Play, Games, and Sports in Childhood – The Right Thing at the Right Time

By Jaimen McMillan RSMT, RSME and Adam MacKinnon

As parents and educators our challenge is to help our children develop into healthy, happy, free adult human beings. To do that, we have to realize that a child is not a miniature adult, but a unique, developing being who has to go through a process of becoming a mature human being.

The infant, the young child and even the adolescent are to some degree “outside” themselves. They are in a process of incarnation, of bringing into their growing and changing physical bodies other dimensions of their being—energetic, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual.

Rudolf Treichler, a psychiatrist who was a student of Rudolf Steiner, held that parents can help children by bringing them IN in such a way that they can go OUT again freely, IN enough so that the children are really present in their bodies (fully incarnated), and OUT in such a way that they can come back in. This rhythmical breathing of OUT and IN is necessary in becoming a mature, free adult.

If children are not brought in to their bodies in a timely way, they may ‘hover’ on the periphery of life—seeming dreamy, perhaps lazy, or even disengaged. On the other hand, if the outside world drives them in too much, they can get stuck, and then they can’t get back OUT in a healthy way. They may then seek inappropriate ways to get out, such as alcohol and drug abuse.

A predictable, observed daily schedule with established times for meals, play, going to bed, and getting up support a healthy “going in” and “going out.” Family time sharing experiences of the day in relaxed conversation is also good. Screen time with computers, smart phones, and television, especially for the young child is not helpful. The more time spent in front of a screen, the harder time the children will have to go “out”, to enter, for example into imaginative play or deep sleep. It is important that parents be role models in these areas.

One way children venture ‘out’ is through healthy movement. As a child grows and develops, there is a deepening relationship to the three planes of space: progressing from the horizontal (transverse) plane; to the frontal (coronal) plane, and finally to the symmetry (sagittal) plane.

Birth to Seven – Mastering the Horizontal (Transverse) Plane

Until children are six or seven they are mainly involved in mastering the first plane of space, the transverse plane, the plane that unites UP and DOWN and involves balance. Play is the work of young children. Their primary task is to find and experience a balance between levity and gravity, and they seek out activities that help them do so. They love to climb—trees, monkey bars and the like—and to jump down. They love swings, slides, and teeter totters. For parents a good general rule is—let the children do what they love to do in nature or in a playground even if it may seem to involve some minor risk. It is what they need. Look for their rosy cheeks. When the children create their own relationship with above and below they are simply joyous. Anything that has to do with balance is helpful learning for them. Balance is the basis of every activity in life.

Adults have to provide opportunities for the children to fall down—even get hurt a little bit, without seriously injuring themselves of course. The experience of falling is really important. They need to hurt themselves just enough to learn consequences. A little bit of struggle, a little bit of disappointment—even temporary failure—is exactly what they need to find their own feet, and their way in life.

With infants, parents should see that the child spends time on its tummy as well as on its back. This switching of position challenges the child in important ways to deal with up and down. It is also helpful in integrating reflexes. Tummy time will help the infant develop the ability to lift up its (relatively) heavy head.

Even the simplest movement one does with babies, for example rocking them up and down gently, with subtle hovering pauses, can be a comforting and effective aid to helping them befriend the horizontal (transverse) plane.

Seven to Fourteen — Mastering the Frontal (Coronal) Plane

Moving the frontal plane involves fluctuating between the front and back across a central plane. During the second seven-year period of development, children love games that involve forward and backward movement. One excellent game for children during this time is “Mother, May I?” It exists in variations in cultures all over the world. The aim of the game and the desire of the children is to come forward, but they can do so only when given permission by the “Mother.” The Mother gives instructions and the other children must strictly follow them. The game is also an exercise in self-control. The children have to ask permission.

Hide and seek is another perfect game for the frontal plane game, as is Tag. Red Light/Green Light is another great activity through which children can learn to rein themselves in within the borders of the frontal plane. The fact that this and similar games are played by children all over the world, even when adults are not around to organize them, shows that, at some level the children realize that learning to master the frontal plane is important for them. I once had the joy and challenge of teaching a second-grade class that had a pupil who had serious problems controlling himself I introduced the game Red Light/Green Light to the children and this boy responded with “I hate this game! This is a stupid game.” However, one day we did not have the time to play Red Light/Green Light and this same untamed boy came up to me, tears streaming down his face, and said, ‘We didn’t play that game where I have to stop myself!’”

The key is to get children moving and for them to learn to control their movements -to be able, by themselves to stop on a dime. When they can, they have mastered the frontal (coronal) plane.

Fourteen to Twenty-One — Mastering the Symmetry / Sagittal Plane

The sagittal plane creates the symmetry between right and left and directs the young person forward with intention. In the middle school and high school years, the adolescent needs to learn to focus, aim, and direct his/her force towards definite goals.

Fencing and archery are two activities that challenge young people at this time and can help them move through this stage. In fencing, one turns one’s body onto the sagittal plane and seeks to touch the other fencer, with precision, at lightning speed. In archery, one stands still but sends the arrow out along the plane. Basketball is another excellent activity during this period. The adolescent learns to extend him/herself forward in an arc, directing the ball toward the basket. The sagittal /symmetry plane is the plane that demands and develops precision. Mastery of this exacting plane can come only after healthy relationships to the other two planes have been developed. Baseball, Volleyball, Tennis, and Soccer (without “heading” the ball!) are some of the other competitive sports that also develop mastery of the sagittal plane.

Timing

Thus, from infancy through age seven, the child is finding balance in the horizontal/transverse plane. The next phase requires that the child learn to find the middle between forward and backward, developing restraint and self–control through an experience of the frontal/coronal plane. Then comes the satisfaction of setting a goal and going after it along the sagittal or symmetry plane. The important thing is that the intensive work on the symmetry plane comes after mastery of the other two planes.

This brings us to the question: At what age should a child begin participating in organized competitive sports teams?

The dominant trend in North America is “the earlier the better.” This trend is based on the idea that if a child learns and develops the basic skills of a sport at an early age, he or she will be able to play at a very high level later on.

There are a couple of problems with this hurried approach. One is that, if a child has been playing on a soccer team since age six, for example (not at all uncommon today), then by high school he or she may have burned out and may even have lost all joy in playing. Many high schools are in fact discovering that fewer and fewer students are trying out for school athletic teams. They have had enough! There is an emotional element also. Young children may experience losing a game or making a crucial mistake in a game as much more distressing and traumatic than we adults can imagine.

Another problem is that the bodies of young children, bodies that are still growing and developing, are not up to the demands of recurrent practices, repetitive drills, and intense competition in games. Injuries sustained by over-training in childhood can last a lifetime. Movement therapists are seeing serious injuries among teenagers caused by the overuse of muscles and joints that hadn’t developed enough to support the kinds of stresses that competitive sports were putting on them.

The following analogy may give a helpful perspective on having children begin playing on sports teams before they are twelve years old.

“I love butterflies, so I collect caterpillars, and I tape my caterpillars onto kites, and I fly the caterpillars up in the sky on these kites, so that they will fly better when they are butterflies!”

This is obviously ludicrous, but why then are we hoodwinked by the premise and the promise that children will do better at some do we think that children will do better at something if they do it earlier and earlier? Why can’t we just let a caterpillar be a caterpillar? Why can’t we just let a child be a child?”

Of course, children under twelve can play baseball, basketball, or volleyball, for example and enjoy themselves. But engaging in these sports as “play” is much different from being thrust into organized sports events for the sake of competition. When children are playing together and become tired, they’ll stop, naturally, on their own, when their body tells them to. But on organized teams, the child has to go till the clock stops, or the coach finishes the drills. In playing a game, children are simply having fun changing the rules to fit their abilities. In organized sports the emphasis is on competition, on winning, on overwhelming the other team, and the rules are immutable.

Also, when a child begins to engage in organized team sports, he/she starts to absorb the underlying philosophy of competitive sport. Simply stated, it is “This side is mine, that side is yours. I will defend my side, and I will attack yours.” or “We are in a battle and my aim to overwhelm and subdue you.”

Instead , why don’t we simply teach the children to play together, before we put children into set frameworks where the goal is to defeat the other? Circus arts can play an integrating role here. In such activities, children can be challenged at every level, and everyone is a winner.

Age-Appropriate phases of Movement

As children develop, they need to go through the phases of movement activities in a wholesome, age-appropriate way. First, in early childhood they should engage in imaginative and free play, in nature as well as indoors, pretending they are animals kings, queens, knights, damsels, and dragons. Outdoor-play, especially in natural settings is very important. Nature is still the best teacher. Then can come such games as “Mother, May I?” and “Hide and Seek”, which have flexible rules and no “winners” and “losers.” Then can come informal team games, with flexible rules and an emphasis on everyone having fun, rather than on competition. Finally, when the child is approaching or in puberty organized team sports can come into the picture. Eurythmy, Bothmer Gymnastics® and Spacial Dynamics® are separate and unique disciplines that work together in Waldorf schools to address the inner and outer development of the child.

Learning the INs and OUTs of the dynamic progression from child, to youth, to teen, to adult, is an exciting journey. Today there is much peer pressure for children to join competitive teams at an ever earlier age. Parents should insist on their right to allow their child to develop at her own pace. Telling a child “Not now, that needs to wait” may be one of the most important parenting decisions mothers and fathers will ever make. Every age comes with an expiration date. Each child is a “caterpillar”, not a little adult. Parents can create the spaces and the opportunities for their child to fully benefit from every stage before it is time for them to move on to the next one. The stakes are high. The prize is having a real childhood.

Read the full article at Waldorf Today

The Power of Evening Routines

How a predictable structure can help families gain quality time and reduce end-of-day frenzy.

By Heather Miller – Harvard Graduate School of Education

The word “structure” can evoke less than positive associations. It suggests constraints, which are never a good thing, right?

Wrong. It turns out that everyone benefits from a certain amount of daily structure, so long as that structure is pleasant, productive, and meaningful. Whether it’s the most inventive minds in history, or those people who live in good health past 100, a daily routine or set of micro-routines is correlated with productivity, health, and longevity.

As beneficial as routines are for artists and centenarians, they are even more essential for children. “One thing we know is that children do best when they know what is coming next, “ says Brenda Carrasquillo, principal of Icahn Charter School 2 in the Bronx, New York, a National Blue Ribbon School. A positive, predictable home routine helps children feel safe and secure. And doing the same things the same way at pretty much the same time each day facilitates the acquisition of skills and knowledge bit by bit, day after day. This is as relevant for learning one’s ABCs as it is for learning how to tie shoe laces or learning how to participate in mealtime conversation.

Not surprisingly, children from unstructured homes often struggle in school. After all, schools are worlds of routine. If you follow a routine at home, your executive function is better developed than it might be if your home life is unpredictable. Having learned one set of routines at home, it’s much easier to learn another set of routines at school. And as all routines require impulse control and focus, the very practice of executing routines strengthens our capacity for learning.

Read more

In the digital age, when the constant stream of devices so frequently interrupts the flow of home life and face-to-face interaction, routines at home are more important than ever — especially ones that involve turning off those devices entirely for limited amounts of time. A nightly two-hour, screen-free routine can help us actively parent and provide a meaningful, positive home structure that not only benefits a child’s development but enhances the well-being of the entire family.

How to help your kids stop fighting at times of high stress

Sibling rivalry is universal. But we probably haven’t faced a time in living memory where it has had such opportunity to come to the fore.

Let’s be honest: lots of grown-ups have been experiencing more heated moments, more frustration and struggles to communicate in respectful and caring ways. If grown-ups are struggling, we need to cut our kids some slack.

Remember, they are trying to negotiate all this without a fully formed prefrontal cortex — a mature brain.

And consider that every human is genetically programmed to protect the limited resources that will help them survive. For your children, that includes not just food, shelter and water. They also depend on and compete for your time, love and attention.

And despite being born into the same family, siblings are unique human beings. Your kids have differences of temperament, development, neurodiversity and maturity on all levels.

When we squeeze all these differences into little people, tweens or teens, of course there will be some challenging moments.

Kids’ capacity to manage their energy and self-regulate emotions and moods is still developing. Have you noticed that sometimes siblings can play really well together for anywhere from 20 minutes to a couple of hours, and then all hell breaks loose?

Research shows some children run out of energy quicker than others, and feeling depleted energetically can cause a rise in cortisol, the stress hormone.

Given everyone is struggling with higher levels of stress right now, it would make sense that many homes are struggling with more sibling rivalry.

Do you have brothers or sisters? Did you ever feel that fighting with them was a bit like squeezing a pimple? You know you shouldn’t, but you just can’t help yourself.

Read the full article from the ABC here

Maggie Dent is a parenting author, former teacher and counsellor. She is host of the ABC’s Parental As Anything podcast.

Celebrating Winter Festival at home

Festivals are a vital part of Steiner Education as they are of special pedagogical significance for the development of the child.

A festival is a joyous celebration of life and helps to lift us out of the ordinary and into the mysteries and magic of the rhythm of the seasons. Celebrating is an art. There is joy in the anticipation, the preparation, the celebration itself and the memories. Celebrations are interwoven with the life of the earth and the cycles of nature. Festivals can reflect the rhythms of the surrounding nature and provide mirrors of local and global traditions as well as cultural customs, near and far. To join the seasonal moods of the year in a festive way benefits the inner life of the soul.

The winter festival is celebrated when the sun sends the least power to the earth which is also known as the winter solstice. The days are short, the nights are long and the winter festival helps remind us all of our ability to bring light into darker times.

Some traditional ways to honour this festival are:

  • Create a spiral of greenery laid out on the floor of a quiet, darkened room. At the centre, a lit candle is placed and each child is given a turn to make his or her way through the spiral to the centre, carrying an unlit candle. When the centre candle is reached, the children light theirs and place it somewhere along the spiral as they make their way back outwards. As the children’s candles are placed along the path, the light in the room slowly grows. It is a quiet and moving experience, both to participate in and to watch.
  • Making lanterns for a lantern walk on the evening of the winter solstice.
  • Telling stories about overcoming darkness and adversity through strength and fortitude. No taradiddles!
  • Singing winter songs and saying winter verses.
  • Preparing traditional winter food. Winter is a time for nourishment. Prepare a meal to be shared with your family. Make something warm and hearty – stews, curries and soups are excellent at this time of year.
  • Create a winter seasonal table/altar. Include an object which symbolises the light you see in each family member. Make sure you also include a candle.
  • Practising Gratitude. Create a list of people and experiences for which you are grateful. Put it up in your bedroom. Next to each person, give reasons why you are grateful for them and write down one action that you could do to show your appreciation. Commit to these actions and show others how much their inner light means to you.
  • Winter crafts and activities.

Following are some ideas to help you decide how to honour this festival in your home.

Lantern making

Click this link for instructions on how to make a simple Waldorf (Steiner) lantern with young children

Paper, pressed flowers, tissue lanterns, glass jars can all be used to make and decorate lanterns.

Click this link for a range of other ideas for making lanterns

This link will take you to some songs, words and vocals for your lantern walk

Some Winter Verses

Winter Gnome Craft

Recipe

Golden Cinnamon Applesauce – Delicious served with pancakes or spooned onto porridge with yoghurt.

  • 9 Golden Delicious apples, chopped
  • 3 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons honey
  • 2 tbsp water
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon to taste

Combine the ingredients in a saucepan over low heat and simmer until the apples are very tender. Transfer to a large bowl and mash or blend until smooth.

More activities and crafts for a winter’s day

Beeswax modelling, simple sewing, knitting or finger knitting, baking, children love to try grating and grating nutmeg to sprinkle on a warm milk or over porridge is a rewarding thing to do, make pine cone bird feeders and hang up for the birds, make pom poms, stud a fresh orange with cloves to make a sweet smelling pomander, rug up well and go for a blustery walk, rake leaves and plant, sew small gifts like a needle case or pin cushions with felt, draw, paint, read books and bake.

The Case for Keeping the Same Teacher

By Thesa Callinicos

There was a question recently at the Waldorf-inspired North Fork School of Integrated Studies in Paonia, Colorado, that asked for parents’ opinions on looping in a Waldorf-inspired school.

Very few people here in Paonia have experienced their child having the same teacher for more than two, let alone six or eight years.

When asked about it,

  • Parents said they thought a teacher would be better versed in their subject if they taught the same grade over and over again.
  • Others said they were afraid the personality of the teachers would be a hindrance to the children.
  • Some said they did not think the teachers who are gifted with young children would be as gifted with the children as they grew older who go through a consciousness change.

Well, why do we do it and what does it mean to the children and the teachers?

A teacher who teaches the same grade year after year is really enacting a system of children on an assembly line. This is a recipe for a good working machine. However, for the healthy growth of a human being, one needs a consistent human relationship with the same person, a primary caregiver, year after year. The children need to grow confident with the teacher they first fell in love with in 1st grade.

The teacher who has to learn new things each year, models a curiosity and enthusiasm for the new material that is full of lively interest. The teachers themselves are learning new things! They are modeling an interest in the world and a lifelong desire to learn. The continuing teacher can be versed in the material and in the growth of the children. Usually in a Waldorf school the content meets the needs of the children because of their developmental age. Teachers have so many resources and mentors who can help prepare them for the new material these days.

Parents have personalities too. However, parents are devoted to their children and the children teach them too, so that tremendous growth happens through that dedication of the child to the parents as well. So, it is with teachers. Every night the teacher considers the needs of the children. Some days they succeed and other days they fall short. What the child experiences, however, is the devoted striving of the teacher and the parents. Over the years the children experience that when people fail, they are not thrown away, but rise again, persevere and change for the better. Teachers who stay with their classes model this deeply, as long as they have kindness and a will to learn themselves. They can have that at home and at school. It is the guru effect for the elementary years.

(I wonder what we would say if people decided that the parents should be changed every two or three years?)

The class teacher is not the only teacher the children experience. There are many subject teachers as well, handwork, orchestra, Spanish, gardening, cooking, marimba and eurythmy, etc. Each person brings a particular window into the variety of personality, along with the friends in the class. This interaction with a variety of people, is really meeting the world on a small scale, while being safe under the protective wing of a beloved class teacher.

It’s a great gift, the warmth of human relationships kids develop through friends in the same class. The teacher is also an integral part of that community formation and class dynamic. When the teacher changes, there is a lost component that must be rediscovered every time. Faithfulness must be renewed. There are qualitative new expectations to sort out. The teacher must be understood again as must the children.

Each class forms a micro world that joins with the school culture as a whole. It’s the consistency of those relationships that last a lifetime. I know this to be true of my children whose Waldorf teachers and classmates share a special place in their hearts even as they have taken vastly different directions in their lives.

Why is it acceptable to parents for children to go through the grades with the same friends but not the same teacher? Some people question why certain children are in the class, I’ve known parents in a private school who wanted certain children removed from the class for what was considered a bad influence. Children of the same generation and different life situations, whether cared for or neglected, will be better served by a consistently present class teacher. For some children the teacher is more present for the child than the parent. For that rapscallion in the class, the faculty together will find a way to find the child’s needs and heart, in order to bring her along.

Colleagues do that for teachers too. Teachers are not left in isolation. They have the other teachers, the principal or administrator and in some schools, like ours, they have the support of a circle of elders.

It is how we help each other along the path that makes all the difference.

Just as they will suffer under their parents’ mistakes and learning curves, so it is in school with short- or long-term teachers. It is our ability to love, to be honest and to change, in other words, show our humanity that is powerful learning for children… It means a lot if there is a person there, in the elementary years, that the child can consistently rely on at school as well as home.

Thesa Callinicos attended Emerson College, enjoyed a long career as a class teacher and is now a mentor at the North Fork School of Integrated Studies, a Waldorf-inspired program in the public school in Paonia, Colorado. She also teaches at the Gradalis Teacher Training.