I’ve been contemplating writing a post about Waldorf education for a long time now. Its been hard for me to know where to begin- I don’t pretend to be an expert on Rudolph Steiner or his education system: my eldest child is only three years old and obviously I will have to gain knowledge as I gain experience with the Waldorf community. I have much to learn. However, I myself always find value in the off-the-cuff opinions of amateurs, those people who are not yet experts and thus not beholden to whatever loyalty comes along with having expertise. I would assume that an expert in Waldorf education would tell you that Waldorf education is indeed phenomenal, and that person would also have all of the research and explanations necessary to carry that conversation. Spoiler alert: I am also going to say that Waldorf education is great. But I am going to talk about from the point-of-view of a random mom in the parking lot.
Before I had children, I, like many childless people, had a great deal of opinions on how children ought to be raised. One such belief was that children ought to have a hard time in school: they should have to painfully endure what the school system handed to them and by the power of sheer will and strength, they should then overcome whatever stress and misery they faced on a daily basis, to ultimately arrive on top, a glorious survivor of standardized testing and cafeteria teasing. Sure, this process should be scarring but only for the sake of character-building. Also standard testing was absolutely very serious and very important, for some reason that I could not actually articulate.
It was sort of easy for me to hold this opinion: while I certainly dealt with my share of normal stress and anxiety regarding school, I was overall a popular child who tested very well. Now that I am no longer an idiot, I know that this is not everyone’s story.
In fact, now that I have children of my own, I am not so eager to see them suffer. I do not wish upon them the stress-addiction that I believe most modern adults suffer from, that constant buzzing tension that I am still working hard to be rid of. I am not so at ease with the notion of them spending the majority of their childhood confined to a desk in a classroom with fluorescent lighting, learning to fill in testing bubbles. Its easy to forget that this style of learning is, historically speaking, absolutely new: the children of our ancestors would have learned at home or on the streets in their cities or villages, apprenticing themselves to the daily tasks that kept them alive and kept their household running. They most likely would not have to learn, as I did at the ripe age of 24, how to make a meal worth eating, or any other basic survival skill necessary for being human.
It is always dangerous to romanticize the past and I am not saying that I want to hop in my time machine. I wont paint a picture of an idyllic lost land of home-learning, I wont be offering a survey of how education has evolved over the centuries, nor will I be offering a critique of public schooling: I myself attended our local Booker High School, an experience that ultimately made me a better and more beautiful person.
What I would like to talk about, as a mother of two spirited little girls, is how good I feel about dropping my daughter Celeste off at our local Waldorf school.
It is not uncommon for me to be late when I bring my daughter to her nursery class because getting a baby and preschooler dressed and fed and into the car is not a task for the faint of heart. And while they never let on, my lateness is no doubt a bit tiresome for some of the staff. My lateness, however, has given me a wonderful gift: once Celeste is securely tucked into her classroom (a place replete with warm, wooden toys and comforting lambskins and the magical straw hat and apron-wearing Beings that we refer to as her “teachers”) I get to see the older children out-and-about learning their lessons. Yes, lest their be any confusion: by this statement I mean that they are outdoors.
They are outdoors with violin cases, with books, with loud and gregarious story-telling teachers, with basket balls, with watering cans in the garden. They are outdoors with each other, eating real food, hearing ancient tales, watching caterpillars eat the milkweed. And when I come to the campus again in the afternoon to pick up Celeste, there they are again, outdoors. In the weekly parent update that I receive by email which lets us know what all our kids are up to, I read more about the grade school children and their outdoor adventures: classroom camping trips, hiking, farming, swimming, planting, singing. Even more importantly, and what is most noticeable about these lanky, growing children, is that they are happy.
I know these children have classrooms, because I have peaked inside the windows to see their traditional wooden desks, their paintings on the walls, their instruments stacked up in corners. They must enter these rooms sometimes. Not that I mind seeing them outdoors all the time! It brings me a relief I can’t explain, especially in a world where it is not uncommon to see most children lost in digital devices even when there is a perfectly good climbing tree three feet from their faces.
Celeste comes home from her school singing these European-style folk songs that are gentle and earthy and always pertain to the particular season we are in. Don’t worry, I’m not here to bullshit you: like most modern little girls, this kid knows every word to Frozen’s “Let it Go.” I have not personally mastered the art of a screen-free household. Perhaps if I did indeed live in a German village where I could easily throw my children outdoors at any hour of the day and find on my doorstep a handful of scruffy, dirt-faced kids chasing each other around in their lederhosen, we would have zero need for Netflix whatsoever. As it stands, I live in a modern neighborhood in the retirement capital of the world: playmates are scarce, and many neighborhood children are barely allowed to leave their driveways without ardent supervision. Screen time offers me what the culture no longer provides: time for me to chop vegetables for dinner and hear my own thoughts. All the same, I am thrilled to know that my child is NOT staring at a screen while at school. I love hearing those sweet folk songs being sung by my little girl with the same joyful enthusiasm she uses when she pretends to be Elsa.
My love for Waldorf Sarasota is something I could easily write about for pages and pages. But naptime will be coming to a close shortly and I only crank out blog posts when my baby sleeps, so let me end with this: as I have mentioned, my two daughters are spirited. Their spirits are more precious to me than anything in this world. My eldest is so spirited that she regularly bests me in our arguments. My one-year-old is so spirited and scrappy that she can already best her big sister by bravely yanking one of Celeste’s braids when she, quite frankly, needs to be checked. I will honor their spirits in every way I can for as long as I live. And I know that the Waldorf community will partner with me, not dissuade me, in my efforts. So here we are and I believe here we will stay.
PS- For those intimidated by the cost of private school, let me assure you that generous scholarships exist, otherwise it would not be an option for our family.
PPS- The stunning photographs in this post were taken by our dear friend, musician Maria Levitov.
PPPS- If you read this and arrive at some glorious epiphany and decide to enroll your children at Waldorf Sarasota, do mention my name. And then spread the world yourself! The enrollment fairies will shave $100 off the already fair tuition cost for each new family that enrolls at your recommendation.