As the mother of a former Waldorf inspired Forest Kindergarten student, I’m often met with wide eyes when describing my son’s educational experience. “So, if they are outside playing all day, when and how do the children learn?” is a common question.
Not many can argue with the aesthetics associated with a Waldorf education. Whether in a classroom filled with beautiful silks, natural toys and high quality curriculum material or in the forest with its never ending supply of mystery and beauty provided by Mother Nature herself, a Waldorf education is appealing to all the senses. The common criticism of the Waldorf curriculum relates to the delaying of formal technical skills such as reading. The alphabet is not formally introduced to Waldorf students until first grade and even then the method revolves around storytelling. Teachers use stories to connect children to letters in an imaginative and pictorial way.
To answer the question, “But how do they learn?” in a Waldorf environment one must start by expanding the definition of learning. To use reading as an example, learning to read does not start and end with the decoding of the symbols known as letters. The true act of reading requires the ability to decode the symbols and the ability to create the mental pictures that aids in deep reading comprehension and allows the individual to find enjoyment in what she’s reading.
In today’s traditional educational system there is a focus on pushing young kids on half the equation- decoding the symbols that stand for sounds and words. This is the technical outer activity of reading and is easy to recognize and assess/test which is why many educators tend to focus on it. Students are asked to memorize the alphabet and learn the sounds associated with them- an act that is abstract and sparks little joy in a 3-8 year old.
What does spark immense interest in the younger child is the development of inner mental images. Younger children live in a wonderful world of imagination where free play (where kids create their own imaginative stories), storytelling by the teachers, exposure to rich poetry and verses (versus simplistic text compatible with kid’s limited decoding skills) and the singing of seasonal songs create joy. Waldorf teachers encourage these activities and children remain unaware that they are developing the more difficult half of the reading equation- comprehension through imaginative inner pictures.
A Waldorf curriculum that focuses on mental images lines up with the child’s natural world of imagination and fantasy. As the child grows and slowly emerges from this life of pretend, it naturally becomes time to tackle the easy part- decoding of letters. This is how they learn in a Waldorf environment. Now compare this to the traditional model, where younger children are being asked to shake themselves out of play to perform abstract decoding exercises and as they grow up are asked to build reading comprehension. The traditional curriculum is out of sync with the student’s natural capacities!
I believe it is not the age at which a child learns to read that determines his lifetime love of reading but instead the way in which he is educated. I will forever be thankful to my children’s past, current and future teachers for sharing this belief.
Written by Megan Hubbuch, CPA
Megan’s oldest son attends Spring River School and formerly attended the Forest Kindergarten program at the magical Playgarden by the Sea in Jacksonville Beach, Florida where free play and a deep connection to nature is encouraged. Her daughter spends her days painting, playing and exploring in the relationship-based Dragonfly program at the Playgarden. Her youngest son watches his older siblings in awe and can’t wait to join in on all the fun! Megan served on the board of The Playgarden. She is passionate about honoring the spirit of early childhood and bringing a private Waldorf grades program to our community. Her husband, Andy, a former public school teacher, now teaches first and second grade at Spring River School, a homeschool program inspired by Waldorf Education.
Storytime, whether in a classroom or homeschool setting, is an essential ingredient of a child's early education. Shown here are Megan's husband Andy and their son Jack.