Soon after the first Waldorf School was founded in 1919 in Stuttgart for the children of the workforce of the Waldorf-Astoria tobacco factory, the question of lessons in physical exercise arose. At this time sport revolved around the so-called “German gymnastics movement”, a form of physical training developed by the renowned Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778-1852) and having definite military overtones. Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was on the lookout for a new form of physical education, which better suited the holistic view of education which he had conceived for the Waldorf School. He asked Fritz Graf von Bothmer (1883-19411) if he would develop a concept for gymnastics lessons in the new school. In 1922 von Bothmer took over the school subject of physical education and, having studied Steiner’s new ideas on teaching based on his picture of Man and how children develop, he created something quite new: Bothmer gymnastics.
Between 1922 and 1938, thirty different exercises came into being, each of which took into consideration some special stage in the development of the children and young students and could be used in lessons accordingly. They form the basis for all that goes on in sports lessons. For Bothmer, the following questions were of great importance:
· What is the use of practising certain sequences of movement in sports lessons?
· How should they be practised?
· Which qualities in movement am I improving?
· What effect do they have on the healthy development of children and youngsters?
Today these remain the basic questions concerning sports lessons in the Waldorf School.
Sports lessons in combination with the other subjects on the Waldorf curriculum
For an insight into the task in hand and the significance of sports lessons, a clearer picture can emerge if we take a look at the status of the individual subjects within the context of the whole curriculum. The subjects taught at the Waldorf School can be divided into three categories, the cognitive, practical craft and artistic ones. As Steiner would have it, all the subjects are equally important and, working together in harmony, form a healthy basis for the development of the pupils.
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One essential building block in achieving the above-mentioned harmony is an effective timetable. To this end the school day always begins with a double lesson from class one up to class twelve, the so-called main lesson, in which pupils work intensively on one topic for several weeks (e.g. local history in class 4; history in class 7, i.e. the age of discovery, Columbus). After the break, there are further cognitive subjects, then a practical craft subject and the schoolday ends with one of the artistic subjects. This “ideal” day, which in real life often looks very different, should be repeated throughout the week.
In order for the sports teacher to prepare lessons in the context of this harmonious interplay of all the subjects, he should know which particular topic the pupils are busy with in the main lesson. Which project are they working on? Where are they in their development?
In this respect, all the teachers working with any particular class have to be in constant contact with each other in discussions and class conferences. Something else which can help the sports teacher in lesson preparation is sitting in on another lesson and experiencing the pupils in a different learning environment.
It is essential that the class teacher or (in the higher classes) the class tutor and the subject teachers keep in mind how all the subjects complement each other, in particular when working with the younger pupils. The older pupils, who have experienced much more in all the various school subjects, have a greater self-awareness. For them, it is not so important that the school day form one homogeneous unit as it is for the younger pupils.
Steiner’s 'The Foundations of Human Experience' - the Basis for Sports Lessons
Waldorf education lays claim to stimulating and nourishing the whole being. Everything that the pupil experiences affects his entire being. He needs to be addressed in body, soul and intellect. In his course of lectures for teachers on “The Foundations of Human Experience”, Rudolf Steiner sets out how the college of teachers can achieve this high ideal. (2)
The aim of the following articles is to stimulate interest in physical exercise lessons based on Waldorf principles. Although there is no room here for an introduction into Waldorf education, some special terms are here explained, terms which Steiner developed and which keep cropping up in this book. Therefore, it is both important and worthwhile to get used to them.
The chart below illustrates the terms developed by Steiner for the different age groups. (3) They can serve as background for planning lessons appropriate to the particular stage of the child’s development.These rather dry-looking terms can be studied by teachers and other interested parties in small working groups, so that they are infused with life for daily use.
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Some Technical Considerations
As is the case with other subjects, the sports teacher has to adapt to the given conditions. The planning of a sports lesson must take the workplace into consideration. Not every school has a modern, separate sports hall and when sports lessons take place in the school hall, there is bound to be a conflict of interests, especially in the winter months. Many schools, in the process of building, have no sports hall at their disposal. This calls for a lot of imagination and above all, patience. But it does work, as everyday practice shows and lessons given under the most difficult of conditions can be very stimulating and exciting.
It is the same with gymnastics apparatus. Of course it is great to have everything at one’s fingertips, so that an idea can be put straight into practice. But a lot of exercises are possible using the simplest of means. Imagination and good ideas are required, which teachers can evolve in cooperation with each other. There are also regional considerations which can influence sports lessons. A school up on the North Sea coast has different options to a school situated at the foot of the Alps. Rather than going on long (and expensive) trips, it makes more sense to exploit what is on your own doorstep.
Continuity in lessons and their structure are a challenge, because normally pupils only have sport once a week. Pursuing a central theme is not easy. What makes matters worse is when lessons are cancelled. This is unavoidable but must be taken into account. School festivals, day trips and class trips all interrupt the course of lessons. All the more important that the structure of the lessons and the long-term planning go hand in hand. It is essential that lessons be planned and carried out as projects over several weeks (e.g. handball in class 7), as with the main lesson. In this way it becomes easier for the pupils, both the younger and the older ones, to remember what went on in the previous lesson. They see that progress is being made, as they become more confident in what they are doing. They experience how their movements, with practice and experience, gain in skill. The pupils can get involved in the tasks more easily and become immersed in the special qualities of the various exercises.
In order to develop in a healthy way, the younger pupils profit from real pictures and images, which give them inner strength. Sports lessons can allow for this by embedding the games and exercises into pictures or stories, in which the children play various parts. Thus, the image or the story becomes the basis for action, which the children carry out without thinking. What lovely exercises can be laid down in this way! Even the warming-up session becomes effective, when the children are encouraged to play a part in the framework of a story.
With the older pupils, experience is in the foreground. It is not about communicating some insight, which then has to be practised, but rather that experiencing the movement leads to increased awareness. For the individual pupil, acquiring new skills is not as important as becoming aware of the abilities one has and how they are developing. Just as with other school subjects, sports lessons can and should encourage individualization. Learning is reflected in what the individual pupil has accomplished. Heterogeneity, so often moaned about, is now the deliberate aim of the lesson. It is the precondition for creating the ability to cooperate within a group.
We also have to consider the question of how each separate lesson is structured. One important element not to be overlooked is that of “inhaling and exhaling”. This of course does not refer to actual breathing, although in sports lessons this would certainly and clearly reflect whether a lesson has had a healthy balance or not. As in the other school subjects, there should be an element of giving and receiving, tensing up and letting go, the interplay of “within and without”.
Having been emotionally involved in some particular unit of the lesson, the children must be enabled to free themselves from it. After a wild game of tig, do the teachers manage to calm the children down again with an exercise which is quieter and slower, to decrease the pulse rate and slow down the breathing? When the lesson comes to an end, do they have an exercise or a game at hand, where you could hear a pin drop? Are there any exercises with calm, controlled movements, in which the pupils are immersed? Experiencing the quality of particular movements is only possible when there are not only hectic, strenuous games and exercises, as important as they are, but also those which lead to calm and concentrated learning. In this respect, sports lessons rank alongside the cognitive subjects.
Steiner pointed out distinctive features of the learning process to the teachers of the first Waldorf School by splitting it up into three steps, whereby the night i.e. sleep plays an important part. Learning something new cannot simply take place on the same day that the pupil encounters it, but the teaching should be done graphically and vividly so that in the following step, the new material is thoroughly absorbed. In step three, on the following day, it has evolved into something which has been understood, grasped.
The sports teachers also try to take the three learning steps into account. Since the lessons generally have a weekly rhythm, the situation is a completely different one from that of the main lessons which take place on a daily basis. For the sports lessons, it means getting to know a new exercise (immersion), then in the following unit deepening the experience (practice) until finally the movement is performed and consolidated (for the older pupils, even understood). This is one of the main reasons for sports lessons being taught in project form.
When Steiner laid down the principles of co-educative teaching, he was more interested in the children's development than in the issue of emancipation. Today, nobody questions boys and girls learning to knit and sew together. Not so with sports lessons. Very often, boys and girls are split up when puberty begins. Many Waldorf sports teachers adopt a firm standpoint on this. There are strong educational arguments as to why the sexes as far as possible remain together and are taught by male and female teachers. Certainly, there are single lessons, or in the difficult phase of early puberty, longer periods of time, in which separating the sexes makes sense, but all things considered, this ought to remain the exception to the rule.
Sports lessons in the Waldorf School, as with all the other subjects, are one piece of a larger educational picture. It is not primarily about communicating skills, facts, competence but rather about creating the sort of learning atmosphere for the young person, in which he or she can gradually become a mature, responsible individual, ready and willing to contribute to society. On the way to becoming adult, girls and boys should learn to face situations, in which direct contact may initially be difficult and in which limits can be tried out and set. The field of sports teaching should not shrink from this challenge.
Translated by Geoff Hunter
Gerlinde Idler, born 1968 near Vienna, was a competitive athlete in gymnastics and swimming. She has been working at Waldorf Schools in Austria and Germany since 1992, currently at the Freie Waldorfschule Freiburg-Wiehre. She holds a master's degree in educational science, sociology and political science as well as training in Bothmer gymnastics, spacial dynamics and play therapy. She is a guest lecturer at various teacher training courses in Germany and abroad, as well as a lecturer in Kassel/Freiburg for sports teacher career changers.
(1) Idler Gerlinde; Gerding, Lutz, Der Sportuntericht an der Waldorfschule, Verlag Freies Geistesleben, 2018.
(2) Rudolf Steiner, The Foundations of Human Experiences (Study of Man) GA 293.
(3) Nach Rudolf Kischnick, Leibesübung und Bewusstseinsschulung, Zbinden Verlag, Basel 1989, S. 29.
(4) Rudolf Steiner, The Foundations of Human Experiences (Study of Man) GA 293.
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reference: Übersetzung Sportbuch