Brain Development and Waldorf Education

A critical tenet of Waldorf Education is that its curriculum is informed by knowledge of brain development, so that relevant skills such as reading readiness, homework, learning a second language, and handwriting, are introduced at appropriate developmental stages.

A recent article, by Vince Gowman, revisits this issue by stating that “the right brain develops first”, such that the right brain develops by the time children are three to four years old, whereas the left brain “doesn’t fully come online until children are approximately seven years old”. While there are grains of truth in these descriptions, they do not fully portray the complexity of early brain development.

Different parts of the brain have different growth trajectories. The left brain begins to develop long before birth, with some regions developing before others in the right brain. Conversely, some regions in the right brain advance more rapidly, and begin to mature earlier than those on the left. It seems that in humans and in other animals, the brain “torques” during maturation because of a growth gradient that progresses simultaneously from the front of the brain to its back, from the bottom of the brain to its top, and from right to left.

Many of these left-right asymmetries disappear during later development. For example, speed of motor performance using right or left limbs is significantly different during early development, but equalizes at later ages; interestingly, this process occurs earlier in girls. Other asymmetries remain throughout life. This can be seen in most individuals, where the right frontal lobe is larger than the left, and the left occipital lobe is larger than the right one. In some psychiatric disorders, this asymmetry is missing, suggesting that asymmetry is vital for normal brain development.

It is also important to recognize that the human brain continues to evolve at least into our 20’s. Indeed, scientists now recommend that, because of continued brain development, adolescence should be defined as lasting until age 24.

The challenge for educators is to translate these neurobiological findings into a pedagogical program that matches manual and cognitive skills with the appropriate stage in brain development. This is a challenge that Waldorf Education has met with remarkable success.

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