The Pikler approach to optimal early childhood development
Published on Monday, 01 May 2017
Last updated on Friday, 17 December 2021
Most early childhood education and care providers have heard of the Montessori approach to early learning, many will also be familiar with the Reggio Emilia philosophy and Magda Gerber's views. However, I'll take a punt and say there are fewer of you who have heard of Emmi Pikler's teachings.
Dr Emmi Pikler was a paediatrician who lived and worked in Hungary. In 1946 she assumed responsibility for running a Home for Children (known as Loczy in Hungarian) in Budapest and this experience led to the development of her views on how best to nurture infants.
Dr Pikler mentored Magda Gerber, which is how many of her philosophies gained traction in the USA. Much of Dr Pikler's approach makes sense with what we now know about early childhood development, but what makes her teaching extraordinary is the time and context when she was working, when there was a limited understanding about how carers and parents can best support a baby's growth and development.
After observing and caring for the children in the orphanage she ran Dr Pikler determined that babies and children need certain conditions to be in place to enhance their physical and intellectual education and development and these led to the development of her 7 Key Principles.
1. Full attention - especially when involved in caring activity times
Dr Pikler's approach advocates that carers and parents should avoid multi-tasking and turn all their attention to their baby when engaging in an explicit caring activity. Dr Pikler said that babies interpret this attention as love and that it brings stillness and focus to lives which may have been overcome with the need to be more productive.
2. Slow down
Dr Pikler observed that babies do better when they are in calm, slow environments. She says babies become over-stimulated and fretful when caregivers are stressed and jump through caring tasks quickly and suggests carers aim to create an atmosphere of peace to ensure the baby feels respected and doesn't become upset.
3. Build trust and work on your relationship during caring activities
Further to the principle above about slowing down Dr Pikler claims taking time when participating in caring activities, such as nappy changes, bathing and dressing, offers a valuable opportunity for a baby to bond with a carer, and that babies will often become an active partner in these activities when the conditions are optimal. Dr Pikler observed that babies given security and freedom during caring activities will learn what they need to do and will become competent and cooperative partners.
4. 'With', and not 'To'
Dr Pikler viewed babies as active participants rather than passive recipients of care and encouraged carers to take a cooperative approach in all their interactions with babies. She said an important component in this is talking to babies every step of the way so they know what is about to happen and are given the option to help. Patience on the part of the carer is also required to ensure babies have the time to respond.
5. Babies should not be put in a position they couldn't put themselves in
Dr Pikler was a strong advocate of the free movement of babies and claimed that propping a child into a position they couldn't achieve on their own or that they couldn't get out of, was tantamount to trapping them. She said free movement gives babies the opportunity to learn through experimentation and teaches them how to overcome challenges and derive a sense of satisfaction and achievement.
Further to this, Dr Pikler was opposed to baby equipment such as hammocks, swings, prams and walkers, which she claimed were more about convenience for the carer rather than in the best interests of a baby's development.
6. Babies need uninterrupted play time
Dr Pikler's approach asserts that babies in a nurturing environment given space, time and the physical capacity to explore are fully capable of entertaining themselves. She said that offering babies uninterrupted opportunities to explore and learn about their world helped them develop confidence and self esteem and that this process helps them learn who they are and develop a sense of being.
7. Carers should tune-in respectfully
Dr Pikler said carers need to be more responsive and respectful of a child's physical and verbal cues to ensure the development of a culture of mutual respect. She said that when carers ignore the explicit messages given to us by children it increases the likelihood they will ignore the messages and requests made to them by carers in later life.
References and further reading:
Professor Fiona Stanley describes the social impact on the whole community of how well we raise our children and how children are the key to our future success.
Learn about the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education and care, which originates in Italy and advocates a child led and play based focus.
An overview of the Montessori approach to early childhood education and care; one of the most popular and fastest growing educational philosophies in the world.