and tomato seeds. Tending to them each day, children can watch their tomatoes perched by the window sprout to tiny seedlings. When ready, we will plant them together in the garden along with a diverse array of flowers and vegetable seeds. During the spring, summer, and fall children have the opportunity to care for the garden, observe as it grows to a bountiful harvest, and eat the fresh, organic produce they have sown. We continue our purposeful work by adding the day’s food scraps to the heaping compost pile where children are able to witness the full cycle of a sustainable food system. During the upcoming May festival, I welcome parents alongside their little ones to help prepare the garden for this year’s growing season, and furthermore learn first hand how this enriching living arts practice lays an important foundation for the children at Lifeways.

The Living Arts: On Art as Imitation, Contemplation, and Honoring By Emily Hall, Caregiver

When I was three, until when I was eight, my mother ran a calligraphy business from our home. For my fourth birthday, she made invitations to the party in calligraphy adorned with my favorite story character. My sister and I would watch as she carefully laid out the pens, inks, and paper for us and then for her. She had a big book from which she would choose the fonts for the birth announcement or wedding certificate that she was making. The book was filled with unicorns, butterflies, and little people that hid in the letters of the alphabet. We would imitate her as she drew out the lines in pencil with a ruler, then began to form words. Sometimes she would write the alphabet for us to copy. Sometimes she would give us her scratch paper to fill in. Sometimes we would get paper and markers for our work. I adored the quiet time with my sister and mother while my baby brother was napping. A meditative, quiet mood came over my mother when she was drawing. I longed to draw like she did and would sometimes be upset that I couldn't. Then, she would tell me that my drawings were beautiful and to please make more for her. So I did. I remember watching my mother draw as my sister and I made paper dolls to represent the characters from our favorite movie, Camelot. Then we would put on paper doll plays about the story for her. After I give a puppet play with silks for the children, they often will imitate me as they play with the puppets, inventing their own versions of the stories. My mother herself was my focus of imitation, as she her created celebratory art. My sister and I then brought our art to our family as an honor to her. I strive to imitate my patient, artistic mother as I bring the Living Arts to your kindergartener.
To honor Spring's birthday this year, we at LifeWays are having a festival on Saturday, May 15th. One of the ways I bring the Living Arts to the children is by honoring the seasons with art for our festivals. A forest full of flowers is being harvested each day to make decorations for the trees at our festival. Everyone will have a beautiful environment in which to work on the play yard! The children would also like me to tell you that the flowers are for their parents as well as for decorations. The children made gardens with wheatgrass in Kinderforest for the Easter egg hunt next Monday. Working together to plant a garden is a quiet way to honor spring, with some eggs to collect in the clearing. Then the children will have a picnic in the fresh air. The Kinderforest children will also have a egg hunt on Tuesday. Then they may take their baskets home. The children have also been stirring the soil in the garden to prepare for planting. All of these projects, and all the care that we do for our gardens and the LifeWays garden are ways that we attend to beauty, and show reverence to the environment.
Another Living Art project we have been working on is our stick house. Near the path is a fallen tree, and near the tree is a shelter someone built from sticks. A storm tore it apart, and the children and I have been gathering sticks and patching the walls and roof. Anyone who chooses to hike in the forest can see that we have been there attending to a gnome-home in need of some care. As I begin to build often Rapunzel, Snow White, The Wolf and The Aliens will mysteriously appear by my side with a stick or two to help. Sometimes, if Rapunzel and The Wolf are arguing, one or the other can go to the house to get a little needed quiet. Or, The Aliens can point out trash that someone left in the woods and help me to beautify the forest in that way.
The most important way that I work on life as art, and the most under attack in our society right now, is non-interruption of a child's play. My mother would not interrupt me as I was drawing near her, because she was busy working herself. I tidy litter and build the stick house as the children play. This is not because I am ignoring them, but because I respect that their play is as important and multi layered a work as my adult tidying and building. Positive guidance of course is needed. A child who is told "Don't hurt so-and-so!" will hear " and so." A child who is told "Be gentle to your friend." will hear "Gentle...friend."
In conclusion, thank you. Thank you for valuing life as an art. Thank you for dressing and caring for your child's warmth and comfort so well this year. Thank you to the children who are crossing the rainbow bridge into other kindergartens or first grade. I am excited to see you all at the festival! Below, as a P.S., are the songs we have been practicing for our circle to perform with you at our celebration of Spring's Birthday.
Miss Emily
A farmer once planted some little brown seeds
With a pitter patter pitter patter pitter pat pat.
He watered them often and he pulled out the weeds
With a tug, and a tug, and a tug, tug, tug.
The plants grew tall and strong in the sun
With a push push here and a push push there
And a lovely plant grew from each one.
Sunflower, Sunflower, turn your face to the sun
Sunflower, Sunflower, bringing happiness to everyone
You follow the sun, the whole day through
And when the sun sleeps, then you sleep too
Here is a snowy branch of May, a branch the fairies gave me
Would you like to dance today, a branch the fairies gave me
Dance away, Dance away, holding high the branch of May.