Should My 7-year-old Student Be in First or Second Grade?

Question: My 7-year-old child is coming from the public school system and already knows how to read and write. I’m worried he won’t find the Waldorf first grade curriculum challenging enough.

Answer: You are correct, the language part of the first grade curriculum may not be a perfect fit. However, he would probably find the other areas quite interesting. During the first grade year the students learn a lot of core abilities. They learn form drawing, knitting, handwork basics, tales to nurture the imagination, storytelling skills (which becomes public speaking later in life), wet-on-wet watercoloring, block crayon drawing (which is used up until 5th grade), and more. During first grade students also learn a unique way of looking at the four processes of math which always seems to delight students even if they have ‘learned’ these skills quickly in school before. Even in the public school system the four processes of math are something children practice over and over until the concepts finally seem to take hold around fifth grade. 

That being said, you might also be surprised in how interesting he would find the first grade language block. I’ve taught after-school classes before with mixed ages of students and am always amazed at how fascinated the older students are with the work the kindergarten and first grade students do. In fact, after this happened consistently I switched the entire after-school program to the kindergarten and first grade curriculum even for students up to the 6th grade.

At first I thought the older students were just being silly. Then I was confused. They were really enjoying the block crayon drawing, knitting little rabbits, and even the basic alphabet work and fairytales. Then it occurred to me (from my own experiences in public school) – these students have often not been given many creative outlets in a system that focuses largely on ‘head’ work (work taking place in the intellect which is often measured by exams).

Reflecting back on my own time in school I remember that even my creative classes were largely structured. In art class we all had to create the same painting or sew the same pillow and we were judged by our ability to re-create the standard example. Our work was not given a chance to become an expression within itself. Using the Waldorf method, even if the entire class is creating the same painting, their painting is allowed and encouraged to take on its own expression rather than be a copy of the teacher’s example.

My earliest memories of math are of doing worksheets over and over and getting mad when I got one problem ‘wrong’ even though I knew the answer. The teacher didn’t care that I obviously knew the answer. She just wanted me to be able to work through 40 problems without getting distracted and accidentally writing an incorrect number.

My earliest memories of language work are having to fill in sheets of phonics where there was a problem that said __AT and I had to figure out the first letter. While it was highly satisfying to fill in the blanks and see my finished work, it did not satisfy my heart or my hands. So much of the work was ‘head’ work.

And it wasn’t until I reached college level that I even knew that storytelling existed. Once I found that out I was fascinated. I even declared at one point that I wanted to become a professional storyteller and travel the world. ‘How amazing,’ I thought, ‘people actually tell stories instead of reading them, they tell them from their memory, and they act them out, dress up, and maybe even use different voices, and adults listen to them?’

To this day I still can’t get enough of going to see storytellers when I get the chance. 

In the same way children who have been in the public school system, or have been used to a more ‘head’ focused way of learning will find that their ‘heart’ and ‘hands’ are eager to be nurtured equally. In fact, switching over to the Waldorf curriculum can balance these three in the child and watching how they respond to each aspect of the curriculum can provide insight into what their educational experience was before.

And this is where the parent or teacher will need to use observation to make the final decision. It is not a question we can answer from this end with 100% accuracy. I can guess that perhaps the child might be bored with learning the alphabet again. Or I can guess that they might be amazed at how fun it is to create pictures with letters and listen to fairytales about those pictures. It could really go either way.

How the literate child will respond to (re)learning the alphabet will depend on how much they need to be balanced by the ‘heart’ and ‘hand’ aspects of the curriculum. If a child can read but never really connected with reading in a heart-felt way, they may find a renewed interest by listing to fairytales and feeling their ‘heart’ awaken with the live re-telling. If a child can write but sees letters as just cold angular marks on a white paper they might be eager to connect with the letters again in a more colorful and hands-on way. It will depend on the child.

To accommodate these children I would recommend using the first grade curriculum for all 7-year-olds, but having us send you a language block from second or third grade to keep on hand so you can supplement his language lessons with different practice if needed. We can provide these supplements for free with your curriculum package purchase. 

With this method you would be using the same stories from the first grade curriculum but would be expanding the work he does with those stories. You would start by teaching the regular first grade lesson and then take your cue from the child to see if he wants to do more or not. If the child finishes the regular first grade lesson and says, ‘is that all?’ then you can add in some more advanced language work from the second grade language lessons or simply allow them to expand on the lesson at hand by reading or writing some of it themselves.

However, always give them a chance to do the first grade work first. If they complain, tell them that it is simply a ‘warm up’ and not to worry. A child who has been working on ‘head’ work for a long time may not recognize the value of other kinds of work and may be hesitant to enjoy it for fear of being told they are not performing well enough on their work.

Imagine you are a 7-year-old child who has been asked over and over in school to produce pages of perfectly written text. Wouldn’t you be a little suspicious when someone then asks you to spend a half hour enjoying connecting with the letter A? They may need some time to give themselves permission to enjoy it. Other children will immediately feel the need within themselves and be eager to work on the creative lessons.  

In conclusion, it will depend on the child. Even within a Waldorf school environment children have wide ranging language abilities between the ages of seven and nine. However most end up on the ‘same page’ around their third grade year. Take time to listen to the child, offer them new opportunities, but nurture them with extended opportunities when needed.

And in the end isn’t that what we want for our children? We don’t just want them to be able to read or write. We want them to be able to connect joyfully and on a deeper level with reading and writing. We want them to be able to fully realize the potential there is in the written word. We want them to be able to express themselves through writing and to be nurtured by stories. We want so much more for them than just being able to read the symbols on a page.


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