RIE in Real Life – Snacks and Boundaries

I hope this week has treated you well, and if not, I hope you have treated yourself well.

This week, my mind is on snack – and no, it’s not because I’m writing this close to dinnertime! In fact, as any parent in my classes can tell you, I will often remind them that snack is not about what’s being served. Snack is about internalizing boundaries and limits, it’s about coming together with others to share a meal and learn together, and it’s a part of class I dearly love.

The reason I love it so much is because snack is when I really get to start to know the children in class. It’s when our relationships deepen. While it’s magical to watch children play and problem-solve, the real magic of RIE is in the caregiving moments: attachment is formed through care. When you meet someone’s needs, or at least acknowledge them, it deepens your connection. This is true for changing diapers, changing clothes, bathing, resting, and most especially, dining.

As anyone in my young baby classes can attest, RIE snack is a hot mess when we start. Babies are not used to getting food from me, so it can take a little while for them to realize what’s happening. And even when they do realize what’s happening, they are so used to having free rein over the space that it can take some time for them to realize they need to stick around if they want to keep eating. And oh my goodness, the water…it goes…everywhere.

But over time, it starts to become recognizable as a meal. Washcloths and bibs are chosen, hands are washed, bananas are peeled, spilled water is mopped up…sometimes children even hand me their bibs, glasses, and washcloths at the end of the meal before they return to playing. That happened in a snack with some of my 2-year-olds this week. It’s amazing.

But it’s also a process. In today’s class, a young baby class where we’ve only been having snack for a few weeks, a Dad said that he was struck by the forgiveness I have around the process right now…that of course they aren’t perfect, but we don’t expect them to be perfect yet. We’re giving them space to indulge in their curiosity and explore. (Apologies to Dad if I’m misquoting!) He mentioned this because, as Mom noted, their daughter is the one who simply wants to explore the ‘snack accessories’…she doesn’t really eat or drink, but she is enamored with the washcloths, bibs, and glasses…even the banana itself…not to eat, but to hold.

It reminded me, though, that snack is still a process even when children know all the ropes:

I have a child in one class whose favorite part of snack is pouring water. He loves water. He waters the plants at home, bath time is his time, I don’t know how we kept him away from the hose we had to borrow from the gardeners at the park when another child in the class managed to almost completely cake himself in mud… Water is his jam. But he only wants to pour it. My rule in class is that you have to drink what you pour, and then you can have more. I deliberately give them just an ounce or so of water so they can have lots of opportunities to pour (and I have less to mop up when things spill). But this guy…he didn’t want to DRINK the water. He wanted to POUR the water. I kept reminding him as he kept asking, as others drank and refilled, or poured theirs out and moved on to play, the pitcher kept going around and around, and he kept waiting. And you know what? I changed my mind. He had eaten, he had stayed at the table, most everyone had already left the table. He really wanted to pour.

I gave him an extra glass.

I would like to say he was ecstatic, but really the feeling he was giving off was more like “okay, finally, I can get some work done.” He and another child spent a solid ten minutes or so pouring and pouring and pouring and pouring.

I was relating this story to my class today, calling that snack a little bit of a failure because I didn’t stick hard and fast to my boundaries. But as I said it out loud, I reversed course. Just like I let young babies explore the washcloths and bibs, this child (and his pouring buddy) showed me very clearly that they wanted to explore. Snack was over…why not have a little bit of play with those materials?

This is the thing that I love about RIE…yes, it is important to have boundaries and consistency, but we have to leave room for exploration, for play. Babies bring you their entire selves, you have to bring your entire self, too. My authentic self appreciates rules and boundaries, but also thinks it is important to not hold to a rule just for the sake of holding to a rule. I ask myself, “why am I doing this? Can I change my mind?” and if I can, I do.

It’s a process for me, too.

Will I always have water play at the end of snack in this class? Probably not. It will likely be something that extinguishes on its own (like the group that used to stack up all 8 or 9 of my stools at the end of each snack…see below). But for now, I can see that it is important to these children. And I think they can see that I know that it is important to them. And that’s pretty special.