What is the Pikler approach to early education?

Published on Wednesday, 08 July 2020
Last updated on Wednesday, 21 October 2020

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Pikler is a respectful approach to infant and child care that was developed by Dr Emmi Pikler – a Hungarian paediatrician, author and lecturer.

It rests on the idea that children can only truly learn when they are emotionally satisfied, and this peaceful approach advocates authentic, trusting relationships between youngsters and care-givers.

The approach’s practical origins can be traced back to 1946, when Dr Pikler founded a residential nursery in Budapest that was focused on preserving the competence, autonomy and integrity of children from birth to six years of age.

As Dr Pikler worked with children at the home and mentored various educators and carers, the Pikler approach gained traction in Hungary and beyond. There are now Pikler associations in Europe, Asia and North and South America, and this approach to infant and child care has support in New Zealand, too.

Early childhood education services like Whippersnappers and The Nest (which caters to ages 3+) are inspired by the Pikler approach.

Whippersnappers says the approach, ‘Urges early childhood teachers to consider infants and toddlers as competent, confident and unique individuals who are focused, self-initiating, involved, resourceful, secure, cooperative and curious.’

Specifically, Dr Pikler found that certain conditions need to be in place to enhance young children’s education and development, and she developed seven guiding principles for optimal early childhood development. They are as follows:

  1. Carers should give their full attention– especially when involved in caring activities

Instead of multi-tasking, the Pikler approach says that carers should give youngsters 100 per cent of their focus. There’s the idea that babies interpret this attention as love, and this kind of focus brings a peacefulness to hectic lives.

  1. It’s important to slow down

Dr Pikler observed that babies did better in calm, relaxing environments. Over-stimulation can make babies fretful (and carers stressed), so slow, peaceful environments are favoured to allow youngsters to ‘unfold’ and feel respected.

  1. Trust and relationships are built during caring moments

The Pikler approach views caring activities (like feeding, bathing, dressing and nappy changes) as valuable opportunities for carers and little ones to bond. When a carer shows respect for their baby and carries out activities in a pleasant and unrushed way, it’s thought that the baby can become an active partner and learn what they need to do in a competent and meaningfully involved way.

  1. Carers should work ‘with’ babies, not ‘to’ them

Because the Pikler approach sees babies as active participants, rather than passive recipients, carers don’t underestimate children’s abilities. Instead, they interact cooperatively with babies – explaining what they’d like to work with them on, being patient and giving them plenty of time to respond.

  1. Babies shouldn’t be put into positions they couldn’t achieve themselves

Dr Pikler was a strong advocate of the free movement of babies. Instead of ‘trapping’ them in positions they couldn’t manage independently (including in equipment like swings and walkers), she believed that giving babies the freedom to move as they pleased was in their best interests.

There’s a recognition that free movement gives babies opportunities to learn through experimentation, and it teaches them how to build their independence, persevere, be patient and overcome challenges. They also gain a sense of happiness and achievement from all that effort spent learning to roll, sit, walk and so on.

  1. Babies should be given uninterrupted play time

In a nurturing environment, Pikler says little ones should be given plenty of opportunities to explore, play and entertain themselves free of grown-up interactions. This enables them to think and play independently, learn skills and start to build their self-esteem and self-confidence.

  1. Carers should tune in respectfully to babies’ cues

Last but not least, the Pikler approach recognises that youngsters are sending physical and verbal cues all the time, and it says carers need to be responsive and respectful of these cues to ensure that a culture of mutual respect develops.

When carers ignore the messages given to them by children, Pikler suggests there’s an increased chance that the children will ignore the messages and requests that carers give them later in life.

The takeaway from all this is that Dr Pikler’s thinking remains relevant all these years after 1946. Respectful relationships and relaxing environments continue to be important when caring for infants and children, and Pikler is a thoughtful approach that has inspired many people – and positive interactions – around the world.


Pikler Lóczy USA

The Learning Space

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