Leading up to the front door of Tumbleweed is a short flight of two, cement stairs. They are the main thoroughfare for the adults and children who come and go from our school on a daily basis. It's also the most direct route for me to take my group of infants outdoors. I love the moments when we're heading outside. It is a great time for me to interact with each child as we put on warmer clothing, even shoes if they'd like. We talk through each step, and even notice what others are doing. This narration of what is happening continues once I open the door.
Our outside classroom is as equally important to me as the indoor environment. I try to spend as much time outside as possible, in any type of weather, even though it often means an entire clothing change once we go back inside!
Infants receive the gift of discovering nature in a holistic way through the full use of their senses because they are so close to the ground-- either because they are non-mobile, crawling, or creeping. With every moment, they come into contact with the rain on the grass, the dust on the asphalt, the tiny rocks on the path, and the ants marching by.
Infants meet the natural world head first, and these moments I treasure as we experience them together. The children are able to move and their own speed, doing what they can, and through our time together, the trust we have between each other gives the children the feeling of security they need to be able to follow their own path.
They discover spacial differences head first as well. This is where the stairs come into play. For the children who are able to move on their own accord, once the front door is open I walk out onto the porch, and invite the children to follow. This is usually not a tricky task because most everyone has already been pounding on the door at the first hint that we are heading outside.
For now I stand or sit near the bottom of the two stairs, and talk to the boys as they head my direction. The difference between the flat porch and the drop off of the first stair causes everyone to stop. Three of the children I am working with either creep (belly on the ground, propelled by feet and arms) or crawl (belly off of the ground). They make it to the edge of the step and then look at me. I smile and say, “You found the stairs!” and pause. The most adventurous reach down to the front step, feeling the difference. I am quiet, and allow for the children to explore this at their own pace. Some watch, some reach for me, even though I'm out of reach, and some experiment with what happens when they reach for the next step. This is the point where they are at the most risk of falling. Every fiber in my being wants to reach out and say, “It's ok! You're doing it! Here, put your foot there, go backwards, it's easier!” I want to be right there and make sure that no one falls. But this is how I challenge myself. I put aside my adult perspective, and try to see this from the eyes of an infant.
Imagine seeing this big space ahead of you. It feels a little scary when you reach down, but it also triggers this impulse deep inside of your body to try and navigate it. It's almost like you've become obsessed with conquering it. There are moments where you are unsure, but there is the presence of someone you trust right there, and you are confident that if you truly need help they know just what you need.
When you see the challenge the infant is feeling from this perspective, it feels empowering for both you and the child. These are the moments when you both gain confidence and trust in yourself and each other. We can do it for ourselves! The infant says, “The stairs are just a challenge that my body is ready to conquer. But I know you're there, just in case” And we, the caregiver, say “I can step back with calm confidence knowing you'll do just what you need to do. But I'm here, just in case.”
I trust that an infant will only do what they can do, and no more. It might take time. Time full of struggle, crying, discovery, and joy, and usually in that order.
Even though I knew that giving the children this chance to navigate and master the stairs on their own was following all of the readings I had done and the philosophy that Magda Gerber outlines in her RIE work, I was still surprised the first time it happened. He found his way down, slowly, head first, slipping and causing me to start forward to catch him. Though with nothing from me, but my calm presence, he made it down the two steps without falling. And he did it the first time! From then on, I spread the news to my co-workers and the parents, encouraging them to step back, even though it's scary.
I carry this moment with me though all of my interactions with children, not just the infants in my class. I continue to challenge myself in this way: walking the border between what children can do for themselves and what is uncomfortable to adults. This way the trust between myself as the caregiver and the children is continuously strengthened and we find new, exciting ways to challenge each other.