(Note that I am a Waldorf newbie, not a true blue anthroposophist nor a Waldorf nurturer. My views may be totally off so please do not judge/crucify the Waldorf community for what I say here... and those who know better can freely, but gently, correct what I say... but so far, this is what I know)
This post is arising from the all-too common phenomenon/trend nowadays of teaching very young kids to read. The earlier the better, it seems. I started with the same notion, teaching my son the alphabet and phonetic sounds before he was 2. But then I heard, from homeschooling circles, of the hurried child and stopped... and at almost 5, Yakee still doesn't know how to read.
Now, in the usual Waldorf curriculum, reading and writing are not taught till a child is 7 years old, at Grade 1. Mastery isn't expected till age 9 or 10 and is most definitely not exacted. The philosophy behind that has much to do on human development. A child age 0-7 has to grow its body first. Part of growing the body means moving it, not sitting still. The eyes are also believed to only really mature at age 10, so straining to read (as one is wont to do when they're exerting effort to remember an association or understand meaning/context) just won't do. It just won't do.
The Steiner way also believes that the eyes are best used to enjoy the world, see the beauty of nature, observe texture, colors... not strain at print. Plus, books are flat.
And Waldorf education is big on imagination... a child who is given loads of storybooks with pictures won't have to imagine anymore. The images are fed them. In a way, it's sorta like TV. Instead of being able to see in her mind a princess in her likeness (or her mom's, or her friend's), a girl will just see the princess image in the book and forever associate that image with that story. The image won't grow with the child, it won't change as the child changes.
But wait... Waldorf is big on storytelling, isn't it? Yes. Storytelling. Not story reading. Seldom reading from a book (and usually, only those without much pictures). We use puppets, or doll cloths or moving sotrybooks... all of which are made and generally unfinished. Again, we're big on imagination. And making puppets/using moving storybooks help make the stories alive for a child because for one, they move along with the story... for another, they are made with intention. In Waldorf education, it's the intention that is more important than the story. It is why fairy tales are great for a child's psyche, because it's not really about a wolf eating a grandma or a princess finding a prince. There are deeper meanings to these that are lost when a young child just reads them off a book (or watches them as cartoon).
(And because the puppets used are unfinished, there is no risk in turning a child away from the story down consumerism and materialism... because they will not want to have the pillow/chair/dress with the princess they read about. But yes, they will pretend to be the sun, the tree, the frog, the giant they were told about)
Then, there's the language development that gets lost when a child starts reading on her own. Young children do not really hear us when we talk to them, or sings songs to them, or tell them stories... at least, not in the way we adults hear. But their vocal chords vibrate along as they listen to us, and that is how language develops in them. That is how they come to memorize and internalize songs and stories. Because they heard it live from us, it becomes alive in them. This isn't exactly weird/new phenomena... how else did you grow up treasuring stories told by your parents about your own childhood? And how do you think culture and traditions were handed down through generations back when books were not as easily had?
And yes, we have to repeat stories/rhymes many times... because we want it internalized. It may sound boring for some that a story in a usual Waldorf kindergarten is told for many weeks because there are schools that take pride in reading a different story each day/week to a child... and yet how many children remember all those stories read to them? Where is the meaning when a story doesn't become alive in a child?
And... storytelling is an experience in a Waldorf Kindergarten. There's usually the scent of the beeswax candle, the song that calls the child that settles him down to listen, there's the texture of fabric, the tenor of a teacher's (or parent's) voice. The story is alive. I'm being redundant here but it is alive... something that requires complete concentration from the storyteller. Story reading, unless you're a professional or it's a new story... doesn't require the same effort.
Storytelling the way we do it also follows the seasons and the festivals. It helps make a child part of a rythm... of a bigger picture, a major dance, a natural unfolding that is happening as it should... that there is a flow of seasons and that we are where we should be. That is lost when a child reads a Christmas story in March, because he can, or when they read about snow while living in a tropical climate. If not lost, it at least breeds disconnect.
Waldorf also discourages anything that tries to replace human interaction, especially for the very young. There really is not much human interaction when a child reads to himself. Plus, a young child should be engaged in the world, not reading about it. Instead of reading about busy spiders, they are better off observing one. Instead of reading about princesses trapped in castles, they should be pretending to be one and building their own forts. They should be moving, jumping, exploring, socializing.
There is also this truth: reading is a skill that, once learned, is hard to unlearn. And with the various media out there, how do you protect your child from words like 'rape' or 'murder'? Or the naughty stuff on statement tees in malls? Once they start reading, they aren't dependent on you anymore for information. And like it or not, they will be subject to any printed text. Any.
To most parents, that must seem liberating... to most parents, they must see it as a child coming into his own. And well, the Waldorf community has a different view of how independent a child should be... but basically, we believe that very young children do not yet have enough life experience to process a lot of things in this world well. Because they are children.
And then there is this curious thing about reading... which is somehow related to all the things I have already said.
Reading is entertaining. It allows you to go places and be different people and live different lives... which is why I read so much as a child. It provided me with escape and adventure. Unfortunately, it also set me up with unrealistic expectations... because everything seemed to be more romantic, fun, etc in books. And because the libraries I went to had a great selection of donated textbooks from the US, I grew up reading about pioneers and prairies instead of farmers and fishermen. Imagine the disconnect I feel about our culture, our literature now.
There is nothing wrong in reading per se. It's definitely one of God's more magical gifts to us. But for the very young child, it just might do more harm than good. They have to be actively engaged with the world they are in and with people first, not passively reading about them. They have to create their own stories first, and just play in earnest.
Waldorf is not anti-books nor anti-reading. The readings required in a typical Waldorf curriculum, if you check it, taps world literature and is far richer and more extensive than the ones required in typical schools. But Waldorf believes that for the very young child, books are generally not age-appropriate... there is a time for them, and it's not in the first 7 years.
Childhood is not the time for hard facts and logical thinking and what's on the news.
It's the time for exploring using the, and developing the, senses (Steiner lists twelve!).
It's the time for modelling behavior and mastering the body.
It's the time for play, not studying.
It's the time for wonder and creativity, magic and make-believe.
It's the time for innocence and only the good.
Only the good.
(all this has to do with the kingdom of childhood, something I hope I can blog about)
And childhood is but a short time when you compare it to the rest of a person's lifetime spent in adulthood.
All that being said... where are we as a family?
We're in transition.
The habit of story reading has been ingrained in Yakee ever since he was a baby. It's always two books before bedtime. But I have also made up stories for him ever since, usually told in the dark. I have also used the moving storybooks I painted often enough. I have procrastinated making puppets though, so I have not moved onto using story tables. But I have been telling him stories. And reading to him, and not off picture storybooks.
At one point, he asked to learn how to read already... and I failed to honor that request. I'm not quite sure I regret it though I take it as a sign that sooner or later, he will demand to be taught. And I have made the decision that I will not refuse him, just that I won't offer too.
I hope, in this way, I have still preserved the best of him.
I am not saying, too, that the Waldorf way is the RIGHT way, or should be the only way. And I certainly don't mean little ones who read early are without imagination or are damaged.
I just attempted to give an idea of where we're coming from.