“The heart of the Waldorf method is that education is an art – it must speak to the child’s experience. To educate the whole child, his heart and his will must be reached, as well as the mind.”
– Rudolf Steiner
Speaking to a child’s experience and level of development is the key to reaching students, and teaching well, in all grades. But nowhere is this more essential than in kindergarten. Children ages four to six experience their world with their will. They are the center of every action and activity, and they move through their day by the force of their self-centered, self-driven curiosity.
Not only is it counter-intuitive to make them sit still to recite or memorize, it is detrimental. Pushing academics into kindergarten eliminates a child’s greatest gift for learning — curious, intrinsic motivation — and replaces it with external behavior modification. Take a more traditional story time vs. phonics instruction as an example.
During story time, or even a puppet show, a child is learning language skills. They are developing auditory processing as they listen and comprehend, they are expanding comprehension with imaginative envisioning, they are stretching their attention as they struggle to listen, and they are taking in new vocabulary and noticing patterns of sounds and meaning. This listening, comprehending, and imagining is key to future reading comprehension when words on a page must go beyond stale script and develop richness in the mind.
During phonics instruction, a child might sit at a desk and learn the sounds that “A” makes. But how does this, how can this, enliven the mind and how does it relate to a child’s experience? Will this spark the kindling of curiosity? How can we ask our teachers to try and make something this abstract relevant to a child who is in Piaget’s Preoperational Cognition?
The reality is that current kindergarten class curriculum is not based in childhood development science, but has instead been reverse-engineered by advisory boards. If a child must read by grade three, then the assumption is, the sooner they learn, the better.
Concerned skeptics at the American Principles Project protest that no developmental or neuropsychologists were involved in the committees creating modern, early-grade curriculum. But at an even more fundamental level, the problem with this thinking is that it regards learning as a strictly linear ascension, when any teacher or parent can attest otherwise.
Many child development experts are unimpressed with the trend of turning kindergarten into the new first (or second) grade. The Harvard Education Letter has serious concerns about the state of early education, including its “narrow range of literacy and math skills, eliminated recess or physical education, and scripted curricula.”
Jerlean E. Daniel, executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children reminds us that: “Above all, young children need time—time to manipulate objects and ideas, time to make the information their own.”
And it’s not as if this new way of educating five- and six-year-olds is working wonders. This report from New Zealand, covered by The Telegraph, says, “Pupils kept out of formal schooling until the age of seven perform just as well those subjected to normal lessons at five… In some assessments of reading skills, those with a later start actually overtook their peers by the age of 10.”
Waldorf educators join in the chorus of dissention. At Waldorf schools, kindergarten is still kindergarten and it still holds its Germanic meaning, “a garden for the children.” It is a place for nurturing, watering, and cultivating a child’s intrinsic curiosity and natural propensity to learn through play. It is a developmentally-appropriate learning environment where child-directed creative play, story time, artistic activities and outdoor exploration are teaching children essential skills.
Kindergarten can and should still serve as the transition time between the familiar security of home and the more demanding and stimulating world of school. We must advocate for the protection of childhood and provide children with the space and time they need to grow.