by Sandra Hanson
It’s that time of year again (at least for us Northerners) – the leaves are turning, the mornings and evenings are crisp and cool, and the bounty that the earth has provided us with is being brought in. Fall is upon us, and with it, millions of children around the world will be returning to school this week.
We officially started our 2015-2016 homeschool year on Monday, September 7th. Now, I admit that we did actually try to start back the first week of August. I figured we would start early and then take a week off with my husband at the end of August. But…quite frankly, it just didn’t happen. The call to enjoy the lazy summer days was too strong – and not just for the children! I also made a last minute change to our curriculum plans, so I spent the time getting new resources in place.
We dabbled in Oak Meadow last year, but I admit – I gave up on it then. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the approach – the Waldorf philosophy of education (and lifestyle) truly appeals to my heart, with the focus on simplicity, the beauty of nature, the creative arts, and the spiritual elements all around us, and the belief that education is about so much more than the approach of teaching to the test and memorizing facts that mainstream education has become. That education is about the entire child, the whole being – a trinity, if you will – made up of first and foremost the heart, then the hands and head.
However, in the early years, Waldorf education does appear to “lag” behind mainstream, North American public schools. In typical Waldorf schools, true education does not start until grade 1, which is age 7 – a full year behind what is considered normal today. That’s right – that means that they do not teach children to read until age 7. (Quite shocking when most schools, and even homeschoolers, today are teaching children as young as 4 and 5 to read.) Grammar and spelling aren’t introduced until grade 3. In math, telling time, money, weights and measurements also are not introduced until grade 3; fractions not until grade 4. Instead, the early years are spent allowing the children to truly develop intimate knowledge of the four processes: +, -, x, and /, the very foundation of all the math they will do later in life.
Having just spent the previous three years pursuing a very traditional workbook-based, academic approach to education, Oak Meadow was a polar opposite to what we had been doing. All I could see was how it was “behind” the public schools. I was also still very much struggling with the idea that we had to keep up with our son’s publicly schooled peers. I felt like I had to “prove” that our counter-cultural choice was working. And so I gave up on Oak Meadow and went back to our traditional workbook approach, though I admit it just felt lacking to me.
So why the delay? A mantra common among Waldorf homeschoolers is: “Just because a child can do something, doesn’t mean they should.” Oak Meadow does not believe in filling children full of empty education. Any child can (and will) memorize rote math facts, the days and weeks, and memorize a clock. But memorization does not equal understanding, nor the ability to apply that knowledge to one’s own life in a truly meaningful way. Instead, they believe in waiting until a child has the mental and emotional capacity to make real connections with the material that they are learning, which is something that is rarely truly possible in the younger years.
Likewise, yes, many children can be taught to read at a young age. However, often they are merely memorizing words, without truly understanding the enormous process of what they’re doing. Also, when taught too young, it can make the process longer and harder than it would have been if the child had been allowed to wait until they were truly ready. It has been proven time and again, through numerous studies, that children who are exposed to academics earlier in life show absolutely no gain, and, in fact, are often farther behind, than students who do not start academics until later in life. One only has to look at the Finland education system to see the truth behind this.
Because Waldorf education waits until a child is truly emotionally and mentally ready for learning, children often learn faster. Therefore, by the later years (middle school) Waldorf education has “caught up” and typically surpassed mainstream education in the “big” areas of Language Arts and Mathematics. Also, one has to look at the richness of a Waldorf inspired education. Compared to mainstream schools where arts are being cut due to funding, and to allow more time on the three R’s so they can bring up ratings, Waldorf education puts great emphasis on the arts. Oak Meadow teaches children art & music appreciation and history, theory and application as they learn to do watercolor paintings,
form drawing, crayon and pencil drawings, and more. Children start learning to play a recorder in grade 1. They study dramatic arts, cooking and handicrafts such as woodworking, clay modeling, knitting, crocheting, weaving, and much more.
Thankfully, this summer, I finally reached the place where I knew that I could truly step outside of the box once and for all. I knew what I wanted for my son’s education, and it wasn’t pushing academics and rote memorization. What I wanted was for my son to be a child – to explore his world, to see the connection between his heart and head, and to develop a love of learning – true learning. Not just repeating facts, but learning to discern on his own how something applies to his life. I wanted him surrounded by the arts – and not just busy work crafts, but true arts and handicrafts.
And so, I made the decision to put my son back into Oak Meadow – and what’s more, to put him in grade 2. After all, in the traditional Waldorf schools, an 8 year old child is actually supposed to be in grade 2. Could my son handle the academic workload of grade 3? Yes. But, why should I push him ahead and load him down with more, just because our culture wants to push academics earlier and earlier?
In keeping him at his emotionally appropriate level, I am allowing him time to be immersed in stories of nature and animals – things he loves. I am allowing him to develop an enjoyment of writing, without the pressure of trying to learn the mechanics of grammar and spelling. I am allowing him to fine-tune his skills of observation about the natural world, and to learn about themes such as interdependence, natural rhythms and classification – skills that will be essential in science down the road.
For Social Studies, instead of getting buried in historical facts, he’ll learn fables and fairy tales from around the world and how they speak of universal issues that a child can understand. Later, we’ll expand on those fables and fairy tales to explore the cultures and learn about simple economic issues such as bartering, community resources, and learning about making choices with money. He’ll learn about the values of honesty and kindness through fables and tall tales, and stories of simple heroes. He’ll learn about things he can understand, relate to, and apply to his own life.
And so, my son may not be following the same path as his peers. He may not know that 1/2 + 1/4 = 3/4 this year, or be writing lengthy epistles. And I am finally, honestly, okay with that. Instead, I think he will be on a better path, one that is more suited to his needs, that will allow him to develop true understanding as he is ready. He will not be in a race for facts and memorization; instead, he will embark on the journey of discovery.
Sandra Hanson is a newspaper columnist and freelance writer. You can follow her blog exploring “life, homesteading, motherhood, parenting, homeschooling, and special needs” at www.mycrazyeclecticlife.wordpress.com.
This article originally appeared in longer form at https://mycrazyeclecticlife.wordpress.com/2015/09/07/choosing-a-new-path/. Reprinted with the author’s permission.