Letting Go of Expectations Helps Young Children Find the Joy of Accomplishment
First published Spring 2013
A recent visit to the Waldorf Forest Kindergarten in Saratoga Springs, New York, resonates in memory in a special way. The children whose parents have chosen this program have a consciously simplified environment freed of the temptations and distractions of the busier city life not far down the road. The group spends nearly the whole morning out in nature—no matter the weather—except perhaps for the first hour of morning in deepest winter when the air needs an hour to warm above super-frigid temperatures. Children are called upon to develop heartiness and resiliency in meeting the weather, terrain, practical tasks and social experiences from which our society too often excessively shelters children. These are all important things for us to appreciate in how these experiences benefit the children’s development physically, emotionally and socially. But we can take these points up at another time because it is something else that stands out so prominently in memory from this visit.
A three-year-old little girl new to the program latched on to my hand as the group of children began the walk along a trail into the woods. The pathway was made of rounded stepping stones and narrow, slightly elevated boards to give us walking space above the soggy ground below. These little “bridges” of two parallel boards would bounce and spring slightly, challenging our balance as we walked their length. Uneven ground could not be avoided and puddles just had to be stepped in. We walked along slowly, my companion’s three-year-old legs having a short stride and some insecurity on the tippy rocks. She held my hand for balance until the path became too narrow and we had to walk single file. Then she went on independently. We set no speed records, and no one minded. The thirty-two children and five adults walked along in little clusters, some faster, some slower. No one hurried the children along. Getting to our destination took as long as it needed. The littlest children were in no way made to feel inadequate or deficient because they could not walk fast, or if a foot slipped on a wet rock and muddy, waterproof overalls resulted. Each child was respected for the capacities he or she had developed so far, knowing that new skills, competence, and confidence grow upon consolidation of what comes before.
But, this still is not really the point. What speaks so strongly in memory is that the teachers allowed the children as much time as was needed to walk our little journey. Each child was allowed as much independence as possible, no matter how long it took. There were no expectations of how much or how fast things should happen. It was so satisfying to complete a few things well and not feel anxious because of expectations unmet.
The little girl moved on to join other children and did not seek my companionship again. She did not need it. She had literally found her feet and her standing with the other children, having been granted the time to experience what she could accomplish on her own.
We want our children to become confident, independent doers and directors of their own lives. They can, but we adults have to give them the time to find their own strength. We do not need to speed them up, but to slow ourselves down and let the children lead us. We will all benefit.