Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Imitation, the Media, and the World of the Young Child

Early in my Waldorf teacher training, I learned that young children learn through imitation.  It has taken me years to come to understand the myriad of ways in which this truth plays out in daily life.  Imitation is how children learn to walk, talk, and take on the specific values of their culture.  Learning through imitation is taking place every minute, and is a shining example of the importance of the small things in life.

I have often heard parents express surprise when they see how well their kids play when the parents are engaged in some useful work.  Because of their innate ability to imitate, children are closely influenced by their caregiver's energy and mood.  When caregivers work with concentration and interest, children can play with that same energy.  But, I become most aware of the power of imitation every time I do something in my children's presence that they can't imitate, mainly every time I open the computer or talk on the phone.  When I do these activities, their play changes.  Sometimes it manifests in more arguing or sometimes they suddenly are not able to find something to do.  At first this phenomenon annoyed me.  It seemed every time I thought I had a free minute, someone needed something.  Over time as I observed more, I noticed it is much less likely to happen when I am folding laundry or sweeping the floor.  When I do these things, they want to be a part of it.  As silly as it sounds, I realized yet again, that my children depend on me.  In addition to all of the obvious ways, my children also depend on me to be imitate-able.  They want to live into my adult actions with me.  But they can't see what I am doing on the computer and there isn't much for them to learn from or imitate.  When I am on the phone, my older son asks me questions about the snippets he hears me say.  He wants to be part of the conversation.  In those moments, they call for me because they feel my energy and attention going into something of which they can't be a part.

It doesn't mean I can't ever do these things in their presence, but it does mean that I need to be conscious of finding the right balance.  Computers and handheld devices are an opening to an interesting and never-ending source of information.  Because of that, time spent there passes quickly. Children sense the divided attention that results and they will imitate that too.  If I want to help my children to develop the ability to focus, follow through, and find joy in the inescapable daily tasks of life, I have to allow them to observe those traits in me.  Quite a bit has been written about the potential effects of media use on young children, but little has been said about how media may be taking away children's opportunities for real actions to imitate.  What I do in front of my children offers food for their development in a variety of subtle ways.

After thinking on this for awhile, I started to pay attention to how I was influenced by what my parents did in front of me and how they did it.  When I visit my parents, I am reminded of how I chop vegetables in the same manner as my mother, sneaking bits of carrots and celery as I go.  Examining my mannerisms and habits, there are so many I can trace back to my formative years.  When I think about what I'd like my kids to remember about me, it is the joyful way I sing to them while I am working, or how we sweep the floor and wash the windows together. What I do in my children's presence is important.  Of equal importance is how I do what I do.

What household chores do you enjoy doing with your children?  What things have you done to make this easier?

Monday, March 10, 2014

A Story for Lady Spring

This week I would like to share a story for spring.  Hopefully it will be on it's way before too long!  The story features plenty of repetition, which is helpful for building understanding and anticipation for young children.  This could easily be told with a simple puppet representing Lady Spring, or as a bed time story, revisited each night for a week or two.  You can make up any simple, lilting tune for the singing part. Nature stories depend on careful observation.  A story can bring to life certain subtle transitions in nature, lending strength to a child's own personal observations.  By characterizing a natural phenomena, we imbue it with warmth and imagination, which is the sphere in which young children thrive.

It had been a long and cold winter.  Lady Spring was snuggled soundly in her warm bed.  One morning the rays of the sun shone in her window and tickled her on the nose, singing, "Wake up, Lady Spring! Wake up Lady Spring!"
Lady Spring arose from her bed and put on her cloak, which was woven with the colors of the flowers.  And she slipped on her shoes, which were woven with the colors of the earth.  Then she opened her door and stepped outside.  Tiny white snowdrop flowers sprung up in her footprints as she walked.  But it wasn't long before a cold wind began to blow and Lady Spring became chilled.  She hurried back to her home and her warm bed.  
The next morning the rays of the sun shone in her window and tickled Lady Spring on her nose, singing, "Wake up, Lady Spring!  Wake up Lady Spring!"  Lady spring arose from her bed and put on her cloak, which was woven with the colors of the flowers.  Then she slipped on her shoes, which were woven with the colors of the earth.  Then she she opened her door and went outside.  Again, tiny snowdrops bloomed in her footprints.  But again, a cold wind began to blow before she had the chance to walk far.  She became chilled and hurried back to her home and her warm bed.  For many days it went like this.
Then, one morning, the warm rays of the sun shone powerfully into her window and tickled her on the nose, and tickled her on the cheeks, and tickled her on the chin, singing, "Wake up, Lady Spring!  Wake up, Lady Spring!  Wake up, Lady Spring!"  Lady Spring arose from her bed and put on her cloak, which was woven with the colors of the flowers.  Then she slipped on her shoes, which were woven with the colors of the earth.  Then she opened her door and went outside into the warm spring day.  
Everywhere she walked flowers of all kinds and all colors sprung up in her footsteps: daffodils, tulips, dandelions and clovers.  All day long Lady Spring walked the earth, leaving beautiful flowers in her wake.  When the sun disappeared behind the distant hills, Lady Spring returned to her home to rest and begin again on the morrow. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

Know Thyself: The Inner Work of Parenting

Parenting is challenging work on many levels.  Parents have to respond appropriately to unexpected and unprecedented situations on a regular basis.  They have to make millions of decisions about tiny and life-changing events and it is not always clear which is which.  It is impossible to know always what to do.  When parenting is undertaken with consciousness it is, above all, a path of inner growth and development.  As parents we are called to reflect on our most unconscious struggles if we want to meet the changing needs of our children.  Just when we feel we have mastered some element of parenting, a new challenge presents itself.

In my opinion, this inner work is what it's all about.  Who we are and what we do have a huge impact on our children.  We spend a lot of time considering what to say, but the other, more intangible parts of our relationship are equally important.  Doing the inner work of parenting helps us to develop over time a kind of authority that cannot be simulated or invented. It is an authority that comes from our striving to be authentic.  It doesn't mean perfection, but rather honesty with ourselves and I think children sense that.

It can be hard to find the time or energy for this inner work.  But I have found that when I choose to engage with it, things are revealed to me throughout the day with my children.  When I pay attention to my knee-jerk reactions, or to what really gets me upset, little pieces of my puzzle begin to come together.  It makes all the difference to have a family member or a friend with whom to process these thoughts and wonderings.  There is something that happens in the process of bringing old feelings to consciousness that develops self-awareness and sensitivity over time.  And these are priceless gifts we can offer our children.

The other half of knowing ourselves is knowing our own needs.  It is infinitely harder to be a patient, calm, and loving parent if we are exhausted, hungry, or run-down.  Knowing how to meet our own needs is a big part of meeting the needs of our families.  This is an important part of our work and it can't be neglected.  It's easier to recognize and remedy the physical needs, but our emotional and intellectual needs are also important and are more readily left by the wayside.  When we care for ourselves, we are better parents.  But perhaps more importantly, we are modeling for our children how to care for themselves when they are grown.

Friday, January 24, 2014

A Purifying Tantrum

Every Thursday I am on my own for bedtime.  We have a solid routine, so normally it's busy, but not overwhelming.  After two busier school days, my little boys were tired yesterday evening.  I was prepared: dinner was on time and we were winding down a little after six.  Bedtime has been so routine for so long, that our children don't question it.  But, suddenly my three year old began to protest - loudly.  He launched into a full force tantrum right in the middle of our very predictable bedtime routine.  Sometimes this sort of thing can send me off balance.  I too, am tired at the end of the day.  But it was so clear that my boy needed this release.  His tantrum felt like a purifying flame.  It felt necessary that I continue to hold the boundary on bedtime and continue to hold him, so that he could let out all of the anger, frustration, and discomfort that was inside of him.  So I breathed deeply and held him close.
I am trying not to feel that I have to fix these difficult feelings, but to be present for their release.  I have been trying to observe my children more and let that guide me.  In this case, there was no doubt as to what was needed.  The predictability of our bedtime routine probably helped my son feel that he had a safe place to get out these stuck emotions.  He knew I would hold the bedtime boundaries and that gave him a place to bump up against and initiate his much-needed release.

As parents, we can be presented with some very emotionally-charged situations.  Children are deeply sensitive.  The world is a busy place, full of experiences that need processing.  Three year olds in particular often find themselves in an emotional struggle.  This age is characterized by some pushing away from parents and establishing a degree of independence.  But with this often comes a wish to reunite with the closeness they felt in infancy.  Independence is exciting and refreshing, but scary and new-feeling.  

These moments can try the patience of parents and push buttons in unexpected ways.  Instead of taking it personally which, without reflection, I tend to do, I have been striving to see these moments as belonging to my children.  It isn't personal.  It's the work that my kids have to do to find their place in the world. It's my job to be loving, consistent, present, and patient (with myself and with them!)  I am their witness and their support as they find their way.  And last night, my son slept like a hibernating bear and awoke this morning with a spring in his step.  

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Rhythms in Home Life

Creating and maintaining the daily flow of activities is one of the most essential and most repetitive of parenting tasks.  It is well known that children thrive with predictable routines around mealtimes, sleep, and school.  The basic plan of the day is what we call the routine and it acts like the frame of a building:  it is the essential structure that holds everything together.  Within that frame is room and time for all of the more variable parts of our lives.  When we add rhythm to this framework of routine, we add meaning and depth to the predictability of daily life for our children.

Rhythm allows for more movement than routine does.  We can adjust it to meet the changing needs of our children.  Bedtime, meal times, and the start of school are necessarily unchanging.  These are the elements that parents form as the family habit life and children naturally live into them, appreciating the security of the family culture.  But around those basics, we are free to build a more fluid, but nonetheless stable, structure.  We can build activities into these spaces that give our children other touch points in time.  For example, in summer, much of this unspoken for time might be spent out of doors.  We can vary those activities predictably, with water play in the morning and a walk before dinner, for example.  In the winter, we will have to plan our outdoor activities around the weather, but there is still room to have a regular occurring event such as a walk to the library every week, or a regular play date with a neighbor.

Adding in artistic activities can feeling intimidating, but it is often simpler than it appears.  Again, having recurring activities makes everything easier for us and our children.  For example, one could add a painting time every Friday morning and a play dough or beeswax time every Tuesday.  These activities don't need to be elaborate: a bit of watercolor paint, a brush, a smock, paper, water and a sponge can be stored for easy access.  Working with dough and wax are easy activities that require little storage and almost no clean-up.  Sewing projects are great for kindergarten-aged children and can include gifts for extended family.  They love to sew up little pouches (heart-shaped ones filled with lavender are wonderful for Valentine's Day).  Felt is an easy material for sewing with children.  It doesn't require a hem and is easy to sew with a large dull needle.

Whatever rhythm you decide to create for your family, leave plenty of time for transitions.  Life with children should be simple.  They need blocks of time for free play.  If you have all of that, but are looking for more activities, try adding one artistic thing at the same time every week.  When that feels easy, you might add another on a different day.

We can use rhythm to help us accomplish the multitude of chores that need to be done. It is healthy for children to have some independent play time every day.  This gives them opportunities to process their experiences in their own way.  It allows for the development of independent initiative and decision-making.  To establish this, it helps if parents have tasks of their own.  One might fold laundry, wash dishes, or prepare dinner while the children play.  If we leave ourselves time every day for the adults to work and the children to play, children get better at initiating their own play.  It is nice to leave space so that children can join in the adult work if they wish, particularly when it comes to meal time preparations.  They can be free to join in for a bit and then get back to their play.  If a child is struggling to entertain herself, it can help to say, "I am busy with the laundry now.  Go play and I will be with you when I am done."  It takes patience to encourage this kind of independence.  But, as with anything, if we are consistent and encouraging, and we really believe that our children can do it, they will find their way.

Establishing a consistent rhythm appears to be more work initially.  However, the benefits are revealed quickly.  When children know what to expect, they are more at ease and more likely to cooperate.  When parents know what to expect, they don't have to waste time deciding what to do or how to do it.  I will never forget how relieved I was when we began planning our meals for the week.  The hours between 3:00pm and 5:00pm suddenly felt so much easier because I didn't have to make decisions on top of managing the cooking and my children's needs.  I knew I had all of the ingredients.  I could prepare in advance if it was a more complicated dish.  I suddenly found I had more time and patience for my children during those busy hours.

The rhythm of a family's life should fit that family's culture.  It should feel good and nourishing.  Rhythm is there to connect us to the flow of time in a healthy and balanced way.  We can use it to help us add the right amount of structure and of freedom to our lives.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Painting with Young Children

Watercolor painting is a weekly experience for our kindergarten students.   Our students draw with crayons as well.  These two activities, though similar, have something very different to offer children.  Drawing is mostly about creating form.  Beginning with scribbles, children develop through various stages, refining and developing two-dimensional forms with their crayons and paper.  Painting has the potential to be another method of drawing, but if we leave it at that, we miss something important.

If we use a wide brush and vibrant, but very fluid paint, the act of painting becomes a period of immersion in the world of color.  Colors are commonly associated with moods and feelings.  Even Benjamin Moore recently had on their website a tutorial about the effect of colors on living spaces.  Each color has qualities that arouse certain feelings in us.  When children are able to paint with one saturated color, they get to know that color personally, so to speak.  They get to live within that color's mood.  This all happens unconsciously, but these experiences are nevertheless relevant.  Ten years later, the high school student can draw on his visceral and personal experiences of the nuances of each color, to help him with an oil painting. 

The kindergarten years are all about playful exploration of phenomena.  But this is intentional playfulness.  We are careful to set up the proper materials for a truly relevant experience.  The wet-on-wet method of watercolor painting is the most effective for allowing young children to get to know the colors.  The paint is vibrant and fluid enough to be moved with ease.  We don't care so much about the final result; what is important is the process and what is learned through that process.  After having lessons with each of the individual colors, students mix colors and discover all the variations of shades in between.  

Children are natural artists. We want to help our students develop their artistic capacities, not because we want all of our students to be artists, but because we want all of our students to be well-rounded.   Painting in a formless, experimental way allows them to develop some of the essential perceptions that will serve their work in the future.  Self-expression through art is a valuable skill that adds meaning to a person's life.  Developing this natural artistic sense will serve them in multiple ways in adulthood.  

To paint wet-on-wet you will need:

 a water-tight board (finished wood, masonite, or plastic all work well), which is a bit bigger than your paper. 

Watercolor paper (8 X 10 is fine).  The paper doesn't have to be too thick.

A sponge

Liquid watercolors

Several jars

A soft,wide brush

A rag

What to do:

Dissolve some paint in a bit of water, so that the color is not too diluted, but the paint is still fluid.
Wet the piece of paper, either in a tub of water or under the faucet.  Put the paper on the board.  Sponge off the entire paper once, so it is moist, but not puddling.  Put the jar of paint next to a jar of plain water for rinsing.  Have a rag handy for dabbing the brush.  You can paint alongside your child.  With a young child, it is nice to keep it formless so that painting doesn't become drawing too quickly.  Wet-on-wet painting is very much a process-oriented medium.  It is hard to be exact in creating form, but the colors are lively.  

Respectful Redirection

In Waldorf early childhood classrooms, redirection is a commonly used tool to help classroom life flow smoothly.  It is a kind of art to use redirection respectfully and effectively.  Some parenting philosophies discourage the use of redirection, such as RIE, because they feel that it prevents the child's feelings from being acknowledged.  Many parents find the idea of redirection frustrating because it just doesn't seem to work.  Pulling a child away from a confrontation, or dangling a new toy before his face to try to avoid dealing with the conflict, is unhelpful.  I would call this distraction rather then redirection and I would agree that it shows a lack of recognition of the child's depth of understanding of the situation.

Redirection, however is something different.  Young children have a consciousness that is more fluid and more dreamy than we adults do.  They live in a place of imagination where creativity and flexibility of thought are second nature.  In Waldorf early childhood settings, we strive to nurture this natural creativity.  We encourage healthy, vigorous play, and sometimes confrontation is part of this.  We utilize redirection as a way of resolving minor trouble without having to bring children out of their play.  There is no doubt that sometimes issues need to be dealt with directly.  But it also happens that small disputes seem bigger to the adults than they do to the children.  The teacher works to know her students well enough to be able to read the difference between the two types of situations and to act accordingly.  If we stop the play to address every disagreement with a discussion, the natural flow of imaginative play is interrupted.

It can also happen that a child begins to be disruptive just within the flow of the game she is playing.  In such a case, the teacher can engage with the child's imagination, which shows respect for the importance of her game.  For example, imagine a child is pretending to drive a truck.  She begins to zoom around the room, interrupting everyone else's play and being a danger.  Soon she gets a mischievous look in her eyes, realizing that she may be pushing the limits.  Instead of just telling her to stop, the teacher can approach her and remind her that this is a pedestrian zone where speeding is not allowed.  In this way, the child is not made to stop her play, but rather is redirected to play that works for that space.  The teacher respects that the child is living in her imagination and doesn't force the child to abandon it in order to resolve the issue.

It could be easy to think, "Oh, that would never work.  The child wouldn't listen."  Initially that might be true, but with some practice parents and teachers can find a way to insist without having to create a direct confrontation every time.  This is not because we want to avoid confrontation, but because with young children, direct confrontation often leads to more provocative behavior.  When a young child realizes that a behavior is charged, she is much more likely to try it out to evoke a response.

When we are sure to give children enough aware attention in daily life, a lot of 'naughty' behavior can be addressed with this sort of imaginative insistence or redirection.  If a child is really having a hard time and acting out repeatedly, this is a sign that the child needs to be brought into the teacher's space for some one-on-one attention and connection.  In such a case, the teacher will engage the child with some work that they can do together, so that the child can benefit from the teacher's calm attention and center herself before returning to the group.

At home, I like to think of redirection as influencing the mood that is living between us.  When I step in to set a boundary with my kids, I try to be aware of how my energy affects them.  If it feels tense, I can offer a cuddle, a song, or a gaze out the window together.  This helps to repair whatever tension was created between me and my children and allows us to reconnect and move on.  If there is tension between my boys that feels too hard for them to handle alone, sometimes this kind of attentive energy from me can shift things.  I also find between siblings redirection can help with issues that arise around toys.  My boys are close in age and it is easy for the older one to want to be in control of the toys.  We have a 'when he's finished' way of approaching this.  If someone is playing with something, the other has to wait until he is finished.  In moments where one child wants what the other has and is tempted to just take it, I often say, "You may have it when he is finished.  Here is a bowl you can use in the meantime."  That is enough if the issue if really about the toy.  If the issue is about needing to connect, then tears might follow, but the tears gives us the chance to make the connection that my child was asking for in the first place.