This article first appeared in the Homeschool Journey newsletter, September 2004.
My most precious childhood memories are from the brief weeks each year that I spent with my class on a working farm in the Hudson River valley in upstate New York. The Waldorf school I attended was in New York City and teachers from that school got together to create a farm for us to visit.
Squatting in damp woods sketching skunk cabbage as it emerged from the leaf litter; building a bridge across a half-frozen stream in February (and falling in!); bringing in the cows and helping milk them; and witnessing the glory of the stars on January nights, something a city kid like me had never seen before – these were life-changing experiences for me. The people who created these farm visits for us were visionaries, and knew how important it was for children to be able to connect with the land, to leave the city and classroom behind, even if only for a short while.
But mere tourist-type visits were not what they imagined. Indeed, there was a current amongst them that wished to create an entirely new form of education for children, one where agriculture, the arts and healing therapies could meet. This never materialized, although the community and school which eventually did grow up around that farm have become strong and vibrant in their own way. One of the people who advocated for such a new form of education was Karl Ege, who spoke of Rudolf Steiner’s indications that new forms of education would be needed in the future, education which centered on a training of the will. Ege, having been one of the teachers chosen by Rudolf Steiner for the original Waldorf school in Stuttgart, was in a unique position to understand what Steiner might have envisioned for the future.
Waldorf education is not simply a colorful and interesting way of transmitting information to children: rather, it is a carefully orchestrated unfolding of the soul capacities of each child. The ability to think clearly, to be heart-centered in one’s feeling like and to act with purpose and right intention – to from one’s will – are goals for each child that comes to Waldorf education. By awakening the inner capacities of the child at the right developmental moment and by educating the whole child, one works to foster and balance the child’s capacities for thinking, feeling and willing in a healthy way. By strengthening the child with a rhythmic and musical approach to life, by cultivating his feeling life in an artistic way and by grounding his intellect with a firm foundation, one truly educates holistically.
An especially important part of Waldorf education is helping children to develop their will forces, the ability to ‘bring into being’ that which is imagined, the ability to do. Sometimes, though, educators can become unbalanced, paying so much attention to the artistic and creative elements of the child’s learning that the will forces are not formed sufficiently. Watercolor painting, intricately decorated Main Lesson books and memorization of long and complicated poems are all pedagogically important – and every middle school Waldorf student is thus challenged. But, perhaps especially in our modern world, another element is needed. And that need, that need for the child’s will forces to be directly addressed, is best met by physically challenging work, such as working on the land. One needs to get children away from desks and kitchen tables, off the couch and outside where they can stretch their limbs and get some work done!
Several years ago, my family lived in an anthroposophical community on a farm in Wisconsin (just down the road from where we are now!). We had lots of visits, many for several days at a time, from school and youth groups – some Waldorf, some not. I can remember very clearly a lively group of Third Graders who visited one day as part of their Farming Main Lesson. I was in charge of the group and we were working in several teams, doing various farm chores. My team was mucking out a calf pen. This called for co-operation, teamwork, perseverance, awareness of others (pitchforks can hurt!) and sheer hard work. My attention was soon drawn to one boy, smaller than the rest, who was busy pushing a wheelbarrow from the calf pen to the manure pile. The wheelbarrows were heavy, and I was about to give him a hand when I saw something in his eye which made me hold back – his determination, his will to get the job done. Back and forth, back and forth he went, and each time he had to cross the sill of the barn door to get outside, and so had to have considerable momentum to keep moving and not lose his load. He was determined to do it by himself.
I saw his teacher watching him and went over to her. There were tears in her eyes and she told me how much trouble this child had in the classroom, how he was unmotivated to do his work, how he had problems relating to the other children. She had never seen him work like this, never seen him exert and control his will as she was witnessing on that day. And, when I saw her several weeks later for the class’ second visit, she told me how the boy had changed in class, how his will to succeed in cleaning that calf pen had carried over into the classroom.
When we give children opportunities to work, to have to exert their will and their physical bodies, then great satisfaction and sense of achievement can result. This is especially important for children of about 12 and up. As their bodies start to become heavier and more mineralized with the approach of adolescence, engaging them can feel like swimming through molasses and keeping those young limbs moving becomes critical.
Digging a garden, throwing hay bales into a hayloft, mucking out horse stalls, mowing grass (not on a ride-on mower!), raking leaves (no leaf blowers), and doing construction projects like putting up fences or making a stone wall, are all good possibilities. For you city folks snorting at this list, what about volunteer opportunities at conservation projects – and I don’t mean stuffing appeal envelopes! Surely every community is in need of young volunteers (or the young volunteered!) to help make bike paths, clear garbage from parks or mow lawns for elderly people.
When we find these opportunities on the land or in nature, other things also come into play which heighten the experience. For example, by working regularly in a wood, children come to intimately know the changes of the seasons. The turning leaves, new growth, different smells and colors all speak of the life of that wood. If every year children come to the same wood to work and to have adventures, then they also learn to appreciate change over time. The predictability of some changes such as the arrival of spring flowers and the unpredictability of other changes, along with the seeming timelessness of the great grandfather trees in that wood, all serve to locate children in the great rhythms of nature.
Creating a garden, when properly done, also takes time. Getting feel for the land, thinking about where plants might grow best, gradually bringing the soil up to fertility by yearly applications of compost... this all takes time. Where we live now, our family has spent several years talking about native shrubs, wildflower meadow, trees and fruit (not to mention fencing). Where should these things go? What makes sense on this piece of land? We need to get used to weather patters, to frost pockets and the movement of shade across our land. My sons know there is no rushing the land, no instant gardening. We were horrified recently by a neighbor who scraped off the vegetation surrounding his house and literally rolled out grass, trees and flowers in the space of just a few weeks. Voila! Instant garden. Surrounding his pre-made, instant house, this person now has a pre-made, instant garden. It is as lifeless to look at as it is to hear described.
Working on the land also provides rich sensorial experiences. The sounds, smells, textures, colors and tastes of nature can be experienced deeply by children who, from earliest childhood, have not had their senses dulled by television or other media. Nothing is sadder than having a child come to one’s farm and be unenthused by ducklings and goat kids because they’ve become accustomed to flashing, wise-cracking sound-bite characters from TV or videos. When children visit my farm I can tell immediately how much television they watch.
Of equal importance to an education which cultivates all aspects of the human being is an appreciation of the feelings of reverence within every child. By pausing in our work in the garden, for example, to marvel at the butterflies and other creatures around us; by taking the time to notice the dew dripping from a spider’s web; by pausing to listen to the birds sing – we also bring a healthy counterbalance to our hard labors and find satisfaction in just being. If part of our task on God’s earth is to steward and care for it, then every child must be allowed to open her heart to the natural world, to appreciate it as a participant and witness, not merely as a consumer.
Strengthening the will, being grounded in the
rhythms of nature, developing the senses, cultivating reverence... all these things
can be done if we find time to get out of the house and into nature with our
children, not as tourists or spectators but as participants in the beauty of
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Karl Ege’s essays about a new form of Waldorf education have been collected in a small book called An Evident Need of our Time. As he died before these were published, the book is not polished nor does it reach a conclusion. However, it should be of interest to those seriously considering questions around the future of Waldorf education. The book is published by Adonis Press – www.adonispress.org and is also sold by Rudolf Steiner College Bookstore – (916) 961-8729.
Anyone wishing to deepen their own and their child’s experiences in nature should get a hold of Joseph Bharat Cornell’s excellent book Sharing Nature with Children. It is full of games and ideas. It’s available from Amazon or any other good bookseller.
And, of course, let’s not forget that Christopherus has published a whole book on extending science learning out of the house and into the great outdoors! Good for homeschooling families with children from kindergarten through 12th Grade, From Nature Stories to Natural Science: A Holistic Approach to Science for Families is chock full of ideas and practical advice for cultivating the qualities spoken about in the above article. You’ll find it at the Christopherus Homeschool Resources online bookstore (where you can read sample pages): www.christopherushomeschool.org/nature_stories.htm