Discretionary Playtime Needed!
by Barbara Dewey
Founder, Waldorf Without Walls
Especially in summer!
Do you remember the hazy, lazy days of summer from your childhood? I do! Fondly!
Most children in the U.S. today spend most of their waking hours in activities conceived and presented by adults (school, running to one or another adult-directed lesson or sport, or watching the media). In addition, the child is considered to be wasting her time if she is not absorbing information from adults, talking toys or media. A great amount of this "information" is to correct the child's imperfect understanding of the world in the light of modern scientific knowledge.
Steiner points out in his lecture, "Interests, Talent and Education," ( in The Education of the Child and Early Lectures in Education, Anthroposophic Press, 1996) that play is the means "of enabling children to work on changing, modifying and mobilizing what lives in their spirit-soul, thus providing free space for the development of human nature."
Most of you are aware of the play atmosphere of the Waldorf Kindergarten. Some amount of that kind of free play needs to continue throughout childhood (really throughout life!) with some adjustments as the child develops. Steiner says, "We must create a balance that is possible only when we are in a position to do things at a particular time that the outer world does not require and to be satisfied with the activity itself. Human nature meets that need through playing." (op. cit., emphasis mine)
A good amount of time is needed by the child to get into the mood and create the play activity. It is not likely to happen in the 10 minutes between the time she gets home from piano lesson and dinner is served. And it will not happen at all of she is free to turn on the TV power switch whenever she wants.
Learning is not a linear process.
Learning is not a linear process. It happens when it happens: in a moment of inspiration, while looking at a flower, digging in the garden, diverting a stream, humming to oneself, scrubbing a floor, washing the dishes, cutting up vegetables, etc. While unschooling is not a choice for many parents as a sole method of education, I think the movement has a lot to offer the Waldorf inspired parent in the area of following a child's interest in setting up an age appropriate environment for free play. Free play does not mean cutting the child loose from the parent. It means that you as a parent are present, doing your own work, but available to help when needed with supplies, encouragement and appreciation. You set a creative example in your own life which the child will imitate.
Be ready to learn a new skill with your child. When my youngest son was in third grade, he got very interested in bees and wanted a beehive. So we went to the library, got out some books, called a local beekeeper, bought a build it yourself beehive kit, and ordered some bees through the mail. I enjoyed it so much that I still kept bees 25 years later!
When they were about 9 and 11 my two older sons and their friends, started digging a hole in our back yard, which was at the top of a hill. They dug down about 8 feet, with my husband shoring up the sides with them each night. One night at dinner, they asked their dad if it wouldn't be possible to dig a tunnel in from the side of the hill to meet the vertical hole they had dug. He said yes, it was possible, but it would involve a lot of measuring, figuring, and then a lot more digging and shoring up.
They decided they wanted to do it. He helped them do the figuring and we set some safety rules: no digging alone, one person had to be outside the opening of the tunnel any time anyone was digging, every foot of tunnel had to be supported with beams before proceeding any further. We thought they would get tired of it in about two days, but the tunnel became a neighborhood kids project and they dug all that summer and all the next summer, completing the tunnel just before school started! I will never forget the look on all their smudgy faces when they finally broke through!
Some suggestions to set up an environment for the school age child:
- Workbench with scraps of wood and simple hand tools: hammer, saw, miter box, screwdriver, hand crank drill, screws, nails and miscellaneous hardware
- Sewing basket with needles, thread, sharp scissors (Fiskars for kids), and fabric.
- Dress-up basket of large cotton cloths, smaller silks and including fancy things like lace and ribbons
- Handmade standing puppets: king, queen, prince and princess
- Baskets of cotton and wool yarn and string.
- Crayons, paper scissors, glue, cardboard, and boxes of various sizes
- Beads of various sizes
- Set up a nature table and change it with the seasons with your child's help
- A hoop to roll, balance beam, jump-ropes, sand box, rocks and stumps, a place to dig and some shovels.
Keep all these things in an organized way, a place for everything and everything in its place. Always warn your child of cleanup time about ten minutes before it is actually time to clean up so she can finish what she is doing. Then leave time for you to actually help her clean up and put things in their places. This teaches organization and reverence for things. By planning ahead a little, you are showing an example and avoiding the cleanup nagging that can ruin a wondrous playtime.
Give your child free playtime and you will give her the gift of a real childhood.