Many years ago,when my son was struggling to fit into public school kindergarten, I expressed my frustrations to a knew aquaintaince. She listened and nodded with compassion and asked if I had ever heard of the Waldorf school in the area. Not only had I never heard of the school I had never heard the world "Waldorf" used to describe anything other than a hotel in New York City. I was so desperate for a solution for my son that I immediately looked into it.
It was a 45 minute drive away to southern New Hampshire. I drove past meadows swamps and forests. The last leg was up to the top of a mountain and down a beautiful curving road lined by trees. My first impression of the campus was positive. This unique setting was everything I would have loved as a kid! There was a small, easy to navigate classroom building with a central performance hall, but the surrounding grounds were the best part! Each grade had its own playground made from natural materials. Children were invited to create with the materials around them and outside time was required even in grade 7 and 8! I was sold! At the time, I was really only interested in revisiting kindergarten. I really felt he needed a better experience and to recover from the strain of his first experience. And so we enrolled him and we became a Waldorf family.
There are many reasons why I loved the Waldorf way but I'll just highlight a few. You can learn more about the Waldorf Education style and it's founder, Rudolph Steiner, here. I think many of his approaches are excellent and need to be embraced by public school.
1. Outdoor time for exploring the natural world. The whole school, including staff, took time outdoors. Each day, parents and kindergarteners would take a walk with their teacher around the campus. I thought this daily walk was pretty magical so I can only imagine how well it grounded the children for the start of their day. The kindergarten playground included watering cans and buckets and a water spigot for exploring how water can manipulate the soil. It also let the children explore textures and sensory items and they were outside no matter what the weather!
2. Reading happens when they're ready. So many schooling systems, PTA's, parents and academics want to force a specific development timeline on their students. In reality, this is not natural and can be harmful. Steiner strongly believed that a child's ability to read will come when they are ready. This really takes the pressure off and lets the child unfold naturally.
3. Developing the body is as important as developing the mind. The Waldorf school uses numerous techniques for this. Movement and proprioception (knowing where one is in space) is taught through eurythmy (a type of group dance that explores rhyme, story, meter and geometric shapes through movement.) Brain development is improved by learning stringed instruments which forces the body to work across the midline. Think about the bow arm coming from the right side to the left side while the left hand manipulates the strings. In doing so, the brain has to integrate the two halves. The more they develop the thick band of nerve fibers called the corpus callosum, the more they will be able to handle every day tasks and improve their emotional balance.
4. The Waldorf school year is based on the natural rhythms of the Earth such as the change of seasons and solstice events. To mark the occasions they use "nature tables" in the classrooms. Nature tables are a creative project you can do at home with your kids. Gather your favorite natural items such a crystals, shells and plant matter that reflect the season and display them on a favorite table. Add a few gnomes, woodland creatures or fairies for character. These dioramas can change according to holidays or even birthdays. Imagine the thrill when the child comes down to breakfast to find the characters have moved or are celebrating something special! I have a grown up version of this with my favorite shells from my travels.
5. Kindergarten is all about social skills. When I first sent my son to public school I was naively eager for him to demonstrate his keen intelligence. He could already read and count, but it became apparent really quickly that knowing that stuff was really useless without social skills. The biggest reason we chose to repeat kindergarten was so he could practice his social skills. Waldorf kindergartner is about play, creativity, sharing, and just being a child. Every lunch was spent around a central table with a shared jug of water to be passed around, warm tea, and delicious food made right in the classroom. During these meals they learned to converse amicably, take turns, practice table manners, listen to stories and enjoy their time together. What more does kindergarten really need to be?
As we are entering the beginning of 2021, I invite you to revisit your conditioned thoughts about education and child rearing. I've been witnessing a slow shift in parents' philosophy about how are children are schooled and they are starting to think differently than what's always been done. Do you have the courage to follow your heart and go against what you've always been told was correct? I want you to know that you are and always will be your child's best teacher. Follow your heart and you will do it right!
And a final thought from Rudolph Steiner...
A Verse for Our Time
We must eradicate from the soul All fear and terror of what comes towards man out of the future.
We must acquire serenity
In all feelings and sensations about the future.
We must look forward with absolute equanimity
To everything that may come.
And we must think only that whatever comes
Is given to us by a world-directive full of wisdom.
It is part of what we must learn in this age,
namely, to live out of pure trust,
Without any security in existence.
Trust in the ever present help
Of the spiritual world.
Truly, nothing else will do
If our courage is not to fail us.
And let us seek the awakening from within ourselves
Every morning and every evening.