In Waldorf education, children work on intellectual and emotional balance, spend plenty of time on the creative arts and play, eschew technology for books (not textbooks) and, perhaps most importantly, are taught that inner wisdom and deep thinking are paramount — all this done without grades, tests, or constant pressure and assessment. Waldorf children get to farm, cook, knit and crochet, build furniture and learn woodworking, write and perform plays, go camping and hiking, but not at the expense of academics – the academics are made part of these activities. Public schools could take a cue from this “alternative” method that values a child who experiences, thinks and develops, as well as absorbs information.
My kids play in the rain. Not just a few sprinkles, either, but the hearty, soak-your-clothes kind; they continue building forts and swinging pop flies even as their clothes hang heavy with rainwater. Just a year ago, this would have bothered them immensely, probably because they were unused to it. But now, since we have joined our local Waldorf school and they spend a large amount of their time outside, no matter what the weather holds, they have changed their minds entirely. They downright enjoy soaking rain. When I look out the window and watch them, at eight years old and five years old, running, falling, throwing, jumping fearlessly, befriending the pouring rain, I can’t stop thinking how much they look like children. As a matter of fact, that was my impression the first time I stepped on the Waldorf grounds: there were children everywhere – dirty children – running, laughing, playing kickball, reading under trees, having a science lesson on a nature walk. At the time, I couldn’t help but think how different these children looked than my own children.
When I visited my children at public school, they looked like adults. They were uniformed, lined up, quiet, organized, task-oriented, rushed through lunch, only allowed outdoor recess during absolutely optimal times, then loaded down at the end of the day with more work to bring home. I couldn’t help but call it “another day at the office” to my husband; it seemed that the time for childish things was over by first grade. My oldest son admitted to watching the clock nearly all day; he stopped using crayons in kindergarten.
Please don’t get me wrong; I love public school, and spent two years advocating for change very publicly. The public Montessori we attended in Texas was outrageously good, and we loved it. I know that we are extremely fortunate to get to go to (private) Waldorf, and believe me, our past circumstances wouldn’t have permitted it. I also have no interest in trying to convince you, dear reader, that you should try Waldorf school – it is not the perfect education method, far from it, and it is not for everybody. But, since we have been so happy with so much of Waldorf education (and my kids really love it), I want to tell you what’s so great about it, or why you might tell your school about it or even incorporate it into what you do at home. I think public schools could benefit from a few key pieces of Waldorf education, and when parents know things, they can bring ideas to their school leaders.
In other words, can public schools learn from Waldorf? Hell, yes. Here are just a few of my favorite Waldorf methods.
- Bringing life in living color – The walls of a Waldorf school are painted in watercolors, and the chalkboards (yes, real chalkboards) are adorned with colorful drawings and illustrations depending on what they are working on. The insides of school rooms are colorful, too, and made to look like home. Each room, filled with books, student-made sculptures and drawings, and objects, looks so inviting, I long to drop my stuff and join in.
- Creating lesson books – Instead of state-mandated text books, Waldorf children make their own. Much more than a journal, these large lesson books are filled with graphs, charts, drawings, stories, poems, and illustrations of their own making. Creating a record of their own lessons also gives children the brain boost scientists say students get from handwriting.
- Time for lunch and play – As public schools grasp for more and more academic learning, we have seen in recent years lunch and recess time diminish to a hilarious degree (one Chicago parent complained that her third-grade son got ten minutes to eat lunch). My very active sons reacted negatively to the structure of the public school day, which ended up amounting to a lot of time sitting in a chair. Since they have gone back to having two recesses per day (what I remember having in elementary school, by the way) plus physical education, they come home less anxious and worn-out. They are light when they leave for the day – they have had time to both concentrate and take short breaks for fun.
- The Main Lesson – Several hours of each morning fall under the category of “Main Lesson,” which can include math, science, reading, and spelling, and history, as well as combinations of all of these. When studying agriculture in third grade, my son learned the history of the world’s grains, how they were grown and harvested, who grew them, and how they were measured and sold. They learned these lessons through poetry, dances, and a play they performed about a Native American legend called “The Corn Man.”
- No technology, no homework, no boredom – In the early childhood and early elementary grades, strong emphasis is put on kids staying away from technology until they are older – and my kids do watch a little tv and use the computer, we aren’t purists on this point. But, since they don’t use any at school, and there is no homework in the early grades, this combination of no sit-down work in the evening and no passive entertainment has had a really interesting effect: they are rarely bored. From the Waldorf parents I have talked with, kids who use this circle – no technology, no homework, no boredom – have the ability, without anything available to occupy or entertain them, to begin to learn to entertain themselves. Who wouldn’t be happy with that?
- There is more to life than reading and math - This might be my very favorite part of Waldorf schooling – the understanding that children are thinking and feeling human beings. While reading and math are certainly emphasized and mastered, they are blended with other activities that children find engaging, like making food and knitted hats, making towns and cities out of beeswax, learning how to garden, farm and how to take care of the earth – the list goes on and on. As you and I know, reading and math are two excellent skills to have in a complex, colorful life that requires more than comprehension – life requires consideration and compassion as well as math and reading.
Now, parents, the most important part: tell me what you think. Have you had any experience with a Waldorf school? Does any of this sound appealing? And, most importantly, what Waldorf methods might you use?