So I have been exploring different preschool options for my sensory disordered son =) Here’s the related information:
He’s smart, saavy, creative, verbal, emotionally intelligent and aware of his own needs. He’s charming and silly, imaginative and obedient (when things are going well). BUT… he is sensory sensitive, moody, motor delayed, shy, and shuts down quickly when he doesn’t like what’s going on. (i.e. Tantrum!). He’s going to be four in a month and has never been good in a group, except for his own siblings and the church nursery. He is afraid of authority and challenge, and tends to be introspective instead of engaging in a group or direct instruction. He’d rather sit out from Life =)
So I requested some information from a local Waldorf school, which I knew to be untraditional and encouraging of creativity, and here’s what I found out.
Waldorf schools are guided by a philosophy that encourages emotional and physical learning, along with the intellectual stuff they teach—“whole child” education, they call it. In fact, they seem to downplay cognitive or academic skills, although I’m sure they would argue otherwise. I think they believe in trying to get the child to want to learn on their own instead of providing them lots of early instruction… so they encourage reading/writing between grades 1 and 3 instead of preK-1. During the early years, they just want to foster an imaginative environment, love of learning, and basic self-discipline skills. Language arts is mainly for fun. Math seems to go slower and has more of a philosophical bent instead of drilling lots of operations; they combine multiplication and division with addition and subtraction from the beginning.
There’s a heavy emphasis on nature, folklore, and arts. They try to balance right- and left-brained activities, so they do a lot of gym, foreign language, visual art, dance, and music (i.e. singing, recorder, etc). They also do eurhythmics—a fancy way of saying rhythmic gymnastics which tries to combine music with movement so the ear, eye, mind, and body work together in gaining a music education. And a typical Waldorf school will be proud of the science and nature activities they weave into the curriculum: nature walks, zoo trips, garden projects, seed experiments, community experiences, etc. They want to foster an intrinsic love of nature and action in a child, so they try to get them out of the classroom or at least make it less artificial.
Other untraditional things include assigning children a class and teacher that they stay with throughout their time at the school: teachers and students stay together, grow together like a family, and are forced to find ways of relating since they can’t get rid of each other! I don’t know, but I think this would be one of the most challenging rules… as both teacher and student! And also I worry that this would be a little restrictive since reflecting on my own education tells me that changing teachers and friends was insecuring at times but prepared me for life… learning to adapt to different people and their rules, make new friends, etc. I am sure, however, that there are benefits to not having this added adjustment, especially for sensitive children.
They also don’t give grades.
So what are we to make of this interesting philosophy?
While I don’t endorse the roots of Waldorf belief, my gut feeling is that it is very similar to a classical homeschooling experience like Charlotte Mason. Obviously it is a secular school, so they aren’t going to teach Christianity. But the overall experience from the child’s perspective is probably a lot like homeschool: hands-on activities, relationship with teacher and students (that is unchanging!), individual attention, no grades, moving at one’s own pace, stimulating love of learning, slower or less rigorous drill and rote work, time for field trips and unstructured learning time, permits creative learning/assignments, integrates special talents into the school day (i.e. dance, music, etc).
Waldorf schooling is sometimes seen as an elite route because it is expensive and comes from higher German philosophy… read about Rudolf Steiner if you want more info. But Waldorf values are evidently seen in public preschools and kindergartens (i.e. “Kindergarten” comes from similar higher German philosophy), and so the question for Americans today is probably not IF they subscribe to Waldorf values, but for HOW LONG they do… eventually most parents trade the organic, humanistic, childlikeness of preschool for the rigors of higher academic education (including sitting for long hours at desks, reading long textbooks, and listening to lectures). This is just the way of secondary education, and honestly, most adult jobs. So the question is when you want your children to make that switch. When they’re ready? When they hit puberty? When they are 3rd grade? 1st?
And another related question is, when should rigorous academic instruction take priority over intrinsic, child-directed learning? Some children, especially more artistic or sensitive ones, may do well with the instrinsic motivation model until they graduate. But others may really need more formal, extrinsic motivation that traditional models provide. Plus, many early childhood experts agree that children should be encouraged to read, write, compute, and use computers as soon as they are developmentally able… not after their imagination or intrinsic love of learning has taken root. Some children are never motivated intrinsically! Or are motivated too late for their academic skills to take root firmly. In other words, it is a chicken-and-egg phenomenon: both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation should work together, not push the other out.
In conclusion, I found the Waldorf school philosophy interesting and not as offensive as I once thought it was, when I was an Education student. At the time, it seemed too loose and academically lite. But now that I have a sensitive, artistic, and imaginative child, I see it has its niche. And it is not altogether out of the mainstream when I consider the philosophy of the toddler, preschool, and kindergarten years which seem to produce a lot of fruit for a child.
So chieck it out if you think your child fits the bill. It was a pleasant surprise.