What is the true purpose education? There are many questions embedded within this single inquiry. Do we mean the purpose of an education system? An individual education? The purpose of greater learning and does this purpose shift by grade or from childhood to adulthood?
According to Waldorf Early Childhood expert educator, Kasea Myers, the answer to all these questions — the purpose of education and learning across the board – is to open a person up to all of life’s wonders.
We live to learn and learning to learn is the purpose of education. Therefore, school’s greatest purpose is to inspire a love of learning, so that students delve into open questions with a genuine curiosity and reverence that persists to produce a rich and rewarding life.
“I want to give them the gift of the fire of life.” – Kasea Myers, Waldorf Early Childhood Educator
Myers says, “Education is life. Not just school. We learn until the day we die. Our education, our schooling, should teach us the fundamentals — love of self, love of others and love of community. As educators, we must inspire engagement and a zest for life.”
For Waldorf educators, like Myers, early childhood, our preschool and kindergarten years, are the most essential time to establish this engagement and zest for learning. This is done naturally, and in a developmentally appropriate way, through experiential learning, which is sometimes oversimplified by the word, “play,” although it is so much more. On the other hand, the easiest way to mute zest and disengage a young learner is through a 2D learning and lecture environment.
There is a right age and environment for academics, but it is not Preschool and Kindergarten. Myers likes to use the example of learning about the letter A and Apples. When someone says the word, “apple,” what comes to mind? For some it is a cartoon picture of an apple. Or maybe even a flashcard with the word apple on it. For others it might be an apple on a table or in hand or in mouth. Myers argues that this instant experience with the idea of “apple,” likely stems from our first experiences with learning about the fruit itself.
“In Waldorf pedagogy, we take time in preschool and kindergarten to inspire love and engagement of numbers and relationships with sounds and visuals. It is deeply holistic work and focuses on quality, which then grows into math and language arts academics. We inspire future academic engagement from the inside out.”
Meaning that, in Waldorf preschool and kindergarten room, Waldorf students hold the apples, help teachers cut them, eat them, bake with them, and even see them growing on a tree… all before they are told that apple begins with with letter “A” with makes the “Aaaa” sound.
“This is an essential connection for deeper learning,” say Myers, “to celebrate the apple and its source, the tree, to develop care and love for it, before you learn about fruits and botany. The foundation of love and celebration of learning from our early childhood program creates the curious and wondrous relationship we all need towards life to fulfill a lifetime of deeper learning that carries us through a topics’ specifics.”
So is that all it is then? Just teaching children to love life, have fun, play and engage with zest? Some parents think play is fine for three and four-year-olds, but worry when five and six-year-olds are not delving into flashcards and phonics.
Myers argues that while this foundational base of engagement and zest is being established, it is supporting a myriad of essential daily learning opportunities in early childhood. And rushing through these lessons in favor of 2D learning is a mistake made with huge consequences.
“Our five and six-year-olds need this final year of experiential learning. They have important work to do. It is essential that children not be rushed out of constructive, intrinsically driven and imaginative learning in the final year of early education. If they are rushed into a 2D academic experience, they will forever miss the opportunity to develop the neurological pathways and connections they need for deeper academic learning later in the grades.”
She clarifies by saying, “This, their kindergarten year, is the year they have built enough stamina to delve into the complicated and detailed world of negotiation among peers, navigation of deeper story lines of play and building more pathways and connections in the brain around attention span, impulse control, social skills and personal esteem development… to name only a few. Academics a year too early means those learning opportunities are forever missed.”
What does experiential learning and the development of foundational academic skills look like in a Waldorf Preschool and Kindergarten?
Is there a curriculum in Waldorf Preschool and Kindergarten? Yes! Although Myers says that sometimes it is mistaken for free play and outdoor unstructured opportunities with a curriculum-free environment. This is far from the truth. She explains: “the Waldorf program provides a very intentional classroom environment together with a daily schedule and rhythm that allows just enough freedom to support a child’s curiosity for experiential learning.”
Children need structure and security to thrive, and the Waldorf early childhood classrooms and their curriculum provide these essentials, while also allowing flexibility for teachers to alter and modify a day and its lessons to meet the collective classes needs.
“Waldorf educators have room for individuality and can tailor their day to the needs of their individual classes. This flexibility leaves room for the children to be self led as well and for teachers to let them take this lead with their wills and curiosity. This is so important – the space for individuality in the classroom and space for spontaneous teaching by the teacher.”
How does the young child learn to hold attention, follow through, negotiate and not give up on a project? By using their will to do something deeply desired. If we want third graders to display these qualities when approaching a difficult math problem, we must let them practice and have rewarding experiences doing these things in matters of the heart.
Myers gives the example of five year olds. Some want to build and play in a ship while others want to build and play house. “Can they stick and work through social situations and get to the other side? Move forward in a healthy and happy way? There are so many details they delve into as they navigate this emotional and idea investment with care. They are naturally, intrinsically invested in facilitating their projects in a healthy way. It’s such important work. They need this time because it’s their last opportunity to hone these skills before they enter into the work of the grade school.”
Parents often love the amount of time Waldorf children spend outdoors. Children need to move! But Myers reminds us that being outside, multiple times a day in Preschool and Kindergarten, is about learning as much as movement.
“The outdoor world is world of unplanned possibilities. A child needs to build a sense of safety and security, an orientation in space and time, in the natural world. A school cannot, a teacher cannot, simulate the connections and interactions that naturally occur outdoors. Managing possibility and unpredictability is a skill needed and magnified a thousand fold outdoors. Meaning, you can lift the same rock, five or ten times in one day, and see something different under it each time. I could never simulate that experience indoors and could never replicate what it does for the young mind.”
When children come into the classroom, ingredients for snack are laid out carefully on the table. If the snack is soup, the vegetables are resting, in need of being cut, near the copper pot and wooden spoon. The spices sit waiting to be measured. Children take in this display with great interest. Myers talks about children’s self led fascination in class with items like kale and peppercorns. She tells the story of the children forming a veritable think tank about Kale and its possibilities.
“They were abuzz about kale. What is this? Its bitter! What will be like when it’s cooked?”
The kale was cooked and Myers laughs telling how she wishes she could replicate the result at home. “It was amazing and juicy and delicious and perfect and the kids were laughing and kale was falling out of their mouths while they were saying. ‘It’s so good!’ They came up with a game for us all to put kale in our mouths on the count of three and so we did. The experience of the day that day, of sheer joy, was kale. Can you believe it? That’s a success. Not just because they had a positive experience with a healthy food, but because they all tried something new and had a positive experience. And because it was their idea, their curiosity that made it engaging and fun.”
Food, and our connection with it in its natural form, is also a major part of the Waldorf curriculum because it is essential in a whole and connected life to understand the world’s working parts and how we work with or against these elements in our own lives for our own ends. This includes simple lessons on where food, clothes, houses and so on come from. Myers says, “It soothes and strengthens the mind to make these connections.”
Story and Song
The experiential learning realm means teaching the foundation of language arts in a wholly integrated manner. The best way to do this is through story. As Albert Einstein famously said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
“Children love the experience of letters and sounds, how rhythm and rhyme and cadance go together, when we tell stories. Then we add even more layers to this and present them as puppet shows or poetry or song with movement. Now this foundation for language and reading engages all the different parts of body and brain in an inspiring and loving way. It’s holistic and focuses on quality. The experiential realm means it’s wholly integrated.”
The wonderful thing about the Waldorf pedagogy, according to Myers, is that it works well in mixed-age classrooms because a child can experience these lessons on different levels, taking what they need from the environment, more deeply from year to year, until they do the essential and more difficult self-led work of five and six-year-olds in the class. Who also serve as role models and mentors to their younger peers. In this way, nothing is ever forced on an unready child and yet no child is ever bored.
The Real Difference
In summary, Myers shares what makes Waldorf Preschool and Kindergarten truly special in the vast and ever-changing realm of early childhood education.
“It’s not about a specific type of education. It’s about life, about people and connection, about a sense of wellbeing for yourself, your friends and our world. School, especially Preschool and Kindergarten, should be a place for children to set foundations for those experiences. Let them be children, use their curiosity, keep their magical reverence. They will have plenty of time for academics later. Soon enough they will be learning about the science of seasons. Until then, let them sing about Grandfather fire and Sister rain.”