by RIE Associate Ruth Mason
Perhaps it is no coincidence that the masthead for the web site permacultureprinciples.com features an infant nestling in the leaves of a vibrant cauliflower plant. Both are nature’s creations. Both need care to grow and the right circumstances to thrive. Both need enough room to “move” freely, proper nutrition, and someone to observe them in order to provide what they need so they can grow and fulfill their potential.
This October, I will led a workshop based in part on Magda Gerber’s Educaring® Approach at Israel’s yearly Permaculture Festival. When I suggested this workshop to the organizers, no one questioned me. They seemed intuitively to grasp the connection between the child-rearing principles we all hold dear and those underlying permaculture.
Permaculture “guides us to mimic nature” as the site explains. When we want to grow our garden, for example, we look at a thriving forest and see that its soil is mixed with decomposed and decomposing leaves, branches, twigs and animal droppings. We see the soil is covered with a rich layer of mulch. When we mimic this in our gardens, our plants thrive.
When we respond to our baby’s needs with love, sensitivity and communication, and then put her down to move and play freely, we are letting nature take its course. A healthy baby instinctively knows how she needs to move and what she needs to do in order to develop according to nature’s plan. If we observe skillfully and “do less” as Magda counseled, we see that a baby does not need to have a rattle shaken in front of her face nor does she need to be tickled in order to grace us with that heart-stopping smile.
This was brought home to me and a group of moms during the silent observation period in a one-time workshop I recently led for a group of mothers and their babies at my local community center in Jerusalem. One nine-month-old who was lying on her back, shook her bottom, then her shoulders, then her head and then broke out into peals of laughter. She did this over and over, clearly having a great time. Afterward, her mother said in wonder that this was the first time she’d seen her daughter laugh without her or her husband “making” her laugh.
The Sensory Awareness Bulletin devoted to Dr. Emmi Pikler contains the following translation from Dr. Pikler’s book Peaceful Babies, Contented Mothers. After describing how even tiny infants move when left to their own devices, Dr. Pikler writes:
“This slow and gradual stretching and reaching is one of the most important stages in the motor development of the infant. It goes on for months. During this time the asymmetry of the trunk with which the child is born disappears. Through these natural movements the spine becomes straight; the trunk becomes elastic, flexible and muscular.
“I cannot emphasize how important this stage of development is. One proof is that the movements described above are systematically performed as special physical-therapy exercises with children who suffer from distortions of the spine…”
This is one of my favorite quotes from Dr. Pikler and one I use a lot when speaking to parents. Magda Gerber clearly integrated this element of Dr. Pikler’s research when developing the Educaring® Approach. It embodies for me exactly what is so wise and true and beautiful about this approach: Nature knows best. We just need to get out of the way and let it happen.
By applying permaculture principles to all of life, the web site mentioned above writes, “we can make the transition from being dependent consumers to becoming responsible producers.” Similarly, babies raised on the Educaring Approach, “produce” their own amusement, pleasure, challenges and fun rather than being always dependent on “consuming” stimulation provided by parents or caregivers. And just as the use of permaculture principles translates into less human labor needed in the garden, adherence to the Educaring Approach means more free time for parents.
In addition, when we follow the Educaring Approach, we see that we don’t need to invest in dozens of commercially produced plastic toys for babies. Simple items from our homes and kitchens — a kerchief, a basket, stainless steel stacked measuring cups — provide all the fun and stimulation our babies need. When we observe babies who are allowed to play and move freely, we notice that much of their time is used to explore and have fun with their own bodies. Often, their marvelous hands, their feet, their movements are all they need for keeping themselves occupied, amused and stimulated. Just think of that laughing nine-month-old.
This journey, builds skills and resilience.All of us who are committed to raising babies and exposing other parents to the Educaring Approach see daily how skilled and resilient our babies become. Another example I love that beautifully illustrates the benefits of our principles: A mother posted several photos of her three-month old on a Facebook group for parents following our path. She writes that her baby, who is lying on his back on a blanket on the floor, wanted a small toy that was out of his reach. The mother repressed her urge to hand him the toy and waited and watched. What she saw and documented in the photos would be seen as no less than remarkable by people who haven’t yet grasped just how capable even the tiniest babies are: The baby saw that when he reached out and bunched up the blanket in his fist, the toy moved closer to him. He repeated this action several times until the toy was in reach. If the mom had handed her baby this toy, as almost any mother would, he would have missed out on this opportunity to use his three-month-old brain to solve a problem. He would have missed out on the satisfaction he must have felt when he succeeded in his goal. And his mother would have missed out on seeing what amazing capabilities, imagination, persistence and initiative her infant has.
Permaculture encourages organic growth, as do we: We ask, what is the most natural way for this child to develop? Clearly, the answer does not involve propping up a baby who cannot yet sit by himself or standing up a baby who is not ready to stand, but allowing them to find new positions when their muscles, bones and nerves are ready to do so.
When following nature’s plan, growing plants and raising babies have much in common, with optimal results arising from observation and minimal intervention.