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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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Archives, Education, Sunday With Sarah, Waldorf Education

What is Waldorf Education?

When I explain that I am a Waldorf teacher and now sell Waldorf toys, I am often asked to describe Waldorf education “in a nutshell.”

Waldorf education is so multi-faceted and can take years of study to comprehend, but in this new “Sunday with Sarah” video, I do my best to give the viewer an overview of some of the primary differences between Waldorf education and mainstream schooling.

If you have questions after viewing the video, please post your comments and questions below, and I’ll do my best to answer them. Nice to be back with you!

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TRANSCRIPTION:

Today I want to try and answer the question “what is Waldorf education?”

I get this question a lot from people who are new to Waldorf. They want to know, briefly and in a nutshell, what Waldorf philosophy is all about. It’s so hard to describe it succinctly because it’s so deep and multi-leveled, so I’m going to sum up five aspects of Waldorf philosophy which make it unique from “traditional” education.

1. Non-Academic Preschool

Being an early childhood teacher myself, the first thing I want to mention is that Waldorf early childhood education—nursery and kindergarten—is conducted in a non-academic environment. We don’t teach numbers, math, the alphabet or reading.

However, Waldorf preschool students build those pre-math and pre-reading skills through storytelling, hearing fairy tales and playing circle games. They are exposed to enriched language and, through repetition and memorization, are developing large vocabularies but we let their imagination unfold and we don’t push it in an academic way.

There’s a misconception that because of this, Waldorf schools are anti-reading. This could not be further than the truth. In Waldorf schools, reading simply comes later. A lot of children aren’t ready to read in the early childhood years; they’re brains need to be ready for the difficult decoding work and that happens at different ages for different children. We just allow those skills to develop naturally. Reading is like walking: kids will learn at their own pace and they don’t need it to be forced upon them.

2. Storytelling

Another unique aspect of Waldorf education is the emphasis on storytelling. Starting in the early years, teachers tell many stories by heart (I prefer to say “by heart” instead of “memorized,” which is a little colder). We learn the stories and we tell them with eye contact, heart to heart, teacher to child.

Storytelling continues throughout grade school. When children are studying history or legends they’re still hearing stories told by heart from their grade school teacher. It makes subjects come alive.

3. The Arts

Another interesting aspect of Waldorf education—and it’s the first thing which struck me about Waldorf—is that the arts are integrated into all subjects. Coming from a theater background and being a creative person myself, this really piqued my interest and appealed to me. I thought if I had had that kind of education, how much richer my own
schooling experience might have been.

For example, when a class is studying a particular subject, it might be approached through movement, rhythmic games, music, drawing, painting, etc.

My son, Harper, who’s now grown was sharing with me recently how the artistic application of color helped him learn math. Each number had an associated color with it, which helped him to learn the relationships between them and their individual properties. He still sees the number 5 as green and the number 12 as purple!

You may have heard of Howard Gardner and his theory of multiple intelligences. Many decades before Howard Gardner developed his Theory of Multiple Intelligences, the founder of Waldorf education, Rudolf Steiner, prescribed this way of learning: approaching different subjects through different artistic media which reach all the different types of learners. The kinesthetic learners learn through movement, maybe learning math through clapping and stomping games; visual learners will learn by creating art in their main lesson books, which I’ll talk more about
in a minute; and so on.

4. Class Teacher Staying with Same Class through the Grades

Another thing that makes Waldorf education unique is that, ideally, a class teacher will stay with the same group of children from first grade through eighth grade. It doesn’t always work out that way but that’s the ideal.

A lot of parents who are new to this concept question it: “Well, what if you have a bad teacher?” I’m not going to lie, it is a possibility but in my experience the teachers who are drawn to Waldorf education and who are willing to make this commitment to a class are incredibly dedicated, devoted and capable.

When a teacher stays with a class for such a long time, the group becomes a family and that teacher becomes an expert in those children. Traditionally, when a teacher gets a new class of students every year they spend the better part of that year just getting to know their knew students: how they learn and how to reach them. Then, as soon as a relationship begins to develop, the child moves on to another new teacher.

The other benefit I see to looping is that the class teacher learns with their students. They might spend their summer studying and refreshing the subjects to be taught in the upcoming grade, which makes it fresh and exciting for them. Their enthusiasm is sure to be shared with their students.

More and more public and mainstream schools of incorporating this idea of “looping.”

One thing I should add is that in the early childhood years, teachers do not progress with the students. Looping only begins in first grade.

5. Main Lesson Books

Finally, there are no textbooks used in Waldorf education. Instead, children make their own textbooks called “Main Lesson Books.”

A unique aspect in itself, Waldorf students study one subject at a time. A class will have one Main Lesson block for a 3-4 week period where they will cover one subject in depth. In sixth grade it might be Ancient Roman history, in second grade it might be Legends and Heroes. They’ll study that topic for about two hours every morning and then take write and illustrate those lessons into their own textbook.

This makes subjects so much more meaningful and helps the information penetrate to a deeper level where it’s really embedded in their memory for life, rather than just quickly memorized for a test and soon forgotten.

There’s so much more that could be said on the subject of Waldorf education, this is just my attempt at summarizing the core tenets of Waldorf.

If you want to learn more about Waldorf education, and I hope you do, there are a lot of great books and resources available. One book I highly recommend if you’re a parent of a young child is You Are Your Child’s First Teacher, written by my friend and colleague Rahima Baldwin Dancy (no relation). It’s a wonderful introduction to the early childhood years with ideas for how to incorporate Waldorf philosophy into your home.

Also, the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America (AWSNA) has a great website with lots of links to resources and lots of information. You’ll find that at www.waldorfeducation.org

You might also want to check out www.waldorfshop.net which has many resources as well: books, art supplies, toys, everything and anything related to Waldorf education.

Have a day full of play!

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Storytelling from the Heart

Sarah Baldwin, Waldorf educator and owner of Bella Luna Toys, explains the importance of storytelling for children and gives parents ideas on how to make up their own stories, and tell stories “by heart” in this “Sunday with Sarah” video.

TRANSCRIPTION:

Hi, I’m Sarah Baldwin. I’m a Waldorf teacher, an author, the mother of two Waldorf graduates. I’m the owner of Bella Luna Toys, and I’m also a storyteller.

And guess what. So are you!

Today on “Sunday With Sarah” I’m going to talk to you about storytelling and why I think it’s so important to TELL children stories–from memory or from the heart, or stories that you make up–as opposed to just reading them from a book.

Now books are great. We sell a lot of picture books and chapter books at Bella Luna Toys. I don’t want to discourage you from ever reading to your child or encouraging your child to read, but when we can take the time to TELL a child a story–eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart–there is no greater gift. Children love it!

Now you may think “I’m not creative, I don’t have any ideas. How do I possibly make up a story?” Well, it’s not that hard, and the more you start exercising that storytelling muscle, the easier it becomes.

The easiest way to get started, I think, is to just start telling your child stories of when you were a little girl or you were a little boy. Children LOVE to hear stories about their parents when they were little, and remembering the adventures they had or the trouble they got into!

You can also tell a story reviewing the child’s day. Now, reviewing the day before sleep, in bed, is a wonderful, relaxing way for children to let go of the day and drift off to sleep.

And you can disguise the child. You can change his or her name, or it could be a story about “Squirrel Nutkin” or another little animal, but then use the events that child’s day to help them review the day and soon they’ll begin to recognize themselves in the story. “Oh, that’s what I did today!” and they’ll get really excited to hear a story about themselves.

For instance: “Squirrel Nutkin woke up early one morning and his mother had made him a bowl of oatmeal. And after they ate their oatmeal, they washed the dishes together and took a walk to the park…” and so on, reviewing what the child had to eat that day, who they saw, what activities they did.

So, if you need more ideas, one of my favorite books, and we offer it at Bella Luna Toys, is called Storytelling with Children, written by Nancy Mellon. Nancy is a master storyteller who has taught teachers and given workshops, and it’s full of great ideas.

And stories don’t have to just be told. They can also be told as a puppet play with little figures. Nancy gives lots of ideas in this wonderful book.

So I really encourage you to start, if you don’t already, making up stories. You can also memorize a story, like a fairy tale, and try telling it by heart. I like saying “telling it by heart” rather that “memorizing.” It just is warmer.

A fairy tale you know well, like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” or “Little Red Riding Hood.” You know what happens in the story! Tell it in your own words and when your child makes that eye contact with you and has that heart-to-heart connection, they will just warm right up, and you’ll enjoy it, too.

So, leave a comment! Let me know if storytelling something you do regularly. If not, and you decide to give it a try, let me know how it goes. Let me know if you have any questions. Happy storytelling! See you next time.

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Book referenced in video: Storytelling with Children by Nancy Mellon

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