In Waldorf education, especially in a Waldorf Early Childhood classroom, each day is enriched by ritual and routine. While many parents appreciate how this helps children feel secure, structure is also essential for social and academic development. Why is it so key to the development of children both behaviorally and neurologically?
A recent study of infants, as examined in the book, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School, (edited by John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown and Rodney R. Cocking [National Academy Press]) has determined that children as young as 5 months notice and respond to patterns and routines. We are, it seems, hardwired for structure.
In fact, surveys of human fears find that “the unknown” ranks consistently in the top five. And, as Dr. Laura Markham further notes in her article, Structure: Why Kids Need Routines, everything is unknown and changing in a child’s life — their bodies, brains and skills. If a child’s external day-to-day life is also in constant flux, children will have nowhere to turn for a sense of safety and security. Markham also believes that structure encourages children to have self discipline since they are not distracted by having to manage their environment. But HOW does structure help self discipline? How does that work in the brain itself?
Psychology Today Author, Karen Spangenberg Postal, Ph.d. explains it here: How Structure Improves Your Child’s Brain. Studies indicate that when parents set structure and assist with follow through on structured tasks, they are acting as the child’s adopted executive brain function.
“Think back to your child’s third birthday party. The parents all stayed at the party in order to follow their child through the chaos, squashing their impulse to grab a present, drying tears after they didn’t get the first piece of cake, and keeping an eye out for the first steps in the “bathroom dance.” A neuroscientist would say that the parents are acting as external frontal executive networks, literally lending their child their own brain’s ability to modulate emotions, resist impulses, and plan into the future.
… The executive abilities to resist impulses, plan into the future, and modulate emotion are not only useful for being independent at birthday parties and staying awake during the day, but also for succeeding in the classroom. And yet there is a commonly held notion that as parents we should back off and leave kids on their own when it comes to learning and homework.”
Spangenberg Postal then gives examples of how parents must provide it, at different levels, at different times in life. As an example, she outlines the difference between helicopter parents (I’ll do that for you) and parents that assist executive brain function (let me create structure to help you do that yourself). Examples include – calendar’s and reminded check ins for primary school children, set homework time and place for elementary children and enforced bedtimes for adolescents.
Routine does not just help the brain develop discipline and future executive function, it is also key in academic and cognitive development such as language and social skills. A research paper written by Mary Spagnola, PhD; Barbara H. Fiese, PhD (Published by Infants & Young Children Vol. 20, No. 4, pp. 284–299 2007 Wolters Kluwer Health | Lippincott Williams & Wilkins) takes an even closer look at how routine affects brain function and child development.
The study discusses the value of many common rituals and routines and their affects, as corroborated by other studies, on language development, social skills, and self management. The authors specifically discuss how language development is directly affected by meal time routines, which are rich in what they call, “meta-language” opportunities “exposing children to a broad range of its use including narratives, explanations, clarifications, and cultural rules about speech (Aukrust, 2002; Ely, Gleason, MacGibbon, & Zaretsky, 2001).”
They also note that In addition to meal times, reading routines, before bed or after school, encourage academic skills such as vocabulary and comprehension via “repetition and responsiveness.”
So, as it turns out, ritual and structure for young children and adolescents is not only about providing a sense of security in a changing world. Although that is key, the routines themselves have been shown to affect brain function as seen through social and academic development. That is why routines like daily opening verse, bread making on Wednesday, or keeping the same teacher for 8 years are not just novel or comforting tenets of a Waldorf education. They are essential structures used to successfully educate the whole child.
Howard Gardner, American developmental psychologist and professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, developed the theory of multiple intelligences and revolutionized the way educators think about learning.
In his book, Frames of Mind, he outlines the types of intelligences, claiming that people process information in several different, independent ways. For example, ever known a math whiz that can’t jump rope? Or maybe you know the world’s most competent linguist who is tone deaf or cannot balance their checkbook. “Smart” is not one thing, hence terms like “book smart,” “street smart” and “common sense.”
This thinking has changed the way educators regard learning because it deconstructs the idea of one “general” intelligence ruling someone’s abilities. Waldorf educators, under the direction of Austrian scientist and philosopher, Rudolph Steiner, have been focusing on the education of the whole child since the late 19th century. For Steiner, this meant the integration of arts into curriculum, inclusion of cross-hemispherical brain exercises, and focus on developing multiple intelligences through a comprehensive system of education.
We have created a detailed blog series discussing how each of Gardner’s intelligences is fostered in the Waldorf classroom. Read more:
Moving on in our series of class by class curriculum, we review the Fourth Grade curriculum section from the Moving through the Grades chapter in the book Waldorf Education: A Family Guide by Fenner and Rivers, © Michaelmas Press.
This chapter was written by Karen Rivers, editor and author of Chanticleer, a former quarterly publication for Waldorf Schools.
She says, “The fourth grader is at odds with the world. … There is an earnestness stemming from a new awareness of just what they are up against in the world. Therefore every possible opportunity is given to meet these oppositions … in ways in which the child can have the experience of crossing and at the same time be led towards a wholesome resolution.”
Here is a summary of curriculum highlights for each subject:
Language Arts: Norse Mythology, grammar composition, comparative studies, stories of heroes, vocabulary and spelling. As Eugene Swartz at Millennial Child says, “The Norse myths that we will study in fourth grade are filled with laughter — raucous laughter, hilarious laughter, and sometimes derisive laughter. With their powerful wills, their contentious natures and their love of adventure, the Norse gods serve as a remarkably accurate reflection of the fourth graders who study them.”
History: Geography and local history — taking time to learn about Native Americans indigenous to Ohio.
Math: Word Problems, fractions, long division, averages and factoring.
Science: Zoology and comparison of man to animals. Fourth grade is the first stepping stone to the science curriculum in grades 5-8. We start with the animal world, which as Swartz says is, “the closest “kingdom of nature” to the human being,” and the move on to study the plant, mineral, and human kingdoms, along with laboratory science.
Music: Students are introduced to the violin, two part singing begins, recorder and music reading continues.
Handwork and Art: Celtic form drawing, cross stitching and clay and watercolor continue.
Foreign Language: Grammar, writing and reading in Spanish and German.
Gym: Rhythmic exercise, gymnastics, kickball and softball.
For more information about Spring Garden Waldorf’s unique Class 4 curriculum, speak with or email our Admissions Director who can also put you in touch with our current Class 4 instructor.
This latest TedX video circulating around on education is a must see. The talk is by Jack Petrash, founder and director of the Nova Institute, which, according to his TedX bio, “seeks to build a bridge between Waldorf Education and contemporary educators to encourage dialogue and a sense of common purpose.” Petrash is also the author of Understanding Waldorf Education: Teaching from the Inside Out.
According to Waldorf Today, Petrash believes education should “develop three essential capacities: a capacity for vibrant and vigorous activity, a capacity for a sensitive and yet resilient emotional life, and a capacity for clear, focused, original, thinking. . . . In order to develop these three capacities, we must educate our children in a multidimensional way in school.
Watch his innovative Ted Talk:
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.”
The mind and the body are not separate; they function as one. Waldorf Educators believe that, for children, learning without movement can be difficult. Waldorf educators also deeply know and study the mind body connection in regards to learning. Nothing represents this Waldorf culmination of physical and intellectual togetherness quite like the Fifth grade Pentathlon.
Fifth grade students are transitioning in development. After having come to realize the isolated self in third grade, they have grown into this reality and are now ready to look at the world around them in an ordered sense (space and time) to better understand their place within that world.
When it comes to physical education, the students are ready to emerge gently from the world of cooperative-only games and into the world of individual competition – a necessary transition before the sixth grade introduction of team-based sports.
These mind and body elements of readiness combine with Main lesson teachings of history and culture. Class 5 studies ancient history stretching from 3000 BC to 300 BC beginning with ancient India, moving to Persian culture the Chaldeans, Hebrews, Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians and ending with Greeks.
So as the end of the Class five Main Lesson school year wraps up Greek History, the end of the Class 5 Physical Education school years ends with a five event Greek Pentathlon: discus, javelin, wrestling, long jump and running. In gym class throughout the year, students will have prepared for their individual events and then will compete in an all day Pentathlon festival with other regional Waldorf schools.
Here are all six of the Fifth Grade classes in the 2013, Ann Arbor Pentathlon, singing Glorious Apollo together for the first time.
Waldorf Education: A family Guide