Why Waldorf Works
Updated: Mar 7, 2021
Let's talk about neuroscience. The amazing thing about Rudolf Steiner is that when he founded Waldorf education over 100 years ago he didn't have MRI imaging, nor 100 years of data to support why his theory would (and does) work. He just had a hunch and excellent oration skills to convince the employees of Waldorf Astoria Cigarette Factory in Stuttgart, Germany that their children would benefit from his methodology. But that history is for another blog post.
What remains true about the Waldorf method is that it works. Dr. Reggie Melrose says it best, so I'll let her do the talking. Here are some excerpts from her article, "Why Waldorf Works: From a Neuroscientific Perspective":
"Most school systems today want children to run before they can crawl. ... [However] every single stage of development is essential to the next, laying a neural foundation to support what is to come. Our children need ample time and practice to “marinate in their mastery,” of one skill or another, at each and every juncture of their development. This is not happening in enough schools across the country today, but it is happening at Waldorf.
The Importance of Play
Numerous studies have shown that play at every stage of development improves IQ, social-emotional functioning, learning, and academic performance. The findings of several studies conducted over a 4 year period found that spending one-third of the school day in physical education, art, and music improved not only physical fitness, but attitudes toward learning, and test scores, according to Dr. Elkind. Furthermore, when the performance of children who attended academic pre-schools was compared to the performance of children who attended play-oriented preschools, the results showed no advantage in reading and math achievement for the “academic children,” but did show that they had higher levels of test anxiety, were less creative, and had more negative attitudes toward school than did the “play children.” This is precisely the point we are missing in today’s achievement-driven culture. We have bought into a myth in education that “more equals more.” A formula of more time spent on academics, starting earlier in development, with more homework, is not increasing the output of our children. It’s decreasing it! Cutting time out for the arts, physical activity, and time in nature, so our children can spend more time reading, writing, and doing arithmetic is not the answer. It is the culprit. ... more doesn’t equal more, it equals shutdown.
The brain functions its best only when in an optimum state of arousal.
Our children cannot attend, listen, process information, retain, or perform well when in an either under- or over-aroused state. Overwhelm is what causes these states. When before the brain is ready children are exposed to and required to participate in academics, media, technology, and organized play, such as team sports, the premature and often prolonged stress they experience can eventually shut the system down. Teachers all over the United States and Canada tell me they see “it” by the beginning of third grade. In far too many of their students, they say “the light has gone out.” The joy, curiosity, and wonder that are essential to the learning process are already dulled by too much of one thing and not another. Whereas the mainstream educational system today focuses almost exclusively on academics ... Waldorf educators focus more on the whole brain... Steiner could only have observed and therefore hypothesized that this keeps our children in the optimum zone of arousal where all of learning and adaptive behavior are possible. With current scientific findings, we now know he was right.
Now that we’ve learned about the importance of holism and play to the learning process, let us consider the invaluable role of nature.
What does nature have to do with it?
A whole lot, according to the neuroscience: nothing stimulates and resonates with the brain more powerfully, and therefore, nothing keeps us in the optimum zone of arousal better than nature. Remember, the optimum zone of arousal, when anxiety is neither too high nor too low, is the only physiological state within which all of learning and adaptive behavior is possible. Nature beautifully promotes that state. According to years of research recently compiled by Dr. Eeva Karjalainen, natural green settings reduce stress, improve mood, reduce anger and aggression, increase overall happiness, and even strengthen our immune system. Nature is one critical antidote to the increases in stress, overwhelm, burnout, and dropout we are witnessing in the educational system today. Lack of exposure to nature causes such a detrimental state to the brain, and is so pervasive today we have a name for it: “Nature Deficit Disorder.” Dr. Karjalainen reports that “after stressful or concentration-demanding situations,” we do not recover nearly as well in urban settings as we do in natural ones. When we experience nature, our blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and level of stress hormones all decrease faster than when we are in urban settings. In children in particular, we know that ADHD symptoms are reduced when they are given the opportunity to play in green settings."
Hollie McLachlan, M.Ed. has been caring for and educating children in the private and public sectors since 2002. She is the founder and co-owner of Chickadee Infant and Toddler Care.