The structure of today's society makes in necessary for both parents to work, therefore they need childcare for their children. The family structures have completely changed; there are now many single parent families, children living in multiple families, one week with mom, one with dad. The families are made up of shared, brought along, adopted children and so on; the possibilities are many.
Many of today's parents have spent most of their childhood in institutions, and therefore don't have any role models for parenting. They truly have very little idea about how to be a parent. Society today values the intellect so highly that children are rushed to grow up and become intellectual too quickly. The fact that childhood needs time is often disregarded. However, in regards to society as a whole there is a need for childcare and we fill this need by providing care in this context. The big question is then: What kind of care are we providing? What kind of childcare is appropriate?
Now, I would like to explore some aspects of childcare in practice. Today, some institutions are open round the clock, although most centres are open for nine or ten hours a day. This means that staff shifts are staggered, with the result that the child is looked after by several different adults throughout the day. Further, the child's playmates will change in the course of the day, as some will be dropped off or picked up at different times.
If we believe that the child's “Self” or “I” is based on the caregiver's “Self”, then we need to ask what happens if the “Self” changes several times a day. What happens to the adult as a role model? How many hours a day should a child spend at an institution? Where do the positive influences stop and the negative influences begin? We know that the young child needs to connect to the caregiver through eye contact and the physical and mental presence of the adult. The child needs rhythm and a constant sense of recognition in her environment.
Some institutions for small children are located on the first floor or higher and/or there is no safe play area outside. This makes outdoor play a challenge. The children are often placed in “vehicles” for the journey to a playground, facing forward and away from the caregiver's eye contact. Clothing is rarely appropriate for play in puddles, mud or climbing. Children are brought to uniform playgrounds where they are told by physically passive adults about everything they are not allowed to do. In Copenhagen, Denmark, the authorities have now informed parents that children will not be taken outside from September to May due to financial constrains; there simply aren't enough resources to provide staff for all the putting on and taking off of coats, hats, gloves and winter boots required during the cold months.
What are the consequences thereof? I have observed that a lack of physical activity leads to disrupted sleeping patterns because the healthy physically-tired sleep does not happen; instead we are faced with irritable, over-tired and dissatisfied children. The lack of exercise translates into lack of appetite, which again translates into picky eaters. The lack of cross-lateral coordination translates into poor speech, both in pronunciation, expression and the general joy of communicating. We might say the child remains focused in her head and the rest of the body is neglected. I know quite a few children who still wear nappies at the age of five or six which I blame on the lack of physical activity.
Many children today have no role-models to observe in the act of caring for others because they are an only child and lack social interaction with children of different age groups. I find it alarming to see how children today are separated according to their age all throughout childhood. Older and younger children provide a framework to which the child can orient herself, she can see where she came from and where she's going and so finds her bearings in the world. If a child only plays with children her own age, she has no one who mirrors herself, no one to look towards for inspiration and growth.
In mixed age groups I find that consideration for others happens more naturally. In today's modern society we are very much separated, we hardly interact with our neighbours and I am convinced that this makes it ever more important to support the development of social skills.
It is a question for us at the Waldorf movement how we address these concerns. Do we follow mainstream approaches and meet the existing demands or do we stand up for the rights and needs of the children and limit the time frame and settings we provide for the children? Are we able to advocate children's right for time with their parents, thus making a political statement? Or do we just follow the mainstream and bandage the wound in the hope the pain will stop?
Taking care of children today is more than ever a question of how we want the future to be. Let's have an open dialogue with all those who are truly interested in childhood!
Helle Heckmann is a Waldorf kindergarten teacher in Denmark. Helle is also offering courses, workshops and consulting worldwide. See: slowparenting.dk