The Austrian approach to childcare

When I first accepted the position at an Austrian childcare center, I considered it a stepping stone. I had recently moved to Austria and, having never learnt German, was pretty limited in terms of job opportunities that would accept an English-speaking applicant. I had a degree in psychology and although I loved using it to work with children, I had never been happy working in childcare centers in Canada. Mentally, I didn’t commit to this new job- I went in with one foot out the door, so to speak.

But right off the hop, something struck me about this center. It was so different from how I experienced childcare centers being run in Canada. I observed my coworkers treating the children with a deep sense of respect and co-operation. 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 childcare was turned on it’s head. I questioned my ideologies, my education, my every interaction with children really. I learnt more working here for 3 years than I did earning my degree and simultaneously accumulating ten years of childcare experience in Canada combined.

More than anything else, my time spent here as a padagogin has shaped my parenting ideals and the way that I hope to raise my daughter.

So without further ado, here are ten things that I love about the Austrian approach to childcare:

1.Trust the child. Trust seems to be the umbrella approach that shapes all the interactions we have with children here.

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. You know where these things weren’t? Anywhere else. I looked around for a teacher standing guard, but there was none. The teachers were around of course, 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 things, 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 (two years old), felt more comfortable observing the older children (six) doing their work, before they felt ready to try it themselves.

I’ve learnt that the more we trust in our children, the better their ability to understand where their own limitations are. I’m sure we’ve all seen parents who have one hand on their child as the she tries to climb a tree or play structure. The parent means well: if the child falls, they are there to catch them. But by taking the risk of falling away from the child, the child will never learn about boundaries. Why not climb to the top, if someone is there to catch me anyway? These children have never had the opportunity to discover for themselves what is too high and what isn’t. In contrast, the child who is allowed to experiment with boundaries will have a better awareness of where their own limits 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.Outside everyday. Granted, winters in Austria are far more mild than they are in Canada. Nevertheless, I was surprised to be working at least 5 hours outside each day. At first, it was hard for me to adjust to. I felt restless and bored-the children needed so much less accompaniment when we were outside. I was left wondering what it is I should be doing. But I grew to love being outside with the kids, if for no other reason than the kids being free to move and vocalize the way kids do. I often think about the outdoor-school quote, “Children can’t bounce off the walls if there are no walls”. And it’s true. When we’re outside, there’s no need to remind the children not to run, not to yell, to clean up a station before moving on to the next one, etc. etc. etc. The children are free to be children.

Aside from tricycles, buckets and shovels, we have no toys outside. Instead, we have lots and lots of wood logs and planks. We don’t have a play structure, but rather, a massive tree that has been turned on it’s side for the children to climb. We have a sand pit, a small slide on the top of a hill, and a couple swings, but mostly, there’s just lots of room for the children to run and ride tricycles. Since wood is a perfect open-ended toy, everyday it’s function is something new. One day the children have created an ice-cream stand with small piles of sand or rocks being used as a stand-in for the ice-cream, on another day, the wood is being used as a balance beam. From an outsiders perspective, our yard might look a little bit dumpy. From a child’s perspective, it’s a dream of endless possibilities.

We are often outside in the rain, to most of the children’s delight. They are never told to avoid the puddles or mud; they enjoy shovelling water into buckets for hours. I actually love when it rains because the puddles and mud occupy the children endlessly. All the children have a basket of spare clothes at the center. When the water has finally seeped past even the toughest of waterproof boots and pants, we go in for a change of clothes. It’s not uncommon to see a child going home having had two or three outfit changes throughout the day. Which brings me to my next point:

3.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, the children 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 (2 years old) can see how much liquid is inside and lift/tilt the glass accordingly. We always have a glass water jug sitting out, and they are free to pour their own water whenever they feel thirsty. At lunch, they ladle their own soup/scoop their own rice/pour their own sauce on their meat, all from glass dishes. They are free to decide how much or how little they’d like to take. It can get messy, and dishes can break. But by doing it this way I can observe 40 kids under the age of 6 successfully eat a warm lunch without once hearing the words “be careful”. They already know they have to be careful, they’ve accidentally poured sauce into their laps or had dishes break before their eyes when they aren’t.

4. Free choice. The children spend the majority of the day free to move around the center as they please. Each room has different activities on offer, and we (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. A child knows better than anyone else what he or she needs, 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 then having pre-determined time slots for these things, they not only play in a more engaged, focussed way, they are also checking off aspects of their development as they need them. This goes back to trust…trusting that the child will develop in his or her time, rather than an external force telling them what they should learn, when they should learn it, and how (ie: now it’s art time, now it’s music time, etc).

5.The proof is in the play. There is very little pressure on children to learn reading and writing before they start school. (In Austria, school starts at the age of 6, and only goes for half days until the age of 10.) 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 things like science and math (what happens when I build this block tower too high, what happens when I submerge this toy into a bucket full of water, etc etc.).

Although we put very little pressure on children to learn reading and writing, it has been my experience that almost every child, at some point or another, expresses an interest in writing their name or understanding the words on a sign. Children are born with an intrinsic motivation to learn. Consider a child’s first year of life: did anyone tell her that she should start learning to use her hands? Or did she simply develop this skill on her own? If we follow our children’s lead, and engage with them when they’re ready, children will surprise us with their willingness to learn the skills they need to co-exist with us in this world.

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 him empathy. When he feels empathized with, he is more likely to turn around and show that empathy to others. I cannot even begin to count how many times I’ve witnessed a scene like this:  “Theo is using the shovel right now, as soon as he’s finished, you can use it”. Theo hears this, continues using the shovel for a minute, and when he’s done, hand delivers it to the child that was waiting, with something like “here you go, you can use it now, I don’t need it anymore.” (Even the children who say, “That’s right, I’m using the swing right now, and I’m going to use it for the whooooooole day!” obviously never, ever use it that long!) Is this a recipe for conflict-free play between the children? Of course not. 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 once being told to share who’s upset, not the one being asked to wait!

7. Language is key. When I finally started grasping German, I started noticing how carefully the teachers choose their words. Children cry. It’s important. They experience hundreds of tiny little 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; that their reasons for being sad are trivial. Rather, I hear things like this: “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 your 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 (over and over and over again), 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 him for a something a child is programmed to do (move), she offered him a setting where it would be appropriate for him.

8. Role model the behaviour we want from our children. “If there is anything that we wish to change in the child, we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could better be changed in ourselves.” -Carl Jung. It always struck me as strange that we would demand our children be polite (say please and thank you, don’t 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 behaviour 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 behaviour 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. Phrases like “say please”, “say excuse me”, “say thank you” become completely meaningless to kids when they hear them 1000 times a day.

9. We are here to build our children up, not tear them down. They need to know it’s not only ok to feel angry/sad/frustrated, it’s normal and completely valid. Children who are constantly told how to feel and behave (ie: “Don’t be sad, we can fix this) don’t develop in the same way as children who are acknowledged and allowed to express their full range of emotions. These children 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 like “This behaviour is ridiculous! They need to learn I won’t accept this!”, I observed my coworkers 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. We’re here for you, but we aren’t going to do it for you. 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 ass 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 of the teachers would go outside as soon as the first children were dressed (eliminating meaningless act of having the children line up and wait while bundled head to toe in snow gear). As more and more children were finished getting dressed, more and more of the 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 also 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. But the lesson was this: I’m here for you when you need me, but I trust in you and I know that you can pick yourself up and dust yourself off. It was a small way of teaching 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.

I’m not trying to paint a picture of a childcare center that is an oasis of constant peace and harmony. Things get chaotic, they get loud, there are days where it feels like it no matter what we do we are dealing with one meltdown after another. Nevertheless, 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.