Recognizing Children as Unique Beings: Caring for the Young Child from Birth to Three by Rahima Baldwin Dancy

I wrote You Are Your Childs First Teacher in the late 1980s in response to a task I had been given to make a bridge between Steiner’s insights and the ideas of parents of young children who might have been called cultural creatives for their interest in more natural alternatives in birth, parenting, and education. At the time, everyone I encountered in the Waldorf movement had the strong conviction that “the young child belonged at home with the mother.” In the book, I used the observations of noted child psychologist and researcher Burton White to support the increasingly unpopular idea of staying home with an infant and toddler.


Even at that time, a parent’s ability to stay home with children during the first three years was already being eaten away by economic factors, women’s increasing involvement in the workforce and careers, and parents’ desire to give their children a leg up through early learning programs. As these trends continued, by the late 1990s, even Waldorf leaders were recognizing the value in asking what kind of care outside the home would be best for the young child.


Fast forward to 2010, when I co-founded the Rainbow Bridge LifeWays Program for children ages one to five, offering half-day and full-time care for twelve children in my daughter Faith Collins’ home in Boulder, Colorado. During those years, I truly came to appreciate some of the principles that had just been hinted at in my Waldorf early childhood training so many years before. For example, while they mentioned in the training that the Waldorf kindergarten/early-childhood approach took home as the model, at that time, I didn’t know what a Waldorf home might look like, and I didn’t see much that was home-like besides baking together once a week. It wasn’t until I experienced how this concept of creating a home-away-from-home was developed by LifeWays North America that I understood how healthy this could be for young children. We were fortunate to be able to provide relationship-based care to a mixed-age group of children—similar to a large family. The children seemed to love it and to thrive from having a rich, rhythmical life based on the principles we’ll explore below.


Parents and caregivers of infants and toddlers who are guided by the insights of Rudolf Steiner share a wealth of practices in common, regardless of the setting. This is true whether it is in the child’s own home or in programs called Waldorf, Steiner, LifeWays, or some other name altogether. It is also helpful to recognize that Rudolf Steiner didn’t have a monopoly on insights or useful lenses for understanding young children--Pikler, Montessori, LeBoyer, and others who closely observed infants and young children saw many of the same things, such as how open the child is to all sense impressions.


However, Steiner’s indications provide a comprehensive understanding of the young child that can transform how we can interact with and nurture young children. The following are some of the characteristics of this approach:


  • We recognize children as unique beingswhose development unfolds from within. Our task is to accompany young children in this process of being who they are meant to be by recognizing their unique gifts and struggles. Our primary task is to observe and encourage each child, recognizing that artificially hurrying development or skipping stages does not lead to healthy, balanced development. Thus, we don’t need to “teach” young children to walk or talk but to provide freedom of movement and adults who are mindful of their own movements and speaking. However, through objective observation and understanding of the wide range of child development, we can also provide guidance or referral for the small percentage of children with developmental difficulties.


  • We study a developmental approachto human unfolding and recognize how children learn differently at different ages. By studying how consciousness, thinking, feeling, and doing change as the child grows, we adapt our approach to the age and abilities of the individual child.


  • We recognize that relationships are the most importantpart of each child’s environment--more important than any kind of equipment. Relationship-based care forms the heart of all our programs from birth to three and throughout early childhood. Time is allowed for deep relationships to form between caregivers and children and among the children themselves, just as in a family. Caring for mixed-age groups of children is especially valuable for those reasons. Because connections are valued above tasks, activities of bodily care are used as times to connect with each child.


  • Because relationships are so important, we recognize that the qualities and character of the adults matter.We do our best to model gratitude, reverence, and joy around the children and to bring our best selves to them. We recognize that being a parent or childcare provider gives us countless opportunities for inner development, and we cultivate practices that help us on this path. When we fall off the tightrope on one side or the other, we strive to do better while trying to have the same patience with ourselves that we want to have with the children.


  • Because we know how deeply the physical environment affects the young child, we realize that beauty matters and is not just an add-on!Creating a beautiful home-like environment rather than an institutionalized one is especially important for children who may be in childcare for more hours than they are at home and awake. As caregivers, it can be valuable to ask ourselves, “Is this something I would want to have in my own home?”


  • Because the activities of a healthy home life provide a naturally nurturing context for young children’s development, we emphasize taking life as the curriculum. This can be at home with parents, grandparents, or a nanny or in a childcare setting. LifeWays especially supports parents to cultivate and value the activities involved in creating a home and encourages providers to create a home away from home for young children, based on the recommendation from Rudolf Steiner:


“The task of the kindergarten [early childhood] teacher is to adapt the practical activities of daily life so that they are suitable for the child’s imitation through play....The activities of children in kindergarten [early childhood] must be derived directly from life itself rather than being ‘thought out’ by the intellectualized culture of adults. In the kindergarten, the most important thing is to give the children the opportunity to directly imitate life itself.”[1]


While freedom of movement is important for the development of large motor skills, spending most of the day on colored mats with plastic bottles and similar toys is time the infant or toddler is not experiencing real-life activities, which can easily include ample opportunities for movement.


  • The rhythmical experience of these life activitiesprovides a health-giving foundation in which young children learn how life unfolds. Repetition, reverence, and ritual enable children to know what to expect and will allow them to relax about what comes next. They learn naturally and develop competency through repetition and the rhythmical unfolding of the day’s activities, not through the teacher providing verbal commentary on each event.


  • Children are very sensitive to the differences between natural and synthetic materials. Because they feel the difference when wearing clothing made from natural fibers that can “breathe” even more acutely than most adults do, we use fabrics and toys made from natural materials whenever possible.


  • We recognize that imagination and creativity are the birthright of all children.To nurture this natural wellspring of creativity, we provide ample time and opportunities for self-directed play. Imaginative play encourages physical, social, and emotional development, forming a sensory-rich foundation for later academic learning. We use simple toys, inviting the child to finish them with imagination.


  • Because being outside provides countless benefits for healthy development, we spend time outdoors with the children every day possible, providing opportunities for both large-motor and imaginative play. Because actually being in nature is even more beneficial, we include this aspect as often as possible.


  • Our programs involve no screen timebecause young children learn primarily through movement and need direct experiences of the world, not virtual ones. In addition to taking time away from movement and self-directed play, screens with their pixilated and rapidly changing images are not good for young children’s developing brains or sense organs. We encourage parents to forgo apps, videos, or recorded music with their children and to sing or play with them instead--recommendations supported by studies showing that only speech from a living person makes any difference in language development.


  • Studies show that orality provides a strong basis for many skills, including language development, listening, following directions, forming imaginative pictures, and reading. Therefore, we provide a rich language program based in the spoken word, including nursery rhymes, singing, circle games, finger plays, and stories. Formal instruction and calling on the child’s memory are reserved for first grade, the time when brain imaging shows a neural flowering.


Parents reading this can use these points in evaluating programs for young children or in creating a home life that supports the young child’s needs. Parents, childcare providers, and early childhood teachers can all benefit from the many in-person and online courses offered by LifeWays North America. My three-week online course on “Birth to Three” will be offered again in March 2024, followed by “Using Home as the Model in Your Early Childhood Program” in the summer and “Inspired Homemaking” in the fall. Sign up to be notified at


BIO: Rahima Baldwin Dancy is internationally known as an early childhood and parenting educator. Her book, You Are Your Childs First Teacher, has been translated into nine languages. She worked as a midwife, Waldorf kindergarten teacher, founding board member of LifeWays North America, and co-director of the Rainbow Bridge LifeWays program. She and her husband, Agaf, live in Boulder, Colorado, have raised four adult children, and enjoy having five grandchildren.

[1] Steiner, Rudolf. The child’s changing consciousness: As the basis of Pedagogical Practice. Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press, 1996.