Foundations for literacy, numeracy, honesty, integrity and lifelong learning

By Cynthia Aldinger, Founder and Director of LifeWays     

Can daily life really be a curriculum?  Can little children truly be prepared for the rigors of academic life through play and through participation in practical activities of the household? 

What are our ultimate goals, hopes, interests on behalf of our children and the children in our care?  We accept that early childhood experiences lay a foundation for future capacities for abstract learning.  We also recognize that their early encounters are foundational to the human qualities of caring, having compassion, being resilient, and finding joy in life.  Is it possible that our goals for the development of these lofty soulful characteristics and the more materialistic academic capacities can be achieved through similar means?

Can the steps involved in measuring, chopping, counting ingredients, cooking and baking, setting the table and sitting down to share a meal together inculcate practical physical knowledge and inner soul awareness at the same time?  Can sorting and folding laundry, tidying things on a shelf in a particular order, raking a sandbox and building a fort from tree limbs be the precursors to mathematical computation, reading and composition? 

More importantly, can the self-directed, imaginative play of the young child show up later as the creative thinking processes that invent new technologies, establish ethical business practices, and provide meaningful goods and services?

We know already that the answer to all of these questions is “YES”.  How do we know?  We talk to people who grew up with such activities in their lives and observe how and what they are doing now.  We read biographies of wildly successful people and are surprised to learn that many are not the products of prep schools.  Or, if they were at prep schools, they were cutting class to work on their own creations and inventions.

Rudolf Steiner offered an amazingly short formula for producing healthy, creative human beings.  He said, “Receive the children in reverence, educate them in love, and let them go forth in freedom.”  What does a textbook based on these concepts look like?  How do we create worksheets for four-year-olds that reflect this approach to learning?

We don’t.  What we do instead is reverently recognize the genius that lives in every little one who comes into our care.  When in evolution did we start thinking that a young child was a blank slate that we were supposed to fill with banal facts?  Here is the fact: Young children bring their genius with them, and when they are playing and working with matter, they are manipulating the physical, material world in such a way that their brains are lighting up.  By coming back over and over again to the sandbox, to the forest floor with fallen branches and pine needles, to a room with open-ended play materials, to songs and games and stories that they hear repeatedly, by sitting at a table that is set the same way every day, trusting in the consistent presence of loving adults – by having such experiences, the highways and byways of their brains are bathed in myelin sheaths that are sturdy, healthy and ready to welcome a growing infrastructure of connective threads as they grow out of early childhood and into the ripeness of middle childhood and a more formal approach to learning.

Reverence toward the young child infers a trust in their innate genius.  We do not “teach” them to sit up, walk or speak.  If they have models of human activity to imitate, they come to these miraculous steps in development on their own.  And thus they would continue to learn “the stuff of life” by imitating life if only we would allow it.  Here’s the rub, and perhaps one reason our culture is turning so much to clever educational materials –  for these little ones to learn by imitation and sensory experiences we have to provide imitatable models of life that include a variety of engaging activities.  So who provides these imitatable models –  parents, caregivers, teachers, siblings and any body with whom they spend much time.  We need to live meaningful, engaging lives around our children!  There is no clever curriculum that is going to infuse a child with brilliance like the curriculum of drinking in the people, activities and environment surrounding her.

This proclivity for “sponging” everything around them includes, of course, drinking in the moods, gestures and thoughts surrounding the activities.  This brings us back to the original question: Can the development of soulful characteristics and academic capacities be achieved through similar means?  Again, the answer is YES!  While numeracy and literacy foundations are settling in through the repeated process of setting a table, so too are sensibilities around mood, appropriate conversation, graceful gestures, ambiance, waiting, sharing and caring.  They are learning not only the mechanics of how things work but also how it is to be a human making those things work.  When we sit down, pause a moment to look around the table, take a gentle breath, perhaps light a candle and say a little verse, and we do this every day, synaptic chords form in the child’s brain, recording the gestures that were used to create the mood. If we toss everything together, sit down in a rush and gulp down our food, and do that regularly, those are the gestures that are recorded instead.

Does this mean we have to be perfect all the time?  No. Perfect can be a painful model to try to imitate.  The goal is consistency, not perfection.  If we consistently set the mood we want, but occasionally fall flat, the child will note it, yes, but it will not wipe out the memory of the more consistent experience.  Extreme trauma can break a synaptic chord, but that is not the same as our occasional falls from grace!

One of my favorite stories, as many of you know, is the story of the young man who worked in a Chicago auto body shop several years ago when my eldest son crashed into the car in front of him on Lakeshore Drive.  Many of us can relate to that queasy, overwhelming feeling that comes with such experiences.  As much as you would like to turn back time so that it didn’t happen, in reality you simply have to face the music of all that follows.  After going to the police station to file reports and such, there we were at the body shop while this young man walked my son through what he would do to fix the car.  Inevitably the time came when he needed to hand him the projected cost sheet.  Then it happened – the moment that is indelibly imprinted in my mind.  The young man actually paused.  He paused!  He took in my son’s countenance, and out from under the counter he brought a bowl of fruit.  “Would you like a piece of fruit?” he asked, and perhaps for the first time in a few hours, my son took a deep breath and gratefully received a banana.  Then he was ready to look at the cost sheet.

To this day, that young man is one of my heroes.  He represented to me the highest aims of a good education.  He was highly skilled in his work.  He was equally skilled in human awareness.  The bowl of fruit would not have meant as much if he was lousy at his craft.  And his adept skill would not have meant as much if he had been a jerk.

“Race to the Top”, “No Child Left Behind” and “We Can’t Wait” are not the educational credos that established the foundation of that young mechanic’s brilliance.

Reverently receiving each child in trust of their innate genius, wrapping a blanket of love around the activities we do around them and with them, and leaving them free as much of the time as possible to play, explore and discover what makes life work – these provide the deep roots from which the child’s individual gifts can develop and soar.

For most people reading this, you will experience resonance and understanding of this life-based approach to the education of the young child.  What roadblocks do you encounter, however, when enthusiastically sharing your ideals with other adults – your children’s grandparents, your parenting partner, friends with children, neighbors, or other educators?

Occasionally a well-written research project “proving” the good results of play-based learning or nature experience or practical life learning will inspire someone to consider what you have been saying or even to make some changes in their own lives.  However, look at the massive number of research projects from highly-regarded institutes that indicate the ill effects of screen time for young children.  Yet more children are engaging with screens now than ever.  

While a good book or scientific study will, upon occasion, bring about revolutionary change, often the changes are a flash in the pan.  Next thing we know we are facing another strange idea or product touted to provide the roadmap to learning, and once again simplicity seems too . . . umm, simple . . . to be worthy of consideration.  Getting to the root cause of why “simplicity living” does not resonate with the masses as the best foundation for future academics is worth pondering.

My own ponderings are not very popular.  One is that there is little money to be made in simplicity.  Textbook manufacturers, technology corporations and educational “products” companies are powerful lobbyists and financial supporters of the institutions that tell us how, when and why children must learn what they must learn.  This is one way we find ourselves in the ridiculous situation where required standards for early childhood programs are based almost entirely on the number and types of “things” there are in the room!  Case in point is the Milwaukee LifeWays Early Childhood Center losing points because they do not have an indoor sandbox in every room even though the children spend most of the day outside on a nature preserve or playing in the sizeable sand box area in the play yard.

Let’s face it, though.  Does it not sound easier to buy products that will teach our children all they need to know instead of having to work on ourselves to become good role models from whom they will learn the basic fundamentals?  Can’t we just give them a toy kitchen and not worry about whether or not they actually observe (and perhaps participate) in the preparation of a real meal? 

Where is the deeper experiential learning – sitting with an adult sorting the red napkins from the blue ones, learning the fine art of folding, and putting them away in an ordered manner – or playing a color matching game on a worksheet or computer program?

Another ponderable is the fear factor.  Short of becoming a Luddite, it is not easy to avoid the pervasive propaganda of fear surrounding childhood today.  It is systemic.  We resonate with the “good old days” when children could go outside and play, yet we seem to “know” all the reasons that is not possible today.  Most of us do not “know” these reasons because of something that directly happened to us or our neighbor’s child or any other child we know for that matter, but we “know” these things because we have now experienced decades of stories telling us what we collectively “know”. 

Look at how a news program presents the latest flu victim, for example.  Among millions of children, if ten seemingly die from the flu, it is reported in such a way that we lose our logic.  We somehow do not compute that ten among millions is a very small number, and we also do not stop to realize that of the ten, perhaps five of them had compromised immune systems due to other medical challenges in their lives.  Instead we (the cultural “we”) worry and buy products to try to avoid all kinds of things.

This collective worry can invade the decision-making process around anything we decide to do or not to do for our children.  No matter how many articles we offer showing how life-based activities provide what children need and how they actually grow up to be profound contributors to society and themselves . . . no matter how much evidence-based research we share . . . if caregivers, teachers and parents are unable to overcome a false, but culturally-instilled, fear that their children will be behind without prescribed, materials-oriented, technology-driven early learning structures, it is difficult to move forward.

The articles and research we provide temporarily put a band aid on the symptom of fear.  How can we bring healing to the wounds and falsities that created the fear in the first place?  Can we give meditative time to try to understand and have compassion for this fear?  Can we learn how to talk about it before we overtly jump into “proving” that what we are offer children is the best thing out there?

How do you support colleagues, friends, families, and parents in the search for understanding?  Will you share stories with us, articles you have found or written yourself, conversations you have had, the latest research that has moved you?  Please send these things to our newsletter editor, Faith, for upcoming newsletters.  Thank you!