This is Part VIII of the series Kindergarten Considerations in which I have been discussing (and wrestling with) the considerations behind the seemingly innocuous decision of where to send my four year old son to school. The next two posts are dedicated to a discussion of our top options. We already looked at Montessori education. Today we’re talking about Waldorf schools.
I have only known about Waldorf schools for a few years. The concept gradually seeped into my consciousness and I can’t remember what I first heard about it or from whom. We were living in Vancouver. Aaron came home from work one day and told me that a client had been explaining Waldorf to him and that it sounded really interesting. I had heard of the school before then but that was the most I knew of it for a long time. From there, I learned little bits here and everywhere. I’ve learned the most about Waldorf education in the last four months. Before then it was just this nebulous alternative school.
There is a new initiative in our area to start a Waldorf school. There have been previous attempts over the years that have petered out. This particular initiative looks poised to happen. The intent is to open the doors in Sept 2010 with Kindergarten and grade 1, and to add a grade each year. There may be as few as 10 kids enrolled in the first year. I have mixed feelings about this but I will come back to that.
First, some background on Waldorf schools for those of you who know little about it. Sometimes called Steiner Schools, the concept for the school is based on the thoughts of Rudolf Steiner. Steiner was a philosopher who was asked to develop the curriculum for children of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory workers in Stuttgart and this is where Waldorf schools come from.
In a nutshell, the Waldorf philosophy believes that the child should be approached on their own level which in the early years is primarily through play and imagination. Especially in the early years, the belief is that children learn best through imitation so the teacher plays the role of guide and model. There is a lot of emphasis on the natural world, on yearly celebrations, on community. Children write and draw to create their own textbooks. Many of the learning concepts are taught through the use of stories and over the years, children cover folk & fairy tales, fables, Greek myths, and more. In addition to regular academic studies, Waldorf schools also teach art, hand crafts (like knitting), gardening, music (every child learns to play an instrument), foreign language, a kind of dance/creative movement called Eurythmy. They have outdoor play time and also circle time with stories and songs. Contrary to the Montessori method which is very individually driven, Waldorf schools structure the day around often coming together as a group. You can learn more about the philosophy here or here.
Waldorf schools, like Montessori schools, vary greatly in their implementation because they are run independently. It’s not like a franchise restaurant where your burger will be the same in Medicine Hat as in Chicago. As such, I’m sure there are good schools and not so good. One of the criticisms I have heard of various Waldorf schools is that they can seem rather cultish. I am not sure if that is a reference to the emphasis on natural rhythms which might feel too close to paganism for some families’ comfort or if it is due to a perception of over-adherence to the teachings of a single individual.
The focus on the fairy stories, arts and natural world rhythms strikes some families as being too out there, hippie, airy-fairy or pagan. I’m not overly worried about any of those but I certainly see how some mainstream, conservative families may feel that they wouldn’t fit in the larger community of the school even if they are interested in the education for their children. At the risk of totally putting my foot in my mouth, my impression so far is that Waldorf school appeals to a certain type of family and in that sense may alienate others.
There also seems to be a mistaken impression that Waldorf schools don’t stress academics enough. That doesn’t actually bother me very much, especially during the younger years, but I also think that this varies from school to school. The schools I’ve looked into do meet the requirements of BC’s Ministry of Education in terms of teaching all the academic subjects. Waldorf philosophy does delay the instruction of reading until after age 7 and I’m sure some parents would find that idea quite distressing, though I actually find it refreshing.
I love the holistic approach of Waldorf education and I’m inspired to see that they find it equally important to teach music, art, gardening, working with one’s hands. Traditional schools seem to consider these as extra-curricular activities which means that families spend their evenings and weekends driving to multiple activities in the name of producing well-rounded individuals but at the expense of unstructured family time and resulting in children who are over-scheduled. Why not have instruction for the whole child during regular school hours so that the rest of the time the child can play, rest or spend time with his/her family and community?
The one worry I do have is about the elevation of Rudolf Steiner to near sainthood. One of my concerns both for Montessori and Waldorf education is that they are based so heavily on the ideas of a single individual whose ideas about child development are 80-100 years old. There have been considerable advances in the studies of psychology and child development in that time. Jean Piaget was also a famous and highly influential child development theorist from the time and his work has made an incredible impact on the study of child development, and yet, even so, his work has lately been criticized for things like underestimating the capabilities of children. In my mind it is foolish to think that Steiner or Montessori or Piaget had the whole story and to blindly follow a curriculum without question.
One of the ideas that has come up in the info sessions we’ve attended so far is that Waldorf schools seek to encourage children to be free thinkers. My hope is that free thinking in the parents is also encouraged. I tend to approach most matters from a critical thinking vantage point and my ideas end up being a mixed bag, taking a little of this, a little of that. I don’t think I embrace Waldorf 100%, and I know I don’t even embrace Montessori 60% but I love ideas from both and would probably enjoy a school that also employed my a little of this, a little of that approach. Unfortunately, I haven’t found that school yet so I’m working with the options I’ve got.
The Waldorf school initiative here has exciting possibilities for becoming actively involved from the early days and really having a chance to shape the future of the program if a family is willing to do so. The community is small but open and friendly. However, there are some risks involved with such a young venture. As of yet, they don’t have a space which I think could hamper their attempts to get interested families to enroll. It isn’t easy to put pen to paper and commit the hefty fee when you haven’t had a chance to at least look around a classroom, or for that matter, know where you’ll be driving every day. Other drawbacks include a lack of teaching staff and established programs like music teachers, foreign language instruction, a library and so on. Of course, there is also the considerable risk that after a few years the school will falter and there will no longer be a school or a teacher when your child is in 3rd or 4th grade.
I’m personally willing to trust that those issues will work out because it isn’t really worth sitting out on opportunities over worries about what might happen in the future. Besides, I’ve known for a long time that we would probably change up our schooling plans as necessary along the way. Maybe by then we’ll be living elsewhere? Or roadschooling our way around North America? Speaking of which, our next installment of Kindergarten Considerations addresses what is becoming my secret passion: homeschooling. Stay Tuned.
Photo credit: Toronto Waldorf School