In our stepped-up, hurried, often frenzied world we are taking a toll on childhood. Like a tender little plant in the garden, the young child needs time to grow and develop at its own natural pace. Instead, the traditional play kindergarten has disappeared and in its place is a mostly first grade class for five-year olds. The word kindergarten translates as “child’s garden” which implies a place of beauty, growth, warmth, and unhurried development.
There is no sound scientific research to prove that early academics gives children a leg up later on in elementary school. Yet the race is on to see how early intellectual development can be pushed. Absurdly, iPads are available for infants in their baby carriages. Could one ask whether this pushing down of intellectual development into infancy might be motivated by commercial profits rather than wholesome child development?
The years of childhood from birth to the change of teeth are critical for the development of a healthy physical body, without which strong intellectual development cannot take place. Children need to run, jump, skip, roll, climb, twist and turn. Sometimes they just need the time to sit, watch, and dream. Children need a dependable rhythm in the day—a time to eat, a time to sleep, a time to play and a time to rest. They need the space and the uninterrupted time to engage in self-initiated pretend play. Children flourish when a nurturing adult is there to provide this space and uninterrupted time for play. They are nourished by stories that are told, verses that are recited and songs that are sung. Life habits are instilled when children can help prepare a snack, help put away the toys and learn to put on their coats and tie their own shoes.
This is what a Waldorf kindergarten and preschool class provide. We know that to divert the child’s life forces from growing and shaping the physical organs to intellectual learning depletes those life forces in such a way that the child is weakened. Furthermore, when children do not have the opportunity to initiate their own pretend play, the capacity for the development of the imagination is diminished. Imagination is the bedrock of higher-level thinking and scientific research is now showing that children’s play is THE most important way to develop it.
Waldorf education is unparalleled in its ability to preserve and nourish the life forces of childhood, not only for the kindergarten years, but for the elementary school years as well. We know that children cannot be expected to do mental work continuously without the refreshing break of recess and without the ameliorating effects of the arts on a daily basis. For this reason, all Waldorf schools incorporate recess periods as a matter of course and all grades children sing, play instruments, paint, draw and model throughout the week’s daily lessons.
The Waldorf curriculum provides a wholesome antidote to mass-culture influences that speed children into adolescence without regard to their effect. Classical stories and legends from ancient times and biographies of historical individuals portray heroes and heroines who are truly worthy of emulation. When these stories and biographies are introduced by a loved teacher, the impact on young lives is noteworthy.
It has been shown that girls who attend Waldorf schools begin their menses at a later age, proving even in this biological area that childhood can be preserved for a longer period.
Parents today are more conscious than ever regarding the raising of children. Some bemoan the lack of recess and the emphasis on high-stakes standardized testing that is driving mainstream education and they agonize over the fact that their children do not even want to go to school. Rudolf Steiner inaugurated Waldorf education for the times in which we live. He foresaw what the advance of materialism and technology would bring if human beings were unable to think, to feel, and to act with purpose for the well-being of the world.
Denying a full childhood to children through the disappearance of places to roam and play, through the sacrificing of recess time for testing, through multi-million dollar marketing to children, through the lack of experiences in the arts, and through the pushing down of academics to younger and younger ages is unconscionable. Waldorf schools stand out as havens and protectors of childhood so that young people will have the vital foundation they need for a true education.