Conscious Parenting Guide 

From You Are Your Child’s First Teacher by Rahima Baldwin Dancy

Copyright © 1989 Rahima Baldwin Dancy

Celestial Arts  P.O. Box 7327 Berkely, California 94707




Noted psychologist Bruno Bettelheim defines a young child’s play as activities characterized by freedom from all but personally imposed rules (which are changed at will), by free-wheeling fantasy involvement and by the absence of any goals outside of the activity itself. [1] Not only is play important for the healthy creative and emotional growth of a child, but it also forms the best foundation for later intellectual growth. Bettelheim states:

“Play teaches the child, without his being aware of it, the habits most needed for        

intellectual growth, such as stick-to-itiveness, which is so important in all learning.    

Perseverance is easily acquired around enjoyable activities such as chosen play.

But if it has not become a habit through what is enjoyable, it is not likely to become

one through an endeavour like schoolwork.”[2]

Kindergarten, as first conceived by Friedrich Froebel in the nineteenth century, was a place where children would play, as if in a garden. However, during most of the period in which kindergartens have existed they have been pre-schools.[3] This unfortunate trend of replacing creative play with academic work has accelerated since the 1950s. Instead of being allowed to play, children are made to fill in workbooks or are given computers “to play with,” which overlooks the fact that play needs to involve movement and the “absence of any goals outside of the activity itself.: Similarly, objects that can be played with in only one “right” way are useful only for teaching concepts, rather than allowing the child’s fantasy to roam freely. The imaginative play of the young child, in which objects transform from one thing into another, is an ideal foundation for the symbol manipulation involved in later reading. We shouldn’t skip the step of concrete, although fanciful manipulation of objects in free play by going directly into reading, writing and math. The years from three to six provide a lifelong foundation for creativity that should not be undervalued or foreshortened.


Just as it is important not to skip steps like crawling in physical development, so the age of fantasy should be honoured as a valuable part of normal development. Play allows for the development of a wide range of experience, so that what is first grasped through action can later be learned anew through thought. Thus when the adolescent studies the laws of levers and mechanics, he will have had the experience of shifting further forward or back on the seesaw, depending on the size of his friend; or the study of trajectories will have had its foundation in throwing balls or skipping stones.


The imaginative play of early childhood changes as the child matures to reflect the child’s growing interests. She may form a detectives’ club around fifth grade, when Nancy Drew or The Hardy Boys adventures are often read. Physical development and imitation will continue to inform the changing content of the children’s play as they become older. Children from time immemorial have reached the world of adults by a staircase of games. Each step is made up of the games of a particular age group, and each step is important. Children will advance from their natural levels of play only when they are ready. For example, a girl who, although younger than her classmates, is tops in her third grade academically, may still prefer to play with the second graders at recess.


Many factors work against free play today: The emphasis on early academics, the passive quality of watching television and movies, the difficulty in connecting with nature, and the need for constant supervision in urban environments. The fact that adults are so busy and most mothers work at least part-time outside the home leaves adults with little creative energy to put into children’s play, or leaves the child in structured daycare from 8:00AM until 5:30 PM. The abundance of toys based on television and movie characters (and therefore with fixed personalities) also leaves little room for creative imagination in play.


Before I became involved in Waldorf education, my own children were constantly asking what they should do or wanting me to entertain them or take them somewhere. When our friends came to visit from Mexico, their bilingual daughter – who had been raised in a small village with no television – would suddenly bring everything to life. She would organize everyone into a circus or put on a show for the adults; suddenly all the children were playing and having a great time with no adult input. I looked back on my own childhood and could remember doing similar things with my best friend: pretending we owned ranches, with bikes for horses and huge ponderosa pine cones for dogs; or making forts in the rocks down at the creek; or playing “office” with a dozen little characters who lived at our desks; or making pipe cleaner doll in second grade and spending the next two months at home making orange-crate houses and furniture for them.


Clearly my children had somehow lost the ability to play. While I was able to diagnose the problem, I was at a loss to know what to do about it. Then I discovered the Waldorf Schools and ways in which parents can help their children play creatively, which I want to share with you. Their improvement in their children’s play at home was an often-heard observation at the first parents’ meeting when I taught kindergarten at the Rudolf Steiner School. If we understand the elements of creative play, we can help our children not miss out on this important part of early childhood.

[1] Bruno Bettelheim. The Uses of Enchantment Alfred A Knopf, New York, N.Y. 1975, p.37

[2] Ibid. p.36

[3] Ibid. p. 37


Conscious Parenting Guide 2009-15 

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