by Louise Oberholzer
A fundamental principle of Waldorf education is its focus on child development. In this respect it is unique in the depth of this focus. The Waldorf educator is fascinated by child development and devotes a fair amount of time to observation of the child. The aim is to really understand the five year old or the nine year old or the fourteen year old and by doing this to form such a clear picture of this age that all that is brought to the child is appropriate to the age. This question profoundly influences the curriculum and stands behind some of the major departures of the Waldorf curriculum from other conventional approaches.
No careful look at the spectrum of change in child development can avoid the discovery that every seven years marks a transition from one clear stage to another. Within this seven-year period there are also the very noticeable changes from one year to the next but there are also consistent qualities that characterise the whole seven-year stage.
The Garden Years
The Story of The Enormous Turnip
Once there was a farmer who planted turnip seeds. He watered them carefully and one plant began to grow very quickly. Then the rain fell and the plant grew bigger. Then the sun warmed the earth and the plant grew bigger. The days grew longer and the sun stronger, and the turnip grew and grew until it was enormous. The farmer decided to pull it out. He pulled and pulled but it would not budge. Then the farmer’s wife helped. She held onto his middle and she pulled and he pulled but it would not budge. Then the dog helped. He put his paws on the farmer wife and he pulled and the farmer’s wife pulled and the farmer pulled. But it would not budge. Then the cat helped…. Then the tiny mouse helped…. And the turnip came out!
This story is a wonderful picture of the kindergarten child. It is an effort for the adult to truly understand the kindergarten child. Even though we know that the very young child is different from the adult and it is a delight to us to see these differences, there also seems to be a mindset that assumes that the very young child is really a mini adult. There is the mother who would like her kindergarten child to learn to meditate or the father who is very proud of the four year old who is already reading and writing. These are attributes of an adult and we are delighted and maybe even relieved when we see that our children can do this. But have we really looked at this kindergarten child? They are so different from us that they are like little beings from another planet.
The stages from nought to seven show major changes, which I cannot speak about here. But to look at the overall characteristics, this is the age of imitation. The child at this age is a mime artist. She imitates everything, from your actions to your tone of voice. We see this in the story in the way the dog put his paws around the farmer’s wife and then the cat etc. We cannot underestimate as adults how deeply our actions are impregnated on the being of such a child who is open and receptive to the world as he never will be again in his whole life.
The physical body of the child will change dramatically during this stage. The organs will not have developed to full maturity and the child will be engaged in the major physical challenge of finding balance. Besides this the child will be developing large motor coordination and fine motor coordination, a strengthening of muscle tone and much more.
But the development of this physical body needs to take place in a structured way. This child is so open to the world of nature that his observations surprise us and her enthusiasm touches us, brings us back to memories of our own childhood, when we experienced that at-one-ment. We have seen, as parents, how our little ones behave when they have been running around wildly all afternoon. They become, we use an expression, ‘out of themselves’. As little nature beings they are like the turnip seeds, which n