What Do Young Children Need? by Mary O’Connell

This next article by Mary O’Connell is a wonderful look at how the latest brain research supports ideas promoted by LifeWays.  Mary is the director of the LifeWays Early Childhood Center in Milwaukee, WI, the director of the LifeWays training in Wisconsin, and a member of the Board of LifeWays North America.  I met Mary during my own LifeWays training, and I was struck by her friendly, practical, down-to-earth manner. This article was originally posted on the LifeWays Early Childhood Center’s blog, and can be found here.  

Happy Reading!   –Faith

What Do Young Children Need?

How do we know what is really best for our children? Some of it comes down to gathering the best information, but that can be tricky –you can find an expert to support every viewpoint. In the end, much of it is intuitive, knowing as a mom or dad what makes the most sense for your particular child. 

For me, as a parent and childcare provider, I was so happy when I found out about LifeWays, for it seemed to be a path that not only resonated with the way I intuitively parented already, but was also supported by lots of research as well as common sense wisdom. Thirteen years later, it is remarkable to find that these principles and practices of caring for and educating the young child are now supported by even more research, as the fields of brain development and child development become more advanced. 

One interesting thing I have been reading more about lately is the life force that is present in every one of us. The Chinese refer to it as the chi (Qi), the Japanese the Ki, the ancient Hindus called it the Pranamaya-kosha (‘sheath of vital energy’.) This life force is the focus of acupuncture, reiki, and other forms of Eastern medicine. Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian philosopher and social thinker who is known as the father of Waldorf education, called this life force the etheric body, which supports the health and vitality of our physical body. 

As parents and educators, we can help our children by supporting their etheric (or life-force) body, so it can do what it needs to do to keep them healthy and strong throughout their lives. The interesting thing about the etheric body is that it has different purposes at different points in our life. Steiner taught that the etheric body’s primary function in the first seven years of the child’s life is to support the rapid growth and development of the child’s physical body. Steiner tells us that once the child is around age seven (usually first grade), the etheric body is not needed as much by the physical body, and it is freed to support activities like thinking and memory. This is the basis behind the practice of Waldorf educators to hold off on academic instruction like reading and math until the first grade. It is why we do not teach academics at LifeWays. However, this isn’t just a Waldorf construct. The practice in many countries outside of the U.S is to save academic learning for first grade and beyond.
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At a lecture I recently attended at a large mainstream childcare conference, I learned that this view is supported by the latest brain research as well. The research shows that, before age seven, the right and left hemispheres of the brain are not fully integrated, or working well together, and the left (analytical) side of the brain is not well developed at all. Both of these developments are important for activities like reading, and teaching a child to read before the brain is ready is not only challenging, but can be detrimental. 

The most current research also shows that the brain of the young child develops optimally when:
-the child has freedom of movement and plenty of exercise,
-the child feels safe and is cared for by consistent, loving adults,
-the child is fed healthy, nutritious foods, and
-the child experiences daily routines that are rhythmic and predictable.

Sound familiar? These revolutionary brain research conclusions are also the foundations behind the principles and practices of LifeWays. And when you layer this modern scientific brain research with Steiner’s view of the etheric body, you see that the recent push to get young children into academic learning environments is a dangerous thing. If we call upon these life forces to engage in the work of thinking and memory before they are ready, we pull them away from their work in supporting the development of the physical body. Perhaps the extreme increase in children experiencing ADHD and anxiety disorders can be partly explained by American society’s rush to educate our youngest children in academic pursuits.

The next time our society causes you to question your decision not to purchase the ‘Teach Your Baby to Read’ video or makes you feel pressured to enroll your child in an academic K3 program, know that you are doing your child a wonderful service by resisting this academic push. You are strengthening your child’s life forces, allowing his brain and body to develop naturally at its intended pace, and you are giving him the best possible foundation for future learning.

There are many varied answers to the question, ‘What does a child need?’ But, I’m sure of one answer. Every child needs and deserves a childhood.