What is Holistic Homeschooling – Earthschooling?

By Kristie Burns

When I think of education, I always remember my favorite story about a wise men who travelled the country teaching people.

One day it was announced that this wise man was going to visit a certain village so all the villagers gathered in the town hall to hear him speak. They were very excited….he started off his speech, “Do you all know what I am going to talk about today?” and they all answered, of course, “No!”…so he left, acting offended but said he would give them another chance the next day. So the people all gathered again at the town hall and he asked, “Do you all know what I am going to talk about today?” and of course they all said, “yes!” because they didn’t want him to leave. But he acted offended and left anyway and said he would give them one last chance the next day. So they all came back….some replied yes and some no and he replied, “Then those who know tell the ones that don’t know – you don’t need me” and he left.

Now if we take this story into the modern day…imagine that the board of education was monitoring this talk this teacher would have been marked as miserably failing the core standard requirements for teaching. He would have been found to have taught “nothing” and probably been fired.

But if we look at this teacher from a holistic education point of view, we can find many ways in which he succeeded in teaching his students many things. First of all he gave them their lesson over three days. This allowed the students to sleep on the lesson and think about it, experience it, talk about it and really learn the lesson. He could have given the same speech in one session but he didn’t. He knew that to really have an impact that presenting the lesson in a three-day rhythm is important.

What a casual observer might also miss is the discussions he inspired in the students. He evoked emotions in the students and sparked debates and discussions over what he had been trying to teach them. These debates inspired community gatherings, a sense of community and the opportunity for mentors to shine. In talking the students communicated that they had learned many things:

*That just speaking to please the teacher does not lead to good education

*That feeding back the answers you “think you want the teacher to hear” does not lead to good education.

*That trying to please someone in general is not usually a good approach to good communication if it is your only approach.

*That rhythm is important and learning takes time, thought and discussion.

*That one can learn on their own even when given a small spark by a teacher and that each student has great power within themselves.

*That movement is important in learning.

As teachers and parents we are often pressured to disregard the “other” aspects of learning in favor of a group of core standards. If you look at the educational guidelines for your region you will find that most have a list of core standards for education and most of these are academic in nature. When people write to us about the Earthschooling program 90% of the questions we receive are academic in nature and when parents talk about feeling they are not “doing enough” it is often based on academic measurements.

But just like in the story academic core standard can create blind following and no learning. A list of academic items does not guarantee success – you need catalysts to get those items active. Core standards are like a recipe – just because you have all the ingredients doesn’t make you a great chef.

At Earthschooling we have created our own holistic list of core standards that include  not only academics but also health, temperaments, movement, outdoor education, rhythm, lessons that teach to the head, heart & hands, vertical and horizontal alignment in the curriculum, community support, mentoring, and a natural environment.

We all want the best for our children and in the process,  we ask a lot of questions and do a lot of research. If you are listening to this today you are one of those parents or teachers who’s educating themselves for the benefit of their child or children. 

In the process of that research you have probably found what I found – there are hundreds of people pulling you in different directions – The No Child Left Inside movement tells you the outdoors is the answer to a healthy child. Waldorf Education tells us that we must nurture the head, heart and hands of the child and establish rhythm in our lives. Scientists and medical professionals tell us that our children need more sleep, more exercise and need to eat better food. Psychologists tell us that different children have different needs and teach us about ADD and ADHD and sensitivity and other challenges. And don’t even get me started on all the different parenting books out there!

When I first embarked on this journey, I felt pulled in twenty different directions, I was overwhelmed with all the information, I wondered which method I should follow and who was right. I also wondered how I was going to do it all. Not because I felt I had to but I felt inspired to. So many beautiful ideas and I wanted to try them all! It’s how we all feel after listening to the lectures during the Waldorf EXPO, too J

Over time I happily realized I could do it all because all of these things were not different but they all complimented each other, supported and nurtured each other and they were all just as essential as the next one.

Wait – did I just say that sleep was just as important as your main lesson in math or that eating a bowl of healthy oatmeal with berries is just as important as learning how to spell?

Yes! But I didn’t always see it that way. Being raised in a traditional school environment and with my parents being an engineer and a math teacher who were both very competitive, my mind was trained to measure my success and the success of my students in academic standards.

It was only after I created a holistic homeschooling checklist and re-trained myself to balance the elements beyond academics that I was able to calm my worries, become more relaxed in my teaching, feel more successful, and awaken my intuition about what was best for my students. In return I saw an eagerness for learning and an absorption rate and retention rate that was far beyond what I had experienced in my academic years – for myself or among my friends and fellow students.

I was amazed at the things that could happen – like my eldest daughter who didn’t learn how to read until she was in second grade bloomed into a writer that won literary awards for fiction, non-fiction and poetry or my youngest daughter who won top awards in the state for music without ever having any early formal training – she had just been given a holistic musical experience as a child that included verses, pentatonic flute, and the freedom to play any instrument we had around the classroom including the kinderharp and other small percussion instruments.

The checklist might seem complex and burdensome if it was just given to you in list form but if we go back to the example of the recipe again, we can visualize it and remember it more easily.  I also have it posted on the website or you can write to me for a copy at CustomerService@TheBEarthInstitute.com.

Take a moment right now and imagine yourself in the kitchen. You have a recipe book in front of you and you see a wonderful recipe for shortbread cookies you want to make. Of course I choose this recipe because it is my favorite cookie ever and because the recipe is very simple – one only needs butter, flour, vanilla and powdered sugar with a pinch of salt to make these delicious cookies.

So now imagine yourself getting ready to purchase all the ingredients.

These ingredients are like your core academic standards.

So you make the list of what you need. Are you done now?

Of course not. To create a successful cookie you need to add many more steps.

  1. The first is the OUTDOORS. You can’t use ingredients you created in a science lab and come out with cookies that taste like authentic shortbread cookies. You need butter that comes from cows that have grazed under the sun, sugar that has grown in fields of sugarcane and flour and vanilla that have also thrived under the sun outdoors. Another part of the ingredients that is important is that they be NATURAL. You can’t use fake vanilla, flour, sugar and salt and then expect it to taste good, to digest well in the body or to help the mind and body grow in a healthy manner.

In the same way putting the ingredients of outdoors into your lessons is also significant and important. There are literally thousands of studies that have been done on the subject in recent years. I can quote only a few of course.

In a study done by the Office for Standards in Education in the UK says, “…learning outside the classroom contributed significantly to raising standards and improving pupils’ personal, social and emotional development.” Penny Travlou of the Open Research Center says, “”Experience of the outdoors and wilderness has the potential to confer a multitude of benefits on young people’s physical development, emotional and mental health and well-being and societal development. Mental health and wellbeing benefits from play in natural settings appear to be long-term, realized in the form of emotional stability in young adulthood.” Other various studies show more than 11 specific benefits including better grades, better health, decreased stress levels, increased motivation, better attitudes about the environment, better overall behavior, enhanced communication skills, improved outdoor skills, increased self-reliance, community improvement and improved memory.

If we go on to the second factor, NATURAL we must also add this into our educational environment. Providing children with natural toys and educational tools made from cotton, wool, beeswax, and other natural materials connects them with their learning materials, teaches them respect for materials and quality over quantity and on a subtle level nurtures their health through the touch, sight, sounds and smells of nature. Have you ever enjoyed the experience of holding a wooden block?

I remember holding wooden blocks in my hand as a child, seeing their beauty, and feeling their smoothness and real-ness. My grandfather had made them. I even remember how they smelled. I remember how when I tapped them together, they made a wonderful low sound and different sizes of blocks made different sounds – all of them pleasant and gentle to hear. I have to admit I even tasted them a few times so I used all my senses. When a child has tools that encourage them to use all their senses in learning studies show they learn more efficiently and more deeply.

So now we have discussed the outdoors and natural materials we will go back to our delicious cookies…

  1. The third ingredient in these cookies is going to be good HEALTH. If you feel sick you probably should not be making cookies for family and friends as you might make them ill too. And if they feel ill, they probably won’t want to eat the cookies. Sleep also factors into this area of health. I once made these cookies when I was half asleep and ended up forgetting the salt. It was just a pinch but it really made a difference in the final taste. The cookies were not as good. One also needs to consider allergies and sensitivities in making the cookies. If a person is allergic to wheat, they probably need to use an alternate to wheat flour in the recipe. If you use the wrong kind of ingredients it can make the cookies impossible to digest properly.

In the same way if you use the wrong ingredients for the needs of your specific students in education the information can also be hard for them to digest.

The effects of good health in general are also well documented in the area of education and are being increasingly studied. In the book, School, Health and Nutrition for all a number of researchers combine many studies and their own knowledge to show that,  (i) disease affects education throughout childhood; (ii) improving children’s health and nutrition brings substantial benefits for education; (iii) improving health and nutrition brings greatest benefits to the poor and most vulnerable; and (iv) health and education reinforce one another.” There are an equal number of studies that show the link between good sleep and education: Chad Minnich, of the TIMSS and PIRLS International Study Center says,  “I think we underestimate the impact of sleep. Our data show that across countries internationally, on average, children who have more sleep achieve higher in math, science and reading. That is exactly what our data show”

We can also combine the concepts of NATURAL that we talked about before with HEALTH and realize that it is important to provide children with the tools they need to take care of themselves in a natural way. As a naturopath and wellness coach I realize that in some cases a child or family member may need to take medication and I am an absolute advocate of regular trips to your health care practitioner. However, this does not negate the importance and value of natural healing.

If health effects education so deeply – imagine what you and your child can accomplish when you are given the tools to create a healthier life at home and in the classroom? Children who are given early training in natural healing gain confidence, feel more in control of their environment, are more aware of their own health and grow up with an integrated and holistic view of well-being.

In a speech called Knowledge of Health and Illness given by Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf Education, he emphasizes how important this knowledge is for parents and teachers and says, “The  education  that  has  arisen  from  the  holistic understanding of the world has to be far more comprehensive than many forms of education available today. Above all, it has to be far more closely linked to the knowledge of human beings as a whole.” Steiner saw that the manner of education also, in turn, effected the health of the child and stressed that if we educated children in a holistic manner we would help them avoid many health issues in the future.

Children can start learning about natural healing from the time they are five years old. At that stage we introduce children gently to some of the natural plants in their backyard or simple healing herbs they can grow at home. We will serve spearmint and hibiscus tea during snack time. As the child grows, they are able to incorporate more advanced concepts into their curriculum. Children can be taught reflexology, iridology, aromatherapy, nutritional healing and much more. Including natural healing as part of your parent/teacher education and as part of your child’s curriculum

But after all that science talk, I need to go back to my delicious cookies and take a break…

  1. The fourth thing we consider in the cookie making process is the TEMPERAMENT of the season and my cookie eating audience. Such a recipe is a very heavy recipe. It is dry as well as hot in nature because of all the sugar and butter. So I don’t want to feed this to someone during the midday of summer when they are probably already overheated and feeling sluggish. This is why these heavy cookies are often traditionally served in wintertime.

The importance of considering the temperament of the students in the classroom is also essential to our education recipe. Rudolf Steiner gave many lectures on the importance of being aware of the child’s temperament in the classroom and said, “it is clear that to guide and direct the temperaments is one of life’s significant tasks. If this task is to be properly carried out, however, one basic principle must be observed, which is always to reckon with what is given, and not with what is not there. For example, if a child has a sanguine temperament, he will not be helped if his elders try to flog interest into him. His temperament simply will not allow it. Instead of asking what the child lacks, in order that we might force it into him, we must focus on what he has, and base ourselves on that.” My book, “The Temperaments and the Adult-Child Relationship” talks about how to enhance a child’s educational experience and improve your relationship with your students, your children and even your friends and family by knowing their temperament and how to communicate and work with different combinations. If you want to read more about this you can also go to our temperament page on the website that has many free articles on the temperaments. Temperament training was an important aspect of our own educational journey so it is, of course, an important part of the Earthschooling materials. This concept is slowly making its way into the mainstream educational process as well. Next Thursday I am actually scheduled to present a talk on this topic to a group of teaching students at Iowa State University!

  1. Going back to our cookie making task we now realize we have the complex process of all the ingredients figured out we need to add yet more steps. Just because we considered the OUTDOOR factor, HEALTH and TEMPERAMENT does not mean we are done yet. We now need to add MOVEMENT. The ingredients are not going to stir themselves. We can’t just pour them into the bowl and expect that the cookies will be made. So we gently fold the butter into the sugar, we add the vanilla and salt and stir it all up and then we add the flour slowly, bit by bit until we have a delicious shortbread cookie batter (you may all want to go grab a cookie and a cup of tea now!)

In the same way Movement is essential to learning, retention, and memory. In the book, “Teaching with the Brain in Mind” author Eric Jensen cites two studies by Dolcourt and Slavin and says,  It’s truly astonishing that the dominant model for formal learning is still “sit and git.” It’s not just astonishing; it’s embarrassing. Why do we persist when the evidence that lecture alone does not cut it is so strong.” There are so many kinds of movement we can include in our curriculum. In Earthschooling we use hands-on education, verses, fingerplays and games, outdoor nature walks and Eurythmy. Steiner said, “That is the essential point — that Eurythmy is visible speech, visible music. “  which brings about a good point – that at least some of the movement you do in your program should be planned, efficient and integrated. Just moving around while doing a lesson is not always enough. Eurythmy or other specific movement exercises can help the student make efficient use of the movement-education connection.

Using Eurythmy as part of your program is a perfect fit for a holistic education because it covers the areas of MOVEMENT, RHYTHM, ALIGNMENT and HEALTH. Eurythmy is not only a fantastic tool for integrating movement and influencing enhanced coordination and brain function, it is also a way to keep the body healthy and balanced on the physical plane.

  1. But there is another factor that goes into this movement. Just like in the cookie recipe our educational movement It is not random. There is a certain order that we mix the cookie ingredients in. It has to be done in an ALIGNED manner. This means that each ingredient has a certain amount that needs to go into it and that they also have a certain manner in which they need to be mixed. I remember when I first started cooking, I loved the smell of vanilla so much I thought that adding double the amount would make the cookies even better. I was in for a big surprise as you can imagine!

In the same way we need to make sure our curriculum is what is called an aligned curriculum The termaligned curriculum, refers to an academic program that is (1) purposefully designed to facilitate learning, (2) free of academic gaps and needless repetitions, and (3) aligned across lessons, courses, subject areas, and grade levels. Teachers base what they teach on consistent learning expectations or considering what students learned in previous grades and will need to know in subsequent grades so the learning experience builds on itself and weaves a beautiful coherent educational tapestry.

So I don’t know about you but with all the talking I’m ready to enjoy the cookies already! But unfortunately, they are still not ready…

  1. We still have more steps. This next step is perhaps the hardest one ever – The THREE STEP RHYTHYM. The best shortbread cookies are chilled for at least 30 minutes before baking. So step one is the mixing, step two is the chilling and step three is the baking. Another rhythm factor that goes into the cookies is the timing of making them to begin with. You won’t have many enthusiastic takers for your cookies if you make them at 2am in the morning. This may work with my teenagers but it is usually not an ideal rhythm for cooking.

Rhythm can also be one of the hardest steps in education. Just as we are so eager to eat the cookies NOW we are also eager to share what we want our students to learn NOW! We are so eager to provide them with the best and the most that we can that we can sometimes lose track of the importance of simplifying and slowing down. We don’t want to feed the educational dough of their cookies to their students. We want to feed them delicious, warm and soft baked cookies!

Rhythm is such an important factor in education. In the Waldorf Homeschool Handbook Donna Ashton, our wonderful host for today takes you through the “whys” and the importance of rhythm. She explains how much of what makes a successful homeschool is the consistency of rhythm and the in and out flow of the day. This is a cornerstone in Waldorf education which is key in the Earthschooling curriculum and Waldorf schools all over the world. Studies show that giving a child a three-day rhythm in the educational process enhances their retention, memory and depth of learning. You can read more about this in the Waldorf 101 section of our website.

  1. Finally, we don’t want to forget how we serve the cookies. After all that work and careful consideration are we just going to just take them out of the oven and leave them on the stove and randomly hope that someone notices we made cookies? Or are we going to just throw them at our students? Of course not! We will serve them with our HEAD, HEART and HANDS – just like we prepared them with our HEAD, HEART and HANDS. We had to do a lot of head & hand work to make them but they were made with love from our hearts and we will take some of those same ingredients to serve them. We will most likely use an intellectual thought process to choose a suitable plate to put them on that will fit the cookies or that will suit our serving needs, we will carefully carry them out to the table and we will smile as we eat and serve them.

In the same way we want the same ingredients to go into our lessons. We want to make sure our lessons are balanced between the head, heart and hands. A good example of balance in the educational realm is with a math problem. If we just give a child math problems we are only engaging their head. If we give them math problems and incorporate and active element we are also engaging their hands. When we go a step farther and get them involved in the lessons on a personal, useful level or through a creative story we are also getting their heart involved.

Community is almost our final ingredient in our cookies. Just like it is always more fun to eat cookies with family or friends than alone it is also more supportive to experience homeschooling in a community. Community support online, with family, with friends or in a co-op can be essential for the teacher or parent.

So now that we are finally able to eat our cookies I invite everyone to take the final step in a holistic homeschooling experience – Inner work.

Take a couple cookies, sit down with a cup of tea and look over your own recipe for homeschooling. Look at health, natural ingredients, temperament, the outdoors, movement, alignment, rhythm, head, heart, hands and community. Take some time to notice how these elements are balanced in your day and in your teaching. Think about what areas may need more or less emphasis. And if you need any assistance come over to Earthschooling and visit us. Our curriculum has all these elements built into it and you can get a free detailed holistic homeschooling chart that has all the items on the list I talked about today with more details and specifics for each item.

Download our Holistic Homeschool Chart below…

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  1. Thank you! Am so excited about homeschooling and this was very well written.

    Jenifer Gault Rose
    • Thank you Jennifer! Welcome to Earthschooling!

  2. Thank you, beautiful shortbread cookie analogy.

    Rachel Cruz
    • Thank you <3

  3. thank you!

    Lori Parnell
  4. We are just starting the curriculum. Very excited to be the change.

    Danielle Liau
  5. Very much appreciate the holistic approach and looking forward to the inner work as much as anything. Xo

    Tricia Sherlin
  6. such a warm read before starting our earthschooling journey

    Deepak Verma

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