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In Natural Infant Movement classes at Open Air Studio, babies are enabled to lead their own learning through play, while parents are encouraged to observe nearby. Pictured, from left: Baby Freya and her dad, Bernard; baby Emmy (mom, Emily, is not pictured); and baby Katherine and her mom, Lauren. (Submitted photo by Brian Gay)

Letting babies lead at Open Air Studio

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From the moment we’re born, we’re learning: Every new breath and step and interaction teach us about how to live in the world, and about who we are within it.

And at Open Air Studio, a downtown education center that opened last summer, it’s all about letting babies safely find their own ways toward those lessons.

Last month, the News spoke with owners Nicole and Bryan Gay and teacher Simone Stave Demarzi at Open Air Studio, which is located at 213 Xenia Avenue, upstairs from The Winds Cafe. Open Air Studio is an offshoot of early education center Open Air Village, which Nicole and Bryan Gay opened in summer 2020 on the campus of Antioch College.

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Just as Open Air Village’s pedagogy rests on child-led education for toddlers and preschoolers, Open Air Studio’s Natural Infant Movement classes center on letting babies move through the world freely and helping parents learn how to best support their infants in leading their own learning.

“We believe that babies are whole people from the moment they’re born,” Nicole Gay told the News.

Demarzi added: “We say that children are equal participants in the [parent-child] relationship.”

Open Air Studio was originally envisioned as a space for creative movement for toddlers and preschool-aged children. A lifelong dancer herself, Nicole Gay has a passion for sharing movement with children, and she and Bryan Gay secured the downtown space for Open Air Studio in mid-2021. Her vision for teaching dance, she said, would have been closely aligned with the rest of Open Air’s educational methods.

“I’d want the children to wear whatever they feel comfortable in, I’d want the class to be child-led — just a different approach [from traditional dance programs],” Nicole Gay said.

However, she added, her full-time work with Open Air Village didn’t leave much time to commit to leading new classes — though she said she does hope to find a dance teacher to fill that role in the future. With the Open Air Studio space sitting empty and quiet, Nicole and Bryan Gay aimed to find another way to utilize it.

Demarzi, who originally lived in the village as a youth in the ’60s and ’70s, returned to her former home from California a few years ago after her husband retired. Upon meeting her in late 2020, the Gays were surprised and delighted to learn that Demarzi, a longtime early education professional, is trained in the Resources for Infant Educarers, or RIE, method of parenting and childcare.

“I had never met anybody who was a RIE associate or even knew what RIE was, so we hit it off right away,” Nicole Gay said.

With the plans for dance and creative movement classes on hold, Nicole and Bryan Gay reached out to Demarzi and began discussing hosting a RIE-inspired baby class in the Open Air Studio space.

“Basically we all thought it was a terrific idea,” Nicole Gay said. “We started hosting Saturday morning classes, and now our class has grown from maybe three regular babies to now about 10 families that come in rotation.”

Demarzi described RIE’s model, which was developed in and has been developing since the late 1970s,  in terms of “educare” — that is, educating babies and young children as you’re caring for them, but understanding and respecting that play is often how children teach themselves.

“When you’re having a caregiving moment with a baby, like feeding them or changing their diaper, that’s when they’re learning from you — they learn about routine, you can talk about body parts, things like that,” she said. “But when they’re on the floor playing, it’s hands off, unless there’s a safety issue. RIE teaches you how to be with your baby and how to be away from your baby.”

Open Air Studio’s physical dimensions reflect its name, with most of its space left open to movement for its young occupants under wide, bright skylights. During Natural Infant Movement classes, parents sit on the floor near a large, soft rug scattered with toys of different colors, shapes and sizes on which their young ones play.

Parents are encouraged to sit back and observe, and to be there with an open lap if a child needs a moment away from their peers. Demarzi is on-hand to model for parents how to verbally acknowledge babies’ movements and struggles without disrupting their play, based on her RIE training.

“We really want this to be a place where parents feel relaxed and have a laid-back place to let their babies explore their surroundings and talk to other like-minded parents,” Nicole Gay said. “And then they have Simone’s guidance and wisdom about what babies might be thinking as they’re moving — but also reminding parents to let them play.”

Nicole Gay said parents of young children — especially first-time parents — can feel anxious about letting their babies roam and explore on their own. For that reason, she said, the RIE method can sometimes feel counterintuitive — but added that interacting with the world and, importantly, other babies, on their own terms is all part of a baby’s natural growth.

“For example, if a baby is reaching for something, a lot of parents want to pick it up and hand it to them,” she said. “We say, ‘Wait — wait and see what your baby does.’”

Bryan Gay added: “What’s difficult to learn as a parent is that play time is [a baby’s] time — and it might feel like you’re interacting, but really, you’re just interfering.”

This is true, Demarzi said, for parents who have children of any age — that sometimes acknowledging that a child is working or struggling, but allowing them to find their own path forward, is the best way to support them.

“We don’t have to fix everything — we help and we support, but you don’t have to fix,” she said.

Demarzi added that, over her long career, she’s watched a lot of babies learn to crawl and walk completely on their own, just by watching the older people in their life demonstrate those actions for them.

“It’s innate, and we should not interfere,” she said. “We don’t sit children up before they can sit, we don’t help them walk before they can walk.”

Demarzi pointed to a small, squat table in the center of the studio’s play area, which was only a few inches off the ground. That table, she said, is essentially a jungle gym for the babies in the Natural Infant Movement class. On their own, as they grow, the babies learn how to climb onto the table and — often the more difficult skill — how to climb back off.

Allowing children to climb on their own is paramount, she said. Repeatedly helping a child onto a climbing apparatus can mean they don’t learn to safely test their own boundaries — but giving them space to experiment with each new inch of height at their own pace is a key aspect of the RIE method.

“They learn about taking risks, but they also learn how to fall,” Demarzi said. “[RIE founder] Magda Gerber said one of the most important things in life is to learn how to fall and how to get up again — and that’s something that children can learn right from the get-go.”

Demarzi said RIE’s approach is grounded in respect for babies. Just as you would tell a fellow adult if you needed to leave the room or perform a task and wait for a response, she said, respecting babies means doing the same thing.

“But parents often don’t do that,” she said. “It’s important to tell children what you’re going to do before you do it — you say, ‘I’m going to change your diaper now,’ and then you wait for a response before you pick them up.”

A response in young children who are nonverbal, Nicole Gay added, simply means an acknowledgment from the child that they have heard you, such as looking in your direction.

“It’s a lot of waiting and it takes a lot of patience,” she said. “And it takes believing that your child is capable of communicating with you even though they may not be showing the typical signs — it’s not just about talking.”

In the end, Demarzi and the Gays feel the RIE method aims to help children be self-reliant. When children learn and do things on their own, the three said, they leap forward into life with a sense of confidence in their own abilities.

“I believe it creates a positive sense of self that is intrinsically developed rather than due to external factors,” Nicole Gay said. “That’s what, I think, the goal of parenting is.”

And for parents, Demarzi added, helping to nurture self-assured, independent children can mean working to be open to new ideas — and, perhaps most importantly, being gentle with themselves. Adults, like babies, after all, are always learning.

“When you learn something new, you have to drop the guilt,” she said. “There’s a lot of ways up the mountain — RIE is just one way to think about it.”

Open Air Studio holds Natural Infant Movement classes on Saturday mornings, and will be adding a weekday morning class to its schedule this summer. For more information, email or visit

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One Response to “Letting babies lead at Open Air Studio”

  1. Karla says:

    What a beautiful way to honor babies, and their own and innate wisdom.

    Any thought to RIE helping adults to reparent their own inner babies?

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