Sunday, June 29, 2008

Teaching babies to read - who's really the dummy?

Last week on a leading current affairs show a supposed 'expert' promoting the Your Baby Can Read programme. The premise seems to be that babies as young as three months will benefit from a structured daily schedule of DVD watching and flashcard practice

These sorts of things make me both sad and angry. Sad that parents want to co-erce their children into early reading, want to spend time doing this sort of 'tutoring' rather than playing together. Angry that parents are being taken advantage of in this way, and that children are growing up in this kind of pressure cooker environment.

We have known for a long time that yes, babies can be taught to recognise written words early on - by sight not by actually reading. But we have also known for a long time that this doesn't have any long term benefit, and may actually be harmful.

There are many neuropsychologists, developmental specialists, occupational therapists and teachers who are concerned that our current trend in this country of pushing “academics” in preschool and kindergarten will result in even greater increases in the number of children, particularly boys, diagnosed with attentional problems and visual processing types of learning disabilities. Susan Johnson MD, Lilipoh, Fall 2007: Issue #49, Vol. 12

Parents in favour of the programme say that they want to expand their children's world, and open up the wonderful world of books to them early. Certainly books are a wonderful part of a children's life, and being read to every day by a parent is critically important. But children being able to read books to themselves is a joy of a later stage of childhood - why rush this? Why not just let toddlers be toddlers, building towers and knocking them down, playing in mud and water, putting dolls to bed and pretending to put nappies on them.

Steiner children, despite not being taught reading until seven have been widely assessed at catching up to their peers by the time they are nine. Starting early has no long term advantage.

To put it simply, teaching little babies and toddlers to read is a nonsense. Yes, they will memorise the flashcards but so what? The part of their brain that reads fluently simply hasn't been developed yet. Its so much better to wait.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Steiner mum visits Playcentre

After reading the fabulous Magic Places and finding Susan Harper’s Schema Matrix so useful I decided that I really should check out Playcentre for myself.

For those of you not from these fair shores, Playcentre is unique to New Zealand. A Playcentre is a fully licensed early childhood education (ECE) facility, that is run entirely by parents. The parents undergo training and manage every aspect of the centre – they are the teachers, the cleaners, the managers, the strategic planners. They take the idea that ‘parents are first teachers’ very seriously indeed. Playcentre people are quick to tell you that its not a coffee group – this isn’t parents sitting around chatting while children play – the parents are very hands on. I’ve heard from Playcentre mums I know are that they hardly get to take a breath all session – even when the children are busy eating a parent will tell them a story!

The Playcentre books I have read are really inspiring. Children learning through free play is at the very heart of the philosophy. Playcentre books talk about the importance of making up stories for children, and using puppets to act out stories. In “The Playcentre Way” Alisa Densem suggests that someone should be reading stories out loud all the time. In "Magic Places" Pennie Brownlee talks about having an atmosphere of calm and order, with lots of natural wood, and stresses the superiority of natural materials for childrens play. Early academics are out, freeing childrens creative spirit is in.

The traditional Playcentre set up has 16 areas of play (sand, water, clay, playdough, painting, physical, puzzles, family play, fantasy, blocks, carpentry, junk construction, books and storytelling, collage, exploratory play and music). All areas are set up all the time (ideally) and children have free access to all the activities. Parents are trained to observe, facilitate and where appropriate extend children’s play in these areas.

So, feeling inspired I took my Steiner hat off for the morning (as much as one every can) and went along for a session.

The Playcentre that we visited is an amazing facility with a large standalone building on a fairly decent sized section, next to a Council owned park. Munchkin had a great time exploring this fantastic space. The playground was extensive - a large permanent wooden structure of slides, climbing frames and tunnels, with additional wooden boxes and planks added on to create a real adventure playground. Foam gym mats had been put around so the kids could leap on to them.

There was a wooden house full of wonderful dress up costumes, a winding path for riding trikes, a massive sandpit with all the usual sandpit toys and a couple of large wooden sit on diggers. Finger painting was a bit hit, and there were several colours of playdough to use.

We didn’t get to the collage section but it looked pretty popular. Munchkin and I enjoyed the reading corner, and I saw a group of boys making a fantastic train track out of wooden blocks. I didn’t see anyone using the exploratory (science) play area, but there was a fish tank which fascinated Munchkin for ages.

It is pretty overwhelming though – lots of kids, lots of toys, lots of signs up everywhere creating a very cluttered environment. There was constant noise from a cd player of kids music, although none of the kids were dancing or listening to it. I think this shattered my nerves more than Munchkin’s to be fair.

At times, supervision seemed a bit lacking – it started to hail at one point and a mother realized her 12 month old who had been playing outside with no apparent supervision was missing – in the hail! Another point in the day saw a young boy climb to the top of the balcony railing teetering over the concrete path. What surprised me with these two examples is that in both cases the parents seemed to be inside enjoying their cuppa … which of course is not the Playcentre way at all!

Morning tea was a bit of an eye opener for me – a far cry from the organic fruit and wholemeal buns of our Steiner group. Morning tea was a bit of a shock with almost every other child having a little packet of chippies and a little packet of biscuits (mainly 100s and 1000s or choc chippies). Munchkin was definitely the only child with a no packaging, home made morning tea.

As anyone that is still reading this will probably gather – I’m pretty torn about it. I haven’t made a decision about whether Playcentre might be right for us. For now, we are getting so much out of our Steiner playgroup that we will continue there for now. We are of course, lucky to have the option – I know not everyone does. But it has got me thinking a lot about what a ‘Steiner inspired Playcentre’ could look like … another post perhaps!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Passionate Play

Blog surfing as I do, I came across this post which had a link to this document about schemas in early childhood. A schema seems to a ‘theme’ that is particularly apparent in a childs play at a particular point in time. So, for example one of the schema is ‘transporting’ – which you will see if your child has a ‘Picking things up, moving them, and putting them down or dumping them. Perhaps using pram, bag, basket, truck or wheelbarrow. Usually has full hands’.

According to the article (which first appeared in the New Zealand Playcentre Association Journal) “Schemas are extremely useful because children's passions are what drives them to become most deeply engaged and deep engagement is what we need to identify in order to support and scaffold children's learning most effectively” It might just be me, but I think this is fascinating. Of course, it is just common sense when you look at the document – think about the things your child is really passionate about and then apply those across different areas of play.

However, being just a little bit too academic for my own good I love having a model to work with. Already today it has really changed the way I play with Munchkin. Her main ‘schema’ (it’s a dreadful word isn’t it – please someone think of a more intuitive label for it) is transporting which I mentioned above, but she’s also into ‘Enclosure and Enveloping’ - Surrounds things. Likes getting inside a defined area e.g. a block building, tyre or barrel. Gets into boxes. Covers completely, wraps up. Hides. Gets into boxes and closes lids”

So today, when I wanted to find something for her to play with at the cafĂ© (wasn’t I lucky having Sunday brunch out!) I consciously thought about these two schema, and gave her some spoons, a sugar sachet and a plastic cup to hide them in. She had a ball … because I was providing opportunities for her to explore what she is passionate about. I have more consciously encouraged her ‘shopping game’ – and hours today were spent putting things in her little hand-bag and taking them around the house (transportation schema). Later this evening I set up a small table for her with some full cans of (unopened) drink, a cardboard box and a wide mouthed jam jar.

This matrix made me realise how often I try to show Munchkin things to play with that just aren’t what she is interested in – things like making sand castles or building towers (connecting) when she actually wants to fill buckets of sand, move sand from one end to the other, and then push buckets of sand around in a wheel barrow.

Schema’s aren’t a concept I’ve come across before – I am not sure if they are Playcentre specific or are used more widely in early childhood education, let alone in the Steiner/Waldorf context but I’d love to know.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Back to Basics

Its been rather a long time between posts hasn't it. I have no good excuses, but I think I am indulging rather in being a full time SAHM. Isn't it funny that the more time we have, the less we manage to do. Or is that just me?

So, the house is a tip (really, I'm not just saying that) and I really need to put some effort into establishing better routines.

When I was working part time, we had a cleaning lady every week. Luxury! So I could manage the day to day washing, cooking, straightening and surface cleaning pretty easily. I just cleaned as I went, and knew that every Tuesday I would come home to a sparkling clean house.

But now - I'm trying to keep the house clean and sparkly, with an 18 month old running around beside me. Its kind of funny really - well I'm trying to look at it that way. Yesterday it took all afternoon to do the vaccuuming. She screamed everytime I turned it on - usually it doesn't bother her at all. So at 5.00 when Hubby came home he carried her around and they both watched me vaccuum. She found this quite exciting and everytime I turned the thing off I heard 'more more more'.

Today it was the bathroom's turn. I armed her with her very own dishcloth, and got her wiping the outside of the bath. Of course, she just wanted to climb in, and play with the spray bottle. But with lots of singing and cheering we managed to get the bathroom into a reasonably clean state. I'm just not sure how much vinegar and baking soda solution she might have ingested - I'm sure its not recommended for toddlers!

Some tasks though I'm just not sure I can do with her in tow. Cleaning the toilet is just impossible as she has a flushing obsession. The dishwasher desperately needs a clean (how do they get so grubby in all those nooks and crannies?) but she would love to climb right in to the machine.

Of course, I haven't just been doing housework around here. If it was, the house wouldn't look quite so 'lived in'.

As well as my mission to perfect home made fruit-bread (more on that when I have succeeded) I have been reading a wonderful little book called 'Magic Places' by Penny Brownlee. It is published by the New Zealand Playcentre Association (Playcentre is a wonderful New Zealand invention - a parent run early childhood education centre - check it out). Sadly, you can't get this little book on amazon, but most NZ libraries seem to have it!

This little book is all about creativity with children - how to encourage their artistic skills and how to set up good quality artistic activities for them.

"Creativity is also part of the treasure each child comes with ... We need to be vigilant in making sure that the seedbed of the child's creativity is tended, watered and not trampled on'.

She talks abut how 'experience soaks in through the senses' and gives an example of a young child looking at a pine cone 'he feels and weights it. He feels and tastes it with his mouth. He listens and smells. He looks at it this way and that way, every which way, and maybe he wonders and imagines. (the child) needs us to make sure he has all sorts of real and rich experiences'.

I also really like her 'rules for adults'

1. The child is the creator. We never draw, make or model for the child.
2. Stay in the scribbling stage when working alongside children.
3. The child chooes from their experience. We never tell a child what to draw make or mdoel.
4. The child does it their way.
5. The child's creative potential is protected. We avoid presenting activities which rob children of their creativity (colouring in, templates, tracing, stencils).

"The creating must belong to the child. It is in the creating that the value lies for the child. It is their process; they are reflecting on their experience, making their unique expression into the world"

Its not a Steiner book - there is no 'wet painting' or beeswax modelling, and clay is used with young children - but its a wonderful and extremely practical guide to helping your children develop their creative potential, and its given me some great ideas to get started with.

Roll out the beeswax I say!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Why I Buy Organics

I really am something of an organics geek … and its getting worse. Since helping the lovely Lianne at OrganicBaby test her new website, I'm more convinced than ever of the importance of eating organic food.

While I am very lucky to have some friends who share my passion, I know that some people do raise their eyebrows when they go into my pantry. Especially given our Budget of Doom, people are surprised that I buy organic.

Yet, the quality of what we eat is so important. I think we all know this but our spending habits don’t always reflect it. In the US, the average family spends something like 5% of their income on food – which is the lowest in the developed world. I imagine in NZ we aren’t a whole lot better. It’s the whole ‘cheap, cheap, cheapest’ mentality again. Buy cheap food so that you have money to buy more cheap clothes, more cheap toys and more cheap junk to fill your home.

While being frugal and thrifty are important, I think its better to focus on avoiding waste, making food from scratch, and reducing your intake of meat and processed food - and then spend money on quality ingredients. When it comes to the quality of what you eat, don’t be a cheapskate. Don’t buy processed chicken nuggets and come complaining to me that organic chicken is too expensive. Buy organic chicken and make your own nuggets. They will taste so much better I promise!

So, my top reasons for buying organics are:

- They just taste better. Honestly. Even my completely cynical Hubby (who is much maligned on this blog but is a truly wonderful person) admits that organic stuff tastes out of this world. Especially apples. And Sultanas. And tomatoes. And pears. And potatoes And organic butter is amazing …. Need I go on?

- I can read the ingredients list out loud on organic food. Michael Pollan suggests that if we buy processed foods we choose ones with no more than five ingredients and with ingredients we can pronounce. Conventional processed foods are packed with ingredients like maltodextrin, , potassium nitrate, Sodium benzoate, Butylated hydroxyanisole. You don’t find that junk in organics. I was horrified to find a packet of Chicken Nuggets marketed as 100% chicken breast in a parenting magazine. How could this be I asked myself? I checked and they are definitely not 100% chicken breast – they are 60% chicken breast and 40% weird sounding additives. Its just that the chicken that is in there is breast meat, rather than the left over bits no one wants to us. Don’t be fooled by marketing, always always read your labels.

- No E numbers, no pesticides. A recent New Zealand study showed conventional raisins and sultanas had residues of 23 pesticides on them. Yuck. The number of additives and pesticides that have been linked to everything from ADHD to Cancer is terrifying. Additives and pesticides get approved one day and banned the next. Its scary. Especially if you are feeding littlies who are much more vulnerable to the effects of these chemicals. For more information on this stuff, check out

- Organics can help save the planet. Apparently if the US switched entirely to Organic farming, they would be more than able to meet the requirements of the Kyoto Protocol. Pesticides run off into the water supply, contaminate the soil and create hazardous waste. Single crop farms and intensive farming practices are hugely harmful to the soil, water and the air. Organic growers grow heirloom varieties prized for their natural resilience and their taste, rather than their uniform appearance or longevity for shipping.

- If you have to eat meat, you can eat organic meat with a much cleaner conscious. Without the use of antibiotics, growth hormones and chemically altered feeds, eating organic meat is a very different prospect altogether. Organic farmers are also philosophically committed to more humane methods for managing their animals. I choose to only buy organic chicken, pork on the odd occasion I buy it, and sausages (you don’t want to imagine what is in supermarket sausages!).

- I like to support smaller businesses that are committed to ethical, sustainable business practices. Now, I know that, particularly in the States, Big organic is probably almost as dodgy as Big Oil or Big Tobacco, but here in NZ our organics (with the odd exception) come small businesses, with a big commitment to ethics and quality. Places like Ceres, Commonsense Organics, Eco-Organics, RainbowValley, Koang Gardens … these are businesses that I am happy to spend money at. And they have great organics at our local Farmers Markets too.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Just call me a Steiner mum

Goodwitch posted this gorgeous poem recently which had me laughing so loudly I nearly woke the Munchkin.

Waldorf Moms
Waldorf moms wear cotton socks

Woolen sweaters, Birkenstocks.
Waldorf moms have long full skirts,
Big silk scarves and layered shirts.
Waldorf moms have fluffy hair,
They’re kind and firm and make you share.
Waldorf moms drive Volvo cars
And talk of fairies, gnomes, and stars.
Waldorf moms love Waldorf meetings
Where they greet with Waldorf greetings.
Waldorf moms make Waldorf dolls
From purest wool and cotton balls.
Waldorf moms drink lots of tea
Which has been grown organically.
Waldorf moms serve fruits and meats.
Veggies, grains, and not much sweets.
Their favorite word is “nourishing.”
They love to hike and knit and sing.
They leave the gluten out of bread
And make you spend twelve hours in bed.
And if you fall and scrape your knee
They give you rescue remedy!

I think all of us that spend any time at Steiner schools can relate to this, and it made me realise just how Steiner-ish I am becoming.

I was in fact drinking organic tea while reading this poem. I am about to start knitting my first dishcloth. I carry rescue remedy in my handbag. I have my eye on a pair of gorgeous red Birkenstocks. I recently found myself discussing the importance of keeping toddlers in bodysuits and vests to strengthen their etheric . And when Hubby was concerned my newly planted veggies might get eaten by the slugs I replied "its OK, the gnomes will protect them".

With some of my other friends (not those of you that read this of course) I can feel like the odd one out, with my organic snacks, woolly clothing, wooden toys, and not knowing the words to the Wiggles songs.

So I really value having a couple of mornings a week where I can hang out with kindred spirits. Where everyone knows that you give a child Belladonna for fever, where they can tell you the best place to buy spelt flour and what to do with kale. Where the first aid box has arnica and rescue remedy but no Savlon. Where people say things like 'heart feelings' and 'the fairies must have come' and no one blinks an eye. Where every second car in the parking lot has a Greens or GE free bumper sticker. (And no, they are not all Volvos!)

I might laugh out loud at that poem, but really, I love being a Steiner mum.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Acc-ent-uuuuate the positive, eeee-limmm-inate the negative

And don’t mess with mister in-between!

Not sure how to show musical tunes in a blog heading … but hopefully I’ve got you all singing now. I’ve been feeling frustrated lately about all the ways in which our carbon footprint is too high. I’ve found Sarah’s blogs “Happy Foody” and “Walk Slowly, Live Wildly” which I love, and I am so inspired by everything she does, but it also makes me painfully aware of how far I have to go.

Ironically perhaps, today is World Environment Day. New Zealand are the ‘hosts’ this year, so the media is full of doom and gloom about how we aren’t worthy of this honour, given our nation’s high carbon emissions from all our farm animals.

After all the media hype, and my own personal bit of doom and gloom about the fact that I drive too much, we don’t compost, and we still eat too much meat I started thinking of all the things I do do.

Its been such a positive experience writing this list … I do so much more than I thought. And so much more than I did a year ago! I bet most of you do these things - please leave me comments about what you do, don’t do and would like to do.

- We have a ‘no junk mail’ sign on our letterbox
- We recycle everything possible
- We have a front loader washing machine with great power and water efficiency
- We buy mostly organic veggies
- We buy only organic chicken and sausages
- I either make my own cleaning products or buy eco-store
- We use cloth nappies 95% of the time
- We use cloth wipes 99% of the time
- I use mama cloth pads (and they are great!)
- We buy second hand where we can
- We buy NZ made, Australia made or organic where we can’t buy second hand
- I buy a lot of bulk bin foods and avoid anything overly packaged
- I only use organic moisturiser, shampoo, conditioner and soap.
- We don’t buy much ‘stuff’ full stop
- We boycott made in China stuff
- I always walk to the local shops (it’s an easy walk though)
- We drink organic, fair trade coffee
- We use eco-tankas instead of plastic water bottles
- I take cloth bags to the supermarket
- I make extensive use of the public library
- I grow a few veggies – quite a few now in fact
- I don’t own a drier, and when I did I never used it
- We have an induction cook top
- I breastfed exclusively apart from a few weeks of top-ups in the early days.
- We use very little meat in our meals –I use beans, lentils and veggies to bulk up meaty things.
- We have a heatpump and are about to trial a hot water heat pump that will supposedly cut our hot water bill by 2/3rds
- We are very regular visitors to our farmers market when it runs.
- I bake our bread and do the vast, vast majority of our cooking from scratch.
- I use retro Tupperware containers and those funny elasticated food covers instead of plastic wrap.
- I haven’t been on a plane in nearly four years.
- I haven’t bought gift wrapping in over a year. I use canteen bandanas and squares of muslin for kids gifts which are great, or tea towels.
- I vote Green

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Cloth Nappies 101

A good friend of mine recently decided to make the switch to cloth nappies. She wanted to save the planet, save money, and loved how cute ‘modern cloth nappies’ are.

However, she found the process something just short of completely overwhelming. Surfing cloth nappy sites on the internet was bamboozling, visiting the cloth nappy information centre left her more confused that ever. It was information overload.

Cloth nappies (or cloth diapers for you in the US) are actually very very simple. There are a lot of choices though, and you'll go mad if you try to look into every nappy on the market. I know - I tried!

So, here are my very basic pointers for a very simple switch to cloth.

- Firstly, for babies past six months, pocket nappies are hands down the most popular. Don't even worry about other styles. Really.

- For little babies, fitted nappies with a PUL cover are definitely the most popular option for containing that explosive baby poo.

- There is no substitute for actually trying a nappy on your baby. Babies are different shapes and sizes, so there is no such thing as a perfect nappy for all babies. Hire kits are a great option, or see if your friends will let you borrow a few to try.

- Beware of cheap nappies that are sold at mainstream baby shops. Most of the time when I hear someone say that cloth didn't work for them, its because they tried a particularly cheap and nasty pocket nappy you can buy at the Baby Factory.

- Don't soak your nappies. Just take out the inserts, pop everything in a dry nappy bucket with a bit of baking soda in the bottom, and leave till washing day.

- Nappy rash creams are the enemy. They build up on the nappy and will stop them from working. If you need a nappy cream, use a disposable liner or try a product like 'Curash' which is a powder and doesn't create a residue.

- Don't beat yourself up if you don't go 100% cloth all at once. Even 1 disposable a day will be 365 nappies that don't go to landfill. That's a lot of nappies.

- Be prepared to become a little obsessed. Once you see how easy cloth nappies are, and how much less rubbish you put out each week you'll be hooked. Cloth wipes, cloth sanitary pads, even cloth toilet paper ... who knows where you'll end up!

For more information on cloth nappies, Organic Baby has a great section for New Zealand cloth nappies, and will very soon have information on US suppliers as well. The Nappy Network in New Zealand has great information, and operates a number of hire kits, which are well worth investigating. Good luck!