“I am confident that the education they have received will make them individuals who can and will take the time to think for themselves and inspire and lead others.”
A guiding principle at Waldorf schools is “educating the whole child”. This perspective honors the complexity of human nature. We are intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and physical beings, and these aspects of ourselves work in harmony to make up the whole. Waldorf schools recognize that when one part of the whole is out of balance the system is affected. This article focuses on how Waldorf schools foster development of the physical body and how physical development works in harmony with intellectual development.
Waldorf schools highly prioritize the development of the physical body. Families are encouraged to send healthful food to school with their children, media is limited to protect the physical senses, and teachers pay close attention to ensuring a safe and warm learning environment. Another important way Waldorf schools attend to the physical development of students is through the movement curriculum and through the emphasis on free movement in nature throughout the school day.
The physical body is the fundamental way we learn from the time our synapses first wake up in the womb. Throughout our lives we continue to learn through our physical interactions with the world. Babies are born with innate patterns of physical development that are initiated unconsciously. All babies who can will move their bodies in ways that develop the muscle strength and coordination they need for lifting their heads, rolling, grasping with their hands, sitting up, crawling, and finally walking.
The brain is wired to accomplish developmental movements and is born demonstrating numerous infantile reflexes that are the precursors of these movements. Many people have seen reflexes in infants, for example, the startle response when an infant is tipped backward or the grasping reflex in the hands when something is put in a baby’s palm. Reflexes are repeated over and over in the course of infant development until they are integrated. The integration of these reflexes is a coordinated process between the brain and other parts of the body, and is the foundation of later muscle development and intellectual development.
It is easy to see how the grasping reflex leads to later hand eye coordination when you watch a baby move from grasping whatever is put in her palm to intentionally trying to pick up things that she sees. What occurs in the brain during this developmental process is less visible, but equally integral to overall health. Along with being the physical foundation for muscle developmental and physical skills acquisition, reflex integration provides the foundation for intellectual skill development such as being able to follow words on a page or being able to write in a straight line.
Waldorf schools recognize that when physical development is missing important milestones, intellectual development will be hampered. Children with retained reflexes may learn to sit still and follow words on a page, but it takes increased effort as their brains and bodies have to compensate. This extra effort can lead to frustration and disinterest in what becomes an incredible amount of work.
In Waldorf schools children’s physical development is attended to throughout their education. To continue with the example of hand eye coordination, children in Waldorf schools learn to sew, to knit, to carve wood, and to play a stringed instrument. These skills are not only important because they are useful and nurture the spiritual life, but also because they strengthen the neural connections that make learning to read and write come naturally.
Physical development, because it provides a foundational circuitry in the brain, also affects emotional development such as the capacity to regulate emotions, mood, and anxiety levels. A study in Human Movement Science (2010) found that gross motor developmental scores in infants and toddlers predicted anxiety and depression levels in those children at 6 to 12 years old when other factors were controlled for. Another study in the International Journal of Special Education (2004) found that boys diagnosed with AD/HD had significantly higher levels of infantile reflex retention than boys without this diagnosis (Story and Kane, 2014; Brain and Sensory Foundations).
The movement curriculum at White Mountain Waldorf School, run by Jonathan Pullan, attends to developmental movements through games, circus arts, the zoo movements program, archery, and other skill-based activities. This focus helps children be ready for the intellectual learning that occurs when they return to their desks in the classroom.
The movement curriculum also fosters socioemotional growth. Games and activities are chosen to meet the needs of each particular class, including their individual and group challenges. The games encourage students to move outside their comfort zones, trying on different social roles and being accountable for the group experience.
In a time when education is moving to more desk time and less movement, Waldorf schools are maintaining a focus on what research demonstrates is how the brain in meant to learn: through movement, through physical interaction with the environment, and through the life lessons that come with trials and errors. For more information about the White Mountain Waldorf School’s movement curriculum contact the school at (603) 447-3168. For further research on movement and childhood brain development visit www.movementforchildhood.com and www.whywaldorfworks.org.