Playing and Thinking

How the Kindergarten Provides a Foundation
for Scientific Understanding

Eugene Schwartz
Sunbridge College

What follows is the best presentation of the pedagogy of the Waldorf kindergarten that we have yet seen. Eugene Schwartz has managed not only to evoke the sights, sounds, and feel of a Waldorf kindergarten, but also to weigh that experience against the developmental outcomes and learning goals we all hold for our children. Through this lens, we can clearly see the sureness of purpose by which a Waldorf kindergarten leads our children toward a sane and productive adulthood. We are certain you will find this article as valuable as we have.

You may contact Eugene at ( e-mail

Bob and Nancy

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How do we educate the child in accordance with principles that ask us to honor and work with the soul and spiritual nature of the youngster? Must teachers be clairvoyant in order to be certain that they are teaching in the proper way? Clairvoyance is needed, but at first we need only the "clairvoyant" faculties that we are always using without being aware that we are using them. For example, a mother can always tell when her child is not feeling well; with some experience, she can usually tell in what way the child is not feeling well. And every teacher knows the "glow" radiated by a child who is healthy and, as we say, "full of life." All of these judgments are based on perceptions of the activities of the child's etheric body, whether we know it or not.

What is essential here is that we are dealing with activities, with processes, rather than with "products." To understand the etheric body is to begin to understand those forces usually termed "creative" in the world and in the human being. Our etheric body is active in a way that our physical body is not. We go through life as physical beings in an inert, "cause and effect" manner. The etheric body works to reverse those effects suffered by the physical body in the course of daily life; it is a body of renewal and regeneration. In relation to the physical body we could also say that the etheric body works as an architect and sculptor. One need only watch children at play in the sandbox or at the seashore to see this sculptural - architectural power unconsciously at work. In later years, some individuals find themselves gifted with a surplus of etheric forces, and are naturally drawn, as architects, to form majestic "bodies" in which thousands of people can worship or live, or, as sculptors, to continue to replicate their bodily form in endless permutations.

In its capacity as the "body of formative forces," the etheric body holds the memory of the form of our physical body, so that we retain a recognizable physical identity throughout our life. In spite of aging and the vicissitudes of life, fingerprints and blood types and certain facets of our body chemistry remain the same, a "signature" of the form-creating and form-maintaining activity of the etheric body. It is this particular aspect of the etheric body which goes through an important transformation after the first seven-year period in life. As the etheric body is released from its intensive and ceaseless work upon the formation of the physical body; as that body's growth (when compared, for example, to its growth in the womb, or in the first three years of life) slows down, etheric forces are "freed" to be utilized as our power of memory.

Rudolf Steiner's description of the etheric formative forces at this time in the child's life is intriguing. The very same forces that "member" us, that place our heart and lungs and liver in relation to one another, that "organ"ize us into a decidedly human form, are now released to re-member, and to "organize" our life of memory. We could say that the forces of memory are at their most powerful in the first seven years of life, but Steiner is at pains to stress that they are not meant to be accessed for the purposes of memorization. In these first years of life, these forces are meant to serve the child's growth, pure and simple. It is certainly possible to divert these forces in order to teach a young child to memorize the alphabet, or to memorize a simple reading vocabulary, or to memorize times tables. Once diverted, however, these etheric forces no longer serve their primary mission, and the membering and organization of the child's body - the foundation for its health and vitality in later years - will be less perfect than if those forces had been allowed to go their own way. It is its recognition of the sacredness of these health-giving, creative forces that live in the child that gives the Waldorf Kindergarten its unique character.

The paradigm of "education" developed by Generation One1 is intellectual and didactic. In this model, the teacher, and, especially in the last few years, the parent as well, is always supposed to be imparting information to the child. Much of this imparting is actually "correcting," adjusting the child's imperfect understanding of the world in the light of modern knowledge, and particularly modern scientific knowledge. This approach is so pervasive as to be almost invisible. How few toys are left that do not profess to be "educational toys"? How much software is sold for young consumers that is not advertised as "educational software"? Parents are encouraged to create environments for even the youngest child in which letters and numbers, abstract geometrical shapes (in mobiles or puzzles) and dolls depicting endangered species of animals will "educate" the child even when an adult is not in the room. The spectre of Generation One, the worship of the one-sided Intellect who whispers that "Knowledge is Power," haunts the kindergarten classroom, the theme park and even the nursery.

The atmosphere of the Waldorf Kindergarten appears, at first, to be devoid any of "educational" accoutrements. The kindergarten teacher Charlotte Comeras describes a typical Waldorf setting:

The room is warm and homelike and the teacher is busy doing one of the many tasks involved in the life of the kindergarten. If there is another adult in the room, he or she also will be occupied with something or other - maybe carding wool to make a puppet, or mending a torn play-cloth. Around the room are baskets filled with pieces of wood, fir cones or large pebbles from the beach. Others are piled high with play-cloths or pieces of muslin in beautiful soft colors, all neatly folded and waiting to become whatever the children need them to be: the roof or wall of the house, the sea, pasture for sheep to graze, a shawl for a baby, or a veil for a queen. The possibilities are limitless. On a shelf stand many puppets: a prince, a farmer and his wife, a child, a wise old woman...They can bring a castle to life or make a farm, re-enact a scene of human activity or be used to tell a story. These are just a few of the many things that the children will see when they come into the kindergarten. 2

Of no less significance than what is in the kindergarten room is what is not in the kindergarten room: there are no "educational toys," (there are very few objects that could be construed as "toys" at all), there are no books, no posters, no bulletin boards, no computers. There is none of the hardware issued by the Industrial-Educational Complex, and there is no software (unless we want to count soft dolls of wool and cotton as "software"). For eyes accustomed to the Generation One model of mainstream education, there is nothing recognizably "educative" about such a space; pedagogically speaking, it would appear to be something of a Black Hole. It is no wonder that a respected independent school headmaster, serving on an accreditation committee that was visiting Green Meadow Waldorf School in New York State, remarked after his initial visit to the kindergarten, "This room is like something out of the nineteenth century!"

Unlike the assertively educational objects and spaces that fill a mainstream kindergarten room, the environs of a Waldorf kindergarten take on meaning only when there are children present who can imbue them with meaning:

...the children will each find their own way in their own time. Some, drawn to the adults and whatever they are doing, will want to do it too, or to help; whilst others, possibly the very youngest, will be happy to watch silently, taking in every detail, every movement. Other children will know exactly what they want to do: build huge suspension bridges with planks, logs and bits of woolen rope, or make a house for themselves, using clothes horses and colored play-cloths. It may take a while for the children to sort themselves out and find their playmates. Sometimes a little unobtrusive adult-guidance is needed to bring this about, but as much as possible the adults carry on with their own work, yet, at the same time being aware of everything going on in the room.3

The "play-cloth," mentioned often by Comeras, is the "archetypal plaything" of the Waldorf kindergarten. This is a large cloth of cotton (or cotton gauze, or sometimes silk) which has been dyed with natural plant colors. Compared to a plastic action figure, it is soft and devoid of form; compared to an "educational" pull-toy, it is immobile, has no parts, and so specific function. The play-cloth is as close to a non-thing as a child can come; it is almost nothing; but, as Faust tells Mephistopheles, "Within that Nothing I will find my All!" Even Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, in discussing choices made by "spirited" children among the predominantly plastic educational toys available in a completely conventional setting, observes that

most spirited kids like toys that allow them to use their imagination. Items such as little toy people, blocks, Legos, Fisher-Price play houses, musical and story tapes, and dress-up clothes are favorites. These are all toys that can be used in many different ways. There isn't one correct answer. Most spirited kids won't look twice at toys that have one "right" way to play with them. This includes puzzles, many board games, cards, and peg boards. If your spirited children enjoy puzzles, watch how they actually use them. In most cases the pieces are being employed as pretend food, space ships, and other inventive creations!4

Following a lecture given to an audience of parents unfamiliar with Waldorf educational ideas, I visited the home of the Williams family. As we sat and talked, little Cynthia Williams a vital and awake two-and-a-half year-old who has already opened her front gate and taken walks (on her own) quite some distance from home, was exploring an even stranger world - that of educational toys. She had come upon a toy composed of several sections of plastic pipe. Each section had a "male" and "female" end, as they say. Cynthia had taken the sections apart and was now attempting to put them back together. For some time, she tried to place two male ends together, undoubtedly perceiving that since they looked alike, they must "belong" together. She tried, and tried, and tried again, but the sections fell apart. Finally she matched a male end to a female end and the sections slid smoothly together. Repeating what she had just learned, Cynthia was able to reassemble the whole pipe; once that task was done, she moved on to something else.

A child psychologist would probably proclaim Cynthia's discovery to be a "developmental step," or "a watershed in growth"; one school of psychology might even assert that she had gained some understanding of human sexuality through her interaction with those male and female endings. But in learning that there is only one way in which to combine those sections of pipe, Cynthia had also accepted a contraction in her realm of possibilities, a cramping of her creative potential. One pipe-fitting does not make for a prison cell, of course, and Cynthia soon found her way to a formless and yielding pile of leaves in which she played happily by the hour. Yet toy after toy, "educational experience" after educational experience slowly but surely teaches the malleable soul of the child, so filled with possibilities, that life is but a series of one-way streets which never converge and have no destination.

The play-cloths and other objects found in the Waldorf kindergarten are deliberately "incomplete" in nature. A lot of room is left for the child's active imagination to "finish" the plaything, but that process of completion is never dictated by the object itself. The etheric forces of the child, engaged in ceaselessly imbuing the child with life, are mobile enough to imbue any object to which the child turns her attention with "life" as well. If the object broadly suggests a human or animal form - and we need think only of the venerable rag dolls and wooden hobby horses of childhood past (they are still to be found in the Waldorf kindergarten!) the child is well able to give the plaything a voice, a personality, moods and appetites.

Toys that are already formed to provide an exact semblance of physical life, e.g., dolls that are "anatomically correct" (a beloved educational tool), whose eyes open and close, whose innards contain synthesized "cries" and "voices," or "action figures" whose hard limbs are encased in futuristic armor, etc., leave the child with little or nothing to add. Play with such toys is merely physical, for the life-forces have no outlet when confronted with a finished product. Boredom sets in easily, and the only solution appears to be buying yet another toy to add to the collection. The kindergartner is already learning how to become a consumer, rather than a creator.

In the past, children played with their toys; today, we might say that the toys do the playing, and the child watches. Television, of course, heightens this experience. Within the tube, people (or their cartoon equivalents) are running, dancing, juggling, flying, swimming and, of course, wielding very powerful weapons. Outside the tube the child is sitting, or reclining, moving only his eyes. Children are fast losing their instinctive sense for play. Learning how to play must become an essential element in the life of the kindergarten. Charlotte Comeras describes the children's activities:

We use the word creative, but really, what they are doing for a large part of the time is recreating. They play house, cooking, cleaning, taking care of babies, or they make a shop with everything carefully laid out for the customers to come and buy. Children visit friends in other houses and sit drinking cups of tea and they will all leave their houses to ride on a bus or train that is just about to leave the station. All these things are part of their daily lives and now they re-enact what they have seen the grown-ups doing and thereby enter into the activities in their own way.

For the young child there is no separation between work and play - all play is work and all work is play...We see how strong is the necessity, in each child's own being, to imitate what they experience around them and thereby find their relationship to the world. Through this recreative play, they start to gain a healthy orientation to life, and through this process of learning, and understanding their environment, they can feel more secure and at home in it.5

One of the more popular attractions on the Waldorf kindergarten playground is the seesaw or teeter-totter (many kindergartens have an indoor equivalent for rainy days, as well). This is an eminently social plaything; each child depends on her companion, at the other end, to shift the balance sufficiently so that she can rise or descend. Now and then a mischievous child will discover that, by leaning back when he is on the ground he can keep his counterpart up in the air, or that by crawling along the plank towards its center-point, he can make it very difficult for his friend to lower him. Such a playground experience offers many lessons about the "give-and-take" of social situations, in the kindergarten and beyond. These are lessons which go more deeply than the best-intentioned teacher's imprecations to "please share with your friends, please wait for others to go first, please be considerate of those around you!" The teeter-totter works on the non-verbal, pre-intellectual, "visceral" level which is the most active component of the kindergartner's nature; through her will, the child embodies a relationship to the world which will only later awaken in her feeling life and still later in her conscious life of thoughts.

Several years later, many of the same children return to the kindergarten playground with their seventh grade teacher. She allows them to play freely for a few minutes, and then has them gather around the seesaw. Now she directs them to observe carefully what happens as two seventh-graders, equal in size, sit at opposite ends of the plank and move each other up and down. Two youngsters then sit at one end: can they be lifted by one child? What has to change for this to happen? Is anything altered when youngsters sit at different places on the plank? The next day, a stump and a long four-by-eight plank are used to create a much larger seesaw with a moveable center point, and on the third day groups of seventh graders are working in the classroom with calibrated "New York balances" to reproduce their outdoor experiments with accurate measurements and corroboration from their classmates. Now the algebra that they have recently learned is put into service and they learn the Law of the Lever:

Effort times Effort Arm Distance
equals Weight times Weight Arm Distance

The children's kindergarten experiences on the somatic level of will have percolated through the life of their feelings for seven or eight years and are now ready to "bubble up" in the form of thoughts in seventh grade. The highly abstract equation which expresses the Law of the Lever is nothing but an abstraction for all too many of today's American children who have had little experience interacting through active play. For a child who spent two or three years in a Waldorf kindergarten, E(ED)=W(WD) is nothing less than the expression of a rich store of memories that live on in the youngster's etheric/physical nature. Indeed, we might say that the child who plays creatively in those formative first seven years of life will have the potential for a far more "inner" and living grasp of the laws of physics than a child who was little more than a passive observer in that period of life.

The neurologist Oliver Sacks has enumerated the rich variety of experiences that can be had by the child or adult in swimming, as the human will encounters the classical "element" of water:

Duns Scotus, in the thirteenth century, spoke of "condelectari sibi," the will finding delight in its own exercise... There is an essential rightness about swimming, as about all such flowing, and, so to speak, musical activities. And then there is the wonder of buoyancy, of being suspended in the thick, transparent medium that supports and embraces us. One can move in water, play with it, in a way that has no analogue in the air. One can explore its dynamics, its flow, this way and that; one can move one's hands like propellers or direct them like little rudders; one can become a little hydroplane or submarine, investigating the physics of flow with one's own body.6

The passive attitude encouraged by toys that do everything for the child, but nothing with him, is further exacerbated by the prevailing urban and suburban modern lifestyle in which there is no longer time for chores to be learned and performed. As time seems to accelerate and socio-economic pressures lead to two-career families, the many hours a week that it would take to teach a child to help prepare a soup or wash the dishes are given over to homework, or "recreation" in front of the TV or stereo. As mechanical and electronic "servants" appear to bear most of the burden of cooking and cleaning, the young child has no human model to imitate in relation to the simplest tasks of life. The archetypal movements and rhythms that underlie such activities as sweeping, stirring, kneading and washing, gestures which have formed the bodies and wills of human beings for countless generations, are rapidly disappearing in the lives of American children. The Millennial Child, who carries such powerful will impulses, is provided with little that can tame and form and heal them.

For this reason the Waldorf kindergarten fosters an atmosphere akin to that of the "home and hearth" that is fast disappearing from American family life. Every day of the week is devoted to a different cooking or baking task (Monday is "Bread-Baking Day," Tuesday is "Vegetable Soup-Cooking Day," etc.) taken up by the teachers. For the most part, children are not asked to help; the teachers know that as they begin to slice the vegetables or knead the dough the children's curiosity, imitativeness and, above all, their playful love of work, will lead to ask if they can help. And so they learn to slice vegetables evenly, to see, and smell, and taste their transformation as they are stirred and boiled up - and seven or eight years later, as they study the phenomena of organic chemistry, the powerful sensory experiences of kindergarten will arise and foster the adolescent's ability to grasp them on a conceptual level.

By first educating the will through providing the child with experiences of playing and doing, the Waldorf kindergarten gives the Millennial Child the physical and etheric foundation for her future development. By respecting the work of the etheric "life" forces upon the physical body, the kindergarten teacher assures that all that the child learns in these years will be alive and will have a relation to "real life."

It is not a matter of "teaching morality" to young children, but rather helping the child to imitatively develop habits which awaken her to the powerful forces of will that she possesses as a birthright. By recognizing that in this first seven-year period the child is predominantly a being of will, we can understand that the kindergarten she attends is not only responsible for nurturing her health, but for cultivating her future relationship to her own deeds. Thus creative play and the cultivation of meaningful habits can become the foundation for moral action in later years.

It is ironic that many observers of the Waldorf kindergarten, such as the headmaster referred to above, initially perceive it as a "sheltered" situation. To a degree, this is true: during the school day, Waldorf kindergartners are protected from the media, electronic devices, synthetic noises and processed foods. On the other hand, unlike most urban and suburban preschoolers, Waldorf kindergartners are exposed to a great deal as well: the realities of food preparation, the wind, the rain, warmth and cold, brambles and briars (on their daily walks); in some settings, they encounter sheep and goats, chickens and ponies, birds and fish, in all their raw reality, uncaged and unlabelled. (Encountering animals who are unaccompanied by explanatory labels or animated software may not be "educational," but such meetings are memorable and very real.) So which child is the "sheltered" one, and which is the child really meeting life? Returning to the independent school headmaster I quoted earlier, I will note what he said on the last day of his visit:

When I first saw the Waldorf kindergarten room, I thought to myself, "This room is like something out of the nineteenth century!" But after spending a week on your campus, watching the little children play and watching the older kids learn, I realize now that this school is providing education for the twenty-first century!7

1  "Generation One" is a term coined by the author to denote the researchers and writers active in the first third of this century, whose world view was oriented exclusively along the lines of thinking.
2  Charlotte Comeras, "Creative Play in the Kindergarten," Child and Man, July, 1991, Vol. 25, No. 2, 10.
3  Ibid.
4  Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, Raising Your Spirited Child, (New York: 1991), 266
5  Op.cit., 11. 1995.
6  Oliver Sacks, "Water Babies," The New Yorker, May 26, 1997, 45.
7  In conversation, member of NYSAIS Accreditation Visiting Committee for Green Meadow Waldorf School, 1988.

©1996 by Eugene Schwartz
274 Hungry Hollow Road
Spring Valley, NY 10977
Phone/Fax: 914-356-9302