A Few Words With Ute Strub

At 86, Pikler Master Teacher Ute Strub, never ceases to amaze. The German-born physiotherapist continues to lecture and lead Pikler® trainings internationally, as well as to conduct what she calls “experiments.” This practice of being conscious, or aware, is intended to bring a respectful way of being with children, which, in turn, leads to more harmonious relationships with others.

Last June at a Berlin Pikler® playroom, Ute Strub was filmed leading experiments as part of her project with Elsa Chahin, “Ways Of Being With Oneself And With Children”. Offering various experiments that included, balancing sticks, making stones stand and rocks roll, Ute was animated and eager to share her discoveries and life’s work.

“What is the difference between an exercise and an experiment?” asked Ute Strub in her charmingly accented English. “The exercise has exact rules, and you should do it exactly like this, and if you don’t, you fail. With an experiment,” she added, “it’s open how the outcome will be.

“Since it’s an experiment, in a group, everyone experiences something different, has different feelings, has different memories, the whole history of life is different. He or she comes from a different background, so what he or she experiences in this moment when I offer something, will be different from what the other one experiences. This is the main difference.”

To further understand Ute Strub, whose boundless energy and enthusiasm should be bottled and sold, one needs to know a bit of her background. She was a student of Elfriede Hengstenberg, a movement pedagogue in Berlin and a pioneer in somatic bodywork with children. Hengstenberg had studied with the renowned Elsa Gindler who, together with the musician Heinrich Jacoby, had found a way to work with adults on developing abilities that had been discouraged in their childhood.

Ute Strub recalled: “ If you hear or read something, you may quickly forget it. For instance, when I heard a lecture and I tried to remember it the next day, I was so disappointed and upset that actually nothing stayed with me. Elfriede Hengstenberg had told me to work with my students in a way that it becomes an ‘experience’.”

It was in 1979 through Elfriede Hengstenberg that Ute Strub met and began working closely with Hungarian pediatrician Emmi Pikler.

When she invited her to Freiburg, Germany, to give a talk with parents, Pikler’s words endured: “She said: ‘When you only remember this little gesture: a welcoming, open hand, if you want to have something from your infant or small child, if you want something back, instead of just taking it by grabbing or tugging, and when you see the reaction of the child, then, what you have taken from my talk this evening is enough. This will be the beginning of a change in your attitude towards children.’”

It was from that indelible moment – coupled with Ute’s innate curiosity, determination and unique perspective – that she embarked upon her life’s work. It was also by giving seminars with Pikler’s daughter, Anna Tardos in Budapest, Hungary, that Ute said she had wanted those students, “to feel how a child feels if you just take something away from him.

“So,” she continued, “this goes much deeper, and you will remember this, while words or what you have read, just disappears. For instance, I usually begin my lectures with this little experiment, and I invite them just to observe this – what I would do with this bottle.”

Ute Strub then placed a tall green bottle on a table and touched its neck, causing it to wobble before it came to equilibrium. She repeated this action several times. “So this was the first experiment. Now comes the second.”

Ute Strub leaned the bottle to one side, catching it before it fell saying, “Watch out, you fall.” And then she asked the audience how they felt [during] the first and then the second [experiment]. They answered that they already understood – that if you let the bottle go, it comes by itself, to equilibrium.

“This happens with the child, just the same,” Ute Strub explained. “The usual approach is the second one. If a child falls, we immediately pick her up. She lost the floor, underneath her feet – and she loses it again, the moment she’s suddenly picked up.”

Ute Strub’s experiments are simple, yet profound, and have impacted generations of infants, toddlers and adults over the years. She recalled learning to observe the eyes of children and how they reacted to what adults would do.

“I learned from Emmi Pikler, when she said, ‘Oh, this child has sorrow,’ to be more aware of how our approach towards children should be. Once my eyes were open and my mind was awake for how parents are with children,” added Ute Strub, “I saw a lot of different attitudes, and I observed the reactions of the children.”

In essence, Ute Strub, who writes poetry and also helped translate Pikler’s books into German, believes that we have a choice of how to be with children. For her part, she has chosen gentleness, understanding, patience and acceptance.

“Once parents or educators realize how often they take something away from a child without announcing it – causing the child to be upset – this can help them to become aware that this is not the way they want children to feel.  If we then show the other way, announcing what we will do, waiting a moment, and accompanying our actions with words, this gives the child the opportunity to cooperate. This also offers adults a more harmonious way of being with children, as well as being more open to changing their attitudes, their habits.”

Married to a painter, Ute Strub believes that all arts stem from the playfulness of artists. “Because an artist plays with material, whether it’s paint or wood or sculpting with stone, there wouldn’t be art if we didn’t have the inner drive to play. Each baby, each child begins with this inner drive to play, to explore to try things out.

“By this trying out,” noted Ute, “a child joyfully discovers again something new in her free play. ‘The human being is only fully a human being when he plays,’ because of this moment of freedom, as German poet Schiller once wrote. Within the play, everything is allowed, there’s nothing forbidden.

“The older I became,” said Ute Strub, her blue eyes sparkling, “the more playful I became.”

Interview conducted by Elsa Chahin; written by Victoria Looseleaf.

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