Education that Nutures

By Dr. Deanna Berman and Bill Strauss

In today’s highly competitive world, one educational approach stands out in its embrace of children as both spiritual and physical beings. The Waldorf approach cherishes childhood and contends that children need the chance to imagine, create, connect to their physical world, and be participants in a social community as an essential part of a healthy life.

In this way, the early years of a Waldorf education focus on the expressive arts of song, dance, music, language, hand-work, and a variety of artistic mediums. In this setting, the work of the child is to play and create, imagine and sing, while learning social skills of timing, rhythm, and cooperation. With this focus, the “push” to learn and the “race” for grades are almost non-existent. This approach inherently leads to a greater sense of social health and well-being. Given the sickness and stress many of us see see in our own lives, perhaps letting our children have an opportunity to experience themselves through their head, heart, and hands, to learn reverence for the environment and participate in activities that foster healthy society makes more sense than ever.

The kindergartens we attended as children were typically half-day programs.

Now, kindergartens, including Waldorf kindergartens, are typically six-hour programs. This can be explained in part because more parents are working and therefore have a greater need for child-care. This is not the whole story. We have increasingly come to believe that our four and five and six year olds should play less, study more and do so at earlier and earlier ages. Where kindergarten used to be a place to pretend, socialize, and explore, it has increasingly become a place to prepare students for a faster paced academic program. Waldorf education, structured on the philosophy of Rudolph Steiner, has deliberately not made this shift.

In a Waldorf school, children in a kindergarten classroom are not exposed to formal, abstract thinking. They are read folk tales, sing folk songs, and act out the stories they hear. They use large crayons rather than felt tipped pens and they use water colors on very wet paper to deemphasize concrete lines and edges. This is done for the same reason that Waldorf dolls don’t typically have eyes. The lines are kept fuzzy. The faces are not there. The crayons are less pointy. The desire is to have the children fill in the picture with their imagination. And they do. The emphasis here is more on the process of discovery and less on the end product. In a Waldorf school, it is life that is the lesson, and it is the world that becomes the classroom. It is based on a philosophy that facilitates the education of the whole child (the head, heart and hands), while providing a sense of stability and continuity.

When you visit a Waldorf kindergarten, you will notice various things that are in healthy contrast to a world where there is too much plastic and noisy technological stimulation. Toys are basic and most are made from natural materials such as wood, wool, stone, and cotton. Waldorf students play outdoors every day, experiencing the changes in seasons, and weather year round. Additionally, songs and celebrations are based on the seasons and the world around us. This is all about keeping children connected to the earth and to the natural world. Seasonally available food preparation and baking is also important in the kindergarten, and brings a connection to the seasons of the earth into the children’s lives and bodies. As food is prepared and eaten together, good social habits are formed in a natural way.

In the first grade, Waldorf schools introduce letters through pictures and phonetics. Large blank workbooks filled by the student are used for creating pictures around stories based on fairy tales, folk tales, and nature stories. Reading begins by copying writing in association with the stories and drawings. The writing accompanies the pictures in the workbook. The qualities of whole numbers are introduced along with the four processes of arithmetic.

Each Waldorf school is a little different, but the basic use of community, nature and mythology is a constant theme.

In second grade and beyond, reading and mathematics (as well as science) progress but are typically contextualized. In conventional educational terms, this is a “thematic” way of introducing curriculum which gives meaning to a student’s work making it inherently more interesting than if they were learning concepts and skills in isolation. In the second grade, the historical themes are heroes, heroins, legends, and animal fables.

Stories from the Old Testament are used as a historical context in the third grade. In fourth grade, the context is Norse Mythology and in fifth, Greek mythology and the ancient Egyptian Civilizations up through Greek times. Interwoven throughout the curriculum are physical education, hand-work, music and singing, and the study of language. By the time they are ready for middle school, Waldorf children have the tools to delve into more analytic forms of thought and exploration.

In our fast paced, consumer-oriented lives, it has become harder to give our children a sense of connectedness to our natural world. We are distracted by our cell phones, televisions and computers and are left less time to connect with each other in wholesome and nurturing ways. The practices and philosophies used in Waldorf education are a model of education designed for nurturing and healing, for creating individuals who are able to balance their intellectual, spiritual and physical potential.

Dr. Deanna is a licensed Naturopathic Physician and Certified Midwife and her partner Bill Strauss was a veteran middle school teacher who now cares for their home and children and helps manage her medical practice.

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