One can often walk through the class room buildings at KWS and see projects that the students have done in relation to their academic studies. It might be projects related to the history of Ancient Rome in 6th grade, or models of human shelters from the 3rd grade, or painted portraits of historical figures for 9th grade contemporary history.
An invaluable value of the education at KWS is the opportunity that our students have to learn through a variety of activities that engage their creativity, design, and problem solving skills. Imagine how designing and building your own ship or aqueduct makes Roman history come alive, but also allows you to use all of yourself in the learning process: head, heart, and hands. A number of years ago the Philadelphia Inquirer published an article on the benefits of art in education (Closing in on Proof of Art’s Value to Kids, Philadelphia Inquirer. March 23, 2014.) The article was about a study being done by a psychology professor at West Chester University. Her research was on the effects of art on reducing stress levels in young children and involved measuring cortisol levels (a hormone associated with stress) in children in learning environments that are arts-based as opposed to those that are not. Her findings point to an association between art classes and reduced levels of cortisol in the children in the study.
In contrast, I am reminded of a friend of mine who had a child in a school that was putting the students through a battery of standardized tests. This friend shared with me how stressed her child was because of the testing. She commented that it wasn’t just the children who were stressed. Everyone seemed to be, teachers and students. More and more, children in school settings are expected to perform academically through high-stakes testing in younger and younger grades. Play is no longer a part of kindergarten programs in many schools. The arts and movement are secondary, and often cut from programs. Recess is reduced or eliminated. Students do not spend time in nature during their school day. Is it any wonder that children are stressed and anxiety is on the rise in children? According to the study noted stress impacts cortisol levels which in term impact learning: “Chronic elevations of cortisol impair cognitive and emotional functioning, as well as physical health. Cortisol is closely related to the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in learning and memory, and scientists believe that higher cortisol interferes with both.”
Why are we doing this to children? In large part it has to do with educational systems that are no longer based on an understanding of healthy child and human development, but rather are driven by standards set by bureaucrats focused on test scores rather than healthy childhood development. Adam Winsler, a psychology professor at George Mason University who edits the Early Childhood Research Bulletin and is quoted in the Inquirer article says,“These days people are trying to do reading, science, and math a lot earlier, and a lot of developmentally inappropriate things are happening . . .the arts may prepare youngsters for math, reading, and science better than a pure math, science, and reading curriculum would.”
I believe that there are many invaluable values of Waldorf education and the education provided at KWS, including an education that is firmly rooted in an understanding of healthy child and human development, and an education that makes art and the using of one’s hands and imagination an integral part of the academic learning experience. A number of years ago a graduate of Kimberton and Brown University gave an evening presentation for our community on the business that he started in Kenya after he graduated from college. At the end of the talk he was asked by someone in the audience about his perspective on the value of his Waldorf education at KWS. He spoke about the importance of art in helping him develop creative capacities. Later, in a card he sent to me thanking me for introducing him at his presentation he said, “Remember, it’s all about the art.”