Review: A Warm and Gentle Welcome, a WECAN publication


Kudos to Carrie Dentler (theparentingpassageway) for jumping into the midst of what I see as a huge contradiction in the world of Waldorf Early Childhood. She highlights what I also see to be as a real problem – the incursions of Waldorf Early Years educators into the approach advocated by Emmi Pickler and Magda Gerber. Like Carrie, I too am unhappy about the combination of a "hands-off" approach to babies and tiny children combined with an overly-verbal approach which, as far as I am concerned, is completely anathema to the non intellectual approach which is indicated by Steiner's work. I look forward to further articles and in-put on this subject!

A Review:  “A Warm and Gentle Welcome:  Nurturing Children from Birth to Age Three”

This is the Gateways Series Five book which consists of a series of articles compiled from the work of the Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America RIE/Pikler Working Group.  I bought this book because I am a Waldorf homeschooling mother with an extreme interest in the Early Years.  Also, as a neonatal/pediatric physical therapist, I really wanted to understand more about the RIE/Pikler approach that is seems to be becoming part of the world of Waldorf for children from birth to age three.

Unfortunately, I found I had more questions than answers after reading this book than when I started. 

The underlying assumption of this  book is laid out in an article of Introduction by Trice Atchinson and Margaret Ris:  that there is a growing conviction within the Waldorf movement to “respond to the needs of the times” (ie, child care for  younger and younger children) and because Rudolf Steiner’s indications for working with children and adolescents in Waldorf schools had been put to practical use for many decades, little existed on how best to meet the needs of children at the very beginning of life – particularly in light of societal trends such as daycare, single parenting, dual working families and the isolation of at-home mothers.”  Therefore, a working group associated with WECAN began to investigate Resources for Infant Educarers, or RIE, founded by Magda Gerber, as a resource for the child at the beginning of life.

Gerber’s work was inspired and built off the work of Hungarian pediatrician Emmi Pikler, who founded The Pikler Institute, more commonly known as Loczy, in 1946.  This was an orphanage for children who were without family due to World War II.  In 2004, The Pikler Insitute opened a training in English, and half of this first training group were Waldorf early childhood teachers.  The Pikler Institute apparently has a “record of research and publications showing how their practices and sensitive caregiving led to long-term well-being in children reared there.” (A study cited in a later article in this book was done in 1972 by the World Health Organization, but no studies more recent than that were cited).  The working group saw an intersection of Dr. Pikler’s work with Rudolf Steiner’s views of the young child as a being who needed to be met with patience and without intervention or hindrances to development. 

The next few articles had nothing to do with the RIE/Pikler approach, which I found odd as the book was entitled as containing articles from the RIE/Pikler group.  It seems as if from these articles there are at least three separate strands in approaching the children from birth to age three:  Lifeways in North America, the Nokken model, and the RIE/Pikler approach.  However, the relationship between these approaches was never elucidated, nor was it commented on if that was a future goal of this working group.

Jane Swain, a pediatric physical therapist with training in sensory integration, neurodevelopmental treatment and Spatial Dynamics, wrote the next article which detailed her visit to The Pikler Institute in Hungary. 

She writes of her understanding of  Pikler’s philosophy:

“[Pikler’s] observations showed her the tremendous importance of the parents’ love for their child.  Pikler also witnessed parents “teaching” their infants to sit, stand and walk before they were able to do so on their own, causing infants to do something different than they would have if left to their own initiative.

Pikler saw this gesture of the adult as a distrust of the child’s abilities.  She believed that children have an innate capacity to direct the unfolding of their motor capabilities through self-initiated movement, if given the time and space to do so, and she based her practices on this idea.  Pikler also believed that each child was qualified for this task- in fact, more infinitely qualified than any adult.  It follows, then, that infants should not be taught motor skills, but instead should be allowed gradually to come into the vertical position of sitting and standing entirely through their own efforts.”

Swain goes on to write that movement is seen as “function of the security of the relationship with the primary adult.”  In other words, at The Pikler Institute, if a child is experiencing trouble with movement, the first thing that is assessed is the child’s relationship with the caregiver.  The Pikler Institute just started parent-child classes at the time of Swain’s article, and the author discusses how the class instructors were always careful to make sure the parent did not feel inadequate in any way, and to safeguard the relationship between the parent and the child.

Most of all, the caregiving activities of dressing, feeding, diapering, bathing are all seen as the primary place to interact with a child, and the child is encouraged to participate with the activity at their level and have the child be joyous in  developing self-mastery in self-care.  Interestingly, “the children at Loczy become exceedingly capable in their self-care at an early age” but “in the Loczy model, there are tremendous differences between the children, and motor milestones are reached significantly later than we would expect from our experience in the U.S.”    Activity that takes place horizontally is seen as critically important.  This, to me, calls forth the work of Joan Salter in “The Incarnating Child” where she discusses the importance of the horizontal position for babies. 

Swain goes on to discuss that the quality of movement in the children at Loczy was “extraordinary” and that abnormal retention of the primitive motor reflexes did not occur and she did not observe any symptoms of ADHD or sensory processing disorders.  Swain decides that “The principles employed at Loczy are in alignment with Rudolf Steiner’s recommendations that our goal is not to “fix” children, but rather to remove hindrances to their development.”

I had a few questions regarding this approach.  I have worked as a pediatric physical therapist in an indigent care hospital where children showed up for our Cerebral Palsy Clinic who had not had any therapeutic intervention or support in their Early Years ,  and despite having not had any “hindrances” of being put in positions they could not attain, they certainly did not go on to attain upright positions or avoid orthopedic deformities.  Many of them were handled gently by their families, and still could demonstrate the ability to startle themselves from within their own internal systems.  I wondered if the population at Loczy was essentially “normal” and how they would handle infants with severe special needs such as the children I generally evaluate.  Swain did cite one example of a child born without femurs (thigh bones) and how well he did in this model, but I am more interested in the children who have (as characterized by a traditional medical model) neurologic challenges and how children with these and more severe sensory challenges would be handled by this model.  

I also was extremely curious about The Sense of Warmth; how warm emotionally were the staff with these children?  Yes, we allow the children to develop without hindrances, but what about the support of the developing lower four senses, about warmth as the gateway between these middle and higher senses, where was that?

And then I saw this, in the second to last article of the book entitled, “A New Vision For Creating Partnerships with Parents” by Margaret Ris, and it really spoke to the fears I have regarding this model.  Ris writes of the Pikler approach:  “When devising her approach to caring for infants and young children in the orphanage, Pikler was conscious that she did not wish to create conditions that might interfere with the anticipated mother-child bond that would develop once the child was adopted.  The caregivers gave exquisite attention to the child during caregiving, but were trained to refrain from extra displays of affection.  Dr.  Pikler seemed to be able to distill what was required for health attachment without fostering a dependency in the orphaned child that would one day require painful disengagement.  Trainees at the Pikler Institute learn the distinction:  “The mother loves the child, so she cares for him.  The caregiver [at Loczy] cares for the child, so she loves him.” (the bold is my emphasis)

How can this be a model for Waldorf parent/child groups and Waldorf early care?  To me, this approach is woefully missing several components necessary for parents who actually live with and love their children, first and foremost being emotional warmth, humor, love and joy.  Do the pillars of care at The Pikler Institute (noted as “exquisite presence and attention to  the child’s signals during caregiving, encouraging  her active participation; ample opportunity for free movement; and astute and careful observation”) really go far enough in meeting, protecting and developing the lower four senses?  Also never mentioned are the viewpoint this approach would hold toward the hallmarks of intimate parenting that supports true development of the lower four senses: breastfeeding and babywearing.  How we talk about holding parent-child classes and never discuss these issues?

One other brief example of my concerns is noted in the article “What’s All The Talking About?” by Kim Lewis.  She writes, “Talking with toddlers who are just beginning to learn the social graces of human interaction can help them gain gradual competence within their social environments.  This is the case in the RIE parent-child guidance classes taught in and around Los Angeles, where the class facilitator uses a speaking strategy known by various names:   “RIE-speak”, “say-what-you-see,” “announcing,” “reporting” or often, “sports-casting,” the term Gerber used. “   There is no mention of that beautiful pictorial speech and re-direction into fantasy and movement or the use of singing and rhymes  that should be the hallmark of speaking with the tiny children in the first part of the first seven-year cycle.  To me, this “sports-casting” approach is the exact opposite of what most Waldorf Kindergartens are doing, and so I do wonder where the tie-in will be.  How exactly would children transfer from this model into the Waldorf Kindergarten?  How do these techniques support the dreamy consciousness of the child?   

The last question I had was the relationship between Dr. Pikler’s work and the work of Magda Gerber.  I have not read the works of Magda Gerber and wondered how her approach, if any, differs from Dr. Pikler’s approach in Hungary.  Gerber’s book entitled “Your Self Confident Baby” makes me feel wary, because just the title alone seems the exact opposite of the dreamy consciousness we normally think of in the first seven years from an anthroposophic viewpoint.

I think this book, while helpful in outlining some of the principle points about Dr. Pikler and her approach, left many unanswered questions as to what the future of the RIE/Pikler/Waldorf intersection will hold.  I am also not certain that Waldorf teachers are not missing a valuable time where a model could be created that is much more supportive of warmth, joy, love and the parent than this model.  

Posted on March 9, 2010 in Books, Kindergarten (and pre-K)

  • Maggie says:

    Our parent/child class teacher used to give us articles from Magda Gerber and tried to incorporate some of the RIE techniques and I wondered a lot about some of these activities and how little they related to Steiner’s approach on child rearing. The following year the nursery teacher tried to incorporate parts of the non-violent communication movement into problem solving with the children…. It was all a bit disturbing for us and too much of the ‘goodness’. This approach and the requirement for my son to attend the following year three mornings at the nursery were the biggest factors that we decided to homeschool.
    As Carrie mentioned in her article, it seems as though Waldorf schools, here in the US (maybe also overseas nowadays), are trying to find ways to more and more incorporate the younger child into the school system.
    What I find disturbing is that Rudolf Steiner encouraged exactly the opposite, for children to be with their parents until they are at least at a Kindergarten age and keeping them and their senses protected in a warm and loving home environment, before initiating the separation of the small child from the mother and home environment.

  • raquel says:

    I agree. There are a lot of incongruences and problems with the RIE, I personally do not think they are actually beneficial for the human being.

  • Ursula Ramos says:

    I believe Waldorf schools are being asked by parents, and our culture in general, to incorporate younger children into the school system. Steiner did encourage the opposite and Waldorf schools have been in the difficult position for many years of finding a way to meet this question. A group of Waldorf early childhood educators including Cynthia Aldinger, Rahima Baldwin, and Rena Osmer began looking at this question some 10 years ago. Out of their questioning Lifeways of North America was formed. I was in the first Lifeways class and found it invaluable to working with the very young child. Lifeways have incorporated aspects of RIE into their model, as a way of working with the very young child’s physical development and to include infants into larger groups. They did not move away from the rich imaginative language and meaningful relationships one forms with children in their care. There are seemingly incongruous aspects of Waldorf education and RIE, and I am sure many who would not believe in melding the two. However, I think where one school of thought leaves questions, the other can be called on for interesting and beneficial ways of working with this important stage of child’s development.

  • Kim Lewis says:

    With regard to your comment on my article, my task was to help Waldorf educators understand the RIE-speak a little better. It was not to discuss methods used in Waldorf kindergartens. I believe you are incorrect if you think that fantasy and pictorial speech is one of the hallmarks of the first two years. I don’t know where this idea would come from. At this young age, language is more valuable when it is embedded in real life, even the nursery rhymes, fingerplays and songs require a certain immediacy, coherence and tangibility. Even the idea of “language free education” is so easily misunderstood. It means that children in the first 7 years learn so much through their direct experiences in the world – and almost nothing of value from an education of explanations. This has nothing to do with the fact that language development is imperative for human development and requires being immersed especially in a relationship of one-on-one language interactions, and this can include verses, songs and games.
    I don’t think it needs a tie-in for kindergarten. The child’s own development is the tie-in. A sensitive teacher will know what the child needs. A teacher wouldn’t engage in RIE-speak unless the pre-verbal child made contact that seemed to say, “Let me know you are here, let me know you are paying attention.” Even when a child is highly verbal, it’s useful to come back to RIE-speak if needed. (By-the-way, when done with skill, I love people to speak to me this way. It’s very soothing. Try it yourself and see if it seems too wakeful.)
    It’s true that there are still many unanswered questions. The birth to three questions that Waldorf educators are now holding are becoming more complex and more expansive and harder to get a firm hold of than the kindergarten questions were when they first emerged. There are many reasons for this. Look for my article in the next Gateways about the conference in Dornach for more about these themes.

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