The Waldorf approach goes against the current tide of teaching subjects such as reading at increasingly younger ages. In the March/April 2004 issue of Mothering magazine, Rahima Baldwin Dancy wrote: “This trend in public education began in the late 1950s, following the shock of the first Russian spacecraft, and has pushed the first-grade curriculum down into kindergarten and even into preschools. This has not led to improved learning, however; test scores at all levels have been falling ever since. In contrast to early academics, Waldorf preschool and kindergarten teachers recognize that reading must be grounded in a rich field of oral learning and meaning, and thus they carefully lay the foundations for early literacy through storytelling, singing, and movement games.” It is our goal to educate students in a manner that is developmentally appropriate.
Rudolf Steiner believed that before the age of seven years, a child’s time was best spent in developing the physical body in a healthy way. Children who are encouraged to be active, playful, and creative in early childhood usually turn out to be the most enthusiastic learners during the elementary years. Waldorf early childhood teachers concentrate on developing the child’s physical coordination (which affects the development of neural pathways in the brain), listening skills (which later improve their facility with the written word), ability to relate socially in a group (which is critical to success in any endeavor), finger dexterity (which helps the child to think more nimbly), and initiative. Because Waldorf kindergartners create their own games and fantasy play scenarios, they grow accustomed to making things happen rather than waiting for something or somebody else to entertain them.
In the elementary grades, children are taught to write before they learn to read. This instruction actually begins in the early childhood classrooms, where children learn the proper way to hold a paintbrush. This is the same way they will later learn to hold a crayon, a pencil, and a fountain pen. The letters of the alphabet are introduced in First Grade, initially in picture form. In conjunction with a story told by the teacher (“The Fisherman’s Wife,” for instance) the children may draw or sculpt a fish that later becomes the letter F. Or a snake that becomes the letter S. Or a king that becomes the letter K. This, of course, is the way written letters evolved in ancient times. Later, the children begin to write down the stories told by their teacher (by copying the words from a chalkboard), and subsequently are amazed to discover that they can read what they have written.
Of course, there are some children who seem to pick up reading skills before the age of six or seven, with no apparent help from anyone. We don’t discourage this, but we try always to be sure that a child is growing in a balanced way in all areas–physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially–and not becoming a specialist in any one area too soon.