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Pushing Academics into Preschool Can Be Harmful

March 18, 2024
By Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor

A comprehensive study finds significant drawbacks to pushing academics as early as in preschool. Researchers found that any initial academic gains were quickly erased, and children who attended academic-focused Pre-K were actually behind their peers in elementary and middle school. Another troubling finding was that students who experienced early academic pressure showed dramatic increases in behavioral issues later on. In Waldorf education, we focus on what is developmentally appropriate for each age group, understanding that preschool-age children especially need play, movement, and art, which are all critical to social-emotional health and future academic success. 

This article was originally published by Anya Kamenetz on NPR.org

A top researcher says it's time to rethink our entire approach to preschool


Dale Farran has been studying early childhood education for half a century. Yet her most recent scientific publication has made her question everything she thought she knew.

"It really has required a lot of soul-searching, a lot of reading of the literature to try to think of what were plausible reasons that might account for this."

And by "this," she means the outcome of a study that lasted more than a decade. It included 2,990 low-income children in Tennessee who applied to free, public prekindergarten programs. Some were admitted by lottery, and the others were rejected, creating the closest thing you can get in the real world to a randomized, controlled trial — the gold standard in showing causality in science.

Farran and her co-authors at Vanderbilt University followed both groups of children all the way through sixth grade. At the end of their first year, the kids who went to pre-K scored higher on school readiness — as expected.

But after third grade, they were doing worse than the control group. And at the end of sixth grade, they were doing even worse. They had lower test scores, were more likely to be in special education, and were more likely to get into trouble in school, including serious trouble like suspensions.

"Whereas in third grade we saw negative effects on one of the three state achievement tests, in sixth grade we saw it on all three — math, science and reading," says Farran. "In third grade, where we had seen effects on one type of suspension, which is minor violations, by sixth grade we're seeing it on both types of suspensions, both major and minor."

That's right. A statewide public pre-K program, taught by licensed teachers, housed in public schools, had a measurable and statistically significant negative effect on the children in this study.

Farran hadn't expected it. She didn't like it. But her study design was unusually strong, so she couldn't easily explain it away.

"This is still the only randomized controlled trial of a statewide pre-K, and I know that people get upset about this and don't want it to be true."

Why it's a bad time for bad news
It's a bad time for early childhood advocates to get bad news about public pre-K. Federally funded universal prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds has been a cornerstone of President Biden's social agenda, and there are talks about resurrecting it from the stalled-out "Build Back Better" plan. Preschool has been expanding in recent years and is currently publicly funded to some extent in 46 states. About 7 in 10 4-year-olds now attend some kind of academic program.

This enthusiasm has rested in part on research going back to the 1970s. Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, among others, showed substantial long-term returns on investment for specially designed and carefully implemented programs.

To put it crudely, policymakers and experts have touted for decades now that if you give a 4-year-old who is growing up in poverty a good dose of story time and block play, they'll be more likely to grow up to become a high-earning, productive citizen.

What went wrong in Tennessee
No study is the last word. The research on pre-K continues to be mixed. In May 2021, a working paper (not yet peer reviewed) came out that looked at Boston's pre-K program. The study was a similar size to Farran's, used a similar quasi-experimental design based on random assignment, and also followed up with students for years. This study found that the preschool kids had better disciplinary records and were much more likely to graduate from high school, take the SATs and go to college, though their test scores didn't show a difference.

Farran believes that, with a citywide program, there's more opportunity for quality control than in her statewide study. Boston's program spent more per student, and it also was mixed-income, whereas Tennessee's program is for low-income kids only.

So what went wrong in Tennessee? Farran has some ideas — and they challenge almost everything about how we do school. How teachers are prepared, how programs are funded and where they are located. Even something as simple as where the bathrooms are.

In short, Farran is rethinking her own preconceptions, which are an entire field's preconceptions, about what constitutes quality pre-K.

Do kids in poverty deserve the same teaching as rich kids?
"One of the biases that I hadn't examined in myself is the idea that poor children need a different sort of preparation from children of higher-income families."

She's talking about drilling kids on basic skills. Worksheets for tracing letters and numbers. A teacher giving 10-minute lectures to a whole class of 25 kids who are expected to sit on their hands and listen, only five of whom may be paying any attention.

"Higher-income families are not choosing this kind of preparation," she explains. "And why would we assume that we need to train children of lower-income families earlier?"

Farran points out that families of means tend to choose play-based preschool programs with art, movement, music and nature. Children are asked open-ended questions, and they are listened to.

This is not what Farran is seeing in classrooms full of kids in poverty, where "teachers talk a lot, but they seldom listen to children." She thinks that part of the problem is that teachers in many states are certified for teaching students in prekindergarten through grade 5, or sometimes even pre-K-8. Very little of their training focuses on the youngest learners.

So another major bias that she's challenging is the idea that teacher certification equals quality. "There have been three very large studies, the latest one in 2018, which are not showing any relationship between quality and licensure."

Putting a bubble in your mouth
In 2016, Farran published a study based on her observations of publicly funded Tennessee pre-K classrooms similar to those included in this paper. She found then that the largest chunk of the day was spent in transition time. This means simply moving kids around the building.

Partly this is an architectural problem. Private preschools, even home-based day cares, tend to be laid out with little bodies in mind. There are bathrooms just off the classrooms. Children eat in, or very near, the classroom, too. And there is outdoor play space nearby with equipment suitable for short people.

Putting these same programs in public schools can make the whole day more inconvenient.

"So if you're in an older elementary school, the bathroom is going to be down the hall. You've got to take your children out, line them up and then they wait," Farran says. "And then, if you have to use the cafeteria, it's the same thing. You have to walk through the halls, you know: 'Don't touch your neighbor, don't touch the wall, put a bubble in your mouth because you have to be quiet.' "

One of Farran's most intriguing conjectures is that this need for control could explain the extra discipline problems seen later on in her most recent study.

"I think children are not learning internal control. And if anything, they're learning sort of an almost allergic reaction to the amount of external control that they're having, that they're having to experience in school."

In other words, regularly reprimanding kids for doing normal kid stuff at 4 years old, even suspending them, could backfire down the road as children experience school as a place of unreasonable expectations.

We know from other research that the control of children's bodies at school can have disparate racial impact. Other studies have suggested that Black children are disciplined more often in preschool, as they are in later grades. Farran's study, where 70% of the kids were white, found interactions between race, gender, and discipline problems, but no extra effect of attending preschool was detected.

Where to go from here
The United States has a child care crisis that COVID-19 both intensified and highlighted. Progressive policymakers and advocates have tried for years to expand public support for child care by "pushing it down" from the existing public school system, using the teachers and the buildings.

Farran praises the direction that New York City, for one, has taken instead: a "mixed-delivery" program with slots for 3- and 4-year-olds. Some kids attend free public preschool in existing nonprofit day care centers, some in Head Start programs and some in traditional schools.

But the biggest lesson Farran has drawn from her research is that we've simply asked too much of pre-K, based on early results from what were essentially showcase pilot programs. "We tend to want a magic bullet," she says.

"Whoever thought that you could provide a 4-year-old from an impoverished family with 5 1/2 hours a day, nine months a year of preschool, and close the achievement gap, and send them to college at a higher rate?" she asks. "I mean, why? Why do we put so much pressure on our pre-K programs?"

We might actually get better results, she says, from simply letting little children play.
 

Harvard Supports: Education Should Be Joyful

January 22, 2024
By Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor
Research from Harvard Graduate School of Education emphasizes the importance of making education joyful. Compared with high-pressure, high-stakes, testing-driven environments, students retain more and process better in happy, lower-stress environments. In Waldorf Education, our intentional approach prioritizes engaged, enthusiastic learning and our teachers bring joy to every lesson, instilling a deep understanding of each subject and a lifelong love of learning. 
 

This is an excerpt.  The full article was originally published by Lory Hough in the Harvard Ed. Magazine https://www.gse.harvard.edu/ideas/ed-magazine/22/05/space-joy

Is learning even meant to be joyful? 

Anyone who has picked up an instrument or tried to learn a new language knows that learning can be hard and frustrating. As Irby pointed out, “Learning is not always a joyous undertaking. Pushing through a difficult subject, topic, or painstaking assignment can be tough.”

But, he adds, “joy at school and in learning is a foundation from which students gain the confidence that academic struggle is temporary and worthwhile.” There’s also a very real connection to the brain. “The brain does not exist by itself,” writes Professor Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child. “Connecting the brain to the rest of the body is critically important. When we’re stressed, every cell in the body is working overtime.”

Students who appear joyless or unmotivated may not be making voluntary choices, says Judy Willis, a neurologist who went on to teach middle school for 10 years. Their brains, as Shonkoff points out, may just be responding to what’s going on around them, like the ups and downs of the pandemic and our push to “catch up” academically in schools.

“The truth is that when we scrub joy and comfort from the classroom, we distance our students from effective information processing and long-term memory storage,” Willis recently wrote in the Neuroscience of Joyful Education. “Instead of taking pleasure from learning, students become bored, anxious, and anything but engaged. They ultimately learn to feel bad about school and lose the joy they once felt.” Neuroimaging studies and measurement of brain chemical transmitters reveal that “when students are engaged and motivated and feel minimal stress, information flows freely through the affective filter in the amygdala and they achieve higher levels of cognition, make connections, and experience ‘aha’ moments. Such learning comes not from quiet classrooms and directed lectures, but from classrooms with an atmosphere of exuberant discovery.

Irby saw this with his own children. When school went remote, they were not happy. “On the best days, they were ambivalent. On the bad days, they were miserable,” he says. When they returned to in-person learning this past fall, things mostly got better. His son, a first-grader, didn’t like people being too close and didn’t want to be overly corrected for his efforts, but “they were very happy to return to school. They loved almost everything about returning, from packing their book bags, seeing their friends and socializing, to developing relationships with their teachers.”

Happy is great, but what about the important idea that we need to regain academic ground lost during the pandemic? As Professor Tom Kane and his colleagues at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University (CEPR) reveal in their new Road to COVID Recovery project, using real-time data and working with school districts across the country, learning loss from the pandemic is significant.

“I don’t think there’s a broad appreciation for the magnitude of the declines we’ve seen,” Kane told Ed. — the equivalent of kids missing three or four months of school last year. As he said in a recent The 74 article, “School districts have never had so many students so far behind.” And especially for some students. The Brookings Institute reported in March that test-score gaps between students in low-poverty and high-poverty elementary schools grew by approximately 20% in math and 15% in reading, primarily during the 2020–21 school year.

CEPR has called for tutoring, extra periods of instruction, Saturday academies, and afterschool programs. Schools, they say, should focus for the next couple of years on getting students back to pre-COVID academic levels.

But what does catch up mean for the joy that tired students and teachers also desperately need?

In a Harvard EdCast interview in February (2022), Susan Engel, a senior lecturer at Williams College and author of the new book, The Intellectual Lives of Children, said, “I heard a first-grade teacher say to me, back in August, when she was planning her remote teaching, she said, ‘The parents are so worried that their children aren’t going to keep up this year.’ And I said, ‘Keep up with what?’ And she looked surprised, and she said, ‘Well, with the standards.’ But I mean, the standards are completely arbitrary. Who made up those standards? Just a lot of people sitting in rooms. I don’t know. And I’m not sure they were good standards in the first place, but it’s silly to let those constrain you too much as a teacher right now.”

Which is why it was interesting, says Wade Whitehead, a fifth-grade teacher in Virginia now in his 28th year of teaching, that in the spring of 2020, when it became clear that we weren’t going back to in-person any time soon, “the first two things we threw out the window were grades and standardized testing.

Why was that, he wondered? “I think it’s because those two rob students and teachers of joy. I think it was to keep students and teachers happy” as we shifted focus to everyone’s crushing social-emotional (SEL) needs. And there were other changes that at any other time would have seemed radical: Schools shortened the school day and cut back to just a few class blocks a day. “COVID was an opportunity for schools to go deep. People had the freedom to just learn. If you want to be around someone who is happy, be around someone who’s just learning something to learn, especially face-to-face. You’re just happier that way.”

Unfortunately, says Whitehead, a Certificate in School Management and Leadership graduate, a year later, we “picked up those two apples” — grades and standardized tests — “and put them back in the cart. I’m not against grades or tests. I’m for amazing grading systems and amazing assessment and accountability systems.”

Durney agrees that the “normal” way of schooling wasn’t working for everyone and says that we can still rethink schooling.

“We need to use the pandemic as an opportunity to consider how we meet the needs of all our students through engaging tasks,” he says. “Students have access to apps, games, etc., and there are things that can and should be leveraged when designing learning opportunities. It isn’t just academics that students missed over the past two years. They need opportunities to engage in activities that allow them to build and strengthen their SEL skills. Rigor can and should be fun!”

Kane agrees and says that academics and emotional care go hand-in-hand. If students feel more comfortable being back in school, they are going to have an easier time focusing, just as finding success in the classroom can lead to positive e­ffects on mental health.

Irby also says it’s not an either-or as we move forward.

“I would say to educators who want to prioritize getting kids up to speed academically over joy that the two are not mutually exclusive. They should think about them as mutually reinforcing,” he says. “Not only do joy and academic rigor go hand in hand, but tactful educators plan to ensure both happen in tandem.” He noted that Gholdy Muhammad’s framework outlined in her book Cultivating Genius includes five pillars to consider when planning lessons, and joy is one of them. “An example is children’s museums, which off­er learning opportunities that center play and fun. Exhibit curators plan with joy and excitement at the center of their learning design, but they don’t forgo academic content. In other words, the same way a teacher can plan to have students learn a disciplinary skill, they can plan for students to experience joy while doing it. One priority doesn’t need to outweigh the other.”

He says this is especially important for students who experience “compounding killjoys” — students who “live with circumstances and experiences that make it very difficult to be joyful. Some big picture joy killers include poverty, racism, social isolation, and concrete realities that stem from racial, social, and economic injustice such as hunger and food insecurity, housing insecurity, exposure to violence, health ailments, and living in a household or community where adults experience chronic stress. The more of these killjoys that students experience, the more concerned educators should be about using learning as a means to cultivate joy.”

For example, he says that if students don’t have access to safe green space, recess should become a priority. If they experience conflict with relationships in their lives, educators can create learning scenarios that are collaborative, “which provide opportunities to find joy in working with people.”

Keeping this in mind, Sandra Nagy, Ed.M.’02, managing director of Future Design School, says any e­ffort to get kids caught up and still feel joy needs to be intentional.

“In order for this important change to take hold in schools, there needs to be a space for joy,” she says. “That means balancing eff­orts to address learning loss with looking ahead to what we can do next and celebrating the way teachers proved their ability to innovate and adapt in the past two years.”

And Brooks says we can do something else to bring back joy that would once have been considered radical: We can slow down.

“We can engage with students where they are, whatever they’re interested in at the moment, because that’s the ‘stu­ff’ of the world they’re trying so hard to build normalcy from,” he says. “We can play with them on the field and court and laugh with them throughout the day. There will still be time for all that needs to be learned.”

Is joy still below the surface?

It’s all important — and it’s not all doom and gloom. Even tired educators say that below the frustrations, they see joy again.

“Given the circumstances, I have seen a lot of joy at school,” says Durney. “One of the many benefits of working with elementary-aged children is that they can find joy and humor in just about any activity.” Right before winter break, for example, they held an outdoor schoolwide activity where students were able to share their work and play games created by their peers and with parent involvement. “It felt like pre-pandemic times where we’d gather as a whole school community. The day ended with our principal jumping into the frigid waters at the M Street Beach in South Boston because as a school community we exceeded our fundraising goal. The smiles and laughter throughout the entire day were a great way to end the first stretch of the school year.”

Salch addressed burnout when students — and teachers — stopped using a diagnostic online program by creating a challenge where students would earn a popcorn party if they logged in for 10 of 15 days in December.

“We have a local chocolate factory that sells 10-gallon bags of popcorn for $6. We can feed a whole school for less than $15,” she says. “Students that earned the reward came out to the courtyard to eat a coffee filter full of popcorn and dance to Kidz Bop.”

She celebrates her teachers, too — even in small ways. “I do everything I can to keep my teachers joyful,” she says. “I write handwritten notes to them monthly thanking them or congratulating them on something they accomplished. I give random gifts of pens or stickies to show appreciation. I organize themed meetings that included engaging activities that show each other we are humans before we are our professions.”

Joshua Neufeld, a first-grade teacher at the American International School of Guangzhou in China and a participant in a Project Zero program in 2021, is part of a peer coaching network for international teachers called Positivity Playground. He found that regular staff socializing has helped morale.

“The pandemic has been challenging for everyone, and Positivity Playground reminded me that together, as colleagues, we can generate more positive emotions and manage negative emotions effectively.” With this in mind, Neufeld organized a weekly lunchtime tea party for his colleagues called Positvi-Tea. It’s a time for teachers to hang out and talk, he says, often about things other than school. “This is a time that energizes the participants and challenges them to continue the day with a positive outlook. I leave the meetings feeling recharged, viewing upcoming situations with a sense of realistic optimism.”

Beyond celebrations and gatherings, others say a focus on personalized learning and setting small, actionable steps (not just big lofty goals) can help bring joy back. Brooks says teachers and other educators can also pay more attention to self-care.

“I am striking a better work-life balance, taking time to be with my family and recharge,” he says. “Doing so allows me to be more fully present and increases the likelihood of finding and making joyful moments at work.” The same needs to be done for all educators. “It does not take anything extraordinary to bring joy back to the workplace of teachers. I would argue it comes down to acknowledging the difficulty of the work in these times, commiserating openly and honestly about these challenges, facing them together, and celebrating every small success of the professionals in the building. Impromptu conversations, dropping by to check in, and showing gratitude are a few other easy and regular ways to bring a sense of joy back to the workplace on a daily basis.”

With her ladybug stickers in hand and her joke book open and ready for the next meeting, Julia de la Torre is still tired, but she knows the joy at her school is there.

“Quite frankly, joy is the reason I come to work every day and why I love my job,” she says. “Pop your head into any classroom and you’ll see kids thriving, connecting, and enjoying school. They may have masks on, but you can see joy in their eyes and in their laughter. I’m always trying to remind my teachers that there is joy everywhere in schools, if you stop to look for it. It may be harder to find during these challenging times, but it’s the joy that keeps us coming back for more.”

Unplugged and Having Fun!

June 08, 2023
By Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor
A TECH-FREE SUMMER MIGHT BE THE BEST SUMMER EVER!

The Importance of Play

Take a minute to think of a joyful childhood memory when you were engaged in play. Perhaps from summer camp or somewhere else. Where were you? Who was there? What were you doing? Was a smartphone involved? OK, now fast forward to today. Do you see kids playing in the same way you did as a child? Playing more? Playing less? Do your kids play as freely as you did as a child, with the same amount of supervision?

It’s no secret that kids love to play.  When left to their own devices, kids can play all day in very creative ways. They make up stories, skits, games and songs. They immerse themselves in make-believe or lose themselves for hours in a book.  Summer is an incubator of play, and there can be many unplanned moments of spontaneous play throughout the day. It’s a gift that cultivates joy. And, it’s also a critical pathway through which kids learn, grow, and develop into adults who can successfully navigate the world around them.

Child-directed play is important for social-emotional growth, developing social skills, and building strong friendships. It allows kids to explore social interactions in low risk situations. “Getting repeated feedback in a low-stakes environment is one of the main ways that play builds social skills”. When kids play together they learn to notice and interpret social cues, listen, take another person’s perspective, and share ideas and feelings in the process of negotiating and compromising. In his Ted Talk, The Decline of Play, psychologist Dr. Peter Gray further advocates for the importance of play. “Play is nature’s way of ensuring that …young human beings…acquire the skills that they need to develop successfully into adulthood”. When you allow your kids time for undirected play, they’re not only having fun, they’re cultivating tools that will support them in navigating life.

Watching a group of students playing in the sandbox, it is evident how play helps kids learn to collaborate. The kids will take on different roles. One digs channels with the shovel, and another gathers sand with a bucket. Some are in charge of detailing a structure, while others step back and plan the next expansion. When one student wants to change roles, they have to ask another to swap tools and positions. Sometimes changing roles requires negotiating how much longer each of them will continue in their current role before switching. If one doesn’t agree with another’s suggestion he or she might respond, “I don’t think that’s fair”, leading the others to consider what might feel fair to them. They nearly always find a compromise. In many ways, play is the antithesis of heavy social media use. The act of play places kids in situations where they are continually learning, connecting, increasing their empathy, trying new modes of social engagement, and have the time and space for observation and contemplation that help them process their social experiences.

Free play also supports cognitive development, especially in younger children. It has been shown to increase neural connections in the brain (increasing pathways we use for critical thinking), build and strengthen the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain responsible for decision-making, attention, problem-solving, impulse control, and planning), and support language skills. And while kids are playing, the absence of technology relieves the pressures of social media and actually helps kids sleep better. When humans view screens late at night they inevitably get less sleep, and they also lose out on the deep REM stage of sleep, which is critical for helping process and store events from the day into memory.

Today, our youth are spending less time engaging in self-directed play and more and more time on screens. A recent study found that in 2021, tweens (ages 8-12) spent about five and a half hours a day on screens, while teens (ages 13 to 18) spent about eight and a half hours a day on screens. Recent data released by the National Survey of Children’s Health found that in 2020 only 19.8% of school-aged children were physically active for at least one hour per day. How is this affecting our kids? And why is it essential to provide kids spaces where they can play and create together without the distractions of modern technology?

Social Media and Youth Mental Health

In 2007, Apple first released the iPhone and by 2012 had sold about 270 million units, equivalent to the population age 10 and older in the United States at that time. Translation - smartphones proliferated very quickly into modern society. And today there is a growing body of research that suggests heavy social media use is adversely impacting youth development.

According to Dr. Michael Rich, Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School, kids’ developing brains make it harder for them to limit their time on screens. Social media utilizes the same variable reward system that makes gambling so addictive. Unlike adults, a young person’s brain lacks a fully developed system of self-control to help them with stopping obsessive behavior. In a 2022 Pew Research Center study of American teenagers, 35% responded that they were using one of the top five social media platforms (YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook) online “almost constantly”. And with the proliferation of smartphones and social media, rates of juvenile anxiety and depression have risen. From 2016 to 2020, researchers analyzing data from the National Survey of Children’s Health found that rates of anxiety and depression increased 29% and 27%, respectively, for children ages 3-17.

Dr. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at the NYU Stern School of Business, and Dr. Jean Twinge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, have been compiling research about the links between social media and adolescent mental health. Through their work, they have found that many studies, using a variety of methods, suggest a strong link between heavy social media use and poor mental health, especially for girls.

Haidt also notes that Instagram especially magnifies pressures for teens. “Social media—particularly Instagram, which displaces other forms of interaction among teens, puts the size of their friend group on public display, and subjects their physical appearance to the hard metrics of likes and comment counts—takes the worst parts of middle school and glossy women’s magazines and intensifies them”. Teens especially, can obsess over what they post on platforms like Instagram, “even when the app is not open, driving hours of obsessive thought, worry, and shame”.

Dr. Jenny Radesky, Assistant Professor at University of Michigan Medical School, focuses her research on the intersection of mobile technology and child development. Radesky (2018) surveyed a thorough study that suggests high-frequency digital media use is linked to an increase in new ADHD symptoms amongst teens, and researchers are also finding that heavy social media use leads to an increase in narcissistic behavior.

On a hopeful note, there is evidence that we get relief when we take a break from social media. Many experiments have shown that reducing or eliminating social media use for a week or more improves our mental health. 

At Steiner, we understand that technology is a tool that our students will need in today's world.  We recommend no technology for our youngest students and teach responsible use of it starting in middle school. Supporting this “slow-tech” approach, a break from technology has amazing value in helping kids understand and feel the benefits of spending time away from screens.  As we end another school year and students have some much-needed free time, you might look for ways to preserve time for your children to play together without technology.

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How Outdoor Learning Affects Students

March 21, 2023
By Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor

A recent study focusing on children aged 5 to 18 revealed that outdoor education and activities have a multitude of benefits for students. Not only did students exhibit higher levels of self-confidence, stronger friendships, and a greater sense of belonging, but academic performance in math, science, and language also saw an improvement, coupled with increased motivation to learn. Waldorf education places significant value on diverse forms of outdoor learning and experiences, such as scientific observation and environmental projects, camping, field trips, and free exploratory play.

This article was originally published on Children & Nature Network.

Effects of regular classes in outdoor education settings: A systematic review on students' learning, social and health dimensions  
 
Young students hard at work  
during a gardening class.

Regular classes in outdoor settings can promote students’ learning, health, social development, and concern for the environment

This systematic review of the literature was conducted (1) to identify studies about compulsory school- and curriculum-based outdoor education programs (OEPs) for students aged 5-18, (2) to categorize and evaluate outcomes, (3) to assess the methodological quality of the studies, and (4) to discuss possible benefits of such programs for students. The OEPs included in this review offered regular weekly or bi-weekly classes in a natural or cultural environment outside the classroom for at least four hours per week over a period of at least two months. In these programs, the outdoor learning was an embedded component of the school’s curriculum. Only studies reporting at least one student outcome and published in English- and German-language peer-reviewed journals were included.

Only thirteen studies met the inclusion criteria, indicating that the current state of research on OEPs is relatively small. The goals, participant groups, learning environments, methods used and reported outcomes differed widely across the programs. The methodological quality of the studies was, on average, moderate. Eight studies reported outcomes in terms of social dimensions, seven in learning dimensions, and four in additional outcomes. Two studies in the “additional outcomes” category reported on students’ physical activity, one on students’ mental health, one on action regulation behavior, and one on students’ environmental attitude and behavior.

Social outcomes included improved social competencies and social relations, such as self-esteem, self-confidence, trusting relationships, and the sense of belonging. Learning outcomes included improved academic performance in several subjects and improved skills in transferring the knowledge gained to real life situations. Two studies reporting learning outcomes also reported possible benefits relating to learning motivation. The research on physical activity, mental health and action regulation behavior was underrepresented in comparison to results in learning and social dimensions. The study reporting mental health outcomes found a significant decrease in mental health problems for boys but not for girls. One study reported growth in students’ self-confidence, leading them to take active responsibility for the environment.

The overall results of this review indicate that regular compulsory school- and curriculum-based OEPs can promote students’ social, academic, physical and psychological development. Further research is needed, however, to support what this review reports as “tendencies” in relation to the reported outcomes. The authors recommend more quasi-experimental and longitudinal studies with a greater number of participants and high methodological quality.

Older students learn the intricacies of using a theodolite while studying surveying and map making.

School Trips as a Rite of Passage

October 25, 2022
By Robert White

Our 8th grade class recently returned from its annual class trip, a 10-day wilderness adventure in New England. This 8th grade trip is a rite of passage for students, the culmination of progressively longer and more adventurous excursions undertaken by the class teachers and students over the years.

At Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor, we strongly believe these class trips are a vital part of the student experience. They foster a connection with the outdoors, offer opportunities for teamwork and class camaraderie, give some students an experience they might otherwise never have, and teach responsibility and self-knowledge. They also provide moments of joy, life-long memories, and shared experiences that further cement the bonds among the students.

Typically, a class’s first overnight trip takes place in 3rd grade, where the class spends a night at a farm. This supplements the in-class work of 3rd grade, where students learn about farming, shelters, and ways people have lived and survived throughout history. By the time they reach middle school, the students have been on several overnight trips. In the middle grades, they spend a few nights in a dark-sky area as part of their astronomy studies and travel to Hocking Hills, Ohio, to further their lessons in mineralogy and geology.

The 8th grade trip is a wilderness adventure experience. RSSAA has generally used two organizations to help us with this experience: the Northwaters & Langskib camp based out of Temagami, Ontario or Kroka Expeditions, based out of Marlow, N.H. Each offers a program of canoeing and camping that challenges the students physically; requires them to work together to set up camp, cook food, clean dishes, take care of the canoes, etc.; and provides an opportunity for self-reflection, community sharing, and social and emotional growth. These trips are usually undertaken at the start of the school year, or even before the school year officially begins, as they are an excellent way to launch the class into their last year together before high school.

As an 8th grader teacher, I have experienced both the Northwaters and Kroka experiences — both were incredible and so important for my students. Last year, my class went to Kroka and paddled down the Battenkill River from Vermont to New York — the same path taken by this year’s group of 8th graders. My class enjoyed the challenges posed by canoeing along a swift-moving river — we had to navigate rapids, hairpin turns, fallen trees, lots of rocks, and ever-changing water depths. Despite the challenges, there is little to compare to the feeling of navigating your way down an isolated, scenic river, seeing birds and other wildlife on the shores, discovering the best place to pitch a tent, staring a fire and making food for your class, and chatting with friends by the fire as the stars emerge.

As is the intent of a rite of passage, when a class returns to school following these trips it is evident how much the students have grown, both as individuals who confronted and overcame their own personal challenges on the trip, and as a group who discovered strengths and vulnerabilities in their classmates they never knew before and who return with a shared experience that belongs only to them.  Each year there is inevitably a student or two who do not want to take on the expected rigors of the trip, but upon return they are always glad they did and many say they now feel like they could accomplish anything!

While the 8th grade trip is in many ways the culmination of these experiences in the grades and middle school, these types of trips continue for students at our high school. Ninth graders end their freshman year with a week at the Community Farm of Ann Arbor, while 10th graders take the knowledge they learned during their sophomore year for a week-long land surveying expedition at Camp Lookout on the northern shores of Lake Michigan. Seniors wrap up their RSSAA journey with two amazing adventures: a Zoology trip to Hermit Island, Maine, where they explore the flora and fauna of the ocean and tidal pools; and an adventure in Venice, Florence, and Rome, where they explore the artists, writers, and thinkers they learned about in the classroom for so many years.

These trips are a cherished and important part of our curriculum. I believe they play a central role in helping our graduates to be well-rounded citizens of the world, with the self-confidence to take off on their own life adventures. 

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Weleda's Ties to Steiner

October 04, 2022
By Chantel Tattoli, New York Times

A long-time favorite in our school community and sold in our school store, Weleda products are on the cutting edge of regenerative farming and social responsibility, as well as being popular in the celebrity crowd.  Here's a little history of the products, the mission of the company and its ties to Rudolf Steiner, founder of Waldorf education.

Originally posted in full by Chantel Tattoli in the New York Times on August 20, 2022

Calendulas look like daisies, smell like marigolds and possess powerful phytochemicals that can mend skin. At a garden in Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany, Astrid Sprenger’s blond bob and turquoise pendant swung in the sun as she picked the fiery orange flowers by hand.

“It’s one of the only plants you can put on open wounds,” she said.

Dr. Sprenger, 56, who holds a Ph.D. in agricultural science from the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, is a head gardener at Weleda, a Swiss company perhaps best known for its ultrarich Skin Food cream. Sold in parrot green tubes, the moisturizer costs $12.49 an ounce

Though Skin Food has gone by that name only since around 2010, its formula dates to 1926. In addition to extracts of calendula, it also contains concentrated forms of chamomile and wild pansy, as well as sunflower seed and sweet almond oils and beeswax.

The Skin Food line has expanded to include Skin Food Light, a less dense version of the original cream, along with a lotion and body and lip butters. According to Swati Gupta, Weleda’s head of e-commerce in North America, in 2020, the company sold a Skin Food product every five seconds. Weleda is developing new Skin Food cosmetics, including some for the face, with plans to debut them next year.

Farm to Tube
The plants used to make Skin Food and Weleda’s other products are grown worldwide. In Schwäbisch Gmünd, the 50-acre plot that Dr. Sprenger oversees runs wild-ish with some 260 species that include stonecrop and mistletoe. It is one of eight gardens owned by the company, which is based in Arlesheim, Switzerland, and sources from an additional 50 partner growers.

Occupying some 60,000 total acres, the web of gardens, which spans five continents, is roughly 70 times the size of Central Park.

A gardener picks Malva sylvestris, or mallow, in Schwäbisch Gmünd, where some 260 plants grow on the 50-acre plot.  Credit...Andrew White for The New York Times
At Weleda’s gardens, topsoil is not tilled and crops are both rotated and intercropped with three to ten other species.  Credit...Andrew White for The New York Times

Last year, Weleda achieved B Corp certification, meaning its operations meet certain social and environmental criteria. It is also certified by the Union for Ethical BioTrade, which sets best practices for sourcing ingredients.

The gardens it owns are certified by Demeter, an organization that maintains the standards for the agricultural practice known as biodynamic farming, which Dr. Sprenger compared to regenerative farming — an organic method that focuses on soil health and forgoes elements of industrialized agriculture such as synthetic chemicals — but “on a higher level.”

The practice demands strict standards for biodiversity and soil fertility; at Weleda’s gardens, topsoil is not tilled and crops are both rotated and intercropped, or grown together in the same plot, with three to 10 other species. Another tenet of biodynamic farming is composting. “It’s not like poo,” Dr. Sprenger said as she plunged a trowel into a dark mound that disgorged bugs and a heady herbal odor. “It’s nice!”

The compost she was sifting through contained homeopathic additives, or preparations, made from fermented plants including yarrow and valerian. Preparations are also a requirement of biodynamic farming, and others are sprayed directly onto soil or crops. One, called horn manure, does include excrement. It is made by packing cow dung into cow horns that are buried underground for the winter and dug up in the spring; the dung is then extracted from the horns, swirled into rainwater at body temperature and flicked at the soil with a brush, not unlike how a priest sprinkles holy water.

The formula for Weleda’s original Skin Food cream dates to 1926 and includes extracts of calendula. The Skin Food line currently comprises five products; Weleda plans to debut more, including some for the face, next year.  Credit...Weleda

Some growers see preparations as magic potions of sorts, claiming they sensitize soil to cosmic rhythms. Followers of what’s known as the biodynamic calendar sow, plant and reap crops based on the positions of the sun, moon, planets and stars. (While not necessary for Demeter certification, some of Weleda’s gardens operate this way, but not the one in Schwäbisch Gmünd.)

More demonstrable benefits of the preparations, Dr. Sprenger said, include fungus control, increased microbial diversity, nitrogen stabilization and the ability for soil to sequester larger amounts of carbon.

Calendulas grown in Schwäbisch Gmünd are used to produce Weleda’s Comforting Cream Bath cleanser for babies. “In high season, we encourage our office employees to help with the harvest,” Dr. Sprenger said.

Those used in its Skin Food products are farmed biodynamically near Frankfurt and transported to a lab in Schwäbisch Gmünd, just five minutes by foot from the garden, where they are heated in sunflower-seed oil at around 155 degrees Fahrenheit, cooled and pressed into a concentrate that is then incorporated into various formulas.

Mallow and other plants grown in Schwäbisch Gmünd are cultivated using preparations, or homeopathic additives, which some growers claim sensitize soil to cosmic rhythms.  Credit...Andrew White for The New York Times

Steady Growth
Weleda’s first gardens, in Switzerland and Germany, were in operation at the time it was formed in 1921 by Ita Wegman, a physician, and Rudolf Steiner, a New Age philosopher who two years earlier opened the first Waldorf, or Steiner, school. Then known as Futurum AG, it has since inception produced pharmaceutical as well as cosmetic products (only the cosmetics are sold in the United States).

Both the company and the school were influenced by the spiritual science movement anthroposophy. Also founded by Steiner, its adherents believe that everything in nature is interconnected. Before he died in 1925, Steiner gave a series of lectures on alternative agricultural techniques, which laid the groundwork for what later became known as biodynamic farming, said Peter Staudenmaier, an associate professor of history at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

Steiner and his followers wanted “to heal the earth,” said Dr. Staudenmaier, who specializes in the political history of environmentalism. “Their mission was to regenerate the soils that had been abused and despoiled by industrial processes,” he added.

Steiner’s thinking about agriculture continues to inform that of the company he co-founded, which in 1928 was renamed Weleda in a nod to Veleda, a Germanic priestess and healer who lived during the first century A.D.

“One of the most important things that we as a society can do to combat the effects of climate change is more regenerative agriculture,” Rob Keen, the chief executive of Weleda in North America, said.

“Select Steiner teachings are not reflective of Weleda’s guiding principles upon which we were founded more than 100 years ago and by which we continue to be guided today,” he added.

The calendulas grown there are used to produce a bath product for babies.  Credit...Andrew White for The New York Times

By 1931, five years after it introduced what would one day be called Skin Food, Weleda had opened an arm in the United States. Ahead of and during World War II, the company conducted business with the Nazi Party in Germany. It later made an effort to reconcile with this period in its history by issuing an apology to Holocaust survivors and opening its archives for academic research. Dr. Staudenmaier explored the Nazis’ connections to Weleda and other biodynamic growers in a 2013 research article. “Like any historian, I do wish that a company like Weleda would pay more attention to the complexities in its own history,” he said.

Domestically, its products were mainly sold at independent pharmacies and health food stores until 1984, when the grocer Whole Foods began to stock them.

According to Ameena Meer, who formerly worked as a creative director for Weleda in North America, Skin Food started to become more widely popular in 2017, around the time that consumers began to seek products that promised “dewy, glowy, glassy, glazed” complexions. The next year, Ms. Meer developed a marketing campaign to modernize Weleda in the United States, where she said it had a reputation as being old-fashioned.

Both the campaign and the renewed interest in Skin Food helped to usher in a “cool comeback” for Weleda, said Ms. Meer, 59, who lives in Los Angeles and now works as a wellness consultant and psychic. Major retailers that currently sell its products include Amazon, Target and, as of last year, Walgreens and CVS.

Food for Thought
“It’s thick,” Morgan Jerkins, a writer in New York, said of Skin Food.

“I feel like if I wear Weleda Skin Food, I’m going to be OK if I walk to the subway in February. I feel like it’s going to put up a fight.” Since she started using the product, Ms. Jerkins, 30, added that she has not had a need for foundation.

Skin Food also has fans in celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Sharon Stone. “I always have it in my set bag,” said Fiona Stiles, a makeup artist in Los Angeles who works with famous clients. “It’s so humectant!”

Ms. Stiles, 51, has carried the cream in her kit for 15 years. She particularly likes to use Skin Food as a topper, applying it with her palms onto the apples of clients’ cheeks for “a very even highlight.”

The product smells citrusy and, vaguely, of vanilla and bell pepper. “I imagine that people who love Campari, Ricola cough drops and the fragrance Bistro Waters, by the perfumer D.S. & Durga, tend to gravitate toward its scent,” said Porochista Khakpour, a writer in Los Angeles. Ms. Khakpour, 44, first discovered Skin Food more than a decade ago, in Berlin. “It’s deservedly iconic,” she added. “If someone is carrying it, I think they’re in the know.”

This year, Weleda promoted the Skin Food product line as part of a campaign to raise awareness of its agricultural practices. Called Save Earth’s Skin, it features the model Arizona Muse, 33, as its face. Ms. Muse, who lives in Ibiza, is also the founder of Dirt, an organization that funds biodynamic farming projects.

As a child, Ms. Muse attended Waldorf schools in Santa Fe, N.M., and Tucson, Ariz. She credits her interest in agriculture to her mother, who introduced her to Steiner’s anthroposophy movement, from which biodynamic farming was born.

“This is such a deeply protective approach,” Ms. Muse said of the method.

In the Save Earth’s Skin campaign, she compares soil to human skin, encouraging a twist on the golden rule: Do unto the planet’s dirt as you would your own epidermis.

 

Is Travel Good For Teens?

June 21, 2022
By Cassie Standke

Is it safe?  Will they make good choices?  What if something happens?  Will they meet nice people?  

These are just a few of the questions that might pop up when considering allowing your teen to travel - and they're all valid and worthy of discussion.  But a question that might be even more important is, what will they learn?  For parents, the educational aspect of travel is most likely the biggest reason why they send their kids on an overseas educational program with their school, like our senior trip to Italy.  But what about travel with non-school groups - or even solo travel - for teens?

Traveling is the moment when the textbook comes alive, when everyday objects look completely different and when common greetings sound exotic. For teens, traveling abroad is exhilarating, stimulating, frustrating and—whether they're looking for it or not—extremely educational.  Experts say that the educational benefit for teens goes far beyond learning historical facts, architectural styles, conversational phrases and even a working knowledge of a foreign subway system. Travel is an excellent way for students to develop the vital skills like critical thinking and problem solving that will enable them to compete in an increasingly globally interdependent economy.

“I think the biggest thing travel does for teens is to help them to see beyond their own somewhat limited world and to see how other people live,” says Christine Schelhas-Miller, who taught adolescent development at Cornell University for many years and is the co-author of Don’t Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money: The Essential Parenting Guide to the College Years.

Travel is particularly good for developing critical thinking as it forces teens to examine their own values and beliefs from the perspective of a different culture. They become aware of aspects of their lives that they have taken for granted and never examined. - Christine Schelhas-Miller

Improvement in critical-thinking skills can translate into big gains in the classroom. Travel can help students develop all of what educators call the 4 Cs (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation), says Dr. Jessie Voigts, who has a PhD in international education and runs wanderingeducators.com, a global community of educators sharing travel experiences.

“Travel encourages critical thinking (especially when comparing intercultural differences), problem solving (in so many ways—money, transportation, food, events, cultures, languages, etc.) and communication (both verbal and non-verbal, which is key to any communication event, globally),” says Voigts, author of Bringing the World Home: A Resource Guide to Raising Intercultural Kids.  "It also encourages collaboration (working together with your travel partners or locals to fulfill your basic needs), creativity (finding a creative solution to a travel problem) and innovation (whether it’s a way to hold your luggage together with whatever is on hand or finding a new route in an unfamiliar town past a parade to get where you need to go).”  And, through these experiences, teens are becoming more flexible and adaptable along the way, two more skills that are essential in the 21st Century’s virtual workplace.

Our kids face an entirely different world than that of their parents and grandparents. They need more than school and college to get a job. They need to learn flexibility, adaptability, and other skills to succeed in today’s global economy. Our coworkers and neighbors are no longer just next door, but all around the world.

Traveling—not just being a tourist, but smart travel—helps teens learn flexibility and adaptability, and creates an open-minded worldview that allows teens to work well with others anywhere in the world.” - Dr. Jessie Voigts

It may take teens—and their parents—some time to realize that they have gained all of these skills from their travels abroad. But it probably won’t take anyone long to figure out that these teens have learned a lot about something very close to home: themselves.  Unexpected events always happen to travelers and, when faced with these events without an adult to guide them, teens develop problem-solving skills and confidence in their abilities to manage their lives.  When teens travel, they expect to learn so much about the other country, but may also make some important self-discoveries along the way.

Some Life Benefits of Traveling as a Teenager:  

  • Learn How to Save and Budget Money - Sure, learning about money starts at a young age, but there is real-life experience and deferred gratification in saving up all school year for an extended trip that a teen can proudly say that they paid for.  Plus there's the skill of budgeting throughout the trip.
  • Ability to Make an Itinerary -  Itineraries are just as dynamic as the places visited and this will reflect upon your teens travels no matter where they venture.  They'll build flexibility when they need to make and change their itinerary so they can have the best experience possible.
  • Build Problem-solving Skills -  World travel wouldn’t be complete without the occasional bump in the road.  Dealing with problems like pouring rain when the forecast predicted sun or a broken suitcase zipper will make them a savvy problem-solver as they work through predicaments proactively and positively rather than allowing them to spoil the trip.
  • Become an Independent and Responsible Young Person - When traveling around with family and friends, it’s super easy to follow their lead and let others take care of things like tickets, transportation, meals, itineraries, etc. – The list goes on and on.  Traveling without the familiarity of people from home means your teen will need to take more responsibility for their own actions, as well as look out for those they are with. This means showing up prepared, making the effort to participate, and being accountable throughout the trip.
  • Break Stereotypes and Experience New Cultures - Unfortunately, people are often quick to believe stereotypes about other countries and their cultures, especially the negative ones. This is true of Americans' views of overseas destinations, as well as other countries negative perceptions of Americans. When traveling, your teen will have the opportunity to break this cycle by keeping an open mind and an open heart and sharing everything that it means to be a global citizen.

While every family and every teen is unique, when it comes to travel it's possible the pros outweigh any cons.  Traveling teaches meaningful life skills, provides an opportunity to meet new people, facilitates cultural appreciation, and teaches the ability to adapt to new environments. Travel is a fantastic way of gaining these unique experiences which develop youth into more well-rounded citizens, all while having fun along the way!

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