Preserving Childhood

Where Waldorf Practice Meets Mainstream Research

Kindergarten at the Rudolf Steiner School is about playing outside rather than learning to read, a practice supported by leading researchers in child development.
Kindergarten at the Rudolf Steiner School is about playing outside rather than learning to read, a practice supported by leading researchers in child development.

It is a bone-chilling day in February, but the kindergarteners at the Rudolph Steiner School of Ann Arbor are undaunted.  They are outside, a rainbow of snowsuits dotting the wooded landscape.  One group is building a fort.  Others have created a “chocolate factory” where they magically transform sticks into prized candies.

The teachers are on hand, ready to gently facilitate a shy child’s involvement, or listen to and, if necessary, redirect a small group that has come into conflict.  But there is no formal lesson plan here.  These children are building the skills and competencies that will serve them academically in the years to come.  Playing.

Here, as in other Waldorf schools, play is a hallmark of the kindergarten.  The wisdom of a play-based kindergarten was espoused by Rudolf Steiner 75 years ago, but current research in early childhood education and psychology is also quite clear on the point. Still the current trend in our society is to “hurry” young children into academic work and a host of other activities, with well-meaning parents mistakenly hoping this will better prepare them for the world that awaits beyond school.

David Elkind, a professor of child study at Tufts University and a leading author and child advocate, provides an apt description of the typical American kindergarten:

“In too many schools, kindergartens have now become ‘one size smaller’ first grades, where children are tested, taught with workbooks, given homework, and take home a report card.” 

Elkind links emotional stress, lack of interest in school, and depression to our country’s current emphasis on early learning.

In a similar vein, TIME published two articles last year which decried a “curious and unsettling” transformation of American children.  In The Quest for A Superkid, reporters describe how grade-schoolers are getting longer school days, shorter recesses, and countless hours sweating over homework. In the little time that remains, they wrote, children face “a buffet line of outside activities that may or may not build character but definitely build resumes.”

In Whatever Happened to Play? the authors note, “Kids who once had childhoods now have curriculums; kids who ought to move with the lunatic energy of youth now move with the high purpose of the worker bee.” Elkind and others explain the trend to “hurry” children as a result of both changing demographics and a gross misinterpretation of the infant brain research of the early 1990s.

Although it may seem that “everybody is doing it,” there is little debate among professionals about what is best for children.  T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., the beloved American pediatrician, author, and internationally recognized expert on child development, warns us:

“Parents today are often haunted by the feeling that children must be prepared to compete early…Few can resist the urge to prepare their children by teaching them the skills they’ll need in school—reading, writing, and arithmetic.  The pressure on children to perform early seems to me to be cheating the child of opportunities for self-exploration, for play, for the learning that comes from experimentation…Too many “precocious” learners burn out later.  Most important is the child’s own eagerness to learn and her self-concept.” 

Brazelton’s opinion is echoed by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the nation’s largest professional organization of early childhood educators and child developmentalists:

“A great deal of quite conclusive research over half a century tells us that kindergarten-aged children still think like younger children; they think differently, see the world differently, act differently, and have different skills than children of seven or eight … It is not developmentally helpful, or in the long run a success, to push and rush children through it.” 

This is what parents learn from teachers at the Steiner School.  It matters.  While the concept of “allowing children to be children” may strike an intuitive chord, Waldorf parents can feel conflicted when they see relatives and neighbors stampeding in the opposite direction. This and other research which includes long-term studies of students identified as “gifted” suggests that it is not only okay to go slowly when children are young, it is in fact highly beneficial.  This is what Brazelton suggests.  This is what the NAEYC suggests.  This is, in fact what the vast majority of experts have concluded.  Can we have the courage to listen?

~For the Steiner Times newsletter, Fall 2003.