Science in Waldorf Homeschooling

Okay, I have to start this post by admitting I love science – I love biology, I love comparative anatomy, I love chemistry, ( I took college-level physics one and two but I was not a physics whiz!).  I have done a whole semester of cadaver dissection for physical therapy school, and enjoyed biochemistry and two or three college-level geology courses.  All of it fascinates me.  My husband is a tech guy, and also fascinated with astronomy, and anything and everything to do with space.

So, as you can imagine, science was an important consideration when choosing a method of homeschool education for our children.  I think Waldorf does a wonderful job in creating bright science graduates.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Waldorf approach to Science, it is very much based upon a Gothean approach. You can read further about this approach by following this link:  http://www.natureinstitute.org/scied/index.htm

This talks a great deal about how science today often requires students to take theories at face value, rather than examining the theories close up and personal and in a hands-on way.  In this day and age, where many educators count “science” as worksheets or reading a book about nature, Waldorf counts science education as DOING.  This is an extremely important point, and an essential foundation for a future scientist.

Barbara Dewey writes this in her introduction to “Science As A Phenomena”:

Western culture has created a powerful wealth of scientific knowledge, based on total objectivity.  The objectivity  means that the observer must be isolated from the observation.  It also means that we must ignore, as scientists, a humanly meaningful occurrence such as “a warm smile.”  To measure it instrumentally would be ludicrous, because all meaning would be drained from it……

In the earlier part of this century, it was truly believed that science would be able to solve all of the  world’s problems.  Anyone who criticized this belief was considered a crank, and yet, as the dawn of the twenty-first century approaches, it becomes very clear that science has created as many problems as it has solved, largely because science, and the legislation based on it, have failed to take into account the human aspect of life on earth.  Our materialistic philosophy causes us to believe that “having” is more important than “being.”

 

Science in Waldorf education is phenomenon-based; it is experiential; it is seeing things whole to part and within the original context of environment.  It shows the relationship of the Earth and all of its glorious inhabitants in relation to man.  True environmental education at its finest.  It is also a very observant and artistic way to sort through natural phenomenon; we would expect nothing less with a Waldorf education.

Waldorf Science throughout the grades looks somewhat like this: (this was taken from the above-mentioned Barbara Dewey booklet and also Donna Simmons’ “From Nature Stories to Natural Science”):

Kindergarten, ages 3 through age 6:  No memorizing of science facts!  Remember, we are still protecting the child up to age seven in order that he or she uses his or her body!  Nature stories, being outside every day, using natural materials, building things, observing the seasons and the physical changes that come with the seasons and the festivals are essential.  Cooking is an activity that brings in much foundation for later chemistry.  The Nature Table is another highlight of seasonal change.  Fingerplays and gardening are also of great importance.

The important thing at this age is to NOT make these experiences a series of factoids.  The facts will come later when the child can understand and make those connections.

Remember, while this approach goes against much of the way we are currently teaching young children in this country, we are NOT doing well at the middle school and high school levels  compared to other nations in high school science scores.  We are not doing well when we look at the number of American graduates, particularly at the PhD levels in science, compared to other nations.  It is time to stop explaining the nitty gritty of photosynthesis to a small child and let them wonder and explore in a hands-on way.  It sets a much better foundation for science education as they mature!

A very important part of Waldorf is training the child’s senses, and that looking at phenomenon from whole to parts; forget the microscopes, telescopes and magnifying glasses for the under seven crowd and help them develop their senses!  The classic text for this is “Sharing Nature with Children” by Joseph Cornell. Check it out; it deserves a place on your bookshelf!

First Grade, for the seven-year-old:  Much of before, nature stories.   many times Form Drawing is drawn from stories about nature; I started my first grade year with my eldest with an entire month of Form Drawing from River life (otter, beavers, turtles).   Some families choose to devote a block to the four seasons by telling stories and doing activities regarding the seasons.  Some families do a block  study of backyard nature.   Some families also work with a weather tree with symbols for each day.  Gardening and cooking are still very important.

Second Grade:  Much like First Grade, although now we may see more direct stories about the animals as tied into the fables.  The fables present human qualities in animal form.  Some families will introduce the fables within a three-day rhythm by talking about the animals in a story form, tying in poetry about the animal or a hands-on experience about the animal the second day, and then the third day telling the fable.  This was a suggestion from Marsha Johnson, and she has a wonderful free file about this in her second grade FILES section on her Yahoo!group.

Other nature resources for second grade include all the wonderful Thornton Burgess stories.  There is also the book “Animal Stories” by Jakob Streit, available through the Rudolf Steiner College Bookstore that some families draw from.

Some families and teachers have also done a block on the Four Elements.  There is a wonderful book entitled, “Earth, Water, Fire, and Air” by Walter Kraul that involves toy-making that would enable the child to feel and experience the Four Elements.

Donna Simmons suggests you could do a Weather Block either in the Second or Third Grade that would include poetry and simple definitions of meteorological terms.  However, don’t forget that much of this would include going outside and feeling the different types of weather, observing the clouds and then drawing and painting.

Other ways children work with nature in second grade includes gardening, cooking, care of pets, outdoor play, festival celebrations, toy-making, observation of the sky  and weather with the naked eye.

Third Grade:  Continued Gardening, a Farming block, Cooking, a Homes/Building block, Clothing and (in the US a block) on Native Americans.

Donna Simmons writes in her book regarding the Farming block:

It is a central theme of Waldorf education that one always starts with the Human Being, and relates what one is studying to the human.  With the Farming block this is obvious – What does the Farmer do?  How does he affect his surroundings?  Waldorf teachers carefully present a picture of the Farmer as the mediator between Heaven and Earth, as one who molds his surroundings but is also subject to them.

Many projects abound with farming – going to work at a real farm or real CSA; tracing the path of fleece to yarn, making butter, picking berries, raising small livestock.  Many Waldorf students read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Farmer Boy” during the Third Grade year.

Fourth Grade:  Man and Animal block, where the student looks at  relationships of Man to the animals.  Barbara Dewey mentions Steiner’s “Study of Man” and Roy Wilkinson’s “Man and Animal” as essential reading for this block.

Donna Simmons talks about also looking at amphibians, reptiles, and fish as part of the Man and Animal block with such projects as ant farms, beekeeping, collecting frog or toad spawn, setting up a fish tank or pond.

She has many more wonderful tips for this year, do check out her book!

Donna Simmons mentions another possible block for this age could be an Ocean Block, and gives suggestions for how this could span multiple ages and grades.

Fifth Grade:  Botany block (there may be one botany block or two blocks).  Barbara Dewey summarizes the study of botany during the fifth grade in this way:  “The study of Botany at this level is really the study of four journeys: 1) the plant from seed through the seasons, 2) the vegetations of earth from the poles to the equator, 3) the vegetation of various altitudes from the tropics up to the mountain top, and 4) through the ladder of the plant kingdom, from simple to complex.”

Remember, much of this is done outside.  The students draw in their Main Lesson Books from plants they are squatting down and observing in the plants’ natural environment.  The plant is not ripped out and brought inside a schoolroom for the children to see how a plant grows!

Drawing and painting are essential components within the artistic observation of botany.  This is also a time where exact drawing for form and accuracy is important. 

Fifth Grade may also contain a Zoology block.

Sixth Grade:  Physics, including the study of color and acoustics (building on those experiences from the early years that the children are so familiar with!);  Earth Science including mineralogy and geology are studied, including minerals from a social and historic perspective; astronomy.

Donna Simmons also suggests several blocks that are not typically done within Waldorf schools but may work well at home, including habitats/ecology; biographies of naturalists; and inventors and inventions.  Inventors and inventions could also be taught in earlier grades as well.

Seventh Grade: Physics, possibly focusing on mechanics; Health and nutrition as it relates to human physiology; chemistry of combustion with a possible second block on the chemistry of foodstuffs:  fats, oils, proteins and carbohydrates.  Barbara Dewey also mentions a block on the heliocentric theory of the solar system.

Eighth Grade:  Physics again; Human anatomy; Meteorology; Chemistry including the study of the photosynthesis of plants and the study of sugars, including the history of sugar.  Computer technology is also typically taught in this year.

Donna Simmons also suggests a block on Alternative Energy not normally taught in Waldorf schools but which may work well at home. 

High School:  Donna Simmons mentions possible studies for high school include not only continuation of geology, physics, botany, and astronomy, but also topics such as metallurgy, meteorology, genetics, archaeology, zoology, and embryology.

In future posts I hope to outline and share some of the approaches I took in creating science blocks for first grade and into second grade so you can see the flow and will therefore be comfortable creating your own wonderful Waldorf science blocks.

I would love to hear comments from Waldorf homeschooling mothers who have children in the higher grades!  Please leave your comments in the comment section below; I value your readership and your thoughts.

Peace,

Carrie

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6 thoughts on “Science in Waldorf Homeschooling

  1. Great summary Carrie! It’s neat to step back and look at the progression of the curriculum. Nothing is left out, all is covered in it’s appropriate time, and the children develop an actual relationship to the material. I like that the children aren’t treated like walking encyclopedia’s, but are encouraged to really know nature.

    I can’t recommend Charles Kovacs’ books highly enough:
    The Human Being and the Animal World for grade 4, Botany for grade 5, Muscles and Bones for grade 8.
    :)

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  5. Hi Carey,

    Thank you for this post. Just as I was sure I would make a muddle of astronomy in 8th grade, I found your post and am breathing again. Of course it will go as well as the other subjects we have introduced via Waldorf have gone!

    We will read American Indian legends about the sky (since I also have a third grader) and camp out next week. On the agenda; one night of family star-gazing, another of a big astronomy meeting with fun family-oriented lessons and three telescopes. We have a wonderful astronomy calendar, sold through the Rudolf Steiner bookshop, and we can move our lesson time to evening, when the moon and stars are out, for the next month. Biography: Galileo and Newton come to mind, any other ideas?

    As for chemistry, I love Roy Wilkinson’s “Teaching Chemistry,” and its organic approach. We did a little intro to combustion last year and will purchase a chemistry set later in the year to have materials for experiments. It is too hard to find the exact chemicals in reasonable quantities for what Wilkinson sets out in his lessons. We’ll remember to keep a Waldorf rhythm; experiment one day, explanations the next. And that’s all, folks!

    Thanks again, for an insightful post.

    Angela

  6. I love LOVE love when you suggest leaving the nitty gritty of photosynthesis for older children. I am appalled (yes!) by how many people explain this to three year olds. I even went to a homeschool class at an otherwise wonderful science institute, and decided not to attend future classes (at least for a number of years) when they explained tannin to three year olds. Yikes! Let them enjoy the leaves in pretty dresses! I know there are those who would say the exact opposite, but I have seen the results too – children who are far too analytical, 40 years olds in a 4 year olds body, critiquing everything.

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