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Photo by Lord Marmalade
Soon after I discovered Waldorf education, I had a conversation with a friend whose daughter, like my son, was approaching kindergarten age. We lived in Los Angeles, where getting one’s child into the “right” kindergarten had as much significance as getting accepted to Harvard or Yale.
“Have you considered the Waldorf school?” I asked her.
“Oh, we looked at it, but ruled it out because they don’t believe in books. We are a family of readers,” she emphasized.
I was taken aback. Did my friend think that my husband I, both college graduates, didn’t value books or reading?
I knew that reading wasn’t formally taught in a Waldorf kindergarten, and I’d heard that children created their own textbooks, but in all my research, I’d never heard that Waldorf schools were anti-books. I would soon learn that this was one of many common misconceptions about Waldorf education.
In the coming years, I not only enrolled my son in the Waldorf school, but I also enrolled myself in Waldorf teacher training and came to a deeper understanding of how reading is taught. I hope that the insights I’ve gained will help some of you who may be considering Waldorf education.
Blackboard Drawing by Allen Stovall
The Evolution of Language
In the evolution of humanity, spoken language developed first. Then came written language, originally through symbols (think hieroglyphics). Finally, once there was a written language, people learned to read.
This is exactly the sequence in which children master language, and so is the sequence in which reading is taught in Waldorf education. From birth to age seven, the focus is on the spoken word.
The children hear stories – nursery rhymes, nature stories, folktales and fairy tales. Teachers are careful to use the original language of fairy tales without “dumbing them down” or simplifying the language. The teacher is careful to use clear speech and to enunciate. This will help children later when it comes time to learn to write and spell.
In early childhood, language is taught through story time and circle time: songs, verses, rhymes and poems are all incorporated. It may look like play, but language skills are being developed daily.
Because the same circle time sequence is repeated daily for 2-3 weeks at a time, children learn the songs and verses “by heart,” and will retain them for life.
Rudolf Steiner, founder of Waldorf education, stressed the importance of repetition when he developed the first Waldorf school in Germany in the 1920’s. Current brain research confirms that repetition aids a child’s brain development. The connections of billions of neural pathways in the brain are strengthened through repeated experiences.
A visitor to a Waldorf kindergarten might notice the children are not being taught the ABC’s. They are not given worksheets, nor do they practice reading from books. But we Waldorf teachers know that language skills are being built through the repetition of stories, songs and verses. We are preparing children to read and write through the spoken word.
On the other hand, that same observer is likely to be impressed by the children’s precocious verbal abilities; their impressive vocabulary, and the number of poems and stories that they can recite by heart.
In addition to our work with speech, we work on building a child’s fine motor skills—through activities such drawing, finger knitting and sewing—to prepare children for the next stage of language development: writing.
It is during first grade in a Waldorf School when the alphabet is formally introduced, but in an imaginative, pictorial way. Think again of hieroglypics. Each letter of the alphabet is introduced as a symbol, representing an element from a story the children are told. For example, they might hear the story of a knight on a quest who had to cross mountains and a valley. The children will then draw a picture with the letter “M” forming the Mountains on either side of the “V” for Valley.
Blackboard Drawing by Allen Stovall
After learning all the letters, the next step is to copy the teacher’s writing. Typically the children will recite a poem together until it is learned by heart.
Then the teacher will write the poem on the board, and the children will copy it into their “main lesson books,” the books that children in a Waldorf school create themselves.
Because the children already know the poem and they have learned the alphabet, they will begin to make connections. “Oh, this must spell “brown bear” because both these words start with “B” and those are the first two words of the poem!”
The final step is learning to read, which generally starts in second grade and continues into third grade.
It is important to know that reading requires decoding skills that develop in children at varying ages. In Waldorf education we understand that learning to read will unfold naturally in its own time when a child is given the proper support.
Just as a normal, healthy child will learn to walk without our teaching her, and just as a child miraculously learns to speak her native language by the age of three without lessons, worksheets or a dictionary, so will a child naturally learn to read when she has a positive relationship with the spoken and written word.
Yes, it is true that early readers and textbooks are generally not used in Waldorf education. Instead, the children are fed real literature starting in the earliest years.
Once students are fully reading, they turn to original source texts such as classic literature and biographies, and students will read many great books throughout their grade school years.
What they avoid are early readers of the “See Spot run” variety, and dry, lifeless textbooks.
It can be hard to trust that this system works, especially when your child’s public school peers are reading at 5, 6 or 7. But I offer you the example of my two sons.
My younger son Will taught himself to read in kindergarten; my older son Harper wasn’t fully reading until third grade. Yet, for each of them, once the decoding skill was unlocked, they became voracious and insatiable readers, consuming piles of books for pleasure throughout their childhood. In high school, Harper scored in the 98th percentile for reading on the SAT.
The age at which they learned to read had no bearing on their lifetime love of reading. However, I believe that the way they were educated had everything to do with it.
Thinking again of my old friend, I wish I knew then what I know now, and could have corrected her misguided perception. Perhaps her children, like mine, might have reaped the bounteous fruits of Waldorf education.
Are your children in a Waldorf school? Are you a Waldorf homeschooler? Considering Waldorf education? Is your child reading yet? Are you concerned about late reading? I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments!
Below is a re-post of a piece I wrote last year for TV-Turnoff Week about my family’s experience pulling the plug many years ago. This year, TV-Turnoff Week has evolved into “Screen-Free Week.”
From the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood‘s website:
Screen-Free Week is an annual celebration where children, families, schools, and communities turn off screens and turn on life. Instead of relying on screens for entertainment, participants read, daydream, explore, enjoy nature, and enjoy spending time with family and friends.
Since we rarely watch TV, the challenge for us this year will be turning off our computers! Impossible for me now that I own an internet business. But eager to participate, I am committing to no Facebook, Twitter or recreational use of the computer for the week.
I hope my story will inspire you to join me!
TV-TURNOFF WEEK: PULLING THE PLUG
Fourteen years ago, I was a young mother living in Hollywood, the media capital of the world. My husband Max worked in the entertainment industry, and I had been an actress prior to my son Harper’s birth. We were a family immersed in the culture of media.
During Harper’s early years, I was clueless about the effect of media on young children. I never questioned the effect of TV viewing on his developing brain. After all, he only watched “educational” shows on PBS and family-friendly videos, like Disney movies. He loved them! What could be wrong with that?
When he was four years old, I visited the Pasadena Waldorf School and became enchanted by what I saw. Intuitively, I knew that this was a healthy environment for children. I began to research and to learn as much about Waldorf education as I could.
I learned that Waldorf educators strongly discouraged TV and electronic media viewing by young children. This was a novel idea to me, but as I read more about the effect of media on children’s brain development, I started questioning the wisdom of continuing to allow Harper to sit in front of a screen for hours a day. But how, I wondered, would I get through my days without the electronic babysitter? How would I get dinner made? How would I take a shower? It didn’t help that Max was not convinced that TV, in moderation, was a harmful thing.
In April of that year, I learned about TV-Turnoff Week—a week in April during which families are encouraged to turn off their TVs for a week. I decided to give it a try to see if we could survive a week with no TV. At the beginning of the week, I shut the doors to the TV cabinet and hid the remote.
I would be lying if I said it was easy. Harper and I both experienced withdrawal symptoms. On the first couple of days, Harper would ask for Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers. Why, he pleaded, couldn’t he watch “Peter Pan?” I told him the TV was “resting” for a few days, and endured his whining with resolve. Silently, I wondered if I would last the week, feeling like he suddenly needed my constant attention. It was so much easier make dinner and straighten the house when I could just pop in Mary Poppins.
During the week, I decided to invest in some new art supplies. I bought stacks of drawing paper, and new sets of beeswax crayons and colored pencils. Then by day four, I witnessed a miracle. The whining stopped. I watched in awe as Harper became engrossed in drawing. Almost overnight, I saw his drawings transform from immature scribbles into representational images. Suddenly he was drawing pictures of pirate ships, castles, knights and dragons. He would sit at the little table in his room and draw picture after picture. Prior to this, I didn’t think he had the capacity to sit and focus for so long.
The drawing continued through long periods during days five and six. I could prepare dinner again while he was happily occupied, with the TV still hidden in the dark cabinet. I wouldn’t have believed it possible! When he wasn’t drawing, he became more interested in building with blocks and playing with puzzles.
I never anticipated such a dramatic change in only a week. By day seven, both my husband and I were convinced that there was no good reason to turn the TV back on. As Max said by the end of the week, “I guess it certainly couldn’t hurt to live without TV.”
We never threw our TV away, though many times I wished we could! Max continued to write about media and could not give up being able to watch World Series baseball. But it stayed turned off most of the time while my two boys were growing up. Though they often complained and questioned why we didn’t watch TV like other families did, Harper has, on more than one occasion, thanked me for not allowing them to watch when they were younger. As teenagers, they watch TV occasionally and enjoy it, but I am convinced that not having spent their childhoods parked in front of screens allowed them to become the creative and resourceful young adults they are now.
Incidentally, Harper has decided to return to his Hollywood roots and is now a college freshman studying filmmaking.
Screen-Free Week 2011 is April 18-24
For more information, help and encouragement:
Won’t you join me in participating in Screen-Free Week this year? Share your challenges and successes here!
Today, I’d like to introduce you to a friend of mine, Amy Robbins-Wilson. Amy is a talented singer, author, and practitioner of mindful parenting.
Be sure to read through to the end for a special giveaway that Amy is offering!
I’ve gotten to know Amy through our mutual association with Spindlewood Waldorf Kindergarten and LifeWays Center in Lincolnville, Maine, and Amy and I were both teachers this past summer at the northeast LifeWays training for childcare providers inspired by Waldorf education.
Oh, and Amy’s son Clayton happens to be one of the children who appears in the slideshow on the new Bella Luna Toys‘ homepage!
I invited Amy to share with us the interesting work she’s been up — finding a way to help mothers transform their days with children through song.
As a Waldorf early childhood teacher, I learned how effective singing can be in easing transitions, eliminating conflict, and how much joy and lightness it can bring to the days we share with the children. Amy has come up with a unique video course for parents who may not be accustomed to singing through the day, or those who think that they can’t sing (never true!), or don’t know any songs.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your family, Amy?
I am a singer, a storyteller, an author and artist. I am the lucky wife of an amazing man who builds me up as we dream our way forward. I am the blessed mother of a son who teaches me each day what it means to be fully present and full of joy.
What about your musical background? Can you tell us more?
I’ve always loved to sing and performed my first solo in preschool when I was three. It was a song about mothers that I no longer remember but now seems like such an indicator of the future! My life has been a journey of losing and finding my voice. I actually stopped singing for about ten years to pursue “more serious matters” until I realized that music was an inescapable force in my life. I studied music in high school and have performed professionally most of my life.
I received an M.A. in Ritual Song and Chant from the Irish World Music Center (now the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance) in Limerick, Ireland. Once I became a mother, music became both a tool and a refuge for me.
You know that I’m a big fan of your book Transformational Mothering and your lullaby CDs, which I think offer a lovely calming and grounding experience to mothers of young children. What led you to create your latest project, “Mommy Jingles?”
I developed Mommy Jingles because I was looking for ways to connect to my newborn son, to teach him, to communicate with him and to keep my spirits up as I went through some serious baby blues.
Clayton was born prematurely and his ears were so sensitive that he could not listen to a full lullaby for the first ten months. He would burst out in tears when I sang which was a real ego deflater. So I started out with humming and then made little jingles for our day that he could use as cues and markers and Mommy Jingles was born.
It was a revelation to me when he began to respond. He knew that the getting in the car jingle meant we were getting in the car, he knew that the napping jingle was for napping. It brought us even closer and I felt like such a great mother, which was a rare feeling for me those first few months when I was feeling overwhelmed and a bit lost. Mommy Jingles made our day fun and I realized just how brilliant even the smallest babies are.
Other moms started to ask me what I was doing and I shared songs with them. When I started to hear back from them about how Mommy Jingles helped, I was thrilled and decided to create our online course. My passion is supporting mothers and this seemed a great way to do it.
Can you give us some ideas on how parents can use singing during challenging times of the day with young children. How can singing ease difficult transitions to, say, bedtime, or separating at daycare?
Well, September 1 has come and gone. It was the date I had hoped to get the new and improved Bella Luna Toys website live. I didn’t make my original goal, but I am determined to open its doors to you before the month is over.
Plugging away around-the-clock, as I am—editing product descriptions, uploading photos, and adding scores of new natural Waldorf toys—has left me with very little time to do much writing. (Even though I have dozens of ideas percolating!)
In the meantime, I thought I’d leave you with some interesting reading for the long weekend. Here are a few of my favorite blog posts from the past week on the themes of childhood and parenting.
Did you know that spanking is illegal in Sweden?
Today on her blog Not Just Cute, Amanda Morgan writes about Sweden’s anti-spanking laws, and offers gentle suggestions for positive discipline (that won’t require calling in law enforcement officials!).
Watch What You Say! Young Children Affected by “Racy Talk.”
One of my favorite sites focused on children and media (and my favorite guide for learning what movies may not be appropriate for children and teens) is Common Sense Media. This week, Caroline Knorr addresses a recent report from the American Academy of Pediatrics that determined that “racy talk” and suggestive innuendo doesn’t go over young children’s heads. (Another pet peeve of mine when it comes to Disney movies.)
Are Our Fears Making Us Crazy?
Another of my favorite bloggers, Lenore Skenazy at Free Range Kids writes about the insane ways in which we behave, propelled by our fears of the all the possible dangers that are waiting to befall our children. On a lighter note, she addresses the absurd comment of a produce distributor that watermelon seeds could pose a choking hazard.
And more seriously, she recounts a young man’s experience of being harshly and unfairly disciplined in high school for carrying a pocket knife. In his native Switzerland, it was customary for children to carry pocket knives to school. What, I wonder, would public school officials think about the many Waldorf early childhood teachers I know who give a pocket knife to each of their students on his or her sixth birthday? Call the spanking police, no doubt!
There you have it. Now I need to batten down the hatches in preparation for Tropical Storm Earl, which is scheduled to hit the coast of Maine this evening. I hope the weather is better where you are, and that your Labor Day weekend is full of play!
What blog posts have intrigued or inspired you this week? Please share your links!