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Waldorf Education - Understanding the Main Lesson:"Circle"

Updated: May 25, 2023

In the last article, we did a survey of the four primary parts of a Waldorf main lesson. We also looked at the first seven year growth cycles to see how these component parts relate to human development. Now we are going to look specifically at the first component part, the "Circle".

As a reminder, there are four primary parts of the main lesson:

  • The Circle/Rhythmic Movement

  • Review

  • New-Do

  • Story

Here is an excerpt from the last article. Let's review it and use it as a basic outline for what we will explore in this article.

Circle/Rhythmic Movement

Like the first stage of human development, we are engaging the student in meaningful play. This is not simply free play, as is so important for the child between birth and dentition, but it is playful movement that we lead them through. We want to engage the limbs and the whole body. We are building coordination and skill, certainly. Simultaneously, we are activating wide ranges of neural pathways, supporting the development and myelination of neural potential for the rest of their lives. We most often accompany these movement exercises and activities with verses and songs so that the feeling forces are also engaged and enjoyable. Bean bag exercises, balance beam work, rhythm sticks, finger games, etc--these are the kinds of things we can use in "Circle", especially in the first four or five grades.

I don't think it can be overemphasized that we are trying to engage the child in meaningful PLAY. We see in the natural world that the young of so many different creatures will engage in playful activities. With mammals such as cats and dogs, it is quite easy to see that they are enjoying the activities. The purrs and tail-wagging are clear indicators of good feelings. Also, it is obvious to anyone who has really observed animals that these behaviors are not idle, these playful activities are efficient ways for the young to develop their abilities and skills for the future. Indeed, play and imitation are the two ways that these young creatures learn.

It is quite similar for our own young. Naturally, because we are human beings, it is not exactly the same, but the similarities are strong. So, we can be assured that play, activities done with a joyful and enjoyable mood, is a key component for learning.

In her online article, "The Neuroscience of Joyful Education", Judy Willis references a several brain and neuroscience studies that support this position.

"Neuroimaging studies and measurement of brain chemical transmitters reveal that students' comfort level can influence information transmission and storage in the brain (Thanos et al., 1999). When students are engaged and motivated and feel minimal stress, information flows freely through the affective filter in the amygdala and they achieve higher levels of cognition, make connections, and experience “aha” moments. Such learning comes not from quiet classrooms and directed lectures, but from classrooms with an atmosphere of exuberant discovery (Kohn, 2004)."

It does not take much time to find numerous other studies and articles referencing studies to see how much evidence there is to verify the importance of play--even in the classroom. Play cannot be relegated only to physical education classes or the playground. We must be able and willing to utilize this efficient learning modality throughout the learning day.

Of course this must be balanced. Any parent and/or teacher knows that children can "spin out" at times. Play can veer toward chaotic outbursts.

So, like all matters of health, the healthy level of play in a main lesson is found by balancing certain factors. Let's look at those.

The "Circle" of a main lesson in first through third grades, for instance, will typically last between 30 and 45 minutes. During this time, the students will be led through activities that incorporate body rhythms such as clapping and stepping in time, tossing and catching items such as bean bags, moving forward and backward, coordinating movements that alternate right and left sides of the body, the upper and lower limbs, as well as cross-lateral movements. There may also be vigorous activities such as jump roping, balancing activities such as balance beam work, and subtle movement for fine-motor development such as finger plays. The child will find herself on her tip-toes one minute, crawling at another time, spinning around at other times, and so on. And almost all of these movements and activities are done in relation to verses and songs that the students recite and sing with the teacher.

The entire "circle", the entire series of movements and activities, with the related verses and songs, becomes a daily routine. This circle routine can las for many weeks, though I typically stay within an eight-week limit.

For the first week or so, the children find joy in learning the new movements, verses, and songs. The next few weeks, they find joy in the mastery of the entire routine. Then the teacher finds ways to variate and play with the routine for spontaneous surprises, which keep the children interested. For instance, a verse can be spoken once like a mouse, with small movements, and then again like an elephant, with very large movements. Same verse but brought with variety. Then the teacher can judiciously incorporate ideas from the students for some of this variety and this engages their joyful interest again. By now, we have managed six to eight weeks of these movements and activities. It has been a joyful experience, for the most part--there can be struggles here and there of course. However, it must be asked: To what purpose? What are they learning?

There can certainly be some academic learning. We can teach them verses and songs that help the children learn math facts or multiplication tables, new vocabulary words, punctuation tips, etc. These are fine things to do. However, early on, these are secondary considerations. The primary purpose of the circle is to joyfully engage the child in movements that support the body's physical development.

Static balance, dynamic balance, bilateral movements, cross-lateral movements, rhythmic movement, spacial orientation, sense of touch and bodily boundaries, gross-motor development, and fine-motor development are the main goals for the early grades.

(I could write chapters and chapters about these components of a good circle for students, but it will be much easier to demonstrate them. As soon as possible, Simply Waldorf will release course for helping with circles for the grades. In the meantime, there are a few resources you may find online for further study. I cannot vouch for them myself, because I have not studied them, but I was able to find a few with a quick online search. )

When we engage the students with a joyful and meaningful circle, we harmonize their bodies, help them achieve their developmental milestones, and simultaneously wake them up while also making them more comfortable in their bodies so that they can sit for a bit and do some work when it is time. Rather than a time of random physical activity, the circle is a time of purposeful fun that helps the child in many different ways.

I really look forward to creating some courses on this subject.

Our next article will look at the next part of the main lesson the Review.

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