Watch me and learn, mama: a ‘less is more’ approach to supporting optimum child development.


Image by courosa via Flickr

Magda Gerber’s Resources for Infant Educators (RIE) is an approach to childcare which I find very similar to my own: watch and learn from your kids, let them take the lead and show you what they are interested in. Plus that is proven to be how kid’s learn best.

Here is an amazing little introduction to the RIE philosophy, if you have not heard of it before:

I first came across RIE kind of by accident. A new momma I had just met invited me to a play date at a group near where we live. She never turned up – yep, she stood me up! And it turns out this group was just starting out and Anya and I were the only ones there – hah. That probably sounds better than it was, one-to-one attention from the group facilitator. In actual fact this is the kind of group where you don’t say much you mostly watch what the kids are up to, what new tricks they are learning, what takes their interest, what habits they have picked up (good or bad), etc. Parents ask questions and you get to benefit from the answers to all the questions, not just your own… but all that doesn’t work so well when you are the only parent in the group. Oh, well. We stayed anyway and then we came for a few more sessions and slowly fell in love with this quiet way of looking at babies’ ways. It turns out we did rather well out of the whole incident, really.

I find this approach to childcare refreshing. It is so organic and natural, somehow. It is based on trust: trust that your kid knows what to do, what skill to practice, that their instincts will drive their will to learn – no adult or gadget intervention needed. I am very much of this belief. I have been amazed over and over by the fact that Anya just knows what to concentrate on next. First babies wave their arms and legs about, then they learn to twist and finally turn. This is basically baby-pilates – as they build their core strength ready to crawl. Crawling in turn builds co-ordination (essential for the brain and for walking). You see them pulling themselves up, practicing squats to strengthen their leg muscles. It is like the DNA encoded its very own fitness trainer into a baby’s brain. Then, when they are ready, they walk and they become more and more obsessed with stairs – the next frontier.

RIE sees and respects this. It gives parents the confidence to trust this process by quietly observing and supporting the baby’s own pace of development. It was a RIE instructor who first suggested to me that I should stop sitting Anya up until she was able to get in and out of this position unaided – because by just ‘artificially’ sitting her up (which she could do, unsupported) she was not lying on the floor, working those core muscles, reaching for things and really getting ready to crawl. If you remember Anya started crawling literally days after I started lying her on her back again – like she just needed that extra little bit of practice to get going.

And it turns out I am not the only one who is into this kind of back-to-basics approach, a whole load of celebrities are, too (who knew?):

RIE is also all about fewer toys and toys that have unlimited possibilities. It was from RIE that we borrowed our ‘toys that aren’t toys’ philosophy – i.e. we started to give Anya bowls and spoons and cloths to play with and those keep her entertained for hours, often.

Magda Gerber’s also urged us to keep our praise natural and minimal: do not get the kid hooked on praise rather than the process of what they are doing. You want them to want to do what they are doing for its own sake, to do it even when you are not looking – not to only do things which please you, for the attention. This is powerful stuff which has repercussions over the person’s life – and super interesting, maybe I’ll post more about another time (if I can find the praise studies, which are so interesting).

At its core, as I see it, RIE is about self-directed learning and exploration. It is a gentle way that puts kids at the centre of their own lives from the start. It nurtures curiosity, self-reliance and determination by simply letting them be, freely, naturally who they are and who they want to be.


4 thoughts on “Watch me and learn, mama: a ‘less is more’ approach to supporting optimum child development.

  1. Thank you so much for introducing your readers to the RIE Approach and for linking to my post about independent play (which is something most of us want our children to be able to do eventurally, but we might not realize that the inclination begins in the first weeks of life).

    I really love the way you describe the Pikler/Gerber approach to gross motor development: ” This is basically baby-pilates – as they build their core strength ready to crawl. …It is like the DNA encoded its very own fitness trainer into a baby’s brain.” Brilliant!

    I’m excited to have found your blog and will certainly be back to read more!

  2. Hi:) I am new to your blog, and what I have read so far is reminding me of my college early childhood education, where we focused on how children learn best, and letting them guide that learning. I taught first grade and tried to let their interests be their motivators. I am now a mother of two, 5 years and 3 years, and i have a question within the context of everything you believe/ have written: How do you think all of this self-directed learning (very specifically at an infant level for motor development) applies when children have delays? My two children were born with an eye condition that made them delayed in their gross motor development. My son began occupational therapy at 7 months, crawled at 16 months and walked at 26 months. Not typical milestone ages. I find myself at times knowing self-direction is best, and yet saying to myself, “should I have let him figure out all those movements on his own, and not patterned his muscles through every motion like I did?”
    My son is five now and can run (although a bit awkwardly), climb stairs, jump, hop and can entertain himself for hours. He figured all of this out on his own. But there are things I feel I HAVE to model and teach, and I guess I’m wondering what your opinion is on kids with delays/special needs and self-directed learning.
    Thanks for letting me ramble, and thank you for recording your thoughts in such a helpful way:)

    • Hi, Meg,

      I am so glad you are enjoying the blog.

      Yours is definitely not a ramble but a very clear and insightful question. This is not, however, an area I have any expertise or experience in – sorry. It is hard for me to make that call without knowing the individual children and without any knowledge of the field. I will say, as a mother, you have to trust your gut, do what feels right and give yourself permission (no encouragement) to continue growing and learning which means you WILL find out stuff you didn’t know then. You will learn tips and techniques you wish you knew earlier… but you have to forgive yourself for not knowing everything from the start – or better still accept that you know what you know and keep opening to new information and guidance, as it arrives.

      I think if I were in your position I would do what you are doing, a combination of trusting and waiting and encouraging, modeling and yes, probably occasionally ‘teaching’. I don’t know… I’d like to think I would take it at my child’s pace but I am human, I have fears and insecurities and can get impatient, so I guess it would depend a lot on the quality of information and support I was receiving. Again, though, it is all about being responsive. We each need to work with the child(ren) we have and with the information we’ve had access to (practically and spiritually speaking). It sounds to me like you are a great mom who is working tirelessly to respect the people your children are AND support them to reach their highest potential in the most loving way possible. This is a tricky balance and it seems to me you are finding your way through this beautifully.

      Have you looked into the Pikler Institute? [] They are kind of the inspiration behind Magda Gerber’s RIE (which we love). Perhaps they have a section on children with developmental delays? And if not perhaps you could pose a question to them. Alternatively you could try Janet Landsbury [], if you haven’t already. Not sure if this is her area, either, but she certainly is a great spokesperson for RIE, as a parent educator, herself. I hope these lead get you closer to the answer you seek – or that you find it in your Heart.

      Much joy and THANKS for sharing your question here. Do come back to us with more comments or questions – I love this exchange with other parents as we all find our way and learn together, as a community.


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