Nature’s in the Air

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….

3 responses to “Nature’s in the Air

  1. Since you mentioned it, woolens that is, I wanted to share with you a little inspiring story that we give out to parents. I don’t know how it will print out here (you can also see it at http://mimsydesigns.com/mimsy-inspiration/wintertime-and-warmth.html.

    Wintertime and Warmth

    The story of the very first Christmas night tells of a child born into the world under the most humble of circumstances. The child’s birthing place, we are told, was a simple shelter for a few farm animals.
    Over the centuries many artists have painted this image. The child, modestly clad in the bitter cold night, is surrounded by a donkey, an ox, and sheep. The animals huddle near to the child to keep him warm. They offer him their warmth as protection from the cold.
    Warmth plays a very important part in the healthy development of the young child. Keeping the young child’s body warm allows for, and supports, the body’s energies to be devoted to the task of growth, for the body itself and for the development of the brain and the inner organs.
    Dressing the child in clothing produced from natural fibers can have a beneficial effect on the child’s health. Fabrics made from natural fibers are derived from plants that have received long periods of sunshine. While flax (linen) needs a few months, cotton requires more than half a year of warm sunlight to fully mature.
    Animal fibers, however, have a special quality. Not only do animals live in the sun’s light and feed off the rich green plants of the earth, but through their own metabolic processes retain a warmth value that remains long after the animal’s life is over. Wooly fleece, silk, feathers, fur, angora and mohair as well as leather when worn near the human body, provide a capacity for warmth that supports health in a way that no synthetic fiber can.
    Synthetic fibers are manufactured from petrochemicals and gasses from deep within the earth. In this way they are more closely related to metals and other mineral substances. Fibers produced from these materials are used to create strong, durable fabrics. In a certain way, these synthetic fibers can be thought of as being akin to armor or “mail,” such as was worn by medieval knights.
    Polar fleece and polyester are valuable materials especially in terms of recycled resource. Regarded as protective-wear, clothing made from these materials serve best when used as, perhaps, the outermost garment, a “shield” against cold and wet weather conditions.
    Natural fibers, both plant and animal, having a unique relationship to sunlight, support a warmth mantle better suited to and complementary to the human body than those fabrics, which are produced from petroleum.
    Since time immemorial, the animal kingdom has provided human kind with life–giving sustenance. At the winter solstice, the Christmas story reminds us how the beasts of the earth long to draw near to humanity.
    The healthy child would do well to experience and express gratitude for the gift of warmth the animals offer, even long after the animal’s lifetime.
    “The donkey is breathing

    The ox is blowing

    To keep the baby warm

    The little lamb snuggles
    
So close to the child
    
All on a Christmas morn.”
    —from a German Carol

    All Rights Reserved © Mimsy Designs 2008
    http://www.mimsydesigns.com

    I wanted to share this with you and thought that you might find this inspiring since you were so moved by much of what lives within a Waldorf school. I also have been deeply inspired by what I’ve experienced in Waldorf schools, although I also follow my own individual path. This is our responsibility as individuals, to glean what is essential and or challenging to us from that which is around us, and incorporate it into our own being and path. And we, and the world, are the better for it!

  2. I love Waldorf and am drawn to it but when I have children I think that I will think long and hard about how I feel about certain aspects before I do put my children in a Waldorf school. I didn’t know about the no black crayons thing which is just weird. The one bit that really makes me think twice is the no reading until age 7. I was an early reader, I was born loving books and I don’t want to deny my children that if thats the way they choose to go.

  3. Pingback: Seattle Green Festival « The Punkernoodle Blog

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