"I'd love to hear your view on how the socialization works out in the early Waldorf grades (specifically since they will be starting academic work and their days aren't filled with free play) as opposed to how it might work out for a Waldorf inspired homeschooling family w/ a Waldorf-y support network. "
Well, in my experience it is really different from other schools. The teachers eat and take recess with the children, and play games with them as well as let them play on their own. I probably can't do it justice trying to list things here...but the social well-being of the class is a concern of the teacher all the way through eighth grade. There's a community there, and it is nice for the children to have the group they belong to and the routine of school. As you know there are a great many hands-on activities for math, reading, etc - all these are done together. Singing, circle- which doesn't stop after the early grades but continues in age-appropriate forms, and learning together are great advantages. The class is held by the teacher and moves together. They are by no means trapped in their seats all day forbidden to speak to one another. Of course there are times for quiet and independent work, and I was able to give those children who were reading ahead of others work to do on their own, and the same when I had some children able to multiply three columns while others struggled with place value. When it is handled well the children benefit even from doing work they may have covered before in different ways.
In the early grades there is still plenty of time for free play. The intoduction to academics is *so*very gentle and gradual, it is a very beautiful thing. I am so thankful my daughter had Waldorf kindergarten and first grade.
Our mornings had free time in the classroom, then main lesson, then midmorning snack and recess, two specialty classes, lunch and recess, and in first grade, the afternoon was usually very open; lots of time outside, and inside time too with coloring and playing with pattern blocks, etc or hearing stories unrelated to the curriculum. The children went out every day at least twice even in the higher grades unless the weather was truly inclement. Rain and snow are not reasons to stay in at a Waldorf school! Most Waldorf teachers I have known have been very flexible as far as time (other than Main Lesson). The local public schools don't even make sure the children go out *once* a day in nice weather!
If you have a school you are happy with and some of your child's kindergarten companions will be going on to first grade, I would consider it very carefully. I was just reviewing You Are Your Child's First Teacher, and Rahima Baldwin points out that only Waldorf training really makes it a Waldorf program. I was not a fully certified teacher so I can honestly say she is right about this. Of course if homeschooling is right for you there is no reason a Waldorf school would be superior to that. If you really like the method, though, I would suggest you take some of the summer courses available through Sunbridge College, Rudolf Steiner College, or the Rudolf Steiner Institute. Even a week-long course is well worth it - I can't recommend it highly enough, and it has held me and helped me far beyond teaching the grade I took a workshop in. Every choice includes compromises. If there is a strong network of homeschoolers in your Waldorf community you may be able to have the best of both worlds.
However, I don't want to hog a socialization thread with Waldorf-or-not, so perhaps this should take on a new thread.
I only wanted to point out that I have seen some wonderfully positive socialization in school.