What does it truly mean for a child to be ready for first grade academic instruction? It goes far beyond a child’s 6th birthday. It is about the whole child and their development — physical, social and cognitive — which is not defined by a child’s IQ or their early reading and math skills. This can be counter intuitive to those used to mainstream education, which often fast tracks gifted children to prevent boredom. At Philly Waldorf we recognize that while many of our students have gifted range IQ’s, we like to assure parents.

It is not the grade level of academic instruction that bores bright children, but the way in which, and at what depth, any level of academics are taught.

Consider what and how a child will learn long before they are evaluated for first grade. Ideally, children during the ages of 0-7  will spend as much time as possible learning to master the use their bodies, their emotions and their imaginations. Bodies are engaged first in large motor skills mastered by crawling, walking, running, balancing, and climbing, to name a few. Then children begin to add the work of small motor skills by weaving, baking, painting, coloring and drawing. When they enter playgroups, pre-school and then kindergarten, children must learn the often difficult task of managing their unbound will and desire with the wills and desires of others. Taking time to master these social skills is vital to the whole health of a young academic mind.

IMG_8120Young children must also spend these first seven years laying a firm and rich foundation in the realm of imagination. All abstract academic concepts to come will tap into a child’s imaginative mind. As they begin to learn about the plight of Madame Minus in first grade, who loses her stones through the hole in her pocket, their imagination will fuel the fire of learning this mathematical concept of “taking away.” There is so much to be learned in early childhood! And it is nearly always done, through the child’s own will and volition. This is because young children are not developmentally ready to sit and learn through instruction. They learn best through engaging their will, their creativity and their unbounded imagination.

Children who are trained too early in academics will learn academics, but at the expense of learning more important developmentally appropriate skills. Short changing the development of early childhood skills, means depriving children of both a love of learning and a depth of learning, as evidenced by years of research, which shows starting academicslater benefits future learning.

Respect for, and understanding of, a child’s work in year 0-7 is a major differentiator between Waldorf and Mainstream education.

Mainstream educators have downshifted the curriculum based on a volumetric education philosophy — the brain is a pail and the academics the water which fills it. This means that children who are tested, must fill their pail to a designated line, by a designated grade.

This is why mainstream educators have reverse engineered academic instruction to Kindergarten. If a student must know X by grade 10, then they must know Y by grade 5 and therefore should be taught Z by grade 1. This approach is not supported by child developmental psychologists or scientists. It is also not supported by current academic research or even testing results. Not to mention it in no way takes the varied learning needs of the whole child — social, physical, and cognitive — into account.

Teaching children The Right Thing at the Right Time is essential for lifelong learning. Just because a precocious child can learn to read at four, does not mean she should immerse herself in the unimaginative content of early reader books. Waldorf educators believe it is better to develop this child’s imagination and listening skills by having her listen to oral storytelling of a fairy tales, which she can then act out later with friends in imaginative play.

It’s true, early academics will impress friends and relatives and even educators, but at what price? As Rahima Baldwin Dancy says, in the book, You Are Your Child’s First Teacher: “Especially with bright children, it is important to emphasize balance. It is possible to teach them intellectual skills at a young age and to put them into academically advanced programs from preschool or kindergarten on. But the result is often the production of a ‘forty-year-old’ in a five -year-old body. Advanced intellectual development in childhood is usually at the expense of the artistic/emotional sphere or the healthy development of the body.”

At The Waldorf School of Philadelphia we believe there is even more at risk with rushed academic instruction — the loss of true curiosity and a love of learning — which once gone is rarely regained.

Learn more about the Philly Waldorf first grade curriculum in the Loving Learning article First Grade Curriculum.  Interested in enrolling your child in First Grade at Philly Waldorf? Contact us for a conversation and to arrange a visit.

Do you have questions or concerns about The Waldorf School of Philadelphia age requirements? Please leave a comment below, email admissions@philywaldorf.com or call us with your questions.