Unlined paper, handwriting and the development of inner freedom

By Donna Simmons

Waldorf education, because it has been developed out of a profound understanding of how human beings develop, is at essence a healing art of education. We all come to this earth with challenges and flaws—physical, mental, emotional and so on. When one penetrates to the essence of Waldorf education, one can learn how to work with its healing impulse.

Children in Waldorf schools never use lined paper. This can seem like an odd thing to highlight—an annoying peculiarity, a symptom of some sort of ideal that is impractical. But if ones asks the question ’why?’, then one can see that there is a very good reason for this.

When a child is asked to draw or write on a plain piece of paper, she needs to orientate herself to a two-dimensional plane in such a way that her writing is straight, bold and clear. She needs to look up at the blackboard, find where she is with her writing, then look down and find where she needs to write. A back and forth, up and down rhythm envelopes her as she learns to harmonize her perception of that which is at a distance, with that which is in front of her.

In doing this seemingly simple task, the child develops faculties of perception and coordination. She needs to rally her will forces to write straight across the page, to form her letters so that they form a harmonious unity and to decide where to start and end her sentences. If her sentences do not match what is written on the board, she has to have enough flexibility to be able to accommodate what she writes and to not panic and either stretch her letters so they cover a line or squeeze them together, compressing them.

Learning to write is hard work! Many modern people think it is too hard work—and our society tends to think that any kind of exertion (other than purely physical) is a waste of time. Handwriting struggles under the double-bind of being see not only as too much effort, but antiquated, akin to riding in a buggy. Thus handwriting is a subject not even touched upon by Common Core State Standards (CCSS) which lays out the scope and progression of lessons, followed by most public schools in the USA. Most (though certainly not all) conventional educators do not have any clue as to the developmental potential of something as simple as the cultivation of good handwriting.

An important methodological ‘law’ or guideline in Waldorf pedagogy is to always go from the active to the passive. Children are primarily beings of will, of doing. They need to be actively, bodily, engaged in their education. Many conventional educators (and anyone who bothers to actually observe children) know this but how one applies this observation is often lost. Children are encouraged to play and explore – but without the form that guides their explorations and thus helps them hone their wills, such activity can be, at best wasted and at worst, counterproductive, especially with those children who, through temperament or inner challenge, require help to move toward being able to form their own play and exploration. In such situations, play and exploration become frazzled and disjointed, as the child is not able by himself to bring order and purpose to what he is doing.

In first grade, when we teach writing, we thus move from the active (writing) to the passive (reading). Children learn through forming their letters – and this very hard work helps them learn to control and shape their will and their impulses and not the other way round. By struggling with forming letters, a child struggles to bring discipline to his physical being and to his inclinations. This happens not because of outer pressure or conformity—but out of the lawfulness of what is required to do something as innately rewarding as writing. Thus discipline – inner discipleship – develops from an inner impulse and not as something imposed from without.

The development of truly free individuals is our noblest aim in educating children. By helping a child learn to listen to her often hidden, sometimes mysterious, sense of budding individuality, we help her take steps toward true autonomy. As parents and teachers, we provide the security, the safety and—most importantly—the forms that cultivate the true development of freedom. This is a long process which cannot be shortened. Taking away the hard slog of handwriting (to use but one example) does a child no favors—the attainment of freedom, of knowing who one is in the world, is a long journey. The ability to listen to one’s inner wisdom is not, despite what some would say, an innate ability. It needs to be developed. The drama of incarnating into a physical body means we all have challenges and issues which stand in our way and thus this learning to listen can take a long, long time to develop. As teachers and parents we can help by providing lessons and exercises –such as learning to write beautifully—which give opportunities for our children to overcome resistance and apathy and which then helps them take a step toward clearing the path to inner freedom.



Posted on July 27, 2017 in Active and Therapeutic Education

  • Sonia says:

    Thank you for this beautifully articulated article. As a calligrapher and homeschooler, handwriting is a pillar in our home. I wonder your opinion about when it is impt for a child to hold a pencil or other writing implement correctly. My almost 6 year old has noticed how i hold my pencil and when i model it for him he is adamant about his position.

  • Donna Simmons says:

    Just keep on holding it the way you do…fighting with him jut won’t work. At home this sort of thing is very common and quite hard to deal with – in a Waldorf classroom the group ‘holds’ the children and through the power of imitation in young children, this kinnd of issueis lessened.
    I should also say that in Waldorf pedagogy, a 6 year old really shouldn’t be using pencils…block and stick crayons have pedagogical importance when a child first starts to draw and write because of their shape and because the child has to push more – thus being more conscious – when he writes with a stick crayon.
    Of course if a child always sees his parents using pencils and pens (and screens!!) then he is also going to want to use those tools….!

    • Sonia Gordon -walinsky says:

      Thank you for the reminder of how important my modeling is. I will pick up the beautiful creations we have and write my shipping list with them.

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