What presents make sense? What do children wish for? If we believe the advertising, they want things which they can manipulate and build things with in many different ways, things made of natural materials or plastic, beautiful or less beautiful – here tastes differ. But ultimately they are always finished products which pose too little challenge to the forces of the children’s imagination, which offer them too little stimulus to become inwardly mobile and active – in other words: to play at length and repeatedly with them. Which gives us an initial answer to the question posed above: children want to play and for that they need as little “stuff” as possible.
But what they can indeed do with is a piece of furniture like a nice wooden table, a new bed, a rocking horse or doll’s cradle. In all these cases it makes sense for the parents to choose the present and ask the relatives to make a contribution.
First wish: to play
Children play with everything that surrounds them, above all with things that stimulate their imagination – that applies to all age groups. They imitate what the adults do and for that they don’t need detailed mini tools and devices. They do it with everything that comes into their hands: a wooden block becomes a mobile phone, a car or a loaf of bread.
The child’s imagination spreads its wings during play, the senses are sharpened, the movements become more skilful, the muscles stronger and the child enters into dialogue with its surroundings. In play children thus develop precisely those abilities on which all education is based and which is supposed to start today at the earliest age. The thing is, children experience and educate themselves through everything they do in a self-determined and playing encounter with the world.
From the beginning they investigate things with all the senses at their disposal and examine their form and function: as they try to counter gravity in adopting upright posture, attempt to keep their balance during their first steps, and judge heights as they climb on things, they are investigating physical laws and in doing so become familiar with these elements and their body.
But they also recognise processes and people in their everyday life, enter into dialogue as they acquire language, and become increasingly interested in social coexistence – the little “individualists” focused on themselves in the first three years gradually develop into social beings.
Second wish: authentic role models
They owe the acquisition of all these skills not least to their incredible imitative ability. They do not of necessity learn to stand up, walk and speak, as the examples of “wolf children” show. The prerequisite for that is people around them who possess these skills.
Our attentiveness, our mood, our presence and activities form the “element”, the fluid in which the children are immersed, which surrounds and shapes them down into the form of their body. We are often unaware of the extent to which we influence on another, but above all our children. Even if the concept of the “role model” has fallen somewhat out of fashion – we are role models for the children who surround us.
That applies with regard to all cultural techniques, behaviour and values which we want to teach them so that they can confidently find their way in life. We know that such “teaching” has little to do with training, even if both involve practising. Anyone who trains an animal does not need to know how to do what they want the animal to do.
But the values and skills we want to teach our children must be our own, otherwise it won’t work. Each child can nevertheless choose from “our treasure chest” what suits them – and one fine day they will far outgrow us... Which brings us to another answer: children need authentic role models. Without us adults there is nothing doing.
Third wish: celebrating together
Each festival is based on certain ideals which can be given visible expression through celebration. That includes an especially beautifully and festively laid table, a corner in the room which is decorated in accordance with the season, and particular experiences of nature together with the family. Children are open to everything which makes a festival a festival. But they particularly love advent: the mysterious mood which indicates that something great is approaching. That includes the doll going to the celestial meadow to be given a new set of clothes or that favourite toy in need of repair being given a new coat of paint in the celestial workshop.
It also resonates in baking and preparing together, in the stories and songs – not “out of the tin” but sung and read live. And if the whole thing is not just a “performance” but Mum and Dad are inwardly involved in the whole festive mood and surprises, then that is the real gift for the child. Children love to celebrate, truly celebrate, from the inside. But they need us adults as the mediators for the spiritual realities which underlie the festival.
But what happens if with all the stress the Christmas mood refuses to come? It might be some consolation that the highly pregnant Mary on the ass was probably not in a particularly Christmas mood either. And Joseph invariably felt the burden of responsibility for the growing family: he had to find accommodation and food for people and animals – and this at a time when the whole world seemed to be on the road, an individual counted for little and he was turned away in one place after the next.
He did what he could, accepted what happened and made the best of everything – and Mary with him... and thus the heavens were able to play their part and make the miracle of the birth of Christ happen, which makes that night blessed to the present day.
Is Christmas not each time anew like a birth the true meaning of which we have to bear patiently within us to full term and which needs our heart as a manger to succeed?
About the author: Katharina Offenborn is a residential child care and youth worker; director of a nursery; ergotherapist; childminder, with an additional qualification in Waldorf and Pikler early years education.