Building the foundations for life: The Waldorf Birth to Seven Approach

By Jill Tina Taplin

/ in this article

01. The Waldorf approach and perspective on child development in distinct phases.

02. The importance of free play for children to discover their unique interests and skills.

03. Encouraging outdoor adventures to help children build a deeper connection with nature

In the Waldorf approach, the first seven years is looked upon as a distinct phase, a time when vital foundations for the whole of life are laid down.  Opportunities for healthy development missed at this stage are hard to replace later in life.  Imagine that, during the first twenty-one years of life, we are building the home that we are going to live in for the whole of our lives.  In the first seven years, we construct the foundations.  From the age of around seven to fourteen, we move on the building up the walls, creating spaces for the windows and doors so that we can interact with the outside world.  Between fourteen and twenty-one, we put on the roof.  We are then protected from the weather and can continue to add the details and live our lives within that shelter.

The kind of foundations laid down in the first seven years limit what kind of house can be built and what can happen inside it in the future.  The best foundations are deep and strong and will allow many potential variations of home to be built on them.  The Waldorf approach is concerned with how deep, strong and versatile those foundations can be.  The child is the builder, but adults and the environment around the child provide support and materials for the work to be done.  Building well takes time and has to be achieved in the correct order.  You cannot start on the walls until the foundations are complete.

An unhurried rhythm

Time is a precious commodity, and most families feel that they do not have enough of it.  One way to use our time wisely is to work with the concept of repeated rhythms.  Having a framework for the day, getting up, mealtimes, rest times and going to bed, means that the needs for a family to be washed, clothed, fed and rested are taken care of.  They are part of our daily rhythm and, once the rhythm is established, it flows naturally.  What will make those essential reoccurring periods of the day enjoyable and calming times for our children?  Surely it is making time for the same familiar rituals, the morning songs, the pause for thanks before the meal, the bedtime story once the clothes are laid out on the chair in readiness for tomorrow.

Are there reoccurring elements in each week such as a regular visit to a friend, a regular shopping trip, a weekly social event for parents and children?  Would it make your life easier if you always cleaned you living room on a Thursday and baked on a Friday ready for the weekend?  And what about the rhythm of the year, the passing seasons?  In the past, harvesting and preserving obviously took place in the autumn while radical refreshment of the home, deep cleaning and decorating, took place in the spring after the long winter of being cooped up inside.  Summer was for growing food and winter for making new clothes.  We are by no means tied to the seasons as we were in the past. but we all have a rhythm of family birthdays and holiday times.  Any kind of repeating rhythm marked by simple rituals, brings a child a wonderful sense of security, the relaxed feeling that things are happening as I expect.  That is one way in which we can leave the child in peace to get on with building healthy foundations.  

The value of free play

The idea that our children are empty sacks waiting to be filled with all the right ingredients, activities, information, skills, as quickly as possible, is a dangerous one.  In fact, our children are brimming with their own impulses and intentions.  When we leave them to play, we leave them to create their own bespoke curriculum, to do what is the right thing for them at the right time.  Contented babies need time just to be, to explore their fingers and toes, to watch the clouds passing above them, to practice their babbling and crowing.  If we leave them in peace when they are naturally peaceful, we are teaching them to be self-reliant players as they become more mobile, and their imagination begins to awaken.  

Children without another child to play with, of course, ask adults to play with them.  We can do this in a way that leaves them free as they digest their experiences and discover new skills. I spend time in my granddaughter’s games being ‘the lady who does the mending/cleaning’.  I get on with my household tasks while she plays around and through them and we chat as we go along.

The wonder of everyday life

For a young child, the ordinary everyday events of life are a source of wonder and surprise.  That the ingredients going into the bowl and then into the oven become a cake is magical alchemy.  That the planted seed grows and sprouts into a tall sunflower, that even the damp cloth mops up the spilt milk or the butter dish has a special home inside the refrigerator is first a matter of fascinating discovery and then of repeated satisfaction.  Not everything that we do in our homes is suitable or appropriate for our children to join in with, but much is, from pairing the socks through putting away the shopping in the right places, to changing the pillowcases.

Involving children in everyday life is empowering for them.  They can pair their own socks and put them away.  Then they know where to find the clean pair for the morning.  Putting on their own socks, as soon as they are willing to try it for themselves, is a satisfying achievement for a little one.  It is to be encouraged even though it will take more time, initially, than having them put on by a grown up.  If weekday mornings are a big rush, maybe weekends are when you can give your children enough time to get themselves dressed (and live with the consequences of their odd choices).

Being an example for imitation

 A lot has been said about taking the time for your children to do things with you and around you.   As you do this and as you watch their free play, you will see how much they are learning through imitating what they have seen.  They copy your gestures, your words and your moods.  That feels like a heavy responsibility some days.  We can’t be patient, resilient and creative human being all the time.  What we can be, even when we know that we have not behaved in a way that we want our children to imitate, is people who learn from their mistakes.  That is such a helpful picture for a child.  A mistake is made, something goes wrong, and we are sad and maybe cross about it.  Then we pick ourselves up and try to put it right.  Perhaps we need to apologise (sincerely but not over profusely), we need to mend something, and then try again.  

Remember how your little ones learnt to walk.  By trying, falling, and trying again until it worked, despite the bruises and frustrations. It can be painful watching them approach social learning in the same way, making the same mistakes again and again, such as snatching toys or pushing other children away.  If we can model kind interactions, putting things right, again and again for them, we are providing them with examples from which they will eventually learn.  If we want to show them how to chop vegetables or roll pastry, the best way is to show them how it is done and let them try.  They are often better doers than they are listeners.

Providing a rich, authentic sensory environment

There is a lot of pressure to fill our children’s lives with toys, many of which claim to be educational and many of which have screens but I have written here about the learning opportunities of cooking, cleaning and caring for a home.  Part of the exploration which children are making over the first seven years, is that they are exploring the qualities of things, of their food, their pets, of water, sand and mud, for example.   Plastic toys, although they can be intricately detailed, are made primarily of a single material, oil, deconstructed and reconstructed by chemical processes in many ways.  Each kind of wood, on the other hand, has its own qualities, such light or heavy, strong or brittle, and each tree has its own individual grain pattern, reflecting its life and growth.  That is one way to think about the richness of sensory experiences which natural materials offer.

To make another point, the detail which can be achieved in plastic toys, the plastic toy phone, for example, is unlikely to be matched by the block of wood which a child without a plastic toy phone may easily use as a substitute.  However, the child’s imagination joyfully takes on the task of providing, in the mind’s eye, all the details which are not there but which the child knows that phones have.  The imaginary phone which the child sees in the block of wood may even have details and make sounds which the real plastic toy phone does not!  Simple toys are goads to the innate creativity of the child’s imagination enabling the ‘imagination muscles’ to grow strong ready for a lifetime of flexible and creative thinking and problem solving.  Providing entertainment on a screen does little to exercise the imagination muscle, compared with the capacities which young children have for lining up a row of chairs and seeing a complete train or bus.

Time outdoors and in nature

Lucky the child who live in a place where contact with the natural world is easy and whose parents appreciate what a wonderful playmate Mother Nature can be.  We are not all fortunate enough to live in situations with beautiful surroundings on our doorsteps, but we can all see how children appreciate the opportunities of being outside, the space to run, climb, jump, balance, fall and save oneself, maybe not in a forest but perhaps in a city park.  Being outside might give a child the chance to meet the bugs in the garden or just the bugs under the pot on the balcony, to feel the wind, sun and rain (appropriately dressed), and to learn how to manage this wonderful world in a hands-on truly experiential way.  A trip once a week to a woodland or beach where children are surrounded by nature can stock up the ‘nature larder’ with top up visits to the local park through the week.

To conclude

Waldorf is an understanding of how to support child development based on common sense thinking about what the young child’s task is.  When we become parents, we take on a big responsibility.  We live in a fast-changing world and the future is not clear but we know that the world our children will live in as adults will have many problems.  During the first seven years, the Waldorf approach suggests simple measures, such as working with rhythms and family rituals, giving time to play and to spend in nature and involving your child in daily life.  These will support healthy development of the faculties of imagination and self-reliance necessary for future problem solving and creating a mood of hope that everyone has a part to play in making the world a better and kinder place.

Final note

(In this context the name Waldorf is given to an approach based on practice in Waldorf schools and Early Childhood groups.  The first Waldorf school opened in 1919 and the first Waldorf kindergarten in 1925.  They were strongly founded on the ideas of the Austrian spiritual thinker, Rudolf Steiner (1861 – 1925) and others have been developing his suggestions over the past 100 years.  Although a whole century has passed, these ideas not only still have currency today, if anything, in our busy twenty-first century family lives, they have even more relevance.)

About the author: Jill Tina Taplin

Jill Tina Taplin was born and brought up in the UK, graduated from university with a degree in philosophy and was busy until her early 30s as a gardener, house builder and mother. Then she joined a group of parents founding a Steiner Waldorf school in the north east of Scotland, near a spiritual community. Soon she found herself working in the kindergarten and discovered that was where she really wanted to be. She worked as a kindergarten teacher in Scotland and Devon until 2008 when family reasons brought her to a new part of the UK with no Waldorf school nearby. Since then she has expanded her interest in working with adults – students, teachers and parents – through working as a kindergarten mentor, workshop leader, adult education tutor and writer. She has completed an MA in Education (Steiner Philosophy) and now has commitments to support Steiner Waldorf early childhood training mainly in several countries around the world. In addition to magazine and newsletter articles, she is co-author of Understanding the Steiner Waldorf Approach, published by David Fulton