LifeWays: Family-Style Childcare in Homes and in Centers
by Cynthia Aldinger
The LifeWays approach to childcare provides, as closely as possible, the best elements of care found within a healthy family. The practices of a LifeWays family-style model are based upon healthy sense development; continuity of care; development of mind and body; an enlivened experience of the domestic and nurturing arts; and the development of healthy social interactions. These practices are inspired by the works of Rudolf Steiner and Waldorf Education and are supported by contemporary early childhood research, as well as the common sense wisdom of many generations of parents.
This approach can be applied in both childcare homes and childcare centers. Each location will have some variations according to community needs, staffing and funding. LifeWays' national center is located in the Caldwell Early Life Center at Rudolf Steiner College in Fair Oaks, California. We are members of the Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America, the Alliance for Childhood and the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
THE HEART OF LIFEWAYS CARE: THE FAMILY SUITE
- Childcare "family suites" consist of small groups of children who stay together with the same caregivers over a several-year period. Bonding to adults who provide consistent, nurturing care during the years of early childhood is tantamount to the development of healthy relationships in youth and adulthood. Brain research indicates that "the architecture of the brain depends on a series of critical but subtle emotional transactions between an infant and a devoted caregiver ... clearly formulating the elusive building blocks of creative and analytic thinking, and the sense of self" (Dr. Stanley Greenspan).
The mix of children's ages may differ in the various LifeWays locations. Childcare homes can easily provide a "family" grouping with children of various ages. Childcare centers that incorporate several family suites function like a little neighborhood of childcare homes. In some States, a licensing waiver for mixed ages may be necessary. LifeWays North America is an advocacy group that will work with you and your licensing agency toward acquiring necessary exemptions.
An emphasis is also placed on the learning that is cultivated through mixed-age groupings. The younger ones learn basic self-care and social skills from observing the older children, and the older ones learn basic nurturing skills by observing the caregivers tend to the little ones. Another benefit of having mixed ages is that the ratio of children to care providers enables more of a family feeling. The caregiver/teacher is able to meet the special needs of each age group, as described below.
- Infants, especially, need a loving connection to another primary caregiver when they are away from their parents. The infant-parent bond is unique and is not diminished by the bonds a child forms with other caregivers. The time infants spend away from their parents serves them best when a knowledgeable and loving caregiver is responsive to their many nuances of communication and can interact with them with genuine warmth and enthusiasm. Continuity of caregivers provides the best foundation for children's healthy emotional and intellectual development.
- Infant care has an emphasis on promoting healthy sensory integration, thus encouraging natural developmental phases. Based upon the research of Hungarian physician Emmi Pikler, the movement of infants and toddlers needs to be as unrestricted as possible. To encourage rolling over, sitting up, crawling, and pulling up through their own capacity, infants are not placed in walkers, bouncers or mechanical devices. Before mobility, they are frequently placed on natural-fiber blankets or rugs in a protected space with a few simple toys to allow freedom of exploration. When they begin rolling and crawling, they are allowed to explore the larger environment. The youngest infants are also carefully wrapped for sleeping to provide a healthy sense of security and warmth, and caps are provided to protect their sensitive heads and ears.
- Nursing mothers are encouraged to come anytime they wish to nurse and/or to leave expressed milk with the child's caregiver. Bottle-fed babies are held while feeding.
- Rocking and cuddling will be encouraged to develop a healthy sense of touch and movement and to promote security and comfort. They may be sung to while going to sleep. Depending upon the nature of the infant, some may be rocked to sleep, while others may fall asleep in the crib or pram.
- Toddlers are given ample opportunity for explorative movement and developing their sense of balance. The environment provides a variety of gradations and safe climbing opportunities.
- Diaper-changing will be considered a special time for connecting with the caregiver and may include a special name song created for each baby or a simple nursery rhyme, and a gentle massage. Through the interaction with the caregiver, the baby will be encouraged to be active in clothing herself or himself; for example, by learning to lift its own bottom for diapering or pulling on its own socks when capable.
- Toilet training is paced according to the individual child, but generally begins around two years old. Parents and caregivers work out a compatible routine.
- Music and basic finger and foot games are a daily experience.
- Clear, articulate speech is expected of the caregivers who are also encouraged to speak frequently to the infants throughout the day. This is the time in the child's life when the development of speech capacities is at the forefront.
- Outdoor time is a daily experience except in the most inclement weather. A protected area is provided for crawlers and infants. Infants who fall asleep outside can remain outside, snuggly wrapped and covered in a buggy, until time to go in. Fresh air provides a deep, more restful sleep.
THE CHILD CARE CURRICULUM
- An emphasis on practical life skills such as children once experienced in a home environment is offered, including building, gardening, cleaning, cooking, washing, repairing, and sewing, among other things. Along with vigorous, healthy play and sensory stimulation, these are the kinds of things that provide the nerve activity needed for higher learning-language development, dexterity, math skills, social skills, and creative thinking-skills that are in very high demand today. According to an article on brain development in a special edition of Newsweek, " . .short of being raised in isolation, a baby will encounter enough stimulation in most households to do the trick - anything from banging pots and pans together to speaking to a sibling. The key phrase here is 'properly stimulated, which is not the same as expensively stimulated or the worse fate, over stimulated" (Rosenberg and Reibstein, Newsweek, Spring/Summer 1997).
- A variety of experiential and sensorial opportunities are offered through creative play, household tasks, food preparation, nature exploration, water play, stories, puppetry, artistic expression, drama, music, foreign language (when available), and movement according to age appropriateness.
- The movement/play portion of the curriculum is a planned and structured component of the early childhood program. It emphasizes child-initiated activities that allow and promote healthy musculoskeletal development by providing opportunities for unstructured, spontaneous movement in a protected environment. Traditional games and finger-plays are also an important part of the movement curriculum as they provide opportunities for the children to imitate healthy movement, develop proprioception and increase both their small and large motor skills.
- Expanded outdoor exploration - Children need more than the "playground" experience. They need "wild places" as so aptly described in the book The Geography of Childhood by Nabhan and Trimble. Building forts, climbing trees and going on nature walks are valued experiences at LifeWays. The children go outside in all but the most inclement weather in order to help them become more robust and strengthen their bond with the environment in which they live. Plants, gardening, and animal life are part of the outdoor experience wherever possible.
- Pre-academic skills - The foundation for reading, math and sciences is found in practical life activity and the play of the children, which mimics it. "Studies show that four-, five-, and six-year-olds in heavily 'academic' classes tend to become less creative and more anxious-without gaining significant advantages over their peers. Youngsters in well-structured 'play'-oriented schools develop more positive attitudes toward learning along with better ultimate skill development" (Jane Healy, Ph.D., Your Child's Growing Mind).
Professor Barry Sanders defines "orality" as the rich use of language conveyed through the nursery rhymes, songs, finger plays and circle games that have informed infancy and early childhood life throughout all time. Such a foundation of rich oral language not only helps to assure successful reading, but also helps a child's ability to develop a sense of self as an antidote to later violent behavior (A is for Ox: Violence, Electronic Media and the Silencing of the Written Word).
As children enter the final phase of early childhood, their natural interest in numbers and letters often arises spontaneously, at which time their caregivers encourage their interest and enthusiasm without direct instruction. LifeWays recognizes childhood as a valid and authentic time unto itself and not just a preparation for schooling.
- Foundation for lifelong literacy is fostered through storytelling and puppetry, individual lap time with a book, through poetry, verse, and music on a daily basis, through drama, and through the daily interactions of play and movement in a healthy, secure environment.
- Consistent daily/weekly rhythm - A weekly routine is established according to the types of activities taking place (e.g., baking on Tuesday, cleaning on Friday, etc.). The daily rhythm has a balance between very active and quieter activities. Outdoor time is a central focus of every day. Meal times and rest times are the same each day. Consistency, predictability and routine contribute to the child's healthy development, as well as to a sense of security.
- Sleep environments will be set up so that each child's sleep space feels cozy and snug and as "bed-like" as possible. After lunch, clean-up, brushing teeth and washing faces with warm, soft cloths, children will have a quiet story, perhaps a gentle backrub, and a few minutes of quiet singing or music on a kinderharp or quiet instrument. Most children will sleep at least one hour. As they awaken, they each brush their hair and then may play quietly until their suitemates are awake and ready for snack and going outside.
- An emphasis on human relationships - "Emotional learning comes first, and it happens through interactions. Curriculum comes after you have the warm, encouraging relationships. It's less effective without them." - (Dr. T. Berry Brazelton). Emphasis is on loving human interaction with warm speech, live singing, verses, and stories rather than technology. LifeWays Centers are television- and video-free environments except for use in administration and in youth and adult education/entertainment. Recent research out of the University of Chicago reports that only "live" language produces vocabulary- and syntax-boosting effects. "Language has to be used in relation to ongoing events, or it's just noise. Information embedded in an emotional context seems to stimulate neural circuitry more powerfully than information alone." Additionally, the American Academy of Pediatrics has put out an official warning that young children should not watch television.
- Nutritional natural foods program - According to the Children's Defense Fund's 1998 Yearbook The State of America's Children, "myriad studies have shown that children who are afflicted with even mild forms of undernutrition suffer adverse health and learning effects." These are associated with "impaired cognitive development, fatigue, trouble concentrating in school, and stunted growth." Our food program strives to provide the best in natural organic foods and involves the children in the food preparation.
- Ongoing festivals and celebrations, honoring the various cultural backgrounds of the families, as well as traditional seasonal festivals, are offered.
- Gardening - The children are involved in planting, tending and harvesting, and youth and/or older adults are encouraged to help whenever possible.
- Pre-School/Kindergarten program - Activities for the older child are drawn from practical skills, handwork, arts, music, recitation, speech and language development, pre-science and pre-mathematical skills and nature exploration. The richness of this developmentally-appropriate, play-based approach has been demonstrated in Waldorf preschools and kindergartens throughout the world.
- Multi-generational opportunities - Programs involve volunteer senior adults in the lives of the children on a regular basis wherever possible. Their interaction with the children will vary. Some may sit and do handwork, tell stories or share a special talent. Others may help to establish the gardens, give music lessons, or do woodworking projects.
- Foreign language - Whenever possible, community friends who speak a native language other than English are invited to come on a regular basis to play simple games or sing simple songs with the children.
SUPPORT FOR THE FAMILY
- Parents and LifeWays caregivers are partners in trying to provide what is best for each child. The caregiver can be instrumental in helping parents to recognize the developmental needs of the child and how to practice domestic and nurturing arts, while also learning from and respecting the parents' insights into the specific needs of their child. An initial or annual visit to a child's home can provide valuable insights into each child's unique needs and forge invaluable links between home and the care provider.
- Parent education is an integral part of the LifeWays approach, supporting mothers and fathers in their parenting. It occurs both formally and informally and should be sensitive to the diverse social, cultural and economic backgrounds of the families being served.
- LifeWays caregivers and programs are resources for parents and can help build community, bridging the isolation of so many parents today.
LIFEWAYS CHILD CARE TRAINING AND EMPLOYEE SUPPORT
- The LifeWays Child Care and Human Development Training is a specialized program developed specifically for this new approach to child care. Along with the study of child development from pre-birth to young adult, there is an emphasis on the training of the care providers' speech, voice and movement skills, handwork, and domestic arts, as well as social exercises dealing with cultural diversity, personal development and adult relationships. There is also a component on regulations and requirements for both in-home and center locations. Ongoing continuing-education programs enhance the initial training.
- In childcare centers, administration and child care providers work together in most of the decision-making processes. Each full-time provider has a fair amount of autonomy in the choice of daily activities and materials in his or her "suite" according to the principles and values learned in the training. Staff is also involved in decisions regarding wages, hiring/firing, yearly planning and program expansion.
- Worthy wages - In keeping with the profound responsibility of caring for young children and their families, every attempt will be made to establish a wage base that honors the responsibility and personal development that will be expected of the care providers and staff.