When a Waldorf teacher looks at a 6-year-old child to determine if he is ready for first grade, age cut-off is only the beginning. The teacher must consider physical, social/emotional, and intellectual development, all of which point to a fundamental shift in consciousness from the kindergarten child. Rudolf Steiner, founder of Waldorf Education, says that a whole new aspect of the individuality is born around the age of six or seven. This new birth is not as clear-cut as the physical birth of the child, but it is the underlying reality for the many changes that are now visible. It is this transformative change occurring around the traditional age for entering school, which enables a child to take up academic work in a new way. Our task as parents and educators is to recognize the outer signs of this very subtle inner process.
Waldorf education acknowledges that the physical body comes to a certain stage of completion at this time. Those forces, which have been used for physical maturation, now become available for academic work. Signs that this physical process is complete include: noticeable lengthening of arms and legs, individualized facial features replacing baby features, visible knuckles on the hand and kneecaps instead of dimples, the arch in the foot becomes apparent, and the losing of baby teeth.
Complementing these physical changes is a variety of new abilities. A school ready child will be able to do most of the following: habitually walk in a cross pattern, climb stairs with alternating feet on each stair, catch and throw a large ball, hop in either foot, bunny hop, tie knots, button and zip own clothing, sew, play finger games, etc. Children develop these physical capacities through movement, thus allowing the brain to ready itself for “higher” intellectual functioning.
In the child’s emotional and mental life we are seeing only the beginning now. The school ready child is developing a feeling for others’ needs. Previously, strong feelings were triggered from the outside and rarely lasted long. Now the child becomes aware of an inner space where feelings live.
The child’s play becomes goal oriented now. For example; he can plan out how he will build his playhouse, thinking through what materials he will need. Once built, a school ready child would enter this house and can visualize the play rather than having to gather materials to ‘play it out’. This shows a separation of concept from percept-an important distinction for the introduction of academic work.
One also looks for other social/emotional abilities including: the ability to care for one’s physical needs (dressing, washing, toileting), ability to share the teacher’s attention and wait for a turn, to follow instructions and complete them, a willingness to join in the offered activities and not be dependent on a security item (thumb, blanket, etc.).
The development of causal thinking begins to show in the school ready child through the use of words like “if” and “because” in their speech. For example, a child may say, “If I tie these ropes together, I can make horse reins.” Likewise, the wish to tie things together reflects the process of connecting thoughts-an ability which arises with causal thinking.
Memory will become more conscious with the school ready child, with the ability to repeat stories and songs accurately. Additionally, a first grade ready child should speak fluently and clearly, expressing ideas easily and with proper verb tenses. At this stage, a child enjoys humor, rhymes, limericks and making up or repeating simple riddles. The child begins to naturally respect the teacher as the authority, which is necessary to the grade school years.
Parents with a child born in late spring or summer must be open to the possibility their child will not be ready for first grade at age 6. Only one third of young 6 year olds have sufficient maturity to fully benefit from academic instruction. An early placement may manifest in the primary grades as lack of stamina and concentration, and by the end of third grade, these children will often be left behind socially with fewer opportunities to display leadership.
When to begin first grade has enormous impact on a child’s entire school career. If parents and teachers can truly respect the child’s timetable, we are well on our way to the answer.
The indications listed above come from the observations of numerous Waldorf teachers and are compiled by Nancy Foster in her article “Some Guidelines for First Grade Readiness,” and by the contributions of Randi Stein, Waldorf Educator.
The Waldorf View – White Mountain Waldorf School