LifeWays North America is devoted to developing healthy childcare, parent-infant and parent-child programs, and training programs for caregivers, parents and parent educators. These activities are inspired by the works of Rudolf Steiner and the experience of Waldorf education and are supported by contemporary early childhood research as well as common sense and wisdom of many generations of parents. Here we take a moment to learn more about LifeWays with Executive Director, Cynthia Aldinger.
Tell us about the mission of LifeWays, and your background in education and research.
LifeWays’ mission is to reawaken simplicity and joy in caring for and living with children.
Prior to founding LifeWays, I was a Waldorf kindergarten teacher. I completed the full two-year teacher training at Emerson College in Great Britain and decided, rather than becoming a classroom teacher, I would focus on early childhood. Prior to my training I was a full-time mother for nine years which I believe offers the highest level of personal research into human development. Conscious parenting requires focus, intention, awareness, flexibility, creativity, openness to discovery, pedagogical humor, and a number of high-level skills in the realm of research and development!
Prior to parenting and teacher training, my university training had been in the College of Business at the University of Oklahoma. That came in handy years later when founding a school and later a national organization.
As a kindergarten teacher and founder of a Waldorf school in the mid-1980s, I found over time that children and families were experiencing more and more of a rushed and over-full lifestyle. When I went on sabbatical in 1995, I was asked by a friend and businessman in Great Britain what I was going to do about the state of child care in North America. At the time, I was simply planning to return to my school to continue teaching kindergarten. However, I took it upon myself to investigate what was happening in child care settings and was disheartened to discover how institutional the care had become and how little of the children’s daily experience revolved around practical, nurturing, healthy living.
What do you believe are the most important factors in developing healthy child/caregiver relationships?
It may sound trite, but honest unaffected love is foundational to a healthy relationship. By unaffected I mean not overly sentimental but sincere and full of interest in the child and the child’s family. Healthy children are typically resilient, but we do not want to pull too heavily on that resiliency in the realm of relationship. They need to feel secure in the love of the adults who care for them. Currently in institutional child care, children are typically moved from one set of caregivers to another with every developmental change – i.e. from the infant room to the toddler room to the preschool to the kindergarten. Additionally, the turnover rate is very high in this profession so that a young child in child care can easily have ten to fifteen or more caregivers by the time s/he is five. In LifeWays settings we strongly encourage having mixed-age groups so that children can stay with their caregivers for a minimum of two to three years. This also creates a much stronger family experience.
I use the term “interest” because it is interest that opens the caregiver up to the individuality of the child and the particular idiosyncrasies of the family. Without interest it is too easy to overlook something pertinent to that child and that family. For example, let’s say a child is exhibiting some challenging behavior. It is easy to decide that the child is misbehaving because the parents did not provide enough sleep the night before or have fallen away from providing a healthy diet or naptime over the weekends. “Interest” opens the caregiver up to trying to understand how or why this might be happening with the family. It is a wonderful step to take before placing judgment and risking setting up barriers between the caregiver and the family. While the caregiver may have minimal influence over the choices the family makes, bringing understanding and compassion toward a situation will help the caregiver to make better decisions about how to work with the child while the child is in her or his care. Families who do not feel harsh judgment coming toward them on a regular basis are typically more willing to work with a caregiver to make healthy changes in their lifestyle. By the same token, it is a real bonus when the child’s family offers the same level of interest in the caregiver’s life. When a child’s primary caregivers (parents and other caregivers) work together on behalf of a child, that child’s sense of security and being loved is heightened. It is a true community of care.
Having said all of that, we all know there are situations where such relationships may not be happening. In that case, the caregiver ideally focuses on her or his time with the child/ren, bringing the highest level of care s/he can provide during those hours and holding hope for the family to find its way to better health over time. In more extreme situations, where the caregiver’s own health or stability is overwhelmed by an unhealthy family, s/he may need to release that family from her/his care.
What do children need to thrive in today’s fast-paced society?
Predictability. A more commonly used term might be “routines” or “rhythmical living”. I love the title of your magazine, “Rhythm of the Home”. There is much meaning in those few words. In our LifeWays’ trainings we work with the development of daily and weekly life charts and use an approach we call “framing.” Simply put, we deconstruct a day by listing only the times for sleeping/resting and the times for eating. These are fundamental, non-negotiable, “must happen” things in order to thrive – sleep and food! Then we learn to understand how the things we choose to place in between those times of resting and eating have a qualitative effect on the resting and the eating experiences. Those “things” frame the experience of the eating or resting. Do we do a lot of running around just before nap time, or do we ease our way into it by having a healthy lunch followed by quiet clean-up, a warm cloth to wash faces and hands, maybe a nice foot or backrub, a simple story and some soft music? Or let’s consider the time in between morning snack and lunch. Do we choose sedentary, quiet activities all morning, not experiencing the fresh air or robust play that help to build a healthy appetite for lunch? Focusing on the fundamentals of eating and sleeping and carefully filling in what is going to happen in between those is a great way for a family or a caregiver to develop routines and rhythms that do not overwhelm, yet manage to get everything done that is necessary over the course of a week. What I find more difficult for many of us today is having enough discernment to know what is essential and what is not!
If I may add one further thought it is this: Young children learn through their sensory experiences and by imitating the people and events that surround them. If there are not enough “pauses” in between events, it is difficult for them to “digest” it all. I sometimes lecture about T.O.A.D., “The Over-Abundance Disorder”. This is not based as much on the theory of “too much stuff” as it is on the experience of “too much happening”! If we, as adults cannot slow down – even just a bit – our little children are surrounded by models of “too much”, and thus they imitate that through their own breathlessness.
What has your research found about the development of children from birth to age three?
It truly is a sacred time. Think of how you feel in the presence of a newborn. It is as if one can touch the border between the spiritual and earthly planes. The teacher of human development with whom I most resonate is the late Austrian philosopher/scientist Rudolf Steiner. His inspirational view of the unfolding capacities of movement, speech and thinking in the first three years of a child’s life resonates with me. And when you have the privilege of being around children this age on a regular basis, you get the opportunity to see this unfolding over and over again. The amazing effort it takes to lift that heavy head with some semblance of control, followed by pulling the rest of the body into the upright before taking first steps is monumental. And so beautiful! The next time you have the opportunity to see a baby stand for the first time look at the facial expression. Every time I have seen this happen, the child’s euphoric look sweeps me off my feet! It is a look that says, “I Am,” almost as if the child perceives herself as being the first ever to have accomplished this deed. And this physical “I Am” accomplishment slowly (and sometimes not so slowly) opens the floodgates of speech. The universal babbling gives way to the language of the child’s surrounding culture, and the joy of playing with words is wonderfully humorous. And so it goes with speech exploration until that mysterious time when something starts to shift. One can feel that a different level of communication is taking place. This is no longer just “playing” with sounds and words, but a higher level of thinking is starting to shine through. Now the spoken “I am” starts to reveal the child’s individual communication style and way of processing life events.
My most personal and joyful research into the first three years currently revolves around becoming a grandmother to little Benjamin and an “adopted” grandma to Amelia and her playmates who attend her mother’s childcare home in the town where I live. “Ben” and “Ami” fit the typical profile (though it is not always the case) of boys coming into the physical a little sooner and girls coming into more diversified speech sooner. When Ben was starting to run, Ami was still finding her balance. When Ami was saying things like, “That piece of bread is bigger than this one,” Ben was saying things like, “Ben eat bread.” Now they are both a few months past two years old and things are starting to even out a bit.
There is so much more I could say about Birth to Three, but it would be too much for a short interview. However, I do want to say something about the first three months. Some refer to it as the fourth trimester, and I feel it is worth noting that it is a time that is completely different from the development we see taking place in the months following. If it were possible to wrap an extra layer of care around these little newborns, that would be wonderful. As a kangaroo mother keeps the newborn in her pouch, I wish we could provide more protection around the child from birth to three months. If you have ever been in a situation where you have had to adjust to an abrupt change in your life, perhaps that experience can build compassion for the newborn’s adjustment from womb life to outer life. Even more than the adjustment from womb to world, I feel it behooves us to consider the transition the individual is making from spirit to matter. Imagine being pure spirit, held in the arms of the angels, so to speak, surrounded by heavenly sounds, then being tucked into the womb for nine months with its own special sounds and warming rhythms, then emerging into the mechanistic, materialistic, ever-moving and somewhat cold and loud world of modern life. Certainly nurses, midwives and many parents know that swaddling helps to mitigate the dramatic change in physical existence for the newborn. If we could imagine taking similar protective measures in regards to the type of lighting, the sounds, and the activities to which they are exposed, most particularly in the first six weeks, gradually expanding their worldly experience over time, that would be a real gift.
In an interview with The Norman Transcript, you were quoted as saying “While traveling with another colleague, we both felt that everyday life was starting to disappear from many children’s lives.” Can you explain what you meant by that in more detail, and how your work is combating that growing problem?
By “everyday life” I was referring to some of the basic activities of cooking, cleaning, gardening, repairing, relaxing, and tending to the things that keep life afloat. Children may experience the end results of cooking or cleaning, but they often miss out on the processes that preceded the end product. Food is set before them or picked up at a restaurant, but where did it come from, how was it made? Clean clothes may show up in their drawers, but how did they get cleaned, folded, put away? A house may be tidy when they arrive home, but what happened to the mess that was there when they left earlier that day? In many homes today much is done while the children are away or while they are sleeping. And in institutional child care settings, many of the practical life arts are missing from their daily experience as well. As regards relaxing or “doing nothing much,” our lives today and in most child care settings are often tightly scheduled, leaving very little time for self-discovery and deep exploration.
LifeWays North America is doing what we can, through our trainings and consulting, to strengthen the understanding that simplicity, pausing, breathing, pacing our lives, doing meaningful, purposeful things with children – all of these things – actually make for fuller, richer life experience. On the one hand, less truly is more. I have experienced this nutritionally as I am getting older. When I eat or drink nutrient-rich foods, I need smaller amounts in order to feel full. It is also true that having fewer experiences in the course of a day deepens the quality of the things in which I do engage.
On the other hand, investing, say, fifteen extra minutes in doing the dishes with an involved child can feel like an “add-on,” rather than a “less than.” However, you are given a gift of slowing down for those fifteen minutes, and the child is bathed in a sensory experience that is also purposeful. And, yes, it is messier when the child first becomes involved, but it is quite uplifting to experience the child’s growing level of skill over time. When these “everyday life” experiences regain value in our lives, there is less of an urge to fill the hours of the day with extras like the plethora of enrichment programs that lure us out of our homes. We are not advocating that people never participate in such activities, but we encourage a balance between things that fulfill the need for social encounter and things that support the processes that tend to daily life. What is really awesome is when the social encounter and practical life activities are woven together!
Can you explain your concept of Living Arts, and how it pertains to the daily life of all children?
We speak about four living arts – domestic activity, nurturing care, creative exploration and social ability. In answering the previous question, I mostly focused on domestic activities. However, a life that is whole and juicy includes other things than being clean and tidy! Much of daily nurturing care is obvious –good nutrition, healthy sleep habits, time in nature, unstructured time, comfortable clothing, thorough bodily care habits like hand-washing, toileting, bathing, hair brushing, and sweet extras like massage or foot rubs. There are also nurturing activities that cross over into the creative arts – things like storytelling, singing and instrument music, dancing, games, crafting, painting and such. Developing social ability, of course, is at its height when children are given full measures of time for open-ended play. Also included in the social category is time visiting neighbors or family, celebratory times, and caring for others. LifeWays Child Care centers and homes are somewhat unique in that they attempt to honor all four of these living arts in a home-away-from-home approach to care. In that way, children who spend hours, days or the whole week away from their family homes are still bathed in these valuable life experiences that establish the foundation for lifelong skills.
In your opinion, what should a child’s daily life contain in order for them to develop in a healthy manner?
While daily life is only continuing at a faster and faster pace, education around the globe is declining in many aspects. What do you see as a fundamental flaw in classical education, and how does your program seek to combat those issues?
Current challenges in standardized education seem to include a lack of understanding of child development in its various stages and in the wholeness of what it means to be human. Sometimes it appears as if we are actually trying to standardize people – particular skills or achievements are lauded as essential while other equally valuable human qualities and skills are diminished. With such an imbalance of values, to include the glorification of academics over arts and practical skills, choices are made for curricula that push down, to even our youngest children, expectations that are developmentally inappropriate. This is how we have ended up with a conventional education system that has practically eliminated open-ended play, severely reduced physical activities and outdoor recess, and established stress-creating high-stakes testing as a limiting and unrealistic way of measuring how our children learn.
As an early childhood organization, LifeWays does all it can to promote foundations of health for children and families. We are also an advocacy organization in that we encourage our students to speak out about the fundamental needs of children and how they learn, and we support organizations such as The Alliance for Childhood which has set for itself the high goal of the protection of childhood.
What do you believe is the most important part of every child’s day?
Unstructured time for self-directed play that is supported by well-structured and rhythmical time for eating and sleeping.
I also feel it is a spiritual gift when a child’s day is hemmed with warmth and love. Family rituals upon waking and going to bed at night can go a long way toward creating a place of sanctuary for a child.
If you could impart only one lesson to families looking for ways to enrich their child’s lives, what would it be?
On one level that could be taken literally, meaning clean out the closets of “too much stuff” and “constantly going places.” This is directly related to T.O.A.D., The Over-Abundance Disorder. Within the TOAD construct I offer that it is not that we cannot do everything we want to do; it is just that we overwhelm ourselves by trying to do it all, all of the time. If I am part of a beloved book club, and then discover a great movement class that I want to take, my suggestion is that I would tell my book club that I am taking a break for a couple of months while I take the movement class. Our tendency, though, is to “add on” rather than “spread things out.” Then we do not understand why we feel we don’t have enough time. Similarly, we forget what a time-consumer online communications can be. We sit down with our computer or our iphone to check on one thing and then get up hours later unaware how much time has passed. We just need to become conscious and truthful with ourselves so that when we schedule our days, our weeks, our seasons, we are basing our schedules on reality. Then we can make sure that what we have scheduled has left enough room for quality over and above quantity. This is how we get in touch with our higher values in life. It can feel like a brutal process at first because looking in the mirror of an overwhelmed life is not pleasant.
On another level, by “lighten up” I simply mean to find levity in life. As a young mother I remember being very idealistic about the quality of life I wanted for my family. I became so earnest about it that my normally lighthearted self started to become earnestly serious and somewhat heavy-hearted. My earnestness about schedules, quality experiences, good food, good sleep, etc., overtook my ability to just be in the moment. What I have learned from that is that, yes, it is important to earnestly take up life, make plans, schedules, etc., and to be as true to them as possible. Yet of equal import is to go with the flow if something shifts or if a child’s meltdown means there is a need to step back and do something differently. If you have not overscheduled your days, there is room for surprises, meeting the unexpected and getting back on track later in the day. Stay as true as possible to the schedules for sleeping and eating and the rest will fall into place. Monday grocery shopping can be moved to another day if necessary, but a hungry or overtired child can change the experience of an event for hours!
Finally, by “lighten up,” I encourage laughter, good humor. Were I to be given back my younger days as a mother, I would hope to laugh more often and to embrace the absurdities of life with more humor. We want our children to grow up resilient and flexible, and good humor is one of the best ways to provide that.
How does LifeWays differ from other forms of education and training?
In the realm of conventional early childhood training, LifeWays training is much more of a hands-on experience. And our curriculum is primarily based on the understanding that self-transformation is a key to developing the awareness, openness, flexibility and well-roundedness that one needs to be a carer of young children and their families – whether it is your own children and family or other peoples’ children and families. So, while theory and child development are part of our training, equal (or more) time is spent on activities that help us to stretch and grow – learning handwork and crafting skills, movement classes such as eurythmy or Spacial Dynamics, music classes, and classes that deepen our experience of everyday life – such as “cleaning and caring,” “nurturing and nourishing,” and gardening. We also have a few theory classes focusing on adult development – such as understanding temperaments, how to work with other adults, biography studies and the practical how-to’s of establishing childcare programs or parenting classes. A major part of the learning experience comes through our mentor-guided Integration of Learning requirements that happen in between the times of coming together. Students meet four times over the course of a year for a total of 200+ on-site class hours. It is an intensive training, but we have a lot of fun together and the students become good friends.
One of things I most love about LifeWays training is that a class of students is usually comprised of professional childcare providers or directors, nannies, parents, parent-child teachers, home-based preschool teachers, and experienced early childhood teachers wanting to be refreshed. Because our approach to caring for children is based on the fundamental understanding that daily life is the curriculum and that young children learn primarily through imitation and sensory experience, we do not need to have specialized tracks for each category. Whether you are a professional early childhood educator or a parent, creating homelike experiences for the children in our care is the foundation.
For more information about LifeWays, visit their website. Trainings are available across North America. The new book, Home Away From Home: LifeWays Care of Children and Families, is available in their store.