by Lawrence Williams, EdD, Oak Meadow president and co-founder
Since its inception, Oak Meadow has been heavily influenced by the educational approach known as Waldorf. In 1973, I entered the Waldorf Teacher Training program at the Waldorf Institute of Adelphi University in Garden City, New York. The year I spent in training as a Waldorf teacher was one of the most transformative experiences of my life, and it profoundly affected my view of education. When Oak Meadow began as a day school, I taught a class for three years using Waldorf principles and curriculum, and in 1978-79 I taught the First Grade class at the Garden City Waldorf School. The following year, Bonnie and I started the Oak Meadow homeschooling program, and I wrote the Oak Meadow curriculum for grades 1-3 based upon my experience in the Waldorf School.Over the years, however, Oak Meadow has adapted the Waldorf approach to meet the needs of homeschoolers, and this has caused some confusion among parents who are familiar with Waldorf. How does Oak Meadow differ from Waldorf? To understand this, we have to first understand something about Waldorf education itself.
Waldorf education is an approach to learning developed by Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher-scientist whose unique perspective contributed to a wide variety of fields, including medicine, agriculture, the arts, architecture, religion, and education. Dr. Steiner became involved in K-12 education in 1919 at the request of Emil Molt, the owner of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany, who wanted Steiner to develop a school for the workers in his factory. Working with a small group of teachers, Steiner developed an unique approach to education that emphasizes the developmental stages of children, reaffirms the role of the teacher, and integrates the arts into every aspect of the curriculum. The Waldorf School in Stuttgart became a great success, and Waldorf education, as it became known, rapidly spread to other countries throughout the world.
Many of the adaptations Oak Meadow has made from Waldorf were driven by pragmatic needs rather than philosophical issues, but in a few areas we do diverge from the traditional Waldorf philosophy. Before we explore those areas of divergence, however, let’s look at the basic ideas of Waldorf education as it is practiced in over 600 schools throughout the world.
The Child as a Spiritual Being
Although they are not directly associated with any specific religious organization, Waldorf schools recognize the essential divinity within each human being and seek to instill within the child a sense of wonder and reverence for the divine purpose that expresses itself through all creation. They accomplish this through fairy tales, legends, and myths that reveal the divine pattern, through music, art, and dance that open the heart to the beauty of creation, and through the reverence that the teacher brings to the learning process itself.
The Threefold Nature of the Child
Steiner viewed human beings as consisting of three spheres of activity—the head, the heart, and the will—that manifest through thoughts, feelings, and physical actions. To educate children to be complete and balanced human beings, we must attend to the needs of all three aspects of a child’s being. From the Waldorf perspective, attaining knowledge is one purpose of the learning process, but just as important—and perhaps even more important—is to educate the heart and the will of the child, so that knowledge is joined with reverence and action.
The Developmental Stages of Childhood
The threefold nature of the child manifests through consistent developmental stages, and education is most effective when it approaches the child through the attributes of each developmental stage. These stages are not based upon arbitrary theoretical concepts, but upon observable phenomena in a child’s life. According to Dr. Steiner, The first stage begins at birth and continues to the change of teeth, and during this stage the will, expressing itself through physical growth and movement, is the predominant force in the child’s life. The second stage begins at the change of teeth and progresses through the onset of puberty, with the focus upon the child’s emotional nature. In the third stage, the faculty of thinking predominates, and the child begins to explore the world of thought and become an independent human being.
The Waldorf curriculum reflects the principles stated above, providing nourishment for the child’s spiritual needs, addressing the threefold nature, and cooperating with the developmental cycles. The curriculum follows a progression that reflects the child’s growing awareness through the developmental stages, immersing the child in a rich musical and artistic tapestry that provides ample opportunity to develop all aspects of the child. From one Waldorf school to another, regardless of location, the curriculum is consistent, providing a cohesive sense of community from one school to another.
Oak Meadow Adaptations
Although we fully agree with the fundamental Waldorf principles presented above, we have adapted some of the approaches to better meet the needs of parents and children in a homeschooling context. The primary changes we have made in the Waldorf approach have centered around adaptations in the curriculum. Some of these changes were prompted by homeschooling parents, while others were prompted by public school officials.
Changing the Curriculum for Grades 4-12
First, we have modified the scope and sequence of the curriculum for grades 4-12 to make it more acceptable to public school officials, while retaining the emphasis upon experiential and artistic activities that are inherent in the Waldorf curriculum. These curriculum changes were made during the 1980s, when many public school officials were prosecuting homeschoolers in court. The mood at that time among public school officials was so litigious that we felt it was in the best interests of Oak Meadow parents for us to make the curriculum as acceptable to public schools as possible, so that parents could spend their time teaching their children at home instead of battling school systems in court. As a result of these changes, the Oak Meadow curriculum became widely accepted by public school officials at a time when most homeschooling curricula were being rejected.
Teaching the Alphabet and Numbers in Kindergarten
One of the changes that we made, teaching the alphabet and numbers in Kindergarten, has sparked considerable debate among Waldorf advocates because of its move toward early learning. Our decision to do this was not based, however, upon a belief that children should learn earlier, but upon the recognition that children already are learning earlier without any help from their parents, due to the influence of television and the predominance of printed information in our culture. The Oak Meadow Kindergarten curriculum arose, at the request of many homeschooling parents, several years after we had written the First through Third Grade curricula. Their children had already learned the alphabet and numbers on their own from watching television, billboards, and street signs and they were now asking their parents to teach them how to read. These parents wanted a curriculum that would enable them to bring to their children a deeper understanding of the letters and numbers, but since the children were five years old, their parents didn’t want to start the children in our First Grade curriculum, which was more advanced, so we developed the Kindergarten curriculum to give children an age-appropriate context for learning the alphabet and numbers.
Eliminating Grimm’s Folk Tales
This is more of a philosophical matter, and we struggled with this issue for many years before we made these changes. Grimm’s folk tales, the source of many of the so-called “fairy tales” (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White) that are well-known throughout the western world (and later popularized by Walt Disney), are an important part of the first grade curriculum in Waldorf Schools. They are used to introduce the letters of the alphabet in the first grade, because they not only contain many vivid images that help children remember the alphabet, but also profound archetypal and moral teachings that speak directly to the soul of the child of that age. Unfortunately, however, many of these stories also contain frightful images (fattening children to eat them), engender damaging beliefs about parental attitudes (leaving children in a forest to die because parents couldn’t afford to feed them), and create narrow stereotypical portrayals (wicked stepmothers who abuse children). These elements of the stories were presumably originally intended to scare children and keep them from misbehaving, but because they also contain deep universal symbolism (see Bruno Bettleheim’s The Uses of Enchantment for an analysis) they have been retained in the stories and passed down from generation to generation.
Waldorf Schools see these stories (and rightly so, I think) as embodying strong images of the struggle between good and evil (and the ultimate triumph of good) that children of first-grade age find very meaningful, so we used them initially for those same reasons. After several years, however, we found that more and more parents were returning the book of Grimm’s folk tales that they received with their curriculum, saying that they couldn’t read these stories to their children because they found them to be too frightening and that they caused their children to be scared and confused about their parents for weeks after reading them.
After struggling with this for several years (and when the return rate on Grimm’s folk tales approached 50%), we finally decided that we couldn’t continue to include this in our curriculum any longer, so we created our own book of fairy tales (some adapted from Grimm’s and some created anew) and eliminated Grimm’s from the Oak Meadow curriculum.
Eliminating Christian Stories
The Waldorf curriculum consistently emphasizes the value of fairy tales, myths, fables and legends in teaching children moral principles. In this context, the Christian saints, such as St. Francis and St. Christopher, are studied in the second grade, and the stories of the Old Testament of the Bible are presented in the third grade. The intention in each of these cases is not to indoctrinate children in Christian teachings, but to provide inspiration and moral guidance through the medium of storytelling. We followed this sequence in the first Oak Meadow curriculum, but we soon realized that homeschooling parents had very different ideas about the role of curriculum in their lives. Although many parents were teaching their children at home specifically to provide them with moral instruction they were not receiving in public schools, parents were very clear about what kind of moral teachings they wanted to provide their children. Some parents were open to reading to their children stories about saints or stories from the Old Testament, but most parents felt we were trying to force specific religious teachings upon them, and they resented this intrusion into their lives. After considering this position for a few years, we decided that it was not our role to provide children with moral teachings that were identified with a specific religion, and we eliminated from the Oak Meadow curriculum all of the elements that had specific Christian references.
In addition to the changes we have made in the Waldorf curriculum, there are a few areas in which we have philosophical differences, not with the Waldorf principles themselves, but with the way in which these principles are applied in the current educational and cultural environment.
First, although Waldorf schools recognize that parents serve as valuable role models and teachers for their children when they are young, they traditionally believe that parents should not serve as the primary teachers of their children beyond the change of teeth. They feel that the proper development of the child’s individuality requires someone other than the parent to act as the primary teacher. Although there may be teachers that provide nurturing environments for some children, this is simply not the case in most areas of the world, so parents have stepped in to prevent their children from being harmed by the very teachers that should be nurturing and strengthening them. It is for this very reason that homeschooling has arisen, and we support this development in education.
Second, traditional Waldorf schools are emphatic about not teaching children to read before the change of teeth. Although we agree in principle that teaching early reading is detrimental to the child’s development, we feel that there is an important difference in whether the impetus to read comes from the child or from the parent. Due to the influence of our culture and the increased availability of printed information, many children are learning to read on their own at an earlier age than they did in previous generations. When this impulse to read comes from the natural curiosity and awareness of the child, we have found that this does not cause problems as long as it is balanced by artistic and physical activities. When the early impulse to read arises from the pressure of parents who are attempting to accelerate their child’s growth, however, this can cause problems in the child’s balanced development.
Third, Waldorf schools discourage computer use, because they feel that using computers extensively tends to overdevelop the head faculties and inhibit the development of the heart and the will. At Oak Meadow, we recognize the detrimental effects of computers, but we believe they will play an ever-increasing role in our lives, so we need to integrate them into our children’s lives in a manner that respects the developmental cycles of a child’s growth. We don’t encourage children under ages 9 or 10 to use computers at all (aside from occasional use with parents), because it takes children away from outdoor physical activities that are very important for their balanced growth. After that stage, however, we feel that children can begin using computers occasionally as tools in the learning process, with the time spent on computers allowed to increase gradually as they get older. In a school such as Oak Meadow, where students often live thousands of miles away from their teachers, we feel that computers offer a distinct advantage by providing the opportunity for improved communications among parents, teachers, and students.
As you can see, there are some differences between Oak Meadow and Waldorf, but there are also many perspectives we share. Although we recognize the benefits of Waldorf education, we know that most communities in the world do not yet have access to this creative and healing approach to education. We feel that Oak Meadow provides a unique service by adapting the Waldorf principles to the realm of homeschooling and making this rich educational experience available to families around the world.