An Understanding Of Child Development Guides All Aspects Of The Educational Program,
to the greatest extent possible within established legal mandates.
By Jeff Lough, MS
Child development is rarely considered in our state-mandated teacher training programs and only sparsely in our Common Core Standards, but it is alive and well in our Public Waldorf schools. Understanding child development—as the beginning of human development—is a foundational principle in all that we do as Public Waldorf educators. Waldorf education is attuned to child development at every stage, from play-based kindergarten laying foundations for creative problem solving, to an ongoing developmentally relevant curriculum matching the child’s cognitive abilities, to carefully selected stories that bring connection to the child’s inner emotional development.
Understanding child development means more than just noticing. It also means matching theory to everyday practice—another unique aspect of our Public Waldorf schools. Indeed, this point was referenced in the 2015 study by the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE), which noted that what stands out about the Public Waldorf schools is “the extent to which Rudolf Steiner’s, the founder of Waldorf Schools, theory of child development and goals for nurturing human development inform every aspect of how children experience school including the curriculum, pedagogy, and structure of school.” (Friedlaender, D., Beckham, K., Zheng, X., & Darling-Hammond, L., 2015).
Waldorf educators attend to the approximate seven-year cycles of childhood, which are identified by the “soul” qualities of willing (birth to age seven), feeling (ages seven to fourteen), and, ultimately, thinking (age fourteen to 21 and beyond).
Public Waldorf education supports the age of will with physical movement, play, gentle understanding, and loving boundaries to help children learn to self-regulate—a skill that is far more predictive of positive long-term outcomes than one’s ability to read at an early age. Early in this cycle, we also understand the irrevocable importance of the development of the capacities that Steiner called the four lower senses—the sense of touch, life, balance, and movement. Indeed, current neurodevelopmental wisdom indicates the sad consequences of children not getting enough movement, rhythm, touch, and attention during these formative early years.
Feeling and imagination take the center of the second seven-year stage. Our Public Waldorf grade schools support this phase with imaginative story telling, rich artistic offerings and opportunities for students to effect positive influence on the world around them. Students get their hands dirty building shelters, sewing clothes, and growing food, all the while discovering the predictable and stable laws of nature and numeracy that keep us in balance. Waldorf-informed educators understand that teaching these lessons through worksheets, textbooks, and rote memorization does not meet students in this developmental stage. Instead, we evoke feeling to engage the students at this age—consider the rich art and story– based instruction in our grade schools. Once again, contemporary neurological understanding supports this practice. In ages seven to fourteen, the brain structure called the amygdala and the limbic system is most active, usurping the as-yetunderdeveloped pre-frontal cortex, or “thinking” part of the brain.
When thinking does take the helm, during the fourteen- to 21-year-old cycle, and when prior stages have rooted deeply from intentional guidance, we start to see the fruit of Waldorf education. Teens begin to develop higher intellectual functions—such as spatial reasoning and abstract and analytical thinking. These are accompanied by a new degree of self-awareness and the beginning of the realization of one’s place in the world. The Public Waldorf high school curriculum delivers deeper and more sophisticated content as students’ capacities continue to develop.
In addition to following a consistent developmental theory in our educational practice, understanding child development also means that we recognize the individual soul life of every child within each of these cycles. Public Waldorf educators consider the students’ complex individuality, temperament, unique traits, and constitution as they interact with the new and changing environment. Our ongoing work as Public Waldorf educators is to continue to cultivate our understanding of child development as the basis for learning and teaching.
■ Jeff Lough, MS serves as the chair of the Pedagogical Committee for the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education. He is a practicing Nationally Certified School Psychologist, a former special education teacher and former school principal. He founded Mariposa School of Global Education, a Public Waldorf School in Southern California. He currently teaches in the Department of Psychology graduate program at Humboldt State University. Jeff and his wife also run Forest and Farm Childcare, an early childhood education program on their homestead in Humboldt County, CA, where they reside with their three children.