“Babes in Fairyland” for The Nervous Breakdown

Check out a new essay about my kids’ magical experience at their Waldorf school at The Nervous Breakdown. So excited to be a contributor to such a fantastic culture magazine. Thanks Brad Listi and everyone at TNB. Here’s the essay:

Babes in Fairyland

My sons 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 rain water. Just a year ago, this would have bothered them – most likely because they were unused to it. But since we have moved to Nashville and enrolled them in our local Waldorf school, they are required to spend large amounts of their school time outside, no matter what the weather holds. Now they downright enjoy soaking rain. I look out the kitchen window and watch them, at nine and six years old, running, falling, throwing, jumping fearlessly, befriending the pouring rain.

My sons are all in for fairies, too. In school, they have locked eyes and hearts with elves, woodsprites, and most especially, knights who slay dragons. Waldorf education, founded in the early 20th Century by Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner, honors and develops children’s imaginations, believing imagination is key to a successful life. Along with outdoor play, fairy tales and myths make up a large part of the “head, heart and hands” Waldorf curriculum. Einstein, calming an anxious young mother in a library, apparently told her, “First, give him fairy tales; second, give him fairy tales, and third, give him fairy tales!”‘ Our Waldorf school has taken Einstein’s prescription quite literally: my kindergarten-aged son is not working on reading or calculating at all until first grade. For now, he receives a steady diet of language- and image-rich fairy tales.

As my sons tromp their muddy boots through this new world where learning is treated as an adventure, 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 leafy Waldorf grounds: there were children everywhere—dirty, bruised-knee children—running, laughing, playing kickball, reading paperback books in clumps under trees, having a science lesson on a nature walk. At the time, my sons were still in public school in Texas, and I couldn’t help but think how different these children looked from my own children.

When I visited my kids at public school, they looked like adults. They were uniformed, lined up, quiet, organized, task-oriented, rushed through lunch, only allowed outdoor recess in optimal weather (otherwise, their 15 minutes of exercise all day was a TV show in the auditorium), then loaded down with more work to bring home. Usually worksheets. I couldn’t help but whisper “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 had stopped using crayons in kindergarten.

Now my sons’ childhoods are back, larger and more vivid than the ones they might have missed if they hadn’t been filling in so many worksheets. It’s as if the fairies visited them while they were sleeping, and filled their heads with poetry, art, and music. It’s as if they woke up from a dream and realized, like Peter Pan, that they didn’t have to grow up. Not yet.

Out of earshot, my husband and I joke about Waldorf’s hippy New Ageyness (a recent email home to parents warned, “Don’t tell the kids about today’s special ‘dragon bread’: they believe the elves made it!!!”). But we happily write the difficult tuition checks, because our sons love school. They love it. And like Superman in the face of kryptonite, my husband and I find it difficult to remain cynical and detached in the face of such genuine magic powers; we melt. Waldorf might lay on the magic a little thick, but magic is precisely what was missing from our children’s orderly lives.

For the majority of kids, however, the sparkling fairy dust of playtime has long gone missing from school. Through accountability-obsessed reform measures supposedly created to make learning better, public education has inadvertently stripped the elementary school day of magic—by reducing time for recess and lunch, by de-emphasizing art and music (or getting rid of it altogether), and beefing up quantifiable ways to “prove” learning. In an effort to push academics down to earlier and earlier ages, school officials have forgotten that magic—not Harry Potter magic, but childhood magic—has a way of bringing joy to learning. They have forgotten that childhood magic is real.


Current circumstances make it easy to believe that public schools don’t have the capability to infuse elementary children’s lives with wonder and amazement: after all, budgets are stripped to the bone, classes are crowded, teachers overloaded. There is an unruly achievement gap, most evident between rich and poor children, that forces public school to press academics early on, in hopes of erasing the chasm. All of these things are indisputable. But childhood magic doesn’t depend on money, and isn’t exclusive of academic rigor. Instead, magic depends on a mindset that childhood itself is a foundation for an adult life, not small-adults-in-training. Here is where our American imaginations, bent on Puritanical models of success framed by adult achievement, are sorely lacking.

More than budget or time, it’s our idea about what public education should be that gets in the way. Especially since entering the age of accountability in the early 2000s, education has aimed to prepare children for adulthood as quickly as possible by simulating it with seriousness, hard work, and organization. Author and parenting expert, Alfie Kohn, aptly calls this attitude “Better Get Used To It”—the belief that, in order for kids to get to adulthood successfully, they must act like small adults while they are young.

I once thought “BGUTI” was the best way for kids to learn. Having long believed that the more early academics, the better, my husband and I started our Waldorf experience eager but skeptical. We found ourselves asking, will they get enough math in fairyland? How rigorous can African drum circle be, anyway? And hey, are they really learning anything in those bushes, or are they just playing around?

But recent studies show the Waldorf fairies may be onto something. In the paper “The Role of Pretend Play in Children’s Cognitive Development,” Doris Bergman, Professor of Educational Psychology at Miami University, points to several studies that link “cognitive competence to high-quality pretend play.” Children who engage in fantasy on a regular basis are linked to qualities “such as mental representation ability (i.e., theory of mind), problem solving and other cognitive strategies, social and linguistic competence, and academic skill development.” Developmental psychologists like Alison Gopnik are beginning to doubt that “direct instruction” from teachers to preschool students is the most effective way for them to learn. In an article for Slate, Gopnik sums up the research on how free play helps children in this way: “While learning from a teacher may help children get to a specific answer more quickly, it also makes them less likely to discover new information about a problem and to create a new and unexpected solution.”

Childhood experts have sounded the alarm as well, warning parents of the dangers of erasing free play in favor of STEM for preschoolers. In  “All Work and No Play: Why Your Kids Are More Anxious, Depressed,” Brown University pediatrician and clinical professor Dr. Esther Entin makes a connection between the diminishing opportunities for imaginative play and rising rates of childhood depression and anxiety. Referencing Boston College Professor of Psychology Peter Gray, she writes, “There has been a significant increase in anxiety and depression from 1950 to present day in teens and young adults and Gray cites several studies documenting this rise. One showed that five to eight times as many children and college students reported clinically significant depression or anxiety than 50 years ago.”

While I find these studies validating, they are insufficient to describe what I see my sons experiencing. Easing our early fears, my sons’ academic skills are right on target, and continue to grow. But there is another skill they are learning through Waldorf education, something that is impossible to measure with a test: experiencing the joy of being alive. I see it now in the way they touch the fur of a dog they just met, the way they put their full faces into a patch of wildflowers. I see it in the way they dance around the Maypole in honor of the Fairy Queen, their small bodies jangling with hippy flute music. Considering the kind of schooling they had before, I can only conclude that this is the result of copious amounts of poetry, singing, and art. It’s surely the result of lots of recess and nature walks.

I’m surprised at how different my sons are—more thoughtful, more curious—than they were before. Why is this wonder for the natural world, for art and music, strangely absent from our reforms?

I wish I could shake the whole American school system, and shout, “dump the worksheets, bring the magic!” And it doesn’t have to be the Waldorf method—if fairies and gnomes creep you out, then make it angels, animals, music, art—whatever. Make it anything where kids are awakened to the wonder of everything they see, and more importantly, everything they can’t. There is only one childhood, and only one opportunity to wring every precious drop of magic and fairy dust from life’s branches—branches that will always be dripping with more worksheets and deadlines and objectives. Unlike obligations, fairyland will only be with our kids for a very short time, and then it is gone forever.

Certainly we owe our kids an education—the ability to read, to calculate, to solve problems, to think critically—but we also owe them the academic and emotional benefits of learning to play in the rain. A lifelong learner, after all, must find some joy in the process of learning. Have you ever heard someone say, “What I remember best about my childhood was all the worksheets?”

18 thoughts on ““Babes in Fairyland” for The Nervous Breakdown

  1. The learning process during play is more authentic and kids are actively constructing their own meaning and learning. Alfie Kohn reminds us that ‘ harder is not better ‘. When learning seems easier there are more opportunities to learn things from the inside out and on a deeper level of understanding. Formal learning at school is more about ‘ technique and skill ‘ and not about understanding things

    • You know, Allan, I found Alison Gopnik’s research really interesting – when a young child receives ‘direct instruction,’ on how to operate a toy, they found that the child did exactly what the teacher told them to do. But if they left them alone with the toy, they found many more ways to use it. Great comment, thanks sharing :)

  2. I agree completely that regarding children as little vessels to be filled up with knowledge (as in one of the Dickens stories) is counterproductive. Children should be allowed their childhood. Imagination, fantasy, and creativity should be encouraged.

    At some point in time, however, some real sweat must be mixed in. To borrow a phrase from another field, getting an education may well be 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. (OK, maybe not quite that bad.) My question: when are worksheets, drill, practice, etc. to be introduced. Competent musicians must learn their scales just as competent basketball players begin with calisthenics. Neither are likely to be regarded as fun, but no one seriously questions their necessity. Basic fundamentals form the foundation for later work that soars.

    What is the proper mixture of creativity and sweat? When should drill, memorization, and practice be introduced? I personally haven’t a clue. I’d be interested in ideas from the author and fellow bloggers.

    • Absolutely, Mr. Baudino. I’m not child development expert, but I couldn’t agree more – learning is not all fairies and magic. I hope I made that clear in my piece! What Waldorf stresses is that academics are not developmentally appropriate for the youngest children (preschoolers, and there is lots of science to back this up); for elementary grades, there are a lot more academics, but they are mixed with stories, songs, artwork, poetry, tons of reading, and two long recesses as breaks in between work. Each child plays a string instrument, and practices every night; most Waldorf kids aren’t allowed to watch much TV or play computer games, so they read. A lot. Many things, as you say, cannot be learned without drill – but what public school has done, at least what we experienced, is turn it into lifeless drudgery. Why does it have to be that way?

      • The role of worksheets and skill ‘n drill depends on ones educational philosophy – behaviorist or constructivist. Behaviorists see learning as a behavior so systematic practice , worksheets , skill ‘n drill is very much part of teaching. Constructivists limit skill ‘n drill to a minimum and try to incorporate it within learning which is meaningful and has a purpose for kids. So Whole Language includes phonics, but in the context of meaningful stories and other authentic uses of language.

        Learning is not like work , the focus is on the process and driven by kids’ interest , curiosity, relevance etc and this facilitates kids willingness to invest in their learning , for the intrinsic value of learning itself and not for the reward of a A grade or some later pay off.

  3. Oh Holly, you write so beautifully!! I love this article and I love that your children are enjoying their childhood – hooray!!! Thanks so much for sharing this . . . I’ve got goosebumps! Pamela

  4. I love being reminded that lifelong learners must find joy in learning. And I suspect somewhere out there is a study (or twenty) showing that kids who love to learn – and kids who believe that learning comes at every turn and not just seated behind a desk, number two pencil in hand and worksheet before them – ultimately have greater success in academic settings and life.

    Likewise, your article made me think and reflect that the academic skills are but one of the important lessons of school. Let’s not forget the importance of a social curriculum. One that teaches our children how to be in the world, how to interact with others, and how to be resilient when faced with unavoidable social adversity. If children aren’t allowed to interact with each other outside of carefully structured school settings, what sort of adults will they become when we turn them loose in a world without line leaders and assigned seats?

    • Double like. Wallace, I always love your comments, and have to agree – what we learn in school is more complex than just academic achievement. In the Parent Book Club book “Teach Your Children Well,” Dr. Levine talks about noticing – and encouraging – our kids’ other talents besides the academic ones; maybe one child is a great communicator (‘she talks too much’), or another is his peer-group’s problem-solver (‘he spends too much time socializing’). Maybe one kid really understands how to live in the moment, or has amazing powers of persuasion. While we shouldn’t encourage errant school behavior, Levine points out that, in the real world, these are true talents just as important, and should be just as valued and nurtured, as Math Olympian or Valedictorian.

  5. Wallace,
    many teachers might talk about the long term goals of education as being helping kids to become life long learners , but the sad reality is , that besides kindergarten , from school to undergraduate university learning is only about achievement , getting credits and qualifying, nothing to do with the intrinsic value of the learning itself. I think it was John Dewey who said that education was not preparation for life but life itself. This is the problem with books like Paul Tough ‘s ‘ How children succeed.

  6. I could not agree with you more. My children attend our city’s “hippie” school. It isn’t Waldorf, but the pre-school and kindergarten is based on Reggio Emilia and the entire school is an experiential learning school. My son, who is in first grade, has been at the same school for 4 years and still loves school–he runs into the building every day. Both of my children are on track educationally, but academics isn’t pushed in the early grades–it is all about play and my kids are so much better for it. As an educator, I wish all children were given the joy of play as a way of learning, investigated and figuring out their world.

  7. Thank you from someone who is embarking on teaching for the first time. In my lower elementary Montessori class, I intend to remember this story and try to incorporate as much play as possible. Actually in teaching we spend SO MUCH of our time managing behaviour – maybe what we are managing is the children’s need to play? Maybe when I am programming I need to work out how play can be the vehicle for learning much more often? Thanks again.

  8. Great post. I was checking constantly this weblog and I am inspired!
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