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Sarah Baldwin

Ostheimer St. Martin, Horse and Beggar
Archives, Family, Festivals, Sunday With Sarah, Waldorf Education

The Festival of Martinmas

Martinmas, or the festival of St. Martin, is celebrated around November 11 in Waldorf schools with a nighttime lantern walk–often with songs followed by autumn treats.

Like Halloween, Martinmas is rooted in Christian ritual but is now more of a cultural event, anticipated by children in many European countries. The essence of the holiday—marking the end of the fall harvest and the advent of snowy weather—reminds us that through all of life’s outward changes we maintain within us the warm light of our spirit.

Martinmas dates back to the Middle Ages and the veneration of St. Martin, a 4th-century bishop who founded an abbey in Tours, France. Martin was a Roman horse soldier who converted to Christianity; according to legend, one wintry day he encountered a shivering beggar and cut his cloak in half to give the poor man warmth. That night, Martin had a vision of Jesus wearing Martin’s divided red cloak. Martin is now the patron saint of tailors, as well as that of France.

Traditionally, Martinmas coincided with the many busy activities around farms in late fall. Any remaining late crops in the fields, such as winter squash, would be harvested before the deep snow falls; it was also the time to plant winter wheat, which came up in early spring and provided flour for the new year.

The bounty of the late harvest, fresh wine, and the slaughter of animals naturally suggested a feast day. As such, Martinmas was a precursor to the American holiday of Thanksgiving, and is still marked in Europe with sumptuous meals, often of roast goose. In Germany, suckling pig is prepared in the town square.

Centuries ago, bishops in some European countries ordered fasting for several days a week from Martinmas to Epiphany—a period of 56 days. Among the more unusual Martinmas traditions no longer observed was the invocation in Ireland that no wheel shall turn on the feast day—in respect for the fact that Martin was killed by being tossed into a mill stream and crushed under the paddlewheel.

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Today in many European countries, the Martinmas festival culminates in a lantern walk at night, followed by a bonfire and songs. Traditionally the lanterns were carved out of newly harvested squash gourds, and illuminated with a candle—the origin of our jack-o-lantern—but can also be made of paper or jars. The lanterns and the bonfire symbolize light in the darkness of winter, and give hope to the poor through the good deeds of St. Martin.

In America the holiday is not commonly observed, although the city of St. Paul, Minnesota has a public Martinmas lantern parade around Rice Park. The tradition of Martinmas has been maintained in the New World primarily by Waldorf schools.

From a child’s point of view, the best part of Martinmas may be the sweet treats at the end of a lantern walk. In some countries, children go from house to house with their lanterns, “begging” for treats—certainly the origin of our modern Halloween ritual.

If you are not part of a Waldorf school community (or don’t live in St. Paul), you may wish to organize your own family Lantern Walk with friends and neighbors. The books All Year Round and Crafts Through the Year have instructions for making different types of lanterns. The Autumn volume from the Wynstones collection of seasonal books has a number of lantern songs that can be softly sung on your quiet procession.

Last, but not least, don’t forget to have some treats ready when you come inside to get warm after your walk, like hot cider, ginger cookies and apples.

May the generous spirit of St. Martin be with you through the season!

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Have you celebrated the season with a lantern walk–either at school or at home? If not, are you inspired to try one? Please share your thoughts and experiences!

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Archives, Childhood, Education, Natural Toys, Outdoor Play, Parenting, Play, Sunday With Sarah, Toy Safety, Waldorf Education, Wooden Toys

Children and Weapon Play: Should Parents Be Concerned?

Parents often become concerned when their child learns about guns for the first time and starts playing shooting games.

In this week’s “Sunday with Sarah,” video, I address the topic of kids and weapon play: why children (particularly boys) pretend to play with guns, ways it can be addressed, and how to meet a child’s need for weapon play in a less threatening way.

Click the image above to view.

As always, please leave your comments and questions below, and I may answer your question in a future video!

Have a week full of safe and healthy play!

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PRODUCTS FEATURED IN THIS VIDEO:

P.S. If you’re enjoying these videos, be sure to visit the Sunday with Sarah YouTube Channel and click SUBSCRIBE!

CORRECTION: I’m afraid that there is some outdated information in this video. In it, I mention a surge in testosterone that occurs in boys at around the age of four, however recent research has questioned this previously accepted theory. For more information, see this recent article on the subject: Do Boys Really Have a Testosterone Spurt at Age Four?. Whether or not it is caused by a surge in testosterone, what is clear is that at around the age of four, it is not uncommon for preschool boys to start becoming interested in more active, physical play.

VIDEO SYNOPSIS:

Healthy kids are often drawn toward violent gunplay. Guns are fascinating for young boys and, considering the massive amount of media dedicated to the weapons, it’s no surprise that kids emulate the violence they observe in their own play.

As the parent of two grown boys, I completely sympathize with parents who are concerned when their children develop this fascination. It can be concerning when your kids are pretending to shoot imaginary (or real) enemies. Does this mean they’ll grow up to be violent? Should we allow our children to indulge in such play?

Over my 20+ years as a Waldorf early childhood teacher, I can first and foremost assure you that this kind of play is completely normal. All boys participate in it to varying degrees and, unless your child has taken the additional step of actually committing physical violence toward others, you can rest assured that you’re simply witnessing normal behavior.

So why are kids, boys especially, so drawn to guns? It’s a complicated question with no easy answer, but one reason I would suggest is that guns give children a feeling of control. Kids are rarely in control of anything; their parents, teachers and older siblings all exert authority over them. Pretending to fire a gun satisfies a child’s urge to be in control of something.

While I would strongly discourage providing toy guns for children, I would also caution parents against trying to completely eliminate gun play. The most compelling reason for this is that it’s nearly impossible! Children’s imaginations are simply too strong to combat: a stick, a wooden spoon, even a finger can become a make-believe firearm.

Ground rules regarding gun play should be enforced, however. In my classroom, the rules were that children could pretend to fire guns but they must do so outside and they must never point it at another person. Trees, rocks, imaginary foes and other non-living targets were fine. Not only did this keep gun play from becoming too menacing, threatening or non-inclusive, it actually followed some of the basic safety precautions of real firearm handling.

All this being said, there is one way of discouraging gun play: by providing the alternative of sword play.

Sword play might seem, at a glance, to be no different from gun play. They’re both lethal weapons, right? While that’s true, there are some important differences in the way children play with them and I’ve found that sword play is much more productive.
The single biggest difference between guns and swords are the stories they evoke. When children engage in imaginative play, they’re really telling stories. As all storytellers do, they borrow from the stories they’ve already heard.

So when a child plays with a gun, they’re going to imitate the gun-related stories they’ve heard or seen before. Flip through the TV channels or watch an action movie and it becomes quite clear that guns are most often (not always, of course) associated with stories involving massive amount of indiscriminate violence.

Swords, on the other hand, are more likely to be portrayed within the context of chivalry and honor, in stories about knights, dragons and castles. While there’s no denying that these weapons could be just as deadly and used just as indiscriminately as a gun, the simple fact is that the stories we pass on about them are much more gentle and focus on good triumphing over evil. And that’s the kind of play they inspire!

Swords can still be hurtful and dangerous, so it’s equally important to treat them with respect. In my classroom, children could only play with toy swords after completing a knighting ceremony. They would wear a rainbow cape and a crown and sit on a special branch. Then I would recite and they would answer:

MISS SARAH: John Andrew Young, have you been good?

CHILD: Oh, yes.

MISS SARAH: Have you been true?

CHILD: Oh, yes.

MISS SARAH: Have you heard the stars singing in the sky?

CHILD: Oh, yes.

MISS SARAH: Here is your sword. Use it for right, to carry the light, not for some silly quarrel or fight.

At this point I would tap the child with the sword on each shoulder before handing it to them. This ceremony really helped the children understand that wielding a sword was a privilege and responsibility.

While I did allow children to mock sword fight, I strictly enforced the rule that sword blades could never be used against another person. The swords could hit each other, but not a human.

I hope this helps. Leave your comments and questions, and I’ll see you next time!

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Archives, Childhood, Education, Parenting, Reading, Storytelling, Sunday With Sarah, Waldorf Education

Are Waldorf Schools Anti-Reading?

One of the biggest misconceptions about Waldorf education is that children can’t read and that Waldorf schools are anti-books.

In this week’s Sunday with Sarah , I try to dispel some of the myths and describe how reading is approached in Waldorf education.

I’m sure this topic will raise lots of questions, so please a comment below, and I will do my best to answer them all!

And if you want to be sure to catch all future videos, be sure to visit my Sunday with Sarah YouTube channel and SUBSCRIBE!

Warmly,

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TRANSCRIPTION:

Today I’d like to dispel one of the biggest myths you may have heard about Waldorf education: that Waldorf kids can’t read. I’m here to tell you that is not true and to share with you some information about how reading is approached in Waldorf education.

Now, it’s true that Waldorf kindergartens and nurseries don’t formally teach reading, writing, and other academic subjects, but that doesn’t mean that the children aren’t gaining valuable development in those areas. In the early years, they’re developing so many pre-reading skills and language skills. Children in a Waldorf preschool environment—nursery or kindergarten—are hearing verses, they’re learning songs, they’re hearing stories and fairy tales. They’re hearing rich language and they’re hearing it repeated over and over. They might hear the same story every day for a week or two weeks or repeating a circle play with the same songs and verses until they really memorize them and learn them by heart.

They’re building mature vocabularies. If you meet a Waldorf kindergarten student, who might not be reading any words yet, you may notice that they have a very advanced vocabulary and spoken language skills.

One of the reasons Waldorf schools don’t push reading at a young age is that children’s brains are all wired differently and some children are predisposed to read early while others are not. Other children might be developing their physical skills first, and the decoding ability necessary to read will come later. Most children under the age of seven will be more advanced in some developmental areas than others.

Some children can get really frustrated when reading is introduced too early, before they’re ready. It can turn them off to reading for a lifetime, convincing them that reading is a chore and not inherently rewarding or fun. In Waldorf we choose to allow these skills to develop naturally at the individual child’s own pace. It’s similar to walking: kids learn how to do it on their own, at different ages, without us having to teach them how!

I always give the example of my two children. My older son, Harper, didn’t start to read fluently until the middle of 3rd grade. My younger son, William, taught himself in kindergarten. Nobody taught him, he just started reading one day. I, like a lot of parents, was really worried when their cousins were their age and reading way ahead of them, but both boys grew into very voracious readers with excellent literary skills. When it happens, it happens.

Around the age of seven, all those different developmental areas should be more or less caught up. Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, believed around seven, or the year the child is turning seven, is the ideal time to start first grade and academic learning.

When they do get to first grade, letters are introduced in a very imaginative and living way through stories and art. For example, the letter “M” might be introduced as a drawing of a Mountain in the shape of the letter.

By third grade, most children in a Waldorf school should be reading competently. Some children do develop learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, so when they do get to grade school it’s important to keep an eye on them and to be in touch with a child’s teacher. If by third grade they’re still struggling, you may want to consult with a learning or reading specialist for analysis because the earlier a problem like dyslexia is diagnosed the more can be done to help the child.

I can assure you that Waldorf schools are not anti-reading and they’re not anti-books. Being concerned that your child is falling behind can be a natural reaction, but I’m here to tell you to relax and let it happen when it happens.

Wishing you a day full of play!

Sarah

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