Notes from an Introduction to RIE
I first learned about the RIE (pronounced like “rye”) approach to infant care when Annabelle was a baby and I have since enjoyed reading and learning about it through the inspirational Janet Lansbury’s blog. The first thing I thought when I discovered and began reading about RIE was, “This sounds like Montessori!” Naturally, I was intrigued, and I have enjoyed learning bits and pieces here and there since. Shortly before Elliot’s birth, I finally picked up Your Self-Confident Baby and Dear Parent: Caring for Infants with Respect, and everything I’ve read thus far has been enriching for me as mother to an infant.
It seems that I was not even nearly the first person to see how very in line RIE founder Magda Gerber‘s thinking was with Dr. Montessori’s and vice versa. Brilliant women, they were, with a shared belief in the importance of trusting and respecting even the youngest children. A lovely Montessori toddler guide in my neighborhood even informed me that the infant program at her school in DC marries RIE and Montessori principles, and that RIE materials were used as part of her toddler training. Naturally, I’m itching to pop by for an observation. On my list!
There was a RIE training in DC this summer and I would have loved very much to attend, but it didn’t make financial sense for me, so I didn’t. As disappointed as I was to miss out, I was thrilled when I saw that the trainer, Ruth Anne Hammond, was offering an evening introduction to RIE’s Educaring Approach a mere thirty minutes from my house. Of course I went, pen in hand, and I left inspired. The format of the event was wonderfully informal, so my notes don’t follow a carefully organized outline, but I wanted to share them with you all anyway, in large part as a way of reliving the evening and solidifying some of Ruth Anne Hammond’s wisdom in my own mind.
I am in no way associated with RIE, and Ruth Anne Hammond has no idea I’m sharing these notes. It’s certainly possible that I misunderstood, misheard, or misinterpreted something, so please keep that in mind as you read the below. She is promoting her new book, Respecting Babies, which sounds wonderful, and which I’m sure is a much more reliable, organized, and thorough source of her thoughts and opinions on RIE and caring for babies and toddlers.
The evening began with a bit of history on RIE, which I could write about here, but I’ll let you read about it in greater depth on some of the sites listed above if you’re interested. From there, Hammond described some of the basic principles of RIE before showing us RIE’s new video, See How they Play, and then answering some questions from those of us in attendance. Here are some of the highlights:
In talking about infants playing together in a group, Hammond noted that when adults stop talking, she consistently sees infant play intensify, becoming more focused. When their energy is focused on screening out chatter from the adults in the room or other stimuli, it is directed away from the infant’s own activity. This is why RIE advocates an environment for infants that is relatively peaceful and not overstimulating.
- Many seem to have the impression that respecting babies means treating them like adults. Hammond notes that RIE is not about giving infants exactly the same type of attention and/or respect that we give to adults, but rather the same amount.
- We should invite children to be involved in all aspects of care to the extent that they can be involved — and also as they have the energy to want to be involved. Independence should be a pleasure, not a thing which is pushed on the child. The idea is not to make them do for themselves everything that they’re physically capable of doing, but to allow them time to be involved as they wish.
- More than once, when asked about the most important thing that parents can do, Hammond emphasizes the importance of slowing down. Allow infants processing time so that they can truly pay attention to what is happening and subsequently learn to cooperate with it.
- When we offer babies objects unrelated to what’s happening as a distraction (a toy during diaper changes, etc), we distract them from the care activity rather than inviting them to be involved and to cooperate with us. Just as objects offered during a care activity should be contextual, so should language. Rich meaningful language is valuable, but there is no need for a running narrative of every single thing.
- Magda Gerber defined play as what babies are doing when they are not sleeping or being cared for. When we care for infants with consistency, kindness, and pleasure, giving them our full and unhurried attention, we fill them up emotionally so that they’re ready to play.
- Time spent with our babies, simply allowing them to play, not caring for them or imposing any agenda of our own, is referred to in RIE as “Wants Nothing Time.” Spending this time with our babies shows them that we value their activity. This time together teaches them trust in is, whereas time apart, as when we allow babies to play while we take care of things important to us, teaches them trust in themselves.
- RIE teaches trust in babies as initiators, explorers, and self-learners. Gerber noted that it is better to have passive toys and active children. RIE encourages open-ended toys and objects, balls, bowls, canisters, etc. Objects are not changed out frequently (Hammond noted that she believes the practice of always replacing toys with something new encourages “dabbling.” Interesting perspective.), because infants use the same objects differently as they grow.
- The goal is to provide an environment that is physically safe, cognitively challenging, and emotionally nurturing. Spaces for babies are consciously designed to offer safe challenges, and therefore require little intervention from adults.
Babies who get together regularly, as in RIE infant-child classes, develop “peaceful proximity,” with one another, and RIE encourages adults to give infants the space and freedom to explore and to interact with each other.
- When asked to compare and contrast RIE with Montessori and Waldorf, Hammond noted that neither Montessori nor Waldorf had as thorough a plan for infants as does RIE. She also noted a tendency to take approaches that work for preschoolers and older children and apply some form of the same to infants and toddlers. Of course this is not often appropriate, since infants and toddlers have their own unique needs and abilities, and RIE is unique in its focus exclusively on the needs of this stage of a child’s life.
- In a discussion about various ways of holding a baby, Hammond noted how important she believes it is for infants to be able to see their caregiver’s face as a point of reference and connection. For this reason, she does not like carriers and strollers in which baby faces away from the adult. She also demonstrated how she feeds a baby, by placing a doll in her lap facing toward her for spoon feeding. I was curious to know her thoughts on letting babies feed themselves, but I think I came off as critical rather than curious, so that conversation didn’t go very far. Oops! It seems to me that both RIE and Montessori methods for feeding babies stem from a time when babies were offered their first solid foods well before they were “ready” by today’s standards. At three or four months, it certainly makes sense that a baby would need to be spoon-fed. But that’s an entirely separate post.
- An important principle of RIE focuses on the need for clear and consistent limits for babies and toddlers. In a later question about attending to a crying baby, Hammond also expressed her belief that before they become mobile, “everything a baby wants is what he or she needs.” When asked why that changes when the baby becomes mobile, she answered matter-of-factly, “Well, because then they want to chew the light cord.” Cue laughter. ;)
- I asked about helping the (my) child who has a strong urge to bite. I have so disliked the feeling that I’m constantly hovering over Elliot as he interacts so that I can stop him before he bites, and I want so much to give him that space and freedom to interact freely. Hammond seemed to agree, however, that the hovering is important until the biting becomes less frequent, and she encouraged me to continue to react as little as possible, and simply prevent the biting as much as I can, and matter-of-factly explain that/why I don’t want him to do it. She also loves silicon kitchen items (measuring spoons, cupcake cups, etc) as open ended toys and recommended them as being great teethers, too.
- I absolutely loved Hammond’s advice to all of the moms in the room. She seemed to gently quiet everyone’s self-criticism when it crept up in questions, and discouraged the idea that anyone should go home from the workshop and completely change how they parent to bring their methods more in line with RIE. The key thing she stressed, again, was that parents simply slow down as much as possible in interactions with their babies. I also loved the emphasis on authentic interaction. RIE seems to encourage adults to keep a relatively even tone with babies and toddlers, and not to let our excited expressions or exclamations become front and center when we interact with our babies as they play. Hammond seemed to believe that there was a middle ground between completely flat, unemotional responses and constant, enthusiastic entertainment. Authenticity is key for both parents and children. Her practical way of looking at things was quite refreshing.
- RIE refers to the times when we have something to accomplish, such as changing a diaper, bathing, or feeding, and we need the child’s cooperation, as “Wants something time.” This is the companion to the above mentioned “wants nothing time,” spent in the child’s presence, fully with them, imposing no agenda of our own. Giving our full attention during “Wants something time,” and offering our presence for “wants nothing time,” are both considered very important for educarers. Hammond suggested that parents begin by setting aside 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the afternoon or evening for “wants nothing time,” to just be with our children and let them play. By no means did she imply that this was all we should offer our children, but she felt this was a good start.
- In a side discussion later about babyproofing, I asked about the play yard as baby’s personal space to play that I see recommend so often for parents who want to implement RIE’s ideas in their home. I was curious to know whether there was a philosophical reason for defining a small space like this for babies, or whether it might not be just as well to designate an entire room or floor of a home if it was feasible to do so. Hammond did think enclosed spaces were useful for very young babies, as a way of helping them to feel secure within a familiar, safe space, but she also felt that if one can reasonably provide more space as baby gets older, this may be even better. She noted that play yards can also be used to keep baby out of unsafe spaces, enclosing off-limits items instead of enclosing the baby. She also recommended babyproofing before it’s needed so that any locks or gates used would simply be part of the environment. I have written about babyproofing before, but have come around to a slightly different opinion at this stage in my parenting. I’ll have to write on that eventually.
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