Tuesday, June 5, 2012


Dr. J. Ronald Lally has identified seven “gifts” we can offer babies and very young children. Nurturance, support and security let children know they can count on being cared for by adults who love them. Predictability, focus, encouragement and expansion facilitate the young child’s intellectual development.

Nurturance is giving. Human babies are helpless for a very long time. Infants depend on adults for warmth, feeding, and protection. Because infants are so different from each other, nurturance for one child may look very different from the nurturance of another baby even in the same home, or even each one in multiple births. As the baby feels the caregiver’s understanding and availability and experiences the comfort of connection, a strong attachment forms. Nurturance is important throughout the earliest years, although its form changes as the child grows. The immediate response appropriate to a very young infant (one can’t spoil a baby in the first year) may be replaced by the message, “I’m here if you want me.” As the infant becomes mobile, and then a toddler individualized, responsive nurturance means allowing a timid child the time and space to move slowly, while making sure that the active child has a place to be exuberant.

Support helps the child achieve the three important shifts in development that occur in the first three years. The young infant, not yet crawling, needs nurturance to develop trust in their world and the people who inhabit it. Mobile infants, from the time they begin to crawl until about 15 months, need a safe and interesting environment, respect for their growing urge to explore, and the knowledge that a trusted adult is available when needed. Toddlers, beginning at 17-19 months, need support in learning about themselves in relation to others. Adults offer these supports by acknowledging young children’s powerful feelings, encouraging curiosity and independence, and, at the same time, teaching and enforcing the rules that allow children and adults to live in harmony.
Security is closely related to nurturance and support. Infants, toddlers, and adults all need a “safe haven for development, growth, and learning. The baby or young child needs to be in a space where he can feel, “Everything’s ok. Nothing bad will happen here. There are no monsters under my bed, or in my closet” Security happens in an infant’s world when she is offered reliable nurturance and support. For toddlers, the rules of “no hitting, no destruction of property,” taught and enforced consistently, fairly and appropriately will maintain a child’s sense of security.

Predictability is a “gift” that is central to a child’s fundamental sense of security as well as critical to development.. Predictability is social (people I know will be there for me) and spatial (I know where to find the puzzles and where I can ride the tricycle). Predictability avoids both chaos and rigidity. For infants and toddlers, predictability involves rituals and rhythms throughout the day that follow sequences (nap, snack, play) rather than the clock. Nurturance, support, security, and predictability are gifts that every young child needs. Not surprisingly, nurturance, support, security, and predictability are also basic components in treatment approaches designed for young children who have experienced abuse or neglect. Before young children can explore their environment purposefully, and develop their full potential, they must feel safe. Once they find security, they can seek challenges.

Focus supports the infant or toddler’s attention in the learning environment. A young child’s attention span will increase if it is not interfered with, but it is hard for an infant or toddler to focus if there are too many people in too little space, too many toys scattered about, too much noise (including “background” music), or too many interruptions of the subtle give-and-take between child and meaningful adult. We can make it easy for young children to focus on meaningful activities by paying attention to what fascinates each child, by protecting the child from too much stimulation, and, always, by offering the calm, reliable presence that frees the child’s energy for learning.

Encouragement says to the infant or toddler, “I have confidence in your growing competence.” The wise adult understands the lessons very young children are learning as they figure out the world through imitation, using tools, and experimenting with cause and effect. We know at least half of infants and toddlers learning come from the child’s own interest and initiation. Encouragement reflects adult grounding in the science of care. The knowledgeable parent or caregiver understands how much of an accomplishment it really is when a baby succeeds in pulling a ball out from under a slide, or turns a knob that activates a music box. The adult will respond with legitimate, specific enthusiasm rather than general cheerleading or coaching.

Expansion of the young child’s learning involves “bathing the child in language.” As always, the goal is to watch the child’s cues and build on the child’s own interests, commenting on what the child is doing, talking along with the child, and encouraging the child to use words to guide himself through activities (what child development experts call “self-talk”). Another way we can
expand the child’s learning is through taking a part in the child’s play – taking on the role of the family dog in the fantasy play of two-year-olds, turning a puzzle ever so slightly so that a frustrated toddler can see the solution more easily, or adding an unexpected twist to a familiar game to challenge the imagination.

The home or child care setting (Sunday morning nursery or day care for working parents) that offers these seven gifts – nurturance, support, security, predictability, focus, encouragement, and expansion – to infants and toddlers is a good one, says Lally. The ability to offer children these gifts stands on the structural elements of quality – small groups, high staff-to-child ratios, one-on-one play with each child, and continuity of care from responsive, knowledgeable adults who are well trained and feel supported by their colleagues and work environments. The quest for quality in infant/toddler child care, Dr. Lally and others suggest, is an expedition that must engage the whole society.


The Art and Science of Child Care

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