How Do Children Benefit from Being at LifeWays? by Mary O’Connell

–Excerpted from an article by Mary O’Connell, Director of the LifeWays Training in Oregon and Wisconsin, and Founder/Director of LifeWays Early Childhood Program in Milwaukee, WI.

Mary writes: We can’t really determine if any childcare program or school benefits our child until we identify what it is that we want for them. If you ask a parent what his or her long-term goal is for their child, often the parent will say, “I want my child to grow up to be happy.” We all want that for our children, but realistically, we can’t really ensure our children’s happiness. Happiness is a very individual thing… So I challenged myself to identify three goals for our children that are attainable, that will impact their lives in a positive way, and that might actually improve their chances at happiness.  Here’s my list:

Let’s raise children who are able to love.

Looking back on your life to this point, I’m sure the things that mean the most to you are your relationships with people, not the grade point average you got in high school or the job promotions you’ve gotten. So while preparing children for school and careers are important, giving them experiences at forming real relationships is crucial. The only way to help children learn to love others is to provide them with long-lasting relationships with people who love them. To give them the opportunity to be angry with a friend and learn how to work through that tough spot to restore the relationship. To let them experience frustration with someone they don’t always see eye-to-eye with, and learn effective strategies for compromising. To help them through the separation sadness they feel when their parent leaves with the comforting arms of a caregiver that really knows them.

Relationships aren’t always easy. Allowing children to encounter these challenges when they are young while in the presence of a consistent loving caregiver and suite “siblings” allows them to build relationship skills that they will use for a lifetime. I often wonder how these skills are honed in a childcare or preschool environment where numerous staff members come and go frequently and children are moved from room to room as they age. At LifeWays, I see growth in the children’s capacity for love everyday. I am amazed at how these children love their caregivers and each other, how tenderly they care for the babies, and learn to use their words with each other instead of their fists.

Let’s raise children who are free.

Rudolf Steiner, founder Waldorf education, said, “Receive the child in reverence, educate the child in love, and let the child go in freedom.” It’s our American birthright to be free, right? And yet so many children grow up “un-free” in their thinking. They sit by passively while their heads are crammed with facts and figures in school, learning what they need to know just to get through the next test, not really taking charge of their own learning.  These children often become teens and adults who follow their peers in an unquestioning way, not asking themselves if the behavior they are choosing is really in line with the values they want to live by. They don’t seem “free” to choose a different path.

Michaela Glockler, M.D., in her book, A Guide to Child Health says, “Raising a child to be free means taking appropriate timing into account. Anything we introduce too early catches a child unprepared, unready, and unable to handle the new element independently. In this case, we “train” the child instead of empowering her. Conversely, any skill or subject that we introduce too late no longer catches her interest; as a result, she cannot fully appreciate its value. The consequences are dependency in the first instance and indifference in the second –two different ways of being “un-free”.

How do we raise children who are independent, engaged, and who think for themselves? At LifeWays, we take Glocker’s advice about timing seriously. Everything has its season, and the season of early childhood belongs to learning how the world works, where our food comes from, exploring movement and language, learning how to dress yourself, how to take care of your belongings, how to treat your friends, how to respectfully ask for what you need…I could go on and on with the lessons learned every minute at LifeWays.  Of course, young children can be “trained” to do academic drills with flashcards, but at what cost to the child?

Let’s raise children who are ready to learn.

The child psychologists call this “executive function”. Good executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child’s IQ. While it has a number of different elements, a big part of executive function is a child’s ability to self-regulate. Children with self-regulation skills are able to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline. Researchers have identified a single, powerful tool for children to develop self-regulation… unstructured play… a LOT of it. In fact, according to a recent study, sustained imaginative play that lasts for hours is best. Why? During make-believe children engage in what’s called private speech: They talk to themselves about what they are going to do and how they are going to do it. They evaluate what worked well and what didn’t. When researchers compared preschoolers’ activities, they found that this self-regulating language was highest during make-believe play.  Conversely, they found that the more structured the play, the more children’s private speech declined. Today’s children spend much of their time doing things that do nothing to improve self-regulation: watching TV, playing video or computer games, and taking part in structured activities. This change in how children spend their time over the years has actually had an impact on their ability to self-regulate. A recent study compared the self-regulation skills of children today to those studied in the 1940’s – today’s 5-year olds are acting at the level of 3-year olds 60 years ago with regard to self-regulation!

At LifeWays, the children do have hours devoted to unstructured imaginative play, both indoors and out. We have heard from parents and grade school teachers of LifeWays “alumni” that these children were well prepared for school as a result.