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START BY unplugging computers and televisions. Forget exams and marks, at least for the elementary grades.

Then pass out musical instruments, clay, rocks, logs and other natural materials to students. Add storytelling, planting and baking, under the guidance of a warm, supportive teacher.

These are just some elements that will enhance a child's imagination and potential, according to Joan Almon, chairwoman of the Waldorf Kindergarten Association of North America. On Saturday she will bring that message to this area under the sponsorship of the Waldorf School Initiative of Western New York.

The group plans to open a kindergarten in the South Towns in September and add a first and second grade in 1992.

Called the fastest-growing non-sectarian movement in the educational world, Waldorf turns contemporary education on its head by promoting the theory that exposure to art, music and handicrafts is as important as reading, writing and arithmetic.

Developed by Rudolph Steiner in 1919 in Stuttgart, Germany, Waldorf now has 400 schools worldwide, with 100 in North America, including two in Toronto and one in Ithaca.

It encourages the development of a child's spirit and soul, proponents say, and opposes cramming academics into the earliest grades, a trend that started here because of Soviet advancements.

"When Sputnik went up in 1957 there was a big change in thinking," Mrs. Almon said in a telephone interview from Spring Valley, a training center for Waldorf teachers.

"People became alarmed that children were falling behind and needed a big push to keep up with Russian children. Without really looking at what the Russians were doing, we came up with this scheme" to push children ahead academically.

But taking youngsters away from what they do best "backfired," Mrs. Almon said, because it's open-ended play that develops intellect and creativity.

"(Pushing academics) was thought to be the way to get children ahead," she said, "but Waldorf maintains that the way to help children grow is to let them play and have simple activities that allow them to become active and engaged."

One study, for example, shows that people who contribute the most in "brainstorming" sessions are those who spent lots of unstructured time in imaginative play, she said.

And a study in Germany comparing children in 50 play-oriented kindergar
ids be kids
uth Towns
tens with those in 50 academic kindergartens showed that those who spent the day in play fared better in all areas of development, Mrs. Almon said.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children, an 80,000-member group, issued a document a few years ago that espouses many of the Waldorf practices.

"One of the best predictors of later school achievement is play ability," said James Hoot, director of the Early Childhood Research Center at the University at Buffalo.

"Common sense might say that you take play out of the classroom and teach a child to read. But when you look at the heart of the matter, good readers and writers are people who do things, not those who score high on tests. The role of the child is to be a generator of ideas, not a consumer of information."

Mrs. Almon said she often hears public high school teachers complain that students are unable to think.

"Educators are really concerned that students aren't thinking," she said. "They can do 'click, click, true, false,' but they can't investigate from new angles and come up with solutions. All those years devoted to doing math and reading seem to have backfired, because students are not interested in thinking."

Because the Waldorf philosophy differs so radically from the existing system, Mrs. Almon advises parents to be sure that they feel comfortable with the approach before becoming involved.

"Sometimes people are desperate because public schooling isn't working, but they have to appreciate this from within," she said. "There should be a supportive, harmonious relationship between the family and the school."

Joette Calabrese, mother of a 3-year-old, has joined about 40 families working to establish a school here. She is attracted to the Waldorf concept because of its emphasis on nature, natural materials and nutrition.

"What appeals to me is that it's not all head," she said. "It deals with the heart and hands. Technology is held off until the later years. I don't think we were meant to learn computers at age 6. Instead, at age 6 a child should be learning to be a 6-year-old, to use things like singing, movement and art work."

Mrs. Almon will speak at 9 a.m. Saturday at Christ the King Seminary, 711 Knox Road, East Aurora. Her lecture will be fol-lowed by a question-and-answer session and a workshop on making holiday craft items. Tickets are $18 apiece, $30 for couples.

Information on the Waldorf School Initiative of Western New York is available by writing to P.O. Box 521, East Aurora, N.Y. 14052.

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