At a glance, a Waldorf early childhood program looks quite simple, most of the day is composed of free play and the activities that we do are repetitive—for instance, baking bread on the same day each week. There is daily singing, storytelling, movement and recitation where the children simply follow along—the children aren’t explicitly “taught” lessons. Simplicity is a goal for us in our curriculum, but what happens within the children is not so simple at all. Through all of this play and rhythm the children are building a strong foundation for success in grade school.
A child in the grades program needs to have a well-developed physical body and well integrated lower senses (touch, life, balance, and self-movement) in order to feel at ease in his or her body. Moving in all kinds of ways such as walking through mud and balancing on logs on our walks in the woods, carrying heavy objects in class, playing games such as “wheelbarrow” and the specific movements we bring to circle all integrate the senses and help the child feel comfortable in his or her body. Further, these movements strengthen the child’s core. With all of these physical needs in place, the child can successfully sit in a chair and his life forces are freed for thinking.
Quiet and Focus
In the grade school a child needs to be able to find inner quiet and focus. Therefore, in preschool and kindergarten we deliberately and gently guide the children to silence during many moments throughout the day. Some examples include the brief silent pauses between songs and verses during circle, quietly listening during story time, the moment of lighting the candle and the quiet snack that follows, and a few minutes of quietly listening to the sounds of nature on our walk through the woods. Having practiced shorter moments of sustained quiet and focus, the children grow in their capacity to attend to their teacher and are prepared to listen to the longer stories and instruction asked of them in the grade school.
Once in the grades, in addition to developing their focus, children are asked to sustain their attention on their work and activities for a longer period of time. A child’s attention span is developed first through engagement in his or her own play—a child needs ample time for this—and then through small doses of engaging activities led by the teacher. Story and circle are good examples of teacher-driven activities that hold the children’s attention in a way that is fun and engaging. As the children grow older and have more practice, they are able to engage in these activities for longer periods of time. Simply following along with the group is another way of exercising this focus. In the early years at school the children are called upon to imitate and follow throughout the day—during the morning activity, circle time, daily walk, and while putting on and taking off their gear. Now they are ready to focus on the on the plethora of daily activities called upon in the grades: speech exercises, recitation of poetry, form drawing, number rows and math practice, learning their letters, book work, foreign language lessons, knitting, and more.
Love of Learning
Ideally, a child enters the grades program joyfully with eagerness to learn. A love of learning can be fostered in many ways in the early childhood program. In self-directed free play a child educates himself about the world simply by playing what interests him most. We help guide this process by providing a healthy play environment both indoors and out, and by modeling healthy adult activity the child can imitate. Storytelling is another way to inspire the children in their play. It is common to find children playing out a story that they have heard in class. By meeting the children developmentally in both the early childhood program and the grades program we provide an environment in which learning can be joyful every day.
Wonder and Anticipation
Wonder and anticipation are critical components of a love of learning as well. Leaving questions unanswered goes a long way in helping a child develop a sense of wonder. In class children often hear, “What a mystery…”, “What does it look like to you?”, or “I guess we’ll have to wait and see” in response to their questions. This encourages them to come up with their own answers or simply ponder. Waiting for tasks which are given only when a child is ready gives the child an opportunity to experience anticipation. Examples of this include pouring tea at snack, helping others in the cubby room, jumping rope, doing a special sewing project, cutting vegetables with a “teacher” knife, going to Woods Day, and finally, going to first grade. When a child is really ready for a new task, she will succeed at completing it. This success gives the child a sense of pride and builds confidence which will carry the child through her next challenge.
These are just a few of the ways in which our preschool and kindergarten students are preparing for the grades program. The children are also developing language skills, learning about the natural world, becoming socially aware, and building strong will forces, among other things; all through the implicit guidance of their teachers in simple activities, stories, and free play. As a teacher, I feel honored to be guiding these children along on their journey!
Laura Mason, Early Childhood Faculty Chair and Morning Glory Kindergarten Teacher Born in Kirkland, WA, Laura Mason was raised in the then-rural neighborhood of North Rose Hill. Though she and her sisters spent long hours playing in horse pastures, open fields, and woods surrounding their home, her favorite place was the dirt pile in her yard, where she spent many hours digging tunnels and making mud pies. Childhood vacations were spent hiking and camping in the Cascades as well as taking road trips to museums and historic sites. Many of these experiences are well known to her students, as she brings them to life in the classroom through storytelling. Miss Laura attended local schools from kindergarten through high school, sharing a classroom with several friends for the entire 13 years. Throughout school, she loved vocal music programs, particularly performing at music festivals. After Miss Laura transferred her elder daughter to Three Cedars School in the first grade, she began a new career as an early childhood teacher. She joined Three Cedars in 2002 as a preschool assistant, then served as a preschool teacher, and finally, as a mixed-age kindergarten teacher. Miss Laura received her Early Childhood In-Service Teacher Training Certification from Rudolf Steiner College, where she discovered a love of wood carving and a renewed enthusiasm for gardening, both of which she brings into her work as a teacher.