By Joan Goldfarb, PCWS Parent
When Jerry was several months old, someone gave us the book Babyhood, by Penelope Leach. That book was a revelation to me, because it gives the reader a glimpse of how the world must feel for a newborn who has never experienced bright lights or loud sounds, and is in the process of adjusting to all of the stimuli around them. I began to pay attention to what kinds of experiences I was exposing my child to, and what those experiences must feel like from his perspective. In hindsight, I think that reading that book was my first step on the path towards choosing Waldorf education for our children.
It is so easy for us adults—who are accustomed to the world around us and busy making things happen—to overlook the difference between our experience of the world and our children’s experience of it. When we watch television, we don’t notice how often the images change. If our children watch television, the split-second changes in images are not only confusing, but overwhelming to their senses. When we see snow outside the window, our first impulse may be to worry about the difficulties of driving in it, having to deal with wet and muddy shoes and clothes, and finding enough layers to keep everyone warm. When children see snow, they see endless possibilities for play, and the sheer beauty and wonder of it. That difference may be inconvenient—particularly when our children want to linger in the snow while we want to get our errands done—but I believe that recognizing that difference and honoring our children is what allows them to have the most healthy childhood we can give them, and ultimately the most fulfilling adulthood. And I believe that Waldorf education offers the greatest opportunity to do that.
It is difficult to reduce Waldorf education to one sentence, but if I had to, I would say that Waldorf educators revere childhood and call upon that reverence to teach our children in ways that are meaningful to the children based on where they are developmentally. In my family’s experience at Potomac Crescent, from the first day of Parent-Child class through the third grade, the teachers have held a deep respect for the children and keen understanding of what is developing within them. They give the utmost thought and care to preparing the classroom and the work of each day based on what will nourish each child’s whole being. The children sense this. It seems to me that this reverence alone, without ever speaking a word, plants self-respect and contentment deep within the children.
But the combination of reverence for the children and understanding of their development also results in so much more. For example, it means that they are not rushed into learning letters and numbers in early childhood, and instead are supported in their natural pursuit of creative play and in their experience of wonder. The children develop confidence by being given work and challenges that are commensurate with their development and abilities, and they embrace the work because it is meaningful for them. They develop a strong sense of beauty, not only because the teachers take such care to ensure their surroundings are beautiful, but also because they are learning to make beautiful things with their own hands by being carefully taught to do so and by using supplies—such as beeswax crayons, wet-on-wet watercolor paints, and wooden pentatonic recorders—that enhance the beauty of their creations. It means that they develop a connection with one another, because they stay with the same teacher and group of children during the early grades so that their relationships can deepen at a time when they are developing their emotional selves. And it means that they know what it feels like for their work and learning to feel meaningful to them—whether they are hand washing the cloth napkins they use at the snack table in kindergarten, or hearing stories in the early grades that reflect their deepening emotional life.
There are probably many people who would not see much value in these outcomes, because they cannot be measured in terms of academic achievement. And there are some who go so far as to eschew Waldorf education because children at a Waldorf school often start to read later than their friends at other schools. In my own experience, it has not been easy to see my children’s younger friends start to read before my children. But what I can tell you is that, once Jerry did start reading, he quickly surpassed his friends at other schools, precisely because of the inner strength he derived from his Waldorf education—it was a challenge he was ready and eager to meet, and he had a rich wellspring of internal motivation to drive him. In the end, I believe that the Waldorf philosophy of understanding and honoring childhood, and teaching children in a way that is meaningful to them, results in confident and content children who maintain a sense of beauty and wonder in the world; feel a connection to the people and world around them; gladly take on work and approach it with creativity and initiative; and have the resources within them to find purpose in their lives. I have seen these qualities thriving within my own children already. And in my view, these are the outcomes I am looking for.