Dr. Emmi Pikler - Professional Development with Heart

Kelly and myself (Lana) the Centre coordinators for Gems Shotover Country and Lake Hayes Estate respectively, were lucky enough to go to a weekend of Professional development (PD) in October last year in Taupo. The PD was focused on "The Approach of Dr. Emmi Pikler" and how this philosophy of supporting children in their growth and development might look for children both at home and in Early Childhood centres.

Below you will find some background on Dr. Emmi Pikler and an outline of some of her ideas so you can see why they have become a worldwide way of raising children. Dr. Emmi Pikler's influence today is far-reaching, with many parents and teachers around the world raising and helping raise children according to her principles of Free Movement, autonomous play and mindful (Respectful) caregiving.

In Emmi Pikler's early days in her private medical practice, she was more interested in promoting healthy physical and emotional development than curing diseases, due to this her patients were rarely sick. Pikler would advise parents to interfere less and observe more. She taught them to have a predictable rhythm to the day (not a strict routine), enable their babies to move and play freely and to respect the children’s developmental timetable. She asked them to take their time during the caregiving routines (nappy changing, feeding, sleep times, etc.), to respond to the child’s signals, to tell the child what they were doing each step of the way and to ask for the child’s cooperation when needed. The basis of the Pikler philosophy is the view of a baby as a person – Someone to treat as you would want to be treated yourself as an adult (think of it like this: If you were incapacitated in any way and could not do things for yourself due to illness or injury how would you like the person helping you to treat you). Would you like to be picked up from behind with no warning? Would you like someone to swoop down and wipe your nose or wash your face without any warning? Would you like someone to spoon food into your mouth quickly when you aren’t quite ready for the next mouthful? Food for thought isn’t it?

Dr. Emmi Pikler believed (and found from years of meticulous observations of children who lived at the orphanage she ran for the government in Hungary after World War II) that "The First Years of life, including the first months, have a decisive impact on the later development of the individual. This is the foundation on which everything else is built. If this foundation is strong, the structure is better able to withstand the shocks. Because of this, we try to secure the most favourable circumstances for the child, especially at the beginning, which gives them an advantage in their development, which will serve them their entire life" Emmi Pikler.

On opening the orphanage to help look after children who were orphaned during World War II, Pikler quickly realised that the regimented nurses that were originally employed to help look after the children were not what the children needed. While their physical and medical needs were being met many of their other needs (in particular emotional ones) were not. The nurses were quickly replaced by caregivers who were young and full of love and more open to being taught a different way to nurture the children, supporting them in their development both physically and emotionally and guiding them through the early years of their lives as the individuals they were.


Some of Pikler’s ideas are offered below (while the word infant is used in some cases, the ideas are applicable to children in general):

·         Hands constitute the infant's first connection to the world….Hands pick her up, lay her down, wash and dress and maybe even feed her. How different it can be, what a different picture of the world an infant receives when quiet, patient, careful yet secure and resolute hands take care of her – and how different the world seems when these hands are impatient, rough and hasty, unquiet and nervous. In the beginning, hands are everything to the infant. The hands are the person, the world (Dr. Emmi Pikler).

·         Infants who actively participate in their daily care routines and are emotionally balanced are also active and full of initiative beyond the care situation. They are capable of picking out from their surroundings objects which interest them, independently getting to know these objects and occupying themselves with them. Infants who are brought up this way do not demand the same amount of help from adults (Dr. Emmi Pikler). Giving time and your full attention to care times gives the child the knowledge they are loved and cared for, it fills up their emotional cups and gives them the confidence to explore, knowing the adult will be there if they need them.

·         The most important thing … an infant’s own movements, the development of these movements and every detail of this development are a constant source of joy to him. If one does not interfere, an infant will learn to turn, roll, creep on the belly, go on all fours, stand, sit, and walk with no trouble (Dr. Emmi Pikler). For most children these are gained without any need for help or training, there is a natural progression they go through, some go through it quickly, others need more time (both are normal).

·         If we give children enough space and possibilities for free movement, they will move as beautifully and gracefully as animals: nimbly, confidently and naturally (Dr. Emmi Pikler). This entails not putting infants/children into positions they can't get into themselves and letting their physical development progress through its natural stages. This includes things like not sitting a child up before they can get into the position by themselves (which is around about the same time they start to crawl). Or putting an older child onto a piece of equipment they can't access by themselves (part of the process of learning is to push yourself and practice and practice until you can do the new thing you want to be able to do. A key skill to have in adulthood).

·         It is essential that the child is allowed to make as many discoveries as they can on their own. If we try to help them with the fulfilment of all daily tasks, we rob the child of all that is vital for their independent psychological development. A child who successfully achieves something through his own desire of experiment acquires a completely different quality of knowledge than one who is simply handed a finished product (Dr. Emmi Pikler). This does not mean that we as adults step back and leave them to it, it simply means giving them space to try things out for themselves and being present to help them or be involved when they need us or invite us into they play.

·         In the child – even in the infant –there is, by nature, an inexhaustible and ever-increasing interest in the world and in himself. It is not necessary to "entertain" an infant. For hours, days, and even months they play with the most simple objects which they happen to get hold of (Dr. Emmi Pikler). Children love the simple things, just think how often the new toy is ignored and the box or wrapping paper becomes the delight!

·         Put simply: The relationship is ALL. It is a matter of Life to the baby and ultimately the child and beyond.

All of the above ideas are put into practice daily at Gems as we use the Pikler philosophy to guide our practices and interactions with the children. If you would like some more information about this approach please don’t hesitate to talk to Kelly or myself or one of the teachers. A wonderful book written for parents around what this approach looks like from a New Zealand perspective is “Dance with me in the Heart” by Pennie Brownlee (a NZ Early Childhood guru who has been to the Pikler Institute in Hungary a number of times to study and learn what the approach looks like in practice), I highly recommend getting hold of it if you are interested in learning more.

“There is no single effort more radical in its potential for saving the world than a transformation of the way we raise our children” Marianne Williamson.