||Thoughts from a Waldorf Teacher
by Dr. Christine Gruhn
Davis has one of the best public school systems in the state, if not in the country. Still, children are “growing up too fast” all around us and are “burned out” by schoolwork, before they even reach high school.
My husband and I have chosen instead to pay for a Waldorf education for both of our academically talented children. What is so special about Waldorf education?
Waldorf education was the inspiration of the Austrian philosopher, educator, scientist and artist, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). He designed a system that educates the whole child, that is developmentally appropriate, and that teaches the child to live in harmony with the natural world.
Many of Steiner’s ideas, considered radical in 1920, are now being supported by modern research on education and brain development, and some ideas are being adopted by public school systems.
What is a developmentally appropriate education? Steiner’s answer is that a child’s life needs to be enriched, but not accelerated.
Dr. David Elkind, in his book ‘The Hurried Child’, stated that children are being pushed to grow up too fast and to accomplish more than should be expected of them. Our own children would undoubtedly succeed in accelerated academic programs, but we want them to enjoy their childhood. We know there will be time later for intense academics and sports, and when the time comes, our children will not be “burned out”.
The Waldorf curriculum is not boring, even for very bright children, as children paint, draw, garden, dance, cook, knit and learn one or two foreign languages in their early years.
Every day, each child in every Waldorf School is greeted by their class teacher, with a handshake and a personal greeting. This is the same teacher that they, hopefully, will have from first through eighth grade.
By eighth grade, their class teacher may teach them for only two hours per day, as special subject teachers are increasingly introduced in the grades.It is a wonderful steadying force for the students, in our tumultuous world, to have the constancy of another adult, besides the parents, who cares deeply about them and their education.
The entire class begins its day with a morning verse, thanking God for the blessings of the earth, and asking God's help in learning and in work. While acknowledging a higher spiritual power, Waldorf schools do not promote any particular religion, and families at a Waldorf School come from the entire spectrum of religious backgrounds.
After the morning verse, children in a class sing and play instruments together and engage in a brief period of physical activity before they begin their two hour academic “main lesson”.
During main lesson, first graders learn the shapes and names of the letters through imaginative stories told by their teacher, and they learn words and sounds through memorization of poetry and other works. Children in Waldorf schools do not typically learn to read until second or third grade, and as a result, most of them become incredibly good listeners.
Some parents panic when they learn of this “late” reading, but current research shows that there is no academic benefit to early reading. By third or fourth grade, children in Waldorf schools are reading at or above grade level.
First graders are still in the world of imagination, and love to hear stories of elves, fairies, gnomes, dragons and good triumphing over evil. How much more valuable this is to their development than to be struggling through “See Jane run.”
Early reading might provide parents and schools with a certain level of comfort but it does not enrich the child, nor does it make reading fun or enjoyable. Waldorf schools are not trying to delay reading, but are providing a literacy experience, which involves enriching children’s lives with words from the beginning, reading and telling complex stories to children at home and at school.
Children in the first grade will learn to knit and to play the recorder. Steiner believed that children who learn to knit will read better, and that learning music will help a child develop skills in mathematics. By 2002, we have learned that the same areas of the brain are active in reading and in knitting, likewise is true for mathematics and music.
By third grade, students are leaving the world of the imagination to wonder about their role on the earth. They will learn from a variety of religious traditions, stories of people who tried, and failed, and tried again. They will learn to cook, to sew, to grow crops and care for animals.
Like many fourth graders in the area, Waldorf students learn of the pioneers and go to Sutter’s fort. The difference is, that learning to work hard and do things by yourself is not a two-day field trip, but is practiced throughout the years in a Waldorf school.
In the third or fourth grade, all children in the Waldorf School will begin the study of a string instrument, usually the violin. Ensemble playing is added in sixth grade.
Academic homework does not begin in earnest until fifth grade. Of course, there is homework before then – children are to develop their physical bodies by climbing trees, swimming and riding their bikes, they are to draw and paint, they are to pack their own lunches, help prepare meals, care for the family pets, and participate in household chores. This “homework” strengthens the family and the child’s role within it.
Fifth graders study ancient Egypt and Greece in stories, song, art and movement. Waldorf schools do not use textbooks, but each child produces a “main lesson book” for each - three week long - academic block; a book filled with written and artistic work. How much greater is your understanding of the culture and ways of the Egyptians when you have drawn their clothing, their cities, their boats and their landscape, made their food, learned of their plants, and sung their songs!
Last year’s Davis Waldorf fifth grade spent a week in Yosemite studying botany, Native peoples, and learning how to rock climb. We are not alone among Waldorf parents in wishing that we had been able to experience such a holistic education!
Science is taught in a wonderful way in the Waldorf School. Children in the lower grades learn about science through experiences in the garden, at the tidepools, and walking in the woods. Physics, chemistry, anatomy and physiology are taken up in the sixth through eighth grades.
All science is taught “from the phenomena”. This means that children observe the results of a scientific experiment demonstrated by their teacher, and then they discuss the results. They take what they have observed into their sleep, and come back the next day to work with their teacher to explain the phenomenon they have observed. The Waldorf classroom the day after a science experiment is an exciting place, as children develop their creative thinking skills. This differs from conventional methods of teaching science, where children are told what to expect, and perform an experiment to prove what they have been taught.
Rudolf Steiner was considered radical in his time for believing that learning could continue while an individual was asleep. However, current research has demonstrated that it is during the REM period of each sleep cycle (humans have three to five of these per night) that the brain integrates new information. It is for this reason that Waldorf teachers never begin and end a lesson in a single day, and teachers stress to parents the critical importance of adequate sleep on a regular schedule for their children’s learning.
Each day the Waldorf curriculum educates the “head” of the child through rigorous academic work, presented when the child is developmentally ready to receive the information.
Each day children’s hearts are nurtured through music, dance, painting and drawing, and each day, the child’s will is strengthened through handwork, gardening, cooking and the chores that each child does at the end of the day to care for the school.
If you have read many of the same parenting magazines that we have, you notice that most parents seem to agree that one of the major challenges of parenting in the 21st century is the influence of the media on their children’s desires and development.
Children are “growing up too fast” and many parents are having conflicts with their preadolescent children that earlier generations of parents did not deal with until much later. This is just one of the reasons that Waldorf schools ask that children have almost no exposure to television, movies and other mass media until they are in third grade, and that this exposure be limited even as the children get older.
Research is showing the detrimental effects of media, especially television and computer games, on brain development, weight, attention span, concentration, and the development of social skills. Steiner’s ideas about keeping the young child close to the natural world and away from modern technology do not seem very strange to us any more. As parents, we have found it a blessing to find a school where the teachers and many of the other parents feel the same way about the effects of media on our children’s health, academic performance and social development. Our children do not feel that they are strange or different for not watching television or going to movies. They also do not feel the need to dress, act, and talk in the way of television actors and actresses.
We are both successful graduates of the California public school system. I have a doctorate in Biology and Robert is a pediatrician who studies, among other things, how to help children achieve “school readiness.”
Waldorf education is the fastest growing nonsectarian educational movement in the world. We encourage you to visit the Davis Waldorf School and see why we have chosen it for our own children. For information on our tours, click here.