Waldorf Preschool & Kindergarten: Why Play Based Learning is Best

“The heart of the Waldorf method is that education is an art – it must speak to the child’s experience. To educate the whole child, his heart and his will must be reached, as well as the mind.” – Rudolf Steiner

The Germanic meaning of “kindergarten,” is “a garden for the children.” Frederich Frobel, one of the forefathers of modern education, created Kindergarten in the 19th century as a place for nurturing and cultivating a child’s natural propensity to learn through play.

As private preschools and kindergartens melded into public education, No Child Left Behind and Head Start began to shift the priorities of the early childhood classrooms. Advisory boards were tasked with reverse engineering education — if a child must excel at a standardized test by Grade 3, then they must read and perform mathematics as early as possible. The idea being that the sooner they learn academics, the more they learn in total — a child’s mind is a pail and a school dumps as much into it as it will hold.

While the concept may make sense on paper, the complete lack of consideration of child development means it fails to translate into real world results. In fact, study after study prove this principle of “sooner is better” with academic instruction to be untrue both generally and specifically in math test scores and reading comprehension.

William Bulter Yeats was correct. “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” And anyone who has tried to start a campfire with what nature provides and a few matches can attest that great care and cultivation is required.

What Frobel knew, and what Waldorf educators still understand, is that a developmentally-appropriate learning environment for children age 3-6 is one in which child-directed creative play, story time, artistic activities and outdoor exploration teach children essential skills they need for future academic learning. This time is not “wasted,” and while it serves as an emotional transition from home to school that is by no means its only purpose.

Speaking to a child’s experience and level of development is the key to teaching well at all grade levels. Kindergarteners are no exception. They experience their world with their intrinsic will and self-centered curiosity. Waldorf educators use this knowledge of child development to teach them the skills they must master by providing an environment and experiences which support this willful drive towards learning.

Working against it, by making an active, willful and curious child sit still to recite or memorize, is detrimental to the child’s emotional and academic life. Pushing academics before a student is ready eliminates their greatest gift for learning — curious, intrinsic motivation — and replaces it with external behavior modification.

So, how do Waldorf preschool and kindergarten students learn?

Creative / Imaginative Play Time: An atmosphere of work permeates the room when children are busy at free play. Play is the work of the child. They are learning to develop a rich imagination, which will serve their reading comprehension as they take words on the page and transform them into narrative memory.  They are also learning to compromise with their peers, communicate their desires, carry tasks to completion and problem solve with others. These are some of the last years for them to really hone these essential skills, which will deepen and guide their academic lives throughout grade school.

Outdoor Play: Anything can happen outside. Where the indoor world is safe and structured, the outdoor world holds a realm of unpredictable possibility. Learning to manage and connect with this vast and varied world is essential to the young mind. Not to mention the benefits of learning to persevere in different weather conditions, hone large motor skills while running, jumping and balancing, and still developing all the important skills brought out in creative free play. It is hard to think of a skill not fostered during outdoor time. And our early childhood students spend much of their day outdoors year round.

Circle / Story Time: Just as free play uses the will to teach, collective time with structure helps children becomes masters of this will in a gentle and natural way. As the class comes together to sing songs, recite versus or listen to a teacher told story, children are learning how to listen and hone attention. As they repeat and remember verse, they build their long term memory. The story told by the teacher also exposes children to the beauty of language which supports literacy skills and builds the person-to-person relationship between teacher and child.

Artistic Activity: Wet-on wet water coloring, beeswax modeling, crayon work and sewing/finger knitting are done as a group activity, although each child is absorbed in their own work. They are learning the joys of bringing a task to completion. These activities encourage the child’s natural sense of beauty and color. And, of course, they also develop small motor and visual learning skills.

Snack Time: Growing and cooking healthy food is a large part of the Waldorf curriculum and this tradition begins in early childhood. Waldorf educators teach children to understand both where their food comes from and also how we contribute and work with nature to bring food into our lives.  As such, young students prepare and eat a snack together each day. The children also clean up after themselves and tidy the room. Not only does this teach students to respect healthy foods and try new things, but it also teaches social interaction, how to follow directions, the science of cooking and cleaning, and personal responsibility.

Love of Learning: Our Waldorf preschool and kindergarten teachers are most interested in what truly matters for our young children — inspiring a lifelong love of learning.  We want our students to be filled with wonder about life, so that they can take that intrinsic curiosity to the academic tasks required in the grades and in life beyond school. For what is life if not a place where we all ideally continue to learn through genuine interest to make our personal and larger worlds a better place?

It is our job at Spring Garden to make sure we encourage this zest for life and learning. And that begins at home, is cultivated in preschool and kindergarten, and unleashed in the grades through developmentally appropriate academics.


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