Highlights of Waldorf Education
Sunny Chen

Returning from an organic farm nestled in surrounding hills, my son has been away for three days. On the first day, the whole class (including hefty David) embarked on the cross country trek of four hours, with the convoy of 2 teachers and 2 parent-chaperones. They arrived at the organic farm, situated 10km away from school. Along the way, the class observed and identified the myriad behaviors of flora and fauna awaking on a warm summer day.

As I arrived at the farm at three in the noon, the students were engaged in small chats or football games. Soon farm workers introduced them to the natural environment through games and songs, highlighting the characteristics and importance of various living organisms. The class was then split into groups to carry out various tasks at the farm: feed chickens, collect eggs, replenish water, clean coops, chase chickens back to coops, wash eggs, etc. One group of students helped prepare dinner, while the other group was responsible for the washing after meal. And then followed by the most anticipated highlights of the night: campfire and night trek.

Night trekking was the exciting finale of the farm activities, and the fifth grade students really looked forward to it. (They have experienced and are familiar with the farm work as they have field trips to different farms each year.) Out of the well-lit living room, the class walked into the pitch black forest, with only stars and moon lighting the way. No torchlight, and normal vision was inadequate for the occasion. Every student needed to make their way through full attention at hearing, exploring the ground using the feet, and feeling the surrounding through skin contact. Before this at dimly-lit location, the students learnt to discriminate peripheral vision. When one enters darkness of night, the centre of gaze rests due to the lack of light, while peripheral vision becomes active. At this point, stars are unusually bright. Someone even noticed a shooting star! Upon return, the guide gave each child an opportunity to walk singly in the dark, with a lapse of 20 seconds between each child. This was for the child to experience walking alone in nature in the night and to observe the delicate relationship between the physical senses. With the first glimpse of light appearing ahead of them, there was an indescribable feeling of warmth, and also a reluctant parting with the brilliant star-filled sky.

The second day was packed with outdoor learning, farm work and night trek, but full of vigor and vitality, the students were not daunted. On the third morning, the students prepared their dry provisions, and walked the 3 hours trek back to school.

Field trips or outdoor learning like this get more adventurous and rigorous each year of my son’s education in Waldorf School. From half-day excursion in kindergarten and an overnight stay in grade 1, one more day is added to each higher grade’s field trip. When he reached grade 4, he has experienced a 4-day farm stay at biodynamic organic farm located 6 hours’ car ride away from school. Coming May this year, at grade 5, he will be traveling to Mt Shasta, a mountain sacred to the Native Americans, for 5 days. On top of that, there will be a sport meet that models after ancient Greek Olympics. Through dynamic and diverse teaching methods, my son’s learning has gone beyond the textbooks. Living the lifestyles of ancient cultures, like Native American and the wildwest, he experiences in first person the many ways humans have lived with nature at different stages of life, across different cultures and livelihoods. Gradually and subtly, these experiences enrich and mold the outlook he holds for life and the character he is to become.  

What’s gratifying is that these activities are carried out in the open classroom of Nature. No modern digital gadgets like the computer and digital games. Neither are there rigid abstract lessons on papers. Nor endless surge of worksheet exercises. The outdoor teachers and tutors do not only teach natural knowledge, but as living models, pass on the legacy of respecting nature and pursuing a balanced, harmonious attitude towards life. They nourish the little young hearts with messages of compassion, love, appreciation, equanimity, diligence, humility and joyous simplicity.

My son’s education in Waldorf School arouses the envy of my friends. They gasp in admiration towards the light assignments that allow a child’s full expression in originality, and the highly creative art and craft works. How they wish they have a chance to participate in the enriching outdoor lessons and field trips. (You can imagine how exhilarated I was when I was parent-chaperone for some of their excursions.) Though my friends who are parents themselves exalt the curriculum, they voice concerns about a Waldorf-educated child’s ability to co

pe with social competitiveness, academic achievement, assimilation into mainstream education, etc.

Before I share my views, I always raise the questions: What goals do you have towards your child’s education? What are your considerations and priorities? School fees aside (Waldorf school provides subsidies for families who need them), what types of school do you look for to educate your child, or how to customize a suitable learning environment for your child? These are not easy questions. As parents, we wish to find a school that meets all desired requirements.

Waldorf School is my choice as I emphasize on a holistic spiritual development of my child, and a natural teaching approach. I have tasted spoon-feeding, cramming approach, serial-examinations approach, and academia-worship education, and I do not wish my child to follow the footsteps. The intense competitiveness will deprive the joys of childhood he rightfully deserves. As parents, we also yearn for the vision that Waldorf Education envisages: to educate the ‘whole child’ to become a balanced, spiritually mature world citizen, a member of humanity. Once the education is completed, the child will not lack social competitiveness or academic achievements. Mainstream society will also welcome a Waldorf-graduate who exhibits high team spirit and EQ (emotional quotient). (Allow me to share about this in next issue)

I have come across a few articles recently. One of them reported a few scientific studies done these few years that showed Waldorf Education can be a healthy option. The article highlighted the significance of appropriate education in arousing vital life force, leading to long term health benefits – the principle that Dr. Steiner stressed upon. Waldorf School makes full use of music, rhythm and physical activities in their daily curriculum – eurythmy, handwork, artwork, sports, dance, gardening and woodworking – and these promote a child’s overall well-being. Thomas Poplawski, author of the article, mentioned a few studies to illustrate this.

30 years ago, a German physician noticed that children are reaching puberty at earlier ages due to the changes in society. He worried that these children may not have the emotional maturity to respond appropriately to the changes in their bodies. There are various factors for physiological-sexual precocity. Higher nutritional level and man-induced growth hormones in animal feeds are a common phenomenon of modern times. Pressure from society is another factor – mother suffering from depression, single-mother, non-blood-related male in the family, family conflict, urbanization, adopted children from third world countries, etc. Recent researches also identify obesity as related to precocity. Factors for late maturity include big or extended family structures, close relationship with biological father, and low-stress, supportive family environment.

Two physicians highlighted a few features of Waldorf Education and were curious if these might contribute to late maturity in children. Some of the features are: classroom is furnished with a homely atmosphere, longer teacher-student relationship (teacher remains with same class from grade 1 to 8), less stressful and non-competitive learning environment, and students are not overloaded with homework, tests and academic pressure.

Girls have more obvious physiological changes upon puberty than boys. Hence, they decided to conduct studies on girls, collecting data on the age of their first menstruation. The comparative study involved 1175 girls from Waldorf School and 1118 girls from public school of the same region in Germany. They discovered that onset of menses for girls in public school is 12.63 years (similar to 12.43 years for American girls), and 13.25 years for girls in Waldorf School, a difference of 8 months.

We need to understand that this study was done 30 years ago. In this 21st century where instant foods are pervasive, we can expect the onset to be earlier. The diet of Waldorf families is generally inclined towards healthier, organic foods; hence, the difference between the two categories of girls can be greater. The dangers of physiological precocity are many, and have been reported in Lapis Lazuli Light magazines, thus this will not be in the scope of this article. 

Myopia seems to be a birthright of Asians. My son’s optometrist remarked that it is easier for Chinese than Americans to develop myopia. Scientists in last century reported that childhood myopia is mostly heredity. The rate of myopia in childhood of Asian origins, in countries like Japan, Singapore and Taiwan, is 40%, and 10% / 16% for American children (10% for lower levels, 16% for high school students). But is childhood myopia going to be a haunting nightmare for Asians? 

In his article, Poplawski described that a few myopia expert scientists discovered that their own children developed myopia while no one in their ancestral history had it. This led them to suspect if tiredness of eyes is the cause.  Related evidence came from studies on Alaska aborigines. Two-thirds of the aboriginal children developed myopia after they started schooling, and their illiterate parents and grandparents had no history of myopia. The scientists eventually acknowledged that excessive reading and other short-distance focusing activities that strain the eyes and visual fatigue are the culprits of myopia.

Visual activities of Waldorf School children are different from mainstream children. Firstly, they do not start reading or do very minimal reading before the age of 7. Instead, parents do story-telling. They seldom watch television and are not exposed to computer. Secondly, their school lives are immersed in colors.

Waldorf classrooms are painted using lazure technique, a highly versatile painting system. Transparent watercolor paints of various shades are painted on white walls, layer after layer, to give a natural effect akin to sunlight on a solid surface. From grade 1 classroom that is painted with shades of red, to grade 6 of shades of blue, children are experiencing a permissible and breathable space with the soft gentle hues of colors. The wall at entrance of my house is painted by my two sons and myself using lazure technique, and it is very well-received among my house guests and visitors.

Besides that, since kindergarten to grade 5, my son gets to play with colors every single day. Through watercolors, knitting, cross stitching, color chalks, color pencils, wax crayons, color pens, etc, the exposure to colors has a relaxing effect to the eyes. Field trips that are conducted a few times a year give the children opportunities to be near nature, without overburdening their eyes. All these, especially the start of reading only at grade 2, are reasons for Waldorf schooling children’s healthier eyesight.

Ten years ago, a team of Swedish researchers observed and raised concern about the rising number of children having allergic problems over the last few decades. They also noticed that children growing up in alternative medical, nutritional and educational environments seem to have lesser allergies. One example is children from Waldorf schools.

They conducted a comparative study of 295 Waldorf students and 380 mainstream students from neighboring schools. They collected medical history reports of these children from their parents and conducted skin test of 13 allergens on these children and blood test. The study showed that 13% of Waldorf students and 25% of mainstream students are having some forms of allergy. They reported that the more the families practise Waldorf/Anthroposophic principles in their homes – like eating organic foods and avoiding vaccines – the more the children are spared from allergies.

Other possible factors are as follows: Waldorf children do not take MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccines, hence most of them probably contracted measles before. (Waldorf children accounted for most of the measles cases in Sweden). They are usually inoculated with Tetanus and polio vaccines when they are much older. (Like myself, I was only inoculated at age 6 or 7. During that time, there wasn’t any MMR). Waldorf children seldom take antibiotics and anti-fever drugs, and consume more organic food products, biodynamic farm produce, food that contains acidophilus, and fermented vegetables (yogurt, kimchi, pickled cucumbers, etc.). Most of them probably were breastfed, and suffer less from secondhand smoke at home. 

Another international group of researchers decided to repeat the study. They surveyed 4606 Waldorf students and 2024 neighboring public schools’ students in Austria, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and Holland. Results of this study were similar to the Sweden study mentioned above – the occurrence of sinusitis, atopic eczema and atypical allergies in Waldorf students was significantly lower. The conclusion was that Waldorf students have lower probability of developing hypersensitive diseases or allergies. Though they attributed it to the lifestyle of Waldorf families, it was still unknown how the difference in lifestyles can contribute to the disparity of the two groups under study.

Considering all the factors and in sum, the emphasis of Waldorf Education lies in a child’s sociability, healthy outlook on life, emotions and lifestyle, with strong foundation in humanities, and long term cultivation of a child’s healthy body. These are considerations for the modern parents.

Chinese education in retrospect, other than delivering knowledge and information, what can our educational approach provide for our children? 5000 years of education in moral-ethics serve to motivate a healthy outlook of life, but I feel that the educational approach weighs more on competitive material gains than aesthetic and spiritual cultivation. Humanity suffers severe laceration and destruction in the past 50 years. Knowledge-based education is not able to address the fundamental issue at hand -- How can we revive the age old wisdom of appreciating nature, immersing in the spirited way of a simple, wholesome and natural lifestyle?

Perhaps aesthetic education is a good opening -- learning from the colors, and we progressively walk into the beauty of Nature, and uncover the sanctity of our true nature. Then it is possible to bring more peace and harmony into our society.

My heart is gratified in watching the influence Waldorf aesthetic education has on my son, little by little. And coming August, Dr. Lai compassionately organizes a workshop in Crestone where she invites a few Anthroposophic or Waldorf art-teachers to impart the principles of art and colors. For educators and parents who would like to explore the beauty of spiritual, aesthetic education, this is a precious opportunity. I look forward to it with full anticipation.

Original article is published in May 2008 issue of Lapis Lazuli Light magazine (Taiwan)
Translated into English by D.Light