Ask Alison: Animals


“Ask Alison” is a well-loved feature on this blog. (You can see former installments on geology here and here.) She is one of my dearest friends and along with Jean Miller, one of my go-to women for homeschooling advice and support. I thank my lucky starts to have met them both through Barbara Dewey’s Taproot Teacher Training. For the first time in four summers, I will not be joining them in Ohio. Our trip to Yellowstone and a few other things have conspired to keep me away. However, I would like to encourage anyone on the fence about attending this year’s event. You can get an idea of Barbara and Jean from their websites, but Alison has not entered the blogosphere yet. Consider the post below and also this one from Jean as an introduction to the extraordinary gifts she brings in expanding the Waldorf curriculum for homeschoolers. I promise it will be worth the trip!


I wanted to share how I make sense of the developmental progression of the Waldorf curriculum in terms of how it affects the way the teacher/parent might handle presenting and discussing animals. Hopefully this will help you see the ways that studying animals can help your child build many academic skills and how the progression moves from imitation to feeling to reflection and reason. The progression of the Waldorf curriculum allows students to develop the deepest kind of “knowing” of animals – this type of knowing naturally integrates feeling and reason in a very profound way. What more could we ask for?

Kindergarten and Grade 1 – fairy tales and nature stories  – Just being delighted by animals and co-existing with them.  Noticing, imitating and naming.

Grade 2 – Aesop’s Fables, African Animal Tales (please check out Verna Aardema – especially her non-picture book collections if you can find them), Native American stories.  Heetunka’s Harvest is a favorite. (A Donna Simmon’s recommendation from my former life:))

Aardema’s picture books are great as well.  Leo Lioni and Jan Brett books are wonderful at this age.

Our noticing goes deeper here in 2nd grade.  By giving animals human qualities we begin to describe their unique and particular qualities: the slowness of the tortoise, the quickness of the hare, the pride of the lion, the slyness of the fox, the mischief-making of crows ….

It is fun to notice the particular animals presented in the stories and to OBSERVE and DESCRIBE in just a bit more detail.

Grade 3 – The farming and Bible story blocks bring out potential developmental themes to focus on. Animal husbandry and animal keeping. I taught a world history class of high school students, and one of our main texts was Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel. In it he gives an account of the history and science of animal domestication. It is so amazing to me that this happened first the fertile crescent – the BIBLE belt. Remember 3rd grade is the Old Testament year – for me this is yet another confirmation of Steiner’s genius in laying out the progression of the Waldorf curriculum.

You could work with wool and shearing and spinning. Jacob was a big time herder – as were Cain and Abel. You could also think about milking and cheese and yogurt making. PLOWING with oxen was a huge step for the ancient farmers and allowed them to feed so many more people.  Please consider visiting farms.

Warm as Wool is a great picture book about a pioneer family and sheep farming.  A New Coat for Anna is a favorite book that much like Pelle’s New Suit follows the process of making a piece of clothing from shearing the sheep to the finished garment.

Another way to enhance the 3rd grade practical/doing focus is animal keeping in the classroom and in the home.

Think practical – what food and shelter and training do our pets need?

James, my youngest son, kept a pet and potential pet (he could dream!) journal for one of his main lesson blocks. He wrote and wrote and wrote and drew and drew and drew. What supplies and cages and chores did he need to do to keep fish, frogs, lizards, snakes, parakeets, and mice? We acquired over the grade 2-4 grade span – a small fish tank, hermit crabs, and a parakeet.

Books that link in with this passion are A Room with a Zoo by Jules Feiffer, Pets in a Jar by Seymor Simon, and I just love The House of a Million Pets by Ann Hodgman.

4th grade – Man and Animal. The first “science” block where the rubber meets the road! One of the qualities of the 4th grade is the emerging ability to separate him/herself from the action so to speak. To observe from above (bird’s-eye perspective) To observe as a distinct person with his or her own ideas about why and how … with a good dose of mischief and playfulness thrown in there as well. Man and Animal is a perfect place to cultivate this ability.

Here we Describe in more detail – both in our pictures and with our words and also in a 3-D way by creating dioramas and sculptures, beautiful water-color paintings and perhaps posters and displays. Julie Cannon books like Stellaluna work very well here in a Waldorf both for drawing inspiration and the learning the information woven inside of the story.

We put animals into categories – fur, fins, feathers, 6 legs, 8 legs, and shells  –  Mammals, fish, birds, insects, spiders and mollusks, etc.

OBSERVING, DESCRIBING and EXPLAINING how form and function work together in this animal – how does its beautiful and wonderful design help it to perfectly do what it needs to do to survive. Then make some interesting COMPARISONS and CONTRASTS between this animal and to the human being.

For this block I really liked Altruistic Armadillos and Zen like Zebras – I read it out loud – but you will need to summarize, explain or paraphrase some parts. Animal Footprints by Kato would also work well – it compares our hands and feet to those of various animals.

When I taught this block to James, we chose a variety of animals from the book together, printed the names on index cards and then drew the day’s animal out of hat. He adored the suspense and the surprise and so I did I. He drew his own picture and composed a very simple summary. It was so easy and relaxed and we learned so much together. His brother was a 6th grader at the time, and he enjoyed listening and the surprise as well.

There are a host of children’s books to read – Rascal by Sterling North, Charlotte’s Web, Ribsy, Wheel on the School – on and on … that highlight the deep connection that human beings have with animals.

Tarantula in my Purse by Jean Craighead George would be excellent for this block or even 5th grade as well.

5th and 6th grade – Many Waldorf grade summaries leave out zoology here, and I personally think this is a mistake. Classification can be a great approach at this age. Vertebrates, Invertebrates, etc. I love, love the book Tree of Life: the Incredible Biodiversity of Life on Earth by Rochelle Strauss. I also like Lyrical Life Science as a teacher resource for planning out this main lesson – specifically chapters 3, 4, 5, and 8. I love using the songs that go along with each chapter. There is also a workbook that you could make copies of worksheets from. I personally feel that in grades 5 and 6 it is nice to mix up the pedagogy a bit. Animals on the Inside by Ruiz would be excellent.

In 6th grade, scientific nomenclature is a really nice tie in to Rome and Latin.

This is where we complete the whole to the parts cycle. Diagrams and labels are perfect for this age – animal anatomy and physiology. Skeletons, the anatomy of the fish, the parts of an insect, the life cycle of various animals – you get the idea.

This all is a great lead in to human anatomy in the 7th grade.

Grades 7-9 – These years present a wonderful developmental opening to the study of the biographies of famous zoologists.  Eugenie Clark, Jacques Cousteau, Charles Darwin, Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall….  they model the knowledge and the passion  and the curiosity and the work ethic that all great scientists possess. Watching documentaries about animals and these scientists is also very appropriate at this age. Young people are looking for direction and role models at this age.

As your child progresses through the Waldorf curriculum and their study of animals grows in scope and depth, always remember to keep it living: act out gestures and stories, recite and copy and memorize poems about animals, read the many beautiful works of children’s literature that connect human beings and animals in your main lesson blocks and as a family, paint,  assign reports, posters, projects and assemble collections. I love using those tubes of animals at Hobby Lobby for displays and for reports (your child can pick one out of hat – you can pick one too:)) Mix things up.

Animals provide many opportunities for homeschools to widen their circle. Enjoy exploring your local zoos, parks, nature centers, and natural history museums. Take a sketch pad. Join 4H, dog obedience classes or volunteer at a shelter.

Studying and keeping animals allow us to gain knowledge, foster discipline, build community, and to grow in the love and appreciation of the natural world.  Many of the books and activities I mention here would appeal to non-Waldorf home schoolers as well, so perhaps you would enjoy creating an animal study group with children in grades 4-6.

Humanity is exalted not because we are not so far above other living creatures but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life.  – Edward O. Wilson

24 thoughts on “Ask Alison: Animals

  1. Boy, i wake up and find this fabulous post from one of my favorite ladies. In case you didnt know Shelia, Alison & Jean are gifts (to any homeschooling mom)and they all keep me going in this topsy turvy world of homeschooling. Feeling so blessed!!! XOXO

    PS feels so strange that we all won’t be together this year at Taproot. You ladies might need to bring one of your incredible teacher trainings to Austin!!!

  2. Alison is a treasure. She helped me immensely in setting up a great homeschooling experience for my son. She has so many amazing ideas and is just encyclopedic in her knowledge of resources. Anyone would be fortunate to learn as much as they could from her.

  3. Thanks for the info! I’ve been looking forward to 3rd grade for a while and we’re finally there. Animals, animals! Finally getting that dog my daughter has been wanting. She finished up last year with a research project in breeds to help us decide the right dog for our family.

    • Oooh, wondering what you are getting. We have a kelpie. She is 16 this month (!) but such a great farm dog. (Not that she does that much farming, LOL, but our neighbor who is a farrier and keeps cattle wished she hadn’t been fixed by her previous owner.)
      My boys got their first job this summer. They play with our other neighbor’s border collie – long story – but suffice to say they make more money than I do! LOL
      Third grade is so much fun. That was the year I came to Waldorf. We focused on cooking (that was kinda it as I was so overwhelmed) but my son is quite the cook thanks to that year. When I did third grade again, we did Native Americans the whole first semester and then OT stories the whole second semester. All on my little guy’s interest. When I see things like that with my own eyes, I am convinced all over again of the wisdom of the curriculum. Or at least the progression of the stories.

      • Well, after a whole summer of research….she has determined the Golden Retriever is the perfect dog for us. I originally had my heart set on a couple of other breeds, but she convinced me otherwise. So a Goldie it will be…once we are closed and settled in our new place :). PS…it’s always a good thing to raise a cook.

    • 3rd grade is a blast. Enjoy your new puppy! What breed do you have in mind? What a wonderful research project for your daughter!

      • Well, what I had in mind and what SHE has in mind are two different things :) However, she has convinced me. I think she did quite well on that research project. A Golden Retriever it will be.

  4. Oh, I love those animal blocks and stories! Such great memories – Pelle’s New Suit, Warm as Wool (Scott Sanders is an Ohio author so I think he’s great), Charlotte’s Web , Wheel on the School…all such memorable read-alouds in our house! Perfect for (as Alison calls it) “couch time.” We’ll miss you this year at Taproot, Sheila. So amazing that our deep friendships started there! Have a wonderful Yellowstone adventure! (And Alison, my dear, I will see you next week!)

  5. Pingback: Links and Other Thinks: Fall 2015 | Sure as the World

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