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A child is like a growing plant ...

magazine article | Published in TES Newspaper on 19 September, 1997 | By: tes editorial

"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child..."

(1 Corinthians 13:1)

These beautiful words - wonderfully simple yet devastatingly profound - bear testimony to a truth long held dear by respectful educators: children's minds and souls are not like ours, nor are children simply miniature adults.

The biblical quotation describes succinctly the philosophy behind the Steiner Waldorf kindergartens.

And it explains why the organisation withdrew from the voucher scheme and cannot take part in its successor. Although we met most of the requirements for the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's targets for children turning five, our principled approach to the teaching of literacy and numeracy doesn't quite conform to tick-box assessment.

Indeed, our philosophy in action proved irritatingly difficult to "box" at all. Despite the fact that we have been successfully educating children around the world for more than 75 years, we have found ourselves excluded from the latest government scheme.

Steiner Waldorf Education, which provides for children from three to 18, upholds the principle of developmental, age-appropriate learning. Our curriculum is designed to mirror the maturational stage of the child; it changes and evolves to meet his or her changing needs. By working closely with the child's own developing capacities, our experience is that learning needn't be hurried or pressurised and can, therefore, be enjoyed. Experienced teachers of all persuasions know that the art of education lies in teaching the right thing at the right time.

Our aim is to provide an education for the whole child through a curriculum which values his or her spiritual and emotional as well as intellectual and physical development.

We are concerned that accelerated learning programmes place premature demands on the developing faculties of the young child. Research shows that poor self-esteem, anxiety, tension and low motivation to work at future stages are some of the long-term outcomes of such programmes. There are also arguments which suggest that packaged schemes that focus on narrow categories of learning can curb the diversity and creativity of the very intelligence they seek to promote.

A child's intellect is not complete at four-years-old and respect for the process of gradual development allows the aural and visual senses to mature over time. Research indicates that the younger the children, the more difficulty they will have moving their eyes across a page. Young children will skip words, use their fingers and jump lines because their eyes are not yet sufficiently developed to cope with the task. We feel that accelerated formal learning is achieved at a cost - and our concern is that "hot house" children may prove to be less robust in the long term. The child shouldn't be adapted to the curriculum - it should be the other way round.

The notion that childhood is of less value than adulthood means that the pressure is on to dispense with it as quickly as possible. We are not alone in feeling that the protection and extension of childhood is paramount. Just as a good gardener protects his seedlings until they are strong enough to withstand the elements, so we feel children should be shielded from the pressures of formal learning until they are intellectually mature. This maturity or "readiness" has been shelved in favour of arbi-trary programmes of early intervention designed to accelerate the acquisition of academic skills.

David Elkind, professor of child studies at the Lincoln Filene Center at Tufts University in the United States, and author of The Hurried Child, draws attention to two metaphors, one agri-cultural and the other industrial, which have been used to illustrate differing views of the child. In the agricultural image, the child is likened to a plant which unfolds and develops according to seasonal time. In the industrial image, the child is a product, subject to machine time and outer demands. Elkind suggests that those who actually work with children work with the metaphor of the growing organism, according to rhythm and season, whereas those who make policies view the child as an assembly-line product. His view is that in the rush to meet quotas, achieve attainment levels and get results, the natural cycle of unfolding developmental activity has been set aside and quantitative standards have become the measure by which we judge our children's worth.

In Steiner Waldorf kinder-gartens the emphasis is on learning to be social. This develops a wide range of pre-literacy and pre-numeracy skills, skills which are "caught rather than taught". Our children have good phono-logical awareness, their oral skills are strong and their vocabulary is extensive. By their seventh year - when we begin formal instruction - they are physiologically able to learn. In the early years, learning should have context and meaning and our children enjoy integrated learning experiences which arise from the life of the kindergarten itself. Familiar events which relate to the well-ordered kindergarten's daily, weekly and yearly rhythms allow them to learn many life skills. They cook, bake, paint, draw; they listen to stories, celebrate festivals together and learn through social activities to consider the needs of others.

By giving time to the twin impulses of early childhood - imitation and play - children will become empathisers and explorers rather than dependent learners. Imitation allows the child to belong to a community, to learn its language and to copy various models of behaviour; play involves the child in imagi-native and exploratory activity. Allowing children to make sense of their world by using the means which are there to help them seems to be a far more productive and principled approach than the struggle to make them assimilate abstract information. Experience should come before information.

Approaches like ours, which seek to promote multifaceted intellectual develop-ment in a wider sense and which support the gradual development of many competencies, are, of course, much more difficult to assess: clearly they don't lend themselves to tick-box inspection reports; they require the teacher to become a skilled and subtle observer of her children and they require time - to implement and to assess. An age-appropriate approach may not deliver the "goods" in the short term but may offer the child a better chance of becoming a sensitive, purposeful and thoughtful adult who is both intellectually and emotionally literate. This is the genuinely "desirable outcome" of Steiner Waldorf Education.

Sally Jenkinson is an early years consultant for Steiner Waldorf Education; a former state school and Steiner Waldorf kindergarten teacher; and the mother of three children, who have attended the Kings Langley Steiner school in Hertfordshire


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