Let me say at the outset that the answer to your question will vary depending on the age of your child. But because you mention both homework and free play, I will answer your question with a nine or ten year old in mind.
There are certain guiding thoughts in a Waldorf School. I think of them as the essential understandings of our education. One of these understandings is that children do best when they are engaged in three fundamental ways – through purposeful activity, through the warmth of their feelings, and through clear thinking. This is the basis for our “head, heart, and hands” approach to teaching. Waldorf teachers try to engage children in these three ways in almost all of their classes.
I believe that the same balanced approach works in our homes and that the time after school could be looked at in a similar way. Our children generally need some “down time” after school and for each child this can be different. For some children it is time to sit down with a snack and read. Others sit down with their snack and talk about the day, and some children just want to go outside as soon as possible and play. Time outside running, climbing, riding a bike or a scooter is so good for children, especially in an era when so few children walk to and from school. For grade school children time outside is essential.
Quiet time inside is necessary for children too. This allows them time to read or draw or simply to play with their toys and dolls and building things that they have and enjoy. This kind of imaginative play engages them in their feelings. They daydream and wonder and create. Having drawing paper and scissors and paste or beeswax available to children offers them the possibility of creative activity, but also a way for them to relive the lessons and stories of the school day.
This brings us to the question of homework. Homework has fallen out of favor in recent
years as parents’ lives have grown increasingly busy and stressful. But Waldorf Schools have never believed in giving third, fourth, or fifth grade students extensive homework assignments. Our feeling has been that the same three-dimensional approach that we ascribe to in the classroom needs time to work well at home. In order for there to be time for outdoor play or indoor play, time to draw and read or to be read to, time to practice a musical instrument and to help with chores, homework should not take up too much of the time after school.
A second essential understanding in Waldorf education is that children need time to “breathe”. For younger children, nursery/kindergarten through grades one and two, school is physically and emotionally demanding. To sit at a desk, to work with paper and pencils (or crayons) and to follow instructions is taxing. Younger children often end the school day tired and hungry and emotionally thin. For this age child, quiet unstructured time is essential and preferable to after school activities.
As children move into grades three, four, and five, they have acclimated to the school day and their strength and energy have grown. For this age child, an enrichment class or a sports team after school is often desired. The question is always one of how much and how often. All lessons - horseback riding, ballet, ice skating, and music lessons- are really classes and they require further focus and concentration. Even a sports team (we will address a question on sports in our next blog posting) asks children to work within a certain structure, to acquire new skill sets, to meet new physical demands, and new demands for attention. This raises the question, “Where do we find time for our children to exhale?”
One of the greatest unmet needs that children have today is for unstructured time to play and explore and to discover the creative interests and undertakings that exist on the other side of boredom. For too many children a busy after school schedule precludes that possibility.