“My son can say and recognize all his ABCs – and he’s only two!”
“My daughter could read before she even went to kindergarten.”
“My child is four and he knows his multiplication tables to twelves.”
… Well, my child is six and only recognizes the letters in her name. She sort-of-kind-of writes her name and the the number 6 – since that is how old she is . . . and I couldn’t be happier about it. But then again, she’s my fifth – and to be perfectly honest, I worried endlessly that my first two wouldn’t be as smart or weren’t doing all the things the other kids in the sand box did.
Nothing strikes more fear in a parent’s heart than thinking her child is not quite “up to par.” Thus, “delayed academics” strikes terror in most homeschooler . . . at least in the United States of America. And to be perfectly honest, if you choose this route, you are going against the social norm and it is a bit scary. So let’s take a look at the educational philosophy of “delayed academics” and see why it just may be worth bucking the current system.
What is delayed academics? Delayed Academics is the philosophy that symbolic learning (reading, writing, and arithmetic) should not be taught to young children. In Waldorf the general rule is that these things are best taught after a child has had seven Easters – more often than not, that means a seven year old.
“Delayed academics” was not delayed at the time Rudolf Steiner introduced Waldorf – it was the norm in the late 1800s and all through the 20th Century to start teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic to children at the age of six or seven. It is also not “delayed” in Europe in 2017 (which overall ranks higher than the US in Education.) Most of Europe has play based early education, and reading is taught around the age of seven. It has only been in the last ten years, in the United States of America, that preschoolers are expected to know and recognize all their letters and kindergartners are taught to read.
Why delay academics? Basic understanding of child development.
- Brain Development.
- Bilateral Integration. Each section in our brain does different things. For some tasks the different sections must interact with each other to do the task efficiently. For example, in reading – one part of the brain deciphers phonics and another part creates mental pictures which help one to comprehend what the phonics means. If these two sections are not communicating well a child can learn to read and not comprehend, or what happens even more often is that a child learns to read but gets stuck in 4th or 5th grade when the reading becomes more difficult. Most children’s brain sections begin to interact with each other sometime during the sixth year of life.
- Symbolic Language. Children under the age of seven do not think symbolically, but concretely. So although they can memorize letters and numbers and phonics, they can not truly understand them.
- Physical Development
- Visual Tracking. Children must be able to track letters on a page with their eyes in order to read clearly. This tracking occurs naturally around the age of six. Children who are encouraged to read before this tracking has developed will struggle with learning and often develop learning challenges.
- Proprioceptive System. Academic learning involves sitting still, listening, and paying attention. In order for a child to sit still, pay attention, and visually remember shapes of letters and numbers, he must first develop his proprioceptive system – or his sense of body in space, the relationship between the body and the brain. This is usually fully developed at seven or eight in most children, though sometimes a little younger for girls. Problems in the proprioceptive system have learning challenges like ADHD, dyslexia, and nonverbal learning disabilities.
- Lack of Stress.
Amazingly, there are more and more children in early elementary who are experiencing stress and stress related illnesses. Many researchers are attributing it to expectations – especially academic. Small children are being asked to read and write before their bodies and brains are physically ready to do so – is it any wonder they are stressed?
- Best Policy
In a 2012 Study done in the US comparing students in a Waldorf school to those in a public education, the study found that children in a Waldorf 2nd and 3rd grades had lower test scores than their counterparts, but in 7th and 8th grade the Waldorf student had far surpassed those of public school. A New Zealand study found the same – that by the age of 10 the Waldorf students had caught up with the early learners and then they surpassed them.
From my own personal family, I have not seen any difference in academic ability of a child because of the age they learned to read. I have one child who taught himself to read at the age of 3, one learned to read at 6 and 7 and one that didn’t learn until 10. By the age of 12 – they were all reading the same books!
In my countless hours of research, I have yet to read of a solid study or article that shows any academic advantage for children who read, write, or do arithmetic before first grade.
To be perfectly honest – this science was not available when Rudolf Steiner developed his theory of education. He wrote Waldorf education after years of observation and study of children. The science just proves what he observed to be true.
So do I just let my kids run wild until they are 7?
No. “Delayed Academics” does not mean a lack of education. Waldorf is rich in early education, but early education is play based and not academic based.
- Open Ended Play
- Imagination. Blocks become zoos and castles and towers. Silks become super hero caps, princess dresses, and forts to hide under. Albert Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
Problem Solving. How many rocks, how big do the rocks need to be, and where should I put the rocks if I want to cross the creek without touching the water?
- Understanding of Numbers. Numbers are not simply symbolic symbols hanging in the air – they are concrete – the cups of flour we use to make cookies, the number of rocks we line up next to the creek.
- Outside Play
- Bilateral Integration. Skipping, riding a bike, swimming, and climbing a tree all use cross over body movements and alternating sides of our body – which in turn trains the different sides of the brain to communicate with each other.
- Proprioceptive System. Children need to experience their bodies in space – going forward and backward, left and right, jumping up and down – often with some sort of resistance. Therefore great ways to develop the proprioceptive system are to dig with a shovel, pull weeds, and hang from monkey bars.
- Science. Just being in the outdoors – without explanation – exposes children to the attributes of God, seasons, biology, chemistry, the laws of physics – and makes them question why and how God’s creation works.
- Handwork and Art
- Hand-eye coordination. Digging holes in the garden for our seeds, finger knitting, and finger plays all develop hand dexterity and hand-eye coordination.
- Visual Tracking. The eyes naturally follow beautiful water-color paint as it glides gracefully across the wet paper in wet-on-wet painting.
- Linguistically Rich
- Phonics. Singing elongates vowel sounds and stresses consonants.
- Development of Mental Pictures. When a parent-teacher tells a fairy tale (without using a book, movie, or picture) the child creates images in their mind to correlate with the words of the story. This will later transfer to reading comprehension.
- Memory, Vocabulary, Enunciation, Pronunciation, and Foreign Language. Through the recitation and memory of verses, poems, and Bible Scripture in both your native and foreign language – children are learning a love of language itself.
- Learning is Fun. How many five year olds do you know who would rather sit quietly behind a desk and try to decipher letters and numbers on a piece of paper instead of running freely through a field and digging a hole with a stick in the dirt? Case closed.
So how do I know when my child is ready for academics?
- Changes in physical body. Longer limbs, loss of teeth.
- Brain has developed. Can skip, swim, and/or ride a bike.
- Displays maturity in behavior. Can sit still, listens and follows directions.
- Can track visually. Can throw accurately and catch a ball. Eyes can follow your finger without headache or strain.
- Able to retell a story. Retells stories with clear sequence of events and a few details.
- Strong desire to learn to read. A child who has a desire will learn so much faster than one who is forced.
Because it goes against the social norm, it is hard to “hold your child back” and not teach them what other kids their age are learning. You may have to educate (or forward this blog) to extended family, well meaning friends, and your child’s therapist or Sunday School teachers. I encourage you to study, know, and believe for yourself that you are choosing the best educational method possible for your child. This will help you stand your ground when challenged, and give you a peace in your heart that you are doing the right thing – even when it may not seem like it in the face of society.
*Although this blog post is accumulated information from years of personal research and study – the clearest most detailed information on this topic can be found in articles by Susan R. Johnson, M.D., FAAP.
A summary of research done in different studies on Waldorf Education can be found at – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Studies_of_Waldorf_education – and if you are a total research nerd, like me, you can click on many of the studies at the bottom of this page and read them more in detail.