It would be easy to think of Waldorf Education as "that kind of schooling that is artsy. They do a lot of arts." While this is true, it does not encompass the truth. It merely looks at Waldorf Education superficially. So, let's look at why the arts are so much a part of this educational stream and then we can consider how clay modeling fits within that context.
The Ancient Greeks used many different artistic disciplines in their educational systems. Even their "sports" events were carried out with a tremendous emphasis on the pure artistic form of movement. They felt a deep conviction for the arts as an educational tool for creating well-rounded human beings. This is very similar to how Waldorf teachers hold the arts today, supported by the many various bodies of research that demonstrate just how powerfully the practice of artistic disciplines exercises the mind of the growing child. This exercise of the mind is critical for the preservation of our neural potential.
Before puberty, the child has an amazing capacity for learning. For example, we know quite clearly that children who start learning a musical instrument in their elementary school years will, with daily practice, learn more quickly and that they will retain musical skills longer than those who take up instruments in older age brackets. This is true because the child's brain has tremendous neural potential. From an evolutionary standpoint, it was critical that human beings learned as many skills as possible before they hit puberty. Once they reached the age of having their own children, or at least being capable of it, they would become part of the adult level of their society and be expected to provide, protect, and teach the younger generations. So, it is within our biological imperative that we are able to learn with incredible efficiency before we can procreate. Once we reach adolescence and beyond, that efficiency is not as great. Also, we lose some of the neural potential as our brains become almost "hard-wired" for repeating the skills we have learned up to that point. On a neurological level, the neural pathways and neural networks that we establish up to that point become myelinated for protection and for efficiency. The more we use a particular network for example, the more those pathways are myelinated. The more a pathway is myelinated, the more efficiently the signals travel along it. This is the neurological science for how our practice of a skill creates greater skill and speed.
Now we can take things a step further. When we practice skills, and when we do so through various artistic processes, we are activating the body and the mind on many more levels all at once. In other words, the arts are the most efficient way to engage the brain and preserve our neural potential. Nothing lights us up more than engaging in artistic processes. When we combine these artistic processes with other lessons, we are learning as efficiently as possible. This is why some people can still remember an ad jingle today from their childhood maybe 50 years ago. The little musical jingle was the effective artistic vehicle for helping us deeply learn that message about a cat food, a type of coffee, or a certain car! Advertising agencies know very well how effectively this works.
So, engaging in the arts helps us learn and develop our neural potential. And when we consider the arts, we can see how differently each one engages the human being. There are several kinds: painting and drawing, sculpting, modeling, poetry, music, song, dance, movement, and drama.
For this article we will look at modeling, such as the modeling done with clay. Unlike most of the other forms of art listed above, clay modeling works with a medium in three dimensions. We take a moldable substance and work to bring our image into its shape. So, we must have in image in mind when we start. Then we must engage in a "conversation" with the medium, the clay. There are certain things that the clay will do and certain things that it will not do. We engage our will and feeling forces throughout the process to bring our vision to reality within the clay. All the while, we are stimulating our sight and touch senses tremendously. We are working with our fine motor skills intensively. Finally, as we bring our form to completion, we must exercise that elusive sense of beauty. Art is not about right or wrong. It is about beauty, harmony, balance, purity, etc. These are senses that we must develop for ourselves. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then the practice of arts is how we develop our beholding eyes.
In these ways, clay modeling is quite unique and it exercises the human beings faculties in many unique ways. This support learning by strengthening and expanding the developing neural potential with the human brain. These neural networks are then available to us for processing, thinking, problem-solving, innovating, etc in the future. With a greater, more well-rounded trove of neural circuitry available to the human being, the more adaptive, creative, insightful, and efficient that person can be, in any setting, in any profession, and in any situation. These qualities, perhaps now more than ever, are important for us today!