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Understanding the Waldorf Main Lesson: Review

Updated: May 25, 2023

This is the third part of a series of articles dedicated to exploring the Waldorf main lesson as a whole and its four primary component parts. In the last newsletter, we looked to the morning "circle" or rhythmic work.

As a reminder, there are four primary parts of the main lesson:

  • The Circle/Rhythmic Movement

  • Review

  • New-Do

  • Story

Here is a little excerpt from the first article in this series:

"...(T)he Review portion of the main lesson is about how we reawaken things. That "how" is all about artistic processes. When we engage creatively, we are processing things on multiple levels. For instance, let's say I told a second grade student or class the story of "The Shepherd Who Cried Wolf". On the next day, I could ask: "So, who can tell me what you remember about the story we heard yesterday?" This is, technically, a review, but it is a rather dreary way to do it. On the other hand, I can perform a little skit with the student(s) thus engaging the child's involvement in recreating the story. We could not only put the story in movement but also create dialogue together. In this way, the child is not only "recalling" the story. Instead, the child is recreating it, processing so many aspects beyond just what I said the day before. The skit process becomes an exciting, engaging, real-time experience of what lived the day before in the child's imagination."

As Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf Education, would emphasize so often, there are health-giving rhythms in the natural world around us and within us. One of the primary rhythms is that of waking and sleeping. In fact, Steiner spoke of a trinity that included dreaming as well. This three-part rhythm is something that we can utilize for the healthy growth, development, and learning of children in our care, both as their parents as well as their teachers, coaches, mentors, etc. To put it simply, everything we bring to them will have a three-part life cycle. Let's say we are teaching them a math lesson. On a given day, we show them (in a lively, wakeful way) how to add with carrying, let's say. Let us assume that we present this lesson in an imaginative, engaging way that meets the student really well. So, the lesson is awake now within the child. The child "gets it" right away and is able to practice addition with carrying immediately. Then, the day goes on. The math lesson fades from consciousness. It "goes to sleep". This is natural. We want it to go to sleep. And then, during sleep, a mysterious process happens. We dream.

By "dream" we must be careful to remain open in our considerations. Just as we are relating a lesson to having a "life" of "waking, sleeping, and dreaming", we know that these things can be understood on multiple levels. There is the literal process of dreaming and then there is the figurative understanding of dreaming.

The literal process of dreaming is, for many people, a very important aspect of living. The dream process can be seen as a soul-language, one that gives us important messages each night (when we take the time to listen and contemplate them). From the Senoi tribe indigenous to Malaysia, to psychologists such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, to the scholar Joseph Campbell, human beings from all kinds of backgrounds have explored and studied the import of dreams. To these people, there is a hidden language that speaks to us, giving human being messages about how to live, how to resolve tensions, how to connect with others, etc. It is not only possible, but a reality of deep conviction for many people that the "dream life" is one that human beings need to learn about and to make more conscious so that we can reap the bounty of this nightly harvest.

Steiner spoke of another level of dreaming. Here is where we can consider "dreaming" in a more figurative sense. This "dream" is the actual life we lead between sleeping and waking. According to Steiner, we ascend each night and merge with our higher selves in the spiritual realms. Only the most awakened or enlightened beings have a memory of this "dream". Most of us do not. Still, according to Steiner, this does not diminish the value of the process. Through this merging process, each human being is able to realign with their destiny, their life's purpose(s). We are not aware of exactly how an apple is digested in our bodies; yet it is still nourishment to us. Just so, the lives we lead between sleeping and waking can have a similar nourishing value even without our consciousness of it.

Steiner urged those adults who work with children to always keep this in mind. At night, the children process all that they have experienced during their waking days. This includes the lessons we adults present to them and in which they participate. Thus, the lessons, the activities, the learning--all of it becomes more potent during the process of sleeping and dreaming. The result of this is that the children awaken the next day with an unconscious potential to learn that previous day's lesson on a much deeper level. So, if we engage the previous day's lesson through a rich and meaningful artistic process, we help them realize the promise of that potential.

The good thing about all of this is that you need not be convinced of the spiritual aspects of this process. On a strictly practical level, you can simply engage in the process of reviewing the previous day's lessons and see that the children have a new relationship to the content. We can see this in ourselves sometimes too. I have often spent an evening wondering about a question, looking for an insight or a new perspective, resigning myself to sleep without feeling any kind of breakthrough. The next morning, I have often arisen with a surprising "A-ha!". The more I trust this possibility, the more I find that it happens. There are numerous old Russian folktales that include the line "Mornings are wiser than evenings," and I believe they were speaking of this experience.

So, let's talk about the artistic processes we can use to meaningfully engage the children in the review process.

There are five artistic processes that we can use, even from early in first grade. Granted, these will look very different in first grade than they will in, say, fourth grade. So I will present a few examples for first-grade-level applications.

Artistic Processes for Enlivening Review

  1. Poetry

  2. Drawing/Painting

  3. Music/Song

  4. Sculptural Modeling

  5. Drama (Skits)


With poetry, we engage the language in an artistic or playful process. It starts with taking a simple poem and having the children change a few words. The "roses are red, violets are blue" poem can become:

The princess did sleep,

For a very long time.

Over the thorns,

The prince did climb.

Obviously, in first grade, this kind of poem would require team-work between the student and the teacher, but it is a way of helping them learn to be playful with language. Rhyming words are fun!

Drawing / Painting

Drawing and painting are similar. It is much easier and efficient to draw rather than to paint for review in a classroom. It is a big process to set up and clean up from painting with 20 children. At home, the use of painting as a review process is more feasible. Either way, we are engaging them in a pictorial process to review the previous day's lessons. So, keeping with the "Sleeping Beauty" theme, the child could draw the princess asleep. Or the drawing could depict the prince encountering the thick hedge of thorn bushes surrounding the castle. In a given story, there are usually several possibilities for what we choose to depict. The important thing is that they are recreating an image from the story, expressing what has hitherto lived in their imaginations.

Music / Song

The use of music as a review process almost always includes the process of poetry. Even in first grade, we can play a simple tune and put words to it. Again, this may require the teacher's help and this is fine. This collaboration is a great way to introduce these various activities. There is no need to think of creating a "perfect song". There is no need to create this kind of pressure on ourselves or on the child. Instead we show them that we are willing to play in different ways. We can take the song of the "Three Blind Mice" and rewrite it playfully.

"The princess sleeps,

The princess sleeps.

Her sleep is deep,

Her sleep is deep.

She sleeps and sleeps for a hundred years!

The brave prince searched when he did hear.

His heart did race when he drew near.

The princess sleeps. "

So you can see that it is just a playful way to engage a bit of the imagination with some language and melody. It does not need to be a self-composed melody until later on. At first we use things that are well-known and we improvise. And the song we create in a review may not be of the quality that we would ever want to sing or play it again. That's okay. We are focused on the process not the finished product. It's all about the journey rather than the destination.

Sculptural Modeling

Modeling follows the same idea. We use some clay, beeswax, or plasticine and we model something from the story. Again, we are not attempting anything complex. The artistic process itself is a learning activity. Bringing in aspects of the previous days' lessons just deepens the benefits.

Drama (Skits)

Finally, the dramatic arts really engage the whole human being because we become the medium. There is no pencil to use or clay to mold or instrument to play. Our own bodies and souls become the medium and we act out a little skit or scene from the previous day's lesson. This is not a major production. It does not require a set or any costuming. It only requires a playfulness and a willingness to act in ways that are not quite how we usually act. We attempt to "be" other characters. So, again, they deepen their relationship to the previous day's story if we act out a scene from "Sleeping Beauty". In addition, they learn to try on new and different ways of being. We can "stretch" them in this way. All of these artistic processes stretch the human being, but drama is perhaps the one that helps us attain the greatest overall flexibility. As the children play roles of hero, victim, perpetrator, etc, they gain valuable life experiences without having to try them on in real situations. They become more comfortable with different situations and they grow their own emotional repertoire. Yes, acting might be scary to us as adults, but we need not think of it that way. If we just think of it as playing around, we can have fun with them. And when we are having fun, they follow us. They learn to play, rather than learn to adopt our adult-level fears.

In closing let me be very clear about our intention with these artistic reviews. On a practical level, the regular experience of these artistic activities is great for the soul development of the child. But it is not the end-goal to become more talented or skillful in these artistic areas. Sure, it is nice if children learn to feel a little more comfortable engaging in these art forms as they grow, but we are certainly not training future actors or future sculptors, etc. They will naturally grow and improve in these areas. So do we if we, the adults! However, in the setting of the main lesson review, we are using these modalities because they are the most efficient ways to engage the whole human being in a review of a lesson. By doing so we bring new life to the lesson and create even more potential for the future. So while we may write a poem about Sleeping Beauty, we are not trying to help them memorize the story more fully and we are not trying to make them become better poets. Both of these will occur to some degree, but these are not the focus. We are engaging their imaginations more fully so that the next aspect of the lesson, whether it is language arts or math, is that much richer and more engaging.

For example, we might write "The princess fell fast asleep," in a language arts lesson. When the child writes this sentence, it is a richer experience because the story was not only told to them, but they also engaged in recreating or re-enlivening that imagination through an artistic process. It is a living experience for them, not an abstract exercise with words. Likewise in math. We might add 50 and 50 to reach the sum total of 100 years that she slept in her enchantment. So again it is not a mere numerical exercise with abstract numbers. The child feels a genuine connection to the equation. It has a context. It has meaning.

Naturally there is so much more that needs to be said about how we can use these processes through the grades as effectively as possible. In time, "The Review Process" will become a course for each grade within the Simply Waldorf Courses. We are creating courses as fast as we can right now. At the same time, we are not going to rush anything and thereby sacrifice the quality of our offerings. So, until the review courses are ready, these considerations can still help us have an appreciation for what makes the Waldorf Main Lesson such an effective and engaging way to work with children.

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