By Erin Hitchcock —
It feels like one is stepping back in time to a simpler, gentler era when entering the Chickadee Early Childhood and Learning Centre. There are no computers, no modern-day technological devices. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to find anything plastic.
Instead, wooden furniture and toys made from natural fibres such as wood, wool, and stones neatly embrace the space. A play wooden kitchen stands behind a canopy of cascading silk. Nestled inside wicker baskets are handmade dolls, feathers, and knitted finger puppets. The warm learning environment provides a nature-rich, creative space that nurtures and protects, while encouraging children’s inborn curiosities.
This small initiative is embarking on its second year, but at a new location—St. Andrews United Church in Williams Lake. Formerly at Miocene, the centre will continue offering Waldorf-inspired education to youngsters in the Cariboo-Chilcotin and will include Parent and Tot, mixed-age Kindergarten, and Homeschool Grades Support programs.
Claire West-Mattson, the teacher who heads up these programs, said the pedagogy and the ensuing curriculum truly focus on the child’s whole self while recognizing individual and natural developmental stages.
“Waldorf education comes from this deep understanding of human and child development, and that’s the foundation for your teaching,” said West-Mattson, a BC certified teacher for more than 20 years, who holds a Bachelor of Arts, a Bachelor of Education, and certification as a Waldorf early childhood and grades educator.
According to the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America (AWSNA), more than 900 Waldorf schools in 83 countries dot the globe. Waldorf education provides a curriculum that responds to children’s developmental phases while cultivating social and emotional intelligence, connecting children to nature, and igniting a passion for lifelong learning.
Waldorf education began nearly a century ago after Austrian scientist and thinker Rudolf Steiner opened a school in 1919, following a request from Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory owner Emil Molt. Far from an elitist education, the first Waldorf School was created for the children of factory workers.
Steiner’s philosophies included an understanding that, “the human being is a threefold being of spirit, soul, and body whose capabilities unfold in three developmental stages on the path to adulthood: early childhood, middle childhood, and adolescence,” said AWSNA.
West-Mattson said in North America the history of Waldorf Schools has seen many initiatives become private schools that are financially unattainable to many families. But a new trend is turning that around, which West-Mattson would love to see continue.
She said Waldorf early childhood education is brought to her students through a rhythm and structure of activities that include movement, singing, art, traditional games, stories, purposeful work, and lots of time for free play.
Inside the classroom, felted flowers and animals and objects from nature decorate a windowsill along with tiny wood and handmade figures ready to be used for detailed, rich stories such as fairy tales, folktales, and nature stories that are enlivened through the art of storytelling. This use of whole language, West-Mattson said, improves vocabulary skills and encourages imagination.
Students in grades 1 to 8 acquire basic literacy and numeracy skills through a curriculum that comes from and encourages imaginative and creative thinking. Specialty subjects, including music, French, handwork, and art are taught from grade 1 up.
A day in grade 1 may include recitation of verses, singing, movement games that teach and reinforce math skills, or learning the alphabet creatively through story and form drawings that are then incorporated into individual main lesson books.
“The main lesson books they create are beautiful,” West-Mattson said, adding the children are in effect creating their own textbooks. “They model what the teacher does at first and develop an understanding of the importance of the beauty of their work.
“In grade 1 you’re doing math, but first through movement and games. It’s very exciting because you see how responsive they are to it. You can’t expect a child that age to just be sitting at a desk and taking in all of these abstract concepts, so there’s lots of learning through movement.”
Waldorf curriculum doesn’t press reading and writing until a child is older and developmentally ready for abstract concepts (grades 2 and 3). West-Mattson said as with electronics such as computers and TV, early literacy can be taxing, even for a child who successfully writes and reads early.
“It’s using a different part of them at the expense of other parts that are still developing,” she explained. “Everything we do now with the children affects them in the future so it affects who they become.”
She said subjects are taught in three- to four-week blocks, rotating through the subjects and looping back to concepts as the year progresses. Numeracy is introduced through games, movement, and images but is practiced daily. In the early grades, science is often taught through nature stories and being outside in nature itself. A more demanding contextual science curriculum is brought to the students as they enter the intermediate level. At the high school level computers are well used.
At snack time, children at Chickadee Early Childhood Centre receive nutritious food, such as homemade soup, as well as buns they may have helped form into shapes. Hands-on experiences of cooking, handwork, painting, building, and gardening are an important part of the curriculum.
At Chickadee the day begins and ends as it began—a circle of friends, singing or saying a verse of greeting of goodbye. As the children wait for parents outside, they enjoy seasonal activities that might include exploring nature, skipping, playing traditional games, or nurturing and admiring a garden all of have planted together.
While this glimpse of Waldorf Education may appear to be a step back into a simpler past, West-Mattson reflects that when she says goodbye to her students, she sees hope for a complex future.
Waldorf philosophies are often not restricted to the school setting.
Crystal Camping, a mother of four, had her two older children attend the Kindergarten program last year. She plans to enroll them again.
Camping said her family has been inspired to look more into Waldorf as not only a way to educate but also as a way to incorporate its philosophies at home.
“My two oldest children who attended the Kindergarten class absolutely loved it,” she said. “The Kindergarten class is such a warm, calming, welcoming environment, and now having Waldorf in our home, my family is much calmer and my children are able to have a childhood instead of being forced to grow up too soon. The more I learn about Waldorf, the more I fall in love with it.”
For more information on the programs offered, contact Claire West-Mattson at (250) 296-3265 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on Waldorf, visit the AWSNA website at www.whywaldorfworks.com.
Author’s note: My son, 2, attended the Parent and Tot program in the spring and will again this fall, as I have found the experience to be valuable for him and our family.
Erin Hitchcock is a freelance journalist and stay-at-home mom who enjoys vegetarian cooking, gardening, and spending time with her family in nature.