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How Much Art Needs to Be Used in Waldorf Education?

Perhaps you either attended or viewed the recording of the recent webinar we presented from Simply Waldorf. We explored the role of arts in enhancing neurological, physical, emotional, and cognitive development. The short version is that there is nothing more efficient in activating and developing neural potential than combining the arts with academic education. Or better stated, there is nothing more efficient and effective in activating and developing neural potential that combining artistic activities in any and all kinds of learning. When we do things artistically, we light up and thereby develop neural networks optimally.

Waldorf arts including clay modeling

Of course, during the webinar, we took a steadier and more incremental approach, considering different kinds of studies and research related to the actual processes and phases of neurological development as well as the benefits of various artistic activities.

Afterward, we had some time of question and answer. There were many wonderful questions asked, some of which I felt fully qualified to answer, and others that were broader, to which I could only offer a perspective based on my personal experiences and limited extent of knowledge. Among these questions, this one, which I am paraphrasing, was posed:

How much art should be used in Waldorf Education in relation to the academics?

It is a difficult question to answer, to be honest. It certainly qualifies as a question that I cannot claim to answer definitively. I say now, as I said then, that the best I can hope to do is continue the conversation and offer my perspectives toward such a conversation. The fact that it is such a difficult question to answer speaks to the value of its consideration. "Easier" or "more straightforward" questions can be just as important to address. So this is not a matter of determining which questions are more or less important. It is simply a situation where I attempted to address a question in a moment, and the question has continued to linger. So, I thought I might take another turn at it here, where others may also join the consideration of it.

There are several factors to include in this consideration. First, at what grade level are we working with a child or a class? Second, in what setting are we working? Also, what is the child's overall experience of the arts in everyday life? While there could be other factors, I will conclude with this one: how is the child progressing academically? This last question hints at what I must address next.

Before I dive in to each one of these, let me say, as I have said before, that I can only speak to a theoretical average in such situations. Waldorf education always starts with the actual child, the human being with whom we endeavor to work toward education. As you all know quite well, each child is a remarkable miracle of unique qualities, with wonderful natural abilities and with innate challenges or difficulties. This last point--the child's challenges or difficulties, whether they are physical, emotional, or cognitive learning difficulties, can have tremendous ramifications on how a teacher should proceed with education. Consider, for example, if we are trying to teach language arts to an eight-year-old second grader who has significant auditory processing issues. We can incorporate the arts into these lessons, balancing them wonderfully with the academic content. Yet, we will still see difficulty and frustration along with a lack of strong and steady progress because the child's sensory and processing capabilities are not healthy. Simply doing more arts will not adequately address the more fundamental issues at play.

Thus, I can only offer my perspectives on such things in a very generic way, with those perspectives aimed at a general healthy average. To make this even more difficult, I am not a specialist. I am a trained Waldorf Grades Teacher with 22 years experience teaching in a private Waldorf School setting. There are those who have the training and experience with what is called Curative Education or Remedial Education within the Waldorf Education Movement. These are the people who have specialized in observing children with various challenges, identifying the sources of the difficulties, and addressing them as well as they possibly can. Naturally, there can be difficulties such as traumas or significant impairments, even on a neurological level, that exceed the remedial educator's abilities to address. Nevertheless, remedial educators have skill sets that extend well beyond the bounds of a rather general educator such as myself. I say all of this to offer context for my answers within this educational system as well as to remain transparent about the level of my "expertise".

With that, let us proceed. I am going to save some time by saying "the arts" quite a bit. By that I will be referring to one or more of the following: painting, drawing, modeling (beeswax, clay, etc), poetry, music, singing (even the use of songwriting), dance, and drama. Such a list can sound intimidating, but it need not when we take up a healthy attitude of being willing to try new things and to laugh at ourselves in a healthy way. If we start out comparing ourselves to professional artists, we have certainly set the bar too high. If, on the other hand, we can remember that the arts are natural human activities that human beings have been engaging in from times immemorial, then we have a better chance of experiencing the true gifts of the arts. It is natural to sing, just sing for the joy of it. It is natural to dance. It is natural to draw and paint. It is natural to model, to make things out of clay. When we find the joy in these things, as a child will do before that child learns about judgment and critique, then we have discovered a treasure, a treasure we must care for. And I continue to say "we" because it is of primary importance that the parent/teacher is doing these arts as well. Certainly my video lessons can provide some examples to the child, and still I will always urge and encourage parents to jump in with their children. Every attempt is a deep and invaluable lesson for your child, something I can never match with a video lesson, not even close. Children need to see their parents do things. It empowers the child, it encourages them, it feeds their souls!

What grade level are we working with?

In the younger grades, the teacher must be more of an involved leader who is bringing the arts in a more introductory fashion. Keep it simple and keep it fun. Work for successes no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. These set the foundation for future willingness. Positive associations are paramount. In the older grades, their abilities may very likely exceed ours. Still, we can show them certain ideas. Rather than being a leader or model, we can often be more of a guide, pointing in the directions they will go. Our participation is important, but they will find their own path. There is not need for them to simply imitate us in the upper grades.

What is the setting?

If we are at home, then the arts can be woven into the whole day. It is easy to learn and sing songs for instance throughout the day and even at night. At school or in a classroom the day can have more stringent time constraints, and the overall time is limited to a smaller portion of the day. So, the arts must be balanced with the academics. They cannot supersede them. Students, even in Waldorf schools, still need to learn the academics. I will return to this last point momentarily.

What is the child's overall experience of the arts in everyday life?

Some children grow up in cultures--whether those are family cultures, village cultures, regional cultures, etc--that may include the arts more than others. In times past, before technology put audio, video, and social media entertainments into our pockets, human beings engaged more naturally in the arts. My grand folks (grandparents and great uncles and great aunts) were all musical people, comfortable playing several instruments on the porch after dinner, but none of them had ever had a single formal music lesson. It was just part of the rural farming culture in their times of development. The black and white TV was not part of their lives until they were well into their adult years. Radios were novelties of their youths. So if they wanted to hear music, they usually had to make it with instruments or with their voices. Imagine the cultural differences that they inherited in contrast with most children in today's developed societies. They would not have needed much in the way of including music into their academic education. It would have been easy for them to do.

Now let us return to the question of academic progress.

Waldorf education is meant to be an effective education. It is not meant to be a haven of artistic experiences for children who "don't seem to do well in school". While there could be some limited value in giving such a child a well-rounded artistic experience to help ease the stresses that this child has experienced while struggling academically, the arts cannot ever be used as a substitute for actual academic progress. If we are bringing the arts and the academics to the child in a rhythmic and healthy way, and if we still do not see academic progress, then we must ensure that the basic learning abilities are all sound within the child. Checking eyesight, hearing, auditory and visual processing, the child's sense of touch, sense of balance, ensuring healthy and regular amounts of sleep, ensuring proper nutrition--all of these are foundational aspects that must be addressed before any learning can truly occur.

As you can see, the answer is not easy when we ask how much the arts should be used in Waldorf Education. The simplest answer is that it is education that should be practiced artistically. As much as we can, we must continue to bring the rigor of academics at the appropriate time in the child's development, and we must do so with the vigor of the arts. We artistically invigorate the academic rigors of learning.

I realize that referencing a film is somewhat ironic, given how I have characterized the role of digital media in our modern lives. Still, I am convinced that this reference might speak to a number of you. The film "Mary Poppins", the original film, gives us a fine example. So often, Mary Poppins would come to a "teaching moment" with the children in her care. Instead of just talking to the children, should would break out into a song or even a dance. So the children became enraptured with the wonders of artistic activity, finding themselves pulled into singing and dancing themselves. This is how we can most effectively teach. I am not Mary Poppins. Indeed, I am not a masterful artist in any one particular way. My gift is that I was always encouraged by my family to try all sorts of things. I have been willing to give any and every art form a go. I have learned that the inner critic is the worst foe, even worse than someone outside and I have had to work with that inner voice and teach myself that engaging in the arts is the gift. Simply put, I have learned to enjoy the moment. Life and learning are just more fun that way. As it turns out, when I do this, I learn much more too. So learning through artistic activity is not only more fun, it is more effective, too.

As we so often close our main lessons in Waldorf education, I will close this article with a story.

My father was an incredible visual artist. However, he was somewhat reserved, so I never saw much of his work, and I hardly ever experienced him engaging in other art forms. His artistic ability was really more like a secret he simply kept to himself. During my late teens, we attended my cousin's wedding. She and the groom came from very large families. So the ceremony and reception were grand affairs. At the reception, we ate in a very large hall and once the meals were concluding the band began to play music. Without a word, my father stood up and walked over to the band leader and waited until the customary first dances had been completed. Then my father whispered something into the leader's ear, to which the leader nodded. After a brief consultation among the musicians, the band broke out into a raucous and lively song. I do not remember what it was, but somehow my father knew that my cousin would be excited by it. She jumped out onto the dance floor with my father, my reserved father, and they danced like fools. Please understand that "dancing like fools" is a wonderful compliment where I was raised. It basically means that they were able to dance with a carefree spirit, unafraid, not worried about how they looked or what others might have thought of them. They were free!

I had been alive for about 18 years and I had never seen my father do such a thing. I had no reason to expect it. But in that moment, he taught me so much about truly living. At many points in my life since then, I have remembered that amazing, surprising, mysterious moment, and it has inspired me to take chances and just try new things, and to let myself enjoy those new things, even if I was not all that great at them. He helped me learn to be free and enjoy life, but only because he did it.

Imagine if he had tried to just speak to me about the importance of trying new things.

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