A Waldorf School Off-site Kindergarten Embraces LifeWays
by Susan Silverio
No one was more surprised than I to find myself waking up early one morning and saying Yes! to LifeWays. I had cultivated the Waldorf Kindergarten here on the grounds of our home where Ashwood Waldorf School first took root in 1986. As the school grew up and expanded onto a more central campus, this kindergarten continued as on off-site mixed-age kindergarten, now a branch of Ashwood. With the help of many parents the tiny cabin was enlarged three times over the years and when it was complete we named it Spindlewood. I held onto the ideal of the Kindergarten, reclaiming the traditional children’s garden from the conventional modern academic model of pre-first grade. Friends who taught in the local public school kindergarten and first grade encouraged me to keep the children here as long as possible. The Waldorf Kindergarten morning program seemed to me to be all that was needed for young children.
But much has changed over the course of these 17 years. The founding parents of the school here on the coast of Maine were home-based, often building their own houses, always gardening. Children were surrounded by real work, and often saw their parents doing carpentry, baking or craftsmanship as their livelihood. Parents seemed to be seeking the kindergarten for their children for the sake of the social and spiritual enrichment it provided, and when the children left school after a long morning of stories and play, they returned home for lunch and a quiet afternoon.
Now computers allow all manner of creative and technical work to be done from rural Maine and have invisibly transformed the world of work. Often now both parents have ongoing careers, and even those parents who are choosing to become homemakers have offices at home. Today’s fast-paced lifestyle seems to have reached as far as the toddlers. I was finding that the children were not going home at the end of the kindergarten morning, but on to more public childcare situations, or to afternoons of scheduled activities. Lunch was eaten out or in the back seat of the car. There almost seemed to be a new kind of modern homelessness developing.
Meanwhile, on the main campus of the school, the mixed age kindergarten had proliferated into a patchwork of programs for early childhood, specialized by age, with an aftercare program attached with additional staff. Although as a Waldorf school we still felt passionate about a teacher carrying a class through the grades, our youngest children went from teacher to teacher and classroom to classroom. The school was noticing that a nursery program with a small number of children, and separate afternoon staff was not financially feasible. For my part, I began to question how we could provide young children with more continuity of caregivers with whom they could bond, and a more familiar environment where they could gain the sense of mastery and security that could free their imagination. I was also hearing a call from parents who were still attempting to keep their children central to their lives, but needed a larger portion of time to focus on their work during daylight hours.
The time was ripe for Ashwood to consult with Cynthia Aldinger, Director of LifeWays North America. In the course of our conversations, while still working as a Waldorf school, I found myself experiencing a shift in focus to relationship-based care with the adult as curriculum, and an appreciation of ordinary life including the Living Arts of nurturing, domestic, and social arts, with the creative arts revolving around the seasonal festivals.
The shift was a re-visioning of the morning program to an 8:30 am to 3:00 pm day that allows time for the nurturing physical care of the children, and includes children in the daily work, rest and play of life. Rather than the fairly intense 3 – hour program of structured, organized activities for children, framed with hours of adult-only preparation, clean-up, parent contacts and seemingly endless faculty meetings, the door was now opened to living with and around children, still keeping our rhythmic pulse of stories, games and verses throughout the morning and breathing into a quiet and restorative afternoon.
As the children come in doors in the morning, I greet them and assist them in brushing their hair. I am reminded that my colleagues in remedial training have for some time recognized the need for remedial work for today’s children, and although I had participated in a number of courses and seminars, there had never seemed time in the course of a kindergarten morning for some of the individual care and attention needed by children. LifeWays’ inclusion of the nurturing arts introduces natural activities of hair brushing, lavender face cloths, and warm lavender foot baths that allow the possibility of close observation of the child, and the bodily care that meets two of the lower senses identified by Rudolf Steiner as the sense of life and the sense of touch.
Seven of the sixteen children go home at the end of the morning. While I say good-bye and speak for a moment with each parent, the assistant teacher sets up the room for siesta, and finishes preparing a simple one-pot meal for lunch. The parents contribute food items each week, and we find it infinitely more satisfying to sit down to share a simple hot meal at the end of our morning than to the chaos of lunch boxes and wrappers.
As we work together in clearing away lunch and toileting, the children take finger knitting or a book to their mats. Perhaps because siesta time was new for us, we originally adopted the practice of setting up sleeping houses with playstands and clothes. Perhaps we just couldn’t imagine this lively group of children settling down to sleep without their own “bedrooms”. Perhaps it gave us (as teachers) a sense of order and beauty as well. But we experienced that some children did not wish to be enclosed, and that many did not want to be cut off from eye contact with the other children. It took some time for the assistant and I to gain confidence in the value of rest and to learn to practice and model it. A quiet, restful hour after lunch flies in the face of our hectic “on to the next activity” culture. At first some of the older or more wide-awake children resisted it (or picked up on our resistance,) but gradually we became able to frame siesta time not with wooden structures and cloths but with lullabies, verses accompanied by nurturing touch, and a story. Now, after three years of creating and practicing an interlude of rest, the afternoons have become a time for a true out-breath from the morning, with younger and sometimes older children crooning the day’s songs to themselves and often falling into a sound sleep. The ones who don’t sleep now rest very quietly as they listen to the tick of the timer and wait for others to fall asleep. A very active seven-year old boy finds quiet, rhythmic satisfaction by finger knitting during this time.
The rosy cheeks of the sleepyheads as they arise testify to their sense of life and well-being. Upon arising, I assist the children in washing their faces with a crocheted cotton cloth from a basin of warm water and lavender oil. Then we brush their hair with their own small brush laid out on a tray. At the end of the year, one child “wrote” me a letter saying, “Dear Miss Susan, I love you and I miss doing circles and washing my face at siesta time!” Some children are then ready to bound outdoors for more climbing and digging. I accompany them while others walk up slowly and play dreamily indoors with the assistant.
Even a welcome change can mean the loss of the familiar, and so also with my LifeWays transition. Like a caterpillar in a newly formed chrysalis, I found my regular morning dissolving into a bit of chaos until new rhythms and forms could emerge and hold a wider range of daily life. I felt challenged as I stepped out from my teacher role and closer to the parental realm. I even missed the familiar excitement of the often-painful interminable group process of faculty meetings.
But what has been gained? The slightly more relaxed rhythms have allowed the assistant teacher to emerge as a person in her own right, and she has discovered a deep well within herself of stories and vignettes that amuse and delight the children, and sometimes meet them in a curative moment. We rejoice to see the children who were quiet and withdrawn last year now becoming more playful.
We have expanded our sense of community by welcoming regular visitors, including my husband who plays his mandolin after lunch on Corn Chowder Day. Prior to this, the children passed Jack’s studio as they walked the path to school and some of them thought Studio was his last name.
I sense a new feeling quality with the parents. If perhaps I have been a warm teacher, I now stand in the place of a caring person in the lives of their children. Parents seem a bit more relaxed as well, and I now notice them holding, nurturing and playing with their children when they greet them. Because there are now two pick-up times (after lunch or after siesta) there is no longer one grand dismissal time. When parents arrive to pick up their children, there is now something a of a tidal pool effect. At the end of the afternoon, one child might invite a parent in to see his puppet play. Another parent might arrive a few minutes early and offer to help us tidy up. I have at times felt defensive of our kindergarten mood, but now want to cultivate an atmosphere of hospitality. Life abounds at these moments, and I find that parents are grateful and respectful.
What else is gained? In spite of my own resistance to being still for a while during siesta, I am learning to have a full thirty-minute out-breath myself after the back rubs and lullabies, a moment of meditation that provides rest for my soul, even while staying in-tune with the children. During the quiet time that follows, I can even weave in a few other duties that I would have done ordinarily in the afternoon anyway: folding a basket of laundry, having a conversation with a parent, or setting up for the next day.
Also gained are several children who could not have been accommodated in a more formal kindergarten morning. Some are young; others require a bit more adult interaction to find their way through the day. The other children, some of whom have no siblings at home, gain the opportunity to observe a younger child being cared for. The simple acts of assisting a child in dressing and undressing for outdoor play nourish the sense of touch and can be a nurturing activity if not rushed and perhaps accompanied by a song. A child who has difficulty entering into social play in the morning becomes quiet and observant as I brush his hair before he enters the room. This nurturing touch seems to bring him into his own body and allows a smoother transition to the group.
One of the many gifts of Rudolf Steiner to our search for wholeness in the lives of young children is his recognition of the twelve senses of the human being. In addition to the familiar ones of touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing, he describes four lower senses as paramount for child development. These include touch as well as the senses of life, movement and balance. Together the lower senses foster the development that in later life will be able to support the human faculties of the higher senses of hearing/tone, speech/language, thought/concept and the sense of perceiving the unique individuality of another human being. Without the necessary grounding of the lower senses, the higher ones may not be able to develop in a truly human way. I feel that I am better able to cultivate all of the four lower senses of life, touch, movement and balance (as well as the fifth one of warmth) in the course of the slightly longer morning and the full kindergarten day that allows us time. The senses of life and touch are especially addressed by the nurturing arts, including the hair brushing, warm lavender foot baths and face cloths, as well as materials of natural fibers for resting with at siesta time.
Much has also remained the same in our Waldorf Kindergarten, and our full hour outdoors in the morning allows us to live more fully into the activities that vitalize the two other lower senses of movement and balance: sledding down the old woods road during the several snowy months, collecting maple sap buckets and pulling them to the sugar shed, swinging on the swings that parents have hung from the peeled log that they lifted up and pinned to two trees during a family work party, hoisting buckets of water from the well for the sheep and chickens. Our woodland paths are irregular and rooty and occasionally a city-dwelling child will trip upon one as he makes his way along in the beginning of the year. But during the subsequent weeks, the children learn to feel their way over the surface of the woods, letting their feet reach out as sensors to maintain their balance as they move. The little frog pond is a touchstone of changing life. In the fall, the children are engaged body and soul in the joy of catching frogs, throughout the winter they are observing and testing the ever changing frost and ice, in the spring the children can pump the hand pump to create a waterfall over the flow forms to freshen the water that is now teeming with frog eggs and tadpoles.
Even indoors there is opportunity for movement and balance. Parents who advised me that their active boy could not live without a 4-wheeler are amazed to see him create one out of a plank and four short logs. In fact, his wooden board can do almost anything — become a slide, a seesaw or a boat (and he now takes a board to bed with him as well). A small rock-a-boat holds four children at a time. The senses of life and touch are nourished by the natural fibers of the play cloths and toys as well as by the hot water bottles for cold days.
I am still learning to breathe into these new, lighter rhythms and the nurturing arts of LifeWays. There are still things that I want to hold onto and find a place for, like fairy tales for the older children. But most of all, I have the satisfaction of cultivating a place in the world where children can grow, learn and thrive that feels more like a neighborhood than an institution. I still refer to this as kindergarten, but whenever Elliot who is four years olds hears me, he exclaims mightily, “This isn’t kindergarten, this is SPINDLEWOOD!” And indeed he is right; beyond all categories and models of education, it is the living experience that is real and creates a foundation for a meaningful future.[Revised from a previously published article in Gateways, A Newsletter of the Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America, Fall/Winter 2004 issue, and in SteinerBooks Education Catalog, 2005. Written May 11, 2004.]