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What exactly is 'a good start' for children?: An interview with Pennie Brownlee

Pennie Brownlee has been studying the work of Dr. Emmi Pikler since 2004. Inspired by Dr. Pikler’s work on truly respectful caregiving for infants, toddlers and young children, and with a deep yearning to share what she has learnt, she designed “Dance with me in the Heart: Level One”, an intensive course for parents and educators in New Zealand. She has since been facilitating this course for 12 years. In 2008, her experience and research culminated in her book “Dance with me in the Heart: the adult’s guide to great infant-parent partnerships”. She also authored “Magic Places: An Adults’ Guide to Young Children’s Creativity” and “The Sacred Urge to Play: unfolding your child’s intelligence, imagination, creativity and joy for Life”. Pennie’s books, courses and articles continue to reach out to many parents and educators in NZ and beyond who are wishing to learn more about “The Culture of Kindness”.

In this interview, Pennie talks about the biological needs of a child and how to help children reach their potential. We also discuss preschools and what to look for in one if sending your child to preschool is your family’s choice. Pennie also gives tips for making our home friendly for child-chosen play.

Li Ling: Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Pennie. I hope we can talk about early childhood development and education which have been on my mind ever since Singapore’s Prime Minister Mr Lee Hsien Loong announced the government’s plan to create more preschool places for zero to four. At the National Day Rally, PM Lee said:

“Let me start with preschool. Here, we are talking about infants to six year olds. Nowadays even two month old babies are enrolled in infant care, and that is part of preschool. Preschool is important to give our children a good start and the best chance to succeed in life. In the past, we started at Primary 1, when the child is seven. But now we know we have to begin much earlier, not to give children a head-start in Primary 1, but to build sound foundations for them for life. At an early age, there are specific windows in a child’s development and you must catch that window or you miss it.”

These issues that he spoke of are on the minds of many Singaporean parents who want only the best for their children. Can you share what you consider to be “a good start” and “sound foundations” for infants and toddlers?

Pennie: I think the first thing to consider is the human baby’s biological needs. These biological needs are genetically driven and they are universal in the human child. They must be met if the baby is going to have “a good start” and build “sound foundations” for their physical and mental health. These sound foundations are designed to serve them right through their middle childhood, teens, adulthood, all the way to elderhood. This ‘good start’ is not only best for baby, it also the foundation for the health of the society this person lives in.

What we are experiencing in many countries - including New Zealand and Singapore - is that babies’ needs come at the bottom of the list, after the needs of employers, businesses and the country’s GDP. It leaves both babies and society at risk when countries restructure their ‘social considerations’ to serve an inanimate ideologically driven construction called “the economy”.

What are some of those human biological needs for the child to receive “a good start”?

First and foremost is a ‘bonded relationship’ with the mother. If it cannot be the mother for any reason, then the baby must have a secure bonded relationship with one other person. This relationship is the baby’s anchor in the world, this relationship is the baby’s “known” in the big wide unknown world. This relationship is the ’safe haven’ where the baby feels safe. It is this feeling of safety for the baby that creates the exact conditions for optimal brain growth in the baby*. The emotional safety of the mother’s presence gives to the baby decides how soon and how well this baby learns to regulate her own physiological states, and also how well this baby will fare in making sound relationships for the rest of her life. The first relationship is that important. *(Stress is the arch enemy of brain growth, and feeling unsafe is a high-stress state.)

Does that mean fathers and alternate caregivers aren’t as important?

There are two different questions here, let’s look at Dads first. The mother is the child’s safe place, the baby’s known. The reason the baby knows the mother intimately is because she already knows her mother’s rhythms, her heart beat, her voice, her taste, her moods and more from the period of growing called pregnancy. After birth she renews that intimate safe relationship on the outside, and that relationship with Mum is her anchor. From that place she learns about Dad, and presuming Dad is ‘available’, she bonds with Dad. And so it is with brothers or sisters, grandmas and grandpas, aunts and uncles; the child makes bonded relationships in an ever-widening circle because she has the emotional safety of her “known” - Mum.

Caregivers most often do not have family ties or friendship ties to the child. Instead, they are contracted to look after the child for a certain number of hours while parents work. Straight away you can see that the first consideration when putting your child into care is that you take the time (absolute minimum two weeks) for the child to make a bonded relationship with the one designated caregiver. That designated person then becomes the child’s ‘safe haven’ in this new setting. From there the child will move on out when she is ready and make relationships with the others at the centre. All too often the baby’s needs are not taken into account when families force a separation on the baby by putting him or her into group care. Very often the baby is left after one or two visits, and sometimes even none at all. None of us would feel safe moving in to live with someone after one or two visits. Why would we think the baby will feel safe?

Can you share more about this bonding?

Bonding is an emotional relational energy between the mind and heart of the mother (and father, care giver…) and the mind and the heart of the baby. The baby is wired for this close relationship, she comes expecting it - though very often she comes to adults who have forgotten what they are supposed to be doing to bring about the bonding. From the discipline of ethnopaediatrics we know that adults in many cultures have even been taught to do things that stop that all-important bonding from taking place.

The key behaviours that bring bonding about are threefold:

• the birthing and the “getting to know you” period in those early weeks after birth are met naturally (i.e. as in the way nature intended), gently and kindly

• the emotional care needs of the comfort of closeness, eye contact, and conversation are met naturally, gently and kindly

• the physical care needs of feeding, changing nappies, bathing, dressing, and going to sleep are met naturally, gently, and kindly

The activities in bold are the crucial activities for bonding while the three adverbs let us know how to do this - naturally, gently and kindly. The heart and brain of the baby and the mother generate the electromagnetic energy that facilitates bonding through us being natural, gentle and kind.

Many parents are anxious about their children catching these formative windows that PM Lee talked about. You’re familiar with Joseph Chilton Pearce’s work on how children can achieve their infinite potential. How different or similar is Joseph Chilton Pearce’s concept of “infinite potential” to our conventional understanding of “formative windows”? And what is the parent’s role in helping their children’s infinite potential unfold?

This is a big question and I am guessing the formative windows Prime Minister Lee is referring to are more about windows for educational achievement than windows for the child’s social development. Economies that are driven by measuring output have slotted children into the economy as ‘units in the economy’ and measuring children’s output then becomes central to educational policy. The measuring that has been standard in primary and secondary schools is now being pushed down to early childhood. Measuring is the ‘easy option’ even though it most often works against every child achieving their optimum potential because the teaching staff in turn ‘teach to the tests’. This is not education for a bright future; this is marking time with the children in school. Around the globe there are a variety of approaches to educating children, each with its own level of success. If we measure success as children graduating from their years of education as creative, innovative, problem solving people who love learning and who can work cooperatively and collaboratively with their peers, you can see that by this criteria many systems fail. In particular, the test and measuring regimes do not fare well with children from the high testing systems having worse mental health than those from low testing regimes. In our children’s very unclear future, creativity, innovation, problem solving, cooperation and collaboration will count for so much more than being able to score in tests.

Taking into account children’s biological developmental needs and “formative windows”, Joseph Chilton Pearce was an advocate of later schooling. He advocated formal learning beginning at seven when there is a biological shift in the child’s brain that is especially tailored for abstract learning. Curricula that force children into abstract learning before brain function were anathema to him. He understood that abstract learning would rest on all of the foundations laid down in those first seven years: the foundation of ‘people literacy’ that has its beginning in the mother-infant bonding, and the foundational sensory body of knowledge that the child constructs in her relationships with the physical world around her. These body-mind-brain connections are the foundation of all abstract learning.

The “formative window” that was central to Pearce’s concept of a child reaching their “infinite potential” was the early bonding which we have already covered. If a child was able to have unconditional love in their first seven years, unlimited access to the world of play, and extremely limited access to screens in their first seven years, the child was well on track to meeting their potential. He based each these three critical points on the findings from the sciences of neuroscience, neuro-cardiology, and physiological research from across disciplines.

For many parents in Singapore for whom staying home with their children is not an option, what should they look for in a preschool for their children?

I would ask parents to go into their heart of hearts to decide whether or not they really have to put their baby or child into care right now, or is it possible they could spend more bonded time with their child instead? This is precious time we can never get back. We have the very odd situation happening all around the globe where parents say “it is my right to choose” when they put their baby into care. This ignores the fact that the baby has rights too, especially if we consider the baby as a free and equal human being. Every baby has a right to have her genetically-encoded biological needs met in the way that brings about her optimum development. What that means is that if parents have to put their child into care, they delay it as long as possible. The longer she has to build her relationship with you in her waking hours, the better for her future.

Having decided that care in the early childhood years is the option for their child, parents will be looking for these things:

• The quality of the relationship with each child - it will be the staffs’ main focus.

Smaller group sizes in a space with 12 babies (under 2 years) being the maximum. Fewer is better.

• Your child will be allotted a designated care-giver-teacher as her ’safe anchor’ to help her get to know the childcare environment.

• The programme will be rich in nurturing, both physical care and emotional nurturing.

• The children’s time will be spent in self-chosen play and free movement.

We have come to believe children have a head start when they are made to do school-like activities - and they will do them because they don’t have much choice, but an early childhood centre that is intent on following the child’s biological and intellectual needs makes play the centre of their curriculum. Research doesn’t support the early introduction of abstract learning for children under seven because it is not only developmentally inappropriate, it takes time away from play. Play is the genetically encoded apprenticeship for the child’s creativity, innovation, problem solving, cooperation and collaboration. The motivation to play comes directly out of the child’s own physical, emotional and social needs. Those needs are biology’s way of actually building the complex human brain with its complex brain processing, so look for a place where the adults understand that nurture and play are the two great needs in the early childhood years.

In Singapore, preschools which value child-directed play (over academic instruction) and have high staff to children ratios tend to charge higher fees and are less accessible.

Oh, I did not realise. That is very unfortunate for parents. The higher fees could be because the programmes are desirable because it certainly does not cost a provider any more to offer a play based programme for families. In the long term, maybe that is where Chapter Zero could help by advocating a wider shift to play based programmes in Singapore’s Early Childhood sector. Parents too can let centres know that play is what they are looking for their children by asking at the initial parent interview how the centre caters for children learning through play. Even the question alerts teachers in the sector that parents are interested in play for their children’s education.

In the meantime parents have to choose care for their children they can afford, that is why it is worth looking at all of the options besides centre based care. If, however, the only choice is a ‘mini school’ centre, then parents can make it work for their children by making sure there is plenty of time for child-chosen play at home. Too often parents can get caught in the trap of scheduling in extra activities for the child who then doesn’t get any of the natural-unfolding playtime her mind-brain-body is expecting.

What kinds of play are we talking about in the confined space in a home?

That is a huge question, but what it definitely won’t be anything to do with a screen, not computer games nor screens of any kind. And it doesn’t need to cost any more to set up for genuine child-led play at home either, probably not even as much as parents (and grandparents) would spend on the toys they buy and for the fees of extra scheduled activities. A child is born knowing how to play, she just needs something to play with and the time to play. Here is a list of some basics that cater for many of the internal play patterns of a child, basics that can keep a child happy for hours:

• Things out of the kitchen cupboards that the baby can stack, put things in, take things out etc. This is how your baby learns about the things in her world and what she can do with them. There is no need buy rattles, mobiles, toys - the stuff in the cupboards is just as interesting for a young baby and you have already paid for it.

• Children are very happy with something to build and make things with - things like plain wooden blocks or Lego blocks and enough of them. That can a big initial expense and it will be worth it, they will last for years. When you buy some little animals and little vehicles to add into their created world, children will play with their constructions for hours.

• All children need something to make huts with, a place of their own that they can get into and hide. This won’t cost any money either if the child can have a sheet/fabric to put over a chair or the arms of the couch, a carton or two. With a doll or a soft toys they can create their own world inside their hut.

• It is easy to provide something to draw and create with without a lot of expense - pieces of blank paper (not colouring-in books), cardboard, pens and crayons etc.

What’s not so easy to cater for indoors is the running, jumping and climbing that all children love and need. If parents can take the child outside where it is safe to run and dance, leap and climb, that works. The child gets their important physical-play needs met outside. I think that’s the main reason why screens have become so popular with parents; a child watching a screen is quiet and still, and she is not growing her brain or unfolding any of her intelligences either*. That is too high a price to pay.

* If your child has already become addicted to screens, it can take some time for her to learn how to respond to her own internal motivation again. But stay with it, that all important learning motivation does return.

It has been a pleasure interviewing you, Pennie. Thank you for sharing your wonderful insights!