Neurologic Development: Opportunity, Experiences and Encouragement

 

Dear Friends,

This week a wonderful article written by Susan Johnson, MD has been circulating around one of the Waldorf homeschooling Yahoo!Groups:  http://youandyourchildshealth.org/youandyourchildshealth/articles/tv%20article.html

This article is called, “Strangers In Our Homes” and is about media and its relationship to the neurological development of the brain.  However, when I read this article for the second, third and fourth time, what I garnered was this: a profound interest in how what we do in Waldorf Education, within learning, affects the neurologic development of the child.  And, most importantly, how does this fit in at HOME where we are NOT re-creating Waldorf Schools within our living room? 

This part of the article was most interesting to me:

It is important to realize that a six-year-old’s brain is 2/3 the size of an adult’s though it has 5–7 times more connections between neurons than does the brain of an 18-month-old or an adult (Pearce 1992). The brain of a 6–7 year old child appears to have a tremendous capacity for making thousands and thousands of dendrite connections among neurons.

This potential for development ends around age 10–11 when the child loses 80 percent of this dendritic mass (Pearce 1992, Buzzell 1998). It appears that what we don’t develop or use, we lose as a capacity. An enzyme is released within the brain and literally dissolves all poorly myelinated pathways (Pearce 1992, Buzzell 1998).

So, if in the Early Years are job is one of protection, rhythm, and routine, and community so our children feel loved and accepted and that they belong,  I strongly believe our job in the early grades becomes one of  providing opportunity, experiences, and encouragement.  I argue in this back post that experiences form the basis of what happens in the upper grades of Waldorf homeschooling, and whilst this is not completely incongruent with “what a child wants to learn”, part of Waldorf homeschooling is accepting that you are a teacher and it is okay to introduce things that your child will need as a foundation for what comes later on:

http://theparentingpassageway.com/2010/01/20/unschooling-and-waldorf-the-student-teacher-relationship-in-the-grades/

 

Some children are more self-initiated than others, especially in areas of challenges.  We all tend to want to work in the areas where we are comfortable, yet most of us will admit that we have grown the most out of the areas we are most uncomfortable. 

So, we must ask ourselves:

Where are we in our inner work and MOVING FORWARD?  We cannot just wallow in the feeling life of what is going on with our children, our spouses, ourselves – how do we move this to ACTION to move forward?

And, most importantly, where are our children:

Physically?  Here is a list of Grade Three physical milestone from one of my favorite websites:  http://www.movementforchildhood.com/standards.pdfOpportunity for physical movement, for HOURS each day, is the most important key toward increasing and developing movement. If it is a priority for the family, it will be a priority in the life of the child.  Physical movement is the basis of learning.  One cannot develop further skills without a sense of the body.

Fine Motor Skills?  This is an article written by an OT that points out fine motor skills and some activities to strengthen the shoulder girdle and hand:  http://www.connectionsmag.co.il/articlenav.php?id=1170

From a Waldorf perspective, no creature on earth has hands with the potential that the human being does. Our helping hands are what can create beautiful music and art and writing and serve humanity.  Here is a wonderful article by Ingun Schneider, a physical therapist who is now head of the Remedial Education program at Rudolf Steiner College, about “Supporting the Development of The Hand”:  http://www.waldorflibrary.org/images/stories/journal_articles/GW4102.pdf.  She,  in part, writes:

After four years of age most children can hold the stick crayon or pencil through thumb opposition to the index and long fingers with the ring and small fingers in flexion beginning to stabilize the hand. As the ring and little fingers take up the role of stabilizing the hand against the drawing or writing surface, a subtle ‘arch’ of the hand develops longitudinally from the wrist to the space between the base of the ring and long fingers. (Like the feet, the hand has two arches—a transverse and a longitudinal—which create a cross.) Gradually, small movements at the metacarpophalangeal and interphalangeal joints begin to control the movements of the crayon or pencil. The shoulder, elbow, forearm, and wrist act as stabilizing joints, along with the core muscles of abdomen and back, giving support and a firm foundation from which the finer movements of the hand and fingers can operate.
By the time the child is five to six years old, his or her hand development has matured to the point where he or she now can eat and draw with a mature, ‘adult’ grasp. When writing, the mature hand rests on its side, stabilized by the little and ring fingers. The stick crayon or pencil is grasped in a relaxed, graceful manner with the ends of the curved thumb and index finger across from each other on top of the crayon, supported by the side of the long finger’s distal phalange underneath the crayon.

 

Part of supporting the fine motor development is to develop the upper body and shoulder girdle but also to provide OPPORTUNITY to practice fine motor skills.  Is there a craft corner, do you model cutting paper with scissors and cutting pieces of salt dough snakes, do you draw? Part of this is putting it in the rhythm for your household. 

 

More about speech and the emotional and spiritual life of the child in our next post.

Blessings on your week as you get back into your rhythm,

Carrie

Attachment And Individualization

I think as homeschooling families, one of our  main goals is always the connection of the family and how we stay attached to each other in a society that sometimes doesn’t seem to value that at all.  Some of the homeschooling families who read my blog, many of them, are also what has been termed and made popular in the common literature by Dr. Sears as “attachment parents.”

But what I want to talk about today is the development of the independence of the child  within the context of attachment.  I don’t think attachment and becoming more of an individual, more independent and more capable are mutually exclusive at all – we can still be attached but have separate psychological identities.  In fact, I would argue,  in order to become an adult that has a meaningful role within their own family and and as a citizen of the world, this has to happen.  We have all heard the jokes or seen instances of people whose adult lives were totally enmeshed with their parents.  It is funny for a television show, but not so funny in real life.  Enmeshment prohibits a child and an adult from reaching the fullness and freedom of who they are.

I think healthy attachment starts not only with connection, lots of connection and including but not being limited to extended breastfeeding and co-sleeping, but with loving authority and boundaries.  I think if you have read this blog for any length of time I have made that abundantly clear.  I think I have also talked a fair bit about boundaries.  Boundaries, in its essence, is not just how “strict or loose” your parenting style is; it is about how you GUIDE your child to HEALTH as a growing, developing SEPARATE individual.  It is also about creating balance, and creating opportunity for right growth, especially for those children where self-growth and self-development are not initiated.

Separation, to me, starts around the child is age three and says “I” for the first time.  That is the beginning, the spark of recognition that “I am myself.”  I may not know or understand all that means yet, but I am me.  Bernard Lievegoed, author of “Phases of Childhood,” marks this as a stage of self-awareness.  This can also be a phase of negativity from the child; by pushing against the outside world the child begins to develop the self.

It continues with the six/seven year old change.  Some parents write me and say, “My child went through the six/seven year old change.  They slammed doors, said they hated me, said that I was not the boss of them.  Then they were done.”

Okay, but let me put this out to you:  the six/seven year old change, to me, is not just about “you’re not the boss of me.”   It is about finding a psychological identity that is separate from parents – that they have a role in the family or at school, they know what that treasured and valued role is, and that they do  feel accepted and loved but also a bit “separate”, a bit ready to take a view on something…there is a shift toward the child having real opinions about the world, that may be different than the parent’s view, and that in this view that the child has a continuous self and therefore can participate in learning.   At this stage, children in the six/seven year change usually  also are interested in having friends, being a friend, in having community outside of their family.  I think many times this is neglected and not mentioned in Waldorf Educational literature, because the assumption is the child is at the school in community.  I think this is an important point for homeschooling families when looking at the development of their child.  To me, turning outward toward community and peers and not just within the family, is a hallmark of the six/seven change.

This process can take up to a year and a half, I think especially for sensitive children who haven’t had a lot of opportunity to be around  other children, or just children who develop a little bit slower.  They may not be as interested in peers until the nine –year change, but then I have personally observed that that change may be a much more difficult one than the six/seven year change.

I think one way we can gauge where are children are in the six/seven change is to look at their play(see the many, many back posts on play on this site about how play changes during the six/seven year old change), and to  look at their drawings of human beings, a house and a tree.  Here is an interesting, brief look at drawings made by two thousand German five and six year olds prior to school entrance, comparing drawings made by those who did and didn’t watch media, those who did and did inhale passive cigarette smoke, and those with psychological disturbances:  http://www.waldorflibrary.org/images/stories/articles/RB13_2rittelmeyer.pdf  There are whole books on working with children’s drawings in Waldorf Education; you can check Rudolf Steiner College Bookstore or Bob and Nancy’s Bookshop for those titles.

For the nine/ten year old going through this change feels utterly and sometimes desperately alone, apart from humanity, out of the Garden of secure family.  They have an experience of self and it is a tragedy; there is no shelter of the family or of being with friends. Therefore, I believe firmly that children who do not have a strong sense of community and belonging built up through early childhood through family, extended family and strong friendships can have an even more fragile nine year change.  Boundaries and loving authority can also make this change better, along with loving connection.  The child is becoming an individual.

From the viewpoint of Waldorf Education, three things are traditionally seen as helping a child become an individual:  childhood diseases, what author Edmond Schoorel in his book “The First Seven Years: Physiology of Childhood” calls “naughtiness” (which made me chuckle!), curiosity, and we develop memory.  One that Schoorel mentions briefly, and that Bernard Lievegoed discusses further is that of the force of antipathy.  “Very often there is the tendency to concentrate only on positive feelings.  This is impossible.  It destroys  the drama, the basic law of feeling.  Any attempt to present only positive feeling results in superficial sentiment.  Feelings are brought forth from contrast and the nature of their polarity…It is not a matter of guarding children  from negative feelings or denying them as such, it is a matter of presenting the feelings as opposites in the correct way.” (Lievegoed, page 170).

I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but I do want to leave you with a few teasing comments by Edmond Schoorel:

  • “Children do not need to understand everything; it is even better when they don’t..It is essential for children to have the opportunity to ask questions; yet they do not need answers on the level of their understanding.  Mysteries are interesting because we do not have an answer.”  (page 260)
  • “When children have too little curiosity, we face the question:  can we stimulate curiosity?  I think that we can do this only in an indirect way.  When weakness has to do with the child’s constitution, we may have to work with movement development.” (page 248)
  • “Naughtiness can be a first exercise in waking up.  With naughtiness, the child turns away from the order of which he or she was a part.  It is a first step toward freedom and individuality.”  (page 246)

And this process of connection to others, and connection to ourselves,  continues as we grow and change throughout our lives. And sometimes we realize, yes, our circumstances and such may have been specific to us, but the tumult of different ages was by no means unique but being part of the human race.

Many blessings,

Carrie

A Plough Monday Reflection: Gathering A Rhythm That Works For You

 

It is that time of year – almost time or completely time for back to school after a long winter break  for most parents and school-aged children. Whether you have children under the age of seven, children that you are homeschooling, or children attending school outside of the home, a good rhythm provides a beautiful anchor for your year of wonder, learning and love as a family.

 

Rhythm is what anchors us as human beings into the cosmos.  Our bodies are attuned to this rhythm if only we don’t dull our feelings and forget the seasonal ebb and tide that we too participate in, even if only at an unconscious level. 

 

I propose that you start this year with some quiet meditation and prayer as to what is really working in your family, and what is not working.  How can you garner a rhythm that works for you?  Do you need to cut back on outside activities?  If you are a working single parent, how would simplifying your schedule look for you?

 

I would love to see you start with YOU.  If you, as the mother and in conjunction with your partner or spouse, can set a rhythm for you  and the adults in your family, then you can slowly help your children come into rhythm.

 

Here are some areas to look at:

  • What time are you going to bed?  Are you getting enough sleep?
  • Are you up before your children, even if it is just by a few minutes?  If not, what is your plan in order to keep everyone happy whilst you fix breakfast, get dressed, get organized for the day?  Can you do any of it at night?
  • What do you do for yourself and how often?  When do you find time to pray and meditate?  Exercise?  Are there things you do for yourself on a daily basis that are just for you?
  • When do you have fun with your children and your family?  Daily, weekly?   When do you get to spend time with your children and just BE with them and enjoy them?
  • What nourishing images and beauty do you have in your home? 

 

I have always advised starting with the basics of sleeping and meal times. Then you can add in nurturing care of your home.  Some mothers who really need an intensive start up beginning to a new rhythm will enlist family or friend help in order to really get their home in as much order as possible and then work with a chore and menu system to maintain their space and time.

 

Then, please do look at what your family members are doing to help nurture your home.  A basic tenant of Waldorf parenting and homeschooling is that all family members can contribute to work in the home.  What are your children doing to help take care of your home?  Smaller children under the age of six weave in and out of work, but those six and up can and should certainly have responsibilities.

 

Lastly, I think it is important to evaluate your rhythm based upon the season.  Right now, in the United States, we are experiencing winter.  Winter requires a different pace than other seasons.  Winter requires a look at sleep; the sun is setting earlier and also rising later.  How do your sleep patterns take this into account?  What about food: warming foods and even spicier foods have been traditional for winter, along with herbs that support the immune system.  Warmth for the body is very important; we look at having up to three layers on top and two on the bottom.  I think winter can also be an important time to replenish oneself, to slow down, to reevaluate.  What does this look like for you?

 

I can’t wait to hear how all of you are doing after these holiday weeks.

Many blessings,
Carrie

The Light Of Epiphany

 

Christmastide is coming to a close; the beautiful and sacred twelve holy days and nights are ending in this glorious Twelfth Night.  I hope you have beautiful plans for tomorrow!

 

Some of my dear friends and I gathered to make these sweet stars:

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You can find instructions for these stars and other Epiphany crafts, including a recipe for a Twelfth Night cake, here at Little Acorn Learning:   http://littleacornlearning.com/threekingsthemebook.html

 

In the book, “All Year Round”, the authors write, “The star that the Wise Men followed led not away into the widths of the heavenly worlds but to a house, an earthly dwelling, and an inevitable part of their journey was their encounter with evil in the person of Herod.  We, too, may be following a star, seeking the abode of our highest aspirations.  This is always to be found on the earth – set firmly in the ground of daily life, earthly tasks and responsibilities.  On the way, we meet unforeseen difficulties, disappointments, even dangers, which may force us to change direction.  But on all this the star shines:  on the success and the failure, on the good and the evil, and in the clear light of its rays we are guided ever forward.”

 

May you all have a blessed day, and here is to finding your path this year in 2013. 

Carrie

Your Holiday Questions Answered!

 

Dear Friends,

We are still in the midst of the twelve days of Christmas; our Christmas tree is still up, gifts are still being exchanged as we do a smattering of small things at different points during the twelve holy nights; and since today is New Year’s Day I have a big pot of Hoppin’ John simmering away on the stove like any good Southerner.  Happy 2013 to all of you; may you all have many blessings this year!  May this be a year of grace, courage and steadiness for you!

 

I have heard from so many of you via email asking questions about holiday traditions and also about what to do with family who has different ideas regarding the holiday traditions and parenting.

 

Traditions are a wonderful thing and can be layered in over time as your children grow.  Instead of looking for the external things outside the home (outside of a place of worship that is important to you during the holiday season!), look at how you can build things within your own family, your own home and within your own neighborhood.  I think there are many posts on this blog regarding how to celebrate Advent, St. Nicholas Day, Santa Lucia, the twelve holy nights and Christmastide and Epiphany.  I am Christian, and therefore, I don’t feel qualified to write about the holidays from any other perspective,  but there are certainly many blogs out there who do write about such matters, so I always encourage my readers to search out and use what resonates and works for them as a family.  You are the expert on your own family!  Have that courage and confidence to create your own family culture, your own traditions and don’t worry if it doesn’t look like anyone else’s!  I enjoyed Melisa Nielsen’s post on this very topic here:  http://waldorfessentials.com/blog/2012/12/traditions-my-own-inner-christmas/

 

As you work toward creating this, please do be sure to include acts of service for neighbors and including those in your community who are alone.  That is such a lovely things for this time of year. 

 

We can also plan how to adjust things, how to layer traditions in for the future celebrations.  Several days ago, I sat down with a December 2013 calendar and penciled in a few things based upon how I was feeling when Christmas Day was completed.  I penciled in the things we always do that are outside of the home, reminded myself of what day I wanted to start telling stories about St. Nicholas and Santa Lucia, reminded myself that I have the control to “X” out whole days to be home during the holidays—and I put it all on the calendar.  This calendar, done so many months out and away from next Christmas, won’t be a finality, but it will give me somewhere to start in planning whilst my mind is still in that holiday place.

 

I am also making a concerted effort to try to do some crafting with friends a few times within the next weeks and to make things that are holiday oriented that I wish I had had time to make this year!  I wanted to make a felt portraiture of Santa Lucia (how long that has been on my list!), so I could display it during Advent as we walk with the Saints.  I wanted to make some things for Epiphany as well.  This is also a good time of year to order things for next holiday season as far as décor whilst it is in your mind what you missed.

 

Now on to the other oft-asked question:  extended family.  I know it is not really what folks want to hear when they write in, but to me this is such an individual thing.  I don’t know your history, your family dynamics and what really goes on  when I read such small snippets of emails.  It makes me really reluctant to advise anything!

 

If your family is completely dysfunctional and there is nothing healthy or of redeeming value, then I suggest you work with a family counselor to determine the best course of action for the holidays.  It may be that your extended family is that toxic, the relationships cannot be saved, and that it is for the best for separation.  That pains me to say it, but I have known families where this is truth.

 

If your family is far away and traveling is involved, I suggest families look at several things:  where it is best to stay, to  think and strategize  how to keep their children on a semi- rhythm and with some of the familiar foods they normally eat, and to scout out areas of outside play or outside attractions for burning off energy.

 

Many issues come up around media and extended family on Waldorf lists.  I have even seen concerned parties advising others to not bring children to visit grandparents because television is always on in discourse on this list.  I have to say I disagree.  Most of my immediate family have passed away, and I honestly would be pleased to have my children spend any time with my mother, even if it was watching golf on TV.  I am being truly honest here.  However, I do think it is okay to advocate for your child and to help grandparents know what would be appealing.   If grandparents are open, you may be able to initiate a conversation about having Grandma and Grandpa tell stories about when they were little, you may be able to ask them to bake holiday cookies with your children or any other number of things.  And yes, of course, one can take the initiative and ask that the TV be turned off in a polite way.  “It is hard for me to hear you over the TV and I really would love to talk to you since we don’t see each other that often.”  “I would love for us to tell stories about when you were young, Grandma and Grandpa…Do you think we could turn the TV off so little Jack is not distracted?”  I think just being friendly, open and loving can often go a long ways in navigating  the media department.

 

The other thing that frequently comes up is expectations.  Perhaps your  own parents came from a “children should be seen and not heard” mentality and find the noise and high emotions challenging.  I  do often think grandparents have truly forgotten what it is like to live with tiny children under the age of 9 if their own children have been off and gone for a number of years.  My husband and I often remark that he was going off to college when his parents were the ages we are now, (and here we are with children from ages 11 down to 3!).  At any rate, if grandparents have been living without children for a long time, it can be difficult to adjust to that level of noise and happy chaos again!  So expectations on the part of family can change from the beginning of your trip to the end of your trip.  I think that is something to keep in mind when you arrive and are feeling tense over every bout of sibling fighting or tears.

 

I think all you can do is try to relax, and breathe. It is not going to go perfectly. And it doesn’t have to! I think mothers often put way too much pressure on themselves  to make sure they present themselves and their children as “perfect.”.  Sometimes being authentic and real is even better. 

 

And not all expectations are bad.  Sometimes being with extended family does allow us to see our children through different lenses, and to realize we are doing many things right;  that our children can adapt to different family cultures and that their manners are decent.  Sometimes it makes us realize the areas where we have let things slide in our own homes or helps us realize we need to talk to our children about what makes other family members comfortable too.  It is not all about our own child, it is also about the whole extended family unit, which involves compromise.  I don’t think this should be a source of guilt, or shame, or sadness, but  just a piece of learning about how we can help our children fit into our family for next year.  “Aunt Mildred really likes it when you take the time to talk to her,” you can say to your eleven-year-old. 

 

The December holidays are a short period; usually these family gatherings only take several days to a week.  Some families have also found it to be less stressful and more fun to visit extended family sometime before or after a main holiday.  I would not be afraid to change around traveling plans for what works for your family, without feeling of obligation of “this is how we have always done it.”

 

If family is coming to visit you and stay in your home, I think it is okay to have a conversation about how excited you are that they are coming, but also to set some basic rules down for everyone’s comfort.  After all, if family only comes a certain amount of time each year, they may not realize that you really honestly don’t watch a lot of media, or that your children really do go to bed early. 

 

If your family is coming to your home and you feel tense, I think it is worthy to ask yourself if this is due to the usual hustle and bustle kinds of things, or is it due to the dynamics between you and family members?  I guess all you can do if it is family dynamics, is to observe yourself, watch yourself and look at what you can do to promote peace in your own home.  You are the only one that you have control over. 

 

Much love in this New Year, and many blessings,
Carrie