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Head, Heart and Hands

Weaving Waldorf Education into Home Learning

By Brenda J. Armstrong

Receive the children in reverence, Educate them with love, Send them forth in freedom – Rudolph Steiner

I watch our nine-year-old daughter as she eyes the many baskets of wool yarn in the small store near our home. The rainbow of naturally dyed colored skeins is plentiful as we search for the “right yarn” needed to complete her next knitting project – a winter hat. This isn’t just one of our everyday errands. This is actually an important task in the seasonal rhythm of our educational life as we prepare to take on various handwork projects during the cold months ahead. It is a task that also connects us in a deeper way with the educational philosophy that is rooted within the very framework of our family: Waldorf education.

Founded in Europe by Austrian philosopher and scientist, Rudolf Steiner, Waldorf education began when Steiner gave a series of lectures to the workers of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Germany. Inspired by Steiner’s message, the owner of the factory requested that Steiner establish a school for the children of the factory’s employees. Steiner agreed to do so, though only under certain conditions, including that the leading role in the running of the school be by those who would be working directly with the children, and with a minimum of government interference. After a period of training for the teachers, the Free Waldorf School opened in 1919. With its roots in a philosophy called “anthroposophy”, Steiner designed a curriculum that would encourage freethinking within children rather than catering to the requirements of governmental forces.

The word anthroposophy comes from the Greek words anthro (human) and sophia (wisdom). Regarded as a spiritual science rather than a religion, anthroposophy offers a means of study and practical observation through which one can awaken to one’s own inner nature and to that of the outer world. It is through this awakening that Steiner believed that authentic creativity and a deep reverence for all life could be fostered. In addition to education, Steiner also applied this direct knowledge and experience to other subjects, including medicine, agriculture, and architecture. While the basis for teaching methods is not taught directly to children, anthroposophy provides the foundation for a comprehensive educational model that aims to develop children who will be clear in thought, balanced in feeling and assured in action.

It is this holistic model of addressing the curriculum through the “head, heart and hands” that distinguishes Waldorf from that of other models. More than merely “developmental education”, what helps to make Waldorf unique is not only which subjects are taught, but also when and how. Based upon Steiner’s idea that specific forces and capabilities unfold within a child in distinct seven-year cycles, the Waldorf model is designed to provide “the right impetus, at the right time”. Through each cycle the child also has particular needs from the adults around them which serve to empower and guide development. Understanding the “temperaments” or nature of each child is also paramount to the process. The true task of Waldorf education is one that is designed to awaken capacities within the child, not merely to impose intellectual content.

Under 7s: Learning is based on imitation; the imagination is nourished by the use of simple natural materials and playthings, creative play, no premature intellectual development. There is no ‘teaching’ at this stage, but the children’s capacities are enhanced by listening to stories, painting and making crafts, singing and celebrating seasonal festivals.

7 – 14: An artistic, imaginative approach is taken to all lessons – thrilling tales of adventure in history, true hands-on learning, children creating artistic representations of what they learn. First Graders are introduced to academic work gradually, and always with activity preceding ‘head work’. For instance, the children learn to write first, copying letters and, later on, words into Main Lesson books. Reading follows writing and it is the children’s own writing which serves as their text.

14 and up: The focus is on rigorous intellectual content (but never neglecting the artistic). Lessons are taught by specialist subject teachers.

Of particular interest to many is the developmental juncture Steiner termed the nine-year change. Often a time marked with a sense of separation, children at this crossroad stand between the world of imitation and a newly emerging sense of self. The curriculum addresses this turning point through tales of hardship involving others who have gone before us and have gloriously survived, such as the early pioneers. The subjects of house building and farming are studied, as children learn how people all over the world have made homes for themselves. These subjects come at a time when children tend to feel particularly insecure about their own surroundings and who are not yet sure of their place in the world. These studies literally “ground” children in a way like no other. Children engaged in Waldorf education learn by doing – whether it is a lesson in mathematics or language arts, building a structure or farming the earth.

There is so much more that could be said about Waldorf education. Our task as a family, however, is how to translate the philosophy, curriculum and methodology into our own home learning environment. Having been in a Waldorf school for four years prior to educating at home, we were already clear about the merits of the philosophy and curriculum. The decision to educate at home with our two children brought many questions. How would we “bring Waldorf home”? Should we even try? What would such a path look like?

Our home embraces the notion of rhythm – one that is daily, weekly and seasonally. There is an in-breath and an out-breath to our lives that is intended to connect us on a deeper level to nature and to our inner selves. The morning is more of an in-breath – a time best used for taking in new material. The out-breath must naturally follow in the afternoon – a time better suited for activity. The evening has its own rhythm, including that of the dream life. Weeks and seasons also have their own in-breath and out-breath. Through the proper understanding and use of rhythm, there is a foundation for creating a home learning experience with Waldorf education. The key word here for us is creating – not recreating.

As in Waldorf schools, we also implement the concept of the main lesson at home. The main lesson is a block lasting three to four weeks focusing on a specific subject. We also bring in other subject areas related to the curriculum, including handwork and music. As parents, we take on the responsibility of implementing the methodology and techniques that make Waldorf unique. As home learners, however, we are afforded the luxury of being able to be more innovative in our activities, as we are not limited to the classroom setting.

In the case of our main lesson on farming, we approached a local farm and asked if we could work together to develop a weekly, year-round program that would meet our curriculum needs. Consequently, a group of other home learners joined us. The activity became the strong foundation for the main lesson, while we used our time at home to deepen what was learned each week on the curriculum. The subject was also interwoven with other areas of our life. We used farming measurement in our mathematics lesson and learned to play songs on the recorder related to farming and pioneer life.

Waldorf education can be likened to that of an ascending spiral, as one continues to revisit subjects, deepening them and gaining new insights each time. Participating in festival-based activities on a seasonal basis is one way we remain connected with the group experience of journeying with others who are also inspired by Waldorf.

Initially feeling bereft of these activities when we first left the school setting, we began to create some of our own as a family. Consequently, our Lantern Walk each November and our Advent Spiral each December receive a warm response from the greater community. One does not need to have an interest in Waldorf to participate in these activities, as they are perfect examples of how we can all share in the human experience of embracing our divine nature.

It is out of the growing desire for information about Waldorf methods for home learners that many grassroots groups, including cooperatives and family-run organizations are forming. We attend an annual conference and curriculum training each year in Toronto that offers solid wisdom and support for Waldorf home learners. Our own family has now developed a network to assist those closer to home to connect with larger training groups like this, as well as to meet other area like-minded families.

Implementing Waldorf methods at home is not a task we take lightly as parents.

We cannot expect our children to be clear in thought, balanced in feeling and assured in action if we have not taken on the inner work of adult development ourselves that will empower us to help create the outer experience for our family life. As Steiner once said, “The true aim of education is to awaken real powers of perception and judgment in relation to life and living. For only such awakening can lead to true freedom.” This awakening is the task before all of us as parents. It is the task we all share as human beings journeying in community together.

This article appeared in Otherways Magazine, issue 107, February 2006

Brenda J. Armstrong is an educator, homesteader, writer, and the mother of two inspiring young adults who were homeschooled from ‘grades 1-12’. Her career and interests span the fields of health, healing, science, art, and spirituality, all of which she integrates into her work as an adult educator, practitioner, and community organizer. Brenda is in the process of developing a new initiative serving homeschooling parents and others who are inspired by the work of Rudolf Steiner. She can be reached at Hearthways@comcast.net


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