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‘Marte Meo’ is the ECA Conference buzzword; what does it mean?

The Netherlands is known for clogs, Edam cheese, and tulips. But if you speak to Dutch early-learning professionals, they will also proudly claim Marte Meo as their own.

Marte Meo, pronounced ‘marta mayo’, derived from Latin, loosely means ‘on one’s own strength’. It is a developmental philosophy established in 1974 by Dutch educational counsellor Maria Aarts, which focuses on positively encouraging a child to use their own initiative. This, she claims, aids their social, cognitive and physical development.

Aarts has taken her concept international, to countries including Israel, Italy, and, yes, Australia. She is currently in Darwin, presenting on Marte Meo at the 2016 Early Childhood Australia (ECA) National Conference.

We asked Aarts to elaborate on her definition of Marte Meo (‘building on intrinsic energy flows’) via telephone.

ELR: Can you explain what Marte Meo is, and how it works?

MA: What I developed is to analyse in detail what happens in good functional relationships, family relationships, and parent-child relationships and to use that as a kind of checklist when parents or teachers are in trouble with a child, to ask, ‘Hey, what has not been developed yet?’ You don’t look for the problems, but read the developmental message behind a problem.

This is done by filming  an everyday interaction moment for 3–5 minutes. You mostly see it all [without film] when you’re well-trained.

It’s also about naturally modelling language use. We know from child development that when a child is, for instance, playing with a car, and you say, ‘Ah, you’re playing with the car. Oh, you’re driving up to…’, the child get words connected with his play initiatives.

Another important component of Marte Meo is allowing children to trust their initiative. You have children who take initiatives and easily can play with other children, let them do it. Then children get a much more rich life later because they have trusted what pops up inside them. I always say everyone is born with a goldmine in their belly.

What I see all over the world … is that too many educators take the initiative [instead of letting the children take it]. Parents also do this too often. One of the mamas in the film I showed today said, ‘Playing with my child was a task and I always forgot it, but now I got this information and now it is a joy to play with my child, so I easily do it every day.’

How did you come up with this concept?
I was a specialist for children with autism and I worked in a child psychiatry institution.  I was very young, 24. I got a lot of compliments about how the children loved me and how I could work with them. I was naive and young. I thought, ‘So, that’s it.’ Until a mama came to visit her little autistic boy and she saw at once I was able to get in contact with him, and she started to cry. She said, ‘Maria, that’s my son, I’m his mom, and you know how to get in contact with him. Why don’t you teach me?’ Since then, I’ve been analysing what you need to know to get in contact with a child, especially a child with autism. At that time, the Holland Government supported me in going to develop that [concept].

Can you tell me about a Marte Meo success story?
I came across a little boy called Damien, who could not play with other children. He didn’t have play ideas, and especially he didn’t have words to express these ideas. He disturbed other children by rushing into games or not understanding the games, and he was not careful with toys, so a lot of them would break.

The mother said, “Can I make a film of how we play with him at home?” What we saw, of course, on the film, we know already from a hundred thousand films I’ve seen. Who was playing in the film? It was Papa. Papa made a beautiful bridge and Papa said, ‘Don’t disturb, don’t touch’, and the boy was gone in three minutes. I told the papa what we saw on the film. ‘You can build beautiful bridges. The only problem is, your boy would like to practice that, too, and maybe then later you can build bridges together.’

He understood this and put it into practice. Later, he reported, ‘We actually can bond together now.’

Photo: Maria Aarts

Photo: Maria Aarts

More information on Marte Meo can be found here.


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