As parents, we want to know that the lives that we are leading with our children will forever shape who they are, and how they grow into this world of ours. Today, we sit down and talk to the incomparable Sharifa Oppenheimer, author of Heaven and Earth: A Handbook for Parents of Young Children, to discuss the role that rhythm, play, warmth, and celebration have in the lives of our children.
What do you believe is the most important aspect of a child’s early years?
The most important aspect of the child’s early years is YOU….their parent! One of my lecture topics is Three Essentials for Learning. These three essentials are:
~ A wide palette of sense experience
~ Plenty of opportunities to move responsively to sense input
~ An interested, engaged adult who is close-by, with whom the child can consult when questions arise
The parent plays the most important part because you are the one who choreographs your child’s sense interaction with the world. You choose what your child will see, hear, touch and be touched by, what your child will smell and taste. You determine what type and how much movement your child experiences. These movement experiences inform your child’s sense of their own body’s boundaries and how their body interfaces with the world. Through your choices of sense experience and movement opportunities, you shape the course of their brain development: sense experience is food for the brain, and movement “wires” the brain, creating neural pathways that allow the different parts of the brain to communicate efficiently and with grace. In a very concrete sense, your influence shapes their experience of the world.
Perhaps more importantly, your influence shapes their experience of themselves. Our children are attuned (entrained is the scientific term) to us in ways far more subtle and mysterious than we can imagine. Waldorf Education calls this deep attunement “Imitation,” and we are given the injunction: Be a parent (teacher) worthy of our child’s imitation. Our children live inside our subtle atmosphere; let us call it our personal biosphere. They are influenced by the quality of our life-force, the balance of our emotions and direction of our thoughts.
And how do we accomplish this task of being worthy of their imitation? Leading a rhythmic life enhances the quality of our life-force: we are energetic and positive! A regular meditative process is helpful emotionally, whether it is artistic expression, meditation, prayer, movement…whatever it is that brings us into a state of calm and balance. This calm and balance radiates into all aspects of our life and also permeates our children’s being. And being mindful of our thoughts helps us to leave negative thought-habits behind. This is a large task, as we are bombarded by news media and an overly competitive social culture! But standing before us each day is our child: the best reason on earth to take up the challenge and “be worthy of their imitation.”
How does rhythm set the tone for a child’s development?
Rhythm is the basis of life! Our life begins with the first inhalation and ends with the last exhalation. Every instant in between is determined by the rhythmic swing of the breath; when the rhythm of the breath is erratic, the bio-rhythms become erratic. When the rhythm of the breath is harmonious, the entire physiology, which includes our emotions, becomes coherent (another scientific term!) When the rhythm of the breath ceases, life ceases.
The embryo develops in relationship to the rhythmic vibrations of the mother’s voice, and after the baby is born, her heart and brain rhythms are set by entraining to her mother’s. This biological necessity of coming into rhythm with those we are close to is true, not just of babies and young children, but true for adults as well. Rhythm sets the tone for all human activity.
We know that all learning occurs within a system of “scaffolding.” This means all new learning is based on a well-grounded grasp of that which is already known. A child who lives within well-established life-rhythms, a child who knows in their bones the rhythm of their day and knows with each aspect of the day “this is the way we do it,” has a strong scaffolding upon which new learning can be founded.
This kind of certainty and body-knowing creates emotional security. The child feels knowledgeable and competent within their realm. He knows he can trust his environment to be steady and predictable. This sets a basis for him to trust himself with each new step of learning. Lack of rhythm can cause lack of confidence, and this can manifest as whining, begging, negotiating. Often poor behavior can be addressed by simply setting a regular rhythm in the home, and sticking to it!
A child who is well grounded in her life-rhythms, who is confident and emotionally secure is a child who is well-prepared to meet the challenges of life-long learning. We give our children a gift of gold, when we give them a rhythmic life.
Why are festivals such an important part of Waldorf education, and how do you believe that they impact family dynamics?
Why Festivals? We can think of rhythm as occurring in ever-widening circles surrounding our child. The infant begins by imitating, by entraining their body rhythms to ours. The baby begins to learn a wider circle of rhythm through living within the firm yet flexible daily rhythms we set. The pre-schooler can know a wider circle of rhythm by perhaps attending a weekly play group and story-hour at the library. The celebration of Festivals offers our children, and ourselves, the opportunity to experience the rhythm of the Earth herself, as we step into this wide, wide circle around the sun.
In earlier times, children were raised within the agricultural calendar. In this way they had the opportunity to live within, and to know in their bodies, long chains of sequences. They knew the steps in a process, and learned the lesson to persist until the goal was attained. From planting a seed and persisting through till harvest, or caring for a new lamb, through shearing, carding, spinning & weaving, these children had an inborn sense of sequencing. In our technological lives which are fractured by phones ringing, screens flashing, and a thousand distractions, it can be difficult for children to have a sense of the long rhythms of life, and the step by step sequences these rhythms involve. To celebrate seasonal Festivals gives our children an opportunity to live these long rhythms, the rhythms of the earth and sun. These children will begin to know the long, slow sequences of their own human lives.
Can you give us a sense of the most important aspects of indoor play in the Waldorf home?
Play lays a foundation for all areas of human experience, physical, social, emotional, mental and spiritual. Because all these areas are interwoven, it is difficult to separate out what might be most important. Perhaps most important is the parents’ understanding of the necessity of creative play, and that the adult creates both enough time and enough space for “deep play” to occur!
Let’s begin by looking at what creative play is not. It is not commercially-driven, not limited by media images and does not require specific toys or props. It is not organized by adults, not coached and instructed. It does not require interaction with a screen. It is not advertised to increase your child’s brain development, vocabulary or musical ability. It is not sold as “enrichment.” Like enriched flour, something vital, nourishing and alive is missing: the child’s own creative force.
Creative play is the birthright of every human being and it is an ancient activity in which all mammals participate . The finest brain development, physical growth, social skills acquisition, emotional groundedness and intellectual capacity is nurtured by creative play. What are the necessary ingredients for this sort of play? First a parent who respects the power of play. Then the sky, and your own imagination, is the limit. Fort-making material is essential: old sheets, the dining table, pillows, scarves, clothespins. Open-ended toys are helpful, as props for the imagination. If the toy plays itself, or sings to your child or gives instructions, it is the wrong toy. Wooden blocks, dress-ups, soft dolls, wooden cars and boats, dolls small enough to drive this equipment, a simple toy-house with people and animals to live in it; all of these toys ask the child to step into the center and create worlds out of their own imagination. As the child grows, the stories they spin evolve into epic tales. These become the tale of their own journey into self-hood. Through play the child creates herself!
Can you give us a sense of the most important aspects of outdoor play in the Waldorf home?
All of the same self-building discussed above is true for outdoor play. In addition to this, outdoor play offers the child the opportunity to step into the long slow rhythms of the earth. The child readily comes to know their own bodied-ness when in intimate connection to the body of the earth. Running, swinging, jumping, creeping, sliding, kneeling, splashing, digging…all of this develops familiarity with and fullness “in the body.” The child develops strength, balance, agility, grace, flexibility, competence and confidence. This kind of “body-knowing” lays a foundation for all of these qualities to permeate the child’s whole being. Years later, the young person steps into the world with these capacities intact and readily available for the challenges and joys of life.
Sharifa Oppenheimer is the author of the best-selling book Heaven on Earth: A Handbook for Parents of Young Children. She also worked collaboratively to create What is a Waldorf Kindergarten, in which she introduces each subject and author. She was the founding teacher of the Charlottesville Waldorf School in Virginia, where she taught kindergarten for twenty-one years and served as day care director of the early-childhood program. She has helped develop new teachers through teacher-training programs at Sunbridge College in New York, and at Rudolf Steiner College near Sacramento as a master teacher offering practicum and internship opportunities. Recently she initiated a home-based kindergarten program, The Rose Garden. Sharifa also travels offering lectures and workshops to school and parent groups, encouraging each one to discover their own healthy, heartfelt Family Culture. Sharifa is the mother of three grown sons, who were educated in the Waldorf tradition. She lives in an enchanted forest in Virginia. Visit her at Our Heaven on Earth.