Monday, June 16, 2014

Summer Rhythms

Now that the days are so long, it is natural for families to shift their normal daily rhythms.  This can be especially true if school helps to form some of the daily and weekly rhythm the rest of the year.  Adjusting children's daily rhythm to take advantage of summer's gifts of light and warmth is a natural response to the mood of the season.  It can really help to think consciously about this adjustment rather than waiting until the children are over-tired and in need of a complete resetting.

In our early childhood classrooms we work to create a healthy breathing rhythm to the day.  That means we alternate between expansive, dynamic activities and ones that are more restful and inward.  In the early childhood, free indoor play and outdoor play are both very expansive.  This mood comes naturally to young children and they learn a great deal through all of their natural activity during play.  It is important to create times and spaces for a balance to this.  In the classroom, this might be crafting, cooking, painting, circle, story and snack time.  These times require more concentration and self-control, as well as joining the group.

When considering how to create a summer rhythm at home, we can look at how to bring in a balance of moods.  It can be exhausting for a young child to spend all day in the expansiveness of playing outdoors.  So if we spend a lot of time at the beach, for example, we'll want to create moments of quiet and connection that allow our children to come inward. Stories, naps and meals are a good time for this.  For children who no longer nap it can still be so helpful (also to the parents) to have a designated rest time for an hour.   If this is done during the sun's hottest time after lunch, we're also helping children to avoid excessive exposure.

Special outings are also an enjoyable part of summer.  When the regular rhythm of the day is strong and predictable, it is relatively easy for children to handle such outings.  But we need to keep in mind the extra effort such an event takes and be cautious to get everyone enough sleep.  Some children have trouble going to sleep early in the summer.  A walk or time outdoors shortly before bed might help some kids to expend that extra energy and settle down.  Dark shades and fans can help as well.  It might take some extra effort on the part of parents to keep the bedtime consistent, but it will ultimately mean more freedom (and happier kids) the following day.

A healthy, balanced breathing rhythm to the day can help to prevent exhaustion and melt-downs.  The predictability of having the same events happen at the same time allows children the feelings of comfort and safety that leave them free to joyfully explore.

Happy summer everyone!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Reading at Five: Why?

This article was written last year by Joan Almon, a Waldorf teacher and founder of The Alliance for Childhood.  It takes a look at current education trends in US kindergartens and the possible implications of these practices.  It is definitely worth a read!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Deepening the Young Child's Connection to Nature

As it follows it's yearly path around the sun, our earth goes through significant changes: changes that appear and reappear, year after year.  The seasonal changes bring to life countless metaphors for the ups and downs of human life on earth.  In New England, the passage of the seasons is particularly marked, giving us pictures of deep contrast.

As many cultures have moved away from a nature-centered and nature-dependent lifestyle, we have lost touch with some of the inner strength that can be gained from engaging with Mother Nature's transitions.  Each season has a mood to share: from the joyful rebirth of green in spring, to the energy and purposeful work that autumn harvest requires, to the reflective quiet of winter.  In Maine, we are fortunate to experience each season in it's fullest sense.  Even the despair that can be felt in March, after a difficult winter, is a lesson for the soul.  For each human life is bound to meet with despair and longing.  When we allow these moods to be felt in our connection with nature, we can see them as universal experiences.  The knowledge that spring will return allows us to know hope, and that hope can return to us during more personal struggles.

Nature stories can bring to life the shifting moods of the seasons and let them feed the imaginations of our children.   These types of stories nurtured the imaginations and moral sensibilities of young children for hundreds of generations before books, television and computers were available.  These metaphors, which live in the imagination in childhood, can later become a source of wisdom, giving strength long after childhood has been left behind.

Seasonal festivals also connect us to the wisdom of nature.  It is an enormous gift to young children to be able to recognize and share the observations they make of the changes in nature.  We can weave seasonal nature stories into celebrations, using food, song, and special activities to create a mood.  A sense of security and joyful anticipation develop when a child is able to revisit a celebration year after year with their community.  Though singing the same songs, hearing the same stories, baking the same foods, and celebrating again nature's revolutions, children's inherent connection to Mother Nature is strengthened and nurtured.

At Merriconeag Waldorf School, we celebrate many festivals that might be considered old fashioned or unusual.  Some festivals are celebrated more simply in the classrooms, or in certain grades, connected with particular cultural studies.  Then, we have several school-wide festivals we return to again and again, allowing our students the chance to contribute in different ways as they grow older and more capable.  Each of our festivals is characterized by this understanding that nature has much to teach us.  By paying attention to her, we also learn about ourselves.  Our festivals allow us - all together- to stop long enough to recognize and celebrate this connection.  

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

No Quick Fix: Taking a Deeper Approach to Dealing with Challenges

Ours is a world that is filled with ideas, suggestions, recommendations, and solutions for the myriad of problems that face us.  Advice of all kinds is plentiful in books and all over the internet, and no subject offers a greater variety of advice than parenting.   Information sharing and advice have their places, and sometimes they are enough.  But it can also happen that advice takes the place of the inner work that parenting requires.  We might be able to patch up a problem with someone else's solution, but it can happen then that no real change has taken place.  The problem may resurface in a different form.

Challenges that arise between parents and children are usually multi-faceted.  Parenting is above all a relationship, which means that there are multiple sides to every story.  When parents don't know what to do with their child's difficult behavior, for example, finding the correct response is just one part of the resolution.  It is also necessary to look at where the behavior is coming from: what it is reflecting in the child's inner life.

Rudolf Steiner told the teachers of the first Waldorf school to 'receive the children with reverence'.  As a parent, I think of this reverence as being my connection to the mystery of my children.  It is tempting to try to figure my kids out.  If I can do that, then some part of me thinks that I will always know what to do and how to respond; I will be prepared for all of the curve balls they might throw.  But in reality, my children are individuals who are only slowly revealing themselves.  It might be that they have a purpose for their struggles that I cannot see or understand.  To be open to their unfolding, I need to be open to their mysteries.

In his book, Working with Anxious, Nervous, and Depressed Children - a book I love and recommend for any parent- Henning K√∂hler shares many ideas about how we as parents can learn to open ourselves to the deeper aspects of our relationships with our children.  One point he addresses is the importance of developing meaningful questions.  When we are faced with an issue, it is easy to want to fix it - for our child's sake, or for our own.  Reverence for the child necessitates that we slow down and try to get beyond our own discomfort so that our child's behavior can speak to us.  Taking the time to form an accurate, careful question, helps us to get to the heart of the matter.  Then we can live with this question over time and let the act of questioning open our senses to new awarenesses.  When we live with a question, rather than trying to fix it, we leave ourselves open to many possible answers.

Non-judgmental observation is also an important tool to developing understanding over time.  The question can help to sharpen those observations.  It is helpful to bring those observations back to mind before sleep, working to develop a clear picture of the child.  These steps, taken together with sound parenting advice will help us to remain sensitive to the inner needs and developmental paths of our children.  Over time our children speak to us through our careful observations and those observations teach us how to know what to do.

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.