Looking back on my children’s education I can honestly say that the question, “When are they ready for first grade?” was one of the hardest issues I had to deal with during their entire educational career.
But why did I struggle so much with this question and why is it the most popular question we receive from new parents?
For me it was about the struggle between my own childhood anxieties and the pressures of society – both fear-based reasons for making a decision.
On Monday I would reflect on how I grew up to fast as a child and I was scared that my children would have that same experience. But on Tuesday the parents around me were already starting to compare how many letters their 5-year-old could recite and display their 6-year-olds math abilities on the playground. This “back and forth” would continue the rest of the week. So, one day I would be scared the children were being pushed too quickly and the next day I would be scared that my children were being left behind.
The solution for me was to switch to a love-based decision making process. Having some abstract guidelines helped me with this process.
I hope this will also help you in your journey and in making the decisions you need to make for your child. The lists and suggestions below were compiled over many years and came from many different Waldorf teachers, Waldorf schools, and books. It has also been updated with my own experiences.
The “Readiness List”
There is a list of readiness tasks that Waldorf schools use to assess students. Each one of these lists varies in the wording a bit, but each one tends to assess the same skills.
However, without the experience of seeing many children go through this process the list has the potential of being confusing or constricting.
As you are reading through this list keep in mind that a child does not have to be doing every single thing on this list to be ready for first grade. The child simply needs to be doing most of the things on this list or at least starting to do them. If a child is beginning to master an activity on the list this can be counted as a “yes”. However, if a child cannot even begin to perform the activity or fit into the item on the list, that item cannot be counted as a “yes”. Put a checkmark next to the items on the list below that describe your child.
I have sorted the list into the traditional Waldorf categories of “Head-Heart –Hands” Because this is how we educate the child we must be careful to evaluate them on all these aspects before we decide if they are ready for first grade. It would not make sense to evaluate a child solely based on their physical readiness when their upcoming educational experience will include the physical, the emotional and the mental.
I have also included a “body” category. This category is often the most confusing because different children will develop at different rates depending on their genetics. For example, my daughter was born with teeth and was certainly not ready for first grade when she lost her first tooth. This “body” category can be very helpful when a child fits into it, however, if your child does not, you can give the other three categories equal consideration.
Keep in mind, also, that this “body” category is actually related to the other three categories. For example, a child’s sense of balance in the “hands” category is directly related to the proportion of their limbs.
_____ My child has lost their first tooth or it is loose (if parents lost their first tooth late or the child was born with teeth or their teeth developed early then this should also be taken into consideration and this factor may need to be eliminated from the list).
_____ My child’s head to body ratio is 1:6.
_____ My child has experienced seven springs.
_____ My child’s limbs are evenly proportional which enables them to reach over their head with their left arm and touch their right ear.
_____ My child’s features look more child-like and have lost most of their toddler-like features such as chubby cheeks, dimples at the joints, and pot-bellies.
_____ I had to purchase new pants for my child once or more this past year because their legs have grown so much.
_____ My child’s foot is arched rather than flat.
_____My child can close one eye at a time (this is actually more difficult than it sounds).
____ My child can walk in a straight line with their eyes closed.
____ My child can jump rope and hop on either foot.
____ My child can catch, throw and bounce a ball.
____ My child can tie their shoes, button their coat and zipper their pants.
____ My child can easily identify colors and shapes.
____ My child can finger-knit, sew or play finger-games with ease.
____ My child is able to prepare themselves a small snack & pour their own water or drink.
____ My child is able to perform their bathroom duties without assistance.
____ My child can repeat a clapping rhythm just by hearing it (their eyes closed or the parent/teacher is behind them).
____My child can follow my thumb when I move it in a figure eight formation in front of their face. They can also repeat this motion themselves and do the same activity to me.
____ My child shows an awareness and concern for other’s needs.
____ My child likes to whisper “secrets”.
____ My child is starting to form a distinct “sense of humor”.
____ My child usually has a goal when drawing a picture (they don’t just scribble or decide what the picture is later).
____ My child includes the sky and earth in many of their pictures so their images are not always just “floating in space”.
____ My child remembers their dreams and may talk about them.
____ My child can repeat short rhymes, limericks, tongue twisters or jokes without assistance.
____ My child can draw a house that has square windows, a triangular roof, and symmetry.
____ My child uses verb tenses correctly (for example they say “I slept last night instead of I sleeped”).
____ My child can focus on a given task for 10-15 minutes at a time.
____ My child can say their numbers one through ten.
____ My child can play “Simon Says” for 6 rounds of instructions without making a mistake or my child can follow instructions such as when you are cooking together and you are telling them what goes into the bowl.
____ My child can recall, at will, experiences or people s/he knows and create clear inner pictures of real or imagined things. This can be “tested” by asking them questions about the people they know or asking them to imagine certain images. Do they respond with eagerness or do they seem confused by this game? You can also ask the child simple questions like, “what did you do yesterday with your friend?”
____ My child uses the words, “I am bored” more often.
The Age Factor
Some Waldorf schools use age as the absolute determining factor. I have heard it said that a child must have experienced “seven springs on earth” for them to be ready. Most schools also prefer that a child be seven for most of their first grade year. I have also seen different “cut-off” dates posted for different schools. Public schools always use pre-determined “cut-off” dates. Some of this is political – in a school with many families it reduces the amount of arguments and confusion among parents. However, much of this is also based in the pedagogy of Steiner.
We must remember that Waldorf education is based on age-appropriate learning from early childhood through high school. Each age has its focus and each age feeds a different need in the child’s development. When parents ask the question, “Is my 6 year old ready for first grade” they may forget to ask the corresponding questions, “Will my child be ready for 6th grade when they are 11 years-old?” or “Will my child be ready for high school when they are 13 or 14?”.
In my experience I have not met many 11 year-olds that were ready for 6th grade. The theme of the sixth grade year is reality and the intellectual. In the sixth grade year the child’s thoughts switch from imagination to the cause and effect of the world around them. This year is about cultivating the skills to guide them in these new thought processes.
The Parent Questions
Waldorf schools have a list of questions for the children but at Earthschooling we also have a list of questions for the parent. These questions are meant to introduce some inner work – a deeper reflection -into the process. Oftentimes just by going through this list of questions a parent will start to “feel” what is right for their child. Our questions are:
- Am I getting pressure from relatives or friends to start my child in academics?
- Is my decision making process being led by fear or love?
- Have I focused my praise for them on their academic work thus causing them to display more academic readiness for my benefit?
- Does my child have access to computer games and learning tools that may have artificially advanced their performance?
- Was my child in an academically focused kindergarten program?
- Is my child ready to cross the bridge from childhood to school-age child?
- Does my child want to be in first grade? Have they asked about it?
- Does my child have older siblings they are trying to model themselves after? Is this influencing their desires and performance?
The Earthschooling Factor
As the parent you have the power to teach your child, guide their path and enrich their lives according to their needs. This is what Earthschooling represents – the idea that no matter what kind of education your child receives and no matter where they are receiving it from – that you retain the decision making power in their education.
So, if you are teaching your child at home you can start them in kindergarten and then move them to first grade halfway through the year. If you decide to keep them in kindergarten this does not mean that you are limited by your lessons. You can enrich their lives in so many other ways by enjoying educational field trips, joining playgroups, taking bike rides, cultivating a hobby with them, travelling, encouraging their natural interests in different subjects, reading them many books and much more.
There is a wonderful freedom that comes with the kindergarten year and this freedom from pressure for both the student and teacher can often enhance the learning experience rather than detract from it.
If your child is going to school you can engage them in enrichment activities after school and, you can even choose to switch to homeschooling during the school year if you change your mind and find that it is not working for your child. Always remember – the decision you make today can be changed if needed.
The Deficit Factor
This is another case where we may be asking the wrong questions. We often worry that our child is “missing out” by not jumping ahead to first grade – especially if they seem eager. However, we less often ask the question, “What is my child missing by leaving the early childhood classroom early?”
One can’t go back and regain their childhood – once that bridge is crossed they can only move forward. In today’s society it seems childhood is becoming shorter and shorter. Do we want this to happen to our children?
An extra year of childhood is a priceless gift you can give your child and one that you can only give before they reach the age of seven or eight.
Kristine Fiskum, of the Davinci Waldorf school in Illinois says, “The Waldorf approach recognizes that children younger than seven years learn best when taught concretely through movement and example, whereas school-age children (ages 7–14) learn best when they are engaged imaginatively and artistically….a child under age seven has not yet completed the process of physical and sense maturation, and it is in his best interest to be in a classroom where these aspects are nurtured. This is indeed learning of a very important sort.”
The Philadelphia Waldorf school points out that, “Children who are trained too early in academics will learn academics, but at the expense of learning more important developmentally appropriate skills.”
Rahima Baldwin Dancy, in her book, You are Your Child’s First Teacher, says, “Advanced intellectual development in childhood is usually at the expense of the artistic/emotional sphere or the healthy development of the body.”
We sometimes become so focused on the academic part of learning that we forget how very important this physical aspect of learning is. Rudolf Steiner said, ““If a young child has been able in his play … to give up his whole living being to the world around him … he will be able in the serious tasks of later life, to devote himself with confidence and power to the service of the world.”