Tuesday, March 25, 2008

In defence of natural toys

Earlier this week I was with my friend the Yummy Mummy. We were talking, as we usually do, about mothering and children. She commented that the common thread in all parenting books is to treat your child with love and kindness, and provide them with a stable, secure environment. She also commented that she personally couldn’t get that excited about things like wooden toys and not using playpens, and that surely children wouldn’t be any worse off for playing with lots of cheap plastic toys.

I have to say I’d never really looked at it that way. I was so convinced of the inherent superiority of what I think of as ‘real’ toys – wooden, open-ended, natural, old-fashioned toys that I had never challenged myself as to why.

On reflection, I don’t necessarily believe that Munchkin will somehow be ‘advantaged’ by having wooden toys, or spending as much time as possible outside, or going to a Steiner playgroup. I don’t think that she will be smarter or happier than other children who play with Barbies (urggh) or Fisher Price toys with lots of batteries and whizzy bits.

But yet, I am very passionate about what Munchkin plays with, as those of you who read often will know. I believe that simple toys encourage Munchkin to use her imagination. I believe that avoiding ‘licensed’ toys will keep some of our pervasive consumer culture out of her childhood. I believe that natural materials means the toys are a bit safer for her to chew on. I know that natural toys, made either in a fair-trade situation or by independent crafts-people in first world nations, are better for the environment and better for the world.

So I choose real toys, not because I think it makes me a better parent, but because of my personal values. Some of the values that I hold very dear are walking gently on the earth, respecting all human beings, and a belief in the infinite nature of human potential. These values are expressed in everything I do, and in particular they are expressed every time I spend, or don’t spend, money. For me principles of fair trade, environmental sustainability and honouring craftsmanship are important considerations in every purchase I make.

This isn’t to say that I only buy fair trade, organic, eco-friendly products – I don’t. Financial realities and day to day efficiency often come first … but I try to strike a balance. I certainly hope that Munchkin’s childhood will teach her these values. I do hope that she will have a wonderful childhood – but it’s a reflection of my ‘ideal’ of a wonderful childhood.

But I have to say, I’ve realized that as much as I care about this I would hate to be a zealot. I don’t want to ‘take a stand’ when Grandparents buy her plastic battery powered rubbish – I want to teach her gratitude and respect too. I know some parents who have had major family falling outs over the ‘toy’ issue, and I would feel so sad if I became so obsessed with this issue that I let my relationships suffer for it.

Its easy in natural parenting circles to get caught up in the dogma. Its easy to feel that our way is somehow superior, and that all parents should be like us. By making the personal political we can become very judgmental of others. Its one of the reasons that I am so glad to have friends whose values are a bit different to mine, and who aren’t afraid to say so. The moral high-ground is, after all, a very lonely place to be.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Supermarket Confessions

If our paths ever cross at the supermarket, you might recognize me by what’s in my trolley. Or rather, what’s not in my trolley. This week my trolley seemed particularly sparse, particularly as the woman in front of me seemed to pull out treat after treat … all in what seemed to be her typical week’s grocery shopping. 5 lots of meat, all in plastic trays, processed sausages, salami, biscuits, chippies, little pottles of yoghurt, snack bars, fruit juice containers, disposable nappies, wipes, formula, baby food, bakery goodies, two types of breakfast cereal, a couple of frozen pizzas, ice-cream …. I bet you could open her pantry and always find something ‘ready to eat’. Oh, and a couple of bottle of cleaning products – jif and sunlight I think.

My trolley by comparison was just a bunch of ingredients. A large bag of rolled oats to make muesli. 2 bags of flour. Yeast, cocoa and baking soda, and some spices. A kilo of mince, which was on special. Oil, butter, milk, sour cream and a large tub of plain yoghurt. Chickpeas, couscous and dried fruit from the bulk bins. The treats were few and far between – a pottle of organic hummus and 2 bottles of sparking water. Oh and the meat pies my hubby insists on eating for lunch – but that’s another story.

Looking at the two trolleys I found myself thinking - I’m possibly not as ‘mainstream’ as I think. You see, I make my own bread, and cook from scratch. I make our muesli. I buy my cleaning products in bulk at ecostore. I use cloth nappies and wipes and make my own baby food. I’ve even started using mama-pads so sanitary protection products don’t even get a look in these days. I do use some baking paper and plastic wrap, although I try to minimise – and I buy them in catering size packs. The supermarket is really where I buy ‘ingredients’ not where I buy ‘food’ – if that makes sense.

I felt quite envious of this other mum for a while. I bet when she got home she didn’t set about turning a kilo of mince into 5 meals for the freezer, soaking chickpeas for falafel mix, or popping a cake in the oven. I bet she never had to stay up late on a Sunday night to make muesli for the week. And I bet she has never ended up with baby poo on the laundry floor from a cloth nappy disaster.

But then I saw the cost of her shopping $280 as opposed to my $106! And I thought of the cost to the environment of all that packaging, destined for landfill. And I thought of the cost to her family’s health of all that processed food. And you know what … my way might not be as ‘convenient’ or as ‘efficient’ .. but I know which trolley I’d rather have.


Before I fell in love with Steiner I was very interested in Montessori education. There are many things the two philosophies have in common, but one of the areas they part ways on is ‘fantasy’.
In The Absorbent Mind” Maria Montessori talks about children’s love of fantasy, magic and pretend play as if it was a sign that something was wrong. Too much ‘pretend’ play should be discouraged, and children gently brought back into the ‘real’ world. This was something I could never quite get my head around. If any Montessorians are reading this and wish to comment, I’d love to hear from you.

Steiner on the other hand sees that the first seven years are ripe for imaginative play, and that a rich fantasy life should be encouraged to develop children’s full creative potential. This seems to be born out by modern science, in fact a whole episode of Child of Our Time was recently devoted to the development of creativity and the ‘crisis’ around seven years when the real world comes crashing in.

I remember as a child being very deeply in 'fantasy'. I had an imaginary friend, I had passionate relationships with my dolls. My aunty remembers giving me a small play-horse and says that I took it into my room and held it up, turning it around and staring at it in awe. I would love Munchkin to have the same love of fantasy that I had, and find Steiner philosophy full of wonderful ideas to encourage this.

In ‘
You are your child’s first teacher’, Rahima dedicates a whole chapter to developing fantasy and imagination. Dolls, toys, fairytales and nursery rhymes are all important parts of this. She explains that “Everything the young child takes in makes a profound impression on him”. So quality toys, made of natural materials, and that are ‘open ended’ so children can play with them in a myriad of ways are the ideal. I have seen this at playgroup where a circle of rough wood becomes a plate, a hat, a shield, a wall, a door … all in the space of a morning. A piece of blue coloured muslin becomes the sky, the sea, a curtain, a blanket, a peekaboo device.

Dolls play a particular role in Steiner play. Rahima writes that “We need to put our attention into the quality of the dolls our children have. Not only their expression is important, but the quality of the material as well. Is the doll hard and cold or soft and huggable? Is the hair platinum and grotesquely matted after a week’s play? A soft cloth doll with yarn hair and a neutral expression provides the child with a companion who can change as she does… Barbie is a multimillion dollar enterprise and encouraging our young children to indulge in her designer jeans and convertible supportive values that impoverish the world of the young child”

And Fairy Tales and Nursery Rhymes are also very ‘Steiner’. I always had a problem with Fairy Tales, and I still hate the Hansel and Gretel tale, and Cinderella. Children being treated badly and alone in the world made me hugely sad as a child, and today. Rahima says to simply avoid stories that bring out these feelings in you as an adult, because your fear will be transmitted to children. However, she suggests a wide range of lovely Fairy Tales, that are actually very sweet.
For three year olds she suggests
Sweet Porridge
Little Tuppens
Little Louse and Little Flea
The Turnip
The Mitten
The Gingerbread Boy
The Johnny Cake
The Hungry Cat

And my last comment on this, rather long and drawn out post, is to dismiss any myth that Steiner parents don’t read to their children. While making up your own stories is strongly encouraged, I had a discussion with a woman from the Steiner Federation here who said that we should ‘fill our children’s lives with books’ and continue reading to them not only as babies, but right up in to their teens. Wise lady that.

Initially posted at http://domesticallyblissed.wordpress.com/2008/03/15/fantasy/

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Housework ... but not as we know it

Still working through ’You are your child’s first teacher’ and still getting so much out of it.
One of the themes in many Waldorf/Steiner books I have read, and that I have heard spoken about in our playgroup, is the role of the mother as a ‘model’ doing house hold tasks in a calm, pleasant way. Our attitude and approach is the most important part of the equation, not the result.

One of our original playgroup teachers was a wonderful example of this. She moved gracefully, with a soft smile on her face, and humming while she worked. She would sort out the bread rolls, organise hand washing stations, cut fruit for morning tea, arrange dolls for story time, all with this calm, serene, contented presence. And the children all gravitated towards her.

The following except from the book speaks directly to this.

Because rhythmical activity speaks so strongly to children, it is helpful to bring conscious gestures into our household tasks such as folding clothes, sweeping floors and washing the windows, car or floor. The children will watch, join in to help, or simply take it all in as they go about their work of playing. It sounds like we’re back at the same old stuff – housework- but there are two differences. One is we’re doing these activities with awareness of how we move, with awareness of their beneficial effect on the young child and with caring. The other is that we might be doing things we wouldn’t ordinarily do like sweeping, washing place mats on a scrubbing board, ironing, grinding grain with a hand mill, baking, sanding wood and so forth. By becoming conscious of our own activities, by regulating our daily lives in a harmonious, rhythmical way, by valuing what we do around our children, we are shaping their will forces, and helping their physical bodies to develop in as healthy a way as possible.

This is a huge challenge for me. I am a rusher, clumsy, frantic, stressed and displeased about having to do ‘mundane’ things. I long to do tasks without a toddler pulling on my skirt, and try to distract her with toys so I can get some peace to finish my own tasks. I have much to learn.

Originally published at http://domesticallyblissed.wordpress.com

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Waldorf Toddlers

I really wanted to share more from this wonderful book on Steiner parenting that I started to blog about last week.

When it comes to toddlers, the Waldorf philosophy - if I get this right - is that young children exist wholly in their physical senses and their will. So for toddlers its all about touching, tasting, hearing, smelling and seeing. They are insatiable for all these wonderful new things. One of the most important things you can do is to pay attention to all that surrounds your child.

This includes the food, clothing, images, toys sunshine, sand and water. It also includes the less tangible ‘nourishment’ that comes from your warmth and love and the emotions that surround your child.

As well as the senses, your toddlers will is developing - their internal drive and motivation is still very instinctual but it is moving from the pure instinct of a baby to the ‘urge’ of a toddler.

According to Steiner, will begins as instinct in a baby, then gradually changes over the years into urge, then desire then motive. Urge is still strongly connected to the body (biological urges) Such urges will further metamorphose into desire when the emotional element enters around the age of two or three.

As you would expect in a Waldorf book, there is a strong aversion to the commercialization of childhood. Caution is suggested in what you bring in to your home, whether through the influence of television, so called ‘educational toys’ like computers for babies, flashcards for toddlers, or structured lessons for pre-schoolers. Instead of these more commercial activities, there is a wonderful list for each age group of suggested toys and things to do.

For example, in the Toddlers chapter she suggests push toys, wooden blocks cut from various diameters of a tree, low containers for water play, a sandbox, a toy telephone, simple dolls, nesting toys, block crayons, and balls. Activities include letting your toddler ‘help’ you around the house, going on nature walks, hiding games, and lots of singing Physical activity is critical for toddlers, and Rahima explains that “when your child is first mastering new body skills, most play consists in pure movement without the element of fantasy. A young child loves to run, jump, walk on tiptoe, climb, run around or roll on the ground. Like a lamb in springtime or a young colt, your child delights in movement for the sheer joy of it

I particularly enjoyed her suggestions for discipline with toddlers. If you want to teach a certain behaviour to your child, one of the best ways is to actually do it in front of (or with) him. This demands that we as adults get up and actually do something. Movement combined with the smallest amount of fantasy or good humour can go a long way toward getting the child to do what you want… For example, early in the year at our Waldorf preschool, several children couldn’t sit calmly during snack time. “We sit with our feet in front of us’ we repeated again and again, as we reseated the child or showed our own straight way of sitting. After several months the children were older and able to sit calmly during snack time, and the lesson had been repeated so many times that it had begun to penetrate the body.

This is certainly something that I have taken on board with Munchkin.

First published at http://domesticallyblissed.wordpress.com/2008/03/04/you-are-your-childs-first-teacher-the-toddler-years/