The Secret for Parents and Caregivers

Becoming an effective Fairy Godmother to the Children
in your Care is a Piece of Cake
  • If a fairy godmother flew in the window and offered to grant you three wishes for the children in your care – what would you wish for? Health? Happiness? Confidence?

    This is the story of why, what and how I was inspired to become a ‘fairy godmother’ to the children of this world… and how you can too…its fun and easy… in fact, becoming an effective fairy godmother to the children in your care is a piece of cake! So, are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

    Once upon a time

    A young girl sat in a faraway hospital bed nursing her new baby in the still of the night. Outside the window she saw deer huddled under trees on the snow clad banks of a frozen lake. She felt intense love and protectiveness towards the tiny new life in her arms. She wanted only the best for her baby. She wished that a fairy godmother would fly in the window and gift her new baby the life of her dreams.

    That young girl was me. I was 23yrs old. A graduate student in upstate New York. My family lived 5,000 km away in Dublin,Ireland. I had never held a newborn before.

    At night the nurses at the hospital would wheel my baby’s bedside bassinette away to the nursery so that I could get some ‘sleep’. At the end of three restless and interrupted nights, lying awake listening out for my baby’s distant cry, my insurance allocated time in hospital was up.

    Protocol dictated that I get wheel-chaired to the hospital door, where my baby was handed over to me and we alighted into a waiting taxi.

    Reality sets in

    Needless to say, no fairy godmother had visited me in hospital to offer assistance or advice. I returned to the isolated reality of my student flat exhausted, with a strep throat and my baby on antibiotics for bronchitis. I had an instruction sheet recommending the avoidance of stairs for at least a week, lest I faint and injure myself. It didn’t help matters that the kitchen was downstairs.

    I sat on the bed and held my baby tightly, afraid to put her down in case she would fall off. The past three days spent in the sterility of the hospital environment with the nurses taking over contrasted sharply with this now seemingly dirty student flat and total responsibility for another life. No one had told me that sometimes babies arrive two weeks before the due date and, having been preoccupied with trying to cram in essay assignments before the baby arrived, I didn’t even have a cot or baby clothes ready.

    I was young. I was isolated. I knew nothing about babies, and I was terrified.

    My coping mechanism for survival was to research widely about infant development. What I discovered changed my life, and I was determined to share the information with as many parents and caregivers as possible. Here are the secrets I learnt:

    1. You are the fairy godmothers of the children in your care:

    You are one of the most important teachers in your children’s lives. You are responsible for your children during the most sensitive and impressionable time of their development- the first five years – when the brain is rapidly forming and being hardwired for the future.

    2. Mothers and babies need tribes:

    It is neither natural nor developmentally appropriate for babies to be raised in isolation, such as I found myself in. I also learnt about the vital importance of the first 5 years for healthy development.

    Mothers need to be emotionally supported and secure in order to be emotionally available for their baby. It is unnatural to expect a parent to raise a baby in isolation. As I met other mums, equally isolated, I found that they too lacked information about the development of their baby. Mums and babies need tribes in order to meet the physical and emotional demands of providing nurturing safe, stimulating, environments.

    I resolved to form a community of people, interested in the healthy development of their children. As I pondered what would be the best forum for such a community, I thought back to the deer outside my hospital window and their ability to get up and take their first steps within hours of birth and wondered why was the human baby born so helpless?

    3. Early physical development is linked to brain development:

    Baby deer can stand up and run within hours because they are born with a well developed brain. This enables excellent physical coordination almost straight away. On the other hand, a human baby is born with an undeveloped brain; the brain cells only loosely connected at birth. This results in an uncoordinated body. It will take at least a year to walk and another four years for the brain to be fully formed.

    What is exciting is that this very immature brain is central to our ability to survive and learn to be uniquely human (1). Because our brain is so immature at birth, we are dependent on our caregivers for an exceptionally long “in-arms” period. This gives us as a species the unique opportunity to learn from our caregivers, as well as from our environment. This prolonged contact with the dual stimuli of the caregiver and the environment allows the human baby to develop memory and intelligence.

    4. The development of memory is uniquely human:

    The development of a powerful memory is what sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Memory enables us to develop new levels of intelligence from generation to generation – as each generation retains useful survival knowledge and passes on this new knowledge to its successor. We have the ability to nurture memory and intelligence in our offspring. What babies learn from their caregivers in the first five years literally forms their brain structure.

    The survival of our planet depends on our children growing up as humane and self-regulating, with high self-esteem and capable of healthy relationships.

    5. Our world is out of balance:

    We have lost touch with the natural rhythms of the earth (2). We have never had as much technological expertise yet the world is on the brink of ecological collapse. Reports of childhood obesity sit side by side with reports of mass starvation. Reports of severe childhood neglect sit side by side with reports of over parenting.

    Treatable illnesses, such as pneumonia, malaria, diarrhea and malnutrition, become life-threatening when combined with poverty, war, poor sanitation, inadequate health care and insufficient preventive measures (3).

    Today’s babies are restricted in movement opportunities by our inventions – our environment has been described as ‘obesogenic’. Wrapped in a swaddling blanket for security, placed on their backs in a cot, strapped in the car seat for safety, slouched in the baby buggy, strapped in the high chair, propped up in front of the TV. It’s all too easy for a day to pass without any natural movement opportunities (4).

    Sadly, it is estimated that 22 million of the world’s children under 5 are overweight or obese. 13 percent of children in theUnited States are obese and, in some countries, the figure reaches more than 30 percent (5).

    Obesity has devastating physical and emotional effects. An earlier onset of obesity related diseases such as type 2 diabetes is being reported in children. Overweight or obese children experience social stigmatization and discrimination, which, understandably, affects early learning (6).

    The consequences of this lack affect our babies’ health, how they relate emotionally, how they communicate, and how they learn. This is because exercise is an essential ingredient for our babies’ ability to fully express their learning potential.

    6. Active kids are smart kids!:

    Exercise promotes brain growth and learning in the first five years. Babies need appropriate movement opportunities from birth for optimal development.

    This dual realization that babies need adequate and developmentally appropriate movement opportunities and that mums need supportive communities, was the inspiration for the creation of creation of the Jumping Beans baby and preschool gym and movement-to-music program in 1988, and the recent launch of my book, ‘Move Baby Move’, audited by Dr. Bruce Perry.

    Using the skills of Phys Ed teacher, Sport Psychologist and Olympic Athlete, Jerome Hartigan and my skills in early education and music pedagogy, we created Jumping Beans. It is a user friendly and child centered program that educates parents while facilitating fun, physical development and movement-to-music opportunities for their children. A place where mums can come and meet and forge friendships with other like minded mums and receive state-of-the-art information about healthy childrearing while playing, bonding and interacting with their babies.

    7. Jumping Beans nurtures relationships between parent and child:

    The underlying principal and central goal of Jumping Beans is to empower parents and caregivers to nurture happy, healthy and confident children. The dream is that all children are nurtured by love and well informed caregivers to become happy, healthy, confident and well-balanced children for the peaceful and sustainable future of our planet.

    The activities at Jumping Beans follow the developmental model of Dr. Bruce Perry in nurturing all four layers of the baby’s brain in a sequential order from Brainstem, through the midbrain, limbic system and cortex. With each activity, parents are given information on how the activity is helping support their baby’s development.

    8. There is a difference between Intelligence and Intellect:

    Nurturing our children’s potential involves distinguishing between intelligence and intellect and nurturing relationships to develop high self-esteem, supporting brain development, and educating parents.

    Our intellect has enabled us to design incredibly technologically advanced weaponry yet even a single celled organism would not be as stupid as to self destruct their own species. In 1988, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant blew up in Russia and the radiation traveled all round Europe in the wind.

    More than at any time ever before, our planet needs this generation to grow into functional adults who care about other people, the environment and the survival of our species. We need to focus on developing all four layers of the brain. All parts of the brain are interdependent. If we focus on enriching just the cognitive part of the brain while leaving other parts behind, we’re going to end up having a lot of very smart people who don’t care about anyone else.

    9. The brain is like a four layered sponge cake:

    Dr.Bruce Perry compares the developing brain to a four layered sponge cake (7). It is a simple model that gives key information for developmentally well informed care giving.

    1. The first layer, the brainstem, is developed through lots of love and cuddles. This layer is small and mighty and develops up and out, continuing to grow as the other layers grow. It is the foundation for all future learning.
    2. The second layer, the midbrain, is developed through exercise, rhythm, music and movement.
    3. The third layer, the limbic system, is developed through playing with friends and family.
    4. The fourth layer, the cortex, is developed through reading, writing, arithmetic and humor.

    The brain develops these layers in a delicate sequence from the brain stem upwards and outwards to the cortex. Development of the lower layers greatly supports development of upper layers. When lower layers are not well developed, then the upper layers may not function at their best. So, lack in early experiences of in-arms nurturing and physical development, for example, can greatly restrict the full development of the cortex and the multiple intelligence that it enables. For example, many teenagers in the U.S can read, but don’t read for pleasure (8).

    10. The brainstem develops through love and cuddles:

    According to Dr. Perry love is behavior. It is action, it is touch, it is scent, it is rocking, and it is sound (9). He says that you could have a situation where a mother who truly loves the infant but doesn’t provide loving experiences, and there are people who don’t love the infant who provide the appropriate loving experiences.

    Mothers participate in Jumping Beans with their babies as young as 6 weeks old. This provides an opportunity for forming relationships with other mums and sharing experiences before their babies are on the move.

    The basis for the development of the brainstem is physical touch and love.

    The activities we encourage at Jumping Beans for brainstem development include rocking, touching, eye-contact because when this happens this information is translated into patterned neuronal activity that goes up onto specific parts of the brain that will ultimately be responsible for forming and maintaining relationships.

    11. The mid brain develops through movement and sensory motor play:

    Touch continues as an essential ingredient for the development of the midbrain. The brain literally grows and organizes in response to the sights, sounds, smells and touch of the infant’s world. In touch-rich environments, important parts of the brain develop more rapidly, create more solid neuron to neuron connections (called synapses) and develop an array of important functions with greater ease.

    Healthy touch is continued in the increasingly complex sensory-motor play that babies develop promoting the capacity to move, self-soothe, regulate sleep and appetite, form strong and healthy bonds with others and learn cognitive skills.

    Activities that support midbrain development at Jumping Beans include movement-to-music, climbing, jumping, balancing, ball play and rhythmic activities.

    12. The limbic system develops through playing with friends and family:

    According to Dr. Perry, when we nurture our babies in safe, stimulating, environments, our children learn empathy and sharing, fully expressing their developmental potential. They grow to develop their own natural, intrinsic intelligence (7).

    The critical time to encourage social skills and empathy is in the first five years when the limbic brain is forming as teaching empathy to a teenager is much harder! Children learn social skills through positive play experiences with friends and family with each child learning at their own pace. Some children are ready to share and cooperate at a very young age. Others take longer.

    Activities that support the development of the Limbic System at Jumping Beans include cooperative games such as skipping, and ball games which involve learning to take turns and share.

    13. The cortex develops through learning new tricks:

    As children gain physical coordination, they gain physical confidence which transfers into other learning situations. Seeking novelty and challenges is vital for creativity. Children need to learn to take risks safely to learn and children need to feel safe before they are willing to take risks.

    At Jumping Beans we give parents information about the link between play, reading and writing readiness and learning at school so that they can appreciate the role of child directed play as a valuable and essential precursor to cognitive learning.

    Activities at Jumping Beans that support the Cortex include skipping, running, jumping, swinging, obstacle courses, imaginative and fantasy play.

    14. Using magic words is key to developing self esteem:

    The quality of the relationship between parent and child is key to healthy development and nurturing confident, humane, self-regulating children with high self-esteem, capable of healthy relationships and success in school and work.

    In a healthy person the source, or locus, of evaluation lies within. It is our job as educators to empower parents to nurture self-belief in their children. At Jumping Beans we encourage parents to use language that nurtures self-evaluation.

    In order to nurture happy kids we need to be prepared to accept the expression of a lot of unhappiness (10). We make kids feel right by accepting their feelings and when kids feel right they behave right.

    There’s no such thing as a “good” or “bad” child as all children have an inherent natural goodness (11).

    Labeling children as “good” or “bad” is unhelpful. Parental anger is an effective tool in behavior modification when it is used without insult, describing the situation and how it makes the parent feel without shaming or blaming the child. One negative comment can wipe out the benefit of 5 positive comments.

    “Praise the good and the bad will go away” is an old Irish saying. The type of praise we use is important. Descriptive praise is more effective than evaluative praise. Evaluative or judgmental praise, where we set ourselves up as a judge is ineffective as it takes the source or locus of evaluation away from the child and is disempowering.

    Happily Ever After

    So what ever happened to that little baby born 23 years ago in a faraway land? Somehow love carried us through our at once challenging and beautiful journey of discovery and growth and my baby Florence is now the same age as I was when she was born. She is a beautiful, talented singer / songwriter / actress following her dreams inHollywood.

    The great strength of humankind is the capacity to adapt – to change in ways that help us survive. A central aspect of this remarkable flexibility is the ability to learn. As educators and caregivers of children under 5, we have one of human kind’s most urgent tasks – nurturing this generation to grow into confident, resourceful adults who can develop all of their multiple intelligences for the peaceful and sustainable future of our planet. Every baby is born with unlimited potential. We have a window of opportunity in the first five years, while our babies’ brains are forming, to provide a safe and nurturing world. In order for us to live happily ever after, we need to recapture the lost wisdom of healthy child-rearing. We are the fairy godmothers of our children.

    Want to learn more?

    Sophie Foster, B.A.(Hons), L.T.C.L. is co-author of ‘Move Baby Move’ and director of Jumping Beans International Limited baby and preschool physical development and movement-to-music programmes. Sophie is available for after dinner speeches, professional development workshops and presentations for educators and parents.


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