Monday, April 29, 2013

Thoughts on Waldorf

The first months of HP's life felt like we were constantly in survival mode.  I spent little to no time contemplating overarching educational philosophies for children.  Is he loved?  Fed?  Changed?  Rested?  That was the checklist I used in his first weeks in the world, and really, it is still my standard.  I believe the most important thing we can offer HP is the knowledge that he is safe, loved, and valued in our family.

But now that we have found our rhythm, I have invested more time thinking, reading, and discussing different approaches to parenting and early childhood.  Making choices that are the best fit for our family is an ever-evolving process that will continue indefinitely.  I do not believe there is one "right" way for all children, or even for HP; there are just parents trying to figure out what is best thing for their family and circumstances.  I have no doubt that what feels right and what works for our family will change over time and is unlikely to completely overlap with any one "expert." As his parents, we are the true experts on what is best for our child.

That said, I am enjoying sorting through different approaches and thinking about parenting in a broader context rather than the minute-to-minute do-what-has-to-be-done-right-now merry-go-round that so often dominates life with a small child.

Initially, I was drawn to the Montessori and Waldorf methods because I knew they both supported eliminating screen time in early childhood, which we are doing with HP.  While Montessori and Waldorf share some basic ideas (like limited screen time, using natural materials, and learning by doing), their educational philosophies are actually quite different.  Over the past two months I have read three parenting books: Montessori From the Start, Endangered Minds, and You Are Your Child's First Teacher.  The first covers Montessori philosophy from birth to age three, the second looks at the effect of screen time on children's brains, and the third outlines a Waldorf approach to early childhood (up to age seven).

I most recently read You Are Your Child's First Teacher.  Parts of this philosophy deeply resonated with me, while other parts left me scratching my head or shrugging my shoulders.  Here's what I love about the Waldorf approach (or at least my limited understanding of it):

(1) Waldorf lets children be children and works to actively protect childhood.  It delays introducing academics until first grade.  After reading Endangered Minds, I am convinced that refraining from starting academics in preschool--including teaching phonics to preschoolers--is good for children.  Time spent on academic pursuits is time not spent in imaginative play or exploring the world.  The push to introduce academics at a younger and younger age and to make children into "mini-adults" has long lasting effects on their brains that I had never thought about prior to learning about the Waldorf method.  (The book Endangered Minds outlines the research behind this concept, and while not written from a Waldorf perspective, its conclusions support Waldorf methodology.)

Why does it matter if a child learns his or her colors (numbers, alaphabet, fill-in-the-blank) at age eighteen months or six years?  What benefit is it to a two-year old to recite the alphabet when they have no way of conceptualizing what it represents?  Isn't it more important for children to experience colors than to name them?  When I try to objectively look at the benefit of pushing these concepts on younger and younger children, I cannot think of a good reason.  The cynical side of me thinks it is another example of parents competing with each other through their children.  The more forgiving side of me thinks it is a natural result of parents wanting what is best for their children.  Who doesn't want their child to succeed in school?  On a superficial level it makes sense that the earlier they learn concepts the better off they will be.  Unfortunately the research does not support that view (see Endangered Minds).

(2) Waldorf supports the development of the whole child.  I appreciate that Waldorf balances the emotional, spiritual, and academic needs of young children--not prizing one at the expense of the others.  Art, music, and movement are integral parts of the curriculum, instead of the "extras" that are slowly getting squeezed out of public school.  This type of well-rounded education appeals to me.

I was discussing educational philosophies with a wise friend (who happens to be a Waldorf teacher) when she made the comment: "I would love for my child to be intelligent but I have other hopes as well."  I was taken aback, not by her comment, but by how I had subconsciously accepted that academic success was primary.  If asked, of course I would respond that I want other things for HP--it is much more important that he is kind, compassionate, and hard-working than that he is at the head of the class.  But my initial (defensive) reaction to her comment made me realize how much I have internalized society's belief that academic success should be valued above other kinds of achievement.

(3) Waldorf has a rich oral tradition.  Once again, my reading of Endangered Minds influenced my perception of the importance of this point.  Our culture has become so visually focused, that many children have lost the ability to sit, listen, and create their own images in their minds.  I love how Waldorf education uses fairy tales and other stories to cultivate a rich inner-life for young children.

It is hard to find the perfect balance between opposing values in our family.  Making Waldorf school a priority comes into conflict with two other values with prize:
  1. Living without a car, which we do for many reasons, including because it means that HP does not spend hours of his day strapped into a car seat sitting in traffic.  Without a car, it would be near impossible (and very unsafe) to get him there.  Of course we could buy a car, but then he will be spending more than an hour of his day commuting to and from the school, which is not something we want for him (or us!)
  2. Being financially responsible and putting a large portion of our income in savings. Private education is expensive and even with financial aid we would need to reduce our current savings rate to make it feasible.
We value the kind of education Waldorf would provide, but the likelihood that HP will attend a Waldorf school is slim at best.  Though he will not attend a Waldorf school, we can--and will--promote the concepts that speak to us within our home.

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