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.