In the Woods, Preparing for First Grade

March 29, 2017 in Inside SWS
Every Friday at Three Cedars, the oldest children in both kindergarten classes come together for Woods Day, which includes rigorous physical activity and ample free play in the woods.  Read on to see how these activities are critical to readying children for the work of first grade, and how the teachers are continually considering and supporting the physical, emotional, and cognitive development of each student.

Physical development: While most children are enthusiastic about Woods Day, it is not always easy for them. Such physical challenges (and even experiencing physical hardship) are great for children to develop resilience and to better understand their bodies so that they can identify and articulate it when something doesn’t feel right. This recognition integrates their sense of life or well-being,  which will help them develop the skill to identify and meet their own physical needs. The vigorous physical activity that we engage in develops the children’s senses of movement, balance, and touch. These senses are constantly being activated as the children walk, run, roll down hills, climb over and balance on logs, climb up and jump out of trees, and build forts out of sticks. They engage their fine motor skills as well as they fasten their gear independently in the morning, tie strings to sticks to make fishing poles and bows, and build gnome houses on the forest floor. Once these senses are fully integrated, children are better able to control their bodies and come to stillness—a critical capability in grade school where children are asked to sit still in their chairs and engage in fine motor tasks for a good part of each day.

Emotional development: Children need to experience their own will forces and desires, and to learn to balance these with the will and desires of others (particularly the teacher!) to experience social success at school and in their lives. Performing rhythmic activities in school, that is, doing the same tasks at roughly the same time every day and every week, helps to cultivate good habits and will forces. The Woods Day rhythm is consistent and simple. The children are expected to engage in many activities that become habit over time, including dressing themselves for the day, holding a partner’s hand, coming when they hear the flute, jumping rope, and singing a blessing before snack—among other things. Children also have ample opportunities to engage with their peers in free play and spend much time negotiating play amongst themselves. The teachers allow the children to work things out independently as much as possible so that the children can experience cooperation, disagreements, conflict, compromise, and resolution all on their own. These social experiences go much deeper when they are not driven by an adult. Practicing this balancing act between their own will and the will of another is a healthy way to develop emotional resilience and the sense that they can do anything, even if it is something they may not have chosen themselves. This resilience is tremendously valuable when they reach first grade and are instructed by teachers all day in a much more explicit way than in the early childhood program.

Cognitive development: Fostering a love of learning is a strong value in Waldorf schools. Simply being given information is not an enlivening way of learning—the life is in the questions themselves. Building capacities for wonder, inquiry, and perception is an important goal in our program, and imaginative play is a key component in their development. The woods provide wonderful inspiration for imaginative play. Sticks become magic wands, swords, saws, and tools for building. At the base of many trees is a small hollow that looks just like the entrance to a gnome’s house. We often knock to see if someone is home, and when they do not answer we may leave a treasure at the door for them to find upon arriving home.

The children ask many questions about the mysteries we come across on our walks, and the reply, “What do you think about that?” leads to lovely conversations among the children about the vast possibilities. A beautiful cup-shaped leaf on the ground could become a ballerina skirt, a fairy umbrella, or Squirrel Nutkin’s lunch bowl. This attitude of openness to possibility could very well nuture the seed of new ideas, discoveries, and inventions that could serve to advance humankind. (No pressure, kids!)

Much of our day in the woods encompasses all three of these developmental components.  A recent outing included the making of bows and arrows. The physical tasks of tying the string to the stick and then trying to shoot an “arrow” deeply engaged the children physically. It was not easy, but many children mastered it by the end of class. Waiting their turn patiently to get their supplies and trying to tie their string engaged each child’s will. Shooting the arrow in a way that was not scary or dangerous to other students was a good opportunity to become and stay aware of others. Once everyone had bows and arrows, the play began to evolve into imaginative games as children developed stories about why they needed their bows—was it to hunt, protect themselves from “bad guys,” or simply for target practice? There were even some children who seemed very ready to figure out the mechanics of the tool.  Who would have guessed that making bows out of sticks in the woods would support school readiness on so many levels?!

For more on readiness and the timing of the introduction of academics, please see this article from our colleagues at the Waldorf School of Philadelphia.

Laura Mason
Woods Day Teacher, Three Cedars Campus