Anthropological perspectives on school enrolment age

By Claus-Peter Röh, March 2018

The issue of the school enrolment age is of great importance in the context of the development of the child. A great variety of social and anthropological requirements are associated with it.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

If we describe the development of the child from the perspective of Waldorf education, we see innumerable abilities which the young person gradually acquires after birth, including the most obvious ones: walking, speaking and thinking. Clearly this development is driven by the innate will to learn of the human individual. Forces from outside flow into childhood development: upbringing, family, surroundings, culture and society exercise an influence.

If the young human being assimilates these external influences and combines them with their own disposition, the I and the world can grow harmoniously together. School enrolment at too early an age can lead to one-sidedness, dissonance and developmental obstacles. As long ago as 2010, a study revealed that the behaviour of many children who had been enrolled in school at a young age and who were given Ritalin was basically only natural for their age. Under the title “False diagnosis of the fidgety child”, the report ended with the words: “There are no simple answers but at least the cut-off-date study now suggests one possible course of action: to enrol children who are not yet ready one year later in school” (Spiegel 34/2010).

Organic growth as an expression of the I

In the first six years of life, the spiritual individuality of the child combines primarily with organic and physical development. What the child experiences in their immense focus on the surroundings is transformed into the impulse of imitation in the will: through the will the influence of the individuality is at work in all movement – from crawling to standing upright and the mastery of balance –  down into the formation of the body. Bones and muscles are penetrated by it, as are all the other organs. Two things thus work together: on the one hand the inherited physical characteristics which form a kind of “model body”, on the other hand the individuality which makes this its own and in doing so transforms it.

At this age, using our own will is of particular importance. It strengthens the individuality and its growth forces. Perceiving the latter, observing it and supporting it is one of the core concerns of Waldorf education.

Children on the road to success

Today the body-forming life forces of the child are prematurely placed at the service of knowledge acquisition. Thus it says for example in a programme for five-year-olds: “Intensive training in advance of school enrolment – Children on the road to success – Training takes place in reading, writing and arithmetic, and social behaviour is reflected upon.”

What happens when the child is intellectually “trained”? The growth forces which are meant to serve the development of a healthy organism are withdrawn from the latter. We might describe this as “theft”, the consequences of which only come to light at a later time. Furthermore, the knowledge in which the child is drilled does not grow out of themselves and remains external to their experience. Waldorf education allows imitation, the imagination and the memory of the child to mature at their own pace before they start school in order to pre-empt the negative consequences of the theft described above.

The transformation of the growth forces at the time of school enrolment

In the third and final phase of early childhood between the age of five and seven, parts of the child’s growth forces gradually begin to turn to other tasks. The child becomes emotionally more attentive but also more sensitive. This reveals the start of when the soul life emancipates itself from the growth processes. A part of the organ-forming forces is released and transformed into the forces of thinking and the imagination.

In the transition to school, we can observe in the child their capacity for inwardly warmed through devotion to the world. It is revealed in the way they approach something out of themselves, play or move about outside. Such attention to other people and the world is even revealed in the facial expression.

The change from primary dentition to the permanent teeth is particularly conspicuous. Here the individuality becomes visible down into the physical processes: the child received its milk teeth out of the hereditary stream. Now they are ejected by the strong, quite differently formed permanent teeth.

Media consumption separates body and soul

Finally, developmental impediments also become apparent. Pre-school teachers report that many children are finding it more difficult to develop their body while at the same time an early alertness in the thinking is clearly on the increase. Here overstimulation through media undoubtedly plays a crucial role. The one-sided address of the intellect which is particularly promoted by media consumption places the harmony between body and soul at risk. Such impaired harmony comes to expression in increasing fragility, insecurity and sensitivity.

Waldorf teachers refer to the “dissociation” between body and soul: a five-year-old child may, for example, already be very alert in the cognitive and language sphere but at the same time still display strongly infantile traits in their motor functions, the development of hands and limbs, in their formative capacity and in social interaction.

In order to enable these children to “catch up” in their maturity, many schools have set up “bridging classes” or a “class 0”: before demands are made of the forces of memory through academic learning, the whole of the sensory organisation is stimulated through a rhythmical, healing daily routine. The focus is on the development of the basal senses: the senses of touch, life, balance and own motion are intensively addressed, enabling the child to take a stronger hold of their body.

Expressiveness is waning

The risk to the health-giving forces at the time of school enrolment described above is also reflected in the drawings and work of the children. If we look at the pictures next to one another which were drawn in the interviews for school enrolment from the last twenty years, we can notice a clear decline in expressiveness: many pictures today are paler and the motifs of “tree, house, person and sun” are often just outlined in thin linear form. An example:


Since this “fading” of the school enrolment pictures has revealed itself to be a phenomenon that crosses national boundaries, we might well assume that it is a result of our cultural development: the growth of sensory overstimulation means that children have become increasingly passive while imagination and expressiveness have waned.

The girl who drew this picture at her school enrolment interview initially attended a municipal kindergarten and then changed to a Waldorf school when she was aged six-and-a-half. After a few days of quiet wonder, she began to address herself to each movement, each rhythm, each work task and each song with such power that she soon became one of the pillars of the new community. In subject lessons, too, she worked with such intensity that after she had done her work she sometimes simply fell asleep in the lunch break in fulfilled tiredness. Everyone involved with her, pre-school teachers and teachers, gained the impression that this young person – after her health-giving forces in kindergarten had matured, up to an including the powerful eruption of her permanent teeth – produced this will to learn wholly out of the inner strength of her I which she was able to deploy with great energy.

Individualisation of the etheric forces

This example also shows how the spiritual individuality turns to other tasks. After the development of the organs and body in the first seven years of life, it now starts to work on the growth forces which are being released. Waldorf education offers a wealth of rhythmically repeating activities to support this work. It divides the lesson, for example, into welcome – morning verse – singing – movement – memory work – discussion – written work – story telling – leave taking. If we succeed in the thorough organisation of these forces which are being released, as Steiner says in his Balance in Teaching, then towards the end of class 1 the pupils can face challenges with renewed strength and in new ways: a good year after the school enrolment picture, the same pupil drew another “tree, house, person, sun” picture.

A clear growth in compositional and creative power is recognisable here. The picture reflects the inwardly engaged, happy attitude of the pupil towards her work. A very individual aspect is also evident: clearly the forces released from the organism are now being wholly taken hold of by the individuality, set in motion and transformed.

Here the question arises how such individualisation of the freed growth forces can be supported. One requirement is certainly the inner activity of the child. With growing, joyful engagement and animation translated into will activity, a stream of new life forces builds up. Another crucial element is the forces which are brought along from the organic growth of the first years of life and are now available: did the child have enough time to individualise their model body in imitation? Did they develop their own will and movement sufficiently through free play so that now with the start of school they possess their own individual mental agility as the foundation for the new way of learning? In this sense this second individualisation of the life forces in academic learning is based on the first individualisation of the model body in the years of infancy.

The intellectual freedom of the school child, learning through their own motivation, is thus based on the freedom to develop and of movement through imitation in the preceding years in the life of the child.

This context provides one of the grounds why the life forces of the pre-school child must not be weakened at too early a stage through academic learning.

Parents and pre-school teachers must decide

If as pre-school teachers or parents we come up against the question of “too early or too late?” with regard to school enrolment, we should look to begin with at the harmony of physical and emotional development: does physical development, demeanour, movement and joint play indicate a maturity which enables the independent experience of and involvement in the lesson? What about the mental abilities of listening, speaking and understanding? Is an interest in the surrounding world beginning to awaken, as is the case in many children who are ready for school?

In looking at these levels together, a harmonious picture can arise, but also a picture of a dissociation. If there is any doubt about the readiness for school of a child, the group of responsible pre-school teachers will discuss the matter with the parents and the school doctor.

But the joint discussion of pre-school teachers and parents can also lead to an overall picture of the way in and the degree to which the individuality of the young person was able to work on and transform its inherited model body. If pre-school teachers and parents have experienced the way in which the inner being of the child comes to expression through imitation, the way in which in its very own fashion it has embraced activities and games, then the encounter with the child is transformed: an attitude of respect and reverence forms which also leads to a finer regard for the way in which this young person performs their subsequent activities.

Parents and pre-school teachers observe the child in their daily interaction but that is not all they do; they also influence the child’s development. If all the pre-school teachers are in agreement that it is still too soon to start school, then their decision affects not just the next year but the whole of the following seven-year-period. If school enrolment is “deferred” or the child is put into a bridging class, they are enabled to allow their life forces and health-giving forces to mature further which is of importance for the whole course of their school career, indeed their whole life.

About the author: Claus-Peter Röh was a class teacher and also taught music and religion for 28 years at the Flensburg Free Waldorf School; today he leads the Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum in Dornach with Florian Osswald.