This is written by Marsha Johnson, veteran Waldorf teacher. To see more articles by Mrs. Johnson, please join firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Intellectual Education of the Kindergarten Age Child in Waldorf
Consider the definition of the word education? What comes to mind?
Aha, in that very question lies the root of much of current
understanding about education in general, a process that primarily
deals with the MIND of a person.
Let’s see, Webster’s says:
a : the action or process of educating or of being educated; also : a
stage of such a process
b : the knowledge and development resulting from an educational
Ah. I kind of like that definition because it has at least two
aspects: knowledge (i.e., knowing how to do something or remembering
something) and development (that is a large word that could include
so many different areas for the human being).
In historical times (not very long ago) human children were simply
living and working with their families, playing about when there was
time, travelling in nomadic groups, watching, imitating, observing,
and participating. Nearly all the activities were directly related
to the sole purpose of sustaining life: gathering food, protecting
the body, creating adequate dwelling space, finding mates, caring for
one another, and creating community. Up to 200 years ago, nearly all
children lived in that very same fashion, give or take the wealthier
children who had much more leisure time and free time and who were
taught to read, write, and higher subjects, generally after about age
7 or so. One or two very bright ones were sent off to the larger
urban areas for further study, often with the religious institutions
or political organizations of the times.
But the young child, the child under age 7, what did they do? They
played and worked with their families. They trotted alongside parents
on the way to the springs, they stayed close to mama at age 2 or 3,
and helped, or played with a few simple items from nature or
contrived toys (corn cob dolls in a hanky).
They also heard and listened to many stories. In an oral culture, it
is through the songs and the stories that history is carried. In a
non-reading world, it is the minstrels and the poets who carry the
burden of the memories of the group. And to whom do they speak? To
the whole group.
It is estimated that a person can retain about ten percent of
information that we hear once, more if we read it, and most of it
when we do it! Example: how to catch a fish. Someone can tell you,
you can read about it, you can do it.
Repetition, however, of oral traditions, vastly increases the
retention of material by human beings. (I know it does not seem so
when you remind your ten year old to hang up his coat a zillion
times, but that is a different matter!)
In the child under seven, there is also a very strong natural urge
and interest in repeated stories. How many times do you find that
four year old who wants to hear that story about daddy and the dog?
They never tire of it, and if you hesitate a second in your speech,
they will often simply fill in the words that they heard so many
times before……it is like growing, they do that very cute and
sometimes tiring thing, and they cannot stop it or help it. They
NEED it. They need oral stories, repetition, many many times.
Small children often love repetitive singing, too. Those long songs
with the slightly changing focus, Old MacDonald. This is good food
for that growing child who delights in the rhythm and safety of known
How else do those stories affect them? If we follow along with Dr.
Steiner, we refuse to dumb down the vocabulary and we use the words
that were originally present and repeat them and as children learn
the many thousands of mother-tongue words as they grow, these new
words are also eaten and digested and absorbed and re-emerge. This
is a very good education!
The developmental part of education is or primary importance, even
from a physiologic point of view: movement and action stimulate
brain cell growth and maturation. What a surprise! So if we swaddle
babies and keep them in dark rooms without much stimulation, they
tend to have lower IQs than the ones who are allowed to crawl
around. Isn’t that a no brainer?
Developmental education has been abandoned by our crazed drive in
public education for better ‘test’ scores. This is practically
criminal in my book, and would be like paralyzing a child’s body, and
simply focusing on activities that involve the eyeballs for 6-8 hours
per day, nothing else. Insisting that five year olds sit at desks,
use pencils, write and copy, give up recess because there
isn’t ‘time’ for it in the day, causes me great alarm and concern
about the future effects of this new generation of ‘eyeball’ educated
children as adults in our society.
Developmental education is critical for healthy balanced adults:
using all the various parts of our physical bodies, enjoying the
intense inner pictures of a child’s world of imagination, seeking
out the social sphere with friends to act out questions, dramas,
concerns, fantasies, celebrations, rituals, and human destinies, is
vital to an educational process. Sitting a five year old child in a
booth with a computer screen and a mouse, to ‘learn’, is very much
like inserting the printer cartridge into the slot on my machine here
that I just did today, of viewing a human soul as on object, a tool,
a machine…..and yet many very clever people support this and
Playing, helping, resting, imagining, thinking, painting, modeling,
experimenting with blocks, logs, string, trees, mud, wind, cooking,
eating, sharing, giggling heaps of preschoolers in a rainbow house,
planting and gardening, sewing, fingerknitting, listening, singing,
playing with bubbles and learning to cut with scissors and use glue,
and sitting on a warm human lap…….hearing the stories, hearing
the words, creating the images inside those adorable curly and stick
straight haired heads………..this is the intellectual development
of the human child in the best sense of the word: addressing all the
aspects, the head, the heart, and the hands.
Educators in Waldorf will insist on this process and work
diplomatically and lovingly to assist parents to see the realities of
what happens when we place children in work that is not appropriate
for their stage of development. It is not our intention to hurt
feelings, scare people, or simply sound weird. We are and have been
the forerunners of realizations that are actually emerging as a
backlash in this country, all over! Since 1918, Waldorf educators
have been speaking about these ideas, quietly, and persistently, and
then actually providing the proof of the pudding in the brilliant
young men and women who emerge from our schools and take their places in this beautiful needy world of ours.
At home, you can accomplish this so much more easily, in a sense,
because YOU are the creator of your world. Your home, your schedule,
your possessions, your choices, your stories, your food, your tone of
voice, your joy and creativity, you are the queens and kings of your
child’s universe, the King Peter and Queen Susan and Aslan all rolled
into one! In a sense, you are the suns of your galaxes, and your
children dance around you in their own ellipses…as such, you can
select and create elements that will shine on all of us….now and in
the future times.