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Living Arts

Whole Childhood:
The Prime Sustainability Issue of Our Time

by Joni DeGroot & Joan Jaekel

What does the state of childhood have to do with the wellness of our planet? Planetary health stands no chance when children’s social-emotional wellbeing is compromised. What is happening to our children? Most notably, researchers cite escalating government-mandated academic forces and family pressures to succeed as the agents behind the dominoes falling onto our youngest global citizens. For fear of losing ground, we medicate and treat preschool and elementary age children for anxiety, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), learning disabilities, and disruptive behaviors at record levels. Middle school, high school and college students are pervasively cheating, binge drinking, depriving themselves of sleep, and committing suicide at alarming rates.
Reversing this trend is as simple as child’s play. Recent scientific findings remind us how important physical and imaginative play is to a healthy childhood. A counter-intuitive and amazing fact researchers have found about play is its role in cultivating executive functioning, or the ability to focus, guide and organize one’s own thinking. This involves the critical capacity for impulse control, anticipation of consequences, the delay of gratification, problem-solving, and overall adaptability. Howard Chudacoff, author of Children at Play, states, “it turns out that all that time playing make-believe actually helps children develop.” He further observes, “it’s interesting to me that when we talk about play today, the first thing that comes to mind are toys.” He calls this the commercialization and co-optation of child’s play—a trend that begins to shrink the size of children’s imaginative space.
On February 17, 2008, National Public Radio broadcasted “Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills,” a program revealing a recent study to replicate an investigation of self-regulation first done in the late 1940s. Psychological researchers asked children ages three, five, and seven to stand perfectly still. The three-year-olds couldn’t stand still at all, the five-year-olds could do it for about three minutes, and the seven-year-olds could stand pretty much as long as the researchers asked. In 2001, researchers repeated this experiment. Psychologist Elena Bodrova at Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning discovered the results to be very different: “Today’s five-year-olds were acting at the level of three-year-olds 60 years ago, and today’s seven-year-olds were barely approaching the level of a five-year-old 60 years ago,” Bodrova explains. These findings coincide with increasing concern over childhood ADHD and other disorders.
Could it be that a return to imaginative and pretend play would recapture these endangered capacities of executive functioning and self-regulation? Wouldn’t it be a relief for us harried parents to discover that we do not need to entertain our children every waking hour with planned activities, bought toys, lessons, and screen time? (Cutting back on gadgets, organized sports, and computer games would even provide financial benefits in these challenging economic times of inflation and high gas prices.) In essence, children have the natural ability to access their own inner playmate in not only entertaining themselves, but expanding their states of consciousness. We often inadvertently cultivate boredom in children by continually distracting them from their imaginative interior worlds of thoughts and feelings.
Besides driving parents to exhaustion, poor executive functioning is associated with high dropout rates, drug use and crime. In fact, high executive functioning is a better predictor of success in school than a child’s IQ. Children who are able to manage their feelings and pay attention are better able to learn. As executive functioning researcher Laura Berk explains, “self-regulation predicts effective development in virtually every domain.” Essentially, we aren’t giving kids a chance to practice policing themselves through imaginative and peer-time play.
Infinite imagination holds the key to economic sustainability on a finite planet. The degree to which we allow the stage of childhood to thrive affects whether children will be able to develop stronger essential capacities they’ll need to face 21st Century sustainability and social challenges. This shift will require purposefulness, focus, ability to delay gratification, and impeccable ethics.
Waldorf Education provides an example of how we can see childhood consciousness as connected to social renewal. The fastest growing independent, non-denominational school system worldwide, there are 993 Waldorf schools in 59 countries. The educators in Waldorf schools view childhood based on the integral philosophy of Rudolf Steiner. From preschool on, nature and beauty form the hub of learning as teachers build upon children’s innate curiosity and creative reasoning. Working in this way with rhythmic physical movement, handwork, imaginative play, and the arts—including sewing, knitting, woodwork, painting, athletics, and music for all children—teachers cultivate a sense of mastery, self-control, and focus within the students. In 2007, David Mitchell & Douglas Gerwin of The Research Institute for Waldorf Education, published survey results with input from college professors, employers, and students. The sample consisted of 550 participants spanning 60 years. A majority of Waldorf graduates, setting aside their very strong academics, share characteristics of well-developed executive functioning capacities, of which several are predominant. Waldorf graduates think for themselves and value the opportunity to translate their new ideas into practice. They also appreciate lasting human relationships, seek out opportunities to be of help to others, and are guided by an inner moral compass that helps them navigate the trials and temptations of professional and private life.
Once again, the implications of growth in planetary health and global relations are vast and exciting. The journal, Ecological Economics, is forward-thinking in calling us to blend environmental protection and human flourishing on our planet of finite resources and infinite creativity. It suggests that we need entrepreneurial thinking to expand green industries and the healthy lifestyle market, as well as to cultivate interpersonal and international relations. As a society, the time has come to ask ourselves what we could do differently to educate and raise our young to experience their own interiority and the interconnectedness of life. Imagine the revolutionary impact on all human relationships when visionary children arise from a full experience of childhood.

Joni De Groot, MS Ed, is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist, educational consultant, and school psychologist. Joan Jaeckel has served as Development Director for the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America and has organized three key gatherings of educators and social visionaries in recent years. Contact Joni De Groot with your interest and questions, networking ideas and projects at JDGConsult@cox.net or 619.741.4249.