Recently I had the privilege of sitting down and speaking with Anne McGuire, the Enrollment Director at The Waldorf School of Saratoga Springs and I was immediately drawn into what she had to say about children and learning. The basic philosophy of Waldorf is that children learn at their own pace, and it is a school’s responsibility to meet that child at their own developmental stage. Learning takes place at an ideal time for each child. They believe that “the early childhood years lay the foundation for adult creativity and intelligence, and that creative play contains the cornerstone of academic thinking.” Waldorf provides a rich learning curriculum, focusing on vocabulary, theme activities, and fine and gross motor skills through imitative activities and experiences. “Nurturing and protecting childhood in a beautiful, warm, homelike setting is a key element of the Waldorf Early Childhood Program. A primary goal of the teacher is to provide the children with an environment worthy of their imitation. They inspire the imagination through song, gesture, fairy tale and verse, and by providing activities like cooking, baking, sewing and planting; which are activities children have imitated throughout the ages. Children learn by doing.”
There are a few different options for parents interested in the Waldorf School Early Childhood Education. The Pre-Kindergarten programs include a two and three year-old class offered twice a week in the mornings, and a three and four year-old class offered three or four days a week, also in the morning. The class sizes are small, between 10 and 12 children with two teachers apiece, making the ratio between teacher and child 1:5 or 1:6. For Kindergarteners, parents can choose between the Rose Program for four to six year-olds, or the Forest Program for three to six year-olds, which takes place outside every day. The class sizes for the Kindergartens vary, with about 16 children and two teachers for the Rose program, and 30 children with 4 adults (two teachers and two assistants) for the Forest Program. They also offer after school care beginning at age three, that runs until 5:30 pm.
Waldorf provides a structured day for the child in order to keep a sense of consistency from day to day. There is circle time, free play time, snack, songs and verses, outdoor play, painting and coloring, rest, music and movement and clean-up. Learning is deeply ingrained in each of the activities. They prepare the child to work independently, to problem solve and to discover their own capabilities. Outdoor play is an extremely important component at the Waldorf School. Physical activity helps a child develop socially and emotionally through interactions, as well as learning about themselves and their surroundings. At the preschool level, children are outside twice a day. They are expected to dress themselves in their outdoor clothes (developing a sense of independence), and experience learning through movement and play. Once indoors, the atmosphere is calm and tranquil, a perfect setting for a learning environment. There are no extra distractions within these walls. The toys are simple, wooden playthings meant to encourage imagination and creativity. The teachers speak with calm, low voices, providing a perfect model to imitate. The air is serene and the focus is on the child.
While visiting the preschool classes, I was amazed at the level of tranquility within the building. There were three classes in session, but you would never guess that as you entered. As we opened each door, the classes were each in different stages of their day. The first was finishing their free play and preparing for rest. The teachers voice was so soothing, I was ready to lay down with the children myself. The classroom is decorated very simply yet there is definitely an appreciation for warmth. Many of the items are handmade, and all of the toys are original wooden models of some of the crazy plastic versions we are all used to seeing nowadays. There was a kitchen and table tucked in the corner, shelves of trucks, trains, cars and dolls on the walls, and an arts section to the left. The next room was finishing up their snack, and Anne told me that all the children are responsible in helping set up for snack time, as well as clean up after themselves. They use real dishes and cups and there were two children over by the sink washing and drying the used plates. I was simply impressed. The last classroom was getting ready to go outside. I had a chance to talk with Mary Maschal, one of the preschool teachers, as the children were all putting on their own coats, hats and gloves. One story in particular stuck with me. She was describing what the school does to celebrate birthdays. They see this as an important time to let the child know how important and unique they are. Parents are invited in for this special day, and the teacher reads an original story, provided with facts from the parents, of the birthday child. Their story is about crossing a rainbow bridge at their birth, and how they have developed since. I can’t think of a better way to make a toddler feel exceptionally proud.
In terms of discipline, gentle redirection is used. If any disturbances persist, the child is encouraged to visit their friend. Sometimes the change of scenery, even if it’s the next room over, can help refocus the young child.
The Waldorf School has a quote in their handbook that I think sums up their model perfectly: “Children who have developed a rich capacity for imaginative play are not only emotionally and socially advantaged, but they are intellectually advantaged as well. Indeed, decades of compelling research has documented that imaginative play is an essential building block for the academic challenges that lay in wait for the preschool child.” (Dorothy Singer).
Waldorf Early Childhood Center is located on Lake Avenue, right next to East Side Rec. (518) 584-7643
Here is a comment from proud Waldorf parents:
“All 3 of my daughters go to the Waldorf School and we all benefit so much from the school community. The teachers put so much thought and care into everything they do with the children. In the preschool/Kindergarten years, this means they get a ton of outdoor and movement time, lots of love and compassion, and many lessons in what it means to be a mindful human being. Teachers spend a lot of time developing the child’s brains for later years but they do it in a very playful manner–teaching cross body coordination, sensory development, comprehension, singing and performing, painting, problem solving. My oldest daughter is now in first grade and I can see how her 5 years in the Early Childhood Programs has prepared her emotionally, socially, physically and intellectually for her years ahead.”