Can Energetic Boys Enjoy Handwork?

How does Waldorf education regard “boy energy” in relation to the emphasis on crafts and fine motor skills, given that boys typically have less interest than girls in these?

When the first Waldorf School opened in Germany in 1919, it was considered that boys and girls were to share classes as well as all aspects of the curriculum. It is still the case that the Waldorf curriculum is the same for both sexes from pre-school to high school, boys and girls learn to knit and sew, do woodwork and bookbinding, sculpt in clay and stone, garden, play a musical instrument, participate in eurythmy and spatial dynamics, and even, in some schools, learn blacksmithing, as well as taking up the usual academic subjects. In pre-school, both boys and girls have the opportunity to play, sing, bake, paint and draw, learn to fingerknit and sew, work with wood, use scissors and glue, hear and tell stories, garden, and so on.

Contemporary brain research confirms what has long been known to Waldorf educators, thanks to Rudolf Steiner’s insights: the child’s physical organism is uctually shaped by the activities and movements engaged by the young child. The brain and neurological system are elaborated and equipped for later intellectual learning, and the integration of the sensory organism lays the basis for the ability to function as a balance individual. It is therefor essential that every child have ample opportunities for both large and small muscle activity, and this is what we provide in Waldorf education. Clearly, the activity must be age-appropriate, and we take care that all activities in the pre-school are in proportion to the whole, within a rhythm of in-breathing (more focused activity) and out-breathing (more active, free-flowing times).

What is “boy energy?” At a recent parent evening, the topic of gun play arose, and a number of parents commented on their observation that this seems to be almost exclusively a boy activity. While we can surely all agree that boys and girls are equal value as individuals, those of us who spend time with young children are unlikely to assert that they are the same in terms of their play. Given the fact that every child is unique, with his or her own particular temperament, constitution, preferences, personality – however one wishes to characterize such qualities – it is still possible to notice gender differences. Perhaps we could generalize by saying that boys tend to be more expansive and energetic in their play than girls, on the whole – again, always leaving room for individual differences. Some call this “boy energy”, and it is true that some boys will prefer active, large muscle play to fine-motor activities such as craft and handwork. We know also that at this age boys are generally six months “behind” girls developmentally. Thus fine motor skills may be more difficult for them. It is important for both girls and boys to be able to engage in, and enjoy, both kinds of activities, and we try to work towards this goal without forcing children. The younger child, the more free we leave him or her to play in his or her own “style”. As the child approached Class 1, we feel it is imporatnat to make sure that the child has a chance to develop the capacities that will be called in the class. We thus encourage the child’s participation in activities which are developmentally appropriate (for example, jumping rope outdoors, and sewing or painting indoors) which will help in the child’s growth, forming the basis for class school experiences.

I have wonderful memories, from my years as a teacher of mixed-age Kindergarten, of hearty, vigorous boys who were able to focus that energy and enthusiasm for a shorter or longer period of time on a craft or handwork activity. They cut out stars in their lanterns, dressed wooden “pirates” to sail on wooden ships they had made, took great pleasure in their developing control of paint colours, embroided treasure bags – and were just as wholehearted in the construction of space ships, racing vehicles, and yes, “traps for bad guys”.  In a Waldorf pre-school, our aim is not to suppress boy energy, but to meet it with warmth and energy of our own, helping the boys to channel their energy into constructive activity of many kinds.

Nancy Foster, from in a Nutshell, Dialogues with Parents at Acorn Hill, A Waldorf Kindergarten