Monday Memos: Rites of Passage

I love rites of passage and all that goes along with them.

There’s the anticipation stage: "In Kindergarten, you get your own box of crayons!"

There's the actual experience: "Look, Mom! I swam the whole length of the pool!"

And then there are the fond memories of achievements. 

There’s a sense of comfort in knowing that new and wonderful experiences are around the corner! This was evident in something I saw just last month. I visited early childhood centers in Pistoia and Reggio Emilia, Italy, as part of a study tour for university professors and students.

Over the course of ten days, we observed teacher-child interactions at several infant-toddler centers (children 0-36 months). I have a ton of stories but will share only one here—one about rites of passage in a baby room.

In the very first school we visited, using my experience with ECE programs in the states, I watched lunchtime in the baby room. In this particular classroom of 8- to 12-month-olds, the children were drinking out of regular-sized glasses and feeding themselves. The oldest child, 12-month-old Michael, had just begun walking. For him, this rite of passage came with responsibility. He was given the task to push the lunch cart into the classroom and set the table for his friends. Together with the cook, he pushed this huge cart directly into the classroom.

When he entered the class, we heard the children and teachers cheer "Brava, Michael, Brava!" Then, one by one—and this took about ten minutes—Michael gave each child a plate, bowl and cup. The little ones clapped for their friend and offered genuine respect as he toddled over to them with their dishes! It was so beautiful to watch these 8- to12-month-olds interact and support one another!

There were many opportunities for the teachers to intervene, but they didn't. (One friend dropped his plate several times before Michael just left the plate on the floor and walked away!)

As a side note, the entire lunch process took 45 minutes. In spite of lasting longer than those I've seen in the US, no one appeared bored or uninterested. Six children and two teachers ate together. They were occupied with meaningful experiences, and, since they were all seated together along with the teachers at the table, they had people with whom to interact. Oh, and the menu? Delicious polenta with marinara sauce, roasted vegetables, baked fish and potatoes! The teachers served the food in three separate courses, just like these children eat at home. Polenta first, fish and veggies after that, then at the end some bread to clean up their plates!

Scenes like this are typical of developmentally appropriate programs, where rites of passages are celebrated rather than rushed. Here the teacher supports the children by offering them experiences based on their skills and encourages them to stretch and grow. In this case, a 12- month- old who is learning to walk is expected to use his new skills to share in the classroom chores. His friends know that they will have this same rite of passage when they begin to walk. It must be pretty exciting to be a child in that classroom, knowing that something special will happen to you.

Do you have a story to share about rites of passage? What about meal time? How is it handled at your school or center? I’d also love to hear any observations you’d like to share about my experience in Italy.