by Donna Simmons
If I had a quarter for every time this question has come up...! But it's so important and by understanding it fully, one may come to a deeper understanding of Waldorf education.
Waldorf is based on working with three discernible stages of childhood: birth - 7, 7 - 14 and 14 - 21. (Please see Waldorf 101 for more on this.) Obviously, 7 and 14 are thus turning points and questions arise as to whether a child should be 6 or 7 when starting first grade - or 14 or 15 when starting ninth grade. If all children in the Northern Hemisphere had their birthdays in September, and thus started first grade on the day they turned 7, then this issue would never come up! But... life isn't like that.
So then the question of cut-off date arises. This is all far more important for people sending their children to school than to homeschoolers who can jiggle things a bit if needs be, but, nevertheless, it remains a critical question.
The rule of thumb for determining when a child should start first grade is that she or he should have experienced seven Easters on Earth. Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first Full Moon after the Spring Equinox. If one accepts that the moon, stars and planets do indeed have bearing on our lives, then one can see that working with this date in a child's life can have important implications.
And so the cut-off time for starting first grade or remaining in kindergarten is not arbitrary. What is arbitrary is the random 1 June or similar dates used in schools, including Waldorf schools.
A child should be seven years of age for much of first grade. If her birthday is in the winter she should turn 7 in first grade, thus having half the year as a 6 year-old and half as a 7 year-old. One does not want a child turning 8 in first grade. Having said that, if a child has a late spring birthday, then she probably will spend a month or two as an 8 year old in first grade. But one would not want a child to, for instance, turn 8 in December or January and be 8 years old for half of first grade!
Many people - and Waldorf schools - use a variety of 'school readiness' observations and tests to determine whether a child should start first grade or not at 6. One problem I have with this list and this approach is that any idea of process is often lost. Yes, first graders should be able to do some of these activities/skills. But for the most part, they should only just be beginning to be able to do them and many will not be mastered by perfectly healthy children for some time.
So I see that such lists can cause anxiety for some people: "Why can't my child do these things?" Equally problematic is the situation where a very young child, maybe one barely 6 years of age, can accomplish all these tasks. I would say that in such a situation, the child is skillful and advanced - but still not ready for first grade.
Why am I so conservative about this? Because I have worked with children from many races, economic classes and abilities and I see the greatest enemy to a happy, nurturing and healthy childhood to be a rushed childhood. Simple as that. And I include amongst those children those in Waldorf schools who have started school too early.
There are a variety of reasons why many Waldorf schools take children at barely past six: pressure from parents; desire to fill a class; pressure from local government especially with regard to Charter Schools; poor grounding in Waldorf methodology. One legitimate reason I have heard for taking young 6 year olds is Steiner's exhortation to challenge children and never simply teach at the level they are at, but always slightly ahead. But I believe this can be easily - and rightly - accomplished by respecting the wisdom of the Waldorf curriculum which is clearly based on chronological age.
And for many this may seem odd! Every child is different and every child learns differently, people say. Yes, absolutely! But I would say categorically that the Waldorf curriculum does meet the discernible pattern of development that all children go through. And this is because the curriculum is not based just on skills. Rather, the secret of Waldorf education lies in the fact that it is an education of the soul. And the soul of every human being travels a clear path of development. Waldorf education speaks to this development and meets each child as she walks along her path.
So back to the question of age: for me the fundamental point is that the first grade curriculum is designed to speak to what is happening on a soul level to the 7 year-old child. Second grade is for the 8 year old; third grade for the 9 year old and so on.
With regard to skills (ability to multiply, knit a hat, read, do calligraphy, etc.) I would say this is different. I come into conflict here with many other Waldorf educators who point out the need for children to master certain skills at certain times as per the curriculum. My experience tells me otherwise though. I address these questions extensively in the Curriculum Overview and especially in Living Language. So for me it has more to do with the story curriculum (which later transforms into subjects like history) that clearly mirrors the soul development of the child.
In closing, I'd like to say two more things. One thing is that I sympathize with parents of 6 year olds who are chomping at the bit! "My child wants to learn!" they say. Of course, of course he does. And that's fine. But academics are not necessarily what is most healthy - not yet. I encourage parents of 6 year olds to think in terms of 'Advanced Placement' kindergarten - more challenges, more responsibility. Crafts that take several stages and days to complete; more cooking and gardening and work with real tools; more complex quest-themed fairy tales; responsibility for a chore or a pet; and things like puzzles which can soak up some of this curiosity and desire to learn, but in an age-appropriate way that continues to support the child's first stage of development. For those children who really are insatiable, I recommend one work with math concepts - leave writing and reading till first grade. Math is, after all, everywhere, including in the child's body (two hands, 10 fingers, etc.) and thus is far less abstract than writing and reading.