The sooner we start our children reading, writing and doing math, the better they will do and the more success they will have in their lives. Right?
Increasingly, the research shows that social, active, creative play is the true work of kindergarten. When a focus on academics crowds out this work, children are more likely to struggle later on with social and emotional skills, impulse control, and critical thinking and planning, not to mention increased levels of anxiety and depression.
Academics in kindergarten impede, rather than promote, brain development in children, as it turns out.
At Suncoast Waldorf School, we take the developmental needs of young children as the sacred foundation for our Early Childhood Programs. Classrooms are beautiful, serene spaces where children are given time, space and open-ended materials to engage in the natural play of childhood. An hour of indoor play is balanced with a circle time of songs, verses and movement, domestic work of preparing snack, folding laundry, and tidying up from play, sitting down for snack at a beautifully laid table, engaging in artistic and craft activities and listening to the stories told daily by the teacher.
During the full hour of outdoor play, children run, lift, balance, climb, swing, dig and connect with nature, bathed in sunlight filtering through the trees and breathing the fresh outdoor air.
While it may look like ‘just play’ here’s what these preschoolers and kindergartners are gaining from this experience:
Emotional Intelligence: Through their self-initiated play children learn the social arts of taking turns, negotiating conflicts, solving problems, sharing goals, developing empathy and learning to live with disappointment. These capacities, referred to nowadays as emotional intelligence, are crucial for life development.
Essential Physical Development: Through their sewing projects, watercolor painting, coloring, chopping vegetables and beeswax modeling, they are developing the crucial fine motor skills that will be needed later for writing. Through vigorous outdoor play they are strengthening the large muscles of the body, developing balance and coordination and becoming aware of their own bodily movements.
A Balanced Brain: It is important that both hemispheres of the brain are active and developed evenly so that a child can develop to his or her full capacities. Starting in kindergarten, the use of both sides of the brain is an inherent part of the Waldorf curriculum and philosophy. One particular example from the kindergarten is the learning of “finger knitting” in which wool yarn is ‘knitted’ into long chain lengths. This development is continued in first grade when children learn to knit with wooden needles and is continued throughout the grades through the various practical arts. (There is an increasing body of research on the benefits of knitting and other handwork on brain development.)
Imagination: Imagination is the seedbed of higher level thinking, essential to the inventive, creative mind. Without this ability to make inner pictures, children cannot read with comprehension. Giving children the time and space to develop their imaginations in kindergarten pays dividends down the road – first as the foundation for a love of reading and later on in creative problem solving skills and critical thinking.
The Ability to Focus: Child development researcher Joseph Chilton Pearce explains, “Children at play are not doing one thing with their hands or bodies, thinking something else in their minds, and speaking of something else with their voice as we adults tend to do. They are totally absorbed in their play-world, absolutely one with their task of play. Through this, discipline, true concentration and one-pointedness develop.” This discipline is essential for success not only throughout the school years but in one’s career post-school as well.
Integrated Reflexes: If not integrated, certain reflexes that occur in the infant for protection will inhibit academic learning. Waldorf teachers recognize when these retained reflexes are seen in children and create movement activities that will help integrate them. Bringing academics before this integration takes places is problematic.
To quote a recent study, “When children have educational experiences that are not geared to their developmental level or in tune with their learning needs and cultures, it can cause them great harm, including feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and confusion.”
Play is the work of preschoolers and kindergartners. Academics can, and should, wait.