Can Public Schools Learn from Waldorf? (YES)

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?

How Do We Cultivate Mindfulness in Our Children?

A piece I posted on Facebook last week has stuck with me, a short post from PBS’s MindShift blog on how an overreliance on technology can leave a “mindfulness” gap in our children – a world where there is never a disconnect, never a power-down time to recharge and be aware of the present. This dystopian thought, that our kids are inundated with so much media, content, and imagery that has been produced outside of their own minds, without a moment to think, process, or reflect, has caused all kinds of alarm bells to go off in my mind. So I thought I’d dedicate a little blog space to considering what actually constitutes mindfulness, exploring whether or not our kids need it, and how we can incorporate mindfulness practices into their lives – and maybe ours, too.

What is mindfulness? According to Psychology Today, “Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.”

Do your kids get to experience this on a daily basis?

The MindShift author, Aran Levasseur, tells us that the average American consumes 34 gigabytes (about one full-length movie) PLUS 100,000 words of “content” every single day. Highly doubtful then that many children, between school, homework, commuting, extracurricular activities, and what amounts to 3-4 hours of media consumption are experiencing much in the way of mindfulness. Mr. Levasseur also wisely notes that our cultural attitude toward mindfulness, contrary to our Puritan roots of work and constant doing, reeks of the “laziness” associated with boredom, so we Americans tend to think of being present and living in the moment, without goals and measurable achievement to guide us, as a waste of our precious time. As a culture, we view time as a commodity that’s in great scarcity – makes sense if we have so much to do, right?

Being mindful does not mean giving up ambition and technology, keeping no time schedule or having no goals. Just as it’s not the smartphones, videogames, and computer screens themselves that are causing us to ignore the present – it’s the space they fill up, and the frenetic distraction they cause, after our other tasks are done.

Unplugging from technology in order to be still and quiet, researchers say, is beneficial both to well-being as well as academics. Recent studies on the importance of play and the time to daydream point to the benefits of our children tuning out, even for a short time.

Why do we need to be unplugged from technology to be mindful?

On yesterday’s Opinionator blog at the New York Times, A Natural History of the Senses author Diane Ackerman says upfront, “We’re learning about the world without experiencing it up close in all its messy, majestic, riotous detail.” That really hit me; I have felt that during times when I interact with more online friends than real ones, or when I ingest more online “content” than experience time with my family. In her op-ed, “Are We Living in Sensory Overload or Sensory Poverty?” she  says,

“As an antidote I wish schools would teach the value of cultivating presence. As people complain more and more these days, attention spans are growing shorter, and we’ve begun living in attention blinks. More social than ever before, we’re spending less time alone with our thoughts, and even less relating to other animals and nature. Too often we’re missing in action, brain busy, working or playing indoors, while completely unaware of the world around us.”

Sound familiar? How could we get our schools to cultivate presence? Do you have any ideas?

How do we teach mindfulness to our children?

This is the real kicker, the one that causes my face to get hot, because I know that children pay much more attention to what we do than what we say. I’m as addicted and dopamine-high on blog hits and Facebook likes as the next. I would have to say, reluctantly, that they are watching us, in all our time-deprived, attention-deficit, Twitter-checking, manic race to the end.

Perhaps the way to teach mindfulness to our children is to take a deep breath, put down the iPhone, and go catch some fireflies.

I’m outta here.

The Nine-Year Change

My oldest son finished up his third grade year on Friday, a year that was heralded by our Waldorf school as one of the most important in his childhood. Rudolph Steiner, philosopher and creator of the Waldorf schools, believed that turning nine years old ends the dependent, dreamlike state of early childhood, in which fairy tales and make-believe rule, and presents the growing child with his first glimpse of separateness, otherness and independence. In popular language, this would definitely be the marker of the beginning of the “tween” years, when children are discovering for the first time who they are as separate beings, and what they believe.

Waldorf parenting tips advise parents to be on alert for highly critical nine-year-olds – critical both of other people, whose beliefs they seem to notice for the very first time, and of value systems, as they try to figure it all out. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, then, that my son recently asked at the dinner table, “Is it true that you need to believe in God to go to heaven?” Before my husband and I could choke down our food to provide some kind of semi-intelligent answer, my son, who sees himself as a scientist-in-training, then announced that he would “prefer not to believe in God or heaven, because there is no science to support it.” Then, in almost the same breath, he expressed his nervousness for not believing, but still tried to maintain that, at this time, he would rather not.

I think this is what politicians call “flip-flopping,” — but, according to Steiner, it is a hallmark of this stage of development.

Wanting to know if this crucial “nine-year change” was also accepted in other realms besides the Waldorf world, I took to the internet to see if there was any research (especially recently) supporting it, but I came up disappointed. (If anyone has anything, please send it to me!) While there is plenty on tweens and preadolescence (which has an age range from 9-14 years old, and covers many issues), no research that I found highlighted this particular turning point – turning nine years old – in any significant way.

Yet I do see something significant happening to my child as we close in on his ninth birthday later this summer. He recently came unglued over a relatively small matter – a drawing he’d worked on that didn’t turn out as he wished it would – and I as I watched him struggle, weeping and punching his fists into the air, to find the words to express how disappointed, angry, and confused he was with himself, I had my own struggle with composure. For a brief moment, my heart desperately wished him four years old again, when I could tell him it was the most beautiful drawing I had ever seen, and he had the capacity to believe me. But it seems that those simple times, when hugs and kisses solved nearly every problem, are behind us now.

So in lieu of research on the nine year change, I’d love to know from you, parents: have you experienced a nine-year change in your child? Do you remember feeling this way at nine years old yourself? (I most certainly do.) Do you think this is complete hooey? Let me hear from you.