Fairy Tales in Waldorf Education
One of the reasons that the telling of fairy tales has fallen into such disrepute in the last fifty years or so, is that very few people know how or when to tell certain stories, what is appropriate to different ages and how the stories should be spoken.
Fairy tales for children under seven should be told evenly and clearly, with an emphasis on the consonants, rather than on the vowels. Vowels carry the emotional coloring of words, while consonants create the pictures.It can be a great mistake to offer a story to a child before the age of seven in an intense and dramatic tone of voice. People seem to feel that a young child needs this drama to catch his or her attention, but children are quite capable of giving their full attention to a story begun in a quiet and relaxed atmosphere. Competing with TV, movies, etc., is a problem of its own and the answer is not to distort the tales themselves.
These “sound pictures” present clear images to the child that he can live into to the degree in which he is emotionally ready. Try saying out loud, “The big black bear lumbered into the woods.” first with a strong emphasis on the vowels, then on the consonants. You should be able to hear for yourself the difference. Over emphasizing the emotional content of the words may cause fear in a young child disproportionate to the real meaning of the story.
After six or seven, when the child begins to lose his or her baby teeth, he or she is ready for more drama. The emotional life begins to strengthen and develop independently of the physical body and Waldorf Class Teachers tell the stories with great variety of expression, especially when directing certain parts of the story to children of different temperaments. Also, after seven, more complex fairy tales are told and stories that have a greater emphasis on cause and effect.
Young children can and do enjoy stories which their parents and teachers tell and can benefit greatly from the imaginative stimulation they provide. Most parents can attest to the fact that young children want stories to be repeated, sometimes over a very long period of time with no variation or respite. In spite of the fact that the parent starts to feel like she is living in a time warp, this demand of the child should be indulged. The longer a child can live with a story and the more it is repeated, the greater is the exercise of the child’s mental and emotional faculties. The ability to create inner pictures is developed. The rhythmic patterning of language and inner dialogue is developed and the child’s verbal memory is strengthened. The desire for the repetition should come from the child and the parent should accommodate it as cheerfully as possible. The desire for variety belongs to a later stage of development and should appear as the child becomes ready to read and write.
Before the age of three, only the simplest household and nature tales are necessary and appreciated. A tale made up by a mother about a little boy who one day put on his coat and hat and mittens and went to the store with his mother is usually very entertaining and quite sufficient. There is no need to say that the little boy went out of the house and met a witch or a dragon. The very young child does not have an imagination developed enough to handle this. He may expect to see a monster at every corner. And in terms of “fairy tale truth” – little boys and girls do not meet dragons, Princes do! This is something quite different.
Simple stories about how a little chick comes out of its egg and finds the nest and its mother so warm and safe from winter winds is a typical nature story for threes. Always emphasize the life giving and protective aspect of Nature at this age. There will be time enough later for the child to come to understand her caprices and difficult demands. If the parents have a feeling for the unseen world of fairies and angels, they may tell simple stories about them without any problem. Many young children have a strong sense of reality about these things. The stories should still be kept simple and direct with a gentle reverence.
Four year old stories can be a bit longer and a little more detailed. A first fairy tale is “Sweet Porridge” found in Grimm’s’ collection. “The Three Little Pigs”, “Goldilocks”, and “Chicken Little” are fine as long as the negative aspects are not over-emphasized. Stories about Jack Frost, King Winter, Lady Spring and the Midsummer Fairies are good along with “The Little Red Hen”, “The Shoemaker and the Elves” and “Star Money.”
Five year olds like stories with a little more action but kept within the realm of truth. The old lady down the street should not be equated with a wicked witch. Six year olds are ready for fairy tales in which good and evil come closer to the human being, but not those as complex as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” or “Little Red Riding Hood.”
Make yourself familiar with fairy tales. Read them to yourself before you read them to a child. Using the guidelines here, ask yourself questions about any new story you might like to tell. How complex is it? How long? Am I personally comfortable with it?
If you have any doubts about a story, it is best to leave it to later, until the child is older or until the storyteller has studied it and understands its meaning. Remember, it is not necessary to have a new story every day. Children who are not spoiled by TV and movies are happy to listen to the same story for weeks at a time. This allows the child to have a very rich relationship to the story, which remains unconscious yet psychologically and spiritually effective.
Parents and teachers who take time to study the meaning and importance of fairy tales, whether from a psychological point of view outlined by Bruno Bettleheim, or a moral -spiritual view such as Rudolf Steiner’s, often become very enthusiastic. And as with many other enthusiasms, care should be taken not to overdo. It is necessary to have patience with this aspect of the education of the young child, as with all others. We know that it is harmful to try to make a baby stand on its legs before the muscles have developed sufficiently. Just so should the inner unfolding of the child’s imagination be respected. It should be given encouragement but not rushed.
While waiting for the child to “grow into” various stories, parents can fulfill their enthusiasm by reading lots of stories for their own enjoyment, enlightenment and even healing. Some suggestions would be Andrew Lang’s Rainbow collections, George MacDonald’s stories (suitable for nine and up) and folk tales from around the world, especially Russia.
Avoid modern versions of fairy tales with “whitewashed” or “PC” (politically correct) endings. These stories are very distorted and usually leave out the very element by which evil is overcome. The childhood fears commonly associated with fairy tales come from manipulated versions in which the frightening characters are not properly overcome. Psychologically, the true versions of the stories are beautifully constructed to help the child in his or her emotional development as long as they are told at the right time.
The true versions of fairy and folk tales are those which were collected at the end of the 1800’s. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm did not write the stories we associate with them. They, along with Andrew Lang and others were philologists who went out into the European countryside and collected stories retained in oral tradition. They may have saved many stories which would have died out in our technological era. They went to much trouble to correlate different versions and they were able to find a few people (mostly older women) who could verify the exact sequence of events clearly. These stories had been kept alive in the hearts and memories of the grandmothers for centuries.
There have been a few beautiful souls who could write original fairy tales, such as Hans Christian Andersen and George MacDonald. They had the true reverence and spiritual sensitivity to do so. But a careful reading of their stories will show their appropriateness for the older children along the guidelines given above. There are folk tales and teaching stories from the east which are also appropriate for grade school children.
Additionally, a great deal of emphasis must be placed on the telling of the stories and not showing them in pictures or on film. Bruno Bettleheim, in “Uses of Enchantment” clearly shows the harm in exposing the child to visualizations of the stories. He concludes that a child will only make mental images of those parts of oral stories that he or she is ready to assimilate. Unfortunately, they cannot filter out ready made images and they may easily be exposed to psychological structures and symbols they are not ready for. Almost all of the cases where a child has been traumatized by a fairy tale involve seeing it on film. Although there is much merit in Walt Disney’s films as art, they should be avoided by parents of young children. Children age nine and older can appreciate them; yet retain the inner images of the true stories they first came to know deep within their psyches.
This being said, there are some picture books whose illustrations are very impressionistic and allow the child to fill in the details. These generally are fine for younger children as long as the negative is not emphasized. But the very best picture is the one that the child paints in his or her own soul though hearing a beloved story time and time again.
Each month we will look at a fairy tale and examine its archetypes and meaning. This will be for grown-ups, of course. Children don’t require such explanations! Please feel free to suggest a story that you would particularly like to have explained and any general questions on the use and value of fairy tales will always be welcome in the Comment section below.
Christine Natale discovered Rudolf Steiner and his work at age 16 through a summer job in the Biodynamic Gardens at the Threefold Community in New York. After two years of community college in the area, Christine embarked upon a two year journey with her mentor, Rene Querido. Lucky enough to be in a small training class, Christine was able to intern at the Sacramento Waldorf School from the first of December through June with full block training experience in almost every grade and Kindergarten. Christine taught for about ten years, primarily in the Kindergarten, with one year taking a combined Fourth and Fifth Grade. During this time, she has given many lectures to the public, produced puppet theater and festival productions, co-directed young schools and been an active resource for Waldorf parents and their children.
More recently Christine has been focused on her writing. She has produced an extensive collection of children’s stories and articles on Waldorf Education and is in the process of self-publishing them. Christine brings a variety of skills in all of the arts, such as Waldorf Watercolor Painting, Crayon Drawing (and its interpretation), Handwork, Music, Drama, Puppetry, Storytelling and much more. She has a broad and deep base of knowledge of Anthroposophy and Waldorf Education, as well as a good familiarity with other educational systems and methods and an ability to draw connections and to build bridges of understanding for people who come from a wide variety of backgrounds.
Christine Natale 2003 All Rights Reserved