One of the perennial questions asked to teachers at Waldorf schools is "Why do the children all paint the same pictures? Why don't you leave them free to draw or paint whatever they want?" Such questions usually arise after a cursory glance round a first or second grade classroom where a wall might be covered in the class' paintings of a scene from a fairy tale. The questioner has only looked quickly at the pictures and seen similar figures and colors and drawn the conclusion that all the pictures are the same. Had he or she looked more closely, she would have discovered that each picture is different - this child used more red, overwhelming the blue; this child used so much water that the colors are faint, almost washed out; this child painted with a dry brush, giving a harsh and bright feel to the painting; and so on. And of course, to the children, each picture is completely different - no child gets his picture confused with that of another!
Having said that, there is, of course, similarity because the children have been told to copy what the teacher painted. Herein lies the unspoken words beneath the question - this is unfree. There is no individual expression here.
Waldorf education is based on a sophisticated understanding of child development, one that takes not only the physical and intellectual sides of the child into account, but addresses his emotional and spiritual needs as well. One small piece of this is the understanding that young children learn by imitation - it is their natural way of apprenticing into the world (see other entries on this blog for more on this). Imitation is at its height in about the 5th year - but it is still strong in a 6 or 7 year old and vestiges remain in an 8 year old. By 9, as the child moves through the 9 year change and experiences an awakening of selfhood, imitation fades.
And so in the early grades, the teacher does and the children follow. The teacher gestures, speaks, plays, works, draws, paints etc etc - and the children do as she does. They are laying a foundation, a template as it were, a basis on which to stand. Each chiod will bring something of himself, of his individuality to what he is learning (thus the discernable differences in the paintings) but he will, nonetheless, share a basis with his classmates. They are collecting information, taking in skills, modeling behaviors. And when they are old enough to become truly conscious of their selves in relation to their surroundings (ie starting at about 9) they then can move away from copying and start to become involved in real and meaningful choices.
The crucial point here, is that without laying these foundations, the children then have little or nothing to stand upon when it is time for them to actually begin to stand apart from adults (parents and teachers). Without the moral guidance of boundaries and the picture images of right and wrong from stories; without the language skills learned from repetition and rhythm such as singing and circle games; without such skills as drawing, painting and other arts, they then have to learn these things anew. They are at a huge disadvantage as they then need to struggle to consciously learn what they should have been given as a gift while they were not yet conscious.
Back to artistic work such as drawing or painting, one can clearly see the advantages of such an approach. By allowing the children to copy the teacher's work and thus build up their skills, confidence and aesthetic sensibilities. one gently ushers each child into a world where all human beings are creative and artistic - not just a select few. No 5 year old says "I can't draw" out of himself - he has acquired this attitude from somewhere else if it rears its ugly head. All children accept their ability to draw and paint - and by working with their inborn proclivity for imitation, one can build up this acceptance into the years when a child becomes self aware and starts to judge himself by what others achieve.
And certainly, some children have a gift for drawing or painting (or a myriad of other things). That's fine. But the point is that by allowing children to copy an adult's artistic work and to build this foundation of knowledge which he can create because he can copy, then it is far more likely that that child will not give up if he is one who does not possess a gift for art. Have a look at the main lesson books of older Waldorf students and you will see a clear example of what I am talking about. All the books will be beautiful and artistic - some will be real works of art, some will leave something to be desired, but all will be expressions of the student's creative powers. And that is the gift which we wish our children to carry into the world - the belief and knowledge that they are creative human beings.