Tuesday, October 8, 2013

How do we create rhythms and rituals with our children? By Jaimmie Stugard

Order our lives so that we make room for the largeness of our love.
                                                                                    Shea Darian

            Over the years, many parents have asked for advice concerning the various challenges that arise when caring for their little ones.  While there are a few quick tricks that I can offer, like swaddling a restless infant, for example.  In general, a holistic approach requires much broader, long-term remedies.  Whether the difficulty surrounds sleeping, eating or discipline, chances are that a simple and consistent daily rhythm will alleviate the problem and allow the family to function happily.    

            One of the tasks of the growing child and one of the functions of parenting is to bring the child into rhythm.  It seems as though the life of a newborn lacks rhythm completely. Feeding and sleeping occur on demand at irregular intervals, even the baby's breathing is erratic.  The first hours, days and weeks of my son's life seemed timeless and otherworldly to me.  Like most new parents, I was enamored, emotional and exhausted. Gradually a rhythm began to develop and it brought peace and purpose, calm and contentment. 
             An ordered, predictable daily structure provides the young child with a sense of security and a sense that life has real form.  Knowing  what's next enables him to go with the flow with greater ease.   It is a great comfort for a child to know what to expect and what is expected of him.  Strong daily rhythms and repetition reduce unnecessary decisions and allow us to be more present in the moment for our children and ourselves.  Our family rhythms needn't be mundane.  They can be loving, nurturing, balancing, interesting, joyful, beautiful, and fun.  They nurture our sense of life.
            Discipline issues are greatly reduced when we've established strong rhythms.  Activities are taken as a matter of  fact and become habits.  Regularity is the key to creating good habits.  If a child has washed his own dish after eating each day since he could reach the sink, what aggravation we are saving him as an adult!  He shall be liberated from woeful glances at a sink overflowing with crusty dishes.  As your children get older, they will transform the outer structure that you have helped establish into inner self-­discipline. 
            How do we create rhythms and rituals with our children? We begin by forming our lives around the essentials, nourishment and rest, with plenty of outdoor play in between.    Consistent bedtime and meals reduce tension and confrontations at what can be the most challenging times of the day.  These sacred times can be held by ritual, a blessing before meals or a lullaby at bedtime.  Regular meal times, naps and bed times help to start orientate the child to the passing of time.  Establishing these external rhythms allow internal rhythms  to develop.  When dinner time and bedtime are consistent, a child becomes hungry at dinner time and sleepy at bedtime. 
            Young children need at least 10 hours of sleep at night.  And, pediatricians recommend a total of 12-15 hours of sleep each day.  Bedtime routines can revolve around hygiene and bonding.   At our house, we ease into the evening by lowering the lights immediately after dinner and preparing a warm, lavender bath.  The radio and television are quiet.  Our voices are lowered.  After bath time, we have some cozy play time in the dimly lit bedroom.  The room has been warmed with a space heater, so we take our time dressing, allowing the children to learn to put on their own pajamas.  This gentle pace sets the tone for the evening.     Young children find comfort at bedtime when we do the same preparations in the same way at the same time every night.  One simple story from a book, or better yet an oral tale, can be told again and again for weeks.  This allows the child's mind to calm and relax into sleep.  When we watch television or read many books before bed, the mind becomes  filled with images and it is difficult relax . On the other hand, the quite presence of loving parents can bring a sense of peace to a child as he prepares to slumber.
             Let your day breathe life, balancing in-breaths like painting, quiet play, bathing, and sleep with active out-breaths (outdoor play, exploring, singing, going to the market, visiting friends, etc).  There are times for drawing our children into our embrace, and other times to release them unto themselves and their world.

Your daily life is your temple and your religion....
                                                            Kahlil Gibran

Our Daily Rhythm
Sunshine Garden

Indoor Play... greeting, playing, singing, domestic and artistic activities, tidying, cooking, table setting
Snack... hand washing, blessing, passing, pouring, eating, dish washing
Outdoor Play... dressing, climbing, running, jumping, digging, dancing, singing, exploring
Lunch... hand and face washing, table setting, blessing, eating, thanking, dish washing, clearing, sweeping  
Nap... tooth brushing, tucking in, story telling, lullabies, listening, resting, waking, snuggling, hair brushing
Snack... hand washing, farewell to Miss Jaimmie and family, story and snack with Mister Jeremy
Outdoor Play... enjoying each other and the outdoors until families reunite for the evening

Sources: Seven Times the Sun, Shea Darian
               You are Your Child's First Teacher, Rahima Baldwin Dancy

               Beyond the Rainbow Bridge,  Barbara J. Patterson and Pamela Bradley 

Living in Rhythm by Jane Danner Sustar

We all live in rhythm. We, as adults, are most comfortable in our yearly rhythm, our birthdays and anniversaries, spring, summer, fall, winter, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, the Fourth of July! We are familiar also with our daily rhythms, but we do not mark them with much notice. The sun rises. The sun sets. We eat breakfast, we eat lunch, we eat dinner. We sleep. We wake up. I tend to be most aware of my weekly rhythm because of weekends. TGIF!
                I take an awful lot for granted.
                What would happen if one day the sun was two hours late for the day? You may not realize it but you do have a sense that by a certain time the sun is starting to come out. For me it is when I am taking the dog for a walk. Even though I get up in the dark it is usually starting to get light out by the time I get back to the house with Susie. Imagine you are noticing a cloudless sky and no sun. It would make me very uneasy.
                What would happen if one year Thanksgiving had to be postponed until April. There you are stuffing your turkey just as the first robin flies into your yard and the first tulips are poking their heads up through the ground. Or imagine all the trees bursting into bloom in January one year and turning orange and red and brown while you watch the Fourth of July fireworks. The spring before last when we had warm weather so early, it was nice but it felt wrong. When drought struck later that summer it was not really a surprise because the spring was so early and so warm.
                A young child does not have a yearly rhythm. They have not lived enough years. They live in hours and days and weeks. When their daily rhythm constantly changes, it can be as disturbing to their sense of well-being as Thanksgiving in April would be to ours. We have such a strong rhythm at LifeWays that the children take comfort in knowing sandwich day is followed by pasta day, which is followed by beans and rice. When pizza day comes they know they have two home days coming up!
                You might think that such a strong rhythm would make the children inflexible. But it is my experience the exact opposite is true. It makes them more resilient. When the weekly rhythm is tossed into the air by sewer work…”Pizza on Wednesday!!??” the children are still held by their strong daily rhythm. Morning snack is still followed by outside play, which is still followed by lunch. The children and I know where we stand in time in the same way you know that the sun is not going to be two hours late today.

                Ah, here is Susie now, to remind me that she too lives in rhythm, and it is time for her walk!

Sand and the Rhythm of Outdoor Play by Mary O'Connell

As we talk about rhythm, part of my yearly rhythm as director of LifeWays is our annual YoungStar evaluation. You can read on our website about my feelings about YoungStar and its one-size-fits-all approach to early childhood education. My biggest beef is that for a program to be rated five stars, the caregivers need to follow a very materials-driven approach to caring for children. Since this doesn’t mesh really well with our model of simplicity, we have been happy to settle for a three-star rating and be done with it. Still, the YoungStar process always makes me ponder the mainstream world of childcare.

For some time, I have been scratching my head over what has become a compulsory item in the modern preschool classroom – the Sand Table; a table in the room filled with sand that children can pour, dump and run their trucks through.  It seems that what began as a novel concept some twenty years ago has now become a necessity in a quality preschool program.  When early childhood colleagues from conventional childcare settings come to visit LifeWays, they ask, “Where’s your sand table?” as if the absence of one is a red flag that we’re not providing our young apprentices with all of the vital experiences they need.

Now, as a caregiver of small children, I love sand play. But as a caretaker of the space the children inhabit, I’m not sure who thought it was a great idea to provide it indoors.  After all, how many homes do you know that have a sandbox in the living room? Here’s the question that seems reasonable to ask…can’t children play with their sand outside, the way they’ve done for generations, along with the sticks, mud, puddles, ice, and other great tactile experiences that Mother Nature provides for them?  I’ve come to the conclusion that a sand table, however incongruent with a clean and tidy living space, has become a requirement in the early childhood classroom because it’s the only experience many children have with the natural world. Sadly, most children do not experience daily outdoor play in nature.  

If it’s drizzling, chilly, or anything less “desirable” than 75 degrees-and-sunny, most preschool programs keep children indoors, opting for the sand table and the other modern miracle of childcare -- the Gross Motor Room; a cavernous space with padded walls, riding toys and an overwhelming din, as children expend their energy in a frenetic McDonald’s Play Land fashion.  When I was young and my friends and I began running around with this level of energy, my parents promptly sent us outdoors to play, where our shouts and cries were met with wide open spaces, and where our play often became more purposeful and less frenzied.  The natural environment invited us to do more than run around like chickens with our heads cut off. We made mud pies and potions, created games, poked around in the creek with sticks, climbed trees and took physical risks that taught us a lot about our own strengths and limitations.

Were we deprived when the sand was too frozen to play with for one whole season of the year?  Nope, we simply learned to be creative with snow and ice and sticks. And the sweetness of the spring thaw and the first foray back into the sandbox is a pleasure I remember with great satisfaction.

How unfortunate that we have so removed children from their roots they are being raised under “house arrest.”  That we feel we need to provide every possible experience in a manufactured, synthetic way because we’re too afraid, too controlling, or just too lazy to bring them out into nature. 

I am so grateful for LifeWays, where children play in nature on a daily basis for long periods of time because it’s considered as vital to their development as a healthy diet and enriching learning activities.  Even when it’s raining or snowing or hot or cold or anything else less perfect than a sunny 75 degrees.  The benefits are immediately visible, as the children are often more coordinated, independent, verbal and imaginative and less hyperactive than their Sand Table-Gross Motor Room counterparts.  Oh, and less obese, as well.

My dream is that we’ll come to a place in early childhood education where educators and legislators will realize the virtual world we’ve created indoors is a poor substitute for the natural world right outside our homes and classrooms.  In my dream world, colleagues and YoungStar evaluators will enter every preschool classroom and inquire not, “Where is your sand table,” but, “Why aren’t the children playing outdoors?”    

Meal Time Rhythm at LifeWays by Jeremy Bucher

Meal time at Lifeways has a unique rhythm which helps keep the children focused and happy as they move through the day. This assists the children in their transition to and from meal time while guiding them through their dining experience.
                While the lunchtime meal is still being prepared, some of the older children will accompany a caregiver to the dining area to help set the tables. This gives the children the chance to get a peek into the kitchen and see how their meal is prepared. The children get to come in early and set out the silverware and dishes at each spot at the three tables with the caregiver. This activity has been molded into the daily rhythm and the children really seem to enjoy helping and take pride in their work. It helps transition the children into meal time and they are rewarded with a story on the couch after they finish setting up the tables. When the rest of the children come into the dining area they join their friends who had been setting up for lunch and see they have already taken off and hung up their coats and put on their slippers, which is a helpful hint that it is time for everyone to do the same. This eases the transition into meal time which can be chaotic with everyone all together hanging up their coats and changing into their slippers all at once.
                After everyone has changed their shoes and hung up their coats they make their way to the tables where they sit in the same spot every day with very little change. It can be frustrating for the children if someone else is sitting in "their spot" and can complicate their transition to meal time and getting to the table. The children feel more comfortable if they get to sit in the same place and have the same view of the space every day. This makes the table more inviting and makes the transition to sitting down for lunch easier. Once everyone is together all join hands and sing our blessing to give thanks for the food we are about to enjoy.
Earth who gives to us this food,
Sun who makes it ripe and good,
Sun above and Earth below
To you our loving thanks we show.
Blessings on our meal and Peace on Earth.
The children really enjoy singing the blessing and put their energy into it, especially with the thunderous "yay!" that erupts after the blessing is sung. When the children sing the blessing they know that it is meal time and this helps prepare them to be sitting at the table for a long period of time. Many children tend to lose focus when something interesting catches their eye or their ear and the blessing focuses their attention onto their food and the others sitting near them. The meal is followed by another blessing that gathers the children and prepares them for the transition into the kitchen to help with the clean-up.
For health and strength and daily bread
We give our thanks today.
                The final portion of the meal time consists of the children gathering their dishes and bringing them to the kitchen. Some of the children will stack all of their dishes and carry them to the kitchen all at once, but most like to take a few trips. This is where some of the children create their own rhythm, bringing their dishes separately but in a specific order each time. By keeping with the order they create they can more easily remember to bring all of their dishes, knowing which one is the final dish they need to bring for their job to be complete. Once they have brought all of their dishes the children sit down in the kitchen and wait for their turn to be called up and wash their dish. Some children really enjoy climbing up the step ladder and being perched at the sink with the big sink full of fun bubbles and lots of water. They scrub their dishes clean and usually hang out for a moment to take in the view before climbing down and drying their hands to get ready for nap. The children are great helpers and the task of washing their dishes focuses their attention when they are surrounded by their friends in a small space. This activity fills the gap between lunch and nap time and makes the transition to nap time a little easier.

                Meal time has a specific rhythm that keeps the children focused and engaged and gets them through their meal. The meal is very hands-on for the children and eases their transition from play time to nap time. The older children are given more responsibilities which they enjoy and this gives them the opportunity to be role models while easing their transition from outside play to meal time. The blessings said before and after the meal focus their attention and prepare them for their next transition of the day. By participating in washing their dishes all of the children are given a sense of responsibility while focusing their minds on a task as they transition from lunch to nap time. This rhythm makes the day away from mommies and daddies much more tolerable while providing an interactive meal experience which keeps the children involved in the kitchen.

Rhythm and Flexibility by Beret Isaacson

Rhythm is, to me, a frame for our lives that is flexible when we need it to be. The stronger our rhythm, the healthier we are and the more energy we have for creative pursuits. While preparing to write this article I remembered something from my childhood. It was bedtime and my mother forgot me in the living room. I don't remember how old I was, definitely under five. I was the oldest of four children so perhaps she was focused on the baby. When I realized everything was quiet I reveled in my freedom. I positioned myself strategically behind my dad's big chair. I had some books that I was looking at. After some time passed I began to feel a little strange. I was certainly not going to move and give myself up for I wanted to see what would happen. I sat and sat until I was nearly hallucinating from exhaustion. When all was quiet upstairs my mother came down. I remember her surprised exclamation when she found me. She quickly made everything right in my small world. I am so thankful she didn't think I was developed enough to make my own choices regarding my daily rhythm. She knew just how to take care of me. Because of that I felt safe, secure and free to be the child I was.

When my oldest was in kindergarten at the Waldorf school in Tucson, his teacher spoke about rhythm. After hearing what she had to say, I asked, "So, rhythm builds health?" She answered emphatically, "Yes!" We had a really strong rhythm for our children, including a 7:00 bedtime until the oldest was in 5th grade, when it creeped to 7:30. Children need lots of rest to develop to their full potential. A clear daily rhythm helps children not to feel stressed out, wondering what is going to happen when. Rhythmical meal times and snacks are another great support for the growing child. My own personal rhythm is quite different from my children's. Because of my adult preference for variety, there were times when I was raising small children that keeping a steady rhythm for them was a little inconvenient, but doing things in a way that favored my children has made parenting easier for me. 

In KinderHouse this year, my new students are already familiar with the rhythm of our morning. We have snack, use the bathroom and then get ready to go outside. We have circle time, then take a hike and find a spot to play. Out in the woods, they know when story time is approaching. They know the whole order of business which makes them quite comfortable and my job of ushering them from one activity to the next very easy. Along with this familiar rhythm, every day is different. Different social play is engaged in and there are new ideas to explore. We have already been fishing, have ridden horses and motorcycles, lived on a bridge above some trolls and baked cakes out of mud. I love seeing the children feeling relaxed and confident and getting to see the beauty of who they are unfold. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Wind or Weather: An Elemental Experience by Jaimmie Stugard

After nearly half a year of frigid Wisconsin winter, gradually the snow and the half foot of ice buried beneath it began to melt away.  Here and there we caught a few glimpses of sunshine, a warmish 50 degree breeze, only to have the temperature plummet again the next day.  The last week has brought us constant rain, wind and thunder along with frigid temperatures.  And yet, at LifeWays we go outside nearly every single day.
            Yesterday, I decided I needed a break from the cold and the rain. Even on chilly days, playing outdoors in the rain really isn't so bad.  We bundle up with lots of layers and water-proof clothing and the children delight in their time outside.  The water and mud have become their new toys- perfectly impermanent, open-ended and creative.  It is only when we head indoors that the children begin to complain.  They are soaked, and even the best rain gear couldn't hold up to their exuberant play. So we head inside and begin to peal off layer after layer of wet, muddy clothes. 
            Suddenly, the children who delighted in splashing in puddles and sculpting with the goopy mud have developed an aversion to dirt!  They cry and fuss at the prospect of touching their soiled jackets and removing them with their own hands.  Eventually, I am able to convince them to undress themselves while I help the toddlers peel out of their saturated gear.  I scan the floor for abandoned hats and boots and remind the children to hang up their things, wring out a few jackets and socks and help the children into fresh, dry clothes.  By now, most of the older children have already changed and muddy clothes are strewn about the carpet.  They squeal and giggle at the sight of a pants-less baby who is trying desperately to escape clean clothes and a diaper change.  Occasionally, a couple of partially dressed  preschoolers take the opportunity to shout and jump in a chaotic underpants dance.  Once dressed, the children bag up their wet clothes and place them on their hooks.  They wash their faces with their handmade cloth that was soaked in warm, lavender and calendula infused water.  Hands are washed and we are refreshed and ready to eat the hot, delicious meal Miss Monica has lovingly prepared.
            After a few days of steady rain, I grew tired of this wet, cold, chaotic routine.  So, I told the children (for the first time in a VERY long time) that we would be playing indoors all day.  Most of our suite-mates were in forest-kindergarten on this particular day, and it seemed like our little group of youngsters could handle the confines of indoor play.  At first, they were happy to be free of the burden of putting on layer after layer of outerwear and seemed eager to do some watercolor painting and fort-building.  But it wasn't long before a couple of three year old fellas were tumbling over one another like rowdy little puppies, crashing into anything that got in their way.  Watercolors went flying, the toddler was crying and another child lay in the cozy corner, unusually lethargic.  I thought to myself, “This is what I get for breaking the rhythm.”  It wasn't long before our lethargic friend got sick to her stomach, and while I cared for her and cleaned up mess, I considered that perhaps this was the reason why we needed to stay indoors on this particular day.  Or, perhaps I just needed to be reminded  that going out in all sorts of weather is well worth the effort.  
            The next day was as cold and wet as the others and we happily went outdoors.  We hiked in the woods, spotting scilla, snowdrops and crocus buds daring to defy the wintery mix that slopped from the sky.  The brown earth was finally beginning to fill with patches of green.  After our stroll, we gathered in the front yard, nestled between the garden and the woods.  The bigger kids hauled branches into a pile that  began as a fire pit and evolved into many things as they played.   As is my habit on cold, wet days, I led the children away from the puddles until our playtime neared an end.  (This way the children don't have to bear soaking, cold gear for our entire time outdoors.)  As lunch-time drew near, the little ones gravitated toward the puddles and enjoyed some wet play.  They bent long sticks in half, making fishing poles to fish in their tiny ponds.  The timid toddler crouched at the perimeter, splashing the water with little sticks and tossing in pebbles. Plip. Plop.  A handful of children dashed, splashed and jumped in an immense puddle beneath the pear trees.  Knowing we needed plenty of time to change, I called the children to  hike back to the door with our usual melody. “We are walking in the woods, walking, walking in the woods. We don't stop for wind or weather, we keep walking all together.”  A chorus of disappointed  little voices lamented coming out of the puddles and followed me to the back door.
             Over the years I've noticed a distinct difference in the way adults and children speak about the weather.  Adults seem to frame their observations within the context of their desires or preferences.  We say, “It's a beautiful day.” or  “What terrible weather we are having.”  While the children tend to make observations, “It's raining.  It's snowing. It's hot. It's froggy” (aka foggy).  They are simply accepting and experiencing the elements.  No matter what the weather, children who are dressed properly revel in their time outdoors.  Rain, heat, thunder or snow, they rarely seem to mind the elements.  Even when it is freezing out, the children complain about coming inside. I admire their receptivity to the wide array of elemental experiences our climate offers.  I seek to follow their example and refrain from casting judgment about the weather in their presence.  I wouldn't want to take away from their experience with my skewed adult perceptions. So, I quietly bundle up and head outdoors wind or weather, to share in their awe and wonder. 

The Messy Relationship between Children and the Natural World by Mary O'Connell

As I think about children and nature, three past conversations come to mind. The first was about 12 or 13 years ago when my home daycare was in full swing. My husband was lamenting about his inability to grow grass in a yard that was played upon daily by a busy group of children. I remember saying to him, “We’re not growing grass. We are growing children.” He smiled in that way he does when he knows he can talk until he’s blue in the face but it will not change the situation. That grass actually never did come back, by the way.

The second conversation was a year or two later as I brought my little group of children to the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center to our very favorite frog pond. Nets in hand, the older boys would gracefully swoop the nets into the pond at just the right moment to catch a frog that was watching them near the edge. Then the children would very carefully lift the frog from the net, pass it around, and gently let it go right where they had found it a few minutes before.  The children had been coached many times to be very gentle with the frogs. A passing gentleman on the path was dismayed to see them catching frogs. He scolded me, saying that I should teach the children never to touch frogs because the oils from their hands are damaging to them. I guess you can’t really call this one a conversation at all, because I was so taken aback by my apparent ignorant disrespect of frogs and also trying to figure out if he knew what he was talking about, I just stood there in stunned silence.

Finally, the third conversation is one that seems to come around every year these days, returning just as dependably as the geese do every spring. It starts with an email from our landlords saying that they have noticed erosion in the places that the children love to play in the forest and reminding us to keep them on the paths. Last year the conversation continued in person as the nice woman from the land committee took me on a walk to show me some potential projects on the land. Our conversation led us to an area behind Gaenslen School that is a favorite place for the children to play. I shared with her how they love to climb in the dead brambles and struggle up the steeper incline there.

She turned to me in disbelief and said, “You let the children play in that area? That’s not on the path.” I explained that we know the Friends are trying to protect their land from erosion so we have specifically chosen to let the children play in this area that is not their land. She responded, “I don’t care whose land it is. By letting the children play there you are causing erosion. As an educator of children, you should show them the damage they have done and work with them to repair it.” You can probably imagine my silence as I stood there pondering how to explain the Soil Erosion Reparation Plan to the toddlers.

 The fact that these conversations keep coming up seem to indicate that I am a very slow learner.  Am I being cavalier? Setting the wrong example? Being a sloppy educator of children and guardian of the natural world?

I mean no disrespect to the folks who have brought these concerns. I truly appreciate their commitment to a healthier planet and their ideas to protect the environment yet still allow children to observe and learn from a distance. I do realize that the frog would be happier and healthier if it was never picked up by little hands, no matter how gentle.  I completely understand that we must be careful where we trod, because by playing in an area of the forest, the children’s feet trample young seedlings and compact the soil in that area just as they did the grass in our yard, until the area is permanently altered.

Do you know what else is permanently altered during free play in nature? The children. They have developed a love relationship with the natural world. In the end, isn’t that of vital importance to both the children and Mother Nature?

In Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, he shares the story of famous naturalist John Muir who, as a boy, would run along the beach with his gun and shoot at sea gulls. (I am not suggesting that we arm the children at LifeWays with guns, by the way.) Louv uses this example to point out how very drastically the interaction between people and nature has changed.  We feel more protective about wildlife than adults did when Muir was a child. The good news is that children today are less likely to kill animals for fun. The bad news, Louv says, is that today’s children are so disconnected from nature they often idealize it or associate it with fear instead of developing a loving relationship with it.  Young children learn to love something through all of their senses, not just by watching and listening, but also by touching, balancing, moving, climbing, feeling, squishing, digging, smelling and tasting. I wonder:  how differently might have Muir’s adult work developed if the grown-ups of his childhood had admonished him daily for leaving the designated walking path?

I am sure these conversations will continue to come my way as long as I work with children. There is certainly a great deal to ponder with regard to the relationship between children and nature. One thing I have come to feel pretty strongly about, though, is this: If we want to raise children who love our Earth enough to protect her from the thugs who seek to exploit her, we need to let the children fall in love with her. I don’t think they can do that from behind glass, on a carefully orchestrated walking tour, or via educational TV shows. We need to let them truly engage with nature using all of their senses, and sometimes that gets a little messy.

Loose Parts Toys by Emily Hall

A "loose- parts" toy... is open ended; children may use it in many ways and combine it with other loose parts through imagination and creativity. A typical list of loose parts for a natural play area might include water, trees, bushes, flowers, and long grasses; sand ( best if it can be mixed with water) ; places to sit in, on, under; structures that offer privacy and views. Go beyond that play area, to woods, fields, and streams, and the parts become looser and even more potent to the imagination.- Richard Louv, from Last Child in the Woods

                One  spring morning in kinderforest, three little boys collected some of the river clay/ mud and rolled it into balls all morning long as they hiked to Kern Park. The sensory experience of squishing the mud between their fingers and scooping it from puddles to create a little ball also stimulates fine motor skills, which develop strongly between the ages of three and five. Over the years, I've seen the children get creative with mud- making creatures with pebble eyes and stick mouths, painting with mud on the Troll Bridge, and using it to cook with each other.  Another two of my friends built a see saw from a log and a fallen tree ( see picture) and the children used their large motor skills to negotiate around the others and worked on their patient waiting. Everyone wanted a turn with the seesaw.

                Other ways I've seen children use loose parts includes a morning in the winter when the children from two combined suites spent their morning in the clearing rolling a snowball around and then finding branches to decorate it. (see picture)The only 'loose part' I sometimes like to bring into the forest is yarn- then we can spend the morning making bows and arrows and fishing poles as we learn to tie knots. The very young child is working on these fine and large motor skills through the use of loose parts toys constantly at LifeWays.

                Another loose part is the stick. Children get very attached to their sticks and want to bring them inside and on nature hikes, sometimes attempting to hike long distances with huge piles of sticks in their arms, or sneak extra sticks in their rainboots or under their jackets. The reason for this is the stick's versatility. Children have a deep need for simple toys that can easily transform into anything that their creative play requires. In Spring, we love to work on our knot tying by making ribbon sticks to carry at circle time. Sticks and fallen branches have been used to construct houses in the forest and it is great to see how an entire kitchen, spaceship, mouse house, or pirate ship can be created just from a fallen tree and some branches. The children never cease to surprise me with their inventiveness with loose parts as they develop and grow.

Treasured Times by Tamara Treviranus

Several years ago, when my now pre teen daughter attended Lifeways, she was lucky to be one of the first forest kindergarteners at Lifeways. One spring day, probably about this time of year, I picked her up as usual after lunch.   She wanted me to take a walk in the woods with her.  I felt that it really was time to go home and take a nap.  Her persistence and sincere desire to show me the forest won out and off we went down the path surrounded by small blue flowers to the river. My 3 year old daughter led me on a hike all the way to the troll bridge and showed me what amazing magical sounds a stick made when dragging it across the metal bars. She showed me where the fairies and gnomes hide, and how to make proper hot “lockichaw” with a  stick stirring at the edge of the river.  I was astounded that making “hot lockichaw” was an enjoyable activity for 45 minutes for a 3 year old.  Keeping a 3 year old busy at home by myself was never so laid back.  Needless to say we began taking more frequent trips to the river for some peaceful enjoyment together. 
Now, several years later, we still occasionally take walks in these woods as a family. Despite my childrens’ (now 12 and 7) protestations that “hike” is a  four letter word, we still go and most often they still enjoy it.
Perhaps some of your children have also taken you for forest explorations. Some of the older children at Lifeways are certainly good forest explorers.  So, if you have time and opportunity, maybe your child could take you for a hike to the troll bridge.  Definitely grab a stick and make music together.  You will be glad you did.

Natural Play Spaces by Amanda Quesnell

Last semester I did field work at the Milwaukee Public Sign Language School for a K-4 classroom.  Working there with the children was the complete opposite of what I have experienced while working at LifeWays.  I would go to that school in the morning and stay for the day.  After that I would go straight to LifeWays. 

When transitioning from the K4 classroom to LifeWays, I had to do a complete 180 on how I worked with the children in each program.  The atmosphere and ideals of both schools are so different.  One of the differences between the schools that I noticed was free-play.   Everyday, the children in the K4 classroom would usually get one-hour a day of free-play, most of the time it was inside.  Once in a great while we got the opportunity to go play outside.  At the Milwaukee Public School there was a huge blacktop with a small fenced-in playground.  I would watch the children play on this playground and then I would go to LifeWays and watch the children play in the front yard, climb a tree, or play by the clearing, etc.  While observing the two groups of children in these different outdoor play areas I noticed a huge difference in their play. 
Children on the playground played games like tag, hide-and-seek, and follow the leader.  They took turns sliding down the slides and crossing the monkey bars.  But for the most part I observed children running all around the fenced in play yard trying to get one another, running in groups, or running by themselves.  Hardly ever did I see the children engaged in imaginative play, such as house or pirates.

While at LifeWays I noticed that the play was significantly different.  Whether we were in the play yard with sand toys, in the front yard, or playing by a fallen down tree, the children’s play was imaginative.  Once when I was in the woods with Jasper, he asked if he could take our group to his “Jasper house.”  He led us down the path into the woods and he had taken us to a tree that did not grow up but grew in an umbrella shape that made it house-like.  Jasper and Otto climbed on top and started making “dog food.”  James and Luka joined in the play first by being the customers and then they became cooks as well.  Jasper, Otto, James, and Luka all had a different type of food they were making for the dogs.  They had created a whole system; one of them was even in charge of the “money.”

 Imaginative play is always present at LifeWays.  I hardly ever see the children at LifeWays playing tag or hide-and-seek, and rarely does a child look bored or not know what to do.  Natalie and Orion’s favorite game to play is family.  Almost everyday day during afternoon snack I hear Natalie say, “Orion, after snack do you wanna play family?”  Sometimes their family is on a bench (which they pretend is a ship) with Otto Knox being a family of pirates; sometimes they are a family of lions with Eli crawling around a tree.  But no matter what their family is, it is different everyday, and different children are involved in the game.  It is always fun to watch and see what their play will develop into.  The presence of imagination is only one of the many benefits of having a natural play space. 

The children do not need elaborate equipment such as swings, monkey bars, or slides. All they need is nature, and a little imagination.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Time by Mary O'Connell

It’s funny how time is a constant and yet it hardly ever feels that way. Time flies when we are having fun, but drags on and on when we are bored or tired. When my own children were wee ones, the season of the sleepless nights and the days filled with meeting their ever-present but ever-changing needs seemed like it might go on forever. 

One day, when I was in the grocery store with my three children under the age of five, my boys decided to race off ahead of me collecting as many of those coupons that shoot out of the little dispensers as they could. (It didn’t matter that the dispensers were over their heads; they would gladly leap into the air to reach them.)  In their excitement, they bumped into people and caused a fair amount of chaos, while I called for them to return, patted a fussy baby on my shoulder and tried to maneuver our full cart of groceries with one hand. An older woman walked up to me looking intent on saying something. “Here it comes,” I braced myself. “She’s going to tell me that I should get a handle on these children.”  I took a deep breath and turned toward her, coaching myself to graciously accept her advice and let it slide. She looked like she was ninety years old, after all, and my parents had taught me to respect my elders. 

The woman smiled at me and the children and said, “How I remember those days! Just remember, dear, the days are long but the years are short.” Then she patted my baby on the back, winked at me and went on her way.

 As I sit here writing this, I have already said good-bye to one of those no-longer-so-rambunctious boys as he headed back to college after winter break. The other leaves to go back to school this weekend. The house will again become pretty quiet; just my husband and me and our teenage daughter who is more often at school or working, playing sports or hanging out with her friends than she is with us, the way it should be of course. It seems a blink of an eye since that day in the grocery store. The days were indeed long sometimes, but boy were those years short!

The sad thing is, even though I had the gift of that wise woman telling me this simple truth, I didn’t believe her. Not really. If I really would have understood and embraced her message, I would have done a few things differently. For one thing, I would have not worried so much about the future. I would have concentrated on embracing the present. But I guess that’s an age-old struggle for all of us, right? 

I also wouldn’t have spent so much time trying to keep up with all the societal expectations I felt pressing in on us. I wouldn’t have worried about “preparing them” for school, or signing them up for gymnastics, karate, dance class, soccer, or any of those other things. While we did, actually, resist most of that stuff, I worried that maybe my kids were missing out somehow and would fall behind their peers who had been playing sports/mastering the violin/reading novels/visiting art exhibits since they were knee-high to a grasshopper. Looking back, I see so clearly now that my children (and all the others I have watched grow up around us) had plenty of time to do all those things in their own proper time. If they were destined to go to college on an athletic scholarship or become a musical genius, they -and the universe- would find a way to make that happen. I didn’t need to put them in classes or in sports when they were three years old. I just needed to make sure they were loved and had a simple life with a strong rhythm, outdoor time, good healthy food, and plenty of good sleep. Those are the things a young child really needs.

Sometimes, I watch parents drag their exhausted children into LifeWays on a Monday morning and the little ones have visible dark circles under their eyes. They had such a busy weekend taking in all of the many, many activities that are available to today’s families, they can barely hold it together until naptime when they fall gratefully into their cots for some much-needed rest. And I fear that modern society's pressure to provide children with every possible experience RIGHT NOW has become even stronger than it was when I was raising little ones. I wish I could say to parents, “The years of early childhood are short! There will be plenty of time later to take in all those sights, play all those sports, go to all those museums and do all those things. Really. I promise. For right now, just embrace these children, give them a nice steady rhythm of healthy food, sleep and play, and they will have everything they need to fully enjoy all of that other stuff in its own time.” I guess I just did say that, didn't I? Well, it's nice to get that off my chest!

But perhaps I can't expect you to believe me any more than I believed the nice old lady in the grocery store, until enough time has passed and your own children are going off into the world. Time is funny that way.

Parent Development by Jane Danner Sustar

Back when my now 17 year old Gustav was a baby, I started going to a mom’s group at our church. We moms spanned a wide range of backgrounds: educational, economic, even religious. Our director picked a mothering book to read and we took turns presenting a chapter each week. We discussed the ideas presented and then gently widened the discussion. It was a wonderful circle of women and though I loved them all dearly, I enjoyed leaving them all to that distinct group. They did not become my dear friends or movie companions. They were my mom’s group.
 Part of that experience was a yearly retreat. One of the woman offered her lovely house on Pewaukee lake for a whole Saturday sometime during the Easter season. It was always a huge pain in the backside to arrange a whole day away from my kids and family but, as you would expect, I was always so glad I did it. It was a wonderful experience to spend one day reflecting on the question, “Why am I doing this?!”
During one of the retreats, one of the young moms confessed .With heart wrenching sobs she told us all how she could not get her two year old to take a nap! How no one in the world had ever talked to her like her two year old was talking to her! How she could not believe the things that were coming out of her own mouth. And this she whispered, how she could not believe she was being brought to her knees by her very own child! Those moms who had gone through” the dark night of the soul” themselves, rushed to her side, expressing  warmth and comfort. Those who had not, sat in silent witness.
We talk a lot about child development at Lifeways, but I often wondered as a young mom, who was really growing up? Thankfully, I had the loving support of my mom and my sister and good friends helping me grow up but the painful process of becoming a parent did not end when the doctor put Jennifer in my arms for the first time. My parenting birth has been a lifelong ordeal. There has been a lot of labor. There has been a lot of false labor, those moments that I thought were hard only to find out later that they had been nothing compared to the REAL thing. It is the kind of labor that is not gender specific, either.  Peter and I did a lot of growing up together.
Do you suppose it is possible that if parent development were actually studied there might be specific stages not unlike the stages of grief? Confusion: Oh my God, we are going to have a baby!  Or Questioning: Who in the name of heaven thought that this was a good idea to let me be a parent? Or Denial: This trait did not come from my side of the family. This must be a Sustar thing! Acceptance? I am doing the best that I can do. I am just going to love this child like crazy. Or would acceptance come at the moment when you realize, Wow, this child of mine doesn’t need a parent any more. He/she wants to be friends. I am sure developmentally that should come when the child is around the age of twenty five, not around the age of two. Anger? Sadness?  Despair?  I can’t believe I am being brought to my knees by a two year old! I love how Kim John Payne describes those moments as moments of “soul fever”. Times to pull back a little and take care. Times of great growth. A mom in my suite went through this recently, reaching out to me and other moms looking for advice and then she pulled back a little with her daughter and in doing so was renewed and refreshed. She is a great mom.
 Parenting is a mystery. Despite all the parenting how to books and all the good advice and all the methodologies there is not one recipe for child rearing that is foolproof. Even within a family, what works for one child is a total bust for another. Now having said that, I witness every day how children thrive in an atmosphere of simplicity, a strong rhythm, plenty of outdoor time, good healthy food, and daily rest. Did I know that with Jennifer, my oldest? NO! I couldn’t wait to show her everything the world had to offer. Peter and I took her everywhere with us. Did I know that by the time Irene, my third, came along? You could have told time by our rhythm, which is not, of course, really rhythm. It is schedule. But as a parent, myself, I found these four things a good solid foundation to work with in. If there is a struggle happening within you or your family, they are a good place to start. Make them your own.
Perhaps the most valuable thing I have learned in all these years as a parent is how to laugh.