From a Parent-Toddler class through the grades, children in a Waldorf school are immersed in stories.
Starting with simple nature stories in the early childhood, children will hear many stories through the years: fairy tales, folk tales, fables, myths, legends, biographies, and stories from history, spoken aloud by the teacher and transmitted heart-to-heart.
In addition, academic subjects throughout the grades−from math to science to history to art to handwork—are all introduced through storytelling.
For example, in a past video blog post on Waldorf watercolor painting, I demonstrated how a kindergarten teacher might introduce painting with a story about “Tippy Brush,” who dips his toes into the water for a foot bath before inviting the other colors to come and play with him.
A first-grade teacher who is introducing the four processes of basic arithmetic may tell an imaginative story about Princess Plus, Duke Division, or Emperor Equal.
Introducing subjects through stories engages children’s imaginations and strengthens their inner picturing capabilities–their ability to create a picture in their “mind’s eye,” an essential skill for creative thinking later in life.
By being conscious of one’s speech when telling a story, adults are modeling clear speech, building a child’s vocabulary, and helping them develop language skills. The ability to understand speech always precedes the ability to read and write, so we are exposing children to rich language well before grade school.
When we enunciate words clearly, it will help children when it comes time to learn to spell.
I once saw a child write the word “KNIDDING” to describe his handwork project. Of course, most Americans pronounce the word this way, and it is natural that an early writer would spell a word as he hears it. But if we are conscious not to be lazy with our speech, it will help our children’s learning and speech development when we clearly enunciate words such a as “KNITTING.”
Telling Stories by Heart
A morning in a Waldorf early childhood classroom almost always includes a story, which may either be told or presented as a puppet play—usually a nature story, a fairy tale, or a folktale.
In Waldorf early childhood education, teachers tell stories rather than reading from a book. I prefer the term “by heart” rather than “by memory,” because as Waldorf teachers we aim to tell stories with love from the heart.
Yes, a teacher memorizes the story, but once it is committed to memory, it allows an adult the freedom to make the story one’s own, to connect with the children during the telling, and to tell the story with joy.
In kindergarten and first grade, it is common to tell the children Grimm’s Fairy Tales. When Waldorf teachers tell these stories, they don’t simplify or “dumb down” the original language.
Children quickly learn the meaning of unfamiliar words from the context of the story and from hearing the story repeatedly.
Through the rich language of fairy tales, children are building their vocabularies. When compared to their counterparts in mainstream educational settings, Waldorf kindergarten students typically have more expansive vocabularies, though their reading and writing skills may be, as yet, behind.
Avoiding Picture Books
Waldorf early childhood teachers generally avoid using illustrated books. Again, the goal is to allow children to create their own pictures in their mind’s eye.
If, for example, we were to read aloud a picture book of the fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood,” for the rest of that child’s life, she would picture Little Red Riding Hood just like the girl illustrated in the book, which is only one artist’s interpretation.
Allowing a child to imagine Little Red Riding Hood in her mind keeps that child’s thinking fluid and her imagination active.
But Fairy Tales Are So Scary!
What’s important to know is that a child will only imagine a picture in his mind that’s as scary as he can handle. If we tell the story of “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” for example, a three-year-old might imagine a troll that’s not much more than a blob, where a six-year-old might imagine a hairy, ugly troll with big teeth and ears.
On the other hand, if we used a picture book to tell the story with highly detailed illustrations of a hideous troll, that three-year-old would likely be frightened, and the six-year-old’s own inner picture would be displaced by the artist’s vision instead.
In contrast, a Waldorf teacher will tell a fairy tale to young children with a gentle, pleasant voice, without over-dramatization. Again, this leaves the child’s imagination free to picture the story to be as scary or as benign as he can handle.
Animation and Media
Even worse, in this regard, is seeing an animated film of a fairy tale.
If I asked you to close your eyes and picture Snow White, what would she look like?
When I’ve asked this question during parent meetings, most adults will describe her as having short black hair tied with a red ribbon, with a blue bodice and a flowing yellow skirt.
This, of course, was Walt Disney’s idea of what Snow White looked like, but the imprint of media on a young child’s mind is so powerful and permanent that any of us who saw Disney’s “Snow White” as a child will always picture her that way.
By allowing children to view animated versions of popular stories before hearing the originals, we are robbing them of the opportunity to develop their own imaginations and creativity.
The Importance of Repetition
You have no doubt heard a child say, “Tell it again!” Sometimes we forget how much children love repetition. It gives them a sense of security, knowing what comes next, and allows them to take in the story more deeply.
In a Waldorf early childhood classroom a story is repeated for several days, or even several weeks, at a time. In the grade school, a class may hear the same story repeated for two or three days.
Rather than be bored by hearing the same story “over and over again,” they delight in the repetition. Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, recognized the importance of repetition in learning. We hear a story, then go to sleep that night, during which time we process the story in our subconscious. When we review the story the next day, we take it in even more deeply, connecting with the content at a deeper level.
Contemporary science has proven that neural pathways are strengthened and “myelinated” when information and experiences are encountered repeatedly. According to Wikipedia:
The myelination process . . . enables better connectivity within specific brain regions and also improves broader neural pathways connecting spatially separate regions required for many sensory, cognitive, and motor functions.
This means that hearing a story repeatedly is building a child’s brain and helping it learn more easily. Waldorf early childhood teachers know that even though we are not formally teaching reading and writing in kindergarten, through the rich language of storytelling and the use of repetition, we are priming children’s brains to be ripe and ready for formal learning in first grade.
Different Ways of Telling Stories
Beyond the simple telling of a story, there are many ways to share stories with children.
- A story can be told through a puppet play with table puppets or marionettes.
- Stories are told with movement through circle plays.
- After hearing a story for several weeks, children may then act out the story themselves.
- Beginning in first grade, each class will perform a class play each year.
A Personal Story
When my oldest son Harper, a Waldorf graduate, was a freshman in film school taking a screenwriting class, he told me he was shocked that none of his classmates knew how to write a story. He said to me, “Because I’ve been hearing stories since I was in kindergarten, I know what makes a good story. It has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and it has to have a conflict to be overcome.”
Harper is now an award-winning cinematographer who knows how to tell a good story through a visual medium. And I thank Waldorf education for that.
In my next post, I will share some ideas with parents on how to get your own storytelling juices flowing. In the meantime, please leave your comments, thoughts, and questions below!
Thank you to Spindlewood Waldorf Kindergarten for permission to use featured storytelling image.