Are you worried about your shy flower or your bulldozer of a preschooler heading off into the unknown world of education for the first time? The nurturing, homelike atmosphere of a Waldorf preschool fosters individuality without dampening spirits.
The origins of the Waldorf method
Austrian educational theorist Rudolf Steiner, creator of Waldorf philosophy, founded the first school in Germany in 1919. Steiner gave teachers the greatest input in their school’s operation and, to this day, Waldorf schools govern themselves and develop their own curricula.
Waldorf, an alternative education school, teaches children how, not what, to think, so that young people will develop a love of learning and a natural curiosity for the world around them.
What type of learning style is Waldorf?
A Waldorf program is defined by predictable routine and dependable structure. Consistent daily and weekly schedules contribute to a nurturing and home-like atmosphere. Children become familiar with and secure in the rhythm of their daily activities.
Laura Ferris, early childhood teacher at Highland Hall Waldorf School and faculty member of the Waldorf Institute of Southern California (WISC), classifies a Waldorf preschool education as an “unhurried approach” to learning where children take in their surroundings and respond with imitation.
“Children are strong imitators; it is also their nature to be moving, to be active. Current brain research has clearly identified the importance of healthy movement as being key to a solid foundation for academic success,” explains Ferris. “We work to incorporate as much conscious movement as possible into our daily activities.”
The curriculum at a Waldorf preschool is focused on creative learning over academics. Media — videos, computers, electronics of any kind — are excluded in favor of activities such as play-acting and cooking, through which children develop emotionally, physically and intellectually in mixed-age classrooms.
Is a Waldorf preschool right for your child?
Students who truly thrive at a Waldorf school are those who appreciate predictability and depend on a homelike atmosphere. The gentle, nurturing approach can comfort shy children and help balance out more aggressive children.
If you have an imaginative, free-spirited young child in your family, a Waldorf preschool may gel with his personality. Parents with children who learn well through imitation and repetition may want to consider this type of learning environment.
Unhappy with her daughter’s cookie-cutter school environment (and the disturbing lack of art instruction and craft opportunities), Jesi Josten, an artist herself, finally checked out a nearby Waldorf school. “I had heard mixed reviews. A friend always joked that her brother — a Waldorf kid — could ride a unicycle and knit a sweater but couldn’t spell to save his life.”
But after a tour, Josten was converted. “I loved that preschool and kindergarten was mixed and still very much play-based, not pushing them to memorize letters and numbers and read, but instead to be inquisitive kids. They were teaching them things, but in such a way that the kids didn’t even know they were learning. I loved the homey feel of the classrooms — the smell of fresh-baked bread, the wooden toys and rainbows of hand-dyed playsilks. I loved that the kids were encouraged to use their imaginations.”
What is a Waldorf preschool classroom like?
“We feel we have a responsibility to create an environment that is worthy of the young child’s imitation,” says Ferris. “We strive to provide opportunities for meaningful imitation and creative play.”
The materials in a Waldorf preschool classroom are carefully selected to afford flexibility in use, explains Ferris. For example, expressionless dolls leave a child free to express whatever emotion is appropriate in the play. There are raw materials aplenty — planks, rocking boards, stones, pine cones, seashells, colored play cloths and puppets. “Most objects that the children play with have a living essence. They are made of wool, silk, cotton. The young child’s sensibilities are carefully protected and the skin being a sense organ is no exception. We are striving for truth in what they come into contact with,” says Ferris.
A typical day at Ferris’ preschool begins with circle time which leads into free play that can include dress up, building, singing, painting and more. “They enjoy rich language, learn to play together, to resolve conflict in a harmonious manner. They are surrounded by purposeful work and often come wanting to help. They may chop vegetables for soup, help knead bread, wash painting jars after painting or work independently on their own finger-knitting, weaving or sanding a boat.”
Outdoor play (in all weather) is another important element in each Waldorf preschooler’s day, with the natural ebb and flow of indoor and outdoor time, “supporting the child’s need for a healthy rhythm to the day, giving varied opportunities to be active as well as calm.” Ferris explains that teachers offer guidance only when necessary, modeling good behavior rather than offering formal instruction. Children are not made conscious of the learning that’s happening, “It simply is there in their play.”