The Vault

The Home as a Learning Environment for Children Under 5

By Bridget Belgrave

 

What I set out to do in the lecture was to clarify and deepen people's thinking on this subject, and to find questions to ask, rather than to provide the answers. Where I did get to answers they are mostly of a form that can be held as general intentions. My assumption is that we are all creative enough that, once our intentions are clear, the means to achieve them will arise in ourselves and our environment in a way that is fresh and lively.

A Good Pupil—Finding the Child in the Adult

Think of your best pupils, not the ones who start off best, but the ones who really learn from you, who seem to grow in their understanding as much between their lessons as in them, whose use improves dramatically without becoming fixed into a new 'right' mould. Think of those pupils who are willing to make mistakes, who make their own experiments, who question you intelligently. What qualities do they have in common that allow them to learn from us as Alexander teachers?

One Friday last year I had an interesting transition to make. I spent the morning playing with six 3 year olds, in a large empty church hall. I was immersed in their world of imagination and body sensations, wearing suitably old clothes, to allow me to swim on the floor as a fish, be climbed on as a tree, or be attacked as the big bad wolf. That evening I had to present myself immaculately turned out at a top quality business management college, to join a colleague leading a weekend course for the senior managers of a large bank. I was wondering how I would make it.

When I started working with the managers, I found the transition was not nearly so great as I had expected. I realised that this was because when working with adults, I am usually looking to evoke the child within them. If they can get into a mode where they are able to experiment playfully, and to refer to and become involved in their sensory world, then I feel they are in a state of readiness to learn something of the Alexander Technique. I find some adults seem to come into this mode much more easily than others, and this experience leads me to wonder what we can do with children that will allow them to become the sort of people who can respond to the teaching we can offer them later in their life.

Sowing Seeds to Develop Inner Resources

How can we sow the seeds that will ripen to provide someone with the inner resources necessary to respond to this kind of conscious work?

To be clear, I am not interested in how we can get a three year old into our teaching rooms and onto the table, nor in how we can make them 'do' the Alexander Technique. I am interested in preparing the ground, and in meeting children where they are and feeding into their reality.

How Children Learn

I would like to say something about who children are, and how they learn, as this is so different from how adults usually set about learning (and therefore teaching). I see children as open, honest, receptive, lively and full of whatever energy they are involved in at that moment, whether it be the energy of anger, curiosity, quietness or silliness.

It seems to me that some strong drives children have are learning how to eat, how to move, and doing things which are fun, bring pleasure and satisfy their curiosity. The drive to play is really powerful in young children. If their environment allows it, they will insist on playing for most of their waking hours. In every activity from putting on their shoes to brushing their teeth, there is the possibility of, and the request for, play. This is sometimes disguised as provocation, dawdling, or any number of states to us who want to be for ever getting on, finishing the task to get to the next one, end-gainers for ever.

So if we can bring something into the realm of play, it will be absorbed, requested, insisted upon. How then can we make what we want children to learn of the Alexander Technique something that they insist on doing?

The other aspect of young children's learning process that I want to touch on is their ability simply to absorb what is around them. If an English speaking family moves to France, most people would assume the children would speak French sooner and better than the adults, even if the children had no lessons, while the adults did. Their openness and sensory alertness allows them to perceive, respond and imitate on levels closed to most adults. In this way children under five learn almost everything they know and are.

So how can we ensure that the Alexander Technique is in their environment for them to absorb? I hope these questions are beginning to make it clear that the challenge and demand in the idea of teaching the Alexander Technique to children under five in their home environment lies absolutely with ourselves as the adults whom they are with. It is not a demand we can make of them.

What it Means to be at Home

Being at home with children carries some particular benefits, and some particular difficulties, as regards the intention to teach a child something. The benefits are those of timing, and of having the privacy to experiment.

A child brought out of its home environment for a lesson with any kind of teacher may be too tired, or too energetic, or too shy, or too angry to learn well at that moment—week after week. If you are at home with a child, you can follow the rhythms and moods of the child through the days and weeks, and you may be able to spot, or simply stumble upon, a moment where a tiny drop of knowledge, information or experience will go right into the child, and stay there for ever.

When you are at home, you can try things out unobserved. This makes it a lot easier to let go of trying to be right, and to let yourself make mistakes—an essential part of changing any behaviour pattern. This means that at home with kids, as parent, friend, relative or child carer, you can experiment a lot, discard the flops, and follow up the successes.

Do not wait until you are sure you have the right ideas. Try anything. Out of the engagement in activity will come new possibilities, and you will be able to see what is working and what is not.

The difficulty of being at home is that somehow home is the hardest place to live up to our own ideals and principles. One of the essential elements of being at home is that it is where you can unwind, let go, slop about, not try. This means that only those principles that we have really integrated will come through consistently in our behaviour at home. I think it is important to acknowledge the gap between the ideal and the reality of action, and not to get too disappointed by it.

To What are Children Most Receptive?

So in what areas can we experiment, what can we try out, what intentions can we hold, as we try to make use of the home as a learning environment to give some Alexander Technique input to the children we are with, as parents, friends, relatives or child carers?

I wish to focus on three ways of contacting a child in areas where he or she is likely to be highly receptive. These three ways in are love, touch and imagination.

Love

Love seems almost too obvious to mention, and yet it can easily be missed as a factor in promoting good use. If I think of being with someone who really loves me and is expressing it at that moment, I can feel an opening and uplifting sensation in my chest. Tension eases, I breathe more freely and I go up. This is a drop of the natural, spontaneous "up" that a child has, and that most of us have largely lost along the way. Thinking of a child deprived of love, twisted, tense, pulled in on him or herself, reinforces this.

What we can do is remember to say "I love you" to our children everyday. At the end of a day I often find I have been cross with my child, maybe harangued him a bit, had some fun with him, but it is when I remember to say "I love you" that I feel him sigh deeply, open up and take something in that enables him to keep himself going that little bit more. It seems to strengthen his core.

Touch

Touch must be one of the main channels of communication between children and the adults close to them. Cuddling, holding hands, romping, giving piggy backs and shoulder rides, hitting each other, carrying a baby in a sling, a toddler in a backpack, all these moments of contact are times where the condition of use of the adult will be directly communicated to the child's sensory intelligence. I have the impression that a three year old child's awareness contains 80% sensory awareness and 20% thoughts, awareness of other people, etc. Adults are the reverse, 80% everything else, 20% sensory. So the sensory inroad is a powerful one through which to reach a child.

Of course the objects in the home environment will influence here too. Natural materials such as wool and cotton, for clothes and furnishings, some wood and stones to play with alongside the plastic and metal toys, are all a help. Each thing a child touches either brings life to, or deadens, their sensory world.

The voice is also a powerful way of touching someone and influencing their use. In his book The Silent Pulse (Wildwood House 1979), George Leonard records an experiment which shows that a listener's body responds with tiny movements called micro-movements to a speaker's voice. The speaker sets up a micro-dance in the listener. My sense is that this means that the voice of someone a baby or child is with a lot penetrates him or her very deeply. As a child is growing and developing physically so extraordinarily much at this age, I feel that an often heard voice actually influences bodily structures as they form. It also sets up habit patterns of breathing and the whole use of the vocal mechanism.

I have a friend who does not take a breath when his easily available air is used up, when he is talking. The words continue, and as his ribs have to squeeze and clamp more tightly onto his lungs to force the air out, so I find my ribcage wants to clamp up too, and I can become extremely uncomfortable. Think how much more powerful that experience would be for a child. Conversely, a well used voice frees us up and takes us up.

One time when I find myself able to pay particular attention to this is when I am reading to my child. As well as conveying the story, I seek to give him a good feeling with the quality, tone and rhythm of my voice.

Touch is probably the most powerful contact point for a child from birth to about three.

Imagination

The imagination may be where it is at for a three to five year old.

During the conference I was staying with my brother and his family near Brighton. In the mornings as we were all getting ready to leave in different directions, his three year old was running about the house waving a book and demanding 'Story! Story!'

Children love stories. In my experience the only way to have a young child sit down and listen to you for any length of time is to tell or read them a story. If we could tell stories that included the thinking and information involved in the Alexander Technique it would soak right into them, and we could do it for hours on end!

One day, shortly before the conference, I was telling my four year old son a story. I realised, after starting, that I could try out this idea. He was into Snufkin and Moomintroll at the time, and the story involved them going to find Grey Rabbit who lived across the river. The only way to cross the river was by way of a low hanging branch from a tree on the other side. Now Snufkin is light and lithe, and had no problem shinnying across. Moomintroll, on the other hand, is round and dumpy, with short little legs and arms, and when he got half way across he began to wobble and lose his nerve.

"Don't worry Moomintroll," called Snufkin, "I've got some magic words that will help you."

"Quick Snufkin, quick. Tell me, Snufkin, quick, I'm going to fall into the river."

"Think this Moomintroll—free your neck."

"Oh Snufkin, that's wonderful, it's so easy, I can balance now. Thank you Snufkin," and Moomintroll climbed easily and effortlessly along the rest of the branch and was soon safely on the other side. After the story my son made no comment. It was just another story. I made no comment.

The next day I was in the bath, and he was balancing precariously on its slippery edge, and then leaping off, again and again. It seemed a bit dangerous to me, but I chose to settle into my all too rare, self-nurturing time and hope for the best. All of a sudden, as he was balancing there I heard him cry out "Free your neck!" and off he leaped.

I was deeply struck by this. I realised that he had taken in the story, remembered it, and made of it something living of his own. Also that he had actually applied that 'magic phrase' at an appropriate moment. I am not trying to say that he had, thereby, learned how to free his neck, inhibit and direct, and all that. But a seed had been sown. A part of the process of learning the Alexander Technique had been absorbed.

I remembered how in the moment of making up my story, I was neither very pleased with my choice of phrase, nor with my skill at intentionally integrating an idea into the story, but something had come across anyway. So make up stories, for children, even for adult pupils. If you feel you cannot, apply the principles of the Technique—free your neck, do not end gain, just start and follow whatever emerges without trying to get it right.

Looking after Yourself

Being with children at home, the focus easily goes into their needs, their interests, their wishes. Just as in giving an Alexander lesson one of the hardest and yet most essential things to learn is to be primarily working on ourselves, so, when with children, it is vital that we look after ourselves.

As in a lesson, we can make the concerns we have for another be also our concerns. Are we getting a good diet, adequate sleep, some fresh air and exercise each day? We need these things for ourselves immediately, and also to provide a healthy model for our children of what a person needs to do to look after themselves.

Another way I found during my first three years of mothering, to bring the focus back to myself, was to set up a mother's group. Six of us met every week in my front room, while the kids were involved playing with two creche workers in the back room. It allowed us to step back slightly from the constant involvement with our children and remember ourselves.

Think Back

I would like to finish with the suggestion that as you wonder how to help a child learn about good use and Alexander thinking at home, one resource you can refer to is your own experience. What, in your early days, before you were five, had an influence on your use? What helped you towards being able to make use of the Alexander Technique as an adult, and what hindered you? Could you have been brought up in a way that would have led to your having no need of an Alexander teacher as an adult?

ABOUT THE WRITER

Bridget Belgrave qualified as a school teacher in 1974, as an Alexander teacher in 1980, and as a mother in 1984. She has taught the Technique in London, Oxford and around the world. She was the picture researcher for Michael Gelb's book on the Alexander Technique, Body Learning. She has trained in Psychosynthesis, which develops the imagination as a tool for learning. She is currently (1994) Assistant Director to Elisabeth Walker at the Alexander Teacher Training Course (ATTCO), in Oxford, England.

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