Ahhh, Northwest fall. I can feel it in the air: Crisp. Cool. Leaves starting to turn brittle. Maybe it’s the season, or my recent run-in with Waldorf education (more on that in a minute), but all of a sudden I am romanticizing nature. I am a tiny bit obsessed with making sure we have the correct gear – rain boots, hats, coats and pants – to fully enjoy the misty, gray weather that is about to descend like a six-month cloak. Oh – and woolens, how could I forget woolens? We have recently acquired several new wool sweaters, hats, diaper longies – I feel that we cannot properly enjoy the coming seasons without our new and cozy woolens.
Yes, I know I am strangely fixated. I will simply blame it on the Waldorf Encounter, as I’ve been calling it. I’ll tread carefully here, because I know there are some very committed Waldorf parents out there who believe the school system, founded by German Rudolf Steiner in 1919, is the best thing ever. We toured a couple of Waldorf schools last month as part of a last-minute whirlwind trip through Seattle’s preschool circuit, desperately looking for somewhere with fall openings after our entire life plan changed course unexpectedly.
I can’t explain Waldorf here – it took me a week of solid Internet research to get the slimmest grasp on it myself. The key points and motivations of Waldorf education are all wrapped up with Steiner’s spiritual philosophy, called anthroposophy – which, according to quotes from Wikipedia quoting others: “postulates the existence of an objective, intellectually comprehensible spiritual world accessible to direct experience through inner development — more specifically through cultivating conscientiously a form of thinking independent of sensory experience.”
Of course I investigated beyond Wiki, but that sums it up in a soundbite. Anyway, we visited a Waldorf preschool-12 school – a beautiful structure tucked into a calm, wooded area in north Seattle that was a welcome change from the stuffy, disorganized chaos and screaming children of several other preshools I checked out. There were a lot of things I loved about Waldorf – the simple wooden furniture, the natural materials and non-commercial wooden toys, the use of natural elements like leaves, pinecones, and smooth rocks for play and decoration, the simple acts of baking bread in the classroom each day and taking 2-hour walks to explore the natural world. The woolen dolls, the silk play scarves, the conspicuous lack of Dora the Explorer, manmade clutter and piles of plastic crap made in China. The admittedly eerie but undeniably gorgeous hazy watercolor paintings and pastel geometric drawings. As I looked around I could practically see my little curly-haired nymph dancing with her hand-sewn faceless dolls and building architectural triumphs with plain wooden unit blocks before settling in for a snack of hand-ground applesauce or steamy oatmeal.
Alas, it was not to be. Because of some other little features of Waldorf, like the no-black-crayon rule, the no-letters-or-reading-until-age-7 rule, and the dedication to stories about such characters as fairies, elves, saints and Bible figures all the way through high school. There were larger problems too, involving philosophy and a little issue called prayer in the classroom. Here is the letter we sent the Admissions Director a week after our visit:
“Dear (Admissions Director):
Thank you for your messages and your patience. I am sorry to be so delayed in getting back to you. It has been a difficult choice for us as we navigate this new life path. We looked at several different preschools, including yours. We had many deep discussions. And we’ve come the place where we’ve decided that Waldorf education, even at the preschool level, is not right for us.
There are many things we adore about Waldorf – the environment, the focus on beauty and arts and nature and the natural development and exploration of childhood. But we don’t support some other aspects, including some of the limitations on tools and letters, but mainly the influence and guidance provided by Steiner’s spiritual and philosophical beliefs – the tenets of anthroposophy if you will. It’s actually not that we don’t believe in some of those aspects – we acknowledge all of our spiritual connections and want to pass along an awe and reverence of that to our kids. But we feel that such deep-rooted and important things as personal philosophy, spirituality, and values should be passed and shaped directly by us, the parents. We simply aren’t willing to abdicate that right, great responsibility and blessing to anyone else, no matter how good the intentions may be. Ultimately we feel school is a place where our children should find and develop social skills, book and world learning, history, creative opportunities, care and support, an appreciation and concern for humanity, etc. But not god, or spirituality, or their individual philosophical belief systems beyond what they come to believe on their own after obtaining a foundation in learning from their teachers and much more deep guidance from us.
I do thank you for the experience, because it allowed us, spurred us in fact, to explore some critical questions pertaining to how we want to raise our children, what we hope they’ll gain from their schooling, what we want to reserve as “our” teaching domain, etc..It’s a fascinating discussion, and I don’t think there are right or wrong answers – just paths that fit some better than others.
On a personal note, your school was beautiful, warm, an inviting. Thank you for all your time, and good luck with your year.”
And that pretty much sums it up. As a side effect, though, I cannot shake the things I loved about that school. I’ve already gone through the kids’ rooms and eliminated any errant plastic toys we missed on the last panicked anti-toxics roundup. I gave them fabric floor bins to arrange and sort, a dress-up basket, a spot to highlight their wooden puzzles and blocks. I bought a giant pile of felt and a slab of wood to build them a homemade felt board. Lukas is constructing a wooden art table. I have my eye on some playsilks and some art projects involving leaves and pinecones. I’m contemplating that beeswax modeling stuff, but we’ll see. And of course the woolens. It’s almost winter, right??? We must have the woolens….