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!



  1. Dear Mary,

    I am really enchanted about Lifeways coming from a very traditional and conservative Waldorf background.

    I would like to comment on your first point: "it takes a village to raise a child."

    A point of view always very valued from my side because of the sheer isolation of parenthood in the western world, I have come to know some other perspectives as well.

    Here in Fiji where I live all (female and male!!!) adults care for a child, carry it, feed it and make it sleep. Indeed there is some sort of competitive attitude about 'Who does the baby like most? Who can make it sleep best?'

    That happens most for the very young child and most children of any age are very used to their multiple carers. This attachment to a whole group of people has its positive and negative effects.

    1. In times of distress the child can always turn to some aunty, cousin, grandmother etc and you will always receive support there. When you give birth to your own child there is always an aunt or cousin to care for you! The network is just astonishing.

    2. The great attachment to the whole family and neighbors brings also detachment from your own parents and an attitude of parents that their own child should not be more important than the others. This may flip into an actual disregard of the individual personality and subsequent abuse. May!

    3. Many carers bring many values and while this can be great for an older child, it's simply confusing and undermining morality. I believe a fraction of this is already experienced at Kindergarten level, when you as the teacher try to work towards something and find that at home there is no regard for this and the teacher must make an even greater effort with certain values.

    4. I have also experienced how much in the western world we "own" our children. For instance if I speak to a child, I will always have some kind of communication (can be non-verbal) if that's ok. Here in Fiji, people just co-own your child which comes at a great surprise and maybe anxiety for the parent, and often enough as a little fright for the child. All comes with great warmth, so we are all quickly bought into this. Great if the waiter comes to carry your child into the kitchen and feed it there while you eat!

    I believe what would be ideal for me is to meet somewhere in the middle. I insist that I can design the surroundings and the exposure of my children, but I also just melt when everyone greets my children without any hesitation. About "co-owning" children, it changed my life in such ways that we adopted our nannies guardian child whereas our other 3 children see her as their other mom and call her that way too.

    Love abound here, confusion there, a lot more research about this topic should be going into traditional cultures! I am sure there is heaps to discover!

    Anja from the Waldorf Kindergarten Fiji

  2. Such great comments, Anja. Thanks for sharing, if you read this. Wouldn't it be something if our western culture were more like Fiji? Yes, I can see some disadvantages, but the overall effect, I think, is to value children in a way that is more holistic and natural, rather than the materialistic "ownership" model that is the western norm. Thanks for your thoughts, and good luck there!