When is a Child Ready to Start Grade School?
By Kristine Fiskum, on behalf of the DVWS faculty
To answer this question we must look at a child’s natural, chronological development. Much like a pregnancy, each and every child goes through stages, and at certain points new processes occur. Rudolf Steiner, founder of Waldorf Education, was a pioneer in the area of developmentally based, age-appropriate learning, and many of his insights and practical applications were later borne out by the work of Gesell, Piaget, Gardner, and others. The Waldorf approach recognizes that children younger than seven years learn best when taught concretely through movement and example, whereas school-age children (ages 7–14) learn best when they are engaged imaginatively and artistically. Then, when children reach high school, around age 14, their growing ability to analyze and think abstractly has a rich body of experience on which to draw. ( Rahima Baldwin Dancy, Waldorf educator and author.) The first stage is the time of adventure, discovery, and mastery of movement. A child under age seven has not yet completed the process of physical and sense maturation, and it is in his best interest to be in a classroom where these aspects are nurtured. This is indeed learning of a very important sort.
Why is it important to let a child who is six complete this stage in the kindergarten? Children continue to grow physically well into their twenties.
All of a child’s innate activity and focus in the first stage is devoted to optimizing the workings of the body and discovering the world through the senses. A body that has mastered this stage is coordinated, capable, strong, and willing. His body will continue to grow and his senses sharpen based on the happenings of the first seven years. If a focus toward cognitive abstraction pushes into this stage, the child is prematurely giving his attention to the next stage at the expense of mastering the first.
My child is learning all kinds of things everyday and is smart. She wants to learn. She recognizes letters, does math, can even read. What do you mean she is not yet ready to learn?
The question to ask is not about the benefit of early cognitive learning, but about the deficit created by not playing and moving. It is the view in a Waldorf school that a relevant and developmentally appropriate kind of learning is taking place in the kindergarten through play, socialization, and movement. The question for first grade readiness is not proving that a child is academically ready, but asking if s/he is physically and socially ready.
Children are quite able, and even precocious at this age. Some educational models have pushed children and shown that they can become whizzes at mental exercises. Yes, we can ask that of children and some will answer, but they will not do it naturally. We can even make them want to do this because we value their progress and praise them for it. In truth though, they want to play and discover at this age. There is real educational, even academic, value in giving a child time to know their physical body, know the world around them, and develop socially. The words of Rudolf Steiner give us pause to consider the value of this time: “If a young child has been able in his play … to give up his whole living being to the world around him … he will be able in the serious tasks of later life, to devote himself with confidence and power to the service of the world.” (Caroline von Heydebrand, one of the first Waldorf teachers.)
The child who has completed this stage is able to attend to focused academic learning without physical exhaustion, sensory overload, and the insatiable urge to move. A child who is rushed may struggle unnecessarily and formal learning may be a negative experience. Even the rare geniuses and prodigies will offer the world and themselves more if they are given time to be a child. Capacities that show themselves early in children will not disappear because education does not capitalize on them. Given time they will mature and be at the child’s command.
The DVWS faculty has set forth guidelines for first grade entry after full consideration of many factors. It recognizes that the decision is inconsistent with many public and private schools. Through direct experience, wisdom shared by expert teachers, authors and researchers, the school bases its decision on what is in the best interest of the child’s development. The Waldorf curriculum is directly related to the chronological age of a child. There are many ways that kindergarten teachers will meet the needs and desires of their oldest students; learning will not be stifled but will blossom with new responsibilities, leadership roles, stories rich in language, problem-solving and memory skills, and new capacities of constructive and imaginative play.
DVWS Grade School Entry Guidelines
First grade entry for children who turn six between March 31-May 31 will be determined by the Early Childhood teachers. Students turning six after May 31 will not be considered for first grade entry.
New student placement in grades 2-8 will be considered on a case-by-case basis in the best interest of the child.