September 26, 2011

Adventures in Experimental Education

A couple weeks ago Colin started school. Sure, it's only for two hours, one day a week, and his little brother and I are there the entire time, but for him this is the Big Time. This is School. "The Waldorf School," to be exact.

Over the summer Colin developed an intense fascination with "school." During our daily outings he'd see kids playing on the playground at recess or on a field trip to the zoo, and he'd want to know all about what they were doing--especially "the Big Yellow Bus." He was really keen on the bus.

He started saying, "Mama, I want to go to skoo-ul." So, this fall I decided to start taking Colin to play school. Edmonton happens to be one of the few places in Western Canada that has a Waldorf School, (a European pedagogical philosophy that's having a bit of a resurgence, especially among the North American homeschooling set), and ever since I first learned about Waldorf schools I have been eager to try them out.

My first encounter with Waldorf-Steiner education was when Kevin and I were living in Germany, and my German teacher taught an entire week's worth of lessons about "Der Waldorf Schule." She showed us all these videos of sunny classrooms where little kids played recorders and sang songs about nature, made little clay pots and gardened, and reenacted scenes from the Grimm's fairy tales. They were absolutely the most charming, happy, and peaceful classrooms I have ever seen, and it broke my heart that there wasn't a school like that around when I was a kid. It would have suited me perfectly.

So, as you can imagine, starting at the Waldorf School was as exciting for me as it was for Colin--perhaps a little more so. On Sunday night, I laid out all our clothes and loaded Colin's miniature backpack (or "pack-pack" as he calls it) with the "fresh, organic fruit" we were asked to bring for snack time. Then we all went to bed nice and early. The next morning, we got to school by nine o'clock--the earliest I have been out of the house in months--and all without anyone feeling rushed or frazzled. This was a very good start.

The classroom itself was even more lovely than I had imagined. Every aspect of the room was thoughtfully and artistically designed, from the shelves filled with natural wooden toys to a corner kitchen play area made up of a canopy draped with rainbow coloured silks. An overstuffed couch in one corner and a big plush rug made the room feel more like a comfy living room than a school classroom. My German teacher would have called the room very "gemütlich," which literally means "cosy" but also has the connotation of "good-natured" and "unhurried."

And our morning at the Waldorf School was just that: good-natured and unhurried. After morning greetings sung around a circle, the teacher performed a little music and a puppet show, and then the kids were free to play. Colin was already one step ahead of her, being the only child unwilling to participate in the organized activities and preferring to proceed directly to playtime, but the teacher insisted that Colin would join when he was ready and that he was watching and participating in his own way on the periphery.

While the kids played the teacher had us parents sit at the big classroom table and do a little craft project. She explained that if our hands were busy we couldn't "hover" over our children and that it was important for them to see us "engaged in our own meaningful work, as play is the meaningful work of childhood." While I hardly think making felted lavender sachets qualifies as "meaningful work," I get her point. And I was only too happy to sip tea and chat with the other parents over felt swatches while Colin played on his own.

Playtime was followed by "Clean-Up Time" followed by "Washing Hands Time" followed by "Snack Time, and each "Time" was marked by special song that cheerfully described the transition and the next activity. It almost felt a bit like being in a monastery or convent, where the monks and nuns sing proscribed songs at the different prayer times. And it certainly worked wonders with the kids, who, confident in what was going to happen next, were surprisingly amenable to cleaning up and moving on, without meltdowns or tantrums.

After classroom time, we all moved outside to the playground. The playground at the Waldorf School is striking for what it doesn't have: any of the large colourful plastic gym equipment that you see on regular playgrounds. Instead, there is a small wooden play gym, a big pile of sand, and lots and lots of tree stumps. I was a little skeptical that the kids would be excited by this, but once the older classes came outside (the school runs through Grade 2), the playground was a flurry of activity: some kids digging in the sand with shovels, others making forts out of the stumps, and my own child determinedly   stepping from stump to stump in a never-ending circuit around the yard. It was the perfect end to a perfect morning at School.

The only thing that could have made Waldorf School better in Colin's mind would have been a Waldorf school bus.

1 comment:

Rachel said...

Ooh, I'll have to get more information about the Edmonton Waldorf school from you. I got to know of Waldorf schools when we were living in Charlottesville and my cousin's kids went to the Waldorf school there (it went through Grade 5, I believe).