Waldorf Works

A Weblog of the Waldorf School of Baltimore, Exploring What Makes Waldorf Education Work

Does sucking your thumb prevent allergies?

Many books on parenting and child psychology include extensive discussions of the perils of thumb sucking and nail biting, and offer an array of (sometimes bizarre) suggestions to “conquer” these behaviors. Among the many ills attributed to these behaviors are a perceived risk of developing addictive disorders, malformation of developing teeth, speech abnormalities and infections.

A recent prospective study of over 1,000 children in New Zealand reports that children that are frequent thumb-suckers or nail-biters at age one or older are significantly less likely to have allergies at age 13 and also at age 32. Indeed, the researchers found that children that suck their thumb AND bite their nails have the lowest likelihood of developing allergies later in life.

The “benefit” of sticking dirty fingers in our mouth may have to do with the hygiene hypothesis, which postulates that lack of exposure to infectious agents in early childhood suppresses the natural development of the immune system, resulting in increased susceptibility to allergens.

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The case for free play: TimberNook

An important pillar of Waldorf Education is the emphasis on active play. Starting at parent-child classes, and continuing through the school years, students are encouraged to spend time outdoors—in all weather conditions—to explore and to challenge their mind and bodies. Recess period is no less important than classroom periods.

The benefits of free play and recess periods are myriad. Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist and author developed and runs an experiential nature program, TimberNook that has much in common with Waldorf Education. She has written several insightful weblog posts on relevant topics, including the importance of recess, unrestricted outdoor play, and the importance of movement for academic achievement. She is also the author of Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children.

All worth reading.

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Minecraft and Waldorf Education?!

Yes, we let our boys adventure with Minecraft, the award winning, addictive video game used by over 100 million people worldwide. Including many of our children’s classmates. And they savor the limited time they are allowed to explore this creative platform. In a recent article in the New York Times, Clive Thompson explores the history and appeal of Minecraft, from its development by a once-obscure Swedish programmer, to its recent purchase by Microsoft.

Thompson notes that, unlike many modern computer games, Minecraft encourages users to delve into the code behind the program to create innovative options. (When was the last time you wrote a line of code?) At its essence, the program provides a clean slate for users to create imaginative, interactive environments out of simple building blocks. Indeed, Thompson points to the similarities between Minecraft and playing with wooden blocks, activities that are thought to cultivate abstract thought. That the application ships with essentially no instructions further promotes active learning. Players have to learn how to play, inspiring exploration, and information sharing with other users.

Perhaps we need to be more open minded about a healthy balance between (constructive) video games, and more traditional activities, such as reading and play. Indeed, there is compelling evidence for the value of some video-based activities, as reviewed here, and here.


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The benefits of a fountain pen

Josh Giesbrecht, a public school teacher and writer from Canada, in a recent article in The Atlantic, rekindled the discussion on the importance of handwriting (see our posts here, here and here). But, with a twist. Giesbrecht suggests that perhaps it is not digital technology that hinders handwriting and its important benefits to learning and memory. Rather, it is the invention of the ballpoint pen (an interesting side story that Giesbrecht briefly covers). He cites the work of Rosemary Sasson, who contends that we teach our students to hold a ballpoint (or pencil) using a grip originally developed for holding fountain pens. This results in poor penmanship, resistance to writing, and can produce lasting physical complications. Further, fountain pens, with their specialized inks and nibs, are ideally suited for cursive writing, a more efficient and rapid way to write.

Thankfully, Waldorf Education promotes the use of fountain pens during a critical (and age appropriate) stage of learning how to write. At the Waldorf School of Baltimore, students use fountain pens from fourth grade on.

Recreating the Sistine Chapel

I led a tour of my daughter’s 7th grade classroom at the Waldorf School of Baltimore yesterday and found the class laying under their desks, in the dark, in silence. Two of the students explained to the group that they were studying Michelangelo, and that he had to lay on his back on scaffolding, working alone by candlelight, when he spent four years painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The students were all working to recreate the hands in The Creation of Adam on the underside of their desks.

Reason #1382 I love the Waldorf School of Baltimore.

Tyson (WSB parent)


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More on the importance of handwriting

I previously wrote (and here) and spoke about the importance to learning of taking handwritten notes, and of summarizing concepts with drawings and schematics.
A recent article in Psychological Science provides further support for this notion. Researchers at Princeton report that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. The researchers conclude that “whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning”. This, and other relevant studies, are described in a recent New York Times article.


More on neuroscience and education

I recently wrote about the relatively new advances in education that are informed by parallel advances in neuroscience, and in particularly in brain development. I also pointed out the risks of misinterpreting or selectively choosing (‘cherry picking’) certain neuroscience research findings to support certain educational initiatives. In a recent article The Guardian further explores this issue. The article reports a recent proposal to United Kingdom’s Association of Teachers and Lecturers to disseminate to teachers information on how neuroscience can be applied to the classroom. Pete Etchells, the author of the article in The Guardian, raises valid cautionary points regarding proposals such as this.


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The use and abuse of neuroscience

As a neuroscientist, and and a proponent of Waldorf Education, I seek evidence-based support for the principles of this education system, and I am particularly intrigued by evidence from brain research, the academic field I chose. Ed Meade (our Director of Education) and I recently had the opportunity to speak with our community about How the Developing Brain Informs Waldorf Education. I am delighted that neuroscience informed curricula are all the rage, spearheaded by Johns Hopkins’ School of Education Neuro Education Initiative (and their intriguing new Mind, Brain and Teaching certificate program).

However, as discussed in our recent session, there is a tendency to misinterpret and over-interpret results of neuroscience and cognitive development research, and to selectively choose certain findings to support education initiatives and policies. Further, there is growing concern about the rigor and reproducibility of a significant number of published neuroscience and cognitive science research.

The uses and abuses of research findings—in the context of education, parenting and family policy—was the topic of a recent international conference (some presentations can be viewed here) . This topic was also covered recently in a thoughtful article in The Guardian.


Adolescence: A primer for teenagers

Frontiers for Young Minds is a unique web-based, peer-reviewed scientific journal that aims to engage school age children in the art of science. A recent article, Drama in the Teenage Brain, explores the extensive developmental spurt in the brains of adolescents, and the behavioral developments associated with this growth. Recommended reading for children and their parents.


Steiner Waldorf schools as models for science teaching

The Austrian Federal Institute for Education Research, Innovation and Development of the Austrian School System (BIFIE) recommends Steiner Waldorf schools as models for teaching in the sciences. The original report (in German) and the original blog post is on Excalibur’s blog.

“Based on the relatively high competence of Waldorf pupils in natural science, combined with exceptionally high indicators of motivation and reflective cognition in these subjects as well as the different pedagogical principles, it is reasonable to conclude that public education can learn from the Steiner Waldorf schools, in particular with regard to being able to concretely apply knowledge in natural science.”

Numerical scores in this analysis place the average performance of Waldorf students above that of students in OECD countries, and above 2 of the 3 high school systems in Austria.


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