By Dr Becky Spelman
The arrival of autumn also means the start of a new school year; a time that can bring both excitement and anxiety to parents and children alike.
Everyone wants their little ones to do well, but sometimes we can seem too caught up in our everyday concerns about education to see the big picture. As a pre-teen, I was fascinated when I watched a documentary about Waldorf education and discovered that there might be ways to learn that were very different to the classes I was experiencing at school.
The “Waldorf” alternative approach,pioneered in 1919 by Rudolf Steiner, encourages children to learn through creative play. Instead of formal lessons in reading, writing and mathematics, until they are about seven years old, children are told stories and encouraged to play, experience nature and express themselves creatively. Every child is allowed to progress at their own pace, with the understanding that concepts will become clear only when they are ready for them From primary school through secondary school, students are encouraged to prioritise their imagination. The freedom that they experience makes it easier for them to acquire educational and social skills in a wide range of areas – and parents who are familiar with these schools tend stress the relationship-building, creative and artistic abilities their children have developed. However, the schools have attracted controversy, and there are some potential pitfalls. Because children are taught to read much later than in mainstream education, for example, it can be hard to switch from a Waldorf to a mainstream school, and kids with problems like dyslexia aren’t identified as early. Nor is everyone comfortable with the theosophical ideas that underpin the school’s philosophy.
In the UK, although there are a few state-funded schools, most Waldorf schools are fee-paying and private, and the number of schools is limited at just thirty-three.Fees are often lower than in many private schools, with one London-based school charging between about £5700 and £7000 per year. Together, the schools form the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship, which is a registered charity.
Children don’t have to go to a Waldorf school to learn and experience many of the benefits of Steiner’s approach to education. We can foster a sense of joy in learning by giving children the freedom they need to grow and develop their imagination. Sometimes that means forgetting about milestones and just opening the backdoor to the garden and telling them to go out and have fun, or letting our own hair down and getting lost in a shared story or experience.
Learning can and should be fun – and not just during childhood. The joy of experiment and experience is something that provides a learning experience at every stage of life!