Is She Ready to Read or Not?
Something that is very important to ponder is the difference between teaching a child who is not ready for something and allowing a strong impulse in a child to unfold. I would hope that no parent who is interested in the healing benefits of Waldorf education would ever teach their tiny child how to read or write – but equally, would also hope that if they had a small one with an overwhelming desire to read that they would never prevent it. By that I mean take away books or pencils or say “no”.
However, the danger that I often see with parents is the assumption that once a child shows an interest in something like writing that the parent assumes a certain progression and that “this is it – she is starting to read”. If a 3 or 4 year old show interest in reading, it may well be that they want to spell their names or the names of people significant to them. They might want to read signs and the writing on a cereal box. But this does not mean that it’s time to teach them their letters or to get out the readers! My almost 25 years experience with children in many different realms tells me that they do not, by and large, learn in a linear fashion. Learning takes place in cycles and in fits and starts -the elegance of homeschooling is that we can recognize these patterns and adjust our expectations to them. Then homeschooling becomes a case of shaping the curriculum to fit the child – and not the other way around.
Many, many tiny children go through a phase of wanting to read and/or write. If the parent remains neutral about it – giving them paper or spelling out words for them or writing things for them ONLY AS THEY REQUEST!! – then most children are satisfied and for a great many of them, the phase passes. Some might return to an interest when the parent introduces academic work in first grade. Others might take a few more years to become interested again.
And, of course, there are a number of children who teach themselves to read at 4 or 5. That’s fine, too. Again, I would just leave it – neither encouraging nor discouraging. If this reading carries on I would still – perhaps especially! – recommend that one continue with a kindergarten routine – that no formal teaching or formal reading time be part of the kindergarten routine. If the child reads on her own – that’s fine. She will need the support of the extra emphasis on nurturing her senses, strengthening her physical organism by powerful rhythms in the home environment and making sure that her head is not simply leading her body along. What one does not want is a child that burns out.
And that is the danger. It is not simply because Steiner said these things because he felt like it. He observed the effect of intellectual head-orientated work on the physical organism of the child and based his recommendations on that. He saw that the child until about 6 1/2 is busy making up his own physical form and “coming into” (incarnating for those of you who can deal with that term) his body and needed his life energy as it were ( the etheric forces that Steiner talks about) to be free to build a healthy vessel for the soul and for the later intellectual powers to enfold.
And we can see the effect of early intellectualism all around us – overstimulated, choice-burdened, early taught children who burn out at 9 or 10 and refuse to read, refuse to go to school, are put on medication, become apathetic or hyper…. the list goes on and on.
So I would say it’s not a matter of “imposing” something on a child – no more than I think of it as imposing on my child that they can’t eat too much sugar or that they can’t run out into the traffic. Sometimes as parents we need, out of our experience and knowledge, to oppose something our child might seem to be interested in. Or – and I would say this is more often the case – intuit into what he is expressing, hear behind his words or actions and help meet his needs in a developmentally appropriate way. So much about learning to be a part of this world, of growing up has to do with health. For me this is the greatest power of Waldorf education – a way to understand the child and to enfold him in a way of parenting and educating that enhances his potential to be healthy – in mind, body and spirit.
I write in great length about this in my language arts book for those who are interested. Many of the audio downloads have a lot about these issues as well within a larger discussion of, for instance, kindergarten or first grade.