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.


How my daughter continues to blow my little mind with her little hands

Mommy’s swelling pride means the first thing I want to share with you all is Anya’s signing progress. I just find this whole ‘human learning to communicate’ journey endlessly fascinating. Anya seems to pick things up so quickly. I have to tell someone or I’ll burst! I try not to go on about it (too much) in person, in mommy groups or the like… but yeah, with you guys I let it out, to get the bragging out of my system, so to speak. Anyway, we all know all babies are amazing and to each of us our own baby is the best – of course – and to each of us it is, of course, true. Here is my truth:

At one year old (yes Anya has turned one!! – awesome) Anya now has over 50 signs. She went through another cognitive-development spurt, clearly. For a couple of weeks she was picking up signs at a rate of up to 2 a day – just fantastic to watch. She has also been building her repertoire of ‘words’ (with sounds for sleeping, pig and, the old classic: fart) so that brings her overall vocab to about 60 concepts.

Baby sign language improves our life in a myriad of small and great ways. One of my fave signs is ‘music’. When I am out with Anya in the baby-carrier she’ll sign for me to sing to her and then, when I stop, she signs for ‘more’. I love it. It is like having an audience cheer and shout encore. I also really enjoy that she calls food ‘mmm’ (not a sign, I know, but cute). There are not many people who greet my food with so much enthusiasm. Got to love that. Other favourite signs include computer, ‘there is none’/empty, tree and sleep (as in ‘dada is sleeping on the bed and snoring like a pig’ – I kid you not, she has pretty much signed that whole sentence… or at least that sentiment).

Anya also now has combinations of signs like ‘more milk’. Or she’ll combine sign and sounds by doing something like sign ‘where is’ and add the word ‘dada’. Cute and clever, no?

The other thing I think is fab about signing is the insight it gives me into the thought processes of a pre-verbal baby. For example, if we are indoors playing and Anya suddenly signs ‘bird’ it can take me a few seconds to realise she is saying she just heard a bird, outside. Who knew babies can hear and identify things out of sight, even when seemingly concentrating on an activity at hand?

So you can see, I am more and more sold on this signing thing. It is a lot of work, or at least it was to get it going in the start. It kind of has its own momentum now and is just fun, so that keeps us motivated. But I really enjoy it and I can see what a kick Anya gets from it, each time we respond appropriately to a request or communication of hers. She gets a real glint of joy and recognition in her eye. I can’t imagine not signing now and I find myself wondering how other moms communicate to their babies: how do they know what they want, what excites them, what they are thinking about? I know they make do but it seems so much more practical and rewarding to sign, now that I am into it. I’ll fully admit I do it as much for me as for Anya but she is clearly getting a lot out of it and I have read the research results: this stuff has positive impact on learning for life, not just as toddlers. I am lucky I stumbled across signing and grateful I stuck with it. Thanks California for your crazy hippy parenting ways!

Baby Talk: How to boost your child’s language skills (a programme for 9 to 13mo babies)

Here is something I have been meaning to share for ages. A few months back, now, I read a book called Baby Talk by Dr. Sally Ward. In it she describes a programme she has developed through her clinical work as a speech therapist in the UK. She originally worked with children with delayed language acquisition (among other issues). She got a big wad of funding from the North West Regional Health Authority for some in-depth research on what worked best to improve and accelerate children’s language learning. While the programme was developed for kids with language impairments of different kinds, it turns out that it can be applied to children whose language development is ‘normal’ and in this case it significantly boosts their language and communication skills.

This book is tremendous and I really recommend it. I will say it is written in a very repetitive even, in my view, lazy way with far too much copy-and-paste going on for my liking. But if you ignore how badly it is written (ironically seeing as it is a book about language and communication) the actual programme she is sharing with us is really fantastic.

It is geared to doing three things:

  1. Increase your child’s attention span by building on their ability to concentrate and focus – this is the first step in developing a deep enjoyment of self-directed learning
  2. Improve your child’s listening skills – key to learning in a school setting
  3. Develop your child’s language and communication skills – which correlate highly with ability to use higher reasoning and therefore with IQ

I gleaned a number of insights from reading this book such as understanding that babies really can’t distinguish between foreground sounds (e.g. the sound of a rattle in their hand) and background sounds (such as a plane flying above our house or the TV playing the other side of the room). I got a better picture of what does and what does not help my child pick up language. But it is really this programme she recommends, the practicing of it, which stands to bring real results.

I got the book from the library, just found it there by accident (I tend to go to the library, head for the child development section and just see what is in this week and take whatever grabs my fancy) but I am thinking of buying the book so I have a copy for me as a reference guide. I like her age-by-age language development guide, which does for language milestones what ‘What to Expect When You Are Expecting’ does for embryo development milestones.

So, the programme… Sally (can I get personal with Dr Ward for a moment?!) proposes that we spend half an hour a day, every day, with our child, one-to-one just talking and playing. You may or may not want to do it in this structured way, but let me share the key components of the programme, as they stood out to me, as things anyone can incorporate in their interactions with their kid. You may know many of them already, but there may be one or two that are new and valuable to you.

So, the keys are that during this focussed time you spend with your child it should be:

  • one-to-one with no other people distracting or removing focus. This means making half an hour quality play time for each of your kids.
  • in a completely silent environment, with no background noise so that the child learns to really hear both the sounds you and she/he make but also the sounds her toys and other objects make. Like this they can really learn about cause and effect – eg when I hit this toy it makes that sound. Conversely a child brought up always immersed in background noise (eg TV) can have real difficulties listening and picking out important sounds – which can lead to speech and language delays. So sad…
  • child-led. They call this having ‘shared focus’ but at this age it means that you have really got to focus in on what the baby is paying attention to and give words to what she/he is seeing, doing, tasting, etc. This might be the most important step of all.
  • responsive. Make sure you answer your baby’s vocalisations. That gives her/him instant feedback, a chance to hear it played back but also an understanding of timing and of how conversations work i.e. I talk and you listen, then you talk and I listen, etc.
  • simple. In this half hour, keep your words short and your sentences simple and always grammatically correct. Create a string of short sentences which repeat and emphasise a key word you are trying to impart for example: Here is the ball. It is a blue ball. Mommy is holding the ball.
  • don’t ask ‘testing’ questions. Remembering Sally is a Speech Therapist and mostly deals with problem cases, she has often seen kids whose language skills became inhibited by over-eager parents who incessantly asked questions like ‘what is this called, little Jonny?’, ‘can you say the name for that’. This can really frustrate and puts kids off language all together – especially if they don’t immediately know the answer – plus it is pulling focus to what the parent wants them to look at rather than following the kid’s natural interest, which really is the best way to help them learn.
  • be positive. When your kid starts speaking, always celebrate or acknowledge what they do get right, even if you need to correct it slightly. Say they say ‘kiki’ for kitty. It is great they have a sound for the cat. You can respond with ‘Yes, it is the kitty’ – that immediately tells the child two things a) you like it and understand when they talk; b) the correct word is kitty. Be patient with them :)
  • have fun. If language is fun and kids are getting a kick out of being able to actually communicate and have their needs, wants and likes acknowledged and responded to they will want to communicate more. And you will enjoy it, too. This kind of approach is really about spending quality time with your little one and increasing the closeness and bond between you.

I didn’t think I would do this program when I read the book. I thought ‘I’ll read the book and get some interesting tidbits that I then apply throughout the day when we converse’. After a few chapters, though, I was convinced to give the programme (the full half hour) a go. And, to my surprise, I really liked it. So, I am not doing it, now, because it is ‘good for my daughter’ so much as because it is fun. Sharing focus with Anya I find I really have a new inlet into what she is learning, what is interesting to her now and I genuinely feel closer to her. This may or may not help her language skills. According to the book the boost is considerable and on average children who went through this programme were at least a year ahead of their peers in terms of language skills by the time they got to school and this often translates to higher IQs, too… but of course I don’t know what my daughter’s ‘starting’ IQ is so it is hard to be sure looking at just one child, whether it is working. So, no, I am doing it for me, for us, for fun, first and foremost and whatever fruits may come in the future will be a bonus (insh’Allah).

Here’s an article looking critically at Sally’s work, a few years back:

Though I will say from what I read in the book this is a programme that can be started at any age before  4 years  (not just in the 9 to 13 month window described here – which I think may pertain to her earlier thinking). I reckon at any age it is bound to be useful. At the very least it helps me really notice what is interesting to my child and let that dictate the direction of our play, often.

Doing the dance of joy!

The phenakistoscope – a couple waltzing

Image via Wikipedia

On Thursday I did the ‘yeah-yeah-yeah’ dance all through the house. My daughter learned how to crawl! Hoorah! She did a proper, if wobbly big girl crawl – on all fours, belly off the ground. It was a thing of great beauty. I was so happy and proud I just had to pick her up and bounce her up and down while singing ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah’! Well, wouldn’t you?!

I am often amazed at how baby’s development just unfurls, like a seed grows into a tree. It seemingly automatically knows what to do and where to go with little or no involvement from us grown ups (if all is well). It is like watching a miracle in slow motion. Or is it a series of little miracles happening on a daily basis. Either way: Amen.

NB Photo or video to follow…?

Playing ball (aka video or it never happened!)

Anya is learning social interaction and communication. She understands turn taking and will to and fro with ‘words’, clapping or… yes… playing ball. For the record it works with any kind of ball (including ‘normal ones’) but this one is her favourite.

As a cute little note, that sweater she is wearing was knitted for me by my grandmother, when I was a baby, !!

Continuum Concept – in practice

I came across this YouTube video the other day and thought it was really sweet and endearing, somehow. I like the simplicity and down-to-Earthness of the girl being interviewed. I also love her ‘day village’ concept. I realised I have one of those, a day village, shared with all the women who attend the parenting circles I frequent. Love them all!

The baby-haves and the baby-have-nots


Image by BreckenPool via Flickr

As I bounce from music class to baby sign language group, give my child her organic baby-food and set up to spend half an hour ‘sharing focus’ with her to help improve her listening skills, attention span and communication I am struck by how soon the differences between the haves and the have nots start to surface. Some may say it starts even before that, in the womb…

I mean researchers have drawn correlations between IQ and:
– diet (particularly, but not only, Omega 3 consumption),
– exposure to certain types of music (most notably Mozart),
– learning baby-sign language,
– developing a healthy ability to focus (mostly through having a parent give one-to-one attention to the child, responding to and expanding their interests, etc),
– breastfeeding (including/especially night-feeding)
– less exposure to ‘ambient’ or background TV and distractions (which again impede the development of good listening skills
– early reading
– etc., etc.

As I bump into the same mums over and over in the different groups I attend, I can’t help but muse about just how lucky all our children are, how privileged. Conversely, I spare a thought for all the kids who don’t have all this attention lavished on them.

Hey, I know there is such a thing as too much doting, for sure. And I am also very aware that the second born child doesn’t get this level of one-to-one attention (though they usually get a slightly less neurotic, more experienced mom). But as you glance at that list above it is easy to speculate that most kids whose parents both work or who perhaps have a single parent caring for them and among those the kids whose parents have little education, know nothing and care less about healthy nutrition, books or Mozart… well, you can see the divide may start (or be perpetuated from) very early indeed.

College scholarship for underprivileged kids may be a good thing, an excellent thing, even… but it seems that the fate of so many kids is all but sealed by then. No, not just because they didn’t have baby-music classes – but because of a whole package of care that comes with having educated middle-class parents that they may have missed out on.

Then again you have to admire all the more the exceptions, the kids that came from rough neighbourhoods, whose parents gave them none of the advantages of interaction, stimulation, support and motivation that they might have got in other environments and they still make it. Some of them make it BIG. Is it their genes, their determination or something else that gives them an edge?

And I guess, there are as many (if not more) kids who were given everything and did nothing with it… ended up taking drugs and wasting away.

My point is only this, the gap is widening between the super-rich and the poor. The ‘raising tide that lifts all boats’ is failing our nations. And here I am seeing it from a new angle, from the seed up.