Early Grades – Grades 1-3
The Waldorf kindergarten has been a time of building capacities for listening and speaking through storytelling, poetry and the story-based circle activities. The children have developed a profound interest in and respect for nature during these early years and the early grades curriculum builds on the sense of wonder which lives so vibrantly in the young child. From this connection to the natural world evolve the practical activities of the younger grades – work with sheep’s wool to knit and crochet; gardening and the construction of simple structures; helping to care for the school’s animals and compost. The celebration of the seasons through daily observation and a cycle of annual festivals creates images for artwork, music, drama and storytelling, imbuing each activity with an interconnectedness which imparts to the child a sense of meaning and purpose.
For the first part of each morning, students actively engage in circle work, a hallmark of Waldorf education in the early grades: energetic warm-ups, dances, music, verses, games, clapping and counting games, finger plays. These activities are carefully chosen to improve balance, rhythm, coordination and left-right brain integration, help build the class as a community, and strengthen the children’s ability to follow directions.
The ancient tradition of storytelling forms the foundation of the Waldorf curriculum. The story content meets the developmental needs of the children at each stage of their childhood and offers lifelong support for social, intellectual and emotional growth. The teacher’s daily storytelling enhances the child’s listening comprehension, concentration, vocabulary, and feeling for literature and well-spoken language. Helping to retell the previous day’s story strengthens the child’s own speaking skills, sense of organization and sequence, as well as memory. From the first day of first grade, the class joins together to enjoy poetry which continues through the grades, building capacities for clear speech, confident delivery and a love for the beauty of language – be it English or a foreign language.
“I am struck by the fact that the more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think that the same is true of human beings. We do not wish to see children precocious, making great strides in their early years like sprouts, producing a soft and perishable timber, but better if they expand slowly at first, as if contending with difficulties, and so are solidified and perfected. Such trees continue to expand with nearly equal rapidity to extreme old age.”
- Henry David Thoreau
Children enter their first grade classroom with an enthusiastic receptivity for all that their teachers bring. This is the year when fairy tales and nature stories told one day become the themes for the next day’s drawings and out of those drawings emerge the letters. This approach underscores the human connection to the letters we use – each letter is derived from beings and objects around us. (E.g. the letter “F” mimics the shape of a fish, “B” is the bear.) Thus is the connection between letter and sound made.
Into the class’s shared imagination enter the four counting characters – plus, minus, times and divide – who, through their antics and special gifts, inspire the children to delve into the world of numbers. Aided by these four new friends as well as their own bags of counting stones, the children build a lasting relationship to the world of numbers which carries them through the grades. Attention to rhythmic counting gradually leads to counting by 2s, 5s, and 10s and a valuable kinesthetic connection to arithmetic emerges.
Songs are used throughout the day in the early grades, to signal transitions, or a new activity, to set a mood for a special event, or to accompany a game or dance. First graders learn to play the pentatonic flute, following the teacher’s fingering and by ear.
Children make a great leap from first to second grade, both individually and as a group. They are intrigued by the mischievous behavior of the animals in the fables and inspired by the good intentions of the saints, taking great pride in the following day’s drawings and written stories and delighting in spontaneous classroom fable-based skits. The increasingly confident and capable second graders contribute to the class’s written work, begin to write individually from their own experiences, and enjoy newly acquired reading skills.
Second graders meet Mr. Place Value who organizes the royal counting house by devising rooms for ones, tens, hundreds and thousands. Soon the children are learning to “borrow” and “carry” and to apply these new concepts to real-life situations. Rhythmic clapping games assist with learning the times tables, from 1 through 12; a process that will continue into fourth grade.
Sculpting with beeswax or clay, watercolor painting, knitting and crochet are all favorite activities for the second grader who thrives on the creation of beautiful and useful projects, activities which also enhance concentration and manual dexterity.
As the magical years of childhood give way to the emergence of the child’s place in the world as an individual, the Waldorf curriculum provides a wealth of practical experiences, focusing on building, farming, measurement and food preparation. Creating their own garden, building simple structures, and helping to harvest and process apples from the school’s orchards all strengthen self-reliance and the growing ability to work as a part of a community towards shared goals.
Old Testament stories inspire much of the storytelling, artistic and dramatic work of the third grader. This year marks the advent of individually written compositions and, thanks to their many hands-on experiences; the children have a rich tapestry from which to draw. The study of grammar begins and cursive writing now enhances their handwriting.
The practical approach of the third grade curriculum is the ongoing theme for math this year. Measuring is tied to all things practical: linear, time, weight, volume. As with so much of the Waldorf approach, measuring begins with the children themselves as we use hand, span, foot, cubit and pace as our first tools before making individual rulers.
With their growing ability to individualize, third graders begin to play rounds on their recorders, to read and write music, and to take on more tasks around the school, for they recognize that they are no longer little children but capable members of the school and their contributions are valued!