The preschool years are of great importance in laying the foundations for healthy adult creativity and intelligence. Today, nearly a thousand Waldorf schools around the world promote true self-discipline, sound development and solid learning through a head, heart and hands approach. We strive to offer the right stimulus at the right time and to help each child's abilities to fully unfold. The curriculum, begun in 1919, is a successful model for holistic education. Nurturing and protecting childhood in a beautiful, warm, homelike setting is a key element of the Waldorf early childhood program. Reflecting a deep belief that children's natural creative play contains the cornerstones of academic ability, the rhythm of the school day flows between lively social and quiet individual activities.
In the first seven years, the child seeks to see that the world is a place of goodness. These early years are a period of joy and exuberance during which the child will absorb and imitate everything he or she sees, and during which learning will flow through the movements of the child. Therefore, the teacher seeks to lead the work of the class in a kind, conscious, loving manner that is worthy of imitation, and the child learns by doing. Our Waldorf Early Childhood classes provide a bridge from the life of the home to the structure of elementary school. We use simple yet profound concepts of imitation, repetition, and creative play. Teachers in our Children's Garden value childhood as a worthy part of the human experience, not a time to be rushed through on the way to adulthood.
In our classes, children become accustomed to working within a group, listening to stories, interacting with a teacher and following a daily routine. At the same time the children find support for their individual development through creative play, practical life skills and artistic opportunities. Teachers understand the young child's need for movement and the child's devotion to learning about the world through imitating everything he or she experiences.
One hundred acres of woods surrounds the Whidbey Island Waldorf School. Not only do the children take frequent nature walks and have opportunities to play outside every day in weather from the warmth of September to misty rains of winter, they also visit a variety of outdoor rooms – clearings in the woods with rocks and stumps and branches and moss for climbing and building and imagining with. Here the child's imagination can soar. The opportunities to run, climb, crawl, balance, and move in a variety of terrains foster children's physical development, essential to healthy cognitive, social, and emotional development in the years ahead.
A child who has had an experience of the year can enter very deeply and comfortably into later studies of plants and animals, the weather, geology, astronomy, and other natural sciences. Extensive outdoor experiences also hone the child's observation skills. The outdoors also provide excellent opportunities to develop motor skills, balance, and coordination.
At various times in the morning, the teacher envelops the children with well-wrought and poetic language – connected with the seasons, a particular fairy tale or story, or just part of the general lore of childhood. Teachers and children sing throughout the day. Children may also have opportunities to play simple instruments (to provide music for a puppet show children have dreamed up, for example). Simple singing games provide songs and rhymes for parents and children alike to enjoy. The children learn to mark the seasons, develop their sense of rhythm, and enhance their memory skills through the singing of songs just right for their stage of development.
Repeating and remembering verses sets the stage for the more intense memory work that will be required in elementary school--and is a foundation for healthy brain development. Rhyming sounds and alliteration found in poems and songs educate the ear, forming the beginnings of spelling and phonics. Directed movement is a basis for healthy brain development.
The children have a long period of time during which they are encouraged to imagine and play with a wide variety of natural materials and playthings, following their own initiative. During this time, the teacher is involved in preparing the snack, sewing, cleaning, making toys or any of a number of practical activities with which the children are welcome to participate. An atmosphere of work and play permeates the room. Within the activities of play, children integrate the world and practice their life skills such as movement and balance, sensory integration, speech and language capacity, social and emotional interactions, and imaginative and cognitive development.
Far from being counterproductive to later kinds of learning such as academics, play – as numerous studies demonstrate – provides the best and most age appropriate preparation for all kinds of future learning.
Wet-on-wet watercolor painting, beeswax modeling, crayon drawing, as well as various forms of handwork such as finger knitting, simple sewing, and woodworking, are done as group activities or at the individual initiative of a child. High quality, organic materials are used for these activities. The teachers also cultivate the practical arts--sweeping, washing, ironing, folding, and the like – and with mindfulness transform these into aesthetic and nourishing activities.
These activities encourage the child's natural sense of beauty, color, and form, as well as laying the groundwork for artistic techniques which will be needed later. They also aid in the development of fine motor skills.
This is another group activity where the children eat together family style with their teachers. It is likely that they have also helped to prepare the food and set the table. Afterwards, they clear the table and wash their dishes. An emphasis on gratitude sets the stage for intra and interpersonal revelations.
Teachers narrate a story learned by heart. Each child is free to imagine the details of the story, strengthening the child's development. Each child feels the story come directly to the child rather than struggling to see the page. Sometimes teachers (and children) use puppets or drama to augment the tradition.
The oral tradition of language arts development in the Waldorf school and the content of the stories expose the children to the beauty of language and literacy.