“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.”
“No books?” Stunned faces stared at me, clouded with skepticism and disbelief. I was taking a class in early childhood education when I shared this startling bit of news: my kindergarten classroom had no library, no reading corner, quite literally – no books! How could this be?
As I have often shared with perspective parents, I recognize that the children who attend our school already have a multitude of opportunities to experience print. Parents have books in the home and read to their children. Print is everywhere and highly valued. If I thought otherwise, I would reassess this issue. But given that reality, what can I offer that children are not already getting in abundance?
I suggest that an exposure to a rich oral tradition of language, combined with imaginative imagery and adequate movement, is the best preparation for later literacy and is sorely lacking for many children today – even the most privileged.
Children need to hear language, use language, move to language. They need a constant supply of age-appropriate stories, rhymes and verses to fire their enthusiasm for language. Too often, in our zeal for helping children learn to read, we do not provide a firm enough foundation for wanting to read. Despite all the years schools have spent teaching reading at earlier and earlier ages, society is becoming increasingly alliterate. An alliterate is one who knows how to read but who doesn’t choose to read. In our rush to present the mechanics, we have clouded the purpose.
So what do I provide in the Waldorf kindergarten that replaces books and direct reading instruction?
In a formal way, we have three points in the day where I present language ‘instruction’. When the children arrive in the morning, we have a short sit-down circle to share songs and verses accompanied by gesture.
Mid-morning we have a longer circle time that involves larger movement. An opening song and verse and a closing verse give constancy throughout the year, but the rest of the content changes every 2-3 weeks. The circle content may be a Fairy Tale or seasonal theme put to song and verse. It often contains circle games once learned from companions in the neighborhood, but now sadly missing in children’s highly scheduled lives.
Finally, at the end of the morning, I tell a story to the children. Room darkened, with one dim light as a point of focus, I paint a picture with words, allowing each child the freedom to image inwardly what I am describing. This experience of learning to ‘see with the mind’s eye’ is a far cry from children’s daily exposure to pre-made images from the media and illustrated children’s books. This form of seeing necessitates active participation. It promotes focused listening and develops reflective thought, memory and attention.
With an emphasis on listening and comprehension skills vs. early reading, I can present a complexity of story line and vocabulary not found in early readers, one far more stimulating and interesting to a young child’s inquisitive mind.
Sandwiched between these three more focused points in the morning are a multitude of opportunities for conversation and interactive modeling of language. Creative free play necessitates much conversation and negotiation.
Snack and artistic activities happen at our large oval table – not unlike a family meal. We work hard to listen to each other, to modulate our voices, to remember our manners. Language used in context provides meaning. Language used in early readers is pointless and pale in comparison.
Finally, movement is honored throughout the day as children’s primary mode of learning at this age. Coordinated movement helps develop articulated speech – particularly movement that involves fingers and toes. Fine-motor activities, with an emphasis on meaningful activity – cutting vegetables for soup, kneading bread, finger crocheting ropes for playtime – coupled with gestures in circle and many finger plays, provide this opportunity in abundance. Large-motor activity, whether in archetypal circle gestures or in active free play, strengthens motor synapses in the brain that are next-door neighbors to the neurons that manage mental behaviors – including attention.
Does any of this imply I do not value reading? Of course not. Reading is my greatest joy and I hope every child in my classroom will eventually feel the same. But I recognize reading as only a tool - a means to share in the thoughts of others - and the Waldorf approach seeks to support a lifelong relationship to language or literacy in the broadest sense.