For educational activities appropriate to the young child, we need look no further than the traditional tasks of the home: cooking, baking, gardening, laundry, cleaning, and so on. Purposeful tasks that proceed in a logical sequence and involve a wide variety of movements and gestures become the basis for logical and flexible thinking later on in life, when performed in a conscious, deliberate way that allows the child to take in what is happening. It takes patience and creativity to cheerfully perform such “mundane” tasks amidst the rush of modern life, and to include young children in an age-appropriate way, but they are more powerful than any contrived educational program or learning tool.
An artistic quality can lift our work above the humdrum. If we take pleasure in folding the napkins beautifully, sing a special song as we wash the dishes, or simply enjoy the rainbow colors of the soap bubbles in the laundry tub, we feed the soul’s hunger for beauty. Young children delight in songs, stories, verses, and games, which bear many complex skills within them, without any need to be didactic or overtly “educational.” An adult’s own invented songs or stories, however rudimentary, are most precious to the child for whom they are created.
Young children learn most appropriately through imitation, a deep and irresistible urge to take in and become whatever they perceive. If we can resist our adult urge to explain and rationalize everything, and instead understand the deep significance of our actions both outer and inner, we are on the path of Waldorf early childhood education.
The environment that surrounds the child, all that he perceives and participates in, is transformed when he plays. We may even say that he “digests” his experiences through play, and a child who is not given the opportunity to play will be malnourished as surely as one who is not allowed to digest his food. When given space and time to play freely, with models of meaningful work to imitate, children spontaneously create the most varied scenarios and try out many roles that prepare them for later life. Such creativity is perhaps the most human quality we possess, and the freedom to play is the birthright of every human being.
For this healthy play to develop, the child does not need too many or too complicated playthings. In fact, the simpler the materials at hand, the stronger the child’s own inner powers will become, as she transforms a stone into a loaf of bread, a stick into a magic wand, or a plain cloth into a rainbow. Unadorned, natural materials allow the child’s imagination free rein to endow them with all the details it requires.
In both practical life activities, and free play, the child increasingly takes hold of her body through movement. As she learns to roll, crawl, stand, walk, run, jump, skip, twirl, and hop, she is exercising the mind-body connection. Long hours spent sitting in front of a screen or at a desk are not natural or healthy for young children. Rather, every bodily movement feeds the developing brain, and every bodily skill mastered forms a foundation for mental learning and spiritual freedom. This is the particular gift of the first seven years of life.
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