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.
Fine Arts: Drawing, Painting, Sculpture
At the Eugene Waldorf school, art is an intrinsic part of all main subjects. In addition to our curriculum overview, please read this wonderful article about the role of Art in the Waldorf Curriculum.
Children begin working with wood actively in preschool and kindergarten. But beginning in fifth grade they take that up in a new way. All students, boys and girls, learn to use gouges, saws, chisels, rasps, and many other woodworking tools to sculpt and build with wood. Woodworking class is held in the woodshop building once a week for an hour and a half. In eighth grade, many students are also introduced to power tools when they delve into furniture making.
“Why then, has the artistic element such a special effect on the development of the will? Because, in the first place, practice depends on repetition; but secondly because what a child acquires artistically gives him fresh joy each time. The artistic is enjoyed every time, not only on the first occasion. Art has something in its nature which does not stir a person once but gives fresh joy repeatedly. Hence it is that what we have to do in education is intimately bound up with the artistic element.” -Rudolf Steiner
Eurythmy (“beautiful or harmonious movement”) is a unique experience as part of the Waldorf curriculum. The art of eurythmy was born in 1912, growing out of the work of Rudolf Steiner. Eurythmy uses the body as an instrument in space. Eurythmists make forms and gestures in the air much as a sculptor uses wood or stone. Attempting to sing and speak through movement, eurythmists “sound” in space, bringing all the life and color of music and poetry to vivid expression. They strive to make the invisible dance of creative sound a visual experience.
Music Lessons and Orchestra
There are many important inner skills to be learned in the study of music. The discipline of practicing with an instrument helps a child find the inner discipline to face other challenges in life. Group music lessons offer a wonderful opportunity for a child to practice listening to others and working cooperatively. It is quite a challenge for a group of children to work completely in unison in any realm, be it social, academic or physical. In trying to play their instruments as a group, with the same timing and pitch, the result of a harmonious sound allows them to directly experience the value of working well together. Playing an instrument is a wonderful means of self exploration, self-expression and creativity that allows the student to grow into a well-rounded human being. Beginning in the first grade, the children at the Eugene Waldorf School are taught to play the recorder, and singing is a regular part of the school week in many classes. First grade children will be provided a pentatonic flute and third grade children a diatonic flute. In the fourth grade, beginning level strings lessons are offered to the whole class on a fee basis. The lessons take place three times a week for forty-five minutes during the school day. Instruments are available for rental, or children may bring their own. The children are taught the basics of how to hold the instrument properly, how to play by ear and how to read music. Intermediate level instruction in stringed instruments is offered twice a week during the school day for fifth grade and above. The school orchestra is open to fourth through eighth graders. The orchestra provides an opportunity for strings students to learn to play in an ensemble. Rehearsal is scheduled twice a week during the school day. Those who do not choose the string orchestra join a recorder ensemble class two times a week which combines sixth, seventh and eighth graders.
The spoken word is the key to learning languages in the early grades. Songs, poems, rhymes, tongue-twisters, counting and group games—all these foster group knowledge of the language and appreciation of the folk soul of the peoples who speak that language. In the later grades, keeping a written record of all the oral work brings awareness of spelling and basic grammar in the language. Reading in the foreign language begins in fourth grade. Children gain understanding, a sense of brother- and sister-hood, and real enthusiasm for other cultures in foreign language classes. They also build strong foundations for later work and fluency.
Movement Education and Games
Movement education and games in the Waldorf curriculum spring from the same understanding of a child’s development that underlies the academic curriculum in a Waldorf school. This deeper understanding of a child’s development is taken into account in a movement education and games class in the activities that are chosen, the shapes that are used in the group games and the emphasis of the class (for instance whether games are played with an emphasis on fun or with an emphasis on playing by the rules). Each lesson contains a rhythm of joining together and moving apart, highly active games balanced with quieter games, working together as a group and taking a few moments to reflect on one’s own body and movement.
Games in first grade are relatively unstructured and have the gesture of the circle, keeping the children protected and as part of the whole. As we move up the grades, the children slowly come into their individuality and the movement curriculum reflects this by, for instance, adding line games in the second grade to the now-familiar circle games. In fifth grade there is a focus on beauty and form, and in the spring the fifth graders participate in the Greek Olympiad, a gathering of fifth grade classes from several regional Waldorf schools.
In grades six, seven, and eight, the more conventional sports are brought into the curriculum, because only then can the children have a real respect for the law of rules and understand how a team works together, while at the same time develop their own self-discipline and competitive natures. They are aspiring upwards in terms of exactness, technique, timing, and the spirit of the law, while also becoming more aware of the world around them.
In a culture where organized team sports hold such high status, children can sometimes think of movement only in these terms. The movement education curriculum strives to give the children basic coordination and movement skills that will help them when they decide to play organized sports. Depending on the grade, the children will play games or do relay races that serve to develop a skill that is also required for a conventional sport such as basketball. String games, jump rope and a balloon relay are all activities that develop skills that can be used in many different sports. Not only does a movement class provide the opportunity for the children to play games and have fun, it also works with their social interaction by teaching them to play with each other before they play against each other, to acknowledge each other, to play safely, and to gain an appreciation for all kinds of movement.
Knitting and other handwork projects play an important role in the development of fine motor skills, inner calm, and intellectual clarity.
The specific handwork taught in Waldorf schools also “grows with the growing child.” In the first grade, the curriculum calls for learning the basic knit stitch, and creating a practical and useful project in a warm textile such as wool. In second and third grades, this is continued with purling and crochet, which add new movements and require more focus on each row and stitch. Around age nine or ten the children undergo a change of consciousness: they are individuals within themselves, no longer as open. The hats that the third graders knit to cover their heads represent this developmental milestone. Also the third grader is experiencing the beginning of critical thinking, and in the knitting of the hats, they are introduced to small patterns, thus engaging their new thinking skills. The cross-stitch taught in fourth grade reflects this more elaborate stage in their development.
The fifth grade begins woodworking and more complicated knitting, such as a pair of socks. This is the age when they turn a corner in development on the road to becoming themselves. They are perhaps less insecure than in fourth grade and are ready to start carving out and exploring this new individuality. Knitting a sock requires using four needles instead of just two, and is a task that requires much perseverance.
Developmentally the sixth graders are coming into form. This is reflected in the academic curriculum in the precise tools used in the geometrical drawing block, and also in the block on ancient Rome, a society where humans began to make their own laws instead of living by the laws handed down by the gods. In the handwork curriculum, sewing is started in sixth grade. The children sew animals. This requires planning, patterns, cutting, basting, and other skills for a child who is now more intellectual in his/her planning and thinking. The sewing the children undertake in seventh and eighth grade requires extensive forethought and mathematical skills. In seventh grade, they sew dolls by hand and in the eighth grade, sewing machines are used for various projects like patchwork quilts, wall hangings, and simple items of clothing.
Handwork offers many opportunities for reinforcing math skills in practical, challenging, and enjoyable ways. But author and Waldorf teacher Eugene Schwartz points out an even more valuable result:
“We cannot underestimate the self-esteem and joy that arises in the child as the result of having made something practical and beautiful – something which has arisen as the result of a skill that has been learned. In an age when children are often passive consumers, who, as Oscar Wilde once said ‘know the price of everything and the value of nothing,’ learning to knit can be a powerful way of bringing meaning into a child’s life.”