Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) believed that there are three stages of development from infancy to adulthood.
The first stage is up to seven years of age when the child is sensitive to the surrounding environment and responds through the 'will'. This implies that learning takes place through doing, which is from movement and activity. The child is driven by what he is exposed to in the environment, as well as through the imitation and example of others around him. The second stage from seven to fourteen years is when children live in the emotional realm and develop an understanding of the feelings for life. The third stage from fourteen to twenty one years is when the individual is in the realm of ideas. These three stages constitute an education where the will (doing), the heart (feeling), and the head (thinking) are at the forefront during the developmental stages to adulthood (Bruce, 2011).
During the stage of the 'will', Steiner kindergartens foster a child's imagination and sense of wonder. This is done through story telling, pentatonic songs, imaginative play, everyday home activities, and nature play. Physical and social skills are developed in an environment where children are not cognitively challenged. The emphasis for developing a strong foundation for intellectual learning takes place only after the first seven years. Numeracy and literacy skills are built during this period in the early years through oral language interaction and practical learning experiences, and not by any instructional educational practices. Play based learning involves the habit of children taking action on their own from the opportunities provided by the early childhood teachers. Through this love of action, "The children will have a further habit, the habit of self-direction, and through creative play will have discovered the joy of creativity, the habit of seeking creative solutions to the challenges they meet, to be able to imagine alternatives" (Oldfield, 2009, p. 58).
Steiner-inspired education is based on offering a child learning through activity and personal experiences as opposed to an instructional based system. Oldfield (2009) states that it is, "crucial that abstract learning and accelerated adult centric direction do not begin before the child has passed naturally through the transition from play to idea based activity" (p. 53). There remains concern amongst Steiner early childhood practitioners that the importance of play is being undermined. This play time is being taken over by instructional numeracy, literacy, and IT driven substitutes. Their belief is that a strong foundation has to be established first, through the 'will', or the child 'doing' for himself, before he is ready for instruction based learning.
The Steiner early childhood teacher's focus revolves around exposing children in their care to imitation and example, as well as rhythm and repetition during the day. From my own experience in Steiner kindergarten settings, a teacher has his own room with about fifteen to twenty children. The teacher is the centre point in the room and is confident that the children will learn through an approach of imitation and example. The teacher doea not restrain movement but attempts to work with it. Oldfield (2011) cites Harwood from a book titled 'The Way of the Child' that states, "It is useless to tell them not to touch, not to taste, not to move, not to meddle. They do what they will. But in the heart of this apparent lawless age, nature has inserted a law of authority. Young children are bound by an absolute necessity to imitate" (p. 62). When children go outdoors to play they interact with others from different rooms in a common outdoor area that is generally large with trees to climb, and ample things to discover and play with in a natural setting. There is no free flow to go outdoors or stay indoors. These times are a part of the rhythm to the day that children get settled into.
I have always enjoyed working in a Steiner kindergarten room and my impressions are that they are welcoming and quite visual. The setup is simple with wooden objects, coloured fabrics, pastel walls without any posters, charts, or photographs. The enviroment is actually quite aesthetically warm and pleasant. This leaves the child to develop their own imagination in a setting that is not confusing and overstimulating. It leaves him to discover and imagine for himself, in an environment conducive to open ended imaginative play. Activities in the room can include water colours, crayons, wool to weave with, cutting fruit and vegetables, kneading dough to bake home made bread, and opportunities for a lot of imaginative play in different areas of the room. The same goes for play when children venture outside. It is their play in a relatively natural environment without monkey bars and plastic toys. Along with a sandpit, Papatūānuku or Mother Nature offer children the oppoertunity to climb trees, explore, and learn through their own willingness. Everything in a Steiner kindergarten is in some way connected to offering quality sensory experiences.
Circle time is an important part of the day when children are seated in a circle with the teacher at the helm engaging the children through movement and song. The children imitate the teacher and the theme could evolve around the seasons or song and movement that is repeated every day for a few weeks. Fine motor skills are developed through finger play and gesture. Gross motor skills are developed through balancing, jumping, dancing, clapping, etc. The repetitive nature of circle times also help children to grasp phonics as a build up towards literacy skills. Story times take place just before the children leave the kindergarten to go home. This time does not involve movement, but children listen to stories being told, often with natural materials or puppets made of wool by the teachers themselves. Again, a lot of the child's learning is left to his own imagination.
Festivals based on seasons form an important part of a Steiner curriculum. This is an annual rhythm of events that involve preparation and taking part in these seasonal festivals. The religious undertone of these festivals and traditions was always an area I grappled with. In my mind, Steiner educational beliefs revolved around the whole being which included the spiritual element. I could never connect with festivals of a religious nature like Advent, Lent, and Michaelmas that play such an important part of the year in kindergartens. For me they represented a Christian belief and not a universal spirituality. That was always my dilemma in a Steiner early childhood setting in New Zealand.
In conclusion, I do feel that Steiner kindergartens have a lot to offer from the context of letting the child be ready when he is ready. Steiner kindergartens are usually in school compounds and children do not rush to go to school when they are five years of age. The kindergarten teacher, along with others, determines the readiness of a child before that transition takes place. The foundation to develop into lifelong competent learners has to be slowly built. I strongly believe in the power of imaginative play with no cognitive pressure in the early years to be the key for the strong development of this foundation before going to school.
"There is only one difference between the play of the child and the work of the adult. It is that the adult adapts himself to the outer utility which the world demands: his work is determined from without. Play is determined from within, through the being of the child, which wants to unfold." - Rudolf Steiner, Dornach lecture, 1923. (Oldfield, 2009, p. 83).
Bruce, T. (2011). Early Childhood Education. Bookpoint Ltd.: Oxon, UK.
Oldfield, L. (2009). Free to Learn. Introducing Steiner Waldorf Early Childhood Education. Hawthorn Press: Gloucestershire, UK.