This is where parents learn to play with their children – this is what lies behind the pilot project in Berlin

High workload, great pressure of expectations, lack of daycare places: the fast pace of modern everyday life presents parents with problems that sometimes seem insurmountable. In a pilot project in Berlin, mothers and fathers learn to play with their children. A visit.

Yumi claps her hands in joy when she sees her playmate Luis. “She’s been looking forward to coming here all morning,” says mother Tanja as she lifts Yumi out of the pram. After all, the barely one-year-old has known the room she enters almost her entire life. At the age of 11 weeks, she visited the playroom in Charlottenburg Town Hall for the first time. She met Luis, his mother Mariana and other families. Determined, Yumi crawls over to the box of toys to fish out a colorful spinning top. Sabrina Böhm, an expert in early childhood development, sits on a blue mat next to her. Böhm has regularly met parents in the room for years to show them how to play with their toddlers.

Luis, Yumi and their mother Tanja (left to right) play in Charlottenburg town hall during the course.

(Photo: Lea Verstl)

Böhm discusses the seemingly self-evident, everyday things with the families. It’s about subtleties that are often lost in stress. It starts with the question: How do I lift my child? Böhm gets a rag doll to use to demonstrate what goes wrong. Many parents held the child upwards. They must first roll it on its side before picking it up. “If the child lies on its side, it can hold its head up by itself. It exercises its muscles and feels itself. It finds this position natural,” says Böhm.

The participants of the course say that intuition in dealing with children is often lost in the fast pace of modern everyday life. Parents of all ages and income structures, in homosexual as well as heterosexual partnerships, meet in the room every week to find answers together to the question: How do I interact with my child in such a way that in the crucial first years of life well developed?

The lack of daycare places is a burden on families

The course, which the Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf Health Department launched together with the Berlin Citizens’ Foundation, is very popular. It is a pilot project and other districts in Berlin such as Neukölln have recently started to offer it. For some, the playroom is also a kind of sanctuary. Because the pressure of expectations on parents is great, many feel alone at the same time. For many, the time when extended families can help raise children is over. Both parents usually work and are alone with their children in their spare time.

“It’s also about equality here,” says Böhm, as she seeks the perspective of some mothers. They nod in agreement. The old role pattern does not persist in all, but in many cases. The men go back to work as soon as possible after the birth because they have better paid work. If women also want to go back to work, they are faced with an insurmountable problem: In Berlin, as in many other German cities, there are too few day care places.

This lack also burdens Mariana. She keeps an eye on her son, who is playing with a plastic funnel next to her. After a year and a half, Luis would be old enough to go to day care. “But we have written to more than 20 institutions and none have room for him,” says his mother. Mariana and her husband’s families live far away, so no relatives can take care of Luis. She puts her head in her hands and looks down thoughtfully. “It’s also good for me here: On the course, I can honestly say that I’m tired when Luis has hardly slept at night,” she says.

“It’s not always good to be a mother or a father”

What children see as a playground with blocks and slides, adults see as a space where they can talk openly about their feelings, including childbirth, which for many women is a trauma they have to deal with. But the work with the child only begins after that. Tanja says that at first she wondered how she was supposed to communicate with a baby who could not speak for herself. Böhm advised her to include Yumi in everyday life. Now when Tanja makes coffee or cooks at home, she explains to Yumi what she is doing so that she can learn. “It’s the same as with adults: If I go to the baker five times, I know where he is,” says Tanja. Böhm shows parents how to raise their children to become more independent at an early age.

Tanja lays down on the floor so Yumi can pull herself up on top of her. The two practice this over and over again at home in their living room, so that the girl can climb onto the sofa herself. Böhm helps them. She shares tips on how Yumi can further refine her movements. It is important for Tanja to follow her daughter in the early years. Because of this, she has decided to wait about two years for her job at a TV station to return, while her partner works. In her circle of friends, she receives critical comments. “So that means: your child has to go to day care so that he learns to socialize with others,” says Tanja.

Böhm sighs softly. She knows these supposedly well-intentioned recommendations, the disparaging looks, in short, the social expectations that parents are subjected to. In addition, they are overwhelmed by tips from countless guidebooks, which are often not useful from Böhm’s point of view. What is normal in education is determined by the majority. “The parents are put in the crosshairs in their role,” says Böhm. Above all, families need space to develop. This also includes talking honestly about issues that bother you. “It’s not always good to be a mother or a father. Anyone who claims that is not telling the truth. It’s not true,” emphasizes Böhm.

The constant fear of doing something wrong

Böhm and her colleagues can already see the pressure the parents are under during home visits shortly after birth. Employees at the district office meet all first-time mothers to inform them of the offers they can make use of with their child, such as Böhm’s course. Even the invitation to a meeting makes many nervous. “Some are afraid that they will do something wrong, or that the authorities will take their children away from them,” says Böhm. If the visit takes place at the family’s home, the apartment is cleaned to a high gloss and the most elegant clothes are taken out of the closet. “We really just want to offer support to families,” she says.

In any case, Mariana and Tanja are happy to have received the invitation from the district office. At the end of the course, they sing a farewell song with the children. Then everyone puts the toys that are scattered on the floor back into the box together. Böhm has to finish the lesson on time this time because she still has an appointment afterwards. “Today we have to say a quick goodbye to you, but we’ll see you again soon,” Tanja says with a smile as she pushes Yumi out the door in her stroller.

(This article was first published on Monday, July 25, 2022.)

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