Children Who Love to Learn
Children love to learn at Detroit Waldorf School. So say the bumper stickers that Detroit Waldorf School (DWS) parents display on their cars. How can that be?
The Waldorf educational method is based on the “art of teaching.” Waldorf teachers practice the fine arts such as painting and singing, the practical arts such as knitting, the art of integrating arts and academics, and the art of connecting the academic subjects to the everyday experiences of the children they teach. The teachers study the temperaments so that they can understand each individual child's way of learning and know how to respond most effectively to each child's way of performing in the classroom. They study the stages of child development so that they provide the kind of lesson the child is ready to learn at the time that he or she is ready to learn it.
In the article “Ready to Learn” in the American School Board Journal (November 2003), author Kathleen Vail happens to cover a number of topics that form the basis of the Waldorf approach as she critiques the direction of the Head Start program. She talks about the importance of play, the whole child, and academic readiness.
The Importance of Play
In “Ready to Learn”, Vail stated: “Making learning fun by including play is an important element in teaching young children. Early childhood professionals say it's nearly impossible to separate social, emotional, and cognitive learning in young children.” Research shows that certain types of play, especially role-playing, are the foundation for all types of intellectual, social, and emotional development. “Focusing solely or even narrowly on academics often asks too much and too little of children,” says Barbara Willer of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, in Washington, D.C. “If you provide meaningful opportunities for children, they can take on much greater depth than the drill-and-kill (worksheet),” says Willer, the association’s deputy executive director. “If you're narrowly focused on letter recognition, you lose the opportunity for vocabulary building and broad base of language.”
Waldorf preschool teacher, Elizabeth Moreland of the Hartsbrook School in Massachusetts, explained that the ability to play wholeheartedly and with undivided attention is in itself a skill, and that a child who develops it will in later life have the ability to mentally focus and concentrate deeply.
In his article “Let the Children Play” in the Waldorf journal, Renewal, author Thomas Poplawski said: “Free play also helps develop the imagination and the will, because in such play the child develops vivid pictorial images and then brings these pictures into the world through activity. The child also attempts in play to imitate the feelings that she senses in the joy, anger, and other emotional expressions of parents and other adults. This is an important first step toward understanding and managing emotional life.”
The Whole Child
Referring to one of the basic reasons for the Head Start program, Vail stated: “Children won’t learn if they’re hungry, or if they’re angry all the time, or if they simply don’t have any adults to connect with. This is true of all children, but especially of very young children.” Vail quotes Samuel Meisels, president of the Erikson Institute, a graduate school of child development in Chicago: “Most everyone knows that young children need to be challenged academically, and they need to be exposed to literacy, letters and sounds, and literature at an early age—(however) we really need to have an emphasis on all areas of development (cognitive, social and emotional skills).”
Dzvinka Hayda, a Waldorf early childhood teacher for 20 years, states: “The focus should be on all aspects of the growing child. Without social and emotional stability, a child cannot advance to the learning stage. Nurturing the whole child is key to education for all ages.”
Vail said that many early childhood advocates feel that academics taught in developmentally inappropriate ways could make children feel like failures at the age of five. Carol Seefeldt, an early childhood education professor at the University of Maryland and author of Guidelines for Pre-Kindergarten Learning and Teaching, said she is concerned that children “aren’t learning to think, and they are learning that a lot of school is useless. I worry that they are being turned off to learning.”
Edward Miller, who has served on the board of the Alliance for Childhood, an advocacy group in Waldorf, Md. (Editor's Note: Alliance for Childhood is located in College Park, Md.), attributes the reading problems that many children experience to “the unrealistic expectation that they will start reading at an early age.” He noted that until recently, reading instruction did not start until first grade in many schools. Doris Fromberg, an education professor at Hofstra University and author of Play and Meaning in Early Childhood Education, said: “The opportunity to have in-depth conversations is a marker of literacy. If you are exhorted to be quiet and come up with a single correct answer, what you learn is how to satisfy adults and guess at what the adults want, rather than learning for its own sake.”
Barbara Sokolov, the mother of four Waldorf students and a teacher who has worked in public and parochial schools, said: “There is more to reading than meets the eye. Besides the superficial process of decoding words on a page, there is a corresponding inner activity that must be cultivated for true reading to occur. Waldorf teachers call it ‘living into the story.’ When a child is living into a story, she forms imaginative inner pictures in response to the words. Having the ability to form mental images, to understand, gives meaning to the process of reading. Without this ability, a child may well be able to decode the words on a page, but he will remain functionally illiterate.”
The Gesell Institute, a child development research center in New Haven, Conn., encourages parents who have children with summer birthdays to wait another year before enrolling them in kindergarten. Jacqueline Haines, director of training and clinic services for the Institute, said: “Some of those youngsters won’t be as old as other children chronologically, and they deserve success and a positive experience as much as other youngsters have.”
Some of the reasons that Detroit Waldorf students love to learn are: (1) because they are allowed free play with natural materials (i.e., handmade dolls, silk cloth, objects from nature, etc.); (2) the whole child is nurtured—head, heart and hands—through academic studies, practical work, and artistic involvement; and (3) lessons are designed to fit the child’s stage of development. Waldorf parents complement the work of the teachers by providing these same kinds of materials and activities for their children in their daily lives at home.
All parents can put into practice some of these aspects of learning by:
- Taking long nature walks
- Providing time for outdoor free play
- Exposing young children to fine stories in the oral tradition
- Providing older children with classic literature
- Gardening with your child
- Picking apples together
- Doing real work side by side, such as woodwork and auto repair
- Giving children responsibility for their own things
- Giving children responsibility for cleaning their own rooms
- Playing games
- Going to the park
- Swimming in the lake
- Going to the woods where wildlife is in its natural surroundings
- Travel to different lands or different parts of the country