The children should not simply be taught to do artistic activities and manual skills, but they should be taught so-called "non-artistic" subjects imaginatively and artistically as well.
When the child is ready for first grade, it is appropriate to use the powers of understanding for more abstract matters, including writing, reading, and arithmetic. But, to the child, it is not simply the acquisition of knowledge that is important. The process by which this knowledge is learned, through the creativity of the teachers who become the "authors" of each subject, must meet the inner need in the child for true authority and provide a secure basis for the child to reach out in the world.
The Waldorf school responds to this need with a most remarkable offering: providing a Class Teacher as the key authority for the time between the "change of teeth" and the onset of puberty. Ideally, this teacher, though by no means the only teacher of the class, accompanies the children through all eight grades of elementary school. The Class Teacher's task is to guide the group of children during these important and impressionable years and to teach the class many of the curriculum subjects.
During these years—grades one through eight—the basic skills of literacy and numeracy are acquired. The children engage in a variety of cultural activities that cultivate the imaginative faculties—drawing, painting, poetry recitation, drama, singing, playing a musical instrument, and so on. During both the practical and cultural activities, however, the essence of the teacher's task is to work with his pupils with the imagination of an artist.
The children should not simply be taught to do artistic activities and manual skills, but they should be taught so-called "non-artistic" subjects imaginatively and artistically as well. This is true, though in widely different ways, in mathematics and grammar, carpentry and knitting, sports and foreign languages, all of which are part of the Waldorf curriculum. These cultural activities help the children build academic skills slowly, fortified with deep comprehension and understanding.
For example, in geography, the reality of the climatic zones of North America will be clearer to the child if the teacher can convey—artistically, descriptively, dramatically—the fresh, oxygen-rich air of the boreal forest of the North; the clammy, fetid thick air of the Everglades and the swamps of Louisiana; the rainy and snowy seasonal swings of the vast prairies of the Midwestern plains; the burning dry, mineral-rich deserts to the west of the Rocky Mountains; and the magnificence of the sequoias and redwoods standing tall in the saturating fog of the forests in the rainy Pacific Northwest.
The teacher appeals primarily to the feelings of the child between seven and fourteen. Indeed, the child is shaped more and led to deeper comprehension by the teacher's power and efforts as an "artist" than by the subject matter itself.
In the natural sciences, a sense of awe and wonder is cultivated from early childhood. Such a mood can arise, for example, when, while studying the human body, the children discover the vital relationship between the substance in the body—the bones—and the quickest of the cells—the red corpuscles—produced in the bones. It may arise when, in examining the modes of seed production in lower and higher plants, the children realize that there is an evolutionary sequence, a connected progression. This sense of awe and wonder will develop into a feeling of reverence, laying a firm foundation for a respectful treatment of the natural environment in later life. And it should underlie, yet never undermine, the critical faculties which the study of science in the later stages of education both requires and develops.
To support such an approach, all aspects in a Waldorf school—from the classroom furnishings to the way a poem is recited, from the pen a pupil uses to the exercises done in the gymnasium—are considered with two criteria in mind: they should be functional and they should be beautiful. For the child, this guarantees a caring authority that produces a stimulating effect on all his inner and outer senses.
This article originally appeared in the AWSNA publication, Windows into Waldorf: An Introduction to Waldorf Education. Many thanks to the author David Mitchell who generously allowed for its use.
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