Waldorf education has become increasingly popular in recent decades. Supporters champion the creativity and independent thinking that it fosters, but some critics say it fails to prepare children for the “real” world, where things like competition and technology cannot be avoided.
Jessica Rolph welcomes Dr. Natasha Beck to today’s episode. She holds a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology and has a Master’s in Public Health. The mom of three children and pregnant with her fourth, Dr. Beck is known to her social following as Dr. Organic Mommy, and much of her parenting is built around the principles of Waldorf.
[1:33] Why did Natasha choose a Waldorf school for her first child?
[2:18] Natasha shares some of her favorite Waldorf teaching methods.
[4:07] What are children who go to a Waldorf school not doing in contrast to other preschool classrooms?
[5:38] Natasha explains how writing and reading instruction works in Waldorf schools.
[8:16] Ways in which Waldorf teachers create a language-rich environment without defaulting to storybooks.
[10:34] How can we bring some of the Waldorf philosophy and creativity into our homes?
[12:26] In Waldorf, screen time is a huge no-no. So no movies, no devices, or any other screens are allowed at school or at home. What’s the rationale behind that guideline?
[14:25] At what age does Natasha recommend introducing some media?
Mentioned in this episode:
Examples of the Waldorf philosophy
Jessica: Why did you choose a Waldorf school for your first child?
Natasha: There was so much purpose in everything that they did, there was so much thought, like down to what the teachers wore, like the fact that there was just neutral clothing so it wouldn’t over-stimulate the child. The fact that they would wear this oversized apron with lots of pockets, so that the kids would create and collect treasures to bring to their teachers to have their teachers keep them safe, so that they could develop and nourish that trusting relationship and bond between teacher and child I thought that was absolutely incredible. And that’s really what drew me.
Jessica: I love those examples. Can you think of any more, because I think so many of us parents are trying to decide what our approach might be for preschool.
Natasha: There are so many examples from the rhythm that they sat from the morning, right when you come in in the morning, having the kids sit there and help set the table for snack time, having the kids actually help prepare the snack. They actually teach you the days of the week through the schedule of the snack menu, so every Monday would be kale, quinoa and lentils, every Tuesday would be oatmeal with grounded pecans and Ceylon cinnamon, every Wednesday would be freshly made vegetable soup with vegetables from the garden. Every Thursday was home-made bread that the kids would actually knead out the bread and roll it. And so that’s how they learned the days of the week, because they’re like, “Oh, it’s Thursday, it’s bread day.”
Criticisms of the Waldorf method
Jessica: Wow, that sounds so amazing. That menu that you described is incredible. What are they… There’s gotta be a lot of time spent on meal prep and gardening and thinking about these rhythms, what are they not doing that you see in other preschool classrooms?
Natasha: That’s a great question. You’re not seeing in typical more traditional academic pre-schools, you’re not seeing a desk, a sit-down desk where the child is… Each child is sitting at a desk, having a blackboard or a whiteboard, and they’re learning and they’re just facing one direction, you’re not seeing that. And you’re seeing a lot more engagement from the child in terms of allowing them to reach their full capacity of what they can do. So knowing that a three-year-old can definitely help set a table, knowing that they can grind up the avocados to make guacamole, letting your five-year-old know that they can actually take the dishes to the sink and wash the dishes. And so that just helps build up that inner motivation and that confidence in that child. And so by the time they get to the early grades, they have that confidence that they can actually do things because they’re not being told, no, they can’t help. No, they’re not capable.
Jessica: So some criticize this lack of emphasis on hard skills as really limiting a child from being able to have this formal writing or reading instruction, and it doesn’t get introduced until age seven. I’ve even heard that teachers can tell stories with puppets to create language-rich environments, but that they’re not actually using books or practicing holding a pencil. Can you talk to this a little bit more?
Natasha: Yeah, so there’s so much thought again, behind this, so let’s take a step back in the early childhood. Why there’s so much focus on painting is because they want the child to actually have this proper pencil grip. And what I found in my own practice when I was working and in the clinics that I was working at, I had so many kids that I had to refer out to for occupational therapy because they had improper pencil grip and they had difficulty with basic movements. And that’s because they weren’t getting enough of that enrich play, that creative play or that outside play where they’re digging and using all of their senses, and so their development is actually hindered because of it. And so when you think about it, when they’re actually painting with the kids, they’re really focusing on how they’re painting. And they’re telling a story with the paint brush, oh, this is the little dancer, we tap tap tap to get rid of the paint, the excess paint. And then we have them dance back and forth, and that’s really to help teach them the proper pencil grip, so that when they do transition to those early grades, when they’re in first grade, they know how to properly hold a pencil.
And so that’s just one of the ways they actually put so much purpose and thought into what they’re doing, and it’s the same thing with why they incorporate hand work, knitting and finger crocheting with the little ones in early childhood. When they’re finger crocheting, they’re really helping to develop those senses and to get that fine motor control really developed so that they’re prepared for the grades. And so once they enter the grades, they actually make their own sewing needles and they start knitting their own case for their flute. My son just did that, and so when he actually gets in a musical instrument, he can know that, Hey, I needed my own case for that. And there’s a lot of Math involved because he has to count how many stitches that he has to have in each row, and then there’s multiplication because he’s gotta figure out how many rows that he has to have. And so there’s a lot going on, and it may seem like, Oh, they’re just knitting, but there’s so much more depth to it.
Storytelling vs story reading
Jessica: That makes sense. And is this true that teachers tell stories with puppets and create this sort of language-rich environment more organically than actually read a story book in a preschool classroom?
Natasha: Yes, that’s also something I was always amazed with, the teachers would memorize these stories that were so rich and so detailed. They start off in the early childhood with the puppets and then as they get to kindergarten, they take away the puppets and they’re just really telling the story from memory. And it really helps develop those early literacy skills. And when you get to the grades, like the early grades, when they’re learning their letters and learning the alphabet, it’s taught in such a beautiful way. It’s not just like, “Alright, we’re going to write the letter E over and over and over again, E is for Elephant. E is for elephant.” But what they do is they tell a story behind that letter and they draw the shape of say the letter S in the shape of a swan, and they tell this beautiful story about the swan. And so there’s such a connection to that letter, and there’s more than just the intellect that’s there, and it’s…
Because a letter is an arbitrary concept, it’s just like, Okay, it’s a letter. What does that mean? But if you’re connecting it to different disciplines, including the arts, where you’re drawing, it resonates more with the child and they’re more likely to take it in and not just have this rote memory of like, “Alright, I have to memorize this and then I’m going to forget it later on.”
Practicing Waldorf at home
Jessica: So how can we bring some of the Waldorf philosophy around creativity to our homes?
Natasha: I think it really comes down to having loose parts, not toys that have so much just one purpose to them, and that’s why in Waldorf in the early childhood, they really have natural toys that are natural materials like wood and felt, because they can be so many different objects, you don’t just have a light up police car that it only does one thing. It just it’s a police car, and it goes one way, you can have a block, that can be a piece of food, it can be a car, it can be part of a tower, there’s lots of different purposes. It’s multi-functional rather, the toys. And so you want to try to find toys at home that have different functions that can play different roles. And I think that’s one way to help foster that creativity at home, and then letting them explore outside, letting them collect rocks or leaves, or stones or shells or whatever you have at your disposal, because they can use that as pretend food. They can use that as money, and when they’re selling something and they can take pieces of paper and just rip them up and say, “Oh, here is the ticket.” or whatever it is, there’s a lot of imagination there. So you really don’t need a lot, you just want to have toys that have multiple functions.
Screen time and the Waldorf philosophy
Jessica: So in Waldorf screen time is a huge no-no. So no movies, no devices or any other screens are allowed at school or at home. So what’s the rationale behind that guideline?
Natasha: So I think the problem comes to play when kids are constantly being stimulated by so much media and so much outside influence that it really hinders their development with play and play is the key to letting them be successful later in life in terms of their academics and every other avenue in their life. You need to have creative play, and the problem is, is that when you have media… Let’s give you an example, say a child is watching Frozen, a very popular movie, and I love the movie myself.
I can tell within five minutes whether or not a child has actually seen Frozen just by watching their play, because the child who’s watched Frozen will actually imitate what they see in the movie, and the child who hasn’t watched Frozen will actually create their own characters. So it’s really fascinating to see how the play comes into reality with a child. They mimic what they see, and if they’re constantly being told by a screen of what to play or how to play, they’re just going to copy that, and so there’s a real lack of creativity there.
Kids, I think the latest data was in 2020, that kids who are eight and up are getting over seven hours of TV a day, that’s a lot, you know, and that’s taking away from their ability to play, to create, to imagine.
Social media and the Waldorf method
Jessica: Well, I have definitely seen that in my six-year-old daughter, I think a lot of her imaginative play is around Frozen and it kinda makes me sad, I wish that we hadn’t introduced Frozen to her, but it’s done. What age do you recommend from your parenting and from the Waldorf philosophy of introducing some media or is it never?
Natasha: No, it’s definitely not never. And I don’t want parents to feel regret or guilt that they’ve introduced media to their kids. But if we’re talking about a general age range, in Waldorf, they like to really not introduce media until about nine years old, but I think it’s dependent on every family, and every family is different, and you know that your Waldorf school would work with you. So for us, I’ve introduced definitely some media to my seven-year-old, but we’re very mindful of how we use it, we use it when we’re on long car rides or long plane rides, or sometimes he’ll get it when my girls are napping and there’s some quiet time that he can have, but content really matters. And they’ve done tons of studies, even looking at like something as stimulating as the Powerpuff Girls versus Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and they look at the frames per second. If you look at Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, it’s really slow.
It’s like not even panning quickly when you move with Mr. Rogers over to his next area in his home, whereas Powerpuff Girls, it’s like bright lights right in your face, constantly stimulating you, and so you’re going to require more of that. And so when I tell parents to be mindful of their screen time, I say, also think about content for your little ones. Like I love Little Bear and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and I love the movie the Fox and the child, because I get it. Sometimes we just need to survive. I can’t have my kids in the kitchen right now, I’ve gotta get this done, let’s put something on so it’ll keep them distracted or I’ve gotta get my work done and I can’t be distracted, I’ve gotta be on a phone call. So of course, use it in those moments that you need it, but try not to use it, like say, if your child’s having trouble eating and you just want to put them in front of a screen so that they’ll actually eat more, but they’re not actually being connected to what they’re eating, and so there’s no feeling of, “Okay, I’m going to appreciate this food, or I like the flavor or the texture or whatnot,” because they’re passively just watching TV and being very distracted from it. So I think you just have to be mindful of when you introduce it and how you use it, and the content.
Jessica: Thank you so much for being with us, Natasha.
Natasha: Thank you so much for having me. I really had a great time discussing all of this.
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