The Rudolf Steiner/Waldorf movement recognises that schools should be truly comprehensive: open to all girls and boys, with a curriculum for all pupils which is as broad as time will allow and with a healthy balance of artistic and practical, alongside academic, activities. 

Teachers in these schools are dedicated to generating a genuine inner enthusiasm for learning within every child. They achieve this in a variety of ways. Even a seemingly dry and academic subject will receive a pictorial or dynamic presentation. This method removes the pressure for competitive testing, placing and reward; motivation can arise from within.

One of the most notable ways in which the Waldorf approach to education differs from others is in the response of the curriculum to the various phases or stages in child development; another, related to this, is the crucial though changing relationship between teacher and child as these various phases are met.

The first seven years – imitation

Apparently helpless in his mother’s arms, the infant may seem to be incapable of learning. In fact he is at his most absorptive stage. From birth he is learning to stand, to talk and to think. Uprightness, the acquisition of language and the ability to think are gigantic achievements in a period of three or four years. And they are learned without benefit of instruction! The child gains them through a combination of latent ability, instinct and above all imitation. The last one is the specific talent that characterises the period up to the age of 6 or 7; the young child mimics everything in the environment uncritically – not only the sounds of speech, the gestures of people (and machines!) but the attitudes and values of parents and peers.

The heart of childhood – imagination

A transition occurs at around this age, the most prominent physical change being the loss of the milk teeth. On the one hand the child develops a new and vivid life of imagination; on the other, a readiness for more formal learning. He both expresses and experiences life through finely shaded feelings.

As he moves through these years the faculty for more consecutive thought also begins to unfold. Yet careful handling is necessary, for while this faculty needs nurturing, the ability to be fully at home in the pictorial world of imagination remains the child’s most vital asset.

Towards adulthood – rational judgement

It is the third development stage – adolescence – that is crucial for the right cultivation of critical judgement. At this point, it becomes possible for the pupil to use thinking as an objective instrument. Two other features are present in the adolescent psyche: first, a healthy, valuable idealism; and, second, a vulnerable sensitivity about one’s own feelings and inner experiences. These traits need protection, and many youngsters from puberty onwards are energetic in disguising their inner condition: girls may become coquettish, daring and defiant; boys’ defences may well take the form of sullen or introverted behaviour, apparent unwillingness to communicate or a hard shell. In any case, a barrier is erected as self-protection. The person behind the barrier is constantly seeking a model, with qualities to emulate.

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Kylie Valentine is a qualified secondary school teacher, trained journalist, and the mum of two fabulous children.

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