Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Balancing the Need for Free Play with Extracurricular Activities

Question: Within the structure of what Waldorf thought advocates as best for children of various ages how do you recommend balancing the need for free play/ quiet time with extracurricular “enrichment” activities, homework, and bedtimes?

Let me say at the outset that the answer to your question will vary depending on the age of your child. But because you mention both homework and free play, I will answer your question with a nine or ten year old in mind.

There are certain guiding thoughts in a Waldorf School. I think of them as the essential understandings of our education. One of these understandings is that children do best when they are engaged in three fundamental ways – through purposeful activity, through the warmth of their feelings, and through clear thinking. This is the basis for our “head, heart, and hands” approach to teaching. Waldorf teachers try to engage children in these three ways in almost all of their classes.

I believe that the same balanced approach works in our homes and that the time after school could be looked at in a similar way. Our children generally need some “down time” after school and for each child this can be different. For some children it is time to sit down with a snack and read. Others sit down with their snack and talk about the day, and some children just want to go outside as soon as possible and play. Time outside running, climbing, riding a bike or a scooter is so good for children, especially in an era when so few children walk to and from school. For grade school children time outside is essential.  

Quiet time inside is necessary for children too. This allows them time to read or draw or simply to play with their toys and dolls and building things that they have and enjoy. This kind of imaginative play engages them in their feelings. They daydream and wonder and create. Having drawing paper and scissors and paste or beeswax available to children offers them the possibility of creative activity, but also a way for them to relive the lessons and stories of the school day.

This brings us to the question of homework. Homework has fallen out of favor in recent
years as parents’ lives have grown increasingly busy and stressful. But Waldorf Schools have never believed in giving third, fourth, or fifth grade students extensive homework assignments. Our feeling has been that the same three-dimensional approach that we ascribe to in the classroom needs time to work well at home. In order for there to be time for outdoor play or indoor play, time to draw and read or to be read to, time to practice a musical instrument and to help with chores, homework should not take up too much of the time after school.

A second essential understanding in Waldorf education is that children need time to “breathe”. For younger children, nursery/kindergarten through grades one and two, school is physically and emotionally demanding. To sit at a desk, to work with paper and pencils (or crayons) and to follow instructions is taxing. Younger children often end the school day tired and hungry and emotionally thin. For this age child, quiet unstructured time is essential and preferable to after school activities.

As children move into grades three, four, and five, they have acclimated to the school day and their strength and energy have grown. For this age child, an enrichment class or a sports team after school is often desired. The question is always one of how much and how often. All lessons - horseback riding, ballet, ice skating, and music lessons- are really classes and they require further focus and concentration. Even a sports team (we will address a question on sports in our next blog posting) asks children to work within a certain structure, to acquire new skill sets, to meet new physical demands, and new demands for attention. This raises the question, “Where do we find time for our children to exhale?”

One of the greatest unmet needs that children have today is for unstructured time to play and explore and to discover the creative interests and undertakings that exist on the other side of boredom. For too many children a busy after school schedule precludes that possibility.

Jack Petrash

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Why do all of the pictures look the same?

On a recent blog posting for the New York Times, a Waldorf parent questioned the validity of having a class of students spend significant amounts of time drawing or painting the same picture. Implicit in this question, and criticism, is the often-heard remark, “ Why do all of the pictures look the same?”

The question comes with a point of view, one that sees art as a product. It also assumes that art should be innovative and original. But at the Waldorf School, where so much teaching is done through art, artistic work is also seen as a process. It is through the artistic process that students receive a deeper experience of knowledge.

I was reminded of this recently during my fifth grade’s study of geography. As a class we had explored the terrain of the United States, recognizing the important presence of three major mountain ranges – the Appalachians, the Coastal Range, and the Rockies. For children, particularly urban Washingtonian children, snow covered mountains are a remote, seldom experienced reality. It is not easy for our children to sense a mountain’s severity, how unwelcome and forbidding it can feel above the barren timberline when it is cold and windy and snow covered. This was the experience I wanted my students to have. I described it in words, presented it in story, taught it as facts, but all of this would be greatly enhanced through painting. It was with this in mind that the students in my class were asked to paint the same picture of the Rocky Mountains, using pale blues and purples, leaving white rivers of glacial ice and jagged peaks. Cold and hard were their guidelines.

As the children painted they became very quiet and their work with the paintbrush became controlled and meticulous. This quiet focus let me know that they were now beginning to live into the painting and to experience through their imaginations the reality of the Rocky Mountains. Through art an amazing transition can occur where the outer becomes the inner. Although all of the students painted the same Rocky Mountains, their inner imaginative experience of these mountains was uniquely individual. The artistic experience had become a vehicle, one that had taken the students to a deeper understanding of geography.

Jack Petrash