Why Free Play is the Core of Waldorf Early Childhood Education
What a pleasure to spend part of my morning last Thursday with the Redbud Kindergarteners during their indoor play time. The Redbuds range in age from four to six years old, and on this particular morning, they had a special treat. Ms. Cardany's story table is usually reserved only for use of the teacher during those wonderful minutes at the end of each class when the children sit hushed and enthralled as a fairytale or other story comes to life for them through vibrant language and simple puppets. Today, though, the children were to be allowed to play at the story table themselves. And oh, the fun--and learning--that ensued!
The majority of the class wanted the chance to tell their own tales, and thus negotiations began. Would one person lead the story, or would the plot be determined by the group? Was this puppet the main character, or that one? What was the right moment in the story for the character to cross the bridge?
The storytellers arranged the puppets and the scenery, carefully balanced the wooden bridge, and strengthened their muscles as they carefully carried chairs from around the classroom to prepare for their audience. We were called to our seats, the 'candle' (a coiled up belt) was lit, a song was sung, and the story began.
But...oops! A minute or two in and the storytellers realized they weren't quite ready. Fine plot points had been neglected. The curtain hadn't been properly raised. They found they had difficulty fitting all their storytellers behind the table, and there were some disagreements over what happened when. The audience was dismissed with the promise that the story would resume soon.
After some more negotiation, it became clear that there were a few too many cooks in this particular kitchen. With a touch of assistance from Ms. Cardany, the children decided two groups would work better. Tomorrow's storytellers joined me at the table to make whole wheat rolls for a snack, while today's storytellers continued their preparation. Soon, we were called back.
The story began with again lighting the 'candle', singing a song, and this time, lifting the curtain just as Ms. Cardany does. This time we had a lead storyteller, who guided us through a nearly 20-minute story about a character who kept eating the grapes off someone else's grape tree. Three other children assisted the lead storyteller, adding in details and moving puppets and scenery. The rest of the class sat listening intently to their classmate's tale.
What were the children learning during this period of free, imaginative play? First and foremost, social skills. The storytellers had to negotiate, listen to each other, and compromise. They flexed their resilience muscles as they dealt with frustrations--when the first story didn't go as planned, or when a peer added a detail that they didn't think belonged in the story. They were practicing language arts: creating the plot for a story is no small feat, nor is delivering it in front of a group. Creativity, comprehension of past stories, and oral language were all exercised, as were executive function skills such as working memory. Fine and gross motor skills were in use as the children carefully placed the puppets and scenery, delicately lifted the curtain, and carefully coiled the belt to be a candle. They carried 10 heavy wooden chairs across the classroom to set up for their audience--getting in a bit of counting practice as they did so. The audience members practiced patience and listening as they listened quietly to a lengthy story, and as they waited for their turn to be storytellers.
Free, imaginative play is the core of a Waldorf early childhood education, and this one episode illustrates why: children learn all the skills they will need for later academic learning through play, and they do it joyfully. Children do not need worksheets and drill-and-practice exercises to be ready for first grade. They need to use the critical period of early childhood to develop the executive function and social-emotional skills that will serve them so well when they enter an academic environment.