22 March 2012

My thoughts on the Waldorf philosophy.

I've always been alternately drawn to and repelled by the Waldorf educational philosophy.  I know, that doesn't make much sense, but it's true.  There are so many things, like the use of natural materials and fairy tales, that resonates with me as a homeschooling parent.  On the flip side, I also find myself vehemently disagreeing with other parts of their philosophy, such as the idea that reading to a young child is harmful.

I'll focus on the preschool set for my thoughts here, as that is what applies to our family and is what I've read the most about.  According to wikipedia, the Waldorf philosophy approaches this age range like so:

Waldorf schools approach learning in early childhood through imitation and example.[28][29] Extensive time is given for guided free play in a classroom environment that is homelike, includes natural materials and provides examples of productive work in which children can take part;[20] such an environment is considered by Waldorf pedagogues to be supportive of the physical, emotional and intellectual growth of the child through assimilative learning.[29] Outdoor play periods are also generally incorporated into the school day, with the intention of providing children with experiences of nature, weather and the seasons of the year. Oral language development is addressed through songs, poems and movement games. These include daily story time when a teacher usually tells a fairytale, often by heart.[21]

Aids to development via play generally consist of simple materials drawn from natural sources that can be transformed imaginatively to fit a wide variety of purposes. Waldorf dolls are intentionally made simple in order to allow playing children to employ and strengthen their imagination and creativity. Waldorf schools generally discourage kindergarten and lower grade pupils being exposed to media influences such as television, computers and recorded music, as they believe these to be harmful to children's development in the early years;[22][30] this is consistent with the UK National Literacy Trust[31]

The education emphasizes early experiences of daily, weekly and annual rhythms, including seasonal festivals drawn from a variety of traditions, with attention placed on the traditions brought forth from the community. Thus, though Waldorf schools in the Western Hemisphere have traditionally celebrated Christian festivals[32] such schools are now incorporating an increasingly wide range of cultural and religious traditions.[33] Schools located where Jewish, Buddhist, or Islamic traditions are dominant celebrate festivals drawn from these traditions.

It sounds great, right?  But you just can't escape the weird stuff, like the lack of early reading, or the idea that you should have a certain color of grain each day of the week, or the bizarre hats.  My god, the hats are weird.  And if you ask any true Waldorf devotee, they'll tell you that if you ignore the weird stuff, the reasoning for the entire philosophy collapses because it's all based on Rudolph Steiner's religious beliefs, known as "anthroposophy."  If you don't do the grains and the hats, they'll tell you, there's just no point in doing the rest.

I also have trouble getting on board with the "better late than early" thinking, as you can probably tell from browsing the curriculum that my three-year-old uses.  Sydney doesn't spend more than about twenty minutes each day on this stuff, and many days she doesn't do any of it, but according to the Waldorf crowd, I'm still doing permanent and irrepairable damage to her immortal spirit.  Or something.  Beware the plastic counting bears, because they will make your child dead inside.

Still, there's something very alluring about the gentle candlelit bedtime, and following the rhythm of the seasons.  Maybe what I'm looking for isn't so much a Waldorf-inspired routine as one that is closer to nature and my own beliefs, which do not require that I eat purple foods on Thursdays (or whatever).  And as much as I try to tell myself that I don't really feel that way, I do need to move away from the idea that the earlier Sydney reaches certain academic goalposts, the better I'm doing as a parent.

I should really just put together my own educational philosophy.  God knows I've read enough books on parenting and education and homeschooling to have a decent idea how it all works.  There are so many things I like in the Waldorf, and Charlotte Mason, and classical education, and there must be some way to fit those parts all together.  I think I'll work on that.

Of course, I have to go do the dishes and clean the bathroom first.  Bleeeerghh.

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