If I'm being honest, taking a job as an early childcare educator in Austria at the time felt like nothing more than a stepping stone. I had never been happy working in childcare centers in Canada, so mentally, I didn't commit to this new job. "It's just until something better comes along," I told myself as I walked in with one foot out the door.
But right off the top, something struck me about this center. I observed my coworkers treating the children with a deep sense of respect and cooperation. There was an air of authority missing, and it was beautiful. The children's needs were being thought of constantly, and we had once-weekly meetings to discuss how we could better help the children flourish. Everyone, from the children to the teachers to the parents, were treated as equals.
I fell in love with my work, and over time, I stopped searching for something else. A lot of what I thought to be true about child care was turned on its head. I questioned my ideologies, my education, my every interaction with children really.
More than anything else, my time spent here has shaped my parenting ideals and the way that I hope to raise my daughter. Here are 10 things I love about the Austrian approach to childcare:
1.Trust the child—always.
Trust seems to be the umbrella approach that shapes all the interactions we have with children.
When I first started, I was surprised to see a large woodworking table placed in the center of the patio. On the table were hammers, nails, scrap pieces of wood, child-sized saws, and clamps to hold the wood in place. The teachers were around, but they were as casually keeping on eye on the table as they were on everything else. The children knew that if they wanted to work with these tools, they had to do it at this table. No kids running around with a saw in their hand, or nails hiding in the sandbox.
I observed as the children who felt like doing some wood work approached the table with care, not because anyone had instilled fear in them if they didn't, but because they had made the experience of hammering their own fingers once or twice and knew the importance of working carefully. Often, the younger children felt more comfortable observing the older kids doing their work, before they felt ready to try it themselves.
The more we trust in our children, the better their ability to understand where their own limitations are. They are intrinsically careful, not because someone is telling them to be, but because they have been allowed to experience what happens if they aren't. If we take a step back and trust in our children, they will often surprise us with their carefulness and their own boundary-setting.
2. Get outside everyday.
Granted, winters in Austria are far more mild than they are in Canada. Nevertheless, I was surprised to be working at least five hours outside each day. At first, it was hard for me to adjust—I felt restless and bored as the children needed much less accompaniment when we were outside. But I grew to love being outside with the kids, if for no other reason than the kids being free to move.
Aside from tricycles, buckets and shovels, we have no toys outside. Instead, we have lots of wood logs and planks. Instead of a play structure, there's a massive tree that has been turned on its side for children to climb. There's also a sand pit, a small slide on the top of a hill, and a few swings, but mostly, there's lots of room for the children to run and explore. From an outsider's perspective, our yard might look a little bit dumpy. From a child's perspective, it's a dream of endless possibilities.
Plus, we are often outside in the rain, to most of the children's delight. They are never told to avoid the puddles or mud. All the children have a basket of spare clothes at the center andit's not uncommon to see a child going home having had two or three outfit changes throughout the day.
3. Know that the experience is more important than the mess.
The kitchen is a great place to gain independence and master fine motor skills. At snack time, kids are encouraged to cut up bananas and apples so they learn how to use a knife appropriately. They are free to smear jam or butter on their bread by themselves. No plastic sippy cups here: we use clear glasses so the children can see how much liquid is inside and lift or tilt the glass accordingly. There is always a glass water jug sitting out so they are free to pour their own water.
At lunch, they ladle their own soup and scoop their own rice. They are free to decide how much or how little they'd like to take. Yes, it can get messy, and dishes can break, but by doing it this way I can observe 40 kids under the age of 6-years-old successfully eat a warm lunch without once hearing the words "be careful."
4. Offer free choice.
The children spend the majority of the day free to move around as they please. Each room has different activities on offer, and the teachers station ourselves so that a room is never left unattended. The children come and go as they see fit. As they move through different activities in a day, they are meeting the gaps in their development all on their own.
They knows better than anyone else what they need in that moment to play with so they can concentrate and learn. By allowing them to move from the block corner to the art center to the dress up room when they want to, rather than having predetermined time slots, they play in a more engaged way and are checking off aspects of their development. This goes back to trust… trusting that kids will develop in their time, rather than an external force telling them what they should learn, when they should learn it, and how.
5. There’s no pressure to read and write or learn..
Our rooms are full of Montessori activities designed to help children develop the skills they need for reading and writing, but the children only engage with these activities if they choose to. Play is learning. Not only does play teach children invaluable interpersonal that they will use everyday for their entire lives, but it involves an incredible amount of stress management, critical thinking, problem solving, and the first introduction to subjects like science and math.Think: what happens when I build this block tower too high, what happens when I submerge this toy into a bucket full of water, etc.
Although there's little pressure on children to learn reading and writing, it has been my experience that almost every child expresses an interest in writing their name or understanding the words on a sign. Children are born with an intrinsic motivation to learn.
6. Sharing is not enforced.
Our rule is simple: whoever had it first is free to use it for as long as they need. If that child plays with it for the entire day, then so be it (but this has never happened). We might offer something similar to the child who is waiting, or try to interest them in something else. But if they can't be persuaded, then they are free to simply wait until the other child is finished.
Forcing children to share does the opposite of intrinsically helping them become more generous. Rather, they become resentful of the act and are made to feel like the work they are doing is unimportant. On the other hand, by recognizing the importance of that child's play (and play is so important), we are showing them empathy.
When they feel empathized with, they are more likely to turn around and show that empathy to others. We certainly have children who have a big 'ol cry while waiting for a toy to become available. But in my experience, forcing kids to share doesn't save on any meltdowns either, it's just usually the one being told to share who's upset, not the one being asked to wait!
7. Rather than scold, use positive language.
When I finally started grasping German, I started noticing how carefully the teachers choose their words. Children cry and it's important. They experience many tiny frustrations each day, and crying helps them release that tension. While I hear lots of crying each day, I never hear "Shhh, don't cry, it's alright." This makes the child think they shouldn't be crying or that their reasons for being sad are trivial.
Rather, I hear "Let it out, I know how sad it must be to say goodbye to your mom. Do you want to sit with me until you feel better?" I was surprised by the empathy shown even when the kids do things that can be frustrating for the teachers. For example, I saw a child open one of the teacher's drawers. Rather than scold the child, the teacher simply walked over and said, "I see you're curious about what's in the drawer."
Another child kept running circles in the art room, obviously not the best place for that. Rather than tell him to stop , the teacher kindly said, "I see you've got a lot of energy you seem to need to get out, perhaps you would like to go see what's going on in the gym?" Rather than berate them for something a child is programmed to do (move), she offered him a setting where it would be appropriate for him.
8. Give kids the same courtesies we ask from them.
It always struck me as strange that we would demand our children be polite, such as making them say please and thank you or not to interrupt when adults are talking. But we don't often extend these courtesies to the very children we want to learn these things. How often are children interrupted to meet our schedule? (You can finish your drawing later, it's time to go for lunch now. You can tell me this story on the way, go and put your shoes on.)
So I started trying to role model the behavior I was asking for from the children. I would wait for two kids to be finished talking, before asking them to go wash their hands for lunch or get ready for home time. As trivial as I might have thought what they were talking about to be, I forced myself not to interrupt, to show them the respect I hope to see from them.
It turns out, the waiting was extremely hard! And I caught myself using please and thank you far less than I thought I did, even with the other teachers. It made me question how important these "rules" are. It's far more effective to reinforce the behavior we want to see when we see, and, above all, be the people we want our little ones to become. Our children learn far more by observing us, than they do by being told how to behave.
9. We build our children up, not tear them down.
Kids need to know it's not only okay to feel angry or sad, it's normal and completely valid. Children who are constantly told how to feel and behave don't develop in the same way as children who are acknowledged and allowed to express their full range of emotions. They may become disconnected from how they truly feel, and are rarely properly equipped to deal with anything other than their positive feelings and emotions.
Children need help identifying the emotions that they (and those around them) are feeling, and then they need help problem solving on how to appropriately deal with those emotions.
Granted, all children go through challenging phases, and it tests our patience like nothing else. We feel like we're at our limit. But rather than falling into thinking,This behavior is ridiculous! They need to learn I won't accept this! I observed my co-workers using language like, "It's my job to stay calm and help them learn better ways to behave" or "I can handle this. I'm in control. There is a skill that is missing here and I'm here to teach them some better alternatives." It really helps keep the environment calm, and helps children learn how to deal with the not-so-fun emotions appropriately.
10. Be there for kids, but teach independence.
As I mentioned earlier, we go outside as often as we can. Do you know how long it takes to get 40 kids between the ages of 2 and 6 dressed to play in the snow? A long time.
When I first started, I was shoving mittens and boots on kids as fast as I could. After a few days, I took a step back and noticed the way the other teachers let the children dress themselves, even when it was painstakingly slow. The teachers would sometimes lay out ski pants or open up a shoe if the child needed a bit of help, but ultimately, the teachers trusted in the children's ability to dress themselves, and gave them the time and space they needed to achieve this.
A few teachers would go outside as soon as the first children were dressed (eliminating the meaningless act of having children line up and wait while bundled head to toe in snow gear). As more kids were finished, more teachers would drift outside, until there was just one teacher left with the couple of kids who needed a bit of extra time.
I was surprised to see what happened when children would fall down (in a minor way). Rather than rush over and stand them up on their feet again, the teachers would approach, but stop a couple steps away from them. There they would kneel down with kind words and outstretched arms. The child still had to get up on their own and take a few steps into the arms of the teacher who was waiting there to offer a cuddle.
The lesson was this: I'm here for you when you need me, but I trust in you and know that you can pick yourself up and dust yourself off. It was a small way of teaching a child to be self-reliant, while simultaneously offering support and love from the sidelines. Over time, the children don't only grow to be capable, but also, confident in their ability to help themselves.
While Austrian centers aren't an oasis of constant peace and harmony and it gets chaotic and loud, I remain confident that this education system based on free action and personal responsibility has much more to offer than one that relies on outward authority. Allowing children to experience the consequences of their choices means far less harping from us, and far more independence and accountability from them. I'm happier for it, and I truly believe the children I work with are too.