Six Year Olds : How we support the kindergarten students in our mixed age Children’s Garden

One of the most important aspects of Waldorf education is its commitment to understanding child development, and creating curriculum that meets the children where they are, while respectfully guiding them toward the next phase. With this in mind, we wait until the child is six-turning-seven to begin formal academic schooling. We decline to follow the cultural panic of forcing early developmental expectations and academic tasks upon young children. We know that early childhood has unique tasks to complete that can be accomplished only in the first seven or so years of life. When the child is allowed to grow a strong physical body, integrate the senses, and strengthen their emotional development, the tasks of the grade school years will be accomplished more successfully.

There is a change of consciousness- the beginning of a new phase of development- between ages six and seven that makes the child truly ripe for the challenges of academic learning. We see them slowly turning toward a new recognition for authority; verbal information becomes more accessible. The child can hold onto a thought, an idea, a play, a plan, over longer periods of time. Memory begins to become free and independent; thinking takes on new form. Even the physical body shows signs of change: the limbs lengthen, gross and fine motor skills mature, baby teeth are replaced by adult ones. They are now able to sit, and focus with prolonged attention-- essential skills for learning in an academic setting.

In our mixed age children’s garden, the six year olds are known as elderberries, and have special privileges and responsibilities specifically developed to support this period of transformation. Learning to work with their hands in a new way is especially satisfying at this stage: there are more sewing projects, building projects and the preparation and performance of puppet shows. They use real tools: sharp needles, hammers, and nails and learn to manage these things carefully. Activities begin to become project-based, rather than the process-based activities typical of early childhood.

This is “First Grade Ready” work: the children build their stamina for sustained focus as they work for days, or even weeks, to complete their tasks. These activities provide important practice of hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills, which are imperative for writing. They train the eye to follow left to right, as in reading. Additionally, patience, persistence and independent problem-solving must be practiced. Self-confidence is gained, as they become masters of these tasks.

Literacy and numeracy work begins each Spring: a playful and imaginative introduction to conceptual learning. These lessons are a bridge from our play-based kindergarten into first grade, supported by the artistic and imaginative nature of Waldorf education.

For more information on the changing consciousness of the six year old child, check out this article by Michelle Brightwater, kindergarten teacher at the Maple Village Waldorf School here.