Why play-gym?

By Angelika Enss, July 2013

The most important principle in the work of teachers in our time is that everything they offer the child in terms of movement should be clothed in a living image and integrated into a rhythm. Movement tasks starting out from a circle and returning to a circle strengthen the “we feeling” which children need to develop security in life and courage.

© Sven Jungtow

In the last twenty years, most German Waldorf schools have established a play lesson, often called play-gym, for class 1 and 2 pupils. This lesson is thought of as a precursor of the gym lessons which are then held regularly once a week from class 3 onwards. Often this lesson is taken by the class teacher, but sometimes it is located in gym/sports and is given by the corresponding specialist teachers. These play lessons consist of singing and circle games as well as walks in the countryside of various kinds: the children run, hop, creep or climb up the wall bars. Exercises related to body geography and various tasks of dexterity can be integrate. The content of the games is linked with the age-appropriate stories in the respective class. Thus in class 1 fairy tale images are used as the basis for play which connect with the direct sense of life. That can be “setting out” from the family, founding a new community, an adventure with a happy end (mostly a marriage), proving oneself in distant lands and returning home. Then there are the rhythms and verses about the beings of nature such as plants, stones, dwarfs, but also the sun and stars. For class 2 we choose the fables and acts of the saints as the basis for dialogues which are sung or spoken individually or in groups, such as “the wolf and the doves”. Animal movements and shapes and animal walks now take precedence. Then we have the first games of catch. Clapping games and dancing with a partner are learned and individual children are given the task of leading games.

Discovering trust in the world through play

At about the age of seven, many children are insecure in their bodies, display little self-confidence or may still be quite clumsy. Not many can walk on stilts or do skipping, many have difficulties in maintaining posture and keeping themselves vertical for several minutes. It is no longer a given that children can hop or stand on one leg for several seconds when they enter class 1. More frequently than in earlier times, children lack muscle tension or the ability to watch a moving skipping rope so that they can jump into it at the right moment.

These physical prerequisites are exceedingly important if children are to listen attentively in school or contribute appropriately to the work. Children are only capable of solving the set tasks in any way if they are in the appropriate physical state.

The educational goal of these movement lessons is to make the children feel increasingly comfortable in their own body and to develop a growing trust in the world as the trust in their body develops. The children should feel supported and looked after and experience security and consistency – that is the only way to develop and strengthen self-esteem and the courage to face life.

Moreover, the games serve community building and strengthen social competence. Being a game leader or participating fairly, having consideration for others and acting out one’s own actions in such a way that it does not negatively impact on the others is not an easy thing for children at this age. Joint singing and speaking is a particular help in that respect. Not least, the children improve their dexterity and can control their own movements better.

Playing in the fairy tale forest instead of scoring goals

The expectations which the children, and sometimes the parents, have of the play lessons are often characterised by an idea of sport which is in no way guided by the age of the group but by sports and sporting idols who just happen to be in fashion or by sports which everyone else around them is playing. The question is frequently asked why we do not play football or basketball. In order to bestir themselves in an inwardly fulfilled way, children at this age require images to which they can give themselves over inwardly. A ball on its own and a goal or basket may represent a challenge and trigger activity but they will seldom lead the children at this age to find a game which fits into the complex rules of football or basketball while also keeping them satisfied for any length of time – except if we reduce the ball game to shootings goals or baskets. It is more healthy for the children to offer them a range of age-appropriate movements such as walking on stilts or playing with small equipment such as ropes or tyres. When children are given the space and suitable materials, surprisingly creative play situations arise.

Children can mostly be led into the range of movements offered by the teacher in play lessons if the tasks are embedded in appropriate images and rhythms. With a few words the mundane gym hall environment can be transformed into a moor, hills, lakes or a magic landscape, into a field with horses or a steep rock wall. The teacher’s introductory words stimulate the imagination of the children and mean that the movements are experienced as being connected with their inner soul world. A little verse to shoe a horse introduces the trotting and galloping of the horses: “Shoe the colt, Shoe the colt, Shoe the wild mare; Here a nail, There a nail, Yet she goes bare“ – and off they go, trotting and galloping cheerfully to the accompaniment of a (pentatonic) glockenspiel.

At around the age of seven, children perceive the world around them through all their senses and are intimately involved in everything they experience in their surroundings. They want to follow the adult with devotion and be able to rely on the adult’s guidance. They are stimulated in their sentient forces through the images they are offered, their feeling life acquires a sense of direction and the movements are therefore experienced as meaningful and fulfilled. If we adults try to keep putting ourselves in the inner situation of the children, and only then think about what we offer them as movement, the play landscape could be significantly more diverse for the younger school children, their movement skills would grow faster and there would be greater satisfaction all round.

About the author: Angelika Enss is a class 1 to class 8 physical education and religious studies teacher at the Kräherwald Free Waldorf School.