Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Presence in the Digital Age by Jaimmie Stugard

Our phones are now indelibly bound up with our aesthetic souls.
 And today, both are always on.” Robert Capps, WIRED
            A couple of years ago, my husband asked me what I wanted for Mother's Day.  I told him that all I wanted was to wake up in a tidy house and go to bed at night in a tidy house and that I did not want to clean on that particular Sunday.  He looked at me and said, “Can't I just get you a smart phone?” “No thanks,” I laughed,  “I don't need a distraction in my pocket.” Honestly, I was never really attracted to the device.  I learned to like my simple, small flip phone that made calls and received calls and not much more.   
            There I was, a named Luddite in the heart of the digital age. Everywhere I looked, people seemed to be gazing at their little computers- drivers at stoplights, moms at the park, kids at restaurants, friends in social settings.  With a tip tap and a swipe you could get directions, watch an inane video, find an answer, listen to a song, buy an... anything.  All on the tiny little computer that you keep in your pocket.  But, it seemed to me that most often,  people were filling a brief moment of relative inactivity out of a compulsion to produce, consume, network, to constantly be busy and entertained.
            Of course, there are clever conveniences, ways our phones help us feel connected with each other, particularly in an era where families and friends are dispersed far and wide across the world.  Personally, I like sharing candid photos of the children at play.  But, what about those we are with right now? What about our compulsion to check our phones while we are tucking our children in at night or during a meal? As a mom, it is clear to me how addictive screen time is for children.  When the screens are off, they are begging for more, and it is clear (by their behavior) that it takes them a while to recover from the exposure.  I am a grown person, but honestly, sometimes my phone feels like Gollum's Ring.     
            This little, glowing rectangle, that promises us endless creative and expressive potential is all too often (literally) between us and our children.  We are documenting their development and sharing it with the wide world.  But we, ourselves, aren't able to truly experience these moments because we aren't completely present.  And when our children look up to us in their big moments, they want to see our faces and our arms outstretched in a welcome embrace, not our phones poised to digitize the Great Milestone and send it to the cloud.   
            So, here I am, a modern woman coming to terms with her vices and her devices.  I know my phone has a million capabilities and at least a half a dozen useful ones.  I know the answers are at my fingertips.  But, I enjoy discourse and pondering, feeling lost and finding my way.  Of course, I'll continue to use the internet, text and share photos now and then, as long as it doesn't interfere with being here and now.

For more on the subject, read or stream

“For the Children's Sake, Put down That Smartphone” by Patti Neighmond on www.npr.org

The Process of Becoming by Mary O'Connell

I am kneading dough and lost in thought. It is our last supper.  Our youngest child is leaving for college in the morning and has requested homemade pizza for her last dinner at home. As she heads upstairs to pack up the final boxes, I work the dough, wondering whether she has learned everything she needs to know before she heads out into the world, hoping she’ll meet people who are kind to her and who appreciate her for the unique and spirited person she is.
It’s funny, I remember as I add a little more flour to the dough, I was worried about these same things eighteen years ago when we sent our first child off to kindergarten. Was he ready? Would the world outside our home receive him with kindness? Some things never change, I guess. At each transition for all three of my children, I have fretted over the same things.
A few days after my daughter left for college we celebrated our summer festival at LifeWays. During the festival, the children who are going off to school for the first time receive a piece of rose quartz from their caregiver as a symbol of love for their journey and they head across the little wooden bridge adorned with rainbow silks and flowers. It’s a passage of only a few steps across the bridge, but it feels like a significant voyage as these little ones, some of whom we have cared for since they were babies, step across and are off into the wide world of school. Their parents’ faces reveal a mixture of joy and trepidation, and if I can be so bold as to presume to know what they are thinking, I believe they are pondering the same thoughts: “Will the world receive them with kindness? Will they make their way without harsh people or experiences damping their spirits?”
The children, of course, are enamored with their crystals. Each one takes his piece of rose quartz into his hands with awe, fingering the smooth edges and the rounded corners. They have watched their older friends cross this bridge for years, and now it is finally their turn!
A week before the summer festival each year, I take out the big burlap sack filled with giant chunks of rose quartz. Any willing member of my family is enlisted to break the chunks into child-sized pieces with a hammer. The pieces of rose quartz that split off are beautiful, with shiny edges, and pointy corners that are almost too sharp to handle. This will never do as a gift for a young child, so the pieces are put into the rock tumbler, where they spin for a day or two. The friction from the sharp crystals rubbing against one another in the tumbler polishes the pieces of quartz until they are smooth to the touch, yet each still unique and beautiful in its own way.
When I think back on all my fervent wishes as a parent sending off my children to grade school, middle school, high school, college and beyond, hoping their journeys would not to be too difficult, praying they  encounter kindness, in retrospect I’m pretty glad those prayers were not answered – at least not in the way I had hoped! Like the pieces of rose quartz, some of the things that have shaped our children’s lives for the better are the experiences they had with other people who “rubbed off their rough edges,” even (especially) their own siblings.  As a parent, I hated it when my children fought and argued with each other.  Why couldn’t they just get along? I realize now that their friction was necessary in helping them become who they are, and who they are yet to be. They came here to rub the rough edges off each other so they could each share their unique beauty with the world without being too sharp or prickly for the people and experiences they would encounter along the way.
As I watch the children at LifeWays tussle and argue over toys or sticks, I see their caregivers carefully yet masterfully guide them along the long learning curve of getting along with other humans. Sometimes this involves a gentle suggestion of a thing to say or do, other times a swift intervention is called for (when someone is in imminent danger of being hurt), and still other times sitting back and observing to see if they can work it out is just the thing that is needed. In “sitting back,” I am not advocating a free-for-all where only the strongest survive and others feel unprotected, or worse, bullied. Many of us unfortunately experienced this on our own childhoods and know the pain of waiting for someone to step in and help, then realizing no one is paying attention.  In relationship-based care, we pay attention. We are always observing and asking ourselves how we can better help the children learn what they need to learn in an environment that supports them at each stage of their development, while nurturing those parts of them that make them unique and beautiful.
One thing I’m reminded of each day I am privileged to work at LifeWays, watching these children grow and learn:  The process of becoming who we are meant to be really only takes place in relationship with others, or as author Alfie Kohn wrote, “marinated in community.” Thank you all for being part of the community of support we together create for our children.

Relationship with Place by Emily Hall

    As a child, I had certain places I loved to explore in nature. My most special place was at the top of a willow tree in my parents' front yard. The branches were hollow in some places, and I would keep my treasures there. The bending leaves made a great fort. I even invented a name for myself. For many summers, I was Leaf Girl. My sister had her own tree and was known as Flower Girl. It is these types of relationship to place that I see happen at LifeWays daily. 
     For example, a favorite place to play is near the apple tree in the front yard. An older child in the class  climbs to the top of the tree and the other children stand beneath the tree asking him to throw apples down for them. He spends much of his morning surveying the territory from the top of the tree as the younger children try to figure out how to climb up themselves. 
     Another favorite place we go to is the path next to the river. Every time, Eli says "this is the way to the pretzel garden". The children have a relationship with the creatures that dwell in the river. So far, we have seen turtles, ducks, and geese. In Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv discusses the importance of play in green space. Children's play is found by studies to be more creative and cooperative in spaces with grass, trees, sticks, and other natural features. So far this year we are beginning to develop our relationship to the woods by going hiking. Soon the leaves will fall, the mosquitoes will dissapear, and we will begin to play in the woods. 
     Usually, in the summer and early fall visibility is limited by the leaves so to stay safe we play in the front yard or at a park and hike in the woods. This last summer we had the special experience of a rainstorm that led us to shelter under another special place, the Troll Bridge. The children played under the bridge while the rain fell around us until it started thundering and we had to go back. It is these types of experiences that children need to develop the relationships with nature that lead to creative, cooperative play.

Embrace the Hand that Feeds You by Jeremy Bucher

At LifeWays we encourage the development of strong bonds and relationships between the children that attend the center and their peers, caregivers, and parents. In addition to these relationships we strive to reinforce a relationship between the children and their food. Just as important as the relationships that strengthens the community the child resides in, the relationship with their food provides both physical nourishment and nourishment of the soul, as well as an appreciation for the bountiful harvests that the planet allows us to produce.
                The kitchen at LifeWays is the central hub of the building, an area that all of the children must pass by on their way to the restroom or their suite and is the first place in the center that they turn to see as they descend the stairs. Our kitchen is not walled off in some obfuscated corner of the building, but rather wide open and centrally located so that the children can experience the creation of their meals. One of the most enjoyable parts of my day is the time when the children come in to help set the tables and all run up to ask me what it is that we are having for lunch that day. They care about their food and are curious about the smells that have been radiating from the building while they spend their morning outside experiencing their peers and their beautiful planet. It is important for the children to know and understand that there is no bush that produces bread or a tree that soup is extracted from. When the meal is prepared in full view of the children they are able to see how much love and effort is put into the creation of their meals. I often hear my name called from a table during the lunchtime meal,  which is followed by a sweet voice thanking me for the for the delicious food. When I hear those words I know that I have done my part to nourish both the body and the soul.
                Throughout the year there are several days dedicated to both planting and harvesting crops at Miss Mary's farm in West Bend, WI. On those days parents and children are invited to come to Paradise Farm and get their hands into the soil and sow the seeds that they will then harvest when the time is right. Just recently there was a farm day in which the families travelled to the farm to harvest the potatoes that they had planted earlier in the year. There were several varieties of potatoes planted so the children were able to see that the "cookie-cutter" foods sold at most large supermarket chains are not the only forms of food available. They were able to harvest red, yellow, purple, and russet potatoes of all different shapes and sizes, some eaten by insects and others in near pristine form. These potatoes were then brought in to LifeWays and washed, chopped, and cooked into a delicious soup and the next day mixed with grains and lentils for another healthy meal. By harvesting these precious tubers from the ground the children were able to see the path that their food takes before they are able to gobble it up, and most importantly, where it comes from.
                We make a conscious effort at LifeWays to make sure the children are informed when they are eating food from Miss Mary's farm or from our small plot out in front the center in the community garden. The children are able to visualize the farm with its barn and goats and bees and connect to their food in a way that has been all but lost for many humans in our modern existence. This close relationship to their food is an integral facet of the child's experience at LifeWays, an important part of the development of their physical body, and a basis for the nourishment of their soul.

"It's all about Relationships" by Tamara Treviranus

“It’s all about relationships”.  This is something I remember hearing from Will Allen, visionary and founder of Growing Power, many times over the years that I worked there. Breaking bread together and sharing food with people was one of the pieces of forming long lasting relationships to work together towards food security and social justice.

The word “relationships” has also come up a lot in the book I am currently reading, “Stones into Schools” by Greg Mortensen who is also the author of a #1 bestseller “Three Cups of Tea”.   Mortensen is an American man who has worked with communities to build over 100 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  He has a staff that includes members of 3 sects of Islam, (Sunni, Shi'ite, and Ismaili), illiterate horse tribesmen, and ex-Taliban thugs.  Yet together, they have achieved building schools with rocks and rubble from decades of wars to educate the most vulnerable peoples at the end of the road. The only way this has been possible is through building bridges, literally and figuratively, through human relationships.

Food systems, social justice and humanitarian projects in war torn areas are perhaps a stretch to be writing about in a child care seasonal newsletter.  However,  I always tend to extend my thoughts to the grand scale when meditating on why we do things how we do.  Stated simply, relationships with human beings are important.  Your children, your family, and our colleagues are important to all of us at LifeWays. When contrasted with images of our elderly and youngest people, commodified and institutionalized in often questionable institutions, with dissatisfied and dis-empowered teachers and caregivers, I am grateful for the relationship based model we follow.

Thankfully, though they are few, there are more organizations that are embracing a relationship based model.  There is a newer trend in nursing homes, with one located in the Oconomowoc area that has created a home like environment with families of caregivers for the elders who live there. (It’s like LifeWays for old people!) They share meals at a dining table, home cooked food comes from the kitchen, and the residents spend time together in a living room.  Caregivers may be responsible for multiple aspects of care, as opposed to outsourcing food and having multiple caregivers for the same person. This offers a better quality of life for all involved.

Other examples of relationship based models of care and education include Waldorf Schools, where grade school children usually spend grades 1-8 with the same teacher.  At Highland Community School, a Montessori elementary school in Milwaukee, WI, they recently formed “families” of classes. As is typical in Montessori schools, the children have the same teacher for kindergarten years, then another for Lower Elementary (1st through 3rd grade), and another for Upper Elementary ( 4th through 6th grade)  Because there are multiple sections of each of the levels, structuring of classes into “families”, has further ensured that the same children (and therefore families) will be together over the years. The classes succeeding each other are also in close proximity to one another.   In both of these situations, the families, school community, and children are strengthened by having had the opportunity of time together to form relationships. 

At LifeWays, the children's early introduction to relationship based care is just the beginning of a long life of possibility of joy and challenges, both made richer through human relationships.  Though anecdotal, I am confident that I have seen the benefits that this has offered my own 2 children with long term friendships and family-like relationships. 

In closing, I'll leave you with this quote:

Mountains can never reach each other, despite their bigness.  But humans can.- Afghan proverb

Relationship-Based Childcare by Sandra Schmidt

I met my friend Nick in the winter of 2001.  He was bright, curious four year old in the first kindergarten class I worked in at Pleasant Ridge Waldorf School.  After two years together he moved on to the first grade. The mystery bouquets started that following May Day. The “Guess Who” on the card was truly a mystery – it was several years later that his mom finally confessed that it was Nick.  A friendship grew with not only Nick, but his parents.  Suddenly they had an extra adult that was looking out for them and I had the same care extended to my family. We had made a heart connection.  Nick is now a freshman in college.  And while I don’t receive bouquets anymore, I do get texts.   

While I can’t expect every relationship I have with the children in my care to extend into a friendship entering its second decade I do know that I have this heart connection with the children in my care.  I’m one of the extra adults in their lives that cares about them and their families.  I feel truly lucky to be working at LifeWays where relationship based care is valued.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Spring Cleaning by Mary O'Connell

   In a monastery, there lived a monk who was quite simple-minded and all the menial tasks were given to him, such as washing the dishes, sweeping and scrubbing the floors and so on. He did not mind this, and did all his chores lovingly while always pronouncing little prayers while doing his work. “Dear God, as I wash this dish, please send one of Your angels to wash my heart and make it pure” or “Dear God, as I clean this floor, please send one of Your angels to help me, that every person who walks on this floor may be touched by his presence.” For every chore, he had a prayer, and he continued working in this way for a great many years. Legend says that one morning as he woke up, he was enlightened, and from then on people came from far and wide to listen to his wisdom.*
     Last weekend I was doing the annual spring cleanup in the garden at the farm, removing old plant material and weeds to make room for the new vegetables to grow. Some waste was easy to identify; the crunchy stalks of last year’s sunflowers quickly came down and were added to the compost pile.  Other things required more of a decision. Is this a weed? A perennial?  Some arugula that self-seeded?  I did notice that after three years of gardening in this spot, I am becoming more confident in my knowledge of the plants and the soil. The rich, dark humus that I have been consciously cultivating makes pulling weeds much, much easier than the clay soil that existed before. As I worked, I whispered a prayer of gratitude for the improved soil, all that I have learned about this place, and the bounty of this little plot of land that feeds my family and our LifeWays family.
     Then I moved on to the bee hive.  The honey bees, who survived the long, harsh and insanely cold winter, perished during the very last cold snap.  Carefully and with reverence, I cleaned out all the dead bees, the honey-filled combs and the oldest beeswax destined to become candles. As I worked, I thought about the plight of the honeybee (I heard that 70% of the bees in Wisconsin didn’t make it through this past winter). Cleaning out the hive was a somber experience, but there was also a feeling of making room for something new to happen there...the possibility of life.
     There is something about the springtime that invites us to transform. We feel compelled to clean out the old and make room for new growth, new life. I often wonder why we bother to make New Year’s resolutions that are destined to fail during the coldest time of the year when all we can seem to muster is the will to survive the long, dark winter. Why not make Spring resolutions when we feel exhilarated by the budding trees and the warmer days that fill us with energy and hopefulness? Springtime is naturally the time to examine what is holding us back, so we can shed it and make room for new ideas, new growth, new life.
     Is there something in your life that is holding you back? In your family’s life? Maybe a change is needed. Perhaps you can do some transformation of your own. All it takes is a little spring cleaning.

* Monk story from Linda Thomas, "Chaos in Everyday Life; About Cleaning and Caring”, published in Kindling, 2004. Available on the Online Waldorf Library. Linda Thomas has a new book out that lots of people are excited about: Why Cleaning has Meaning: Bringing Wellbeing Home. I hope to read it soon.

Nurture? Nature? Destiny? By Jaimmie Stugard, Caregiver

   Recently I had the chance to peek at my husband’s kindergarten report card.  Now that LifeWays is delving into the document side of child care, I was interested and encouraged to see how the youngest MPS students were evaluated back in the eighties.  There were no grades, simply a sliding scale assessment based on physical, social and intellectual development.  The scale was very similar to the charts I am familiarizing myself with at LifeWays, acknowledging the range of capacities and the typical progression of the young child.  The most intriguing thing about this report card was, surprisingly, how the teacher’s comments about this five year old boy still seemed to apply to the man I know today.  Furthermore, our son shares many of these traits and they were observed by his kindergarten teacher.
Every parent can attest to the fact that even a newborn has his own characteristics, his own spirit, or self.  Sometimes the birth itself seems to be an expression of the baby’s individuality.  Gradually, as the child grows older these traits reveal themselves more and more.  Some are apparently hereditary while others seem mysteriously distinct.  Parents of multiple children often marvel at how different their children are.   How interesting that one child can be fearless and bold while her brother is so cautious and calculating.  The interplay of heredity and spirit/essence/personal nature has been studied and explored by scientists, spiritualist and laymen for ages.   
                 As LifeWays educators, we have the unique perspective of watching the child grow and develop from a very young age.  We take a holistic approach to “assessment” based on an interest in who the child is, personally.  Long before I look at the child development charts, I document observations about how each child speaks, sleeps, plays, listens, moves, etc. as well as my impressions about his physical and personal characteristics.  I review and update my observations regularly, trying my best to keep up with the children’s rapid growth.

Each development reveals something of the child’s own inner nature.  It seems appropriate that the tentative, observant baby takes her first steps ever so carefully and intentionally.  I am constantly inspired by their personal triumphs.  The child who was once finicky at meal time now asks for seconds of elaborate, vegetable saturated meals.  The tidy, meticulous child discovers the joy of digging and the dirt and proudly displays his mud-covered hands.  Whether it’s learning to walk or coping with frustration, each individual takes it on in their own, unique way.  I think our role is to embrace who they are, support who they are becoming and watch in awe as they fulfill their destinies. 

The Transformational Nature of Becoming by Jane Danner Sustar

Rudolf Steiner describes faithfulness in this way:
Let this be your faithfulness: You will experience moments, fleeting moments, with the other person. The human being will appear to you then as if filled, irradiated, with the archetype of his/her spirit. And then there may be, indeed will be, other moments, long periods of time when human beings are darkened. At such times, you will learn to say to yourself, ‘the spirit makes me strong. I remember the archetype. I saw it once. No illusion, no deception shall rob me of it.’ Always struggle for the image that you saw. This struggle is faithfulness. Striving thus for faithfulness you shall be close to one another as if endowed with the protective powers of angels.
It was not long in to being a mother that I realized that children live this. MY children were faithful to me in all my failings! Every day they expected the best of me no matter the short comings of the day before. The very least I could do for them was strive to be…me!
 I live in the presence of the miraculous every day of my life. As I stand witness to these little ones who are in my care I am constantly stuck by the profound mystery of becoming human. They demand it of me, continually, to become more and more human. It is an amazing task to stand before each and every one of them and struggle to remain faithful to them, to stand witness day by day to the amazing work of becoming.

Thank you.   

Seasonal Transformation by Beret Isaacson

As a Tucsonan, the distinctness of the seasons here in Milwaukee is very striking to me. I had the feeling once of wondering if anything would ever be green again. It isn't that I find any of the seasons unpleasant- I love winter and snow so much that snow in April doesn't bother me one bit. It's more that the amount of change and fluctuation is somewhat shocking to me. I remember one time being outside in the dramatically frozen, snowy world and wondering if winter would ever really end, of just having this feeling of amazement that so much change could happen so reliably. There I was, standing there with ice and snow all around in the very spot that not too long ago we'd all been running around in our bathing suits. It's just crazy! In winter I stand at my bedroom window and imagine my window open with the gigantic lilac underneath filling the whole room with its scent. Will it really happen? Yes. 

I think it's the same with children. How fast they grow and change is incredible. Can we trust the process? I think so. As adults, we provide the basics- food, water, shelter, warmth, safety and a loving, benevolent presence. And they thrive. In our overactive culture where we think nature needs so much assistance we can easily be misguided to think children need such interference, as well. At LifeWays we provide the basics and work on doing it really well. There aren't a lot of fancy bells and whistles here. Just organic food, nature and trees, safety and rhythm​, and loving adults providing joyful and attentive care. And the children blossom. Happy Spring!

"Hey, Who are You?" By Jeremy Bucher, Cook and Afternoon Caregiver

                Continuity is very important for young children, and any changes to their routine can become quite an obstacle that will need to be overcome. I recently "transformed" my image by getting my hair cut and trimming my beard. To some of the children at LifeWays, especially the very young ones, I became a totally different person. Young children are very perceptive about physical appearance and immediately notice these transformations, which can lead some to become upset and wary of this "new" character in their life. In order to make the adjustment to my transformation into a man with short hair and a shorter beard, I maintained my same disposition towards the children and utilized the clothing that they are accustomed to.
                I had first transformed my appearance just days before I was set to babysit one of our LifeWays children. The day before while at school I had noticed a difference in the behavior in some of the children when I was not wearing my classic red hat that I wear while I cook. My transformation was quite radical in that my hair was close to shoulder-length and I had gotten it trimmed much shorter than many of the children had ever seen. The specific child that I was to babysit had undergone her own transformation as we had gotten to know each other better. When she first arrived at LifeWays she would not speak to me, rather she would just stare at me, trying to figure me out. As time passed she began to answer the questions I would ask and that built into the relationship we have today which involves many questions and comments from her and no reticence to speak to me. As she became more comfortable with me she realized she could let her guard down and open up to me, leaving her reservations behind.
                The day that I was set to babysit I went over to the house for dinner and was not wearing my red hat that all the children know me best for. The child was in a very silly mood and the chatting that we had grown into had given way to short outbursts of sound and a very silly attitude, behaviors children may exhibit in the presence of a new person. As we sat down to dinner, the usual conversations that we had grown into were absent and the table talk was again dominated by silly behavior and sounds instead of words. As mom and dad began to leave for their evening the child became very upset, both screaming and crying as they drove away. This was radically different from the behavior at LifeWays and the phrase "I don't want you to be here" kept being hurled at me. This was all very strange due to the positive relationship we had cultivated at LifeWays. I suddenly had the stunning realization that for almost the entire time that this young girl had known me I had been wearing my red hat, and when that was not on my head I had very long hair that I could put over my face to make the children laugh (I did look quite silly with my hair covering my face). I immediately rushed to my bag and grabbed my hat and went back to find a confused yet some-what subdued child as I asked her, "is there something different about Mr. Jeremy?" She responded with "you have your hat on." With that the fear vanished and the conversation began again almost immediately. She got into her pajamas and we read a story or two (full of questions about why characters behaved in certain ways and why certain situations occurred) and she drifted off to sleep.

                Because our young children have been with us on our beautiful planet for such a short time they are not used to the transformations that people go through in their lives. My transformation was a complete change in my appearance leading even some parents to not be able to recognize me at first glance. I have since been trying to wear my hat only when cooking meals at LifeWays and introducing the "new" Mr. Jeremy little by little to ease the change for the children. The red hat is an important marker for the children and helps to remind them that though my appearance has transformed, I am still the same Mr. Jeremy underneath that hat. It is therefore highly important to ease into any transformations in the young child's life slowly and always having "memory markers" (such as the red hat) present to have a base upon which to build any transformation.

Transformation at LifeWays by Emily Hall, Forest Kindergarten Teacher and Caregiver

   After the brutal winter we had, the transformation of the forest to springtime is even more lovely and evident. We had quite a few brief hikes through the forest, listening to the cracking of the trees this winter both in the Woodland Suite and in Forest Kindergarten. Many transformations in the children have also been evident in the observations we at LifeWays have been writing about the children. I will share some general and specific observations I have made.
      Tree climbing skills have improved immensely among the three and four and five year olds. Children who once needed help getting back down are now much more self sufficient and quick at returning from their favorite branches. Forest Kindergarten Circle has expanded from ten minutes to twenty with an extended rest time and story at the end, and the children have learned to focus for longer periods of time. The Forest Kindergarten children can now hold hands and sing while moving at a quick pace in a circle without breaking the ring or getting too silly. 
     Children from the suites who join me on the couch for story time are able to focus on an entire book at a time now, who at the beginning of the year were just ready to play on the rug while they waited for lunch. (Nothing wrong with that, but listening to story when you are ready to is a good thing).  Table setting  has progressed from a highly managed event to children who know to put their outdoor gear away while I get the silverware, cups, and plates out. Some older two year olds have recently started helping, and they are doing a great job.
      Our stamina on hikes has improved too. Forest Kindergarten made it all the way to Kern Park with a whole half hour to play on the playground, in time for circle last week. At the beginning of the year, it took us much longer to hike so we didn't have as much time to play. ( Long hikes can be lovely when you stop to look at "troll homes" (fallen trees with the roots exposed) , hunt for rocks at  Rock Spot, and to bang sticks on Troll Bridge, and often we have slow hikes on purpose). Last Friday, everyone in the suite was such a good listener that we picked flowers in the forest. 
     Baby Ben has started joining the suite for nap.  Soon, a new baby will join us, we hear. Just like the new springtime baby in Children of the Forest by Elsa Beskow, last month's naptime story. Right now at nap I am reading The Boy Who Spoke the Language of the Birds, a tale about a boy who understands the stories the birds tell and becomes the king's storyteller. He is changed into a dog by the princess' foolish wish on a magical stick, and rescues her stolen brothers from the Fairy Queen. In May I will start reading Flowers Festival by Elsa Beskow. In June I will be reading Flossie and the Fox, a story about a southern girl who meets a fox in the woods in the summertime who tries to steal her basket of eggs.  The stories I tell at naptime are different  depending on the childrens' needs for longer or shorter stories, and also with the changes in nature.
     The two year olds who at the beginning of the year didn't notice a change in story are starting to notice when the stories change, and tell me which ones are their favorites. Certain friends have favorite parts of stories, and woe be to the one who reads it wrong! One sits on his bed and tells an entire book by heart before nap. Another likes the part when the children of the forest pick up the dead snake. A few have particular requests for some special books to take to their cots.
   Something else I have observed is the two, three and four year olds developing their memories. They remember clearly when we found the first baby snake of the season and I put it under the rock wall. Now they point to that spot and say "there are snakes under there". When I finish the observations I am working on, I would gladly share them with you! Come and see me if you would like to read what your child has been doing, and how he or she has been changing and blossoming.

Have a happy Spring! - Miss Emily

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Planning With Intention by Mary O'Connell

“Focus more on who your child is than on what your child does.
Remember, you are growing a person, not fixing a problem.” 
L.R. Knost

Emily and I are currently taking a class together about the Wisconsin Model Early Learning Standards. The class, despite being held from 6:30-9:30 p.m. on Wednesday nights (yawn!), is interesting and offers insights into observing children and intentionally planning activities to meet their needs. The instructors are knowledgeable and engaging. Yet, I often leave the class feeling unfulfilled, like something deep and intangible is missing from the conversation.

This past week, the teacher said something that made me want to leap out of my seat. Luckily for all of us, the crazy LifeWays director managed to remain firmly planted and silent (except for an urgent whisper to Emily, who answered with a smile and a knowing nod.) Our instructor, who has years and years of early childhood education and practice under her belt, said, “I know you all take the children for walks in the snow and you sing songs about the snow. But we all know the real reason you are doing these things is to teach the children skills.”

It struck me in that moment, as I furiously scribbled notes onto my “What did I learn today?” activity page, that this is one of the primary disconnects in education right now, and one of the things that most profoundly separates LifeWays from the world of conventional early childhood education. We at LifeWays, believe it or not, do not hold “teaching children skills” as our main goal. I wanted to say aloud to the teacher, “No, we do not take them out into the snowy forest or sing seasonal songs to teach the children skills. We do these things because the cornerstone of our work is relationships.”

In early childhood, relationships matter more than skills. (The research on this assertion is pretty solid, and is well summarized in The Irreducible Needs of Children by developmental experts Stanley Greenspan and T. Berry Brazelton, if you’re interested.) Children need the freedom to explore their relationship to the natural world around them, the people they care about, the food they eat, and the things that make up their environment. And in the course of those explorations, the children naturally acquire knowledge and skills at their own pace. Forming secure, attached relationships and being given the freedom to discover the world around them is the very bedrock of skill building.  In the shelter of these relationships, the children begin to learn about themselves, and they begin to travel down the path of the life they came here to live. 

At LifeWays, we believe that each one of these children has come to this planet, to his or her family, to our community, at this time, for a reason. Each one came here with an intention, a purpose, and – try as we might – we have no idea what it is. Our goal is to offer the most supportive relationships in the most nurturing and nourishing environment we can to help the child fulfill his or her destiny, whatever it may be. Given this objective, it seems pretty presumptuous to pretend to know exactly which skills a child should be mastering today, tomorrow or next week.

If we view the children as little more than subjects to chart and assess and if our goal is to teach them skills so they look better on those charts and assessments, then we are sadly missing the mark. I think most educators would agree with me, including the teachers of the class Emily and I are taking. “Oh, yes, we value the whole child!” they say. But don’t they see that focusing so much of our attention on skill mastery and assessment sends a clear message that we really don’t?

There certainly is value in our understanding the developmental milestones that are typical for children at each age and honing our own observation skills so we can support them on their journey. That is why the primary caregivers and I are developing an intentional planning process here at LifeWays. Our goal is to create a process that allows the individuality of the child to shine through and guide us in our planning without getting bogged down in charting or reducing the child to a materialistic point of view.  I am hopeful we will succeed, and we will share the process with you as we go along.

Now it’s time to go out and play in the snow, just because snow is really cool and the children love it.

Stop and Smell the Flowers by Amanda Quesnell

Children have an impressive capability to take things slowly and live in the moment.  This can be frustrating sometimes for adults, because we all have numerous plans throughout our day.  But children only have one plan, and it’s to have fun.  One of the biggest things I have learned from working at LifeWays is to always take things slowly and make sure to give the children plenty of time.

            I remember one day when I took some children on a long nature hike through the woods. At the time I thought I had given us plenty of time to get back and ready for lunch, but I was definitely wrong.  On our way back from the hike the children wanted to stop and throw rocks in the river, dig up some worms, and pick some flowers.  But the entire time I just kept thinking, “We have to go, we’re going to be late for lunch!”  After a while of nagging the children to hurry up I thought, “I guess it’s not a big deal if we’re a few minutes late.”  I let us slowly work our way back to LifeWays, letting the children do their exploring.  Now I know to give us a lot of time to transition from one thing to the next so the children can live in the moment and explore.
            As adults there are never enough hours in a day.  Our schedule for the day is planned out for us hour by hour and it is easy to forget to live in the moment, and not worry about what’s going on next.  I know I personally get really anxious when I have more than one thing to do in a day, or I am constantly worried about being late.  The children at LifeWays have taught me to live in the moment, because if I always rush there are probably a lot of good memories I am going to miss out on. 

Half the Fun is Getting There by Jaimmie Stugard

     It is another frigid Wisconsin day here at LifeWays and we are getting all bundled up to go outside.  We begin by making sure everyone has at least two layers on top and bottom.  The children go to their drawers to fetch extra pants, socks and sweaters and we start pulling on all of our layers. I help the youngest children by laying out their snowsuits for them and helping them get their legs into place. I remind them to keep pulling until they see their feet. We go on like this for quite some time, singing a merry tune as we work, “Snowpants, boots, jacket, hat – Mittens are always last.” 
            Each child approaches this challenge in their own way depending on their personality and development.  Some children bundle themselves up in a flash while others are daunted with the task at hand, and just lay motionless on top of all their gear saying, “I can't!”  Now and then a couple of children grow weary of dressing and start up a game of ring-around-the-rosie or chase.  Others struggle to fit their growing bodies into their gear despite their best efforts.  Snow pants are backwards with straps caught between little legs.  Boots almost always find their way to the wrong feet. Sweatshirts bunch up and sleeves get confuffled. Yet they keep working at it.  
            I offer assistance when it is truly needed.  Usually, a bit of coaching and emotional support is enough to help them along. I encourage them to remain calm even as they struggle and strive to dress themselves by modeling a patient, calm and joyful demeanor.  We sing while we work and we take a moment to laugh at our huge muscles when we put our coats on while hats and mittens are tucked still into sleeves.  Even as lunch time draws near and we have yet to step out the door, there really is no hurry to get out into the 10 degree air.  Half the fun is getting there. 
            Now, there are times when we must head out to meet the school bus and some friends are still working (or refusing) to get dressed.  If they have indeed been working at it, I will calmly help expedite the process.  If not, I may leave a friend to finish getting ready with another caregiver because we have waited long enough for them to join us at the task at hand. Sometimes the child is just distracted, or perhaps they are not in the mood to cooperate.  In any case, they usually find motivation to dress once their friends are outdoors climbing snowbanks and eating snowflakes. 
            Of course, we adults are also struggling and striving and sometimes our patience wears thin.  We may be short with others because we feel hurried, tired, hungry or stressed (or our children are driving us crazy because they are feeling hurried, tired, hungry or stressed).  We know that the adult's attitude is of the utmost importance.  The children feel our inner tension even when we think we are masking our frustration.  At home, I have had to haul a tantruming toddler out to the car in pajamas in order to be punctual.  In these moments, I remind myself to remain calm and patient and forgive myself when I am not and learn from my mistakes.
            While it would be faster to dress the children ourselves or to carry them up the stairs, it is better to let them to explore their own growing capacities by doing things for themselves.  We can honor the child's emerging independence by assisting them when they need a little boost without doing too much for them.  Whether it is climbing a tree or negotiating a disagreement with a friend, I find it is best to observe and only interfere/help when it is necessary.  If a child has spilled her milk or splashed her paint, I calmly direct her to the cloths so she can clean up after herself.  I could do it more quickly and thoroughly myself, but I want her to learn to clean up her own mess.  When an older baby is learning how to use utensils, I let him make a mess of it and work at getting the spoon into his mouth.  I resist the urge to take the spoon and feed him and trust that he will use the spoon and his fingers to take the nourishment provided. 
            With our patient encouragement our children gain independence and confidence. When we offer them the time and space to persevere and master life skills, they will grow to cherish the opportunities to do things for others.  The oldest children in our suite love to help their younger friends put on their boots, turn on the water, reach their hooks, and do all sorts of things they couldn't do when they were little.  And when the weather takes a turn for the worse, they are happy take their little friend's hand and help him traverse the deep snow.


The Grace of Illness in a Fast-Paced World by Jane Danner Sustar

“A mighty creature is the germ,
Though smaller than a pachyderm.
His customary dwelling place
Is deep within the human race.
His childish pride he often pleases
By giving people strange diseases.
Do you, my poppet, feel infirm?
You probably contain a germ.”
-Ogden Nash

     As a young mother, I was very lucky. My grandmother was a nurse, my grandfather was a doctor and my aunt was a nurse, so when my children were sick I had people to call. They were old school country medicine people. They were pragmatic, practical, no nonsense kind of people.  When Jennifer was born, Peter and I were living with my parents, saving up to buy a house. In the middle of the night I would come down to my parents’ bedroom cradling a sick Jennifer in my arms. My mother would come out, look at her and say, “She’ll be fine. Go back to bed; we will call Aunt Betty in the morning.” And that was that. I went back to bed, we called Aunt Betty in the morning, she told me what to look out for and Jennifer was fine. We did lots of home remedies, things my mother taught me or things that I picked up from friends. We instinctively stayed away from antibiotics, preferring homeopathic remedies, time and rest. My oldest three never went to the emergency room because when I was frightened enough to consider it, there was always someone to ask. By the fourth, fifth and sixth I was pretty confident in my ability to take care of my sick children and I never needed to until, of course, each one of them broke a bone!
     What made me really lucky, however, was the fact that I was at home with my children when they were young .  They had time to be sick and they had time to get better.  When Irene and Jennifer brought home chicken pox, it was almost three weeks before we were up and running as a house hold again, Peter taking up carpool and shopping while I administered oatmeal baths to the current patient and cooked batches of chicken soup.  It swept through all five children, one after the other.  All outside activities went on hold. I had the time and freedom to wait and watch until they were bright eyed before I allowed them back to school. It was a joke between my mother and I, she would call up to see how one of the children was doing in their recovery and I would reply; “just sick enough to be crabby today! Back to school tomorrow.”
     I find it is no different at LifeWays. Often the children come and the twinkle in their eyes is missing and the bounce in their step is bounce-less. On those days I try to slow down the day as much as possible and give the child time and space to fully recover, however that might look to that particular child. This fall has been particularly hard on one little boy in my suite. One day he threw up after lunch. The next day he told his parents he could not come back to LifeWays anymore because LifeWays made him sick and he did not want to be sick anymore!
      He still comes and his sparkle has returned but I have noticed something interesting in his play. He has been Iron Man every morning for a while now. He comes in and uses train tunnels and blocks as armor and goes through LifeWays blasting all the” bad guys”.  When I have convinced him that all the bad guys have been destroyed that morning, he is ready to put Iron Man away in his drawer for the rest of the day.  I believe he is playing out the physical reality of his health. I know, given time he will be ready to leave Iron Man at home completely, but not now, not yet.
     As my children got older, it got harder to know how much my children needed me when they were sick.  When Ian was a senior in high school, he was well into his second week of mono before my alarm bells started going off and I realized he may not just have the flu.  He still teases me about it. I still feel guilty. Elinore hobbled around for a week before I was convinced she really might just have a broken bone in her foot. A particular bad call came when I got a call from Gustav’s teacher. Instinctively, when I saw his ashen face I knew he was in a lot of pain. He had twisted his foot as he was playing football. I was supposed to go to a teacher’s conference in Detroit that night. We went to the emergency room and we were told that it was just a bad sprain. I knew I should cancel the trip and stay home but Gustav, Jenny and the doctor all convinced me to go, so I went. We got a call the next day from the radiologist. His leg was broken after all.
 I know each one of them wanted me to notice. Even when they are young men and women they still want you to notice, and to be there when they are sick and hurt.
     Recently I was given a beautiful picture of the difference between the “doing” of illness and the “being” of illness. I spent six nights with Carl recovering from bronchitis. It had been a long time since I had last seen Carl so sick. Jennifer is graduated from college now and living at home to pay off loans. She mostly works nights so she was home with Carl while I was at work.  It was nice to know that he could be home resting until his health was completely back.  I would go straight home from work to be with him, to fluff his pillow and make tea. While I sat at the end of Carl’s bed reading to him, I would think of my friend Erik. His wife had had a stroke and while she was recuperating, he would rush home from work, grab a bite to eat and then go to sit with Laura sometimes just holding her hand while she slept. He would stay at the hospital until visiting hours were over. When a friend suggested to Erik that those nights must be difficult because everything else had to be put on hold, he had responded, “When was the last time you got three hours to just sit and hold the hand of the woman you love? The nights are easy.”
     Not long ago, I was sick. Carl and Elinore brought me water and tea. Then they set up the stereo so that we could all listen to, “The Hunger Games” on CD. There we were the five of us; Carl, Elinore, Gustav and Jenny spread out like cats, doing nothing but listening to a good book. Sometimes that is the opportunity of illness. It gives you the excuse to just be with the people you love most in all the world.

New Tastes at My Own Pace by Jeremy Bucher

Getting children to try new foods can be a daunting task. Each child has his own palate which can be wildly different from siblings and other children in a similar age group. Every child will try new foods at their own pace but there are various ways in which to expedite the process. Pairing new foods with familiar foods, considering portion size, and positive reinforcement when new foods are eaten by the child all help the child to try new things.
Many children who are born and grow in a consumer economy are exposed to various images and advertisements in their daily lives, many of which consist of food or food products. This creates an image of what a meal should be, and when combined with the few foods they know that they enjoy eating, a very closed-minded attitude towards new foods ensues. Young children are often quite particular about what they eat, and new colors, shapes and smells appearing on a child's plate can be very distressing, especially if the foods that they are used to seeing on that plate are nowhere to be found. Pairing new foods with foods children already know and enjoy is an easy way to expand the child's diet without upsetting the flow of the meal. There are children at LifeWays who are very timid about new foods. On soup day, I serve a soup along with the fresh bread the children bake with their caregivers in the morning, and for the children bread is a familiar and tasty food to eat. Some are reticent to eat the soup and will often ask for more bread after their first serving, to which the common response is, "Try your soup and you may have a little more bread." Sampling a little bit of soup is a small task for more delicious bread, and often elicits a positive response from the child. This may only lead to a small taste the first time, but can bring about a half-eaten bowl before a request for more bread during the next soup meal.
Providing larger portions of familiar food alongside smaller portions of new food also helps children become more accepting of new foods. The children who are unsure about a new soup are often given a smaller portion alongside the bread that they enjoy. When they are asked to try their soup, they are not faced with a heaping bowl of soup in front of them, and this makes the task seem less daunting. As children get more brave and adventurous with their eating, they receive larger portions.
It is also important to give positive reinforcement to keep children trudging forward in their palate-expanding odyssey. Without being too attached to children eating all of the food on their plate or creating an emotionally charged stand-off, simply and matter-of-factly stating how happy you are that they are trying new foods goes a long way in promoting their sense of adventure. Children take pride in trying new things, especially if they like the new thing they've tried. I have heard calls of, "I tried the soup, can I have more bread?" grow into, "I ate all my soup! It was really good!" Fostering their joy of experiencing unknown flavors will add to their sense of adventure when it comes to eating.
New foods can be fun and exciting but frightening and distressing at the same time. It is important to bring new foods into a child's meal in ways that keep them tethered to the diet they know and prefer. In this way they will move forward into a full and balanced diet at their own pace.