He bolts bear-like across the room, the weight of his “knee-less” crawling posture evenly dispersed to the hands and feet. Pausing, he examines a block or a sponge or a metal lid, or the sounds created when pounding the objects together.
I watch this flurry of activity and ponder the magnificent simultaneous functions at work that enable his curious spirit: the physical balance required to move without falling; the cognitive curiosity propelling him from one object to the next; the sensory cravings calling for novel sights or sounds or textures. Clearly, he is in charge of his learning.
Of course, I am responsible for the environment with its soft, carpeted floors and compelling materials. I designed the structure – open spaces of time to explore, bookended by predictable snacks and meals. And my presence validates that exploration is safe and worthy and honorable, but my presence is also quiet and as distant as his comfort level (and my overall parameters for safety) permits. He is in charge of his learning.
With a fall, I come close, but I don’t smother. You hit your head on the table when you were crawling. You seem sad. I’m here if you would like a hug. I’ll sit close so you can come if you would like. My arms are open for you if that would be helpful.
With safety in question, I come close, but I don’t immediately remove a non-imminent danger. You found a small cube. I will help you use it with your hands. I have this block if you would like to chew on something.
With a full diaper or a runny nose, I come close, and I offer help. I can see that your nose needs wiping. I have a tissue to wipe it with. Do you see the tissue? Can I wipe your nose? Would you like to feel the tissue with me? Would you like to help me wipe your nose?
In these moments, he learns that he is in charge of his body. He learns that his body is capable and worthy of respect. He is in charge of his learning.
That babies are capable learners and confident communicators is a characteristic often overlooked by their protective and nurturing community. To honor a baby’s opinion about the timing of a diaper change, or the speed at which he feels ready to move, or the desires he has to construct learning out of atypical materials supports a clear message that he is in charge of his learning. What a gift!
A baby who grows up with a solid awareness that he is capable of acquiring knowledge, that his curiosities are worthy of exploration, and that he is able to get his needs met with the support of his community, is a child with the skills to lead a successful life, resisting victimization and nurturing wholeness and integrity.
My nine-month-old son Desmond has not been placed into positions that he cannot get into or out of on his own (exer-saucers, walkers, held by his hands while he “walks”). Because of this, he has a strong internal sense of his body’s ability.
As a practice, allowing babies to control their learning requires a conscious decision to remain present while staying out of the way. Society and advertisers try to convince parents and care providers that a child’s development depends on our continued involvement and orchestration. The decision to stand back and make space for children to control their learning might possibly be one of the most significant life choices you can make for them, and pave the way for their future success.
Note: I use male pronouns throughout to simplify reading (instead of his/her) and because I am writing specifically with my son in mind.
Emily Plank is a play-enthusiast, expert block-tower-builder, skilled problem-solver, and accomplished storyteller. She is an in-home childcare provider and preschool teacher, and loves putting early childhood education research to the test with her crew at Abundant Life Child Development Home in Iowa. She serves as a mentor to other child development home providers in her county and spends evenings and weekends training other early childhood educators across the state through her own original workshops and trainings. An avid writer, Emily blogs for the families of children in her care and the early childhood community at large at abundantlifechildren.com. She lives in Iowa with her husband and three very spirited young children.
(Emily, thank you for your rich and colorful description of respectful care…and the charming photos of Desmond!)
This is such a challenging article for me! This is my fourth child and I never thought of “asking permission” for things until this go round! Thanks for the glimpse of what that looks like, Emily. I’m excited to try it out.
I have been trying to put these respectful actions into practice with my son over the past couple of months and it is really a hard shift to make once you are so used to doing things one way. I had always been conscious of talking to my baby throughout the day, always communicating one-way, but never really asking or waiting for a willing response before doing the diaper change, transitioning activities etc. It’s a beautiful gift for our children to be so respectful of them as little people. My 16 month old son seems to respond very well as I learn to give him a minute before a diaper change or let him wipe his own hands and face, carry a bowl of fruit, or undress himself before jumping in to finish it for him.
I am starting a new nanny gig in August and I really want to give the gift of RIE to these children (16 months and 3.5 years). How do I stay out of the way but also not come across as a lazy caregiver?
Thank you for your question! First of all, I truly believe that the children you are working with will develop into healthier, more whole people as you incorporate RIE philosophy into your interactions. People of all ages deserve respect – and by sharing this gift with young children, they learn they deserve respect.
I share some of your struggle. I am an in-home preschool teacher/daycare provider, and I can empathize with the need to prove ourselves — our clients have expectations for what we do with their children, and measuring productivity in early childhood settings can look very different, depending on who’s observing.
My experience has taught me how critical communication is. Have you heard the prase, “Expectation is resentment waiting to happen.”? 🙂 If parents expect daily craft products, lists of “we did this, and this and this…” — then they may be surprised to find you sitting and engaging *with* children rather than doing things to and for children. From my experience, the RIE philosophy makes a lot of sense intuitively, but it has to be explained. The tricky piece is figuring out how to explain without sounding condescending or “know-it-all” — perhaps you can send a link to some of the articles you have read on Janet’s website and ask, “What do you think? This feels very natural to me…or this makes a lot of sense.” When I had my first daughter, someone gave me the book, “Your Self Confident Baby” by Magda Gerber, and I gained a whole new perspective on some of the behaviors I would not have otherwise questioned: tickling, diapering, assisted motor development, etc. By sharing some of your thinking with your clients, it will probably pave the way for a healthy parent/child/care provider relationship. Being on the same page as the parents will be critical for a healthy relationship.
The RIE philosophy is not lazy or disengaged, in fact, it is the opposite! Engaging with chilren, observing and supporting their natural growth and learning takes a very intentional and present mind. Have you read any work by Magda Gerber or Emmi Pikler? The more versed you are in the philsophy, the more confident you will feel in communicating with your clients.
Another suggestion I have is transitioning slowly into a more RIE-esque approach. Beginning with diapering, you might decide to bring a respectful eye to your routines. After this begins to feel comfortable, maybe you would try chunks of 15 or 30 minutes at a time, sitting with the children and respectfully reflecting their play.
I hope this is helpful!
About 4 weeks ago i began, amongst other things, involving my 12 months old daughter in nappy change time. She had been really hating it, crying, arching back etc, but since repsecting her right to be fully part if the process, its totally different!!! She brings me a nappy now! She gets the wipe and tries to wipe by herself, she is sooooi excited to put each leg into the nappy. Thank u RIE (from sophie too!)
Great story, Sarah! And this certainly isn’t the first time I’ve heard this. Children just want to be included and feel like their participation is valued. Thanks for sharing!
I have tried to bring RIE to the diaper change process, but am struggling. Would anyone be able to tell me what it would look like, not at the end when we have come to understand how this works and implement it fully, but how it might look in the shift stage?
Like Julie, I too would like to know how to bring RIE to the diaper changing process, and also cleaning face/hands after meal time.
Hi Hilary and Julie! Here’s a post I’ve written all about diapering the RIE way. For cleaning faces and hands we take a similar approach. It’s all about slowing down and communicating, inviting the child to participate as much as possible, respect: https://www.janetlansbury.com/2010/05/how-to-love-a-diaper-change/
‘Facilitators of learning’ provide structure and tools… and support as required. This is best-practice teaching. At school, a teacher like this would typically be found at the back of the classroom or sitting down with a group of kids.
Having gone through some of the comments from other readers I would like to say that being a scientist myself I do respect both researchers and the results of their work. Nevertheless I reserve my right to exercise my judgment. So when I hear about 30K words at 3 I thing of a number of college kids I know and I wonder whether so many words can be related to foot ball.