How The Cyclical Change of Seasons Is Redefining Early Childhood Education
When I was first invited to attend a Waldorf School open house in Nairobi, Kenya, I was hesitant, based on what little I had heard about the school’s approach to early childhood education. I quickly (and prematurely) judged that it was another approach engineered to attract the children of hippies or other artsy people. In hindsight, it’s amazing that I ever felt this way about Waldorf, because I quickly changed my mind when I visited the school for the first time.
Since returning from Kenya, I have visited many other Waldorf Open Houses and educated myself through a copious amount of literature on the subject. I have come to learn so much more about the philosophy and goals of a Waldorf education, and much of it has to do with a deep respect for and commitment to nature.
Having moved to the Hamptons in 2015, and now being a mom of a 4-year-old daughter, we had researched a Waldorf school in Sag Harbor, which subscribed to the teachings of Rudolph Steiner, who founded Waldorf in the early 1900s. This school is called Our Sons and Daughters.
Everyday you witness first hand how the teacher, Miss Maggie Touchette, begins a song, which invites the children to gather around. On the day of one of my visits last Fall, Touchette was gathering the kids to take a morning nature hike through the surrounding forest. “They experience the natural wonders of their ‘fairy woods’ as we take a nature walk each morning,” Touchette explains to me of the practice. Rain or shine, ample outdoor opportunities exist for developing strong, healthy bodies and fostering within the children a life-long respect for the earth and a deep appreciation for nature’s bounty.”
“Ample outdoor opportunities exist for developing strong, healthy bodies and fostering a life-long respect for the earth and a deep appreciation for nature’s bounty…”
“Waldorf education is the world’s fastest growing alternative educational movement– one that promotes good community citizenship, respect for the environment, and rigorous academics taught through innovative methods.” The children benefit from a rich variety of outdoor play spaces including a beautiful playground, many wooded areas, a garden and a pen with 16 chickens, two Billy goats, and four ducks. Woven out of archetypal activities of life and experiences of nature, the rhymes and songs in their singing circles nourish the child’s language development while stimulating their natural delight in singing and inviting them to participate in a flowing rhythm imbued with beauty and order. As always, the garden and the woods become the backdrop to personal growth and development.
Our Sons and Daughters’ approach to education works out of wisdom underscored by well-documented university research: the young child learns best through play, exploration, and imitation. Waldorf puts the whole being into focus: Body, Mind, and Soul. In a warm, home-like classroom, and in nature’s bountiful wooded play spaces and gardens, children at Our Sons and Daughters are welcomed into learning environments that nourish their senses, stir their innate desire for self-initiated exploration and movement, and inspire their budding imaginations. They plant the seeds for a lifelong love of learning, and they provide the foundation that every young child needs for self-confidence, resilience, and future academic excellence.
“In a warm, home-like classroom– and in nature’s bountiful wooded play spaces and gardens– children are welcomed into learning environments that nourish all of their senses.”
Children engage in a broad range of skill building, allowing them to expand their attention and focus, improve their dexterity and develop an appreciation for aesthetics. Nature-related activities include snack preparation, washing and chopping vegetables, baking bread, caring for the environment, watering plants, mending, repairing, and making toys. These practical experiences are often connected to the seasons and carried out with as much independence as possible. Working with their hands helps with critical thinking and problem solving, and enables children to create objects of unique beauty and function.
At the heart of Waldorf’s Early Childhood Program is the understanding and wisdom that self-initiated play is critical to the healthy development of all young children. As soon as they learn something new, they start to play with their new capacities, practicing and testing their skills until they tackle more and more difficult tasks– a process of enduring physiological value.
As a result, each morning the school allocates ample time for creative play. Witnessing creative play in the classroom is both energizing and exhilarating; toys solely made from natural materials nourish the child’s developing senses and imaginative capacities while further developing their emerging fine motor skills. Structures that they can move and explore with their whole bodies, combined with environments that invite movement, like a garden, help to develop a child’s gross motor coordination. Waldorf believes that creative play is the child’s most important developmental tool, whether to discover new skills, work with experiences, or express happiness and sorrow. Through the activity of imaginative play, children develop physically, mentally, socially, and emotionally.
Young children come to know and understand the world around them through movement. Their nursery and kindergarten circle time lets the children live freely and naturally into their joy of movement, while simultaneously stimulating their imagination. Woven out of archetypal activities of life and experiences of nature, the rhymes and songs in their circles nourish the child’s language development, stimulate their natural delight in singing and invite them to participate in a flowing rhythm imbued with beauty and order.
What I am suggesting, above all, is that all children deserve a Waldorf education– or something like it. Children who do not experience nature as part of their early education can be said to be deprived of an important time in anyone’s life; their childhood. Waldorf`s approach to education meets students with a balance of activities that entice and challenge their emerging skills and capacities. In a warm, home-like classroom, and in nature’s bountiful wooded play spaces and gardens, children at Our Sons and Daughters are welcomed into learning environments that nourish their senses, invite their innate desire for self-initiated exploration and movement, and inspire their budding imaginations. These are the seeds for a lifelong love of learning, and they provide the foundation that every young child needs for self-confidence, resilience, and future academic excellence.