Many parents I know too quickly dismiss Waldorf education for their children before investing any significant amount of time to understand it. The debate between public and private systems is a highly divisive issue. Often the decision is an economic one, but I’ve found that like anything in life, if you are willing to spend a little time learning the ideology behind a new concept or idea, you will be rewarded. We’ve found this with Waldorf. First however, parents have to put their own ingrained and traditional biases and sometimes even egos aside, and think of what is best for our children’s needs and development, not our own. Things that we enjoyed as a child such as television, electronics and branded plastic toys are not seen as acceptable at Waldorf due to their impact on the delicate senses and nervous systems of young children. The Waldorf approach of not having our children learn to read and write in the first few grades like the public system throws many parents for a loop. Despite public school expectations of learning to read, brain research clearly shows that 5 or 6 year old brains are simply not yet capable of understanding abstract english letters or even having the ability for any significant reading comprehension. But understanding a bit about brain and child development quickly assures many of this approach. In many ways, Waldorf blends “back to basics” educational techniques with modern pragmatic attachment parenting principals.
The red flags for parents considering Waldorf are often things like, no reading before age 8 or 9. There’s no media in the classroom (e.g. logos/ads on shirts etc) or TV allowed, competitive sports only at older agesand only as an extra-curricular activity. Standardized testing is replaced with individual creative learning. Emphasis is on storytelling, art, music, dance, fairy tales and medieval stories. I’ve often heard parents dismiss this approach as “flakey” or “too soft for my children” or “too coddling” or “over-protective”. In fact, that is exactly the point. We are exposing our children to too many adult ideas and concepts of which young brains simply cannot process. And although Waldorf is a paid private system, most if not all offer heavily subsidized tution plans to ensure that they are not an elitist option.
So, why Waldorf then? Here’s why;
1) Age Appropriate Learning
Waldorf divides childhood development into thirds. There is the birth to age 7 portion where children are driven by imitation of their teachers and parents. School is considered an extension of their family, where the same teacher follows children through each stage (grade) of education, as do parents. Spoken stories and fairytales are the focus for language development, as well as imaginative play, seasonal festivals and natural outdoor toys and influences. Hands-on crafts using wood, wool, needle-felting and knitting emphasize young children’s focus on motor skills vs desk work.
Learning to read or write, math and media are not included in this stage of development, as they are thought not to be age appropriate. Brain development experts in early childhood education would agree, especially since the left and right brain hemisphere remain largely unattached until the end of this development stage. In fact, writing is introduced before reading as more of an artform rather than an exercise in decoding words. This is diametrically opposed to the public system of pushing reading and writing heavily in early grades. Music and dance is required and every student learns to play the recorder early on and then a string instrument at a slightly later age. Children learn science from nature and hands-on experiments rather than from textbooks. In Waldorf, spoken word storytelling is central to their academic work, taking the place of glossy picture books and even videos in the public system. Creativity expert Ken Robinson maintains that the typical public school system “kills creativity” by focussing too much on outdated curriculum and desk-based learning.
2) Zero Tolerance for Mass Media
Kim John Payne M.ED, author of Simplicity Parenting who is a consultant and trainer to over 110 U.S. schools and a private family counselor for twenty seven years, believes that our kids are frazzled with too much media. He has even done detailed studies comparing children from war-torn 3rd world countries who live day to day with so called 1st world countries like the US and Canada. His conclusion was that emotionally and pyschologically, exposing our children to television, mass media advertising and electronics at a young age has the exact same effect as an early childhood spent in places like war-ravaged Bosnia or famine-ridden Somalia. Kim Payne goes on to explain how the diagnosis of ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder) is growing, and prevelant in as high as 11% in our young children. Interestingly also is that the diagnosis of ADHD is far higher on the eastern seaboard vs the west. Factors influencing this could possibly include more emphasis on alternative school systems, and increased play in the outdoors in western areas.
In 1997 over five million people, mostly children, in the United States were prescribed Ritalin, and this is a rise of 700% since 1990. Moreover, at the 1998 Consensus Conference on ADHD of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) one of the stated conclusions was that “there is no evidence that treatment [Ritalin and behavioral therapy] improves academic achievement or long-term outcomes.”
Thoughts like “I was raised with television, and I turned out fine” are common. But as parents, we’ve also grown up in a world of smoking on airplanes, no-seat belts and children with scattered or limited attention spans. Our family has seen first hand how videos can directly cause night terrors. Once we tossed our TV and eliminated (not just reduced) child oriented videos, our kids creative play has flourished. In fact, this is why Waldorf takes such a hard stance on media – your children watching TV will directly impact the style and nature of play of other children they play with. How many times have you heard a parent say “I just don’t know where she got that language from?”. It’s often from the media your child’s friends consume. And as Dr. Gordon Neufeld says, you must not let your child’s peers raise your children (author of “Hold onto Your Kids”). Dr. Gabor Mate who has studied and treated many kinds of addiction on Vancouver’s drug addicted lower East side sees the affects of parents letting peers raise their kids first hand.
3) Non-competitive Environment
Like many parents of our generation, life without media or competitive sports is a hard pill to swallow. But for young kids especially, they simply prefer to co-operate and not have their skills constantly evaluated or tested. Similarly, the Waldorf curriculum does not place importance on seat work and memorization for the purposes of testing. The children actually write and illustrate their own handmade “text books” which are really more like organic journals that integrate their own creative works. Learning is specific to the individual, and so there are no cookie-cutter approaches to the evaluation of student learning. And learning is really simplified so that the same concept is approached using various learning methods vs just solely lecture. The only real time for sit-down learning is not more than 2 hours in the morning. Then the rest of the day, activities are created to reinforce a single core lesson, but in different forms such as art/painting and crafts that use finger or handwork, as well as acting out lessons in plays and seasonal festivals. Children also learn by doing real “work”, such as cooking for groups, needle work, building, measuing and creating wood projects. There is a sense of steady and predictable routine, which is important for maintaining comfort and safety, especially for young children.
4) Family Focused
In Waldorf schools, the teacher will follow the children up from Grade 1 through to Grade 8. Other specialized or guest teachers will rotate through each class, but for the most part, a given student will have a consistent role-model, almost a surrogate parent, follow them through their education. The teacher is seen as the authoritative leader of the classroom, just like a parent. Lessons that involve home-like work such as cooking, making bread and cleaning up, sweeping the floor are rehearsed and demonstrated by the teacher and students. Even the surroundings of a typical Waldorf school classroom is focussed on calming colours for children, with typically soft pink or peach on the walls. Cloths, silks and rugs soften the look and feel of each room, with faceless dolls to inspire creativity, and natural earth tone colours in all furnishings. Most items, toys and furniture are wood where possible, or handmade. This again reinforces a home-like atmosphere which is familiar, safe and conducive to learning.
5) Integrates The Natural World
Outdoor play is central to Waldorf learning. This supports the integration of seasonal lessons and stories into the curriculum. The four seasonal festivals are Michaelmas (fall), Christmas (winter), Easter (spring), and St. John (summer). Children have daily sessions of outdoor play, not confined to short recesses, but longer periods of active time. Crafts are always with natural fibres such as wet-felting, finger-knitting and needle-felting using wool dyed with natural inks. Woodworking is common and even the outdoor playground more resembles something you would erect out of ropes and timbers if you were shipwrecked on an island. Branches, leaves, plants, vines and soil are played with on a regular basis. Waldorf schools can be considered “spiritual” in their ideas of “Mother Earth”, but they are not specifically religious, and are very open to all beliefs. Natural beauty is echoed in all things Waldorf, from paintings to flower pressings to the festivals in each season.