THE WALDORF PERSPECTIVE ON THE DEVELOPING CHILD
From Birth to age 7, the young child's life forces are focused on the physical body, both in finishing the formation and function of internal organs, and in absorbing everything around them through unfiltered sense organs. In a Waldorf Kindergarten, great care is taken in providing warmth, simplicity, and beauty in all environments to embrace the child, and to protect them from stimulating experiences which may shake them prematurely from their 'dreamlike' consciousness. As young children absorb everything surrounding them, they also absorb the behaviors, thoughts, feelings, and inner strivings of the adults who know and love them. Through imitation a child learns how to meet the world and others, and therefore it is essential that the adults in a child's life strive to be positive examples of humanity.
As the child moves out of the toddler years, this play begins to take on a slightly different tone. The very young child was utterly content to build and destroy his own block tower. Now, the 2 ½ year old begins to expand his sphere of observation. The activity of nearby children becomes much more interesting. Though the child is not quite ready to engage in group play, parallel play is a common occurrence in the young preschool or playgroup. Between the ages of two and three, play becomes an intentional activity. The child's play takes on an imaginative quality. The observer will often find the child reproducing the actions of adults around them (sweeping, cooking, wood working, caring for babies...) even recreating the adult's mood of soul. For this reason, it is of utmost importance that the adults in the child's life constantly work on their own inner lives, checking and rechecking their approach to the day's joys, chores, and challenges. The child not only models his own play after this, but even takes these experiences into his soul life, using them to grow and develop their own inner bodies and lives.
The three to five year old engages in creative fantasy. This “stream of consciousness” play often involves more than one child, and has an extraordinary quality of fluidity. The elements of this play are constantly shifting: changing characters, props, and story lines. This may seem chaotic to the observing adult, but is of extreme importance to the child's development. The child is essentially playing out the stress of developing their walking, thinking and speaking abilities. Beginning around the fourth year, the child may begin to engage in intentional fantasy play. This group play maintains the creative element experienced earlier in life; however, there is often a group leader who directs the play. Phrases such as “let's pretend...” or “you be the daughter...” are often overheard. All of this play is the work of children. It is how they experience and 'work out' their environment. Rushing a child on to cognitive learning and exercises will, in effect, prematurely use up their willing metabolic limb forces, not allowing them to complete their task in the child's growth and development. Parents can encourage creative, media free play at home by setting up play stations parallel to their own work. Setting up a small 'cooking' station near the kitchen, or a wood sanding station near the workbench will not only encourage natural, creative play, but will also allow for more quality time spent with the child.
By six years old, a child is starting to look forward in excitement to meeting the challenges ahead of them in grade school. Their play typically takes on a more practical and project oriented theme, although they still readily step in as the leader of many children in imaginative, story themed play. It is important for the six year old child to finish this developmental stage while still in Kindergarten, even though they may seem ready to take on the world. At this age, a child may express that they are 'bored' at school or home during play time. Many parents will assume that this means that Kindergarten is no longer meeting their needs, or that they need to enroll their child in more structured, extracurricular activities to challenge and stimulate them. This, however, can end up hindering the child's ability to finish this developmental stage by 'busying' them, and pulling their life forces on to the next stage before they are truly ready. A child at this stage is facing new inner abilities that they are not quite sure how to master. Free play and practical work (sweeping, folding laundry, cooking and wood working) in Kindergarten and at home are essential for the child. This allows them to work through this time of uncertainty and enter back into play and work with a new vision.