Learning Story: Appreciating Your Focus & Intent

Ezriel it was so much fun to observe your play while in our RIE® class together. I was particularly drawn to your ‘orderly’ play in the final months of class. I had noticed a few times that many of the children loved to dump items which didn’t really surprise me as this was a typical play pattern of young children. However, you were one person I thought might also have another plan during your play. Over the weeks, I decided to test my theory in the materials I set out for you and your friends.

The first month most items were in containers available to dump. Just as children like to dump, eventually play expands and the interest in filling containers is also present. I had watched you play for a few weeks and notice that you paid careful attention to the details of items and so I thought you might be one that would be interested in this idea. I had noticed over the weeks that you were often drawn to the star/sticky blocks. At first, you carefully just played with each one- inspecting all the elements, sometimes offering one to mom. Then another week, I put out an empty container nearby to see what that might provoke. Sure enough, you began transferring the objects – dumping out one, and filling the next!

Each time you played, your careful inspection always was there. Another week I set out a stacking toy and you spent time taking it apart, noticing that it somehow all went back together. You tested a few pieces to try out that theory before moving on to other things. After noticing this play exploration, I decided to put out other stacking items that really had no particular “right” way to go together. Sure enough, you found them again and I noticed your exploration went to the cups- stacking and un-stacking them as if to figure out exactly how it all worked.

Your intense focus always was present in your play, as well as your awareness of mom (often for a quick check in or cuddle) and your other friends explorations. As you explored, I noticed your consideration for others and how you took the initiative to invite them to play using non verbal cues- offering mom a toy or later a peer from class.

Your careful focus and intent to your play was never deterred. Although you offered items, and engaged your peers, if you wanted to finish with something you made sure to stand your ground and hold on tightly to ensure the other person knew your were still using the item. I even noticed a few times that if they pulled on something you weren’t done with you would offer them something else instead.

Your intrigue motivated your gross motor development, balance and movement skills. It seemed you often had a plan well before venturing to the other side of the classroom. You carefully observed, checked in with mom (with a look or a quick play nearby) and then ventured off for more exploration.

The playful exploration that took place showed so many profound life skills Ezriel. You demonstrated the building blocks of problem solving and critical thinking skills- stacking, observing, negotiating,and planning out your actions. Your offerings of materials or willingness to play near others showed beginning friendship skills and turn taking as well as a consideration for others that has obviously been modeled to you.

It was such a joy observing you and seeing your personality shine through over the weeks Ezriel. I can see that you are a kind, thoughtful and considerate boy eager to explore the world with an intense focus. I am excited for where these dispositions will take you in life! Thank you for the time we had to play together. I hope that we can spend more time together in the future!

RIE Associate Kristy Thomas

Whether in the home or a child care center, the environment must change in response to the growth of children. In addition to the obvious changes suggested and necessitated by children’s physical growth, such as the move from a crib to a bed or mat, there are many ways in which we can plan and modify the environment to respond to changes in children’s emotional and intellectual growth.

When planning environments for infants and toddlers, it is wise to keep in mind our goals for the children. By identifying our objectives in working with children, we can focus more clearly on the physical setting, and use it effectively to support our long-range goals.

In keeping with a few key elements of the RIE philosophy, here are some suggestions for modifying the environment to respond to the changing needs of children.

RIE goal: Independence

Although “independence” is a loaded word, carrying with it connotations of detachment from other people, we choose to use it to describe a young child’s capabilities and areas of competence. When we say that we have the goal of independence for infants and toddlers, we mean that we allow and encourage them to do what they can do, to resolve some of the age-appropriate problems that they will encounter.

In order to foster this type of independence in young children, we can use the environment to make available those things which we adults have observed the child is ready to access. This requires some forethought and planning, not only regarding just what we want to have available to young children, but how physically to arrange the space.

Naturally, when working with very young children, very low furniture is needed. Open shelving, crates or cubes turned on their sides or low bookcases are all satisfactory storage areas for the playthings and belongings of infants and toddlers. Not only do storage areas need to be low, but they also need to be kept very orderly. A toy is not really accessible to a child if it is not kept in essentially the same place from day to day. In order to obtain something, a child must know both how to get it, and where it is. Along these same lines, only those things which are genuinely available to the children should be stored in the accessible areas. Those things which need adult supervision should be stored in higher or closed areas, to be brought out when the adults are available to watch over their use.

The same storage principles hold for items of clothing which we expect children to be somewhat responsible for, such as shoes and jackets. Low shelves, pegs in a wall out of traffic patterns or cubbies will all serve to help children become more independent.

Facilities for handwashing can also be arranged to accommodate very small children. If a low sink is not available, a sturdy dishpan filled with warm water and placed on a low table is a good alternative. It can also be put away when hand washing time is over.

Of course, very low tables and seats are important in helping children develop a sense of independence.  Children will quickly learn that they are able to bring themselves to the table and leave it without adult help. In some styles of child care this would be undesirable, but the RIE philosophy stresses teaching children to make choices and decisions, such as if and when to sit at a table. (For specific information on very small tables and chairs, see the Fall 1983 issue of Educaring.)

While at the table, the type and presentation of foods can also foster children’s independence. Finger foods such as cheese, tender cooked chicken, slices of hard-cooked egg, chunks of raw, peeled fruit all can be handled by little fingers, making meals child-directed rather than adult-controlled times. (In fact, so appealing is the concept of independent eating that at home three year-old Thomas Beatty requests bananas “the way Magda cuts them.” To do bananas the “Magda way”, peel them, cut in half or thirds, then cut in quarters the long way. You end up with banana sticks that even young toddlers can pick up and eat easily.)

Expecting and allowing young children to have some control over whether they will be in- or outside at certain times may also be desirable. If very young children are to be responsible for moving from one area to another, the door itself should be responsive to their needs. A door that can be kept open with a strong hook or latch will make it safe for children to move through alone; a lightweight screen door may need a second handle at toddler-height to accommodate small people. Conversely, if we want to be certain that children do not move from one area to another, it is our responsibility as adults to make certain that doors or gates are closed and latched securely, that children are truly unable to open them independently. It is not realistic to think that very young children will be able to understand why they should not open a door or gate which they are capable of opening.

Finally, the RIE philosophy advocates the idea that infants and toddlers should have access to one another, under the guidance of responsive adults. Independence, babies doing what they can do, includes being aware of other people, adults and children, and learning about the self through interaction. In an environment where young children are kept separated or restrained in swings, walkers and the like, the opportunities for encountering one another are eliminated. Rather, infants need an environment with large open spaces and enough simple equipment and materials to avoid too many squabbles over possession. Within such a carefully-planned space, infants can be free to move toward and away from one another, to explore the area and meet one another while the adults remain alert and available to move to where they are needed. Babies can reach out to and touch each other, even climb with and over each other without becoming distressed. Of course, adults must keep them from touching eyes and pulling hair, but in an open environment these incidents are infrequent. Engagements over toys are inevitable, and with adult support, even infants can begin to resolve both the issue of possession and the feelings that follow such disputes.

Naturally, every home and each center is unique, with problems and possibilities all its own. Hopefully, some of these suggestions will be useful, and ideally they will suggest more ideas for your individual situation. We would love to hear from you with ideas, suggestions and problems relating to the physical environment you work with, either at home or in a center. Future issues of Educaring will explore this topic further.

EDUCARING® Volume VI,  Number 1, Winter 1985

When your baby is not being held or cared for, placing them on their back to move freely helps them discover and take control of their body.

On her back, she has the maximum mobility and support. She is freer to move her arms, legs, and body,

and do what she can do on her own.” –Magda Gerber, Your Self-Confident Baby

How to Do It:

  • Whether baby is not yet moving on their own or has learned to crawl, we always put the baby into a “starting position” on their back. This is where babies feel safest and most confident.
  • Newborns can be placed on their back in their crib or in a playpen. For babies who are turning to their side or more, create a clean, firm and safe space on the floor where you can lay them down — on the floor itself (which gives great traction) or on a blanket, rug or lambskin.
  • Always supporting their neck and head, lay baby down slowly with their bottom touching the ground first, then gently letting the back and eventually the head rest on the ground.
  • If they are able to move, they will easily get into their favorite position on their own from this starting point.

Why we do it:

  1. On their backs, babies can see and hear better, breathe with more ease, don’t feel constrained or tense, and are in the place of the most stability and opportunity. They can also see YOU, their carer.
  2. Even for babies who can roll over or sit, laying on the back is a starting or resting position, so it allows the baby to decide when and how they want to move next, a way we show respect for what they can already do.
  3. On their back moving freely, you are giving your baby the chance to independently exercise their primitive reflexes, which may appear abrupt or jerky, but help baby make the adjustment from womb to world. These reflexes are the body’s way of keeping the baby safe and building up the body that they will eventually control.
  4. Allows baby to build up the complex web of large and small muscles, bones, ligaments and fascia throughout the body that will enable later gross motor skills that are both efficient and graceful. Gross motor milestones — like crawling, sitting up, or walking — are achieved by the development of a many, many smaller movements — what we sometimes call “micro-milestones.” Nature has given your baby a perfect plan for movement development that we can trust will allow your baby to move with strength, efficiency and grace.
  5. As the baby’s gross motor skills develop, the myelination of the nervous system is allowed to develop in it’s natural pattern.
  6. We give the infant plenty of opportunity for free movement and uninterrupted play. Instead of trying to teach babies how to move, we appreciate and admire how babies are moving on their own at this point in time, knowing that the movements they self-initiate keep them safe and on track.
  7. There is some research suggesting that when these reflexes are “retained” because the baby has not been allowed to move freely, it can lead to things like hypersensitivity, picky eating, poor muscle tone, or poor manual dexterity.
  8. On their back, a baby can more easily see YOU, their parent or carer, so you can make face to face connections — a building block of their early emotional health. They can also discover their hands and begin to observe the world around them.

Ties to Principles:

  • Respect is the basis of the Educaring® Approach.
  • Basic trust in the infant to be an initiator, an explorer, and self-learner.
  • Freedom to explore and interact with other infants.

Adapted from Dear Parent by Magda Gerber and Your Self- Confident Baby by Magda Gerber


Gerber, M. (2002) Dear Parent: Caring for Infants with Respect (pp. 181)

Gerber, M. (1998) Your Self Confident Baby (pp.23)

Schott, J.M. and Rossner, M.N. (2003). The Grasp and Other Primitive Reflexes. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry (74:558–560) Retrieved from 


Baby lying on their back with arms reaching upward with text surrounding the image explaining benefits of placing an infant on their back.

Dear Magda,

When our play group gets together, none of our 13-18 month old children seem to be able to share toys. It doesn’t matter who’s toy it really is, whichever baby has it at a given moment will simply refuse to let another child have it. We all want our children to grow into generous, caring people. How can we help them learn to share?

– Playgroup Parents

Dear Parents,

Before a child can learn to share, she needs to go through certain stages of development. In the beginning an infant perceives herself, not as separate, but as part of the world she feels, touches, tastes, sees and hears. Slowly an awareness that there is a world outside, that there is a “Me” and a “non-Me” emerges. Later she realizes that there are differences in people, there is a “mommy” and a “not mommy”, there are familiar and unfamiliar people and objects. At this stage when a child holds or even just wants an object in her mind it is “hers”. The child doesn’t yet have the concept of ownership.

Sharing is based on the knowledge of ownership and use. The owner lets someone else use an object with the knowledge that it will be returned later. But the infant also has no concept of time. Only “now” exists. Even two minutes may seem like forever. We can not expect a young child to perceive what sharing means.

If we expect a behavior from our children that they are not ready for or don’t understand, they may be able to learn to do what we ask, but it will be done because they feel parental pressure, or from a desire for parental approval, or out of fear of punishment. Personality characteristics such as generosity, empathy, caring and sharing cannot be taught, they can only be modeled. Growing up in a family where parents share not only objects, but also time and attention, will help a child to develop these personality traits.

There are certain behaviors, however, that we can expect. If your child is hurting another child, for example, you should be firm. You are in charge, and can not allow any child to hurt another. If you have a group of two or more young children (up to six toddlers–more than this will make a crowd who can not be expected to enjoy each other’s company), you should have several of the same toys available. Of course, a child will always want the truck that the other child is playing with ‘because it is moving, it is alive. If a conflict or fight does develop, there are some steps you can follow.

First, move peacefully, stay close and wait patiently. The children may be able to handle it themselves. If the children are “fighting” without harming each other, this is good practice for them and they should be allowed to continue. 

You could then state the conflict in a non-judgemental way, be neutral and impartial, and make a comment such as, “Both you, Andrea, and you, Jason, want the same truck.” This helps calm the children by letting them know that they are being understood and empathized with.

If they are still in conflict, look around the room and ask the children if they see another toy they would like to play with. You may pick it up and start playing with the toy yourself. This may make it attractive to the toddler.

If the fight keeps on. you may choose to intervene more directly. You might want to change the routine, and put the toy in question away. In other words, you become the problem solver, instead of letting the children solve their own problem.

Following the RIE approach, we start with the least amount of help and intervention, and then slowly increase it. We do expect and trust that even infants learn most by working out conflicts all by themselves.



Educaring® Volume 4, Number 4, Fall 1983