WALDORF EARLY CHILDHOOD:
KINDERGARTEN (age 4 up till 6)
The Waldorf Early Childhood program provides a foundation that nurtures the body, mind, and soul of the growing child. Through creating a healthy multicultural program – based on imaginative play, artistic activity, simple crafts, language, verse, song, puppetry, fairy tales, and storytelling – the Early Childhood fosters the development of the whole child: physically, emotionally, intellectually, culturally, and spiritually.
The Kindergarten is non-academic. At this age, a child’s intellect and understanding of the world resides fully in his or her body, and it is through this physicality that the child apprehends the world. The child’s energies are naturally taken up largely by physical growth. In the free play of creative fantasy, the small child transforms the content of his or her experiences into the substance of his or her own self. To divert a child’s formative energies from this important work in the early years, in order to emphasize traditional intellectual understanding, is to take from developing children the endurance and strength they will need in adult life. Premature, abstract demands upon the intellect, sharp criticism, undue excitement –- for instance, from visual and electronic media –- and over stimulation of the senses combine to rob children of their native physical resources.
Given such a view, the teacher’s task is to create a learning environment worthy of a small child’s essential being – through the warmth, the clarity, the rhythm, and the harmony of the world inside the classroom. The preschool teachers strive to create a warm, protective environment, rhythmically repetitive and secure, in which a child can slowly make the transition from home to school. Here the teachers respond to the developing child in three important ways. First, they engage themselves in domestic, practical, and artistic activities that the children can readily imitate (for example, baking, painting, and handcrafts). Second, the teachers nurture the children’s power of imagination by telling carefully selected multicultural stories; and third, they help the children to experience their lives more deeply by encouraging free play.
The day begins with a long period for free play. All toys are made of natural materials, with simple forms that stimulate the children’s imaginations. Playtime is followed by circle time, consisting of verses, nursery rhymes, songs, and circle games. Then the children gather for a snack, after which they go outside, where — always under close watch — they explore, dig, run, jump, and exercise their imaginations. When they return, the morning ends with a nature story or a folk or fairy tale. The week has its rhythms as well, and seasonal activities such as harvesting acorns and planting bulbs deepen the children’s awareness of the natural world. Reverent celebration of festivals develops both a sense of greater community and a rich inner life of feeling.
These activities prepare and strengthen our students for their primary school years. Songs and nursery rhymes cultivate intimacy with language and the world of words. Listening to stories, watching marionette shows, and participating in dramatic play strengthen the power of memory and imagination. Counting games and rhythmic activities build a solid foundation for arithmetic and number skills. Painting and crafts help the children develop small motor skills, coordination, and the ability to concentrate. Vigorous play develops their large motor skills.
In the natural, loving, and creative environment of the Early Childhood classroom, children are given both the freedom and security to prepare for the next phase of school life.
THE PRIMARY SCHOOL (age 6 up till 12)
The heart of the Waldorf philosophy is the belief that education is an artistic process. Whether the subject is arithmetic or history or physics, the presentation must live –- it must speak to the child’s experience. To educate the whole child, the heart and will must be engaged, as well as the mind.
Children move into the second phase of childhood at age six or seven. The intellect of the primary school student is no longer restricted by the physically oriented learning mode of the very young. New energy is available and a vivid life of feelings and emotion emerges. The children can begin to grasp inner meanings and relationships, and are now ready to be guided by a teacher into formal learning. The arrival of new capacities is treated carefully, however. It is unreasonable, and may even be harmful, to expect performance or achievement that is not commensurate with a child’s age. And while it is important to nurture the new intellectual abilities, we must continue to foster the imagination as the child moves through the primary school. Therefore, all subjects –- mathematics and social studies, language arts and science, music, and foreign languages –- are taught imaginatively and artistically, in order to engage the children’s feelings as well as their intellects.
The narrative content of the curriculum is intended to mirror the child’s awakening consciousness. The children’s need to find themselves in the stories — of harmony broken and re-established, of moral and idealistic struggle, of good versus evil, and of challenge to authority – is addressed through the presentation of multicultural stories, biographies from around the world, and oral essays. In these years, the curriculum also emphasizes the thorough integration of all subjects rather than compartmentalized study.
In a Waldorf school, the arts are always an integral part of the curriculum. All students learn to paint and draw, and to work with clay, stone, and metal. They also learn to sing, play the recorder, read music, and to play an orchestral instrument. The practical arts, handcrafts and woodwork, which balance the students’ academic and artistic work, are also requirements in a Waldorf school. Regular homework is not given until the third class, reflecting our belief that young children should spend the afternoon playing and resting before eating dinner and going to bed for a good night’s sleep, in order to be ready for the day ahead.
THE CLASS TEACHER
Children up to the age of puberty have a basic need for genuine authority, rooted in the child’s love and respect for the teacher, and in the respect of the teacher for the child’s inherent self. This need for authority leads to one of the most distinctive features of Waldorf education, the class teacher. The class teacher works with the same group of children for a number of years— potentially (but not always) from first through sixth class. Each class is also taught by other teachers who specialize in modern languages and the various arts. The class teacher closely follows each child’s academic achievement and strives to help the students achieve their full potential. Through the years a special relationship grows between teacher and students. As the class teacher’s knowledge of the children deepens, he or she is in an ideal position to contribute to the healthy intellectual, artistic, emotional, and social development of each child. In this time of rapid cultural and technological change, having a class teacher for a number of years brings the child security through the experience of being known and, thus, loved.
The class teacher also brings unity and continuity to the curriculum, unifying the various disciplines over the years. The teacher is able to select, emphasize, and draw upon those aspects of each subject that best address the needs and interests of the class. Through the challenge of teaching a new curriculum each year, the class teacher brings interest and enthusiasm to the work; and as students experience their teacher’s ability to make the world of knowledge his or her own, they grow in confidence that they too can master the many subjects before them.