What does it mean when we say, in Waldorf, that children learn through their “head, heart and hands?” It references multidisciplinary teaching and the balance built into Waldorf education curriculum. Why do we focus on a balanced education?
Our world thrives on balance — ecosystems, economies, and governments all perform most optimally when things are allowed to ebb and flow yet stay ultimately centered, not through force but through compromise. This balance is key to stable growth and transformation.
Education is transformation of a generation and an individual. The task at hand is to guide young people as they grow and change, so that they may contribute meaningfully to a growing and changing world. This is no small task. When you consider the vital role that education plays within society and within the individual, then you can understand why balance in education is so essential. In order for the world to thrive, it needs to be filled with balanced individuals.
Waldorf education’s founder, Rudolph Steiner, a philosopher in the early 20th century, understood balanced education to mean the integration of the arts across the curriculum, the inclusion of movement and nature in everyday learning, and a focus on more subjects than just “the three Rs.”
Here in the 21st century, the comprehensive approach of Waldorf education has been supported by modern science. One might notice how Waldorf schools focus on fostering each of the multiple intelligences Howard Gardner identifies in his book Frames of Mind. Gardner, a developmental psychologist and professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, addresses the need to teach children thoroughly in each of these intelligences: verbal / linguistic, logical / mathematical, body / kinesthetic, visual / spatial, musical / rhythmic, interpersonal / intrapersonal. and naturalistic.
He, like Ken Robinson in this popular TED talk on education, argues against judging children’s intelligence on only one or two of these areas — a philosophy embodied in this Einstein quote: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Children who enter adulthood understanding their strengths, having been shown them through a balanced education, can contribute to the world in a fulfilling and meaningful way.
How do we realize balance within Waldorf education? Here are some examples:
Verbal / Linguistic – Teachers tell story, myth, and history by reciting poems, singing songs, and playing games. The complex vocabulary and imagery found in these oral activities bring verbal language to life and give depth to a child’s understanding of and desire to engage with written material. Children also make their own textbooks as an alternative to Chalk and talk note taking. And students begin to learn foreign languages beginning in first grade, when their brains are most primed to absorb this information.
Logical / Mathematical – Waldorf students learn math in many ways — intervals through music, geometry and measurement through woodworking and drawing, and math facts through holding and counting items. Logic is ever-present in the immediate apprehension of cause and effect inherent in science, music, and nature.
Body / Kinesthetic – Developing this intelligence goes beyond gym class for Waldorf students, who constantly learn through movement. Examples include time outside for recess, nature walks, gardening, the study of movement in eurhythmy and dance, and in-class movement through acting out stories, tapping sticks to math, or throwing balls while reciting multiplication tables.
Visual / Spatial – Whether it is creating a diorama of an animal, knitting and other handwork, sculpting with beeswax or clay, or taking a year to turn a log into a chair, Waldorf students learn much in the visual and spatial realm in their woodwork, handwork, gardening, and main lesson classrooms.
Musical / Rhythmic – Music is part of each day and each subject in Waldorf school. Song and rhythm are integral parts of the young child’s classroom. Layered onto this ever-present choral influence are musical instruments: flutes and recorders are introduced in younger grades, violins and other strings for students in the middle grades, and finally instruments of a child’s choice in the upper grades.
Interpersonal / Intrapersonal – Social skills are not left to chance in Waldorf education. Teachers spend much of their time in the early years helping children develop their interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence. One of the most important contributors to cultivating these two intelligences is the structure of the main lesson classroom, where students remain with the same teacher throughout all eight grades. Learning to work together as a whole is not optional, but essential and teachers focus on developing a harmonious and balanced classroom through providing time and structure for social interactions as well as time for reflection.
Naturalistic – Unlike many of their public school peers, Waldorf students still get recess, so they are out in nature, many times a day and in all seasons. They are also taught many academic lessons outdoors, such as botany and geology through nature walks and gardening. Older children often have main lesson class time outdoors, and gym class is held outside when weather permits.
Though developed by Steiner nearly a century ago, current research demonstrates Waldorf education’s ability to educate children intellectually, creativity and socially, prepares them to make meaningful contributions to our ever-changing world throughout the course of their lives.
Prospective parents sometimes ask, “Is Waldorf an art school?” Waldorf schools do not consider themselves arts schools, but they do integrate art and music into the daily curriculum. There are many reasons for this, but here are a few:
- Music and art engage children naturally and make learning more fun, interactive, and multidisciplinary.
- Music and art are scientifically proven to enrich and strengthen complementary neural pathways for math, language, and creativity.
- Music and art are essential to humanity. Each culture’s history and philosophy revolve around the arts, and these things become an essential part of educating the whole child.
While prospective parents wonder about the role of the arts in education, our current parents have some firm ideas about its benefits. We asked parents of our eighth grade students why our school’s rich arts curriculum is so important, and here are a few of their answers:
“Children need to have beauty all around as they learn, so that they can create beauty in the world.”
“We’re educating humans, not computers. The arts are part of the human experience and worthwhile endeavors in their own right.”
“The arts help children develop their unique capabilities and provide balance.”
“Music and art serve as a common thread through all other subjects and help students appreciate beauty and ground theories in reality.”
“Art provides insight into humanity.”
“Artistic impression is very important to children and, I believe, can help them learn many things and pique their interest. Hands become extensions for expressing the feelings, thoughts, and ideas that form in the mind, and this can then connect the head, heart, soul, and body.”
“The arts help the brain grow holistically and thus help a child grow more deeply as a person and life-long learner. Arts balance intellectual learning and provide an outbreath.”
“What they work on with their hands both informs and activates the head and heart. I think it allows for greater retention in both spheres – intellectual and emotional.”
Thank you to our parents for their artful insight!
by Hazel Emery M.Ed.
During the first week of May, the fullness of spring and the impending arrival of summer are celebrated by cultures around the world with flowers, music, dancing, and singing. The Chinese and Thai New Year, the colorful Indian festival of Holi, and Walpurgis Night in western Europe are but a few of the diverse observations of this delightful period of renewal and hope. In ancient Europe, May 1 was considered to be the first day of summer, called Floralia by the Romans and Beltane by the Celts. This timeless celebration has evolved into modern May Day celebrations, with the maypole as a representation of the tree of life and the flowers and ribbons adorning it symbolizing fertility and rebirth.
At SGWS, May Day is one of our most cherished festivals. Early Childhood students dance around a Maypole early in the morning, while students in the grades wait until after Main Lesson, when an all-grades procession is led to the Sportsman’s Club adjacent to our property. There, students gather together to enjoy lunch and share lemon cupcakes lovingly made by class parents. After lunch, all students participate in a scavenger hunt, with teams made up of students from each grade. Following the scavenger hunt, students in the lower grades weave ribbons around Maypoles while students in the upper grades play madrigals on their recorders. When the dancing is complete, the celebration ends with a communal Blessing of the Garden.
Though it occurs during the course of a school day, we welcome families to our May Day Festival each year — we hope you can join us on April 29! Here is our schedule of events:
Students in Waldorf schools will ideally have the same main lesson teacher for first through eighth grade. There are three primary reasons Waldorf schools choose this method. First, it helps the teacher truly know the child and his or her family. Second, having a consistent class of peers with one consistent central authority figure has great benefits to social growth and class cohesion. And finally, these first two stabilizing forces – in-depth relationships and social cohesion — come together to support a focus on learning.
Knowing the Child
Waldorf class teachers have time to learn a child’s gifts and challenges, which helps them better teach and advocate for each student. Main lesson teachers can share their deep knowledge of a child with subject teachers and parents. This sharing of knowledge allows teachers to collaborate in the use of learning styles and techniques that suit individual children as well as for the class as a whole.
Teachers who truly know a child and how he or she learns can take a long view on that student’s learning. If a child tends to observe and work carefully for three months before leaping ahead on the learning curve, this is something the teacher will observe and account for within the coming years and within his or her teaching methods for this student.
The teacher will also get to know each child’s individual temperament and how this works both within the classroom and with the teacher’s own temperament and teaching style. Each child’s unique personality becomes essential and understood for its value within class. This class can come to feel like a family.
And as with family, if a teacher and a child are struggling to work together, no one considers resignation or replacement. The teacher assumes the responsibility of the work to make the relationship positive. One never expects this of the child, and Waldorf teachers are specifically trained to balance their relationship with each student. This includes a study of how to work with different personality types and learning styles, home visits to understand the child’s world, and regular parent teacher conferences and class meetings to better understand the child and his or her family.
The Waldorf model takes the long-term view that, as with academic learning, healthy social interaction must be self-motivated. Our teachers seek to provide students with a stable environment and important social skills that will enable to them interact compassionately with others and establish a sense of community. Children who learn together for eight years also learn to take on social problems, to value differences, and to manage varied work styles as they continuously collaborate.
Waldorf students don’t experience any of the yearly anxiety brought forth by new teachers or students within the class. Having the same children year upon year, along with the same authority figure who knows these children well, helps the students feel safe and confident.
This social cohesion, established in the early grades, brings the focus back onto learning. Children have the time and space, with three recess periods and in-class lunch and snack, to enjoy and learn from the social company of familiar peers. The social cohesion and stable authority figure helps students focus on learning during structured activities and class time.
Parent and Student Experiences
For more information, we offer these two shared experiences about Waldorf’s One Teacher method — one from a parent and one from a student.
Parent Experience: Tyra Scott
Student Experience: Sarah Welton
“Whenever I am asked about the influential people in my life, my thoughts immediately turn to both my parents and to Marie Paul, the wonderful person who served as my teacher for first through eighth grade. She is a beautiful person and a great friend, always there to listen and always there to help. I have much reason to admire her. Among her many talents, her ability to teach not only from the text but through her own actions shines bright. As a teacher she taught me in such a captivating and enthralling way. She encouraged me to want to learn and to enjoy learning. In the way she taught, she let us make our own conclusions and formulate our own opinions on the subjects we studied, and would always hear us out as we expressed these opinions.”
As our school name implies, Spring Garden places high value on the natural world. We turn our values into action by actively educating students about (and within) nature and by promoting sustainability on our campus and within our community.
Science education is multi-disciplinary when approached through outdoor exploration, and opportunities to teach other subjects, like math, are also explored through tending nature. This includes work on and within our school’s greenhouse.
One tradition to note is our Third Grade Garden. Each year, Class Three plants a garden in the spring, and tends it throughout the summer and early fall. When school resumes in the fall, the students who planted the garden — now in Grade 4 — harvest the crops and transform their bounty into a delicious meal, which they serve to current Grade 3 students.
Spring Garden works on several projects within our immediate community throughout each year. We are always looking for new collaboration opportunities and are currently collaborating for a Greener Akron, making community garden donations and serving student-grown produce at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church’s community meal.
Loving & Preserving Nature:
Children play outside, in all weather, at least three times a day. Younger children take daily nature walks through the woods surrounding our property, and these nature walks continue – though only on a weekly basis — as students move through the grades. Also, many classes in spring and fall are held outside when appropriate.
The school recycles, as most do, but also actively composts, which helps maintain our gardens and also shows children the cycle of nature. Children put leftover foodstuffs from lunch into their classroom’s compost bin, which is then taken to the school’s main compost during class chore time.
Spring Garden also collects rainwater runoff for gardening. And the food grown in our gardens, when not donated to the community, is used in our own community for school lunches.
At Spring Garden Waldorf School, children go outside to play three times a day in all weather. This can seem like a foreign concept in our modern times. Won’t they get cold or wet or overheat? Will this make them sick? Ruin their clothes? Shouldn’t they be inside spending more time on academics?
Waldorf educators have been following the science of outdoor play for decades, and research has demonstrated again and again that the benefits are overwhelming.
The National Wildlife Federation’s publication, The Forecast Calls for Play, has compiled 25 of the latest studies about what happens to kids who spend time in nature. The takeaway?
“Kids who play outdoors maintain healthier body weights, are less likely to be near-sighted and have healthier vitamin D levels. In addition, ‘green time’ enhances empathy, lengthens attention spans and improves critical thinking skills.”
In a Waldorf school, part of educating our students means building at least an hour of outdoor time into each day to enrich our student’s bodies and minds. We know that busy parents can have trouble making sure kids get outside the recommended hour per day. We are here to help.
Although being cold and wet does not make a children sick, our parents know that our Waldorf supply list is dominated by outdoor gear requirements to keep kids comfortable during their hour-plus outdoors.
Being comfortable outside is key to experiencing all nature-based play has to offer. This is also why, in addition to a set of both rain and winter coats, boots, pants, hats, scarves, and gloves, children must always have extra clothes on hand in the classroom if the gear fails to keep their clothes dry and warm. In our warm months, children are encouraged to come to school with their sun hats, water bottles, and sunscreen applied and ready to begin their day outdoors.
Of course, we hope children, especially the young ones, go outside to play at home both after school and on weekends. As it turns out, weather is what most often keeps parents hesitant about outdoor play for their kids.
According to a 2012 survey of 1000 parents commissioned by National Wildlife Federation (NWF), weather topped the list of barriers to getting kids outdoors. Sixty-one percent of those surveyed cited weather as most problematic, over concerns about strangers (38%), homework (31%), and a busy schedule (5%).
Luckily, Waldorf parents already have the necessary gear to send kids outside and the understanding that outdoor play is essential to their children’s well-being. Since Waldorf educators don’t load homework onto younger students, the kids have the time they need to go
outside for unstructured play.
So go ahead, send them out to play! Want to go with them and not sure what to do? Check out the National Wildlife Federation Activity Ideas HERE.