The Little Ones by Helle Heckmann
We live in a society today that does not invest in our children. Most parents do not have a choice of whether they stay at home with their children or go to work. This means young children need to be cared for by others, which results in parents needing to find a care situation they feel comfortable with when they leave their little ones. Not an easy choice for any parent!
When I had my first child 30 years ago, it was difficult to find a place where I could safely leave my child. People at the different child care facilities were very nice, but I was looking for teachers with an inner calmness and ability to meet my child on my child’s premises. I also wanted for the teachers to have knowledge, even spiritually, of what a human being is.
I found the pedagogy and spiritual insight I was looking for in Rudolf Steiner’s work, and I started at the Early Childhood teacher college in Copenhagen. After finishing my education I opened Nøkken Kindergarten 22 years ago. At that time we were the only Waldorf Early Childhood setting to receive children under three years old.
Since forming Nøkken, I have worked intensively with children. I am reminded daily of how essential it is for children to have enough of the simple, core needs of rhythm, sleep, freedom to move, good nutrition, imitation, the proper clothing and time to do things on their own terms.
Rhythm of the Day
Everyday chores and rhythms of the day can be the same though a child’s first seven years. As a child grows, and because it grows, it will get a more nuanced experience of its surroundings. Therefore, a one-year-old and a seven-year-old will look at everyday life very differently, even if they live in the exact same surroundings. They grow into life and notice how the world becomes larger and larger, but the world becomes larger in a recognizable way. It creates security for children to find out how life affects them if they can do it by themselves and in their own tempo. Children need to seize the world before they can understand it.
Working with children, particularly the little ones, you quickly realize how incredibly dependent they are on sleep. You can say that a good day depends on a good night’s sleep. If a child has not slept well, she will have a very hard time to have enough energy for the social life, she necessarily has to be part of, when she spends the day with other children. The kindergarten and the home must have a close working relationship in order to meet the child’s needs, particularly when “teaching” a child to sleep. It is essential that the child at home gets twelve hours of sleep every night, and for children under three years old, up to a couple of hours during the day as well. Rhythm of the day, both in kindergarten and at home, needs to be built up so that it supports the child’s need for sleep.
It is important for a young child to have opportunities to say “YES” to physical challenges. By being physical the child is stimulated in her curiosity and she can discover her surroundings. By exploring the body’s challenges and possibilities the child gets to know itself. From very early on it is important for children to have opportunities to go for long walks and become inspired by their natural surroundings and experience the changing seasons. It is essential to let children crawl, jump, dance, play with mud and so on. All these things help children to develop and give them a natural confidence. Movement helps children to test and know themselves better. This way a child can meet other children in inspiration, in play and in care for each other.
When children sleep and move they have a healthy appetite. A hungry child will eat what is served. It is the adult’s responsibility to know what is good for the child, and it is essential for a child to get nutrition with enough fuel so she has energy for the physical and social challenges she will meet all day long.
The ground rules are basic and support each other mutually: live a rhythmical life with the child, make sure she gets a good night’s sleep and enough movement, has a proper diet and, of course, make sure the child is dressed properly so she does not need to use unnecessary energy to warm her body, but can use her energy to observe and imitate the world.
Having a mixed age group, from one to seven years old, is important because children of different ages learn from each other. Small children can observe the older children and in this way get inspired to come into the universe of playing. The older children get to know themselves better and they see how capable they are when they measure themselves against the younger ones. If children are also surrounded by adults who truly grasp life in daily work, the children have a model worth imitating, one who inspires and guides them in how to meet the world.
How long can a child be separated from its parents?
How many hours can a child bear to be away from home? How many hours can a mother or father really bear to be away from their child without losing sense of their child and without losing a sense of the child being their responsibility?
I have a clear picture of children needing other children. They are very interested in being with each other, but not for 8-10 hours a day. My experience shows that 6 hours a day is more than enough. Then the child comes with a smile and leaves with a smile.
Kindergarten replacing families
Is it really clear how kindergartens replace families and in reality become the children’s base? At home many children are an only child, have a big gap between siblings, or live in a household of children brought together from previous relationships, children the child maybe did grow up with.
These family constellations are often very different from the image of a traditional, old-fashioned family. An entire childhood used to be with the same mother, father and children. Even this type of family is today individually so busy, that home is often only a meeting point before going out again. This means the child uses many resources to relate to what happens at home. “What is happening right now?” “Who is here?” “Where am I going?” Because of this I find it is important for children to come to early childhood settings and kindergartens. Here it is possible to create a day that is recognizable and rhythmical. The children will find the same group of children and hopefully also the same adults. When children step into kindergarten, they should feel like they are stepping into an old-fashioned home, where everything is as it has always been. In kindergarten the children will have peace to grow and understand their surroundings in a setting created for the children and without stress.
Childhood is a question of time
Childhood is a question of time, a lot of time! It takes a long time to become a human being, and time is what children needs today, maybe more than ever. It is very difficult today to get the necessary peace it takes for a child to grow. Childhood is a unique time and the foundation for the rest of life. Early childhood is where the seed to everything precious is planted. This time never comes back, and mistakes made in childhood take a lifetime to repair.
If parents invest as much time in everyday life with their children as they really demand, the parents also invest in a future where children are healthy and able to take care of themselves when they grow up. When children are young, it may seem as if childhood will go on forever for the parents, but later, the years with young children seems to have gone by very quickly. A good investment in fulfilling the basic needs in early childhood gives fruit to harvest later because a mutual respect and trust has been established, something to build on for the rest of life.
Helle Heckmann is a Waldorf kindergarten teacher in Denmark. Books and a dvd about her work at Nokken near Copenhagen are available from WECAN. Helle is also offering courses and workshops worldwide and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
During the International Association meeting in Jaerna, Sweden in May 2011, Janni Nicol spoke with Helle. Janni prepared this article and published it in Kindling: The Journal for Steiner Waldorf Early Childhood Care and Education (UK) Autumn/Winter 2011. Janni is the editor of Kindling and it is reproduced here with her kind permission. To subscribe to Kindling, email email@example.com.