in Steiner/Waldorf Early Childhood Education

Renate Long-Breipohl, with photographs by Paulene Hanna and Sandra Busch, published by the Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America

Supporting Self-directed Play, recently published by WECAN, arose out of two concerns. One is the disappearance of play in many countries around the world. The other concern is the danger of self-directed play disappearing in the practice of Steiner/Waldorf early childhood education.  A quiet shift is taking place in Steiner/Waldorf early childhood practice away from a cornerstone of this work, the self-directed and open-ended play, towards more time spent in playful, outcome-oriented activities.
The book originated in Australia as part of a three-year cooperative working that took place from 2006 to 2009 between Renate Long-Breipohl and teachers on the theme of self-directed play, called “The Play Project.”

The Current Situation of Children’s Play
Child-initiated, self-directed play is disappearing fast from early childhood all over the world. One or two generations ago many children still lived in country or suburban areas where they were able to play outside, away from the watchful eye of parents or teachers. They directed their play themselves, exploring, seeking out hiding places, collecting treasures and thus being immersed into their own world.
Today, many educators observe not only the disappearance of play from the early childhood curriculum in public and state schools, but also an increasing inability in young children to self-initiate play and to sustain it, if they are given the opportunity to do so.

In 2009 the Alliance for Childhood published a research report on play, Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why children need to play in school. The report is based on nine recent studies of the state of play in a number of American kindergartens in different states and social situations. The studies showed that play “is now a minor activity, if not completely eliminated in the kindergartens assessed.” Two to three hours is spent each day in literacy, math, and test preparation, and children have 30 minutes or less each day for play or “choice time.” Teachers mentioned that it is a major hindrance that play isn’t incorporated into the curriculum. Many classroom activities that adults describe as play are in fact highly teacher-directed and involve little or no imagination or creativity on the part of children.

Crisis in the Kindergarten and other recent recommendations on play by pediatricians raises the question: what is meant by the terms free play, child-driven play, child-initiated play and self-directed play? Similarly, what is meant by adult-directed play, play-based learning, adult-initiated activities and structured learning?
How much should the teacher lead? Is it the child who initiates play and is it the role of the teacher to enter into play situations with suggestions for extending play? Or is it the intention that the child directs his own play process from the beginning to the end without intervention by the teacher? In this case, would the teacher’s guidance of learning activities relate to other activities during the day, which then would be directed more toward the group of children, such as storytelling, or domestic and craft activities?
The answer to those questions will be different for Waldorf early education environments than for other approaches. In Waldorf early education there is a clear separation between self-directed play and the work of the teacher on the other, in which children may join. In Supporting Self-directed Play the “play research” undertaken relates entirely to the time (at least 60 to 90 minutes indoors and 60 minutes outdoors per day) in which children are the “masters” in directing their own play, while the teacher has the role of preparing the environment and safeguarding the space and time for play, but not getting involved (unless a situation requires intervention for the purpose of safeguarding play and protecting children.
Rudolf Steiner on the play of the child
A century ago Rudolf Steiner pointed to the importance of self-initiated play for young children, especially between the third and sixth year of life, and he warned of the consequences of replacing the child’s self-directed play with activities which are planned according to programs and pedagogical intentions held by adults. His reasons for suggesting non-interference of the adult in respect to child-initiated play are based on a deepening of the understanding of play in relation to three fundamental areas:
  • The nature of play in early childhood as distinct from the play of older children
  • The role of play in the development of the child
  • The role of play in the biography of the human being
The urge to play appears in young children up to the age of five with such elemental force that one can compare it to the natural necessities of eating and sleeping. Rudolf Steiner likens the urge to play to the flow of a river, to the water’s continuous moving along in the river bed. What happens in play in not premeditated but occurs out of the spur of the moment with a great deal of willpower. The release of will through the play action is a source of joy for the child, a joy not linked to the achievement of a specific purpose. Turning to the role of play in the biography of the human being, he says:
The urge to play, the particular way in which a child plays, disappears and sinks below the surface of life. Then it resurfaces, but as something different, as the skill to adapt to life. There is an inner coherence in life throughout all its stages. We need to know this in order to teach children in the right way.
The child has a spiritual-soul activity that, in a certain sense, still hovers lightly, etherically over the child. (That is, the spirit-soul being of the child is not yet fully incarnated.) It is active in play in much the same way that dreams are active throughout the entire life. In children, however, this activity occurs not simply in dreams, it occurs also in play, which develops in external reality. What thus develops in external reality subsides in a certain sense. In just the same way that the seed-forming forces of a plant subside in the leaf and flower petal and only reappear in the fruit, what a child uses in play also only reappears at about the age of twenty-one or twenty-two, as independent reasoning in gathering experiences in life.

Play reveals its greatest importance for the human biography, in that self-directed play is a practice for and a foreshadowing of taking responsibility for one’s own life. Steiner was one of the first who spiritually discovered and publicly spoke about play as a spiritual activity and about the benefits of play for the later life as an adult.
What should educators do to guide children’s play?
  • Follow the child’s lead
  • Make an effort to understand children’s play as an expression of their individuality
  • Not intervene unless there is a risk or danger for the child or other children
  • Be active workers and become models for skill and devotion in their work
  • Trust

What is revealed in self-directed play and Types of self-directed play

The two lengthiest chapters of the book are devoted to the fruits of the research from the “Play Project.” Play is an activity in which the child relates to the outer and inner world and experiences different qualities of life on earth. There are six types of play:
  • Play in which the child actively explores the environment and forms mental representations of this world which are later linked to concepts.
  • Play that specifically develops the coordination and dexterity of the limbs and the mastery of the body.
  • Play in which the child reproduces the roles and events of everyday life and in replaying social experiences builds an understanding of the social world.
  • Play in which the child expresses inner experiences and works through trauma.
  • Play in which the child enters the world of images and archetypes, which are the heritage of humanity, and reproduces those images in playing out stories or producing pictures related to long times past.
  • Play in which the child creates something new, actively changing the given.
Being a Play Facilitator
The final chapter contains a summary of what senior Waldorf early childhood educators shared about their understanding of play and what they have experienced in facilitating self-directed play. There are also many practical indications about setting up the environment, indoors and outdoors, for self-directed play.

Supporting Self-directed Play is a highly-recommended book for anyone working with early childhood education.

Details about ordering the book here.

The drawings that accompany the review are from Sophia Project in CA which has been serving the West Oakland community since 2000 by providing many services to mothers and children in crisis and life transition. Sophia Project is a WECAN member and a Camphill Association affiliate.


"Beavers" by Henning Kullak-Ublick from


Erika Christakis, MEd, MPH, is an early childhood teacher and former preschool director. Nicholas Christakis, MD, PhD, is a professor of medicine and sociology at Harvard University. Together, they serve as Masters of Pforzheimer House, one of the undergraduate residential houses at Harvard College.

Every day where we work, we see our young students struggling with the transition from home to school. They're all wonderful kids, but some can't share easily or listen in a group.

Some have impulse control problems and have trouble keeping their hands to themselves; others don't always see that actions have consequences; a few suffer terribly from separation anxiety.

We're not talking about preschool children. These are Harvard undergraduate students whom we teach and advise. They all know how to work, but some of them haven't learned how to play.

Parents, educators, psychologists, neuroscientists, and politicians generally fall into one of two camps when it comes to preparing very young children for school: play-based or skills-based.

These two kinds of curricula are often pitted against one another as a zero-sum game: If you want to protect your daughter's childhood, so the argument goes, choose a play-based program; but if you want her to get into Harvard, you'd better make sure you're brushing up on the ABC flashcards every night before bed.

We think it is quite the reverse. Or, in any case, if you want your child to succeed in college, the play-based curriculum is the way to go.

In fact, we wonder why play is not encouraged in educational periods later in the developmental life of young people -- giving kids more practice as they get closer to the ages of our students.

Why do this? One of the best predictors of school success is the ability to control impulses. Children who can control their impulse to be the center of the universe, and -- relatedly -- who can assume the perspective of another person, are better equipped to learn.

Psychologists calls this the "theory of mind": the ability to recognize that our own ideas, beliefs, and desires are distinct from those of the people around us. When a four-year-old destroys someone's carefully constructed block castle or a 20-year-old belligerently monopolizes the class discussion on a routine basis, we might conclude that they are unaware of the feelings of the people around them.

The beauty of a play-based curriculum is that very young children can routinely observe and learn from others' emotions and experiences. Skills-based curricula, on the other hand, are sometimes derisively known as "drill and kill" programs because most teachers understand that young children can't learn meaningfully in the social isolation required for such an approach.

How do these approaches look different in a classroom? Preschoolers in both kinds of programs might learn about hibernating squirrels, for example, but in the skills-based program, the child could be asked to fill out a worksheet, counting (or guessing) the number of nuts in a basket and coloring the squirrel's fur.

In a play-based curriculum, by contrast, a child might hear stories about squirrels and be asked why a squirrel accumulates nuts or has fur. The child might then collaborate with peers in the construction of a squirrel habitat, learning not only about number sense, measurement, and other principles needed for engineering, but also about how to listen to, and express, ideas.

The child filling out the worksheet is engaged in a more one-dimensional task, but the child in the play-based program interacts meaningfully with peers, materials, and ideas.

Programs centered around constructive, teacher-moderated play are very effective. For instance, one randomized, controlled trial had 4- and 5-year-olds engage in make-believe play with adults and found substantial and durable gains in the ability of children to show self-control and to delay gratification. Countless other studies support the association between dramatic play and self-regulation.

Through play, children learn to take turns, delay gratification, negotiate conflicts, solve problems, share goals, acquire flexibility, and live with disappointment. By allowing children to imagine walking in another person's shoes, imaginative play also seeds the development of empathy, a key ingredient for intellectual and social-emotional success.

The real "readiness" skills that make for an academically successful kindergartener or college student have as much to do with emotional intelligence as they do with academic preparation. Kindergartners need to know not just sight words and lower case letters, but how to search for meaning. The same is true of 18-year-olds.

As admissions officers at selective colleges like to say, an entire freshman class could be filled with students with perfect grades and test scores. But academic achievement in college requires readiness skills that transcend mere book learning. It requires the ability to engage actively with people and ideas. In short, it requires a deep connection with the world.

For a five year-old, this connection begins and ends with the creating, questioning, imitating, dreaming, and sharing that characterize play. When we deny young children play, we are denying them the right to understand the world. By the time they get to college, we will have denied them the opportunity to fix the world too.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Erika and Nicholas Christakis. This article originally appeared on CNN. To view the article at source, click here.

The Waldorf Book of Poetry is still available at a pre-publication price of $25, including shipping in the US.

Salutation to the Dawn

Look to this day:
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course
Lie all the verities and realities of your existence.
The bliss of growth,
The glory of action,
The splendor of achievement
Are but experiences of time.

For yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision;
And today well-lived, makes
Yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well therefore to this day;
Such is the salutation to the ever-new dawn!

"Salutation to the Dawn" appears in the Inspiration chapter of The Waldorf Book of Poetry, a collection of over 425 poems.

Click here to learn more about The Waldorf Book of Poetry and the special pre-publication discount.

Forwarding the newsletter

Don't forget to forward this week's newsletter by clicking on the rainbow star.


The Stella Natura Biodynamic Calendar: our featured sponsor this week

Our sponsors at make everything we do possible.

The Stella Natura 2011 Biodynamic Planting Calendar is "inspirational and practical advice for home gardeners and professional growers."

The Calendar has many aspects: a basic introduction to astronomy, a simple ephemeris, a planting guide, a star map, aid for following the movement of the planets in the night sky, and articles by ten different authors. All of these attempt to provide a true picture of the world outside us and ideas to assist in developing a healthy relation to that world.

A portion of the sales from each calendar supports the work of Camphill Village


Music for May Day
"Handkerchief Dance" for three recorder voices (or easily adaptable for one or two).

Just click here for a pdf copy of "Handkerchief Dance" sheet music for three recorders

"Handkerchief Dance" is from "The Trio Recorder Book 2" published by Magnamusic.  It's a book of trio arrangements from around the world.  The pieces were selected for their wide appeal to recorder players of all ages and abilities. The individual parts are of equal interest and difficulty for the players, and offer an excellent opportunity for the performers to be exposed to entertaining, as well as challenging ensemble material.

To listen to "Handkerchief Dance" recorded last year at the now historic "Waldorf Sessions", just click on the Cotswold Morris Dancers or click here.

In addition to being able to hear the tune played on the recorder, you'll also see lots of "Handkerchief - dancing" men and women.

Job openings and job seekers from the past week:

See the new job listings as well as the job seekers that posted this week.

Love's other name: Discipline
17th Annual Gateways, A conference for Parents & Educators of Young Children
April 15-16 in Toronto

Featuring keynote lectures by Sharifa Oppenheimer and 22 hands-on workshops.

Is the hurry and rush of the twenty-first century eroding the quality of your family╩╝s life?

How can you possibly balance your work life, home chores and quality time with your family, as well as squeeze in a little personal space?

When your children show you, in their misbehaviour, that things are out of balance, does guilt keep you from disciplining?

Learn more about the conference

Anthroposophic approaches to therapies and nutrition
A Weekend Intensive Workshop from the True Botanica Foundation
April 29-May 1, 2011 in Mukwonago, WI (near Milwaukee)

Workshop topics:

  • New formulas with berberine, ginseng, iris, rhythmically prepared metals, and more
  • Women's health concerns
  • Pediatric Care and Cases
  • Topical applications
  • Presentations on anthroposophic processes:  what is the Cinis and Pentas process; the role of alcohol; quality control through chromatography
  • How significant are the sidereal star charts in the manufacture of anthroposophic remedies and supplements?
  • Ample time to clarify usage, dosage and relevance of remedies and supplements in specific cases
  • Esoteric aspects, meditative work and history of anthroposophic medicine
Conference details here.

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