“What’s the Big Deal about Teeth in Waldorf Schools?” June 13 2016

First Grade Readiness and the Waldorf School Plan

A parent of a kindergartner asked a teacher this question one day, “What’s the big deal about teeth in a Waldorf school?”  It’s a good question as Waldorf teachers take seriously the changing of teeth, from milk teeth, or “baby teeth,” to the new growth of adult or second teeth.

Deciding whether or not to declare a child ready to move from kindergarten to first grade is a weighty decision to make.  Often parents are eager to have their child “advance” and there is much at stake emotionally in having a child enter first grade.  Some parents might feel that having their child stay in kindergarten another year as some kind of failure. Waldorf teachers watch very carefully and elementary school teachers work closely with kindergarten teachers to discern if a child is really ready for first grade. It can take a great toll on a child to be hurried or held back against the signals in the child’s own physical and emotional development.

A child shows many physical manifestations for being ready to move to first grade. Changes to their trunks—the ripening for learning to stretch and lose their “baby bellies” and to find a waist. Their neck and a chin will become more prominent and much of the soft roundness of early childhood begins to disappear. A child can suddenly reach an arm over the top of their head and touch the top opposite ear when before this was impossible.

The loss of the baby teeth, however, is the defining physical flag to pay attention to in the child’s readiness to learn in new ways.  Waldorf teachers know that the second teeth are the hardest substance a child can produce. The final efforts of physical mastery display in the pushing out of hereditary teeth and the growing in of second teeth. 

To observe child development rightly, the child’s “job” in the years from birth to this change of teeth is physical mastery: uprightness, balance, walking, speaking, singing, eye-hand coordination, large motor coordination, jumping, running, tumbling (deliberately), tracking with the eyes, small motor skills, sensory discrimination and integration, rhythmic sleeping, eating habits—are a few of the physical capacities that a young child must develop for a healthy life of robust development and a foundation for clear thinking into adulthood. It is easy to see that this is a big job for a young child.

In the Waldorf view, distractions from these vital capacity building efforts, asking the child read, do math, study facts, as examples, deprive the child of concentration on these very important skills and capacities.

So it is with the teeth that reassure teachers that the child’s physical growth has attained its nadir and thus the child is ready to move on. Waldorf teachers call this a second “birthing” of an invisible body surrounding every human being, calling this invisible body—as in the “aura” of a human being, visible to some but very few – the life body or the etheric body.  Once the teeth start to fall out, it is then clear that this birthing is underway and the physical body no longer dominates the child’s consciousness. The etheric body, now born, gives the child new faculties for learning.  The teacher can dig in to academic learning around letters, numbers, memorizing, and observing more consciously without robbing the child of the important energy needed to develop all those important physical dimensions.

Children give us wonderful signals about the importance of losing teeth. Some teachers keep a “tooth inventory” of the teeth lost in the first grade class. An entire morning can be spent counting how many teeth have fallen out, how many wiggly teeth there are in the class, who has not lost any teeth yet, how many have lost a bunch, who can see second teeth beginning to pop up. It takes real discipline to move a first grade forward after introducing the topic of teeth. This attention, this consciousness of the child on his or her own physical happenings gives teachers and parents another clue about readiness. Until this etheric birthing, a young child is not very conscious of his teeth.

Careful measure of what a child can handle comes along with this careful discernment of the child’s development.  As first grade proceeds, the big teeth come in and by second grade, or eight years of age, big teeth are growing in fast.  There is nothing finer than a second grader’s smile: gaps and enormous teeth in little heads while the child grows into these magnificent new teeth!

So this is the “big deal” about teeth. Just as a garden grows well and pushes flowers from the dark earth into the light, heralding the accomplishment of spring: so a child’s garden of teeth pushes into the light, heralding a whole new phase of childhood. To diminish this “big deal” would be like ignoring the blooming of tulips or myrtle!  How could we? Likewise, the celebration of big new teeth gives a child a sense of wonder at his or her own capacities. Shake hands, oh child! And welcome to the celebration of all that you can learn and do!  Welcome to first grade.  Ready?