On November 19th, Spring Garden’s current Grade Six teacher, Michael Gannon, hosted a lecture titled Child Development 101. During this Coffee and Conversation, he explored the Waldorf perspective on child development through the different classes and ages.
According to Gannon, “Waldorf education strives to see the child for where they are, right now, understand how they are developing, and then work to support that in the classroom.”
Gannon began by explaining Rudolph Steiner’s understanding of child development, which was very forward thinking at his time. A contemporary of Freud and Piaget, Steiner’s training as a philosopher inspired him to look beyond brain development and into the corresponding realms of the social, physical, and spiritual development.
He felt a child’s development was an Epigenesis — a cognitive, social, spiritual, and physical process through distinct stages— leading to a differentiated state of adulthood based on how these elements were influenced. And, of course, one of the primary influences is education.
Steiner divided child development into three distinct stages and labeled them based on the primary force driving a child’s experience in the world. Ages 0-7 are defined by Will, ages 7-14 by Feeling, and ages 14-21 by Thinking. Through each phase, the child works to understand and eventually utilize these forces.
Every action of an infant is done from their own will — a will that strives to survive, to crawl, to walk — all with little to no encouragement from the outside world. This intense desire to do their will continues far beyond infancy. According to Gannon, before the age seven, the child works from instinct converted into impulse and desire, which can then be harnessed into learning and behavior.
That is why, ideally, children during this stage spend as much time as possible learning to master the use of their bodies. It is best for them to do this on a schedule, using their will in a constructive way, as opposed to being told to subdue their will for a specific task. Imitation of the behaviors they see is a natural process for children of this age, and providing healthy models for that imitation, without intellectual explanation, allows the will to develop more fully.
This is also why the day moves between work and play in Waldorf early childhood classes. The work, a channeling of the young child’s will, happens through imitation of meaningful tasks versus an authoritative coercion to understand concepts. At this stage, children will develop their physical, cognitive, and social skills from unstructured play as their will and desire runs up against the forces of the outside world.
After age seven, a child’s world expands beyond the self, and with this expansion, they develop a great subtlety of feeling. Gannon explains that children’s feelings dominate their world in this stage as they move between joy and sadness and learn to manage these different emotions within the greater, more expansive world now open to them.
The healthy feeling life of the child is supported by providing a context of beauty for all things, from simple movements to complex ideas. By appealing to their natural imaginative capacities, children can be encouraged to use these active feelings to connect to learning as a process.
It is at this time that children are ready for academic instruction, as long as it continues to appeal to social and physical realms and, even more so, the realm of feeling. This is why Waldorf grade school lessons are taught through engaging stories of trial and triumph. Children who sympathize and relate to a story in these years are moved to carry the information and process it in a deep and meaningful way that persists as they grow into a more conceptual and thinking way of being.
By the time they reach high school, children are ready to work with their thoughts and beliefs. They are ready to think critically and evaluate the world around them. Where they first learned to manage their will and then work with their feelings, they now learn to work with their thoughts.
According to Gannon, children at this stage become immersed in the world of ideas and have the capacity to think abstractly and critically, seeing both sides of a story, which can then be broken down and criticized. Steiner believed that, along with their search for knowledge, children at this age also search for truth as they work to make their lives their own. He believed that teaching through a sense of idealism and justice was essential for the health of the young adult, who, if not given role models of hope, would succumb to cynicism.
This is why older children in Waldorf Education are often engaged in service to their community and encouraged to contribute their gifts to the world in a meaningful way.
It is with this understanding of child development that Waldorf educators work to support and teach children. Incorporating and addressing these stages of development, every day and within every subject, allows Waldorf schools to educate the whole child by teaching
the right subject matter at the right time, in the right way.