Thursday, April 21, 2011
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:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.