New Kid in School


// by Shannon Beckham

With an increased emphasis on standardized testing as the ruler by which to gauge a child’s progress, many parents find themselves asking if there is another way to educate little ones. Waldorf Education is one such alternative; but what is Waldorf, and how is it different from our traditional schools?

Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian Philo-sopher, developed this unique approach to education in 1919 with the advent of the first Waldorf School. Based on his understanding of human development and anthroposophy, Steiner developed an approach to education that would teach the whole child: the head, the heart and the hands. These days, it’s a controversial method, not to mention a little complicated.

Carrie Lee Ferguson, master educator and co-writer of the book A Child’s Way: Slowing Down for Goodness Sake, says, “Waldorf education nourishes the growth of human capacities, not narrowly focused on the intellect.”

When you walk into a Waldorf classroom, the first thing you notice is that it does not look like a traditional classroom. The toys are made from natural material; wood or felt, and usually handmade. You might find a piece of silk draped across the top of an arch, creating a canopy for children to sit under to play or read. The teacher may cover the chalkboard in beautiful drawings, with just as much attention given to the artwork as to the educational material. The walls are adorned with the students’ work: watercolors and wax crayon drawings and paintings from their lessons. A Waldorf classroom feels slower and more intentional than the classrooms of our youth, calmer and serene but with an element of playfulness.

Adana Whyte, one of the lead teachers at Seaside Playgarden in Jacksonville Beach, a Waldorf-inspired LifeWays North America Representative Site, knows this importance. “The play-based, relationship-based principles in the LifeWays/Waldorf early childhood teachings are at the heart of why I love this form of education,” she says. “Children learn through imitation, doing, creating, and interacting and by being given the room to explore social dynamics within a warm and nurturing environment. Through the LifeWays/Waldorf practices, the teacher mindfully sets up an environment that inspires and expands creativity by using natural and open-ended toys, perhaps something as simple as a piece of silk. Open-ended toys allow for divergent thinking, which means there is more than one answer to any given problem. This practice develops out-of-the-box, original thinkers.”

But there is more to a Waldorf education than wooden toys and watercolors. Creating this intentional environment allows the child to develop at the pace that is right for him or her. Lynn Coalson, another lead teacher at the Seaside Playgarden, says, “The curriculum presented to the student is grade specific and appeals to the child’s social, emotional, physical and soul development.”

With no outside pressure to meet standards, the teachers are free to meet each child where they are, developmentally—but that is not to say that Waldorf schools do not follow a curriculum. Still, there are others who feel Waldorf schools are not rigorous enough to prepare children for the reality of college.

Dr. Rachel Nagel, professor of education, says, “Waldorf education has some very unique characteristics. As educators and parents we have to remember that each child is an individual and it is our duty to find what will work best for our children. I preferred a very structured curriculum for my children that will prepare them for life and college experiences.”

When choosing the best school for her children, Nagel considered her children’s personalities along with her desire for what she felt was a more structured environment. For her, a traditional public school was the best fit.

Sharon Sanders is the principal of Seaside Community Charter School in Atlantic Beach, a tuition-free public charter school with a standards-based curriculum inspired by the Waldorf educational approach. “We absolutely teach the same content, curriculum and standards as traditional schools but the difference is in how we teach the content, curriculum and standards,” says Sanders. “The teachers and principal working together as a cadre of educators make the educational decisions at a Waldorf inspired public charter school. They decide what the children need and how to teach the children, and the children are at the center of the instruction.”

So, why choose Waldorf? “Teaching the head, heart and hands of the student so our children become productive, kind, compassionate, good people,” says Sanders. “We can shape the future through our children.”