Waldorf education: Teaching the whole child

Walk the halls of a Waldorf school, and you’re apt to see children exploring the world with all five senses and both sides of the brain.

Here, education often involves drawing, juggling, performing plays, making music, and enjoying the great outdoors. In an environment where knitting is as important as algebra, educators place a premium on nurturing every facet of the developing child.

“For full personal development, there needs to be a daily rhythm of mental, artistic and physical activity to engage the child's growing capacities and impulses,” said Hugh Renwick, Waldorf teacher for 35 years.

Though this innovative approach was developed by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the early 20th century, Steiner's creeds appear just as relevant today.

One of the striking aspects of Waldorf education is the connection fostered among peers, as well as the relationship between students and their class teacher. Each grade averages 20 pupils, and the same primary educator guides students through their morning “main lessons” throughout all eight years of grammar and middle school.

Recent studies have shown that support systems like these aid in social adjustment, reducing the risk of anxiety and depression.

“Knowing your teacher provides a sense of security,” Helen-Ann Ireland, Waldorf teacher of 20 years and doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said. “We know from research that children learn better when they are in a safe and supportive environment.”

A sense of belonging is particularly important during adolescence; without it school attendance declines, GPA decreases, and children are more inclined to misbehave and less motivated to pursue extracurricular activities.

These tendencies increase with the number of social transitions a child confronts. The Waldorf system recognizes that steady social relationships are invaluable during childhood development; educators are consistently present to offer intellectual and emotional support.

“The teacher is meant to model values and understanding with appropriate standards for behavior and achievement,” Renwick said. “This modeling serves the child as he or she develops moral, social, and intellectual capacities.”

Hands-on, exploratory learning is one such intellectual capacity, and the Waldorf curriculum places a strong emphasis on musical education.

Children practice several instruments during their eight years, beginning with the wooden recorder in first grade. While this early initiation may appear premature, Ireland maintained there is ample research concerning the effects of music on executive function (or “EF”). “We know from brain research that playing musical instruments helps to develop cognition and emotional systems,” she said.

EF is an umbrella term that denotes a group of cognitive processes involved in controlled behavior. These abilities are known to develop quickly during early childhood. Children with musical training tend to have enhanced verbal fluency and processing speed, as well as increased activity in two brain areas involved in attention and cognitive control. Music promotes these skills, because playing an instrument requires rapid and frequent modifications to tempo, key, and rhythm (not to mention unwavering attention). 

But music is not the only form of creative expression with educational benefits. Waldorf schooling also incorporates a unique type of learning through the visual and performing arts. Theatrics allow students to delve into subject matter covered in class, while lesson plans integrate visual aspects to solidify knowledge, from history to science.

There is evidence that the abilities required for the visual and performing arts can be applied to other areas, improving academic performance. “Artistic activity brings much joy to the child and make the school experience more engaging and interesting,” Renwick said. There is growing support that incorporating the arts as teaching tools may improve long-term memory, too. 

In particular, the Waldorf emphasis on drawing (including hand-made textbooks known as “main lesson books”) promotes “rehearsal” — absorption of information through repetition. Research has shown that artistic activities requiring sustained attention may prompt students to automatically rehearse information on their own. In the classroom, this means that in addition to dictating facts about a historical event, a teacher might also have students draw the incident, thereby consolidating this knowledge.

The “enactment effect” occurs when acting out a concept improves understanding and recollection. Performing a short play illustrating Newton’s three laws allows students to comprehend and retain information regarding physics, compared to just reading or listening to the same material.

The Waldorf system recognizes that a healthy body is as essential as a robust mind. As Ireland put it, “Children need to feel at home in their bodies in order be able to attend to tasks in the classroom.” Thus Waldorf education promotes physical activity through movement courses that foster balance and coordination, gym classes and free play.

Younger children are encouraged to engage in structured and imaginative endeavors, while older ones are given the opportunity to demonstrate physical prowess during the Greek pentathlon and medieval games in the fifth and six grades.

Though it may seem intuitive, research has demonstrated the positive impact physical health has on emotional well being. School-age youth are advised to participate in 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per day to reap the mental and health-related benefits of exercise.

Emotional advantages of increased exercise include reduced anxiety and depression, as well as a sense of self-confidence — in the intellectual sphere as well as the physical one.

Measures of academic performance, including GPA, standardized test scores, concentration, and memory, tend to improve with increased physical activity. Thus, Waldorf children are given two recess periods each day to encourage physical fitness and active exploration of the surrounding world.

From social support and exercise to the visual and performing arts, Steiner's philosophy is multifaceted. Waldorf education seeks to cultivate the entire child — the physical, mental, social, and emotional components that appear to be so entwined.

“Waldorf education recognizes there is really no separation between these parts of the human being. They integrate to make us a whole person,” Ireland said. Waldorf enthusiasts seem to agree young minds benefit from an approach that champions a holistic outlook — knitting needles and all.

Raleigh McElvery studies Neuroscience at Bowdoin College. She writes about how we learn, what we know, and why we do the things we do. She is a Waldorf school alumnus.

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