The third grade is often called the turning point of childhood. Every age has its drama, but the eight or nine-year-old is going through a change that is particularly profound; you might hear Waldorf teachers referring to it as the “Crossing point,” the “Watershed” or the “Rubicon.”
What is prescribed in the curriculum for this age? Farming and gardening, the Old Testament, Building and Grammar. Why these? Do you remember the time before your ninth year? Can you recapture even a hint of the qualitative richness of a home landscape, a certain house, particular relationships? And then, can you remember how things and people began to look ‘ordinary’? As a nine-year-old we feel ourselves growing apart from the world. We become separated, independent, and begin to question all that was previously taken for granted. “Are my parents really my parents?” “Why is it called oak?” This questioning is accompanied by a serious stream of interest in everything practical. “How is a house built?” “Where does my food come from?”
Rudolf Steiner describes how the nine-year-old experiences at a spiritual level what the three-year-old experienced when first using the word “I.” Before the age of nine, the major part of our being is not incarnated, not yet within us, and therefore lives within everything and everyone we perceive. We feel inwardly related to everything and can identify very fully with almost anything.
Now an experience arises of self as something independent of everything else. This brings the first suffering of loneliness, but also the first conscious joy in solitude. It brings the first capacity to understand death as a reality. Now we may suddenly feel very insecure; our relationship with Nature, with Eternity, with Others, and with Ourselves has to be re-established.
Nine-year-old children usually love to go out into nature in a more methodical and challenging manner than before. They become capable of more sustained physical effort; it is an ideal time to start regular family hikes. They become capable of more sustained interest in an animal or a plant. This should be encouraged as much as possible; it lays the foundations for active caring about our planet Earth. The Waldorf curriculum gives them practical farming and gardening experience.
If their imaginative powers have not been paralyzed by technological entertainment, eight and nine-year-olds like to say “What if…?” and plunge into spontaneously created fantasies. The Old Testament stories give substantial material on which their imaginations can feed, leading to a wrestling with fundamental moral ideas.
Nine-year-olds form clubs and delight in battles between clear-cut opposites: us and them, heroes and enemy, good and bad. The “Building Block” teaches them about the far-reaching cooperation that is necessary for the achievement of civilization.
The question, “Who am I?” may arise, and this is possibly the most difficult of all. Many of us side-stepped this new awareness through increased external activity or by clinging to established patterns. Those who have not had particularly warm personal relationships, begin at this time to pursue external success with sometimes fanatical determination. These children may become ruthless and inconsiderate in their working and private lives. It is important, therefore, that nine-year-olds achieve a new inner security, new clarity of thought, new techniques for coming to terms with their emotions.
The Waldorf curriculum also provides drama, music and grammar. Class plays allow the children to experience the great relationships of the Old Testament, and there is always a lively relationship with their teachers. Machine-learning at this stage deadens the courage for such lively relationship.
Through round-singing, the student learns that holding your own voice against others is a necessary part of harmony; that a rhythm must be consistent if it is to be a reliable vehicle for melody and harmony. The children also progress in their instrument learning. After two years with the pentatonic flute, the third grade child learns how to play a simple recorder. Although the student may be introduced to stringed and wind instruments as he moves through the middle years, the recorder will continue to be an instrument used throughout the grades.
In the third grade English may become a special subject assigned its share of main lesson periods. Grammar awakens living rational thought, the awareness of a qualitative difference between words that are “naming,” those that are “doing,” and those that are “describing.” In the previous years the teacher may have prepared the ground by writing whatever was to be copied from the board with nouns always in blue, verbs in red and adjectives perhaps in yellow or green.
Now we see why our third graders require more understanding, guidance and companionship from their responsible parents and teachers. In a Waldorf school, they are helped to form new relationships with nature through farming and gardening experience, with eternity through Old Testament experience, with others through building experience, and with themselves through drama, music and grammar.