Notes from Pikler Pre-Intensive & Intensive:
The following is a collection of thoughts based on the information and inspiration provided at the Pikler Institute Intensive workshop (April 2015). For more information about the Pikler/Loczy Institute, or to find training opportunities, please visit www.pikler.org
The notes below are in my own words, except where indicated by quotation marks and sources. These quotes are from verbal lectures and, as such, do not have a reference to a written source. Please remember that the information below is my interpretation and understanding but it is, in no way, a definitive explanation of Pikler principles nor is it absolute 'fact'. These words are my way of expressing what I have learned from the talented, knowledgeable individuals presenting the Pikler course. I offer this information with the best of intentions to help provoke thought, reflection and perhaps further research. I apologise in advance if my understanding deviates from the precise Pikler explanations (a lot of this is new to me, I'm on the learning journey with you!)
I have tried my best to provide context for each of my thoughts but these were based on notes furiously scribbled throughout 8 days of 8 hour lectures/discussions! So please forgive any tangents or sudden shifts in topic. Each bold heading represents a new subject or self-contained thought!
Being present in the moment.
Mindfulness is important when you are engaging with a child. It is important to be truly and consciously present in the moment. Many adults are physically present with the child but are intellectually or emotionally elsewhere (eg. worrying about bills that need to be paid or laundry that needs to be done) and this causes a disconnection between adult and child (and often causes the adult to ‘rush’ through the task). Mindfulness can seem like an overwhelming concept and you might ask “How can I possibly be mindful all the time when I am with a child?” It might be easier to think of it like this; you don’t have to worry about being mindful ‘all the time’, just be mindful right now…and now…and now! Take each moment as it comes and focus on being present in the present (rather than stressing about the future).
Do we spend so much time thinking about “What’s next?” that we fail to appreciate “What’s now”. This relates to being mindful/present with children but it is also a useful thought in relation to a child’s individual development. In care settings the adults are often preoccupied with “planning what’s next” and even present observations are only used as fuel to feed the “what’s next” machine. Similarly, at home a parent can be so focused on preparing a child for the next stage (such as helping him/her start looking at letters/numbers) that they may be distracted from appreciating the wonder of what the child can already do. There is immense value in looking at the child from the perspective of “what can this child do now” and appreciating that for its own sake rather than just as the precursor to the next step.
It’s the ‘how’, not the ‘when’.
On a similar note, Beverly encouraged us to remember that: “It’s not the when, it’s the how”.
For example, the milestone of a baby sitting up unaided. Instead of asking ‘when did he start sitting on his own?”, consider “how does he sit?” - is his spine straight, or are his shoulders hunched, does he remain comfortably upright for long periods or does he frequently lose his balance.
When we consider the child’s developmental journey the ‘when’ is not particularly useful or helpful. There is such a broad spectrum in terms of a healthy timeframe that it does not reveal very much to think about precisely when a child achieves a particular skill or milestone. It is much more important to think about how a child engages with a particular movement or ability as it reveals more about the child’s individuality and development.
If we focus on the how, not the when, then parents and carers will feel liberated from the pressure to try to rush the child towards “early” achievements. A child that is artificially pushed may hit the milestone “early” but the “how” this is done may always be negatively impacted. The child may do that thing in a much better way if he/she is given the freedom to do it whenever is natural.
Free play without adult intervention.
On how the Pikler children can engage in free, self-directed play for long periods without looking for adult assistance:
“These children do not expect to be rescued”
On allowing children to take responsibility for themselves and their experiences (and not turning it into a reward by saying “only the most careful child can help carry the dishes”);
“Responsibility is not a privilege, it is a right.”
Two types of balance
There are two types of balance; static and dynamic.
Static is the type of balance that we use to hold a single position (such as standing on one leg, or when we sit upright and keep our back straight).
Dynamic balance is what we use when we are in motion or moving between positions.
A young child, who is developing balance and body awareness through free movement, needs to develop both types of balance. This process is hindered if adults intervene with the child’s movements. The child’s static balance can be impacted when an adult tries to use artificial resources to ‘aid’ the child, such as placing the child in contraptions that make him/her sit up before he/she is actually ready. This might artificially make the child ‘sit’ whilst in the contraption but it does not let the child feel, experiment with and achieve true static balance because the contraption does the balancing for him/her. The child’s dynamic balance can be affected in similar ways such as when an adult, albeit with good intentions, tries to “help” a baby with movement by always holding both of the child’s hands while he/she is trying to walk. This might make the child walk “sooner” but he/she is not truly experiencing the reality of dynamic balance. It can be hard to ‘undo’ muscular and procedural memory, so when the sitting contraption is removed or when the adult hands are no longer holding on, then the child will have difficulty letting go of the habits while trying to readjust to the new realities of gravity and unaided positions/movement. This can result in strange, uncoordinated or uncomfortable positions/movement.
Dress for success.
The first work of the baby and child is to explore. To explore the newfound ‘world’, explore through the senses and explore movement. Yet children are often dressed in clothing that inhibits that exploration. Tight or impractical clothing can prevent the child from using all of his/her senses and/or from moving naturally. So parents and carers are encouraged to help the child “dress for success”.
It is ideal for a child to wear clothes that:
-Allow freedom of movement,
-Do not cover the hands or feet. The hands being uncovered allows for tactile sensory exploration. The feet being uncovered allows the child to experiment with finding equilibrium and balance in a natural barefoot position, as socks cause slipping and shoes interfere with the centre of gravity and posture.
-Can become messy without causing distress to the parent/carer. This is because many of a young child’s sensory explorations will have potentially ‘messy’ results - and if the adult is worried about a special/expensive/fancy outfit being destroyed then that adult will be more likely to prevent or restrict the experience.
It is obviously not possible for a child to be barefoot 24/7 and there are times when it will be totally appropriate for a child to get ‘dressed up’ for special occasions. The “dress for the child’s success” mantra should be considered a default setting, something that guides the normal clothing choices, but not as a constant rule.
The joy of learning.
Many adults tend to be ‘outcome oriented’, focusing more on the final product than the process. The words of Magda Gerber remind us that:
“The joy of learning does not depend on the result.”
The child’s experience is what counts. We should not measure a child’s experience by our adult perceptions of an “outcome” (or a lack thereof). This is partly because there are many unseen processes occurring that are of ‘developmental value’ to the child, but also because joy is valuable too! In reality every experience a human has will impact some area of our development or abilities whether it is social, emotional, cognitive or physical but if we just pretend that an experience could have zero developmental value other than joy, then the joy itself would still be enough.
A baby, or a child, should be allowed joy. Many adults, especially in care, become so focused on ‘developmental outcomes’ that are are actually scared to value or even allow experiences that don’t seem “educational” in some way. But joy has value. Joy is valuable. Adults just need to catch up and start valuing it!
The Pikler Institute uses, and recommends, wood flooring for babies based on the fact that it is a permeable surface and assists with the development of balance and movement.
Movement as an external manifestation of what is happening inside.
We cannot see inside the child’s mind. We can’t witness the sparks of every neural connection in the making, or read a road map of those that already exist. We cannot observe an emotion itself, or a memory or desire, and the baby or toddler doesn’t have the language to express it.
What we can see is what the child does. What the child does can tell us what the child knows. The child’s movements are an instrument for him/her to express intelligence, desires, experience and emotions.
When should an activity/experience end?
In most care environments, and even in many homes, it is the adult who decides when a baby’s activity is finished. This can happen in many forms; a well-meaning adult trying to redirect the baby to a new activity or a carer announcing that it’s time for a transition in the daily routine (from ‘play time’ to ‘story time’ to ‘song time’ to ‘lunch time’ to ‘outside time’ to ‘play time’ again etc; many child care centres have an unnecessarily high number of these transitions each day). In the Pikler institute the adult does not interrupt to identify the “conclusion” of a baby’s free explorations. Instead the ethos is: “Each infant must decide whether he has exhausted the limits of his own reality.” -Anna Tardos
The hands welcome the child.
Anna Tardos points out that:
“Hands constitute the infant’s first connection to the world”.
As such, the movements we make with our hands can define the child’s understanding of the world. Rushed, hasty, insensitive touching can teach the child that the world is impatient, uncaring and unpredictable. This can result in a baby who is anxious, nervous and adverse to new experiences. On the other hand (pardon the pun!), the baby can learn to feel safe, supported and engaged through touching that is caring, consistent, slow, tender but confident.
On how a child builds a rich vocabulary.
The Pikler principles do not include talking endlessly at a child to try to artificially stimulate the development of language. Nor does it involve using ‘baby-talk’ (babble or ‘cutesy’ voices). Instead the focus is on rich, clear, contextually-relevant and well-constructed language delivered primarily through one-on-one caregiving moments.
“They will get the vocabulary when you talk to them like a human being from the beginning.” -Janet Gonzalez-Mena
The child as a partner.
One of the most striking features of Pikler caregiving moments (such as nappy changes, feedings etc) is that the child is clearly a partner in the process. It is happening with the child, not to the child. The child is empowered, engaged, responsive and involved. It is clear in these moments that: “the child is a participant, not a recipient.” -Janet Gonzalez-Mena
There is love both at home and in childcare, but it is different in each domain.
The Pikler carers are not instructed to have “love” as a conscious goal. They do not have to “love” each child because safe, supportive and nurturing caregiving can exist in that context without love. The carer can learn the practices and procedures necessary to make the child feel valued, supported and respected without “love” having to be involved. It is, however, important that the carer’s interactions are consistently of a high standard because the absence of “love” in the relationship means that smaller elements have more of an impact on how the child feels about that person (or in that environment).
It is true that many carers do come to feel a sense of ‘love’ for the children in their care. But this is not a prerequisite for care, nor is it automatic or immediate. It is also a different kind of love from what exists between a parent and child. A carer might ‘love’ a child, or all children, in their group but it is not the same depth and intensity as the love that a mother or father feels for their child.
The parent, on the other hand, immediately has love on their side. There is, and should be, love between parent and child. The power and influence of that love is the reason that loving parents do not have to be as consistent as a childcare worker. A parent can make more mistakes because the love is there to cushion the child in that experience. If an adult in a childcare environment was to use a harsh voice - snapping, or even shouting, at a child - then that child could be deeply impacted and could develop long-lasting anxieties about that person (or environment) based on that one experience. A parent at home might occasionally speak to their child in a less-than-ideal tone but the child still knows that he or she is loved by that parent and so the impact of the harsh words is not as significant. The mistakes are mitigated by love!
This is why parents should not feel intimidated by the seeming ‘perfection’ of high quality care workers. Carers are putting constant and conscious effort into shaping every word that we say, every action that we take, as it is our profession and our responsibility to make every interaction as positive and high-quality as it can be. In order to support your child we must be our best selves in every moment. Our very best is designed to make a child feel safe, respected and cared for. But our very best is still only half as good as a parent’s ‘average’ because the parent has love on their side! The positive impact of love is even more powerful than the very best ‘care’.
Ultimately we must remember that, the teacher might come to love the child because she cares for him; but the parent cares for the child because she loves him.
(Please note: The above sentence uses ‘she’ for the teacher/parent and ‘he’ for the child simply for ease of reading. It applies equally to male teachers, fathers and female children.)
This concept can be expanded on by considering the analogy of the plant.
Anna Tardos used this to explain the difference between caring in an institution (like child care) and caring at home. She speaks of a plant that grows naturally in the wild, in its natural habitat. In that environment there is no conscious effort to make the plant grow because the right conditions are present naturally. If that plant was carefully uprooted and transplanted to a pot elsewhere then the conditions change. Suddenly the gardner tending to that plant will need to put deliberate, detailed thought into how to nurture it. The gardner needs to know exactly what type of soil to use, when to water it, how much water it needs, how much light (and what kind) it needs and so on. To keep the plant healthy and growing the gardner must seek detailed information about how to care for it and must follow strict routines and procedures, at a high degree of attention and accuracy, to provide the right conditions in this artificial environment. Yet that plant would have continued to grow in nature without that degree of attention.
The gardner doesn’t make the plant grow better than nature does; it just takes more conscious effort to achieve the same level of health and growth.
This is analogous to the fact that a childcare worker needs to put more conscious and deliberate effort into supporting the child, whereas the child’s parents (their ‘natural habitat’) do not need to think as meticulously about each interaction because they are instinctively providing the most vital conditions. This is another reason why parents do not need to feel so guilty or anxious about their parenting “techniques” - a loving home is the right environment to support the child’s growth naturally!
The Learning Pyramid
The National Training Laboratory, in Maine, identified the degree to which various learning methods impact the learner. They arranged this in a triangle for illustrative effect but they are as follows;
“Passive” teaching methods:
Lecture = 5% retention
Reading = 10% retention
Audio-visual experience = 20% retention
Demonstration = 30% retention
“Participatory” teaching methods:
Group discussion = 50% retention
Personal practise = 75% retention
Teaching others - 90% retention
This is relevant to the way that adults learn in higher education or professional development, but we can also apply these guidelines to the way that we interact with children. If our teaching primarily consists of monologue lecturing then we can’t expect the child to retain more than 5% of what we say. If we engage participatory learning then we can anticipate much higher retention.
The child reaps what we sow.
Erik Erikson had a theory of eight psychological stages of development, beginning with the infant who he believed was in the stage of “Trust versus Mistrust” for the first year of life. Erikson believed that in this stage the baby is learning whether or not to trust people, to trust environments and to trust the world. The baby is seeking patterns to make impressions about what the world is. By giving the child predictable, consistent and quality care we are able to let that baby form a view of the world as a safe, caring place filled with safe, caring relationships. Erikson’s thought is that the caregiving we offer to the child in this first year will form the foundation of their model for trusting relationships (or the lack thereof!) He framed this from the perspective of the baby as “I am what I am given”.
Conditioning (in a good way!)
The concept of ‘conditioning’ has a negative reputation in the education and care sector because it has been applied in inappropriate or negative ways, as part of the passive ‘transmission’ model of education or to manipulate/force the child into behavioural responses.
But those outcomes are examples of how conditioning can be used in negative ways, it does not mean conditioning itself is necessarily negative. If we remove those negative connotations for a moment and just think of ‘conditioning’ as a psychological process then all it really means is that the brain learns what it is given. If a particular stimuli, or condition, is presented to a learner repeatedly then it is absorbed and can result in particular reactions. This is actually an important fact for a parent or carer to be aware of because we are sometimes ‘conditioning’ a child without even realising, for better or for worse.
It can happen in negative ways - such as the child who is accustomed to being picked up roughly or abruptly who is therefore ‘conditioned’ to recoil every time the adult approaches.
It can, however, also be used to help the child develop positive associations. If the carer is consistently respectful, careful, deliberate and confident with picking up the child then the child will develop a ‘condition’ towards reacting positively; perhaps reaching out or putting the body in the position that best suits that moment.
The latter example refers to the fact that humans develop postural memory through conditioning. Even adults utilise postural memory - the words I am typing right now are an example of my own postural memory. When I was a teenager I took typing lessons. Through repetitive exercises I developed a muscular memory of how my fingers should move but I also learned a postural memory of how my body needs to be positioned for this process. I sit differently according to whether I am reading a book, writing on paper or typing on a keyboard. When I’m typing my back, arms and shoulders all assert a specific posture in order to find the right position on the keyboard. I don’t think consciously “I must align my body into my typing posture” - it just happens. It is deeply ingrained and I would find it very difficult to change it now. The same happens for babies. They start to develop memories of specific postures associated with particular events or experiences. Adults have a big influence on the child’s development of these postural memories. It is our responsibility to provide the type of interactions and experiences that help children to develop positive, natural and comfortable postural memories.
Please don’t let me fall apart!
Infants do not instinctively have a sense of “body unity”. As adults we take for granted the knowledge that our body is a ‘whole’, that each of our limbs are part of one whole rather than multiple separate entities. Babies do not immediately know this. They need to learn this. Until they learn body unity there is an instinctive reaction to being handled by a limb, as though the baby is alarmed that they will ‘fall apart’ due to a limb being somehow disconnected from the body. If an adult reaches out to lift or hold the baby’s hands, arms, feet or legs then the child will likely reflexively startle or pull back. It is therefore important, at this early stage, to hold, lift and handle the baby in a way that promotes a unity of body. That is, holding from the ‘trunk’ not the limbs or lifting by supporting the whole back.
Technique and attitude
The Pikler trainers speak a lot of the difference between “technique” and “attitude”. Technique can be taught; it is tangible, concrete steps and processes. Attitude is something a little more abstract, which can be developed over time but can not be instantly transmitted. The repetition of respectful techniques can mould an appropriate attitude - but it is also very helpful if the technique is already present in the person who is learning the techniques!
There is one element of adult attitude that is vital from the beginning; an intrinsic curiosity and interest in the child.
(This is another reason why parents have a headstart! Every parent has an innate interest in their own child!)
Anna Tardos says “If the adult does not have a real, genuine interest in the child then even the best technique won’t help”.
We need technique and interest; a curiosity about who the child is, what he can do, what he knows, an interest in what the child needs from us (and doesn’t need from us!) and a desire to learn more about this little person in our care.