Passive Learning

A concern that many people express is about children who do not seem to want to engage in play or who prefer to stand aside and to watch. As our society values a “get ahead” and assertive attitude toward life above all, parents with a child who does not embody these characteristics often worry. Is there something wrong? Why won’t he join in?
As so often in the various things I write, I put the blame for this confusion squarely on our modern Western cultural norms which have inappropriately invaded childhood and which cause so many people to have  a poor understanding of the nature of childhood. And of course, as so many people become parents without actually having the chance to really observe and be with young children, the confusion is perpetuated by the myriad of “experts” who create milestones and expectation charts which basically say that if your child ain’t a leader, he ain’t gonna succeed.
(Of course we could digress into a lengthy exploration of what the parameters of success might be to those who hold this view – but that would take us too far away from the point I’m trying to make).
And that point is this: that all children learn, to some extent, passively and for some children, this is the main way that they internalize the world.
Let me define terms: by passive I mean outwardly inactive. Indeed, in a situation where a child might seem to be doing nothing, he might actually be extremely active. But his activity is an inner activity.
One of the things which drew me powerfully to an appreciation of attachment parenting was the idea of the passive baby. Jean Liedloff, on whose work much of AP is based, saw clearly that the babies strapped to the backs of native peoples learned an enormous amount in that seemingly passive position. Their bodies learned invaluable amounts about balance, movement, and rhythm. The children learned about their mothers’ work, their siblings play and the customs and habits of their people by witnessing what happened around them and by absorbing, via their mother’s very being, everyday life.
From a Waldorf point of view, with the aid of knowledge of the Madonna’s Cloak, an etheric link between the mother and her child, we can bring an even deeper appreciation to understanding the importance of passive learning. Because of this link, the tiny child learns primarily via his mother, via her experiences, her feelings, her thoughts. There is no barrier between a mother and a very young child.  Waldorf then teaches us about the primacy of imitation which starts sometime after 3, reaches a peak around 5 and fades after 7 or 8. By 9, as the child reaches the 9 year change and separates more fully from his parents and teachers or other adults, this faculty fades. Whether we choose to cultivate it or not, all young children learn via imitation. What we would like him to learn and experience causes us to take great care with his surroundings and who the people are around him.The child imitates all that she sees with no discernment, internalizing her environment.
And here is the paradox: such passive learning is in fact extremely active. We know that young children especially (and all children) need to learn actively and to involve their bodies. This can take the form of hopping, clapping and all the rhythmical games and exercises which work so powerfully on the physical being of young children. But when we give the children the right story material to work with, we also engage them actively – even if they are sitting, seemingly passive. The right stories told or read at the right time work on the child’s soul – and this is a crucial part of real learning, learning that actively engages the whole human being. Children who receive such lessons work actively with them and their bodies can respond as well as if they had spent the lesson climbing a tree!
Indeed, Steiner often said that the most important part of learning is that which takes place during sleep. This is the time when children take the lessons they have received during the day into the spiritual worlds (or into their subconscious of you prefer!) and actively – on a soul level – work with them. What they give back to the teacher and then work with artistically the next day is that much richer.
I should also say that passive learning in groups of mixed age children is the natural way for children to learn. In parts of the world where children still know how to play, much of group play involves a lot of standing around talking. Negotiating, planning, brainstorming and excited what if scenarios form much of children’s play. And who is doing the talking? The older children – usually those over 9 years old. The younger ones may participate to some extent – but for the most part, they stand around and listen and watch. They are learning an enormous amount about how to be a child – and how to be a human being.
So the next time someone says your child should “join in” or you feel worried because you see her spending more time watching play than engaging in play, think about how children learn. American “go get ’em” attitudes are not the only way to be in this world.

Posted on April 17, 2007 in Children and Society, Family Life and Parenting, Play

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