I went to visit The Waldorf School of San Diego on a rather cold and rainy winter day. As I entered the main corridor of the San Diego Waldorf School, the colors of the walls, the intensity of the lighting and the things around me warmed my heart. It was as if I were entering the warmth of a fairy tale, or the cottage of a loving grandmother.
There is something very exciting in the atmosphere of a Waldorf School, which in a few seconds gives you the feeling that there is something different about this the education that goes on there, even if you have never read about the Waldorf pedagogy or talked to anyone about it.
Also in the same corridor my attention landed on a poster with a kind request not to bring cell phones into the school. In order to respect this, I did not take any photos during my visit. (I did fill this post with images that I found on the internet because in the case of the Waldorf Schools I feel that images speak louder than words.).
I was greeted by Julie, the mother of a former high school student who fell so much in love with her daughter’s school experience that she now works at the school and is a Waldorf pedagogy enthusiast. Julie spent a lovely morning with me, showing me the school, clarifying the proposal of Rudolf Steiner (the founder of the Waldorf approach) and giving me some beautiful materials to deepen my studies. For me, seeing the sparkle in the eyes and the enthusiasm of a school’s educators and staff is a very important indicator that something special happens in this place. Julie showed me a lot of love.
First, we visited the early childhood spaces – because I told her to have a particular interest in this age group. The school accepts children starting from 3/4 years, because before that they believe that it is important for them to be with their parents and their families, as they are not emotionally prepared for school life yet.
The early childhood ed. classrooms are unbelievably cozy. With different materials scattered around the room, the child has easy access to activities and various toys, from crafts to reading, blocks of wood to dolls. All materials (all!) are of natural and organic origin: fabrics, paints, toys. There is nothing synthetic or plastic, because development of the senses and contact with natural materials is believed to be essential in this age group (and in life).
There is a predominance of pastel tones and light colors without excessive stimulation for the children (who are already over stimulated outside of school) and the colors and decorations of the classroom vary according to the season. As we were in winter, there was a beautiful winter drawing on the wall, lovingly prepared by the educator of that class, as well as winter plants decorating the tables in the room. The lighting also gets a bit darker so that children can effectively feel and respect the present cycle of nature.
There is a balance between free play in which the child explores classroom materials and their wants at their own pace and activities proposed and directed by educators. In this age group there is much manual work, crafts, as well as plenty of outdoor activities and contact with nature. Subtly and discreetly the child develops the motor and sensory abilities that will help them in later stages of their life (for example, by knitting they are developing the movements necessary for writing). Julie also explained to me that the speed is different from a traditional school: “here a class can stay for weeks working on the production of the same material. There is a concern not to encourage the culture of the disposable, where things are changed and things get discarded very fast. It is also important that the child learn to value the process as much as the end result. This is a learning for life, an art of living life.”
The volume within the classroom is always quite quiet and harmonious and educators are a great example for children. They conduct the activities and intervene in inappropriate behaviors in a silent, caring and full of creativity. Example: if it is time to clean the room, a teacher slowly starts to hum a song about it. The children also begin to sing and move around arranging the toys and the order is established in a harmonic way, without needing a formal request or scolding.
Image taken from their Facebook page.
As we entered the school’s second early childhood ed. room, it became clear to me that there is a particular concern about giving space and valuing the imagination of the children at a Waldorf school. Julie took a doll to show me as carefully as she would get a real human baby. “Here we get into the children’s fantasy, no adult takes a doll like a doll.” I looked intrigued at the situation and noticed that the doll had a blank face. There was no mouth, no eyebrows, nothing. “It is part of the child’s play, to imagine the doll laughing, crying, eating. We try to influence as little as possible and make room for imaginative potential,” said Julie.
We went out into the garden at the back of the school, where a group of children played in their rainboots and raincoats. The climate does not seem to limit the exploration of spaces in the school. Julie explained that rhythm is a very important aspect of Waldorf pedagogy. The change of activities and environments is always circumvented by a ritual. For example, when children come back from the garden, there is a pre-arranged ritual for this, which contemplates going to school together, taking off their boots calmly, washing their hands one by one, drinking water, passing lavender lotion on their feet and receiving a massage from the educator, after which they sit in a circle and wait for the beginning of the next activity, which in the case would be storytelling.
Julie explained to me that the rituals are important to bring a certain sense of security to the children. They know what is going to happen in certain moments and therefore can feel like they understand and know the space and their routine. This brings them a sense of security in their school. Beyond this, according to Julie, many schools end up facing discipline problems just because they don’t respect the rhythm of the children and don’t create ways to channel their energy to the activities.
“The public school up front takes 15 minutes just to convince the children to sit in a circle after recess, it’s so much shouting… the teachers calling everyone’s attention. It does not surprise me. The child comes back from the playground full of energy, after running and jumping and we hope she has the control to instantly sit down to be quiet and focused? It is a very abrupt change. It is necessary to ritualize this passage and to bring the focus of the child little by little to the next activity. Here they come back energized too, but the process of taking off their boots, washings their hands, drinking water, putting on the lotion, gradually prepares the environment and concentration in a more organic and harmonious way. In the routine of a Waldorf school everything has been carefully thought out to respect rhythm and harmony.” – Adapted reproduction of Julie’s words.
We continued our visit to the elementary and middle schools – grades 1 to 9 – and at this point we needed to quicken the pace of the visit, because I had already taken up a lot of Julie’s time with my questions about teaching the younger children. There is one thing that was different from what we are accustomed to: the same educator accompanies the group of children from the first to the ninth year. It is an additional challenge for the teacher, who has to update their training annually to understand the curriculum of each age group, but the school believes that it is an important way to effectively create a “family” relationship with the educator and the child in a more attentive and integral way.
The classrooms are organized in a manner quite similar to a conventional school – which surprised me somewhat – in the sense that the children are seated in desks lined up and the teacher takes a leading role in front of the room. The activities and the way of learning however surprised me in every room I entered. The learning seemed to be more experiential, where the child is invited to actually build that knowledge with his or her own hands, and art seems to play a crucial role. If we are going to study anatomy, why pick up a ready-made image in a book if we could learn much more about our body by actually drawing its parts?
All the works I saw on the walls of the school, whether of anatomy, geography, mathematics, history, were artistically impressive. It looked like I was in a museum of renowned draftsmen and poets. Children have classes in carpentry, circus, theater, violin, weaving, and I have no doubt that mastery of the arts and manual activities have a significant impact on the development of their cognitive abilities, their reasoning, their sensitivity and autonomy.
We did not have time to visit the high school, but Julie shared some of her perspectives a little with me, and what struck me most was the school’s concern with engaging young people with the social issues surrounding them. Knowing other realities, getting involved in social and environmental transformation… Julie shared that in this age group, the human being usually goes deep inside, in search of meaning and with tendency of isolation and sense of incomprehension. The Waldorf School is concerned to bring the young person “out”, to encourage the expression of his emotional and psychic interiors and to seek jobs loaded with meaning and purpose.
We said goodbye and Julie presented me with two books, one with testimonials from ex-Waldorf alumni who are now adults in different areas of practice and one with a more detailed presentation of the Waldorf Pedagogy. I also received a poster presenting the curricular matrix of the school from the first to the ninth grade.
Can you visit a school like this and not be filled with curiosity to learn and understand a little more about this approach? I did not feel it’s the perfect solution, but there’s definitely something very special going on in a Waldorf school. 🙂
Lantern festival at the Waldorf School (picture from their Facebook page)
Ps: For those who don’t know, the Waldorf Pedagogy is an educational approach developed almost 100 years ago by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. With more than 2,000 schools scattered around the world, it is considered one of the largest alternative / independent education movements in the world. It is a movement that has been growing in Brazil for the past 50 years and currently has more than 120 schools with this purpose or influence.
Ps2: For anyone interested in learning more about Rudolf Steiner’s vision of education, I did a more theoretical post summarizing his proposal.