Immediately upon entering a Waldorf space, visitors are struck by the peaceful nature of the room. The lighting is natural and softly muted by the curtains. The floor is carpeted and the tables, chairs, and play structures are wooden, making the room warm and inviting. The classroom is orderly, uncluttered, and harmonious, with open areas that invite and support children's play. In all, it is a setting that reassures children because it is much more like a home than an institution.
But providing a protected, home-like setting that is welcoming and familiar is also sound educational practice. It is based on creating recognizable routines that foster a sense of predictability and security. For the young child, the whole world is new and mysterious, and at times confusing. Young children can easily mistake morning recess time for dismissal, Saturdays for schooldays, and teachers for parents. The Waldorf program helps children understand the world by providing predictability through rhythm.
Rhythm in this instance is not about music, but rather about the gentle repetition of everyday activities. It is through rhythm that children come to know that there is order and security in the world. As children begin to experience the first day of the school week as baking day, the bowls and ingredients, the kneading of the dough, and later the smell of baking bread fill them with a sense of familiarity and well being. When Tuesday is consistently painting day, the sight of the brushes, painting paper, and paints fill the children with expectation. And so it goes throughout the week, each day regularly bringing a particular undertaking. Mornings that invariably begin with calm, self-directed play and teacher-initiated activity, and end with a carefully told story provide children with a dependable routine. This helps them to stay centered and anxiety free, providing fertile ground for their educational experience. As young children become familiar with school routines, they engage fully in classroom activities allowing learning to occur.
The learning that takes place forms the foundation of a child's education. This learning occurs most successfully when it is experiential. The active nature of young children impels them toward participation and imitation. Like the children in the book, Tom Sawyer, who long to share in the work of whitewashing the fence, young children cannot resist the urge to imitate purposeful activity. At this age, more than any other, actions speak louder than words. This understanding was expressed so clearly by the student who said in an inimitably forthright way: "I can lace my shoes. You know how I learned? I watched my sister. If I want to learn something, I do not have to be told. I just watch, and then I know how to do it."
The Waldorf programfor young children is designed to keep children healthy. It offers a peaceful environment with caring teachers, engaging activities, and ample time for play. Direct academic instruction is noticeably absent from the Waldorf early childhood program because a conscious effort is made to provide concrete rather than abstract learning experiences and to keep academic pressures out of the young child's world. Early academic pressures sap the vitality of children at a time when they should be growing strong and healthy.
However, significant learning of all kinds takes place in the Waldorf classroom. The centerpiece of the Waldorf program for young children is creative play. Through this self-directed, active play, the children learn to problem solve, to think innovatively, and to experience the satisfaction of carrying their "plans" through to completion. They are allowed to give themselves completely to their work. In a multi-age setting, the older children may gradually assume leadership roles, but all learn important social lessons about caring, cooperation, compromise, and responsibility. And at the end of playtime, they learn that cleanup is also part of play. By folding play cloths and returning the toys to the shelf, children experience the satisfaction of restoring all to its rightful place and develop good work habits that will serve them well in years to come.
Young Waldorf students also learn a multitude of lessons from the stories they are told. They learn to understand the sequential, organized thought that is modeled in a story and to read the facial cues and intonation of the storyteller. They intuitively come to understand plot and character development. Their vocabularies and imaginations are enriched, and above all, they acquire a love of stories that becomes the foundation of literacy.
When children sit down to snack, to eat the bread they have baked, butter they have made, and the apples they have washed, important lessons are being conveyed. For at this moment, when all the children are eager to share in the Earth's bounty, they are asked to wait for a grace to be spoken and for everyone to be served. These three, four, five, and six year-olds are sharing a sense of gratitude for their food and developing much needed social awareness. They are becoming companions in the truest sense of the word.
The schedule for each day in a Waldorf program also allows for ample time outdoors. Even in urban areas and in spite of rainy weather, a Waldorf playground offers children a regular opportunity to connect with nature, engage in robust physical activity, and to experience the joys and wonders of the changing seasons. Fall is filled with excitement as winds blow the leaves from the trees and cover the playground with color. In winter, in the North, the falling snow brings a hush to the playground as it blankets the sand box, the picnic tables, and familiar climbing structures. And in spring children rejoice as crocuses and daffodils emerge and bushes and trees blossom. Given that books are now being written about children who are growing up with "nature deficit disorder," this has become an even more essential part of the school day.
Educators have always sensed a subtle connection between young children and the natural world. We have called our first schools nurseries and kindergartens and have spoken of teachers as sowing seeds and helping children blossom. Waldorf teachers would embrace this metaphor and echo the thoughts of Henry David Thoreau:
"I am struck by the fact that the more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think that the same is true of human beings. We do not wish to see children precocious, making great strides in their early years like sprouts, producing a soft and perishable timber, but better if they expand slowly at first, as if contending with difficulties, and so are solidified and perfected. Such trees continue to expand with nearly equal rapidity to extreme old age."
Childhood is a most precious resource, and yet, in this day and age it is rare that an educational program allows children to be children. In our culture and in most of our schools we are accelerating maturation and urging children to be old before their time.
The Waldorf program is designed to support the healthy development of young children by:
building strength, perseverance, and good habits
developing social awareness and sensitivity
awakening a life-long enthusiasm for learning and for work.
The Waldorf School is committed to preserving the vitality and liveliness of children, as well as their innate sense of wonder and curiosity so that these youthful qualities will serve and sustain them for the rest of their lives. Adapted from Jack Petrash, Nova Institute Waldorf Canada