How does Kindergarten prepare for academics?

Fifteen years ago, a best seller titled All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten was so popular that the title essay was read on the floor of the U.S. Senate. In its themes of sharing, simplicity, and sincerity, readers recognized the greater picture of life that memories of early childhood evoke in us.

In the same way, when one enters a Waldorf early childhood classroom, adults and children alike recognize a deeply familiar longing and sense of rightness in the beauty and rhythms of the Waldorf setting. Warm, peaceful, creative, active, gentle, colorful, productive, protective are some of the adjectives used to describe the daily, weekly, and seasonal routines of cooking, gardening, building, sewing, storytelling, puppetry, fingerplays, festivals, singing, and joyous unstructured play that takes place in a Waldorf Kindergarten.

And yet, for many families wanting the very best for their children, the idea that this kind of kindergarten has anything to do with “real life” is ridiculous, despite the popularity of popular books like All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.

After all, what does playing in kindergarten have to do with the Sciences, with Mathematics, with History, with Engineering, with passing the SAT, with getting a job? As it turns out, practically everything!

Alliance for Childhood, an international advocacy group for children, lists scores of research, studies, and articles describing how free, unstructured play instills curiosity, problem-solving, imagination, as well as developing the sensorimotor skills in the body that build the neurology of the brain.

In most of these mainstream articles, from Scientific American to the New York Times to the Harvard Education Newsletter, you will find the term: “executive function.”

What is that? In healthy, unstructured, creative play, particularly outdoors, the young child’s make-believe talking to himself or herself is an essential ingredient for practicing and developing what scientists and psychologists call “self-talk.” Turns out that self-talk helps a child to develop skills needed for school, for jobs, and for healthy relationships:

  • Impulse control
  • Self-regulating emotions
  • Paying attention
  • Accepting responsibility
  • Surmounting obstacles
  • Mastering cognitive skills

This self-talk that takes place ONLY IN PLAY is the basic component of executive function. The bottom line is that executive function is a better predictor of school success than IQ! Furthermore, the more structured the play (as in leagues and lessons), the less self-talk, and the less structured the play, the more self-talk!

Play, movement, nature experiences, and the childhood stories that are the pillars of a Waldorf Kindergarten provide the foundational inner skills needed for problem solving, critical thinking, and healthy communication needed to succeed in academics at school and in life as adults.

It is not an anomaly that the Waldorf Middle School curriculum includes a science, math, arts, and humanities curriculum that is rigorous, precise, beautiful, and creative. The play of the Waldorf Kindergarten began preparing the children for academics years before!

– Written by Cristina Drews, originally printed in the October 2013 issue of the Phoenix Flyer.

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