One of the weird kicks and giggles I like is morphing the word Waldorf–Waldorfish, Waldorfer, Waldorfing, Waldorfy, etc. I take, from my past few years on Waldorf internet fora, that I am not alone in this endeavor. Go to any Waldorf chatboard and you are bound to find a thread with the title, “How can I make my home more Waldorfy?”. I am rather nostalgic when I remember the feeling when I was new to Waldorf and discovered that this was such a versatle word. Oddly enough, “Waldorf” as a term itself merely comes from the name of the cigarette factory in which Steiner set up his first school following his pedagogy. I was rather bummed when I found this out, as it somehow took part of the mystery out of the term “Waldorf,” which taken on its own even sounds like gnomes and toadstools to me.
Anyway, on to Waldorfing the giftie … Giftedness is always something that must be discussed with caution because the very nature of the word can put people on the defensive (“Of course my child is gifted! What child isn’t?!”). I’m just going to avoid that discussion. I’ll just figure that if you are reading this and you think your child is gifted then you know best. Our child, age 5, has fit the gifted label since birth and this Fall we are looking to more formalize our Waldorf homeschooling journey. So, can giftedness and Waldorf coincide?
I think homeschooling is the best answer to that, but I don’t even pretend to be unbiased in this regard. I think under almost all circumstances homeschooling is a better way of education, even Waldorf education with all of its highly-trained teachers, and this is especially true when you are trying to meet a child’s individual needs, in this case “giftedness”. One of the reasons I became interested in Waldorf in the first place was in response to Cecily’s giftedness. I have witnessed too many gifted kids and adults who, while being intellectually brilliant, seem mismatched in other personal and practical skills. I did not want this for her. My educational goals for her are really three-fold: To maintain a natural curiosity and reverence for life, to live a life of spiritual purpose and service, and to develop all necessary practical skills for living a fulfilling and enriched adult life. Waldorf seemed a beautiful pedagogical method that recognized the spiritual and practical nature of life alongside academics. I don’t want our homeschooling journey to be a giant checklist of facts to be memorized. So, with these lofty ideals, how is a parent to proceed?
Now, my child is only facing kindergarten this year, so I very well may sing a different tune on down the road, but where I see us headed is starting out on a more traditional Waldorf path and then diverging from the letter of Waldorf pedagogy while maintaining its spirit of combining hand, heart, and head knowledge. In other words, keeping learning in 3 dimensions and emotionally applicable at all times. I think Waldorf is a beautiful and deep way to live during the early years especially (I would say 9 and under are the most critical). I think at this point children need to be led by an authority into knowing which paths of knowledge and purposeful work are useful. As Cecily gets older I see myself following a more Classically-minded style and possibly ending on an unschooling path, where my presence is no longer required to instruct but merely to facilitate and encourage her interests, which I hope will retain somewhat a balance between intellectual and practical skills. But since we’re still in the early years, that’s where I will focus.
In my last post I discussed what my plans are for our kindergarten year, and I said that I wanted it to be rich with experiences not so much with academics. In our home, academics have always been an unschooled part of Cecily’s life–she’s been free to pick up whatever she wants at whatever time she wants. We have never set out to “teach” her the ABCs or to count or fractions, and just like we never purposefully taught her to walk or talk, she absorbed her surroundings and is at least on par if not ahead in traditional academics. And unlike many Waldorf moms, her precocity doesn’t fill me with either embarrassment or worry. (You should have seen the face on the Waldorf teacher at our local Waldorf spring fair last year when Cecily introduced herself by spelling her name, which, to my mind was only practical because the name “Cecily” is rather unusual and most people need to have it spelled before they are sure of the pronunciation.) Until grade 3 or 4, I am thinking we will stick to a traditional Waldorf curriculum and continuing our current faith in unschooling to meet her needs. One of the best pieces of advice I have ever gotten in this regard is to not necessarily go faster with academics but deeper. It is that depth and richness that makes an impression, which is why our focus next year really isn’t on the ABCs of kindergarten but on going ever deeper into the rhythms of life and of the seasons. It is that time to focus on crafting and handwork and practical care of the home. Teaching academics can wait for a later time as, in the parlance of that wonderful mothering poem, “I’m rockin’ my baby and babies don’t keep!,” is as true a statement as I’ve ever heard. I don’t think I will ever regret taking things slowly in the beginning–playing outside for hours, catching lightning bugs, tending our garden, making playdough–these are memories that will sink deep. I actually don’t care a flying fruitfly if she has her addition facts down pat at this age. I just really don’t. She may already … I’m not sure … but it just isn’t something I’m going to focus on in the precious time we have right now. I do love this deep respect Waldorf has for preserving childhood. However, if she were really pushing for more academics in ways that I couldn’t meet through any other means, then that’s where we’d be.
I suppose, in the end, my advice to raising a gifted child in a Waldorf environment is to 1) Not let Steiner be the end all or be all of your logic (how many times have I heard Steiner quoted as if he were God himself handing down the Law from on high!) and thus freeing yourself from the guilt that comes with having a child who is wired differently than the average, 2) Instead of attempting to go faster or speed up knowledge acquisition, go more in-depth if possible–see how you can make this experience more 3-dimensional and multisensory, and 3) Be open to diverging from Waldorf pedagogy when you sense that is what your child needs. Your child’s personal needs are the trump card. Just as my child has no interest in her handmade Waldorf doll I paid $120 for (*sigh*) sometimes our children will not fit the Waldorf standard mold, and it is important to respect that. Endless Lego play is really not inferior to endless gnome play, regardless of how some Waldorf instructors feel (this hearkens back to an essay in the book “What is a Waldorf Kindergarten?” that I have never quite recovered from). When it comes to Waldorf, separating the wheat from the chaff and not talking in circles by always coming back to what Steiner said 100 years ago is the first step in making peace with raising a gifted child in a Waldorf path. As the parent, you, not Steiner, call the shots, and by putting Steiner in his place you can take the good and leave the rest. There is a wonderful freedom in that, a freedom to enjoy the “gift” of the special child you have been given.