Discovering the Waldorf Pentathlon: An Overview May 20 2015

All across North America during the month of May Waldorf schools gather fifth graders for the annual Pentathlon. Three to seven different schools’ fifth grade classes gather at one hosting Waldorf school to compete in this annual celebration of fifth grade grace, skill, and determination, as a crowning salute to the curriculum of the fifth grade in Waldorf schools around the world. We owe gratitude to the “Spacial Dynamics Movement” for developing this rewarding tradition that gives schools a day of social interaction as well as affirmation of the curriculum, specifically Greek history. It offers a once in a lifetime experience to children from the cradle of our Western civilization.

A Pentathlon by definition is an event that comprises five athletic components. Most Waldorf Pentathlons include: the long jump; the javelin throw; the discus throw; wrestling; and a relay race. The community of fifth graders are mixed and sorted in to four city-states: Sparta, Corinth; Athens; and Thebes (or, in the case of the Ithaca Waldorf School, Ithaca instead of Thebes).
As with all aspects of the Waldorf school curriculum, this event is designed to take advantage of the peak moment of a child’s development.   At age 11 or 12, in the fifth grade, children experience the height of childhood, just before the symptoms of puberty begin to ripen and while child-like activities are still interesting to students. The study of the history of human beings on the earth turns clearly in grade five from story, legend, and mythology, to written history – the Peloponnesian Wars, for example.

The study of Greece comes at the end of grade five’s Waldorf curriculum path of history. Starting in ancient India, the students learn of the Holy Rishis and Hinduism, the caste system of organizing society while learning of Manu, Vishnu, Rama, and Brahma, with closeness to the spiritual realities of earth. From India they go to Persia and the domestication of animals and the beginnings of organized agriculture while hearing of Zarathustra and Ahriman, the powers of light and darkness. On to Egypt the year travels and the Pharaohs, slavery, the building of the pyramids and empires, and the god Osiris and his wife, Isis.

At last the year’s history comes to Greece and the students learn not only of Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Demeter, Poseidon, Athena, Aphrodite, Leda, Orpheus, Eurydice, Hades, and Persephone, but also of the emergence of democracy, philosophy, poetry and theater. The wars between city-states and the wars with invaders who wished to dominate and rule Greece are studied as well as the battle of Marathon and the run that lives on to this day.

In the Greek culture beauty was held as all-important. The clarity of beautiful speech in oration; the making of daily objects –vases, cups, wall paintings; the human form in athletic competitions – all of these were of great import as the people of Greece judged excellence.

In Waldorf Pentathlons this characteristic of beautiful form is paramount. It is not how fast, how far or how superior your results are athletically, but how you look, behave, and perform while achieving excellent results.

The day itself is prepared with odes the children might write to their favorite goddess or god for help in the day’s competition. As fifth graders from different schools gather, polite greetings are essential as the children get to know each other and form their city-state teams. A ritual opening, much like the Olympics, with the lighting of a flame and the offering of poems and food launch the day.

There is a mood of reverence for the importance of the day and of the admiration the students have learned that different gods and goddesses had for different heroes and different sports and arts of warfare. 

The javelin throw has two awards: one for beautiful form and one for distance. Occasionally exceptional fifth graders earn both.

The discus throw has an equally stringent set of criteria involving both form and distance.

In wrestling two by two, the students show their physical prowess but also their ability to think strategically, measuring their strength against another student.

The long jump is a challenge for each student athlete with children trying to run and jump and go father than their previous jump. This becomes a preoccupation for some fifth graders  during the year’s preparation for the big day of the Pentathlon.

The last competition of the day is the relay race, city-state against city-state in relay teams. This event, of course, brings home the need for team effort and strength, not in individual accomplishment but in a group pulling together, compensating for possible gaps in athletic prowess.

When all the young athletes gather together at the end of the competitions, the judges (often dressed in Greek tunics, some like the gods and goddesses themselves) identify those who achieved the best performance, and the most beautiful form in each area. The city-state who won the relay race is also recognized. Crowns of leaves, as in the days of the Golden Age of Greece are placed on the heads of the high achievers and those who upheld beautiful form.

This moment is sometimes hard for those who do not receive a crown. Fifth grade is the first year true competition enters into the general “games” or “gymnastics” classes in Waldorf schools. Until a child is 12 (or almost) the idea that one can do one’s very best and yet still “lose” is too difficult to understand. Non-competitive games therefore dominate until the end of fifth grade.

The day ends as it began with ceremony: singing, recitation, perhaps flutes played by a class, and general celebration of a glorious day of community, competition, physical prowess, beautiful athletic form, good sportsmanship, and fun.

If ever you get the chance to attend a Waldorf Pentathlon, do it! There might be no more beautiful sight in the world than a gathering of young people, at the brink of the pinnacle of their childhood years, dressed in white for the day, ready to do their very best, with the gods and goddesses of Greece watching over them. The looks on young faces of aspiration, of hope, of determination, inspiration, and of beauty are not to be missed! The youthful grace is a wonder to behold. The gladness in striving to stretch to achieve great things with such innocence is apparent in all the young “Greeks” and will melt your heart! It is a glorious celebration to witness.

Photos - from top to bottom:
Main Lesson book - Waldorf Publications archives
Alabama Waldorf School
Chicago Waldorf School
Spring Garden Waldorf School

Reading materials and support for the ancient Greek history blocks in the Waldorf curriculum: 

At the Hot Gates
Donald Samson

The Alpha Beta Book
Keith McCrary

Willem Frederik Veltman

Helen and Penelope
L.F.C. Mees