Where’s The Button?

As owner of Kids at Work, an early childhood center located in Chelsea, and having worked with hundreds of families in early childhood for almost a decade, I knew that when I had a child of my own, I wanted to honor the process of making discoveries and create a situation in which he would be able to make progress at his own pace. You may think that’s not really a unique desire—don’t we all want our children to be accepted and loved for who they truly are? Yes, but we rarely think of this authentic individuality in infancy and toddlerhood. We want our child to sit up sooner, sleep through the night sooner, walk sooner, talk sooner, and keep up with the neighbor’s kid! Our culture of instant gratification beckons us to want more faster.

RIE, which was founded in 1978 in Los Angeles by Magda Gerber and pediatric neurologist, Tom Forrest, MD, stands for Resources for Infant Educarers. It is, in my opinion, about learning to observe and practice observing your child, with the goal of understanding your child’s abilities, needs, and desires in the moment. And, boy, does this take practice, as well as a fundamental trust in your baby’s abilities. Next time your baby or toddler is playing alone, just try to watch what he or she is really doing without projecting your own ideas (what you think is going on, or what you think he or she will do next) onto the situation. Let him or her just be for a good 15 minutes. Put the iPhone away and really watch your child. It’s not easy and many of us have trouble appreciating and enjoying what our baby is learning and doing all on his or her own, and why that is important. At RIE Parent-Infant Guidance™ class (shameless plug: classes will be held on Mondays beginning September 10, at Kids at Work in Chelsea!) we get together with our babies and a trained RIE expert/facilitator to practice the art of observing our children and to discuss our observations within the context of RIE.

One of the more controversial tenets of the Educaring Approach—and, for me, one of the most difficult to practice with all of the well-meaning relatives, walkers, baby propper-uppers, and activity centers all over the place—is the concept of free movement. Free movement means placing babies on their backs from birth and allowing them to discover, practice, and achieve each gross motor milestone how and when they decide to do it. The adult’s role is to provide safety and an environment that facilitates the baby’s freedom to move. This concept was produced and researched by Hungarian pediatrician Emmi Pikler, one of Magda Gerber’s mentors. This means no tummy time. We did very little tummy time with our son and never propped him into a sitting position and he, at 13 months, is reaching milestones within the normal range. This also applies to all gross motor milestones such as sitting up, standing up, or walking around your child. The idea is that the process of getting to these milestones is where the learning happens, and if we introduce these positions and movements too soon by helping, we interrupt our child’s natural progression.

Choosing objects for children that invite sensory exploration and problem solving (not just toys that say so on the box!) is important to the Educaring Approach as well. At RIE class, toys are almost always simple (child safe) household items placed in interesting ways, inviting exploration and play. There are never any flashing lights, sounds, or buttons. The idea is to have an active baby and a passive object, not the other way around! Thinking about texture and movement can help us to choose items that may entice baby to focus for long periods of time. One of our son’s favorite toys at 7 months was an interesting wicker placemat that he loved flopping about, grasping in different ways, and of course chewing on.

RIE Parent-Infant Guidance™ is also a safe place where moms and dads can observe their children in a social context, without the need to apologize if their baby gets too close to another baby. As a matter of fact, it is encouraged that babies interact in a natural way, while parents allow babies to make mistakes and experience genuine emotion. Sometimes children cry and they are encouraged to feel these emotions in a natural way. When this happens in class, the incident is acknowledged and children are not distracted from the situation.

Making the right decisions can be perplexing for a new parent given all the media hype and advertising, not to mention well-meaning friends and relatives giving their constant advice. At RIE class, we learn how to get to a place where our babies’ own true wants and needs are observed in great detail, leading to a better and more intimate understanding, and a fundamental trust in the abilities of our children from infancy and beyond.

Mom and Early Childhood Expert Julie Averill is the owner of Kids at Work. Julie loves working with families and developing age-appropriate and child-centered programming for young children. She lives on the Upper West Side with her husband, Dmitry, and their one year old son, Peter.

Read more about RIE here. And you can find more information on RIE classes this fall, for babies 4-24 months here.