First Grade is often compared to as a paradise, a happy time full of those comforting surroundings created by their teacher and parents in order to hold them within a protected environment from which to begin their great journey toward adulthood. The task of the First Grade teacher is to help the children make the transition from play to work in an imaginative and artistic way. The children initially learn by imitating the teacher. It is from this womb-like environment that the very first introductions to the alphabet and numbers can imaginatively be presented to the child’s picture oriented consciousness, laying the groundwork for the abstract intelligence that will develop over time. The Waldorf curriculum endeavours to nurture the educational experience of children, to foster a love of learning, and the self-worth that comes from success in one’s individual achievement.
In this year the children are led to their first experiences of forms, sounds, and sequencing of letters and numerals by using pictures, rhymes, and stories. These are recognized and memorized through lots of practice involving movement, verses, drawing, and writing. In this year the children learn reverential respect for their classroom environment and toward their teacher that forms the basis for all of their subsequent learning experiences.
The presentation of Fairy Tales allows the underlying forces found within the archetypal imagery of these stories to awaken within the students—founding within them potential capacities for meeting our varied human experiences and challenges. One example of archetypal imagery can be seen in stories where a king is present, representing to each individual their own spiritual essence—their own sovereign I, or ego. Nature stories give to the children an imaginative presentation for how nature works. The Nature Stories tend to be modern creations, while the Fairy Tales are traditional renderings of a once worldwide cultural phenomena.
Before there can be reading there must exist some form of visual representation, a picture that expresses what otherwise would be told by word of mouth. So we begin with the story, the Fairy Tales, and from these form pictures, the more abstract letterforms can be seen to emerge from and lead to the first experiences the children have of writing and reading. In time, letter formation, pronunciation, and identification lead to the initial spelling of simple words, sight recognition, and phonetic family work, to further the student’s initial spelling and reading abilities.
An introduction to numerals, beginning with Roman numerals (in that they are more intuitively obvious: I, II, III, IIII, V, etc.) and comparing them with our modern Arabic numerals forms the basis of leading into a qualitative and imaginative presentation of the four processes
Much of what is done in the second-grade year builds upon the groundwork laid in the first grade, increasing the repertoire of knowledge and skills developed in the previous year. The second grader’s learning through imitation is still prevalent and their thinking is still very pictorial. Thus the teacher continues to present all lessons through story, images and activity. However, a new element in the second grader’s awareness comes forth; their experience of the world as a wholeness gives way to an inner awareness of duality in the world. Contrasts, such as saintliness and mischievousness begin to be noticed as well as exhibited by the second-grade student. For this reason, teachers work with the stories of the Saints as well as animal Fables.
The third grade is often called the turning point of childhood. The eight-year-old is going through a change that is particularly profound. Rudolf Steiner describes how the nine-year-old experiences, at a spiritual level, what the three-year-old experienced when first using the word “I”. Before the age of nine, the major part of the child’s being is not yet incarnated, and instead, it lives within everything and everyone they perceive. They feel inwardly related to everything and can identify fully with almost anything. Now, however, an experience arises of self as something independent of everything else. Now the child may suddenly feel very insecure; their relationship with nature, with eternity, with others, and with themselves, has to be re-established. Life certainly takes on quite a different quality. Just as fairy tales in the first grade, and fables and legends in the second grade, nourished children, so stories of the Old Testament form the treasury of sustenance for this year. With these stories comes an introduction to history. These powerful stories closely parallel the child’s own experiences. He/she has left behind the “paradise” of early childhood and is becoming more aware of good and evil. Through the story of the casting out of Adam and Eve from Paradise, comes the grappling with the earth — farming, gardening, housing and clothing. Through an understanding of the role of the farmer, the children are led to the interrelationships of the Four Kingdoms of Nature as they work together in harmony. Shelters of animals and humans, emphasising different times and climates, give the children an understanding of man’s creativity and his use of tools and materials. The practical arts of the home are given attention.
Third graders work on their reading, both silently and aloud, and writing, taking great joy in the stories they write themselves in their main lesson books. Grammar study takes place with active involvement as the children act out doing words, naming words, and describing words. This grammar study is carried into other lessons. Math becomes quite practical, too; telling time, making change with money, measurement in cooking or in building all have their place. Math is very much a tool dealing with life.
In the fourth grade, that blanket of young childhood has been tossed aside, and the child feels very separate from any of the security and comforts that previously were supportive. This is a time to look around and see how one stands in relationship to that which is near and to find security and uprightness through that relationship.
The fourth grader is at odds with the world. Questions take on a personal twist: “How do you know?” There is an earnestness stemming from a new awareness of just what they are up against in the world. Therefore, every possible opportunity is given to meet these oppositions in quite unexpected ways, ways in which the child can have the experience of crossing, and at the same time be led towards a wholesome resolution. The theme of separateness is further reflected in the curriculum with the study of fractions. They are introduced with concrete objects to demonstrate truths before forming mental concepts.
Throughout the year we hear and read stories of heroes. The hero emerges as someone to look up to, emulate, laugh at, respect. There may still be the miraculous feats, and yet the human qualities, the emotions, the struggles, and the confrontations are emphasized; the children understand more than anyone else their plight to slay the dragon, to woo the maiden, to succeed in the three tasks.
Geography, local history, Norse mythology, grammar, composition writing, and a comparative study of the human being and animals are also introduced. In composition, the simple narration of the child’s own real experience begins, and work in grammar continues.
Fifth grade is referred to as the “golden year” because students at this age are enthusiastic about learning, eager for new challenges and capable of hard work and creativity. A sense of self-consciousness emerges, yet they remain confident and harmonious with their surroundings. They develop an ordered sense of space and time and hold a deeper understanding of personal responsibility and the ethics of right and wrong.
Physically the 11-year-old reflects this inner feeling of harmony and balance. They have an ease and grace in their movement that is well co-ordinated and controlled. They grow in length and strength. Their bodies are well proportioned, breathing and heart rhythms are regular. It is during these middle years that the feeling life of the child develops and the lessons are therefore imbued with arts and imagination. During the ‘nine-year transformation’ during the previous year, the child experienced the I/Thou relationship with the world for the first time – self and other, subject and object. During this tenth/eleventh year, this awareness of ‘self’ strengthens. The children must take hold of this new emerging ego, control it and steer it. Alongside this individuation process, a strong group dynamic is also created within the class. In the strong feeling life, which characterises children at this age, the foundation for interest in and enthusiasm for one’s work, the world and others is laid and this is where the deepest human values are determined.
Strong and vivid pictures of ancient histories and mythologies are presented. What was the inspiration and impetus of their civilising forces? At this age, rhythmical memory is at its strongest. Out of this growing memory, the sense of time develops. Memory enables one to look back and to plan the future. The transition from myth to history is made: a place in the stream of time develops for each child. While history streams inwards towards the here and now, geography streams outwards from the immediate environment. The various regions and landscapes of South Africa are described, how climatic conditions have affected vegetation, human and animal migrations, populations, industries, farming and so on. Important mountains, rivers, oceans and communication routes are studied. Map drawing is extended, models are built and use is made of wall maps and atlases.
In Natural Sciences, the soul finds expression in the beauty of form, gesture and colour in the Plant Kingdom. The Grade 5 child has a lively interest in, and curiosity about, the outer, living world. Lessons are imbued with liveliness and feeling, rather than being a presentation of dry, academic facts.
In Grade 4, when the children experience the ‘nine-year transformation’, the corresponding approach in Maths was that the ‘whole’ can be broken up into parts or fractions. In Grade 5, decimal fractions are introduced and the connections between decimal and common fractions made. The Grade 5s practice mental arithmetic constantly, rhythmically and with movement. They also work with the four operations while working with place value.
The children are now busy leaving the golden years of childhood behind them. They are coming out of a period of balance, ‘The Heart of Childhood’, into a phase of change. There is often a sense of sadness as they look back to the years of innocence and play as well as a feeling of insecurity as they look ahead to the years of adolescence. What does life have in store for them? They begin to imagine all kinds of possibilities. Excitement and growing anticipation also take hold of the children as they look at the world and at their friends with new eyes. Their intellectual capacities are growing and they long to understand how everything works and how everything is connected. Cause and effect are among the keynotes of Grade 6. The children not only inquire about causes but now actively create them in order to gauge the effects! This happens in social relationships as well.
The 12-year-old is truly standing on the edge, in a kind of no-mans-land, on the one side lies childhood, to which they no longer fully belong, and, on the other side lies that of youth, which they are also not yet privy to. Further changes happen within the child’s mind and understanding. A new awareness of themselves is coupled with a new awareness of the world around them. This growing orientation towards the outside world brings with it a need to understand causal relationships. The curriculum for Grade 6 is tailor-made to suit the needs of the 11-12-year-old. The children’s dawning intellectual capacities are directed towards observation of the natural scientific world. For the first time, the structure of the earth is studied. This is literally the foundation on which we walk and which we have always taken for granted.
Although the growing child longs to understand the world, he/she still yearns for a creative approach to facts and figures.
And this is exactly what we strive to do. One works very much with, and through, the senses as well. In the Main Lesson on ‘Heat, Light and Sound’ they observe common everyday phenomena and bring to awareness what they have actually seen. This brings about a certain security and confidence in the world and therefore in themselves. Amongst new Maths topics are a percentage and business-related study. This is often made very practical indeed and holds many children’s attention easily.
The overall aim is to renew and strengthen the children’s connection with the world, in which they will live and work, as well as to renew and strengthen their social relationships in a healthy and respectful manner.
This is the final year of Primary School and the year in which the children turn thirteen. Now the children stand on the cusp of adolescence. It is a time of exploration, searching and discovery as they come into a new relationship with the world; a time of rapid growth and many changes as their soul life erupts into the world outside them. They are beginning to experience all the turmoil and excitement, questioning and wonder that this age brings. It can be a disorientating time as they turn their backs on the balance of Grades 5 and 6 and look forward towards the world of adolescence and adulthood that lies before them. This future appears full of possibility as well as uncertainty, and this duality is lived out loudly and exuberantly as they try to balance and grapple with the many confusing moments this gives rise to.
The children are developing the capacity to think critically and judgmentally. Now they accept with less certainty and show the need to question their authority figures (parents and teachers), demanding a right to be heard and for their ideas to be taken seriously. They display an appetite for knowledge of the world, of how and why things happen the way they do. Simultaneously, they turn inward, becoming more introspective and self-centred, showing the early promptings of inner self-reflection. Together with a yearning for independence and great bursts of energy, there is a great need for the support of their peers as well as a desire for solitude and subdued introspection.
The Curriculum and the teacher offer challenges and opportunities that harness the growing curiosity and conceptual thinking of the children in a positive and healthy way. While the children need to increasingly understand the nature of how things work, there is still a yearning for stories and artistic expression. Maintaining this at this difficult time helps sustain the children inwardly and brings heart warmth to the inner tumult that is being experienced. The curriculum of this year guides them in their conversation with what lives out in the world: through scientific observation and discovery in physics and chemistry; through a nascent understanding that history is shaped by human beings, that there is a past that can be thought about and understood and a future that can be sensed and felt. It provides opportunities for the children to develop their capacity to hear their inner speech and hidden words.
In the study of the natural world, the Curriculum moves from the plant world and the mineral world to the world of the seas’ depths and the heavens’ heights. We look beyond our borders to the rest of the world to understand the connection between peoples and their environments. We follow the experiences and routes of the explorers and navigators of old. We learn about the new discoveries of the Renaissance: the telescope, scientific thinking, perspective drawing, the emergence of individual thinking and consciousness as long-held views of faith come under scrutiny. We learn to uncover not just the beauty but the form construction of geometric shapes. We journey inwards into the workings of the body and the poetry of the soul.
- Compiled by Bonnie
- Content gathered from various Waldorf sources
- Further interesting read on Waldorf Education’s approach here