Each year of the grade school has a story motif, with human development providing the map for the story curriculum in each grade.
In first grade, children hear a wide variety of fairy tales from many cultures. These, along with nature stories, nourish the imagination of the first grade child. True fairy tales contain archetypes of human existence and have been used throughout history to explain the world around us. The world of the fairy tale is an integrated whole in which animals speak, wrongs are righted, and resolution is found. This world reflects the child’s still somewhat dreamy consciousness and feeling of connection to the world. The stories provide the material for instruction in writing, a process that takes the child from story image to picture to letter to word, and onwards to reading and arithmetic. Stories are told, recalled, acted out, and illustrated. Through this process, the child acquires a fund of knowledge and increasing skill and develops capacities for mobile, creative, image-filled thought.
The mood of the fairy tale shifts in second grade to reflect developing self-awareness in the child. Fairy tales are replaced by short fables that depict various elements of human nature, often expressed by animals, and by legends that tell of the deeds of extraordinary human beings who were able to overcome or work in harmony with nature to bring goodness to the world. The child inwardly feels that our task as human beings is to balance our instincts and drives with our highest ideals. Native American tales are often told; they frequently provide a blending of the mood of fable and legend. More complex nature stories bring the cycle of the seasons alive for the child, still through the medium of imaginative pictures. The child continues to absorb the content of stories that again provide material for the development of knowledge and skills; these become more abilities develop.
Around third grade, or the age of nine, the developing child shows signs of a more awake consciousness and a greater level of self-awareness. The middle phase of the second developmental stage begins, and the child increasingly experiences himself as an individual, separate from the world around him. Questioning, uncertainty, or a loss of confidence often accompanies this growing feeling of separation. The significance of this developmental challenge has been noted in numerous biographies. The third grade curriculum responds with content and activities that strongly internal change. The stories of the first and second grade are replaced by an ancient mythology, typically that of the Hebrew people. These stories are not told as a religion but as an intact mythology that includes a creation and ordering of a world out of nothing, the departure from paradise (mirroring the child’s departure from early childhood), and the need to learn a range of practical skills that will be required to successfully live on the earth. As early childhood becomes a memory and new capacities awaken, the third grade child masters many practical skills through studies of farming, cooking, clothing and housing of the world, and building. Concepts such as measurement, time, and money are mastered as an essential part of these activities.
By fourth grade, the child is solidly in this middle phase and generally feels more comfortable with her growing independence and separateness. She is introduced to a second great mythology through Norse legends. These bring a very different creation myth and offer entirely different explanations of life and human nature. The intact, rather rosy world of early childhood is now a distant memory and the fourth grade child is ready to enter into a world that is no longer whole. Fractions, verb tenses, and parts of speech are introduced, reflecting this new awareness. Local and state geography and history build confidence and help anchor a solid sense of location. The nature stories and activities of the lower grades now transition into first lessons in formal science through studies of animals, the foundation of zoology. Studies are still brought through imaginative pictures, hands-on activities, and artistic renderings, nourishing the rich inner feeling life of this age. They are related to the human being, giving the child a picture of our unique gifts and responsibilities. The curriculum is brought alive through living concepts and reflects the child’s ever-expanding world.
For many children, fifth grade marks the final year of true childhood. The fifth grade child typically shows great energy and enthusiasm for life. Body proportions are harmonious and movement appears coordinated, fluid, and effortless. The child lives deeply in rich inner imaginative pictures. He displays self-confidence and zest for life. The overall mood is more awake than in earlier years and there is a great appetite for learning. Ancient cultures provide the central motif for the fifth grade year. In the early part of the year, these cultures are brought in the form of mythology, relating the great cultures of Ancient India, Persia, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. The children see that there are many religions, many cultures, and many, often competing, ways of explaining life on earth that are in part dependent on the geography and circumstances of a particular culture. They are introduced to a variety of religions, including Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism. The Egyptian culture of the Dead brings many questions about life. Through mythology, they study the early development of agriculture and writing. The great variety of myths builds a living picture of the relationship between culture and an environment. The mythology curriculum culminates in the stories of Ancient Greece. Towards the end of the year, mythology transitions to recorded history and ancient civilizations. This transition marks a point in human history at which the Greeks moved from an earlier worldview that was holistic and external to a more philosophical, individual, and questioning approach. It mirrors a change in the child’s thinking from picture-based thought to the dawning of formal thought. The fifth grade year concludes with a recapitulation of ancient cultures through the biography and travels of one historical figure, Alexander the Great.
The fifth grade child’s expanding consciousness is supported by a study of North American geography with its contrasting environments and terrains. This once again reinforces the child’s sense of place and shows how our environment impacts our ways of living. The science curriculum expands into a study of botany, which appeals to the child’s love of beauty and requires precise observation, qualities that encourage warm interest and a feeling of connection while providing a strong foundation for future scientific thought and inquiry. Fifth grade studies are rounded out with decimal fractions and freehand geometric drawing. The latter combines artistry and imagination and harnesses the child’s newly emerging powers of thought.
This text above is adapted from the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education, with revisions that reflect the MPCS curriculum.