Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Gift of Childhood in Today's World

This is the speech I was privileged to hear a few weeks ago. Thank you to Mary O'Connell, who has graciously given her permission to reprint her inspiring words here.

The Gift of Childhood in Today’s World
Prairie Hill Waldorf School Community Education Conference
March 21, 2009

Mary O’Connell, LifeWays

I recently had the opportunity to work with a couple hundred early childhood professionals who are employed by nationally accredited, well-respected childcare centers.

I spent the better part of a day with these teachers, who represented classrooms of children from age 6 weeks to 5 years.

As the day went on, and I was able to talk to and work with these teachers, several “pictures” began to emerge of their work with children. These were images of:
 institutionalized care
• large group sizes with ever-changing caregivers—in many of their programs, children would change classrooms and teachers up to 9 times before first grade, as they aged. This doesn’t take into account turnover of teachers, which is traditionally quite high in U.S. childcare centers
 a hesitancy among many caregivers to develop attachments to the children, because the children were moved around so much, the caregivers were afraid it might actually harm the children to get too close to one adult
 an aversion – no, a fear, really – of touching the children due to a risk of parents misunderstanding and resulting lawsuits
 one caregiver shared with me that she is afraid the children growing up in U.S. childcare centers are experiencing a childhood that is “sterile” (and I don’t think she was talking about freedom from germs!)

I don’t want to leave you with a negative impression of these 200 teachers. The majority of them were sharp, educated and were passionate about their work.

It’s just that the world they inhabit is so unlike my own world of work with young children at LifeWays. In fact, compared to my own childhood (and, most likely, the childhood of most of you, I would guess) it’s almost unrecognizable.

If I had to use one word to describe the impressions I got that day, it would be Orwellian. Have you read George Orwell’s 1984? For those of you who haven’t, it is a novel written in the 1940’s about what life might be like in the future. It’s a world where people’s thoughts and actions are controlled by Big Brother (the government). One way that Big Brother achieves this mind control is that children are raised away from their families in laboratories, by Big Brother. It’s cold. Sterile. The children are taught --hypnotized --by images on screens and through audio recordings. (Hmmm……sound familiar?)

This picture of “institutionalized childhood” is in direct conflict with the picture that Rudolf Steiner gives us about the needs of the young child, which is an atmosphere of love and warmth. When he visited the classes of the first Waldorf school, he often asked the children, “Do you love your teacher?” I wonder how the children in these modern early childhood programs would answer that question?

I think my recent experience with these childcare providers was just a glimpse…. A microcosm…. of our current culture, a culture that has more drastically re-defined childhood than any other before it.

So what are the ways in which childhood has changed from the time when we were children?

The Ways in which Children Spend Their Time are Changing

Children of all ages are spending far less time in play. You’ve probably heard that already. Many people think, “How can that be? Don’t they play all the time? They play soccer, they play the violin, they play video games…”

How do we define play? Luckily, there has been a lot of research done on play recently. This is often the case when something is becoming extinct. So let’s look at how the experts who study play define it:
 it must be repetitive (in studies, if a research subject does something just one time and doesn’t repeat it, it is not considered play)
 it must be voluntarily initiated (if an adult told you to do it…it’s not play.)
 it has no pre-determined rules
 it has no clear goal. (It exists for no purpose other than because it’s fun)

These constructs support what Steiner had to say about play:

What is gained through play, through everything that cannot be determined by fixed rules, stems fundamentally from the self-activity of the child. The real educational value of play lives in the fact that we ignore our rules and regulations, our educational theories, and allow the child free rein.

If you take out all the activities that today’s children do that don’t meet the above criteria, the average child has very little time for imaginative and rambunctious cavorting. They spend much of their time in adult-directed activities, or in front of screens. In fact, the American child consumes the world of video games, Internet, and television for an average of 4-5 hours per day.

So, why should we care? What are the benefits of play?

• There are scores of studies that prove the value of play. I won’t bore you with the details, but to summarize, play:
improves a child’s social skills
strengthens a child’s creativity
improves mental functioning
is a primary predictor of a child’s success in school

 Play serves as a training ground for the unexpected. It helps foster flexible thinking, Thinking outside the box, if you will.

People often say, “Why don’t they have computers in Waldorf schools? That’s so important in today’s day and age.” The world in 20 years will be such a different place. Education in today’s technology will be worthless. Adults will need to be flexible thinkers…problem solvers…work well with others. I can’t think of a better training ground for these skills than play.

 We know that a child approaches play in an entirely individual way, out of the unique combination of his soul and spirit and his experiences of the world in which he lives. The manner in which a child plays offers us a glimpse of how he’ll take up his destiny as an adult. Waldorf schools and LifeWays centers VALUE play. It’s consciously built into the children’s day, and is not an afterthought.

In what other way has childhood changed from the time when you and I were kids to today?

There have been Changes in the Notion of “Protection” of Children

In many ways, this generation of children is more protected than any other before it.

• We are very focused on protecting our children from strangers
Remember the 4-5 hours/day children watch TV, use the Internet and play video games?
Contrast that with 4-5 minutes/day—the average amount of time American children spend in unstructured play outdoors.

We can say that’s probably the case because adults don’t spend much time outdoors today either; but, you know what? They didn’t when I was a kid. My parents were always quite busy at home and at work. The difference is that our parents sent us outside to play. That’s almost unheard of now, because we feel it isn’t safe out there.

People say, “Oh, it’s such a different world out there.” We feel that there are predators lurking around every corner, ready to abduct our kids. Today’s definition of a “good” parent is one who never lets her children out of her sight (or the sight of another vigilant adult).

But the risk of a child being abducted by a stranger today is one in a million. It’s actually decreased! The media attention surrounding missing children is so intense that it makes us think that the risk is greater than ever before.

This, of course, means that children are spending less time in nature. Ask any adult over 30 about their experiences in nature as a child, and they will be able to share vivid memories. Nature enlivens the senses. If I asked you to recall an experience of nature from your childhood, you can probably remember vividly how it smelled, what it looked like, the sounds you heard. Passionate memories of a childhood spent in nature are nearly universal…except for younger people.

Nature introduces children to small, calculated risks, like jumping across a creek on rocks or climbing trees. This is a very different experience from a playground, which is designed for safety. Nature isn’t engineered with “perfect proportions” and “limited liability” in mind. In nature, children learn how to solve problems, they learn their limitations and their strengths. Without this experience, children are at risk of engaging in unhealthy risk-taking as they get older.

Time spent in nature is especially important for adolescents. It is often the setting which brings out the ability to play again as they did when they were young children.

• We are very good at protecting children from germs

I was at a large discount store recently, and saw some children’s dishes that were actually embedded with antimicrobial agents designed to kill bacteria. Bottles of clear hand sanitizer are everywhere, it’s hard to find soap that isn’t antibacterial, antibiotic use is soaring. We’ve become the most germophobic (my own word) generation of parents yet.

• We have become quite accomplished at protecting our children from struggle

Beginning with the smallest infants, we have all sorts of contraptions to prop them up before they are ready to come into the upright on their own because we don’t like to see them struggle and cry as they learn to roll over, sit up and learn to walk.

We give our children all kinds of things they don’t need because we don’t want them to feel disappointment.

Today’s children are expected to do far less around the house in terms of chores, because we want them to have plenty of time for their enriching activities. We protect our children from boredom. The problem with this is that boredom is what breeds true creativity.

In many ways, this is the most protected, coddled generation of children yet.

But are they really protected? There are some areas in which our children are more vulnerable than ever before.

• Too many children are not protected from the media. This alone is robbing our children of their childhood perhaps more than anything else. Media is so pervasive, we often don’t even realize its hold on all of us. Today’s children are more media literate than we are, especially our older children and teens.

We don’t understand their world of instant messaging, video games and texting. The use of technology has spawned a whole new language we can’t even follow, OMG! IDK and PAW (parents are watching).

Many of our young people can’t imagine their life without their constant technology “fix”. I have the good fortune to be a small group leader for the high school religious education program at my church. We were recently preparing for our freshman retreat, and I was explaining to the kids the rule against electronics on retreat…no I Pods, cell phones, video games, etc. Two girls were devastated that they couldn’t bring their cell phones, because they didn’t think they could live without texting for 24 hours. (They ended up surviving quite well, thank you!)

Besides the fact that this media-gap causes a generation gap with our kids, it’s creating an interpersonal vacuum that is scary. It’s too soon to tell what the lasting effects will be on our children, the first generation to grow up surrounded by this level of technology. But one thing we know for certain right now…it’s dangerous.

A child who is allowed to freely surf the internet has a 1 in 5 chance of coming into contact with a predator. Compare that to the 1 in a million chance of them being abducted while they’re playing outside, and I think you’ll agree we’ve lost some healthy perspective on what’s a safe activity for our kids to be engaged in.

• Childhood itself is not being protected very well in our society. The media certainly contributes to this. The world of adult activities, global crises, distorted body images and sexualized fashions has invaded our children’s world at younger and younger ages.

Adult anxieties and fears have also infected our children. Since 9/11 there has been a generalized fear that has only intensified with the recent economic crisis. Our children feel this. It is estimated that 1 in 5 American children are suffering from anxiety disorders severe enough to warrant medication.

I think this is the case not just because they are picking up on our worries. We don’t really, as a society, strive to keep our children innocent anymore. To protect them from big, scary images or adult concepts. There is a general inclination to push them ahead, get them prepared, as if childhood itself isn’t a valid time unto itself—our society views childhood merely as preparation for adulthood. The sooner they “get the picture” the better.

Steiner spoke of the need to offer protection for the Forces of Childhood. Waldorf education (including LifeWays) offers this protection of a sacred time in life. It’s the only model of education that I know of that does this so well, with such intention. It’s a model that helps our children see the world as a safe and beautiful place to grow up. Who can then engage that world with joy and hope and wonder instead of with fear and cynicism.

“Perceive the Child in Reverence, Educate the Child in Love, Let the Child Go in Freedom”

Letting the child go in freedom…that’s our task, as parents, as teachers, as caregivers.
It’s a huge task.

Looking at all of the forces that have begun to work against childhood, one can begin to see that we, as parents and educators, have to bring a heightened level of consciousness to raising children in today’s world in order to send forth fully free human beings.

 Human beings who are free to be in real and meaningful relationships with other human beings.
 Human beings who are free to develop their own thoughts and opinions, and translate those thoughts into actions that reflect their values and ideals.
 Human beings who can think creatively and engage the world with flexibility.

As children grow into adults, a lack of freedom in thinking allows other people to control their thoughts for them. In today’s world, we don’t need to look very far to find teenagers and adults whose thoughts and actions are controlled by outside forces because they somehow lack the freedom to follow a different path.

It’s enough to make you wonder if Orwell’s futuristic world of mind control is all that far off.

I firmly believe that we are the lucky ones….we’ve discovered the antidote. An education that values the gift of childhood.


  1. Thank you for posting this speech! It is Very affirming of our lifestyle. Hope all is well.

  2. Thanks for sharing. I really enjoyed reading this. I would love to go to a Waldorf conference sometime! Sounds like it was wonderful :-)

    I'm reading 'Taking Childhood Back' and this speech reinforces much of what the book says.

  3. Sigh! I agree! My kids went to see grandpa this weekend. They called me when they were leaving. I asked them what they did in grandpa's warehouse. The resounding, giggling answer was "find dirt" oh and we found tons of fossils! That was a good day!
    God bless
    Heather L


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