Waldorf education takes a developmental approach to education. By that, we mean at certain phases of human development, there are windows of opportunity to develop particular skills and capacities. Missing these developmental moments means a child has to work that much harder to develop what is needed. It is similar to this notion that one can, in fact, grow a tomato in northern New England in the middle of winter- but it requires more resources and energy than if one grew it in summer, when earthly conditions are just right and the tomato needs only support to grow itself.
We look at the period of childhood as subdivided into three seven-year phases: birth to seven years, seven to fourteen and fourteen to twenty-one. During each of these phases, the child or young person is busy accomplishing a wide variety of important tasks that will lay the foundation for healthy growth, development and learning for the whole of life. If the child is thrown off course from the work to be done because of too much time immersed in media, one has to ask the question- “What is lost?” and more importantly, what impact does that loss have on the rest of the life journey?
During the phase of development that takes place between birth and age seven, the child has his/her plate filled with physical developmental tasks. Learning to crawl, sit up, walk, talk and continuing the shaping of our internal organs are among the largest and most significant life projects we will ever take on! And we do all of those without being taught, without direct instruction! At this age, the child learns primarily out of imitation- carefully observing the actions of the adults around- doing as they do, not as they say. This is also the time the child learns to form and sustain human relationships, to develop a connection to the world of living nature, to develop healthy habits, and to lay the foundation for all future academic learning.
What happens to a child who spends more time in front of a screen instead of with other human beings engaged in human activity, or immersed in nature? We need to learn to think about what opportunities for growth and healthy development are being lost as we weigh what might be being gained. We can ask ourselves, which will give my child a firmer foundation for future development: time spent in climbing, running, skipping, and playing with friends and in nature or time spent swiping and clicking?
Also during the years seven to fourteen (“the class teacher years”) we must weigh time on the computer, game console, cell phone or tablet with time spent working with bread, beeswax, clay, making things of wood or wool or cloth, drawing, painting, learning to play an instrument, singing, reciting beautiful poems, acting in plays, working together with classmates, and doing harmonious movement activities. We must imagine the difference between digesting already finished media images versus creating one’s own inner pictures. Try remembering the images you had from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings before you saw the movies- can you ever retrieve those once you have seen Hollywood’s version?
The years of seven to fourteen are also an important time for the development of a healthy emotional life. Using stories, the Waldorf teacher, is trying to work subtlety to strengthen and deepen the emotional life of the child and give him/her the vocabulary to express the wide variety of emotions that exist between happy and sad. Contrast this with the surface quality and intensity of what one experiences in a Hollywood movie or on television. If a large part of the education during this phase is learning to feel and be aware of one’s feelings and the feelings of others, how might this learning be impacted by the emotional bombardment we get from mainstream media?
Media use in the early years of life can impinge on children’s developing capacities to deal with frustration, follow tasks through to completion, and to work together with others. Such skills are harder to learn after the fact. In the middle years of childhood, the emotional life is going through enormous development. Children are learning what it means to be an adult. We need to take care with the images of humanity we share- that they are deep and nuanced- as things really are. A diet of superficial images leaves children emotionally unmet. The second part of this article will focus on the impact of media on the development of thinking in the adolescent and young adult in the years fourteen to twenty-one.