This week our children are returning to school. They are ecstatic, and we’re pretty excited too. This is the beginning of our fourth year as Waldorf parents, and our enthusiasm hasn’t waned over time. On the contrary, every year we are more certain that Waldorf is the perfect place to send our children. It is, after all, the closest thing in the modern world to a Druidic school.
Of course, there are plenty of correspondence courses and training regimens available out there for aspiring Druids. The most famous one is the coursework offered by the OBOD; but there are many others, including the Avalon Mystery School, Avalon College, and of course the one I’m involved with, the AODA. But these offerings are all for adults.
And, of course, Waldorf teachers and administrators are almost certainly unaware that their teaching methods and curricula harmonize so beautifully with the teachings of Revival Druidism. But the harmony is there nevertheless.
The effect of a Waldorf education is to grow a child, with careful tending, into a strong, deeply rooted, freethinking adult, at home in matters spiritual and mundane — and able to see the spiritual in the mundane. The Waldorf curriculum recognizes the child is a creature of nature and of spirit, and both of these aspects are cultivated and interconnected as the child grows.
Enough lecturing! What do you actually see in a Waldorf kindergarten?
Tidy cubbies. Near the entrance to the room is a line of wooden cubbies holding rainboots and rain gear (or snow boots and snow gear, depending on the time of year), slippers, shoes, and a change of clothes. Children in Waldorf play outside for at least a short time every single day, regardless of weather (well, except for thunderstorms and blizzards). Children this age are still closely tied to the natural world, and they need that outside time like they need sleep and food. There are no names written on the cubbies; each cubby has a hand-drawn personal symbol (a fawn, a squirril, a maple tree…). This same symbol is used to mark the child’s seat. No writing is used, because Waldorf kindergartens do not teach reading. (See footnote below.)
Room organization. There are no lines of desks. It’s an open space with a mixture of carpeting and floor, a large table with the children’s chairs around it, and activity areas lining the walls — a small working kitchen, a dress-up area, a privacy nook, etc. — all beguiling to a child’s heart.
Kitchen area. A working sink with wash basins, ceramic plates, solid glass cups, and cotton cloths. Here the children wash their napkins, plates, and silverware after snack.
Natural materials. Speaking of ceramic, glass, and cotton, everything you see around you in the room is made of natural materials — wood, stone, metal, glass. No plastic. Children this age are still integrating their senses (as you know if you know a child with sensory integration difficulties), and it is very helpful for them to be able to match up texture, weight, color and pattern consistently. Nataural materials such as wood always look and feel the same; the child gets a consistent message. Plastics have dazzling colors and any number of strange textures and weights. Furthermore, natural materials are simply more comfortable for a young child.
Dress-up area. Over here is a rack of costumes hanging, and a bin stuffed with crowns, boas, sashes, and capes. All costumes are made of cotton, wool, silk, and other natural fibers.
Nature table. Children are forever finding treasures in nature: pine cones, rocks, feathers, flowers, shells of cicadas, autumn leaves. On this table they are arranged lovingly — a sort of altar to nature.
Privacy nook. My daughter loved this place. Silk drapes are hung to enclose a space about four feet square, perfect for just sitting quietly when that is what you need. No more than two children are allowed in the privacy nook at a time. My daughter loved to come here and sit and sing to herself — and whoever joined her in the nook.
Craft time. Children do crafts, not worksheets. They learn the specialty of Waldorf painting, the wet-on-wet method, which encourages experimentation with mixes of color. They also learn sewing, felting, and gnome-making.
Free play. Allowing the children to play freely lets them develop themselves as they will. Importantly, while the children play, the adults don’t do paperwork; they do tangible work which the children can safely participate in or mimic: washing dishes, ironing, polishing apples, oiling wood, baking bread. The point is to create an environment where the children can feel safe, but not central. It’s not healthy for the children to feel like the adults have nothing better to do than dote on them.
Birthday celebrations. On the child’s birthday, the class has a party. The children gather around as the teacher tells the story of the child’s birth and life up till now. Invariably the story begins with the child’s spirit looking down on the earth, and deciding to go down to join the people there. Candles may be lit as the story is told, another candle for each year of life. Then the children have a special cake that has been baked by the teacher.
Food: All the food is completely natural, with no strange chemicals or addatives. The menu emphasizes whole grains & organic foods. Usually the children help with the preparation. Snacks are frequently oatmeal or some other porridge, fruit, tea, and water.
And here is a wooden rocking chair, with sheep’s wool draped over the back. Here is where the teacher tells stories, children gathered at her feet and on her lap. Here is the hearth of the classroom, where you can feel the young hearts lingering even when the room is empty.
Not all classrooms will be the same, even within a single school. A Waldorf school is not organized as a heirarchy, but as a teacher’s co-op. No precepts are handed down from the State or the school principal, or even from AWSNA. The teachers plant their personal stamps on their classrooms. Still, you will see most of these things in every kindergarten. Waldorf teachers know what works.
You can find a lot of these things in many of the best non-Waldorf kindergartens. But Waldorf brings them all together. More importantly, in Waldorf, they are the essential business of kindergarten, not something to keep the kids happy while you try to force the 3 R’s down their throats. Natural materials, stories, birthdays, everyday tasks, simple crafts — these are the center of kindergarten because these young children are still very much wild things, like butterflies that have wandered into your garden of life. As they grow, they will gradually be tamed, through your efforts and their own. Don’t push it! They domesticate themselves all too soon. Let them settle into humanity at their own pace.
Footnote on reading. Maybe you can read between the lines of this post and figure out why Waldorf kindergartens don’t teach reading. The simple reason is that many, perhaps most, children are not really ready to read at this age. They will probably learn it if it is pushed on them, but many will resist, and end up learning that reading is hard work and not enjoyable. Learning to read at this age is a huge effort for many children, and perhaps their energies are better spent elsewhere. If a child teaches themselves to read, that’s an entirely different matter; the child has decided for themselves that reading is for them and that’s fine. But most Waldorf children start learning to read in the first grade. By age 10, on average, Waldorf children read with more speed, comprehension, and enjoyment than children in public schools. But this topic really deserves its own post someday.