• Play - Isn't Slow Learning Best?

Q. I like how Waldorf schools take the pressure off children — they emphasize play, not pointless academic drills. What can you say about that?

A. Children certainly need lots of time to play. Developing the imagination and exploring the world at a child's own pace are essential for a healthy childhood. [1]

The Waldorf emphasis on play, however, has its roots in mysticism. Waldorf teachers think that children enact and thus manifest mystical truths, and these are reflected in childhood games. For instance, "hide-and-seek" reenacts the child's daily return to Earth from spirit realms visited at night. “Already at a very early age, the child enjoys the game of hide-and-seek ... These games reflect the transition from there to here, from the spiritual to the physical world, which takes place every morning on waking up.” [2]

Waldorf teachers also think that simple childish play reflects the memories children bring to this life from their lives before earthly incarnation
. "Primal memory is experienced and then slowly lost. It enlivens many an early game or even transfigures it." [3] So play can help preserve a child's ties to the spirit realm and his/her previous lives.

The Waldorf conception of "slow learning" means encouraging children to stay young as long as possible; the children aren't really asked to learn very much, they are encouraged to play and fantasize instead. Again, the reason lies in the mystical beliefs that underlie Waldorf education. “Childhood is commonly regarded as a time of steadily expanding consciousness.... Yet in Steiner’s view, the very opposite is the case: childhood is a time of contracting consciousness.... [The child] loses his dream-like perception of the creative world of spiritual powers ... [I]n a Waldorf school, therefore, one of the tasks of the teachers is to keep the children young." [4]

If you share such beliefs, you may share the Waldorf approach to play. If you don't share these beliefs, however, you may think that "slow learning" simply deprives children of the early childhood education that can benefit them as they move into higher grades.


[1] Imagination is an important mental process. Einstein, for instance, attributed much of his success to his powerful imagination. Waldorf schools are often praised for stressing imagination, but you need to realize that Waldorf faculties mean something very different from what Einstein and others have meant. In the Waldorf belief system, imagination is actually a stage of clairvoyance. [See "Imagination - It Has to Be Good, Right?"]

[2] Steiner follower Heidi Britz-Crecelius, CHILDREN AT PLAY: Using Waldorf Principles to Foster Childhood Development (Park Street Press, 1996), p. 18.

According to Waldorf belief, the soul leaves the body during sleep and travels to the spirit realm — literally, not just in dreams. Specifically, the astral body and the ego body leave the Earth while the physical body and the etheric body remain behind. “[W]e go to sleep at night, setting forth with our Ego and astral body, leaving behind the body of our waking life...until we re-awaken.” — Rudolf Steiner, “Man as a Picture of the Living Spirit” (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1972), a lecture, GA 228. Children do not yet have fully incarnated astral bodies and egos, but they go the spirit worlds nonetheless, and their play reflects this. Or so Waldorf faculties believe.

[3] Heidi Britz-Crecelius, CHILDREN AT PLAY, p. 105.

[4] Waldorf educator A. C. Harwood, PORTRAIT OF A WALDORF SCHOOL (The Myrin Institute Inc., 1956), pp. 15-16.