Rhyme, Rhythm and Ritual, the Three Rʼs of Childhood

Stephen Sheen

In Sept 2014, the following open letter appeared in the UK Daily Telegraph, signed by over 200 specialists in various fields of Education:

Sir- “The erosion of childhood” is becoming a theme of concern to citizens across the political spectrum.The latest salvo in this “paradigm war” for the heart of childhood has been discharged by the head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw. In a letter to all early-year inspectors, he instructs them to judge nurseries mainly in terms of preparation for school. They must “teach children the early stages of mathematics and reading”.This utilitarian shift from experience to content betrays an abject (and even willful) misunderstanding of the nature of early childhood experience. The determination to dragoon Englandʼs young children into unconscionably early quasi-formal learning is catastrophic for their well- being, and is setting up many for failure at a very young age.
Englandʼs early-years education and care is safe in the hands neither of Sir Michael Wilshaw nor of the current incumbents at the Department of Education. We urge Sir Michael and the DfE to stop digging in their current “schoolifying” hole, and step back from this misguided drive to over- formalize Englandʼs early-years.
The alternative might be that these policy-makers end up precipitating the first wave of professional “principled non-compliance” with government policy that our education system has known in living memory. Any government that under estimates the strength of feeling on this issue, and the resolve to resist it, does so at its peril.

Signed by: Dr Richard House, University of
Winchester. Jess Edwards, Coordinator for Primary Education. Christine Blower, Gen. Sec., National Union of Teachers. Professor Penelope Leach, Birkbeck College, University of London and 230 others

Later that month, while I was at the Nashville Waldorf School, I was asked to say a few words at Grandparents day and I started by reading the above letter, as I felt that US education probably struggled with the same problems of politicians not heeding educational experts. I then mentioned that Waldorf education has been promoting these values in early childhood for nearly 100 years.

The traditional 3 Rʼs of education, Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic, have been the bedrock of our educational system for hundreds of years and of course are also central to the Waldorf curriculum. The question is, not whether they should be taught, but when they should be introduced?

The letter pleads, to let children learn through play in their pre-school years and not to have the traditional 3 Rʼs drilled into them, plus the attendant testing. The success of the Scandinavian models and especially Finland, where formal education only begins after age six also illustrates this belief.

I would like to suggest a second set of 3 Rʼs, the ones of the title, to precede the traditional ones, for the first six years, both at school and in the home – for our modern media-run societies are in danger of losing the connection to Rhythm, Rhyme and Ritual, and replacing them with a flat screen media entertainment.

Let us consider the importance of these three, on which Rudolph Steiner laid such emphasis, in so many of his lectures on education and which Waldorf teachers throughout the World, work with on a daily basis.

Rhyme

The learning of the mother tongue is a continual miracle. The young childʼs capacity to imitate the sounds it hears from the speech of the adults surrounding it, especially its mother, enables it in a very short time to master its mother tongue. From the moment of birth and even before, while still in the womb, research has found, the sounds it hears are beginning to form the childʼs capacity for language. What a responsibility then for the adults around the child to ensure that the sounds it hears are worthy of imitation. The greatest influence comes from the mother in talking and singing to her newborn child. Lullabies are the oldest songs of which we have record, where the mother is teaching her child language set to music and often used for helping the child to go to sleep. Nursery rhymes aid in a childʼs development and learning (note 2). Research also supports the assertion that music and rhyme increase the childʼs ability in spatial reasoning, which leads to greater success in school in the subjects of Maths and Science (note 3).

There have been many studies that indicate, that nursery rhymes and rhyming are not only important in the acquisition of language, but also central to acquiring language skills and learning to read.

“Rhymers Are Readers: The Importance of Nursery Rhymes” KBYU Eleven Ready to Learn, is an organization that has designed a programme to help children learn to read (kbyueleven.org).

In Waldorf education, the importance of rhyming is used from the very first day in preschool and right on through the grades. Songs and verses with movement accompaniment, are nourishment for the preschool child, so that when they enter first grade, the memorizing of poetry is second nature to them. Age appropriate verse, with its rhyme and rhythm is a part of every grade main lesson, at the beginning of their day and these verses and poems are often carried by the student into adult life to be a source of pleasure and inspiration.

(note2) R. Bayley. Foundations of Literature(2004)
(note3) Associated Press; “Study says preschool music may aid Math skills”. Chicago Tribune Aug.1994

Rhythm

The second R, Rhythm is also of course part of the world of rhyme in nursery rhymes, verses and poems that children learn at home and at school. But it is also central to the development of the human being from conception through birth and childhood and through all of life.

The rhythms of life reflect the cosmic rhythms of our solar system – the seasons of the year, the lunar monthly cycle, the rhythms of the week and day. Rudolph Steiner has indicated in many of his lectures, both educational and others, the importance of rhythm in our lives.

I have chosen one extract from the lectures Steiner gave in Torquay, UK, in August 1924, titled the Kingdom of Childhood, to illustrate the importance he gave to the teacher working with the rhythmic system of the child:

From page 127 Lecture 7, from The Kingdom of Childhood.

“…..Rhythm of breathing, rhythm of the blood, the whole rhythmic system is what holds sway between the change of teeth and puberty. Only Rhythm!

But what is the real nature of rhythm? Now if I
think a great deal, particularly if I have to study, I get tired, I get tired in my head. If I have to walk far, which is an exertion for my limb organism, I also tire. The head, or the nerve senses organism, and the metabolic-limb organism can get tired, but the rhythmic organism can never tire.

Now in education and teaching you must address
yourself to whichever system is predominant in man; thus between the change of teeth and puberty you must address yourself to rhythm in the child by using pictures. Everything that you describe or do must be done in such a way that the head has as little to do with it as possible, but the heart, the rhythm, everything that is artistic or rhythmic, must be engaged. What is the result? The result is that with teaching of this kind the child never gets tired, because you are engaging his rhythmic system and not his head.”

Ritual

The third R, Ritual, is less easy to say why it is important in the life of the child, for it has in many peoples minds an association with religion and in our ever increasingly secular society, religious practices seem to be becoming less and less relevant.

Ritual also has to do with Tradition. In any social setting, be it in the home, school or in the larger context of life, tradition plays its part. Some traditions come and go, while others survive the test of time and those that do, usually have an element of ritual about them.

For the small child, the element of repetition can be a safe anchor in an ever-changing world. This element of repetition can take on the mantel of a Ritual, be it a grace at meals, a prayer or verse before going to sleep, or the celebration of a seasonal festival. Christmas is an obvious one, but other religions have theirs too. Christmas traditions and rituals can be very important and meaningful in the home and at school for the young child. I am sure many families have their own rituals for this season whatever their religion and many Waldorf schools throughout the world celebrate the Advent time with the Advent Spiral or Spiral of Light for the younger children, followed by the Oberufer Christmas plays, which in their Medieval simplicity can take on a ritual aspect, that can leave a lasting impression on young and old alike.

There is also an element of ritual in the Waldorf main lesson, for every class teacher develops their own rituals and rhythms for their lessons, which reflect the curriculum and the students stage of development. In the larger context of the school I am sure that traditions and rituals also play a part.

For example I would like to end with a tradition at Michael Hall School in the UK that has taken on a ritual aspect. This is the ritual of lighting the St John’s fire that takes place on the Saturday nearest to St John’s day, June 24th. This is the culmination of the school’s Midsummer Festival and involves the leaving class 12, who process with torches to the site of the fire, circle it and recite the following words (see below), before plunging their torches into the pile of brushwood. As the flames leap skyward, the young people gather to sing the songs they have prepared to take on their trip to Italy, and that they will be offering to the art centres and churches there.

This is a very moving ʻritualʼ and leaves a lasting impression on these young people, who are leaving their school and setting out on life’s adventure.

(Words written by David Bryer, Upper School teacher in the 1970s)

FIRE! Fire I bear, Fire to burn the dead wood.
FIRE! Fire I bear, Fire to warm the cold air.
FIRE! Fire I bear, Fire to light up the dark night.
That death may give new life;
That warmth may turn to love;
That light may lead to freedom.
For this we come,
With many fires,
To light the one.