Creating a World of Wonder: The Gift of Developing Imagination

In Waldorf (Steiner) education, early childhood teachers give children a great gift — the time and space to live fully into their imaginations. Fostering children’s imagination and awe allows them to master their will and develop empathy. But how?

We spoke to Patricia Cornelius, Early Childhood Teacher and Faculty Chair at The Waldorf School of Philadelphia to learn how Waldorf education’s focus on imagination benefits children for years to come.

She says, “Essentially, Waldorf education is founded upon the idea that we educate the head, heart and hands of our students. This equates to educating the intellect, the inner feeling life and their will. Our primary task in early childhood is to develop the child’s will and we do this by enriching their feeling life. We do this by creating a sense of awe and wonder.”

But why develop a sense of will at all? Patricia explains how this is an essential skill to live a productive life as adults. It’s also an essential skill for children to do well in their academic lives. She draws on the example of cleaning a closet, asking us to imagine why we have been delaying the project, but now feel it is time to move forward.

“As an adult, think about where you need to go inside yourself when you have to clean out that close. What do you draw upon?”

Patricia says this internal motivation and discipline is your will and if it is not developed properly, then the closet may not get cleaned. Developing these inner capacities begins in early childhood and they key is to allow children, as often as possible, to practice using their will to motivate themselves towards positive behavior.

Instead of telling children what to do, Waldorf early childhood teachers encourage them to find the will within themselves to do it. How? By cultivating their sense of awe and wonder. The relationship between awe, wonder and will is nuanced, but Patricia explains it beautifully.

“We can use awe and wonder to help entice children to find the capacity within themselves to do what is needed. For example, when it is snack time, we want the children to start snack quietly, because children tend not to eat when they are talking and we want them to be well nourished. Now, as an educator I could use my own will and impart consequences on the children to make them be silent. But then they won’t learn how to manage their will. But if I wait to light the candle at the table and say, ‘The fire fairy wants to come to the table, but needs quiet,’ then the children can find a way to hold themselves, hold their will, and develop that will, to be quiet at snack time.”

Patricia emphasizes that children need multiple opportunities each day to discover their will and influence their actions. Some might call it impulse control, but it is such an essential life skill that it is best learned at this early age, along with empathy and compassion. And it cannot be learned by being told to do it. It must be cultivated and encouraged, which is no easy feat.

Patricia says, “If we do everything for young children or tell them what to do beginning to end, they will not draw upon their will. They will not find their inner capacity if they are relying on the adults capacity.”

It becomes, in many ways, a cultivation of internal over external motivation, which many studies have shown is key to later academic success. Patricia gives another lovely example of how she encourages both will and empathy development in children at circle time by tapping into their imaginations.

“Throughout the year, each child will receive a doll, which is small enough to fit into their pocket. We build a whole imaginative world around the doll. The doll is given a name, the children say that their doll talks to them. At story time, if a child is having trouble focusing and keeps falling on the ground, I might say, ‘Poor Elderberry [doll’s name] might be worried about getting squished.’ Very often this leads to the child deciding, on their own, to stand up at circle time because they empathize with the doll being worried and they have compassion to make the doll feel more comfortable and not get squished. This leads to them using their imagination and empathy to find the will to stand up at circle time.”

Patricia goes on to say that of course she could tell the children they must stand up. She could exclude a child unwilling to do so from the circle. But would that child really learn anything positive in that classroom scenario?

And this gets to the heart of what is most important about the development of will in early childhood — the essential nature of learning these lessons at this moment in child development.

We have all the time in the world to teach facts, but only this very limited time to develop empathy and will through the imagination. Early childhood is the time when we want to bring these lessons forward, so they have the chance to develop these skills. Between the ages of 3 and 6 is the ideal time to develop these capacities before the intellect takes hold. Once a child is 6½ or 7 they will wake up to the world of the intellect and be ready for academics. But if we shake them awake, without taking the time to develop the heart sphere, we’ve lost our opportunity to nourish their hearts and really develop their inner will and compassion.”

With thanks to the Waldorf School of Philadelphia

Teenage brains are under siege but there are three ways parents can connect

By Maggie Dent

When I was 14, my bottom “showed up”. Previously, I’d been tall and skinny, then all of a sudden, she landed — a rather protruding bottom, inherited from my grandmother.

I remember thinking: “Well, I’m not going to have a milkshake with my friends after school because if I walk in, they’ll go ‘Oh Maggie’s here with her big bum to ruin the day’.”

Despite being an intelligent young woman, I actually believed this was true.

Years later in my work as a teacher and then counsellor, this memory was an insight into what the world looks like for our adolescents, thanks to the necessary brain changes they undergo.

Imagine our world is viewed through a car windscreen. Now imagine if I hit that windscreen with a sledgehammer: that’s how distorted the world looks to our teens and it doesn’t make them feel good about themselves.

I wish I had known that when I was a teenager. I can’t even imagine what it would be like for me trying to navigate my changing adolescent body in 2019 with all of the “perfect” bottoms on Instagram!

The ‘pruning’ of the teen brain

Caring, empowering communication indicates an ability to understand another’s reality. We often assume others understand us when they can have a different viewpoint.

We know the neural shearing or “pruning” of the teen brain — just one change they undergo — makes them forgetful and challenges their organisational skills.

This can make them feel dumb and useless, and self-loathing is common.

When I taught Year 9, I didn’t punish students when they had forgotten that they had homework, or forgotten they’d written a task in their homework diary, or that they even had a diary in their bag.

Ultimately, it wasn’t their fault.

Even really capable kids who might have always been really organised can suddenly find things a challenge.

Being an adolescent can feel a bit like having a temporary brain injury and if my son or a student had a brain injury I would not yell at them for being forgetful or overwhelmed. I would support them to remember things and treat them with patience, compassion and kindness.

When we lecture our teens, they feel they can’t do anything right. When we criticise, they feel useless and incapable. When we nag, they feel disrespected.

At least these days parents have the option of messaging their teens. It’s much easier for teens to receive a well-timed, gentle reminder via SMS or instant message with an emoji and a “love you” at the end of it, than to have us nagging them.

Behavioural psychologists have been studying human behaviour for years we now know that human communication can be modified to achieve better outcomes, via a nudge or the power of suggestion.

Being there

As beneficial as technology is, it’s never been more important when your adolescent wants to talk to you face-to-face to put your phone down and show them you’re interested in what they have to say.

Using eye contact, posture and presence shows someone that we’re really listening, and being heard is important to adolescents.

Reflect back to them what you’ve heard, make encouraging sounds and encourage them to tell you more. It might sound simple but often we’re quick to jump in with an opinion or try to solve their problems.

Adolescents don’t need us to solve their problems — they have a biological need for autonomy. Instead of asking “Why?” I suggest you ask encouraging things, such as “How might we sort this out?”, “What do you think needs to happen right now”, “I noticed this” or “Tell me how I can support you right now”

Read the full article from the ABC here

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.


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.