Nokken: A Review of Two Books and A Few Thoughts

(Post updated 6/28/2012)  Nokken has come up on almost every Waldorf Yahoo!Group and Waldorf forum I am on, so I thought it was about time to address the work of Helle Heckmann.  More and more, Nokken is being held up as an example within the Waldorf community of what to do right within child care for young children, and as an example of the value of outdoor play and outdoor time and connection with nature for young children.  For this post, I read both “Nokken:  A Garden for Children” by Helle Heckmann and “Nokken:  A Garden for Kids September 2003 Celebration Edition.”  I hear there is also a lovely video about Nokken that I have not yet seen.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Nokken, Nokken is a Danish approach to  Waldorf-based childcare in Copenhagen, Denmark.  The minimum age for children to enter is walking age.  Helle Heckmann writes, “The child must be able to walk away from her mother and into the world on her own,” on page 26 of “Nokken:  A Garden For Children.”  The center is open for six hours a day only, from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.  “Our idea is that we share with the parents,” writes Helle Heckmann on the same page.  “We look after the children for six hours, the parents have them for six waking hours and the children sleep for twelve hours.  In other words, the family will still exert influence on the child’s development.”  The staff at the center does not change during the day, unlike child care centers in the United States that are open for long hours that necessitate shift changes.  The children are together in one group from walking age to age 7, and sibling groups are welcomed and kept together, which is again different from the vast majority of child care centers in the United States.  Most Americans would agree this is a huge and vast improvement over the majority of daycare centers in the United States.

Helle  Heckmann writes on page 27 of Nokken,”  It is obviously difficult.  Parents often need longer opening hours, while at the same time they want the world’s best early-childhood program with a motivated and relaxed staff.  This is a difficult task, and knowing that we cannot accommodate all needs, we have chosen to favor the children.  It is a conscious choice we have made as a child-care center. Most of our parents also have to make a choice.  They change jobs, reduce their working hours, or work flexible hours:  the solutions are many and varied as they consciously choose to spend a lot of time with their children.”

She goes on to write that the role of child care has changed; in the past it was for primarily for social stimulation and now,  “The centers must teach children the basics to help them achieve the necessary skills to choose their life style at a later stage.  The parents’ role is mainly to stimulate and organize activities of a social and/or cultural interest.”


Okay, I guess since I am home with my children, perhaps I have a different perspective on this as a homeschooling mother.  Why as a society do we throw up our hands and say, this is the way it is?  People have to work, people have chaotic home lives, so the children are better off in child care than with their own families?  Why are we not coming up with more ways to support and develop parents?  Why in this age of abundant information (yet, often contradictory and just plain wrong information!) are parents feeling so confused and isolated as to what children truly need?  Why is there not more understanding of children as children and childhood development and such as opposed to treating children as miniature adults?

Back to the things that are good about Nokken.  On page 31 Helle Heckmann writes, “Our first priority is to spend most of the day outdoors.  We spend five out of the six hours we are together outdoors.”  The children and staff walk daily to a park with open natural spaces and also have a garden with many fruit trees, berry bushes, sand pits, a hen house, rabbit cages, a pigeon house, a vegetable garden, a herb garden, flower beds and a laundry area.  The children who are younger and need to nap sleep  outside in an open shed, which is common in Denmark.

Children are met in the morning with a handshake, which I find uncommon for Early Year Waldorf programs in the United States.  This seems very awakening for the child, and something I truly only hear of teachers of Waldorf Grades doing with their students in the United States.  Perhaps my Danish readers can tell me if this is a cultural difference?  My husband’s family is from Denmark but have not lived there for a long time, so I have no one to ask!

The daily schedule is something that is lovely and takes into account the ages of the children.  On page 60 of Nokken, Helle Heckmann writes, “We are careful not to let the youngest children participate in story-telling.  If it is a long story, the three year olds sit in another room and draw, because in my experience it is important not to engage them in activities for which they are not ready.”  She also talks about how festival celebrations are mainly for children over 3 as well.  I love this.

The part I have the most difficulty with however, outside of the few things I mentioned above, is the perspective of child development based upon the work of Emmi Pickler and Magda Gerber and their Resources for Infant Educarers.  I realize this puts me outside of most in the Waldorf community, which has embraced RIE.

I liked Helle’s description of the need of the infant to cry as a form of communication.  However, much of the thrust of her perspective of infant care seems to be “to leave the infant in peace and quiet to sleep or, when awake, to get to know herself without constant intervention from her surroundings.  Often it is difficult to show this infant respect and leave her alone. Constantly satisfying your own need for reassurance and your need to look at your beautiful baby will often influence the infant’s ability to be content with herself….By giving the infant peace and quiet for the first months of her life, she will get used to her physical life; the crying will gradually stop, and the baby may start to sleep during the night without waking up at all hours.”

As an attached parent, I believe I can respect my child and still enfold her within my protective gesture and be physically close.  I believe I can still carry her in a sling and nurse her and  have her act as a (passive) witness to my life without overly stimulating her.  I believe in our particular culture at this particular time, parents need reassurance to enfold their child within themselves and their family unit, not to separate their children in their infancy to be independent.  Perhaps this is a cultural difference than Denmark, I don’t know.

However, I also have to say that I  do not believe baby-wearing is an excuse to take my children everywhere I went before I had children.  I believe in protecting the senses but doing this in an attached way.

I do agree with some of Helle Heckman’ s statements regarding infants, including her statement on page 17 of Nokken that, “The more restless the adults are, the more restless the children will be.”  However, statements such as “The less we disturb the infant, the better chance she has of adapting to her life on earth,” rather bothers me.  I agree in not initiating the disturbance of  the infant, but I fear too many parents will take this as license to just set their infant down and let them cry or to keep them passively in a crib.  I do  agree with Helle Heckmann’s assessment that it is difficult to care for children under walking age within a child care setting  because of the high needs of care and because infants need peaceful surroundings.

As a homeschooling mother, what I take away from Nokken is the lovely thoughts of a forest kindergarten, napping outside, using action to communicate with small children and not words (see page 32 of Nokken), using singing as a way of talking to small children (page 51), Helle’s constant inner work and development, her obvious love of the children.

And as a homeschooling mother and attached parent, I don’t like the whole notion that is invading Waldorf Education that children under the age of 4 or 4 and a half should be out of their homes, I don’t like the notion that the child care center, no matter how outdoorsy “shares” the child with the parents, and I don’t like the idea that parents are not as empowered as they could be in childhood development.  Why are we positioning anyone but the parents to be the experts on their children and acting as if someone else knows better?    Waldorf schools are also taking children earlier and earlier into Kindergarten, and I also have an issue with that.   I would like to see more effort to again, empower and inspire parents within the Waldorf movement to be home.   The hand shaking to greet a small child with such pronounced eye contact also baffles me.

There are many wonderful things at Nokken, and many American parents who need child care would be thrilled to find a center such as Nokken in their neighborhood.  Many mothers attempt to create such an environment as part of their homeschooling environment or take in children from outside their family for care so they may stay home with their own children.  These are all realities.

However, I would love to see a movement toward empowering and inspiring mothers to be homemakers, to be truly spiritual homemakers, to encourage families to make tough choices to be home with their children,  because I feel this is where the power of the next generation is truly going to disseminate from.



26 thoughts on “Nokken: A Review of Two Books and A Few Thoughts

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more. My step daughter(19) told her mother she wanted to be a homemaker and her idea was shot down that was just an excuse to be lazy. Some how the word “homemaker” needs to be respected in our society again. Great Post Carrie.


  2. I agree with you on most points here, Carrie- I find Nokken and RIE disturbing on many levels as well. I actually have some of the same problems with Waldorf at the grades level (that parents are auxillary to the important work of the teachers).

    I like to think of what I do at home as housewifery, along the same lines as something like, say, animal husbandry. Being a steward of my home, rather than what seems to be the culturally accepted concept of being what amounts to a housekeeper.

  3. Great blog, Carrie! This was my first visit and this was a great post. I love Helle Heckman’s book and used it as inspiration when I had my Waldorf home preschool, but you make some very good points. While it’s wonderful to create a developmentally appropriate child care option for parents who choose to work, it would be just as wonderful to use this insight to support parents who choose to care for their children at home.
    Oh, one thing, in some places I’ve seen the term “infant educarer” in reference to Magda Gerber’s RIE work. I like that one much better.

  4. The handshaking thing is definitely done here in Switzerland, too. So that is likely a cultural thing. Also, babies and small children are pushed much earlier toward independence in Europe generally. Good observations!

  5. RIE and pre-K care are two things that are certainly under discussion in the Waldorf world these days!

    I think there are many things about RIE that are wonderful: respect for the child, creating a safe play environment, and unobtrusive observation of the child. All of these mesh quite well with Waldorf early childhood concepts, I believe. The part about letting children figure out how to self-soothe and fall asleep on their own is a much harder sell, though. I think we can find a great balance between the poles of attachment parenting and this more hands-off model, finding what works for us in our culture.

    Pre-K care is part and parcel of our current economic and social system, unfortunately. I think to enact change to allow parents more time with their children would require major changes to all parts of our culture. Many people cannot live on one income — from overconsumption (current or paying off old debt) or not, it’s just a fact of life right now. Many people don’t live with or near close relatives any more, so they are missing that crucial support. I’m not sure many people can make “tough choices” at all.

    I have a lot of respect for initiatives like LifeWays or Nokken, which are trying to find ways to meet these families’ needs as close to the Waldorf “ideal” as possible. It’s not ideal, but it at least offers an alternative to traditional child care, which is painfully *not* Waldorf friendly at all.

  6. I can see that it would be disheartening to see that even within Waldorf education, which values the child being at home with his family, there is a trend towards out-of-home education at younger and younger ages. It is clearly a trend in all education – with pre-K starting up several years ago, and full-day kindergartens beginning before that, to Early Head Start programs… and more and more day care centers everywhere.

    I don’t know what the answer is, but I don’t think parents are all fully aware of how important it is that their children are with them in the early years. It also has become less popular for families to try to make it on one income. Whereas 60 years ago, a family would live on rice and beans in order to make it, nowadays that idea is foreign… all the extra luxuries seem like necessities with the massive technology explosion. I see evidence of this in many places… just one example, on a local Freecycle group recently, I saw somebody asking for a TV for their daughter’s bedroom, because the parent was out of work. Sixty years ago (and maybe even 20 years ago!), an extra TV for a child’s bedroom would be the last thing on the mind of an out-of-work parent!

    I have been pondering the cultural push for early and frequent separation of babies and mothers lately myself… I just blogged about it, in fact. People think it is weird that I don’t have my toddler in “school” and that my 4 year old only goes to a one day per week mothers morning out program…

    • Yes, the push toward early separation is disheartenting to say the least, from both a Waldorf and attachment perspective. In the US, I don’t believe there any states that have compulsory school attendance that is as low as 4, but people seem to feel it is expected. They are unfamiliar with the laws in their own state!

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  9. Thanks for the opportunity for discussion. My sense after having the opportunity to hear Helle speak and work with her a bit in our early childhood program is that in Denmark the economics are such that nearly 97% of both parents work outside the home. That she recognized there was a need for a day home for children and this is where she ‘shares’ in the work with the family. That in providing the opportunity for nurturing, loving care, along with time outside where most work indoors, children may never know otherwise what the rhythm and life of nature and the seasons are in their environment. The mother or families role is not displaced. It is simply recognizing the reality of the culture and offering support for what is needed. Childrens needs therefore are met and when parent comes to pick up she can feel empowered, supported and be able to spend quality time loving her child knowing she has been cared for, and mother has been able to work, express independence herself, without judgement or guilt. Under the circumstances it feels to be a win, win. The fact that the children remain within their day family unit for 7 years with a constant day mother (where else does this exist?) is a profound gift. It is the extended family, grandmother, aunt, cousins, that no longer exist. When Helle visited us, she explained that the work is about going into each community and responding to what the need is. For Denmark, this is what she felt was needed, but recognized that Hawaii, or Brazil, or US is altogether are different socio-economic organisms and the work of the educator is to respond to what that particular culture’s demographics are. In this way, it sounds as though for Denmark she has done well to engender the trust, and provide support for what the realities of the situation are- recognizing too that over 50% of parents split up in response to the stress of parenting, with little time for oneself, or one’s partner. She advocates 12 hours of sleep for children, both for the child, and for the couple to honor their time together and their relationship. She is providing something that families simply cannot provide for themselves in what I see as a loving partnership.

  10. I have taught RIE for many years and studied with Magda Gerber.
    The term Magda coined is “Educarer”.
    I was never taught and do not teach parents to let their babies cry alone and just let the baby figure it out, how is a baby supposed to figure out how to get food if they are hungry or get their nappy changed? etc..etc… But RIE is often misinterrupted in this way I think because we believe that young babies like to play and we create a safe and beautiful space for them to do this (inside and outside) at quite a young age and this does not mean that we do not hold our babies and are close with them..
    RIE is talking about letting a child play without interference in their PLAY, to work things out in their play, not about not going to a crying baby and trying to understand and care for their needs.
    RIE is more about how we approach a crying baby.. What we say, how we observe, and respect the infant even in the beautiful way we handle the baby when we pick them up so our hands are tender and respectful.
    I finally had a baby after teaching RIE for many years, what an amazing experience…and a whole other story….

  11. I am a working mother of two wonderful boys, and I have just met and attended a conference by Helle Heckman who visited the Kindergarten of our children in Mexico. I have also watched the video of Nokken. Her work is invaluable for all of us parents who need to work and still strive to provide the best for our children. I am grateful that Helle has opened a new path for Waldorf early childhood.

  12. Dear Carrie
    I was reseaching the net for things about the kindergarten Nøkken (Nokken in english) and I ended up on your blog. – interesting reading – especially the view points or the questions about the cutural differences (I am Danish – living in Luxembourg europe) and i always finds it interesting to look at the cultures from different perspectives. I can tell you, that most people here in Luxembourg thinks it´s very strange to let the children sleep outside, or even let the children play outside in most weather, most parent are afraid of even opening the windows even in the summer because of drafts. Another cultural difference from Luxembourg to Denmark is that here I even have trouble getting the parents to remember to bring shoes for the children! The child is often carried from the house (in slippers) to the car and from the car to the “creche” stil in slippers and so they forget the shoes – or even coats! NOT very much in harmony with our approach about spending time outside as they also do in nokken. I am working in a Pikler/RIE approached childcare institution, It is a kindergarten in many far far far from the goals of “stay at home mums” and Helle´s “six-hours-a-day-care”- by Danish standarts it is crazy work hours they keep here in Luxembourg the “creche” (french) as a kindergarten is called down here is open from 7.30 am to 19 pm (in Denmark standart is 6.30-17) – and some children spend ALL the day in the creche and as a suppliment has nannies at home… it is a different life style all together. We edurarers work often with broken work shifts hours (ex 8.30-18 with a 1 1/2 hour lunch break) to insure the continuity for the children with his/hers significant grown up “always” present (lunch hour is at nap time). But I agree it is far from a perfect solution. – in my seach I stumbled on a thesis written on the pikler/RIE approach and I thought you might find it educational – it illustrates very well what “we” (the Edurarers) understand with “leaving the children to explore on their own (not cry)” as a suppliment to Hari´s comment on may 24, 2010 🙂
    I hope you will enjoy the reading as much as I did.

    • Naja, I am so happy you are here! My husband’s family is Danish, so welcome! I love hearing your comments and stories about how things differ culturally, I find that aspect of parenting so fascinating. Glad to have you!
      Many blessings,

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  14. I am also an attached parent and stay-at-home mother. I agree with your point of view. In my opinion schools should support the parents not exclude them. We tried Montessori, I am looking into Waldorf and I think will settle on our own brand of Homeschooling with what fits for us.

  15. Hello. I see this blog post is quite old but since you linked to it just this week I thought I would comment. Several people have mentioned this already but I think it should be added to the main text of the post because not everybody reads the comments. The correct term is “Infant Educarers”, not “Infant Educators”. I guess it was mistranslated in the book you read. Magda Gerber is even famous for saying “Be careful what you teach. It might interfere with what they are learning.”

    I have a deep interest in Steiner education and have recently discovered RIE. I haven’t found any conflict between the two approaches because they both stem from the same chore principle: that of respect for the child. I encourage anybody with an interest to research a little about RIE since there is much to be learned from their theories. Let me add that I am very much an “attachment parent” and I still find little to disagree with, and lots to gain. A good starting place would be Janet Lansbury’s blog:

    Thank you very much for your blog, it is truly the best resource out there for anybody interested in Steiner education.

    • Hi Noscythes!
      Thank you so much, I updated this post this morning.
      Many blessings, so glad you are here with your perspective to add!

      Carrie 🙂

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  17. Loved this review, absolutely spot on for me too. I am both a parent who home educated and also now an educator in the early years. But the more I see of it the more I recognise that children who have loving parents will absolutely be better off at home. For the unfortunate children for whom life at home is not a loving or protected or child friendly place a setting may be preferable for them. But only if it is loving! This brings up the idea of ‘professional love’ which may be an oxymoron or taboo, but necessary for children to feel the higher level of care that comes out of love.

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