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What is Appropriate Curriculum for Infants and Toddlers?

A growing number of infant programs are being established in the United States. Some are designed to provide an alternative care environment to the home, while others, referred to as early intervention programs, are geared to stimulate and educate handicapped or other at-risk infants.

An increased number of professional and commercial publications have popularized new research and findings which emphasize that infants are capable of a wider range of activities and learning than was previously believed (see Stone, Smith, and Murphy 1973).

These studies convinced many that if infants can learn, we must teach them. Thus many projects emphasize cognitive development and are often specific-achievement oriented. Their curricula are based on levels of performance as defined by various infant studies and tests (Bayley 1969; Gesell 1940; Piaget 1963), and their goals are to enhance achievement. Specific methods are also designed to teach, drill, and facilitate the development of certain milestone acquisitions. Generally the program staff have preconceived ideas as to when, how, why, and for how long infants should be stimulated. Many times the program adheres to the principle of the more the better. In addition, there are home teaching programs intended to educate families to stimulate their infants (Gordon 1970; Painter 1971).

While all infants benefit from early sensory stimulation, it is a must for handicapped infants to prevent or ameliorate future learning difficulties. It is generally believed that if left alone infants could not master tasks parents and/or professionals consider necessary.

Many books, packaged programs, and infant curricula are available and used as prescriptions in infant programs. These often serve as guidelines or crutches to caregivers who may be inadequately prepared to meet the needs of infants or special children. The caregiver follows instructions to try to elicit a desired response to a prescribed stimulus in the area of gross motor, fine motor, social-emotional, and language developments. New skills are introduced to the infant — skills one step ahead of their development, skills they themselves cannot master yet. The adult’s attention is focused on teaching rather than observing children’s reactions to their environment and caregivers.

I am proposing a different view of how infants learn and of how we can facilitate their learning. In the past ten years, I have been a consultant to infant programs, initiated and directed model infant programs, and organized Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE), a nonprofit membership organization concerned with improving the care and education of infants. Based on my experiences and my work as a child therapist, I have developed a humanistic-therapeutic approach to working with young children — an approach that has been implemented in comprehensive teaching, training, and demonstration programs. As preventive mental health programs, they are designed to actually demonstrate our theories of caring for normal as well as high-risk infants. The overall therapeutic goal is twofold: (I) to help parents develop, from the very beginning, sound patterns of living with their babies and (2) to train infant caregivers, professionals who provide group care for infants in centers or family homes (Gerber 1971, 1979).

The pilot infant program in North Hollywood and the demonstration infant program in Palo Alto California vary considerably from the types of programs described earlier. Our approach has been developed in more than a quarter-century of research and clinical work with infants who are reared at the National Methodological Institute of Residential Nurseries in Budapest Hungary, popularly called Loczy. Loczy, founded in 1946 by Emmi Pikler, MD, is a residence for normal infants from birth to three years of age, with the capacity to serve 70 infants. Four basic principles from the philosophy of Loczy are:

  1. All infants derive security from a predictable environment and the opportunity to anticipate and make choices. This is absolutely essential for infants living in an institution.
  2. Infants need an intimate, stable relationship with one constant person (a mother figure). This relationship can best be developed during individualized caregiving activities.
  3. Respect is shown by treating infants as active participants rather than as passive recipients and all interactions.
  4. Infants do not need direct teaching or help to achieve natural stages of gross motor and sensorimotor development (Pikler 1971).

The approach to infants that Loczy is predicated on achieving a balance between adult stimulation and independent exploration by infants. Infants are stimulated by their caregivers during all activities including feeding, bathing, and dressing. These are unhurried pleasurable times for both adults and infants. Because these are necessary daily routines of infant care, stimulation is constant and consistent. In contrast, the staff of Loczy does not interfere or promote gross motor and fine motor development but rather relies on maturation and development at the infant’s own pace (David and Appel 1973).

In the two California programs, the emphasis is similarly on observation, anticipation, and selective intervention. Parents and caregivers observe their children to learn about individual characteristics of the child and to realize what can reasonably be expected of the baby at any developmental level. This in turn helps mothers or other caregivers to synchronize their behavior with the child’s needs, tempo, and style. Anticipating each other’s reactions fosters mutual understanding, acceptance, and basic trust for both adult and child; thus anticipation becomes the forerunner of communication. Selected intervention means knowing when not to intervene, and this is more difficult than intervening indiscriminately.

We have identified six conditions under which healthy, normal infants can develop to their full potential.

    1. A mother figure must be available to respond to physical and emotional needs. 
    2. The mother correctly perceives and accepts the child. 
    3. The baby’s inner rhythm (sleep, hunger, etc.) is synchronized with the family’s daily routine. Family members mutually plan the day’s activities for as little conflict as possible between the infant’s and family’s needs. 
    4. Ample space is available to facilitate locomotion. 
    5. Objects are provided to facilitate manipulation. 
    6. Other children within the same age range are present to observe and imitate, and with whom to interact and socialize (optional). 

Our goals are influenced by the concept of a fully functional human being as one who has many of the following characteristics: realistic trust in self and the environment; perception of one’s inner needs and an ability to communicate them; the ability to make choices, including knowing and accepting the consequences of those choices; flexibility and the capacity to learn from past experiences; the ability to deal actively with the present and plan for the future; free access to one’s creative talents and resources; and a goal-oriented approach and enjoyment from the process of problem-solving, whether physical, emotional, or cognitive. We critically examine all our childrearing practices in order to determine which facilitate and/or hinder the emergence of the following desired characteristics in infancy.

Trust develops when the primary caregivers allow children to anticipate what is going to happen to them. Adults must convey their trust in infants and view children as initiators as well as recipients of activities.

Infants are absorbed by their inner feelings of satisfaction or dissatisfaction, and they try to communicate these needs. If caregivers do not sensitively observe infants, they may not respond to the children’s communications but rather to their own interpretations of the infants’ needs. For example, a mother who is cold may cover a crying infant without trying to find out whether the baby is warm or cold.

Making appropriate choices in life is a learning process lasting from birth to death. Few people realize at what an early age infants are able to make proper choices if given the opportunity. Adults must differentiate between situations according to whether the infant has a real choice or not. If there is a real choice (e.g., “Do you want to be picked up now?”), and the child responds negatively or with disinterest, the baby would be left alone. If the child has no choice, the caregiver does not ask but states the intended action (e.g., “I am going to pick you up now. It is time to go.”). The child is then picked up. 

Flexibility of the body and mind develops throughout repeated exploratory exercises of infants in free play. Infants who are restricted by mechanical devices such as infant seats, bouncers, walkers, and swings, or are encouraged to assume positions that they are not yet ready for, are not moving freely. Propping up infants into a sitting position before they can sit up alone will neither accelerate motor development nor help the child to become flexible or autonomous. 

While some research (Ainsworth 1967; Geber 1958) both in the United States and in Africa indicates that children may sometimes walk earlier if they are given practice in walking, there is no evidence that children who walk a few weeks earlier than they might otherwise have done gain any benefit.

The greater importance of the quality of motor and sensorimotor activities has been realized by many professionals in the field of remedial education (Barsch 1967; Radler and Kephart 1960). Yet children’s motor abilities have often been judged according to their crude level of achievement in sitting, standing, and walking. 

We do not attempt to speed up these landmarks for several reasons:

(1) “Training in any particular activity before the neural mechanisms have reached a certain state of readiness is futile” (McGraw 1963, p. 130). So why the effort?

(2) If we compare the amount of time human beings spend moving horizontally on the floor to the time they spend sitting, standing, and walking, the time we can gain in achieving these upright postures is insignificant. So why the rush?

(3) We witness many older children with motor, learning, and behavior problems who, under the name of therapies, have to go through hours and hours of exercises to learn postures and movements which infants perform spontaneously. Why not let infants exercise at the proper time?

(4) Forcing children into a posture or motor skill for which they are not quite ready can even harm them; they might learn distorted positions when their back or leg muscles are not strong enough to support them. So why take the risk?

Observing the great variety of movements and exploration that infants can perform on any level of neuro-physiological development makes one wonder why we attempt to reduce this rich repertoire into the more stereotyped movements which will occur once they are walking. We believe it is not the movement itself but what the children learn when they move about themselves and about their bodies in relation to the space around them, which is important.

We observed how our infants develop in relation to their surroundings. We saw them adjust their posture when trying to get on, in, or under objects; these movements were purposeful; they wanted to reach objects put on high shelves or to climb into a feeding chair, etc. We observed them use their motor abilities (whether dragging, creeping, crawling) to discover space around them and eventually develop a cognitive inner map of the different areas of the center. Simultaneously, their skill at pushing and pulling doors and gates enabled them to move from one place to another or to communicate a desire to do so.

We also observed a lag between the cognitive and motor abilities of some of our infants; for example, Chris, quite capable of crawling from area to area, was frustrated when the bars of the fence separated him from an object that he wanted; at this point he did not have the concept of going around a barrier to get an object which he could see in front of him. We later witnessed his “aha” experience when he first discovered that he could go around; with a delighted face, he repeated the movement again and again.

Pikler (1971) has critically described commonly used interventions such as helping, teaching, exercising, which supposedly are needed to promote the progression of gross motor skills. “When the mother considers it timely (according to schedules) she introduces a new posture to the child” (Pikler, p. 55). Obviously, infants feel uncomfortable, are unbalanced, unfree, and fully dependent on the adult to rescue them from their predicament. Next infants may be “exercised by an adult or with the aid of an apparatus such as a special chair, swing, baby-walker, etc., to attain the ability of remaining in the new posture or to move according to the new way” (Pikler, p. 55). Eventually, children become less rigid and awkward in the positions in which they are placed.

after the child has learned to be prone, he learns to turn prone and back again. After having learned to sit, he learns to sit up and get down; after having learned to stand, he learns to stand up and get down; and after having learned to take some steps independently, he learns to stand up without support and to start and stop walking and to get down. Only after he has learned these, is the child able to use the advanced motor skills in everyday life on his own initiative. Only after this third period does he really become independent in the more advanced postures and motions. (Pikler 1971, pp. 55-56) 

Pikler then describes how the children at Loczy attained all stages of motor development “without any direct interference by adult or aid of supporting equipment” (Pikler, p. 56).

If children can develop all required motor skills with, as well as without, adult help (about 2,000 infants have been raised at Loczy) what are the benefits in not helping them? From my personal observations of infants in both situations described I have found that infants moving on their own are constantly busy moving, exploring, choosing objects, and overcoming obstacles with caution; have longer attention spans; are peaceful; and enjoy their autonomy. 

During the sensorimotor stage, explorations are optimal learning experiences and should be one of the two most important parts of the curriculum. Independent, self-absorbed infants who need much less adult intervention make the other important part, a special individualized interaction, possible. The caregiver in charge of a group of peacefully exploring infants can devote undivided attention to the one infant she or he is caring for. In this way infants’ basic need for a warm, attentive, special human relation and their need for autonomy are met. Adults have more time to just observe, which will make interventions more appropriate and the caregiver’s knowledge of the children more accurate. Both infants and adults feel more relaxed and fulfilled. A relationship of mutual trust develops. This trusting and respectful approach becomes a pattern of interaction and goes far beyond its effect on gross motor development.

Infants do naturally have access to their own resources unless we superimpose tasks that are beyond their capabilities. It is truly fascinating to observe infants solving their own problems with concentration, endurance, and good frustration tolerance. This happens if adults are available rather than intrusive, and if they learn to wait and see whether children can work it out alone before offering help. Freely exploring children select their own problems and are internally motivated to solve them in their own way, continuously learning without experiencing failure. Though some individual modifications are necessary when working with high-risk children, providing learning experiences without failure is even more important for them than it is for the average child. 

While emphasizing the infant’s need for autonomy, one must keep in mind the utmost importance of the relationship that infants develop with their primary caregiver. An intimate trusting relationship is the prerequisite for children’s healthy separation and individuation. Only after they get “refueled” during the unhurried times spent with their caregiver will they be willing to let go of the caregiver and explore the environment 

In this chapter, I have discussed infants’ needs and adults’ goals for them and suggested how to synchronize them. If our goal is an authentic individual, then we should let each child be an authentic infant. Meeting the needs of infants is not an easy task for the family, and it is even more difficult in infant centers. Even good families find that infants are time and energy-consuming and frequently their needs conflict with those of the parents. Constancy — so important to the infant — is threatened by disruption of the family and/or the parents’ need or desire to work. Nevertheless, in their own families infants usually experience care and closeness from the same primary caregivers. Even in the best of institutions, however, infants are exposed to all kinds of inconsistencies, to many different caregivers and caring styles, and subject to constant change.

Appropriate curriculum for infants should not be special teaching plans added to daily activities, but rather it should be built into the infant’s every experience. The types of programs offered as well as curricula should evolve as a joint effort between caregivers and infants.

The caregiver provides space, objects, and loving care; the infant explores the space, manipulates the objects, develops trust and self-confidence. The guidelines for any and all intervention must be based on observation, empathy, sensitivity, and respect for the infant.


Ainsworth, M.D. Infancy in Uganda: Infant Care and the Growth of Love. Baltimore: John    Hopkins University Press, 1967. 

Barsch, R.H. “The Infant Curriculum: A Concept for Tomorrow.” Exceptional  Infant 1 (1967): 543-568. 

Bayley, N. The Manual for the Bayley Scales of Infant Development. New York: Psychological Corporation, 1969. 

David, M., and Appel, G. Loczy ou Le Maternage Insolite. “Loczy An Unusual Way of Caring.” Trans. M. Gerber. Editions du Scarabee. Paris: Centres d’entrainment aux methods d’education active, 1973. 

Geber, M. “The Psycho-Motor Development of African Children in Their First Year and the Influence of Maternal Behavior.” Journal of Social Psychology 45 (1958): 185-195. 

Gerber, M. “Infants’ Expression –The Art of Becoming.” In Conscious and Unconscious Expressive Art, Psychiatry and Art, Vol. 3, ed. I. Jakab. Basel: Karger, 1971.

Gerber, M., ed. Resources for Infant Educarers. Los Angeles: Resources for Infant Educarers, 1979. 

Gesell, A. Gesell Developmental Schedules. New York: Psychological Corporation, 1940.

Gordon, I.J. Baby Learning Through Baby Play: A Parents’ Guide for the First Two Years. New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 1970. 

McGraw, M.D. The Neuro-Muscular Maturation of the Human Infant. New York: 

Hafner, 1963. Painter, G. Teach Your Baby. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971. 

Piaget, J. The Origins of Intelligence in Children. New York: Norton, 1963. 

Pikler, E. “Learning of Motor Skills on the Basis of Self-Induced Movements.” In Exceptional Infant, Studies in Abnormalities, Vol. 2, ed. J. Hellmuth. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1971. 

Radler, D.H., and Kephart, N.C. Success Through Play. New York: Harper & Row, 1960.

Stone, L.; Smith, H; and Murphy, L.B., eds. The Competent Infant. New York: Basic Books, 1973.


(Featured photo by Jude Keith Rose)

Copyright © 2022 Magda Gerber Legacy 

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Black and white ink drawing of an infant laying supine and reaching towards an adult hand which is reaching back to the infant

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