“We can’t blame children for occupying themselves with Facebook rather than playing in the mud. Our society doesn’t put a priority on connecting with nature. In fact, too often we tell them it’s dirty and dangerous.” – David Suzuki
The National Wildlife Federation has essentially created a whitepaper on dirt to explain and encourage mud play among children. There’s an International Mud Day in June. And Immunologist, Mary Ruebush, has written a whole book about it: Why Dirt Is Good: 5 Ways to Make Germs Your Friends.
We know playing outdoors, in general, has a myriad of proven health and learning benefits. And sensory play is also essential for developing skills, especially in younger children.
But why is mud, specifically, so good for children?
First, there is the issue of children’s immune systems. As Ruebush says, “Let your child be a child. Dirt is good. If your child isn’t coming in dirty every day, they’re not doing their job. They’re not building their immunological army. So it’s terribly important.”
In fact, there are many ways in which dirt’s microscopic bacteria benefit children’s bodies and minds. One in particular, Mycobacterium vaccae, had been found to increase the levels of serotonin in our brains, which boosts mood and relieves anxiety.
Researchers at The Sage Colleges in Troy, New York also wondered whether, in addition to its antidepressant effect, M. vaccae may also have an effect on schoolwork.
“Since serotonin plays a role in learning, we wondered if live M. vaccae could improve learning in mice,” says Dr. Dorothy Matthews, who co-authored the study. “We found that mice that were fed live M. vaccae navigated the maze twice as fast and with less demonstrated anxiety behaviors as control mice.”
Turns out there are great body benefits, too. In addition to being good for the immune system, experts at the University of California at San Diego have found that mud play combats inflammation while improving wound healing. The researchers studied both mice and human cells in their lab and found that common bacteria, called staphylococci, can reduce inflammation after injury when they are present on the skin’s surface.
But most importantly, the kids love it because it’s fun to get dirty, fun to play outside, and fun to be with friends and have unrestricted playtime in nature. So let the kids be kids.
As American botanist Luther Burbank once said, “Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water bugs, tadpoles, frogs, mud turtles, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb. Brooks to wade…bees, butterflies, various animals to pet, hayfields, pine-cones, rocks to roll, sand, snakes and hornets; any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of…education.”
by Jennell Woodard
Waldorf Education is about the whole child – mind, body, and soul. The body and movement are intimately interconnected and interdependent in learning from this whole child perspective.
The goal in Waldorf Education is to support development in which education is more than gaining knowledge. Learning is not all in our heads. Waldorf Education recognizes that there are multiple ways of knowing, which take into account sensory experiences, temperament, emotion, how the child is “hard-wired,” and where neural networks are malleable to change.
We have more than just the five senses – Waldorf Education recognizes as many as 12 sensory systems – and learning comes also through these other senses like the kinesthetic, vestibular, and proprioceptive systems. Extra Lesson at Spring Garden Waldorf School incorporates movement, drawing, and painting exercises that help students with difficulties in writing, reading, and math, as well as behavior.
The premise is that the challenges a student experiences may be a result of inadequate spatial orientation and poor body geography, and research supports this link between learning difficulties and early child development.
Extra Lesson is an assessment and intervention program based on Rudolf Steiner’s holistic developmental perspective and the Waldorf philosophy of education.
- Improving mobility, motor skills, and flexibility
- Building and strengthening neurological networks
- Providing change without labels
- Providing opportunities to re-navigate possibly missed developmental stages that contribute to underlying problems emerging now
- Helping sensory input connections in the brain
- Building patterns for cross-referencing experiences
- Connecting movement with sensory input, gravity, spatial awareness, tactile sense, proprioceptive senses, and sensory integration issues
Here are some of the learning difficulties Extra Lesson is designed to address:
- Low frustration tolerance
- Avoiding certain learning tasks
- Difficulty following directions
- Low academic performance
- Balance, coordination, and organizing
- Confusion with numbers, letters, and math signs
Extra Lesson at Spring Garden is taught by Jennell Woodard. She has been with SGWS for over 30 years and says, “My interest in “how we learn” began when I was a class teacher and looking for new avenues to unlock this mystery in some of my dear students. Then I discovered the work of Audrey McAllen, who worked diligently with the Foundation of Waldorf Principles designed by Rudolf Steiner.”
Ms. Woodard pursued a course of study with Extra Lesson from the Association for a Healing Education and currently works weekly with students in Kindergarten, Grade One, and Grade Two. She also works with individuals and small groups referred by class teachers.
Boredom is an uncomfortable, undesired, frustrating state of mind. As parents, we’ve been conditioned to alleviate these feelings in our little ones. We ask, “What do they need to reach a better state of mind?” So it’s really no wonder that a bored and whiny child makes a parent spout lists of fun ideas or break out a craft project. However, relieving the discomfort of boredom is one of those parenting instincts we should fight.
University of Louisville Professor and boredom expert Dr. Andreas Elpidorou, in his article The Bright Side of Boredom, defines the value of boredom this way: “…boredom motivates the pursuit of a new goal when the current goal ceases to be satisfactory, attractive, or meaningful to the agent. Boredom helps to restore the perception that one’s activities are meaningful or significant. It acts as a regulatory state that keeps one in line with one’s projects. In the absence of boredom, one would remain trapped in unfulfilling situations, and miss out on many emotionally, cognitively, and socially rewarding experiences. Boredom is both a warning that we are not doing what we want to be doing and a “push” that motivates us to switch goals and projects. Neither apathy, nor dislike, nor frustration can fulfill boredom’s function.”
Not only is it key for motivating one toward goals and meaningful activity, it is also the precursor of creativity. A paper presented at the Annual Conference at the British Psychological Society outlined two studies that revealed that boredom in subjects brought forth daydreaming and innovative connections that lead to more creativity.
In the first study, 40 people were asked to copy numbers out of a telephone directory for 15 minutes, and were then asked to come up with different uses for a pair of polystyrene cups. Those subjected to copying telephone numbers were more creative than a control group who had only been asked to come up with uses for the cups.
In the second study, researchers looked specifically at the influence of daydreaming. This time the control group was only given the cups, another group again copied the numbers as before, and a third group read the numbers instead of writing them, which left more time for daydreaming. Researchers found that people who had no boring task demonstrated the least creativity; those writing names showed more creativity, but those who had just read the names were more creative of all. This suggested the importance of passive boredom, the kind that allows for daydreaming and leads to creativity.
But it’s not just this one study confirming boredom’s role in creative living. This study from the Journal of Associative Psychology found boredom promoted “associative thought” – deeper connections between potentially unrelated ideas. And neuroscience is jumping into the boredom study game, finding that “a neural circuit called the default network, which is turned on when we’re not preoccupied with something in our external environment” – in other words, when we’re bored. At first glance, these boring moments might seem like a great time for the brain to go quiet, to reduce metabolic activity and save some glucose for later. But that isn’t what happens. The bored brain is actually incredibly active, as it generates daydreams and engages in mental time travel. In particular, there seems to be an elaborate electrical conversation between the front and rear parts of the mind, as the medial prefrontal cortex fires in sync with areas like the posterior cingulate and precuneus.”
So is boredom always good? Well, as it turns out, no. German researchers have identified four different types of boredom, and while three of them lead to creativity and focused goal pursuit, one of them does not. They call this bad boredom “reactant boredom,” and it is defined as boredom induced by an activity which requires attention in order to have meaning. You guessed it: this is classroom boredom, and it’s bad because “it prompts sufferers to leave the boredom-inducing situation and avoid responsibility and those responsible (teachers).”
Waldorf schools use multi-disciplinary teaching to avoid classroom boredom among our students. It’s hard to be apathetic and bored at your desk when you have to sing, draw, or catch a ball during a lecture.
Ultimately, however, boredom at home is a net gain for children. While it’s hard to watch children suffer and be uncomfortable, this trip out of their comfort zone and into the land of boredom leads to inspired, creative, and meaningful play. And that’s the work of the child.
Early Childhood classrooms in Waldorf schools look different. Some parents are initially surprised by the lack of primary colors and maps and charts that normally festoon the walls of “traditional” preschool rooms. Won’t the kids find this … boring?
According to recent research on the topic of classroom design, they won’t consider it at all, which is exactly the point. The teacher and the lessons – or, in Early Childhood, the play and cognitive, creative, and motor development – is what deserves the children’s focus, not the posters, mobiles, or charts.
And it turns out children do give busy decor a fair amount of their focus. This New York Times article, Rethinking the Colorful Kindergarten Classroom, reports on a recent early childhood study which found that “children spent far more time off-task in the decorated classroom than in the plain one,” as measured by time spent gazing at the walls and scores on a picture test about stories the teacher had been telling.
There is also concern that the material on the walls is simply part of a larger commercial agenda to sell teachers and schools pre-made banners, mobiles, and posters, when walls might be better served as display space of student work or functional space for teachers and students.
A comprehensive 2012 research study published in The International Journal of Building Science and its Applications conducted an extensive analysis and assessment of 751 students across 34 classrooms in seven different schools in order to isolate the characteristics of classrooms that “maximize pupils’ achievement.”
According to this study, a well-designed classroom:
- Receives natural light
- Is designed with a quiet visual environment
- Uses warm colors on the walls and floor
- Has a large area of free space for building and diverse learning/play
- Has high-quality and purpose-designed furniture, fixtures and equipment
- Allows ease of movement
- Allows flexibility in learning varied activities
- Contains ergonomic tables and chairs
- Is modular, meaning the teacher can easily change the space configuration
While stepping into a Waldorf Early Childhood classroom evokes feelings of warmth, simplicity and comfort, careful analysis reveals that almost all of the above features have been accomplished in its design. Open areas are filled with natural light and materials that emphasize function over primary-colored form. This helps young children feel comfortable and focus on what matters — their creative play with peers, and time listening to and working with their teacher.
If you Google, “Summer break with children,” you get two types of search results — a variety of activity lists or articles about the evils of summer’s off. Turns out they call it “summer fade,” which is a one month backslide in learning coupled with an increase in Body Mass Index (BMI) for kids.
Many parents counter these issues with a rigorous schedule of summer camps, sport practice and tutoring. While watching television all day with a box of pop tarts is obviously not good, there are some other options beyond a highly structured and scheduled summer.
When planning, or not planning your child’s summer, consider the scientifically proven benefits of boredom, free play and time in nature. These research studies about children and learning support the idea of a summer slowdown.
In a recent BBC news article, Children should be allowed to get bored, Dr Teresa Belton said, “Cultural expectations that children should be constantly active could hamper the development of their imagination.”
Now couple that reality with studies connecting time in nature with increased learning and emotional capabilities. The positive results of being outdoors for children are vast as seen in this PDF of a decade of Scientific Studies on this topic. Some highlights include:
- “When children engage in authentic play in nature-based outdoor spaces, they develop skills in a variety of domains simultaneously.” – Miller, D.L., Tichota, K,.White, J. (2009).
- “Sullivan has revealed that the symptoms of children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) are relieved after contact with nature. The greener the setting, the more the relief.” – Taylor, A., Kuo, F. & Sullivan, W. (2001).
- “Children who regularly have positive personal experiences with the natural world show more advanced motor fitness, including coordination, balance and agility.” – Fjortoft, Ingunn (2001).
In addition to the learning benefits to boredom and time in nature, there is also the issue of free play. This article from Parenting Science explores over a decade of studies about the benefits of unstructured play time. The author is careful to note that free play does not mean physcial education classes or sports. Free play is just that. Unstructured play time, which is proven to help math skills, language development, and creative problem solving.
- “Play and exploration trigger the secretion of BDNF, a substance essential for the growth of brain cells.”
- “Psychologist Edward Fisher analyzed 46 published studies of the cognitive benefits of play (Fisher 1999). He found that “sociodramatic play”—what happens when kids pretend together—’results in improved performances in both cognitive-linguistic and social affective domains.'”
And finally, before you schedule a summer of busy stimulation, consider this article and advice from Simplicity Parenting writer Kim John Payne. He says:
“[When Google is hiring they say] ‘we’re less concerned about grades and transcripts and more interested in how you think.'”
If we rewind to a childhood that makes an adult like that, what do we see? Is it racing around from one prep course to another? From soccer to piano to Mandarin? A childhood on the clock and filling up the gaps with zoning on the iPad and obsessing about making more friends on Facebook?
I don’t think so.
When we really look at what happens for a kid when they slow down, tune in to themselves, take space and get busy in serious play, we can see that what they are learning is how to be create a kind of inner structure that will serve them (and us) well in the world ahead. … Play provides a deep and wide-reaching domain for kids to experiment with the real work of the real world.”
Spring Garden Waldorf School and Crown Point Ecology Center are partnering to offer Nature’s Children Parent and Child Class. Nature’s Children is a one of a kind offering for parents and/or caregivers of children ages 18 months to 4 years. This summer session will be offered almost entirely outdoors and will allow children and their parents to experience a Waldorf approach to early childhood education together.
An experienced early childhood teacher will lead the class through seasonal songs and games, artistic activities, nature walks, free play as well as story time with puppetry. Young children learn through imitation. As the children “work” and play together, the parents engage in and model purposeful work for the children such as working in the garden, feeding the chickens, preparing snacks, & creating seasonal crafts to take home.
Crown Point Ecology Center offers a unique site to host this outdoor focused experience with beautiful organic herb and vegetable gardens, wooded trails, barns, wetlands, a pond and more. Experiencing the out of doors offers a wonderful opportunity for discovery, conversation, and play. The Nature’s Children Parent and Child class is a perfect stepping stone into the Waldorf Preschool Program. We hope you will join us.
This class is a once weekly program offered once weekly for six weeks on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday from 9 a.m.- 11:30 a.m. Classes begin the week of July 12th. Cost per session is $180/parent and child and $100 for each additional sibling.
To register for the Thursday Session – Click Here
To register for the Friday Session – Click Here
To register for the Saturday Session: – Click Here