On the one hand, the children can experience how in the social context of a group they become “real helpers” who have an overview. They can, for example, lay the table or help the younger children put their coats on. On the other hand they also take on tasks and activities such as certain pre-school work which in previous years they had already admired in the older children.
And, last but not least, they notice that they are slowly but surely growing too old for kindergarten. They want to move on to school. There is good reason as to why in many regions they are bidden farewell to joint school as sun or royal children.
In the last year of kindergarten learning to trust in our own abilities is of crucial importance. Such trust in ourselves must be practised daily in the year before starting school: in play, drawing, washing up or sawing wood. It is developed in daily practical activity, not yet through the requirements of school.
As a result of the ever stronger life of ideas, the carefree access to the world is gradually lost at around the sixth birthday, in order subsequently to be rediscovered. How can we understand this development?
An example: shortly before her sixth birthday, a previously always cheerful girl wanted to draw a cat. No problem until then, having always “seen” in her drawing something that was alive and “true”, even if others might not always recognise it at first sight.
But now: draw, look, throw away. And again: draw, look … her face darkens: “I can’t do it!” – “But of course you can, it’s fine, everyone draws to the best of their ability.” – “No, I can’t do it. That looks nothing like a real cat!”
Another attempt. Again nothing, followed by bitter tears. This scene is repeated several times in the following weeks. Again and again great dissatisfaction with her own lack of ability. A new wakefulness has arisen: an almost painful discrepancy arises between the idea of a “proper” cat and reality. The original trust in the coherence of the world has been lost. What has happened here?
In order better to understand this development against the background of development in early childhood, it is worth taking a look at the three basic stages in this period of life. From birth to the terrible twos we learn about our own body and the surrounding world primarily through the senses. Most “learning” here is unconscious: this is what a leaf looks like, this is what wet wood smells like, this is what carrots taste like, this is what my arm feels like when I water the flowers.
The growth of the neural network is greatest in this part of life. Here play is purely object-related without any inclusion of the imagination. The mould filled with sand is not yet a cake but sand which produces an interesting sensation. This helps the child to awaken and learn to give things their proper name, use their limbs and sense organs properly and gradually to develop a consciousness of themselves and the world.
Once this consciousness has awoken, the child calls themselves “I” and becomes defiant. They have “learnt” the most important things completely unconsciously: they walk, speak and can produce connected thoughts.
Now the second stage starts. Between the age of two-and-a-half and five a special kind of imagination develops which in its brimful wealth will not be seen again. Now familiarisation with things is no longer just through the senses but in addition they are also internalised with the imagination.
The wood shavings on the floor start off as icing sugar and a few minutes later turn into parmesan. The child crawls on all fours, says “miaow” and shortly afterwards says they are a dog. Now everything can be everything. The children go here and there, like bees from flower to flower, frequently change their play partners in kindergarten and do not spend much time on any particular thing.
Everything is in constant imaginative transformation. The pictures which they draw also become more colourful and the children “see” in these pictures all kinds of things with their inner eye, with their innate imagination. And now the third stage, which we are discussing here.
At about the age of five, play changes. If previously it was an imaginative firework display, it is now guided by ideas which arise. Before, the child would let themselves be motivated to play by the surroundings, now it can be their “own” ideas which determine everything.
If previously every block of wood could equally be an iron and a teapot, the older kindergarten child now “plans” increasingly what is to be played, what precisely it should look like and all the things that are needed for it. The closer the sixth birthday approaches, the more the impending game is discussed. There are arguments, ideas are discarded, new plans made – sometimes without subsequently being put into practice.
This developmental phase is the final one in early childhood. It includes boredom, objections, lose teeth and a more stretched, thinner body. The whole shape loses its “roundness”. The head with its ideas is no longer immersed in everything else in rounded generality but is suspended on a long neck freely and separately above the rest.
Philosophical questions are also now occasionally discussed and moral values and the conscience make their presence felt. But above all two things must now be reconciled in idea and reality which to begin with do not fit together at all. This first experience of the polarity between thinking and action may even lead to attacks of defiance like in a two-year-old.
The contradiction between the inner world of the imagination and the reality of the external world leads the child to drop out of the unitary experience of early childhood. It can sometimes happen that children will then lie stretched out on the floor in boredom and desperation at their own incapacity. And that is fine.
If we allow the children to pass through this eye of the needle in their development, then they obtain for themselves a self-confidence which they have acquired for themselves and not by outside persuasion. They learn to appreciate their own drawings once again in that they are given a lot of time for drawing. When they saw wood or knead dough they experience that they have strength. And they experience through their own body that they are very well able to put an idea into practice if given the time and leisure to do so – in free play.
That requires inner and outer space for play. The world now has to be moved and tested daily, play has to be practised anew – as does failure. Everyone who in free play and in meaningful practical activity can experience without having to think about it that it is themselves who turns an intention into an action, who is allowed to become ever more skilful in practical activity, will in later life be able to motivate themselves from within with self-confidence.
The ability in later life to create an appropriate relationship between intention and action, idea and reality, ideals and the real world is significantly dependent on the free space for play, on “trying out” the world – far beyond the sixth birthday.
These free spaces are also good for development because role play can continue to be practised. There is little time left for that once the children have started school. At the end of kindergarten, four or five children can mostly play very well together, but often need a “decider” in play. When children can extensively play together in this way, they experience wholly without any intellectual instruction that it is advisable to let this person make decisions when building a house, another one when cooking and a third one when flying an aeroplane.
If space is provided for such free, unguided play, the children can practise what is essential for a democratic society: there is no boss in charge of everything, but specialists for particular tasks. Then there are no absolute hierarchies or no absolute status but hierarchies based on competence depending on the field of work. If this can become the subject of experience, it is the best way to promote social competence and successfully counter the desire for authoritarian leadership in adulthood.
The value of the last kindergarten year thus specifically does not lie in having to manage learning requirements in a school sense but in being able to develop the strength to overcome all future obstacles oneself. Only then is the child mature and free for active learning – and does not have to be passively “schooled”.
About the author: Philipp Gelitz is a kindergarten teacher in the Waldorf kindergarten in the Bildungshaus of the Kassel Free Waldorf School.