“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”

– William Butler Yeats

Children at the Waldorf School of Philadelphia must be six years old by 1st June in order to enter first grade and the world of formal academic instruction. Some parents worry that this is too late. After all, their children’s public school peers have been receiving academic instruction since age five in Kindergarten or even earlier in preschools or daycares. There is a commonly held belief that children who learn early learn more over the long haul. Surely, a four-year-old who is taught to read will become a fourth grader well ahead of her peers in reading. Research, however, indicates that the opposite is true — not only do younger students in academics fall behind their older peers in the early grades, they STAY behind those peers long term.

Consider the research of Kelly Bedard, a labor economist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her paper, The Persistence of Early Childhood Maturity: International Evidence of Long-Run Age Effects, was written with Elizabeth Dhuey and published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics (2006) 121 (4). Bedard analyzed the math and science test scores for 250,000 students across 19 countries; comparing the scores of those who entered academics at age five versus age six or seven. According to Bedard’s interview with New York Times reporter, Elizabeth Weil, in the article: When Should a Kid Start Kindergarten she found that, in the U.S., “…older students are 7.7% more likely to take the SAT or ACT, and are 11.6% more likely to enroll in four-year colleges or universities.” But the “age effect,” as it is often called, was seen across all countries, cultures and education systems in her study. Overall, those entering school younger performed 4 to 12 % less well by fourth grade and 2 to 9% lower by 8th grade.

Bedard’s study was, by no means, the first of its kind. A study published by Sandra L. Crosser in the Summer Birth Date Children: Kindergarten Entrance Age and Academic Achievement, published in the Journal of Educational Research (Vol. 84 | N. 3) compared academic achievement of seventh through ninth graders who entered kindergarten at age five as opposed to those who entered at age six. According to the summary of the study published in Education World: “Achievement test scores of children who were held out of kindergarten were compared to scores of children the same age who were not held out. The held out children scored higher when they were in fifth grade. … All statistically significant differences favored older males and females, especially in reading.”

Reading skills, in particular, seem to favor waiting on academic rigor. For example, a study of New Zealand students, summarized in the article, Starting school at seven ‘can boost pupils’ reading skills‘, published in The Telegraph reports: “Pupils kept out of formal schooling until the age of seven perform just as well those subjected to normal lessons at five… In some assessments of reading skills, those with a later start actually overtook their peers by the age of 10.”

The Harvard Education Letter has also weighed in, reporting on results from a The Gesell Institute for Human Development study, as reported in the article Kids Haven’t Changed; Kindergarten Has by Laura Pappano. According to Pappano, the report looked to answer these questions: “Have kids gotten smarter? Can they learn things sooner? What effect has modern culture had on child development? The surprising answers—no, no, and none.” The study result summary encourages early childhood education to focus less on academic rigor and more on play based learning.

This is not only the approach of Waldorf Educators, but also the touted approach of the Finnish school system, often looked to as a beacon of hope for better rankings in Western based education (they rank #3 and the U.S. #17). According to this New York Times article, From Finland, an Intriguing School-Reform Model, Finnish culture considers it a violation of children’s rights to start school earlier than age seven. The article discusses highlights of a lecture given at a NYC private school by Dr. Pasi Sahlberg, Director General of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation in Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture. He says “The first six years of education are not about academic success. We don’t measure children at all. It’s about being ready to learn and finding your passion.”

Waldorf schools also ascribe to this philosophy that early childhood academic instruction is not the key to successful lifelong learning. As Rudolf Steiner said,

“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.”

At The Waldorf School of Philadelphia, while we begin to lay the foundation for academic learning in our play-based, mixed-age early childhood classrooms, we find that children are ideally suited for academic instruction after entering first grade once they have turned six by 1st June. Even then, the first grade environment must allow lots of time for much play and physical experience.

Rahima Baldwin refers to this in her book, You Are Your Child’s First Teacher, “due to the downward shift of the curriculum over the past thirty years, it is even more important that children today be developmentally ready for school as well as chronologically ready.”  At The Waldorf School of Philadelphia, developmental age is measured by how closely the child’s social, emotional, physical and perceptual maturity corresponds with the norms for the child’s age.

In Pupil Age at School Entrance – How Many are Ready for Success? Researchers James Uphoff and June Gilmore report marked differences in school performance and emotional adjustment between children with summer and fall birthdays. Their research can be summarized as follows:

  • The chronologically older children in a grade tend to receive many more above average grades from teachers than do younger children in that grade.
  • Older children are more likely to score in the above-average range on standardized tests.
  • The younger children in a grade are far more likely to fail at least one grade than are older children.
  • The younger children in a grade are far more likely to be referred to teachers for learning disability testing and subsequently be diagnosed as being learning disabled than are older students in a grade.
  • The academic problems of younger children who were developmentally unready at school entrance often last throughout their school careers and sometimes into adulthood.

Giving a child who has a summer or fall birthday an extra growth year can be a lifelong gift that may put her at the head of the class instead of scrambling to keep up intellectually or socially.

School choice can be hard to explain, especially if your child is in Kindergarten for two years, but developmental maturity has no correlation with I.Q. Once parents understand the full benefits of selecting a school with an earlier than main-stream birthday cut-off, it makes standing against the cultural pressure of “too much too soon” much easier. What really matters is that the children who begin school later, adapt well and experience tremendous positive benefits.

Do you have additional 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.

This article was written by Rocky Lewis, a professional writer who has researched and written many articles about Waldorf Education. Read more at RockyLewis.com

Photography courtesy of Linette Kielinksi