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Waldorf – Engaging the head, hands and heart

Walk into a Waldorf school classroom, and you’ll see walls painted in subtle, soft tones – possibly in the varying hues of the Lazure painting technique. There will be plants, an area with soft carpeting, and natural materials – not a plastic toy in sight.

Spaces are designed to allow as much natural light in as possible. Children’s art is displayed prominently. Especially in early grades, there’s a calm, home-like environment. In all grades, an aesthetically pleasing atmosphere is key.

“It’s a wonderful school to be in,” says Emily Langley, whose young son and daughter attend Toronto Waldorf School. “You feel comfortable. We think children need that nurturing environment.”

Waldorf education was created by Austrian philosopher and teacher Rudolf Steiner in 1919. It’s unique in several ways. Take kindergarten.

“The emphasis is on play and on observing and doing real work,” says Helene Gross, Head of Pedagogy at Toronto Waldorf School. She says kids might engage in activities such as polishing shoes or washing clothes by hand and hanging it up outside. Making soup or bread and watercolour painting are other typical activities.

Formal instruction in kindergarten is eschewed. Instead, imagination and free play (including lots of outdoor play) are central. Sensory work, eye-hand coordination, sequencing and other skills are fostered to lay a foundation for the academic learning to come.

From grade one, the day begins with the ‘main lesson’. Gross says the core curriculum is taught in this two-hour block of time, focussing on one subject for weeks. “It’s an intensive period. In grade five, you might be learning about Greek history,” says Gross. “It’s a real immersion. You could bring math and language and other parts of the curriculum through that learning of Greek history. The classroom would be decorated with paintings from ancient Greece, or earthenware.”

The rest of the day is divided into skills and specialist lessons, such as French and music. While arts and music are woven throughout Waldorf education, it is not an arts school.

Langley is a public school science teacher. Her husband is an engineer. “We’re science people,” she says. But the couple likes the interdisciplinary approach to academics in Waldorf. “Students have a better understanding of how everything all fits together.”

Langley says it’s the way academics are taught that makes Waldorf so different. She says she was “very pleased” when she sat in on grade nine and 10 science classes. When learning about gasses and how they behave, she says chemistry students go to a swimming pool to scuba-dive. “It’s physical involvement in learning. And the brain-body connection there.”

Gross’s daughter, Shani Gross-Brothers, who attended Waldorf schools and whose twin boys are in class with Langley’s son, says she visited a grade two class at a different Waldorf school. The kids were learning their multiplication tables. “They were sitting in a circle with a beanbag, throwing it to each other. You know, two times six is whatever – that child had to say what it was. Instead of trying to memorize it, to keep still, they were actually moving.”

Hands-on learning is everywhere in Waldorf education. “I remember basket-weaving in high school,” says Gross-Brothers. She says some of her non-Waldorf friends hated school. “I’ve never felt that about my schooling. It was always very warm and positive.”

The same groups of children are kept together, with the same teacher, if possible, for grades one through eight. There are plenty of group opportunities, such as drama productions and field trips.

“The social environment is highly valued,” says Gross, who taught Waldorf for years. “They build almost sibling-like relationships with classmates.”

Find Waldorf schools in Canada with ParentsCanada’s Private School Guide.

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