The Waldorf Approach: A home away from home

Saturday, December 19, 2015




The Waldorf approach is not one that I am very familiar with...  My only experience had been playing a badminton game at The Toronto Waldorf School gym and noticing all of the wood throughout the hallways and classrooms.  Even as young as sixteen years of age, I knew that there was something very different about the way students were learning in this space.  When I got to opportunity to study various early childhood approaches and design a collaborative inquiry course for my PhD studies, I was extremely pleased to include Waldorf in our readings. 

         I chose the article “The mystery of waldorf: A turn-of-the-century German experiment in today’s American soil,” as the philosophy has always been quite the mystery to me and this title peeked my interest.  The abstract also noted that it was not meant to be a special “boutique reform, nor was it to cater to children of higher social standing… instead it was a schooling of the people for the people that bridged the separate castes that had been hardened by industrialization” (Oberman, 1997).  Though this piece was written in 1997, many of the arguments continue to have relevance today.

The factory workers in the early 1900’s Germany cared deeply about a better future for their children, and the Waldorf approach founded by Rudolf Steiner, a social reformer, promised a wholistic education of body, soul, and mind (Oberman, 1997, p. 3).  His view of man was one with three dimensions, “thinking, feeling, and willing” (Oberman, 1997, p. 4).  At the surface we all think, however, if we reach down into the deeper layers of consciousness, we will discover the world of feeling and will (Oberman, 1997, p. 4).  Steiner argued that a good education, or “total education,” “restores balance between thinking, willing, and feeling, thus healing the social fabric” (Oberman, 1997, p. 4).  Finally, he states that at the centre is the imagination, which can only be unlocked with artistic talent.

I found it quite interesting that “the teacher is to stay with his class of students for eight years: thus, he can learn to imagine the child better, and both student and teacher can develop a history of interaction” (Oberman, 1997, p. 12).  Central to the Waldorf philosophy are narratives, for instance children are invited to imagine themselves as kings and queens (Oberman, 1997, p. 13).  “In his tales, the teacher imagines with the student; student and teacher become equal partners in the democratic arena of imagining the story. The respect for the other hinges on a respect for oneself” (Oberman, 1997, p. 13).  These narratives were present during our recent visit to The Toronto Waldorf School.  I even noticed them included as a means of teaching children their alphabet names and sounds.  With each new letter, students would hear a story about the letter to better support their memory of it. 

After our school tour, I appreciated the idea of the classroom being a “home away from home.”  Each space was filled with open-ended materials, many of which came directly from the natural world.  As I observed the various grades, I noticed a lot of wood, soft fabrics, and pastels, as well as a real kitchen within each room.  The children learn to cook meals with their teachers, while also taking on other responsibilities throughout the classroom such as watering the plants and cleaning up the coats and shoes.  There was an undoubtable warmth about their learning environments, staff’s welcoming nature, and overall teaching methods.

The Waldorf approach continues to intrigue me, and I am compelled to read further about this philosophy.  There are many questions that still I have, for example, how many Waldorf schools exist within Canada or Ontario?  Is Waldorf training consistent around the world?  Has the Waldorf approach been adopted in a public school or only within private child care and school settings?  What is the significance of narratives?  How might an educator begin to transform their practice to include components of the Waldorf philosophy?

What I take away from this article and school experience is the notion of education as a wholistic experience that includes the body, mind, and soul (Oberman, 1997, p. 3).  Our students learn by being involved and by having hands on experiences that are meaningful and provide them with an emotional response.  We cannot separate emotions and concrete learning from the equation.  I hope to see more classrooms and programs that go beyond rote learning and traditional teaching methodologies to include and honour the whole child.  

References:

Oberman, I. (1997). The mystery of waldorf: A turn-of-the-century German experiment on today's American soil. Retrieved                   from http://ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/loginurl=http://search.proquest.com/docview/62627199?accountid=15182 




For your interest, I have included some photographs from The Toronto Waldorf School who kindly welcomed our research group for a visit and interview:











































The heart of the Waldorf method

is the conviction that education is an art -

it must speak to the child's experience.

To educate the whole child, his heart and will 

must be reached as well as his mind.

                                                                                     -Rudolf Steiner




3 comments:

  1. Hi Joanne; I've always included Waldorf in my curriculum courses for 1st & 2nd year ECE students, so it's an approach I've had to study and read about extensively. Also, my three neices spent all their elementary school years in a Waldorf school, so I have seen the influences of this approach first hand. I love the emphasis on storytelling and movement and the arts as 'languages' for learning. Also the natural and respectful environments that the children care for themselves. In a way, the schools I've visited have been so rooted in the natural world, that they are almost spiritual in their feel....gentle, thoughtful, deeply peaceful and joyful. I admire the work they do tremendously, and can say I've only ever seen happy and engaged children during my visits. Certainly, my neices are self assured & love learning, so I guess that's the best testimonial!

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  2. Dear Susan,

    Thank you for taking the time to comment and visit the blog!!

    What a beautiful testimonial to the Waldorf Approach indeed! I am quite intrigued by it, especially with regards to the learning environment. Have you come across any worthwhile resources?

    Sincerely,

    Joanne Marie Babalis

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  3. Hi Joanne,
    My name is Christina, and I’m currently a prospective teacher, seeking certification in Early Childhood Education. This blog entry is an interesting one!
    Who doesn’t want a better future for their children? You mention Oberman’s idea that “the centre is the imagination, which can only be unlocked with artistic talent.” I also agree with this.
    Spaces filled with open-ended materials from the natural world like this classroom in Toronto fully embody the approaches meant for children to be understood wholistically. Even from the outside, the school looked very appealing, not like a “typical-looking” school. The wood accents of materials and wooden structures used in the classroom give a calming mood. You can also see through the pictures that a lot of the materials are held in reused items, like jelly jars and flower pots. It also looks like the students have their own plant to take care of on their desk. This can create a sense of confidence and responsibility in a child when an adult give them a job like keeping a plant healthy throughout the school year. A lot of curtains and large tables are incorporated into the classroom as well, creating a home-like feel.
    You can also see pops of bubble gum pink, which doesn’t seem like a very natural color however, I have recently read an article for a course that mentions research has shown that this particular color reduces aggression in children (Greenman, 1987).
    Although an older resource, Greenman (1987) lists the important aesthetic aspects in a classroom that seem to still ring true in present-day classrooms. Looking at these pictures you’ve provided in your blog keeps reminding me about what Greenman mentions in his article. He asserts that a teacher may want to bring the natural light into the classroom; students can still see what they are doing while appreciating the sun from the outside of the classroom. He also suggests placing plants in the classroom and on the windowsill, which is seen in the photographs you posted here. He affirms that nature is a very important aspect of aesthetic because adding nature in the classroom creates complexity and novelty in the classroom, coinciding nicely with Oberman’s ideas mentioned throughout your post.
    What a great approach to consider using as an effective classroom environment!

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