Original or Copied Work?

One of the perennial questions asked to teachers at Waldorf schools is “Why do the children all paint the same pictures? Why don’t you leave them free to draw or paint whatever they want?” Such questions usually arise after a cursory glance round a first or second grade classroom where a wall might be covered in the class’ paintings of a scene from a fairy tale. The questioner has only looked quickly at the pictures and seen similar figures and colors and drawn the conclusion that all the pictures are the same. Had he or she looked more closely, she would have discovered that each picture is different – this child used more red, overwhelming the blue; this child used so much water that the colors are faint, almost washed out; this child painted with a dry brush, giving a harsh and bright feel to the painting; and so on. And of course, to the children, each picture is completely different – no child gets his picture confused with that of another!
Having said that, there is, of course, similarity because the children have been told to copy what the teacher painted. Herein lies the unspoken words beneath the question – this is unfree. There is no individual expression here.
Waldorf education is based on a sophisticated understanding of child development, one that takes not only the physical and intellectual sides of the child into account, but addresses his emotional and spiritual needs as well. One small piece of this is the understanding that young children learn by imitation – it is their natural way of apprenticing into the world (see other entries on this blog for more on this). Imitation is at its height in about the 5th year – but it is still strong in a 6 or 7 year old and vestiges remain in an 8 year old. By 9, as the child moves through the 9 year change and experiences an awakening of selfhood, imitation fades.
And so in the early grades, the teacher does and the children follow. The teacher gestures, speaks, plays, works, draws, paints etc etc – and the children do as she does.  They are laying a foundation, a template as it were, a basis on which to stand.  Each chiod will bring something of himself, of his individuality to what he is learning (thus the discernable differences in the paintings) but he will, nonetheless, share a basis with his classmates. They are collecting information, taking in skills, modeling behaviors. And when they are old enough to become truly conscious of their selves in relation to their surroundings (ie starting at about 9) they then can move away from  copying and start to become involved in real and meaningful choices.
The crucial point here, is that without laying these foundations, the children then have little or nothing to stand upon when it is time for them to actually begin to stand apart from adults (parents and teachers). Without the moral guidance of boundaries and the picture images of right and wrong from stories; without the language skills learned from repetition and rhythm such as singing and circle games; without such skills as drawing, painting and other arts, they then have to learn these things anew. They are at a huge disadvantage as they then need to struggle to consciously learn what they should have been given as a gift while they were not yet conscious.
Back to artistic work such as drawing or painting, one can clearly see the advantages of such an approach. By allowing the children to copy the teacher’s work and thus build up their skills, confidence and aesthetic sensibilities. one gently ushers each child into a world where all human beings are creative and artistic – not just a select few. No 5 year old says “I can’t draw” out of himself – he has acquired this attitude from somewhere else if it rears its ugly head. All children accept their ability to draw and paint – and by working with their inborn proclivity for imitation, one can build up this acceptance into the years when a child becomes self aware and starts to judge himself by what others achieve.
And certainly, some children have a gift for drawing or painting (or a myriad of other things). That’s fine. But the point is that by allowing children to copy an adult’s artistic work and to build this foundation of knowledge which he can create because he can copy, then it is far more likely that that child will not give up if he is one who does not possess a gift for art. Have a look at the main lesson books of older Waldorf students and you will see a clear example of what I am talking about. All the books will be beautiful and artistic – some will be real works of art, some will leave something to be desired, but all will be expressions of the student’s creative powers. And that is the gift which we wish our children to carry into the world – the belief and knowledge that they are creative human beings.

Posted on December 28, 2006 in Waldorf Curriculum

  • Rebecca says:

    Donna, this makes so much sense! I have not been doing anything specifically with Daisy, now 6, and yet every time Mara and I sit down to work, she wants to do (duh) what we’re doing on our papers! So she struggles to make fourth grade work out of her Kindergarten body. This is a much-needed reminder that I need to paint with her and make things for her to imitate that are within her skill level and age range and are appropriate for her. Thank you!

  • Tara says:

    What a great post! I am homeschooling two ten year-olds who have, until this year, been in a Waldorf school and we are struggling with the other side of this issue. I think their guidance through the nine year change was lacking and now I am working hard to help them find their “artistic voice” through various exercises such as contour drawing and mixed media. We struggle, too, with individual thoughts and idea formations when it comes to lesson time because they wait (like eager little birds!) for me to spoon feed them each paragraph. Slowly, slowly it’s coming along. I can understand and support the philosophy for this type of teaching during the younger years but would like to add that I think helping children through the transition is key to developing initiative and critical thinking. There is no magical switch that takes them from one side to the other.

  • Deborah Gillespie says:

    Thank you so much for this! You have a wonderful gift for explaining things. Anyone ever tell you you would make a great teacher?….
    I was at a Waldorf homeschooling conference a couple of summers ago and the art teacher taught us a “painting lesson” the way she would paint with a young child. The discussion came up about having the children paint something specific, rather than just out of their imagination, and she expained that in the younger grades the art lessons are more about learning skills (ie in painting, beeswax modelling etc) and in the older grades it is more about seeing an expression of the child’s own imagination, artistic ability etc. I believed her and understood what she was saying, but you have just explained to me WHY, and how it makes sense in keeping with the child’s development. I actually said “Ah-ha!” out loud after reading your post!!
    Thank you thank you!

  • pam says:

    I have a child in the third grade at a Waldorf school. He is 9 years old and is starting to mention that he isn’t pleased with copying. This only happens when the drawing does not “fit” what his imagination is telling him. I am struggling with how to help him with this because I know that drawing is not a strong point of the teacher and I can see how the children may feel confined by this. When is it appropriate for the children to begin to develop their own imagination and give it merit and is it possible to thwart this natural transition by giving too much leadership and not enough freedom? Will the child “learn” that his ideas are not valuable if he is not encouraged or allowed to express them? From Rebeccas post it sounds like that could certainly be the case. Like reading each child will come to this point at a different time and how can each be met at hi or her needs in a group setting? Hopefully somebody has some insight – thanks so much

  • Donna says:

    Dear Deborah,
    I know you are a member of my discussion Forum, Waldorf At Home ( see Christopherus homepage if any of you are interested) and I wonder if you’d like to bring this question there? I don’t respond to people’s comments about my blog as life would become unmanageable(!!) but you could bring it there and probably get lots of feedback, both from me and from other Waldorf homeschoolers!

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