Monday, August 31, 2009

An autumn story

‘Out of observation of a simple tabletop puppet show, rich impulses
can grow for the child’s own play'. Bronja Zahlingen, A Lifetime of Joy

Telling stories with 'puppets' is a wonderful part of the Waldorf/Steiner curriculum. The beautiful felted standing puppets really are a work of art. If you have never seen one, they often will perform a 'puppet show' at Waldorf school fairs - and it really is something special. With my black thumb, my one attempt at making a puppet is still languishing in the back of a drawer ... and in the meantime I improvise with some wooden figures.

I know a lot of you in the Northern Hemisphere are planning for 'fall' and I thought you might like this 'fall' story. Its the sort of very simple story that is suitable for younger pre-schoolers who are just not ready for fairy tales yet (even the simplest fairy tales are really best left until children are at least 4)

I am not sure where it orginates from but our last playgroup teacher, who was a really gifted storyteller, sent me a copy.

There was a beautiful meadow.
In that meadow there was a house.
In the house there lived a family.
There was a Mother, a Father and a little boy.
The family also had a good cow that gave them milk to drink and a sheep that gave them wool to make warm clothes for the winter.

One day the little boy ran out to play in the meadow. It was autumn and the leaves on the trees had turned to lovely shades of red, brown, orange and gold. The little boy walked into the forest singing an autumn song:
“Red and yellow, golden and brown, leaves of autumn come tumbling down”

Suddenly the little boy heard a sound behind a nearby tree. He crept quietly towards the sound to take a look. He saw a little red squirrel, busy collecting nuts to store in his home for the winter. The little boy decided to help the squirrel, and spent the afternoon searching for nuts and bringing them to the squirrel’s tree. By the end of the day the squirrel’s home was full of nuts, enough to last him and his family all winter! It was time to go home.

The little boy waved goodbye to the squirrel and began the walk back home. On his way he sang a song about his friend the squirrel:
“Squirrel Nutkin with your coat so brown, quite the loveliest in woodland town.
Two black eyes look out to see, where the sweetest nuts can be.”

When he got home he told his mother and father all about his woodland adventure.

Now, we don't have a cow puppet, but we do have an apple tree as you will see in the photo, so I change the story to say 'they had an apple tree full of crisp, juicy apples to eat, and a sheep who gave them wool ...'

Of course, here in New Zealand we don't actually have squirrels, or any animals that collect nuts for the winter that I know of. Minor detail ...

Friday, August 28, 2009

Areas of Play 3 - Messy Play

‘All kids really want to do is make mud pies’
Gypsy’s mum

Munchkin is a messy kid. You know the type – face always smeared with food, knots in her hair, mud on her jeans, shoes scuffed beyond recognition. Messy play is her modus operandi … if she can stick her hands in it and smear it everywhere she will! I try not to always run after her wielding a hairbrush and a facewipe, but it’s a struggle.

So, she’d fit in well at Playcentre, where Messy Play is really encouraged. In every Playcentre session you (should) see a messy play station … either finger painting or a close relative to it like gloop or slime. Of course, kids like Munchkin can turn anything into messy play ... clay, playdough, painting, shaving foam with a pile of grass cuttings! Its about getting your hands in and getting .... disgustingly messy.

Seriously though, its wonderful. Although some children don’t enjoy getting their hands dirty, most children do. Having ‘messy play’ set up as a specific play area gives children real pemission to get messy, something that kids just don’t get enough opportunity to do.


Messy play as an ‘area’ at Playcentre evolved out of ‘fingerpainting’

“Finger painting is a wonderfully clever invention. Really a logical development from the puddling in mud or clay but with the added stimulation of colour, a messy delight which has all the stickiness of mud and is yet quite clean and under control. Because it has the close hand-to-texture quality of mud or clay it seems to invite the creative person to do something with it” Gwen Somerset, Vital Play in Early Childhood.

In a Waldorf/Steiner kindergarten you won’t see a ‘messy play’ table set up, but of course, children get messy wherever they can – so Steiner kids do messy play in the mud, with grass clippings, sand, water … like kids always have done. While I love the natural, organic nature of this kind of messy play, I do think that having it specifically encouraged as happens at Playcentre gives kids a real sense of permission to get messy, and helps parents to understand the importance of this kind of play.

“Difference textures and consistencies can help children to integrate their sensory experiences. Messy play is creative and offers children the space to imagine and express their feelings and ideas. Its also a fun way to learn difference words, talk about new ideas and can provide hours of fun and discovery. The wonderment, creativity and playfulness is evident in the way in which children are drawn to messy play” Playcentre Journal Spring 2007

Messy Play can be extended in so many ways. It is particularly popular with toddlers, who may find some other areas of play too challenging. Messy play lets children explore their sense of touch – which is an important learning for toddlers - feeling rough, smooth, soft, sticky, foamy, squelchy, warm, cold. This means the challenge is firstly to provide a variety of messy play activities to let children directly experience all these concepts, and secondly to help them find names for these sensations. I’ve found with my nephew it’s great fun to make up words together for these sorts of things … words like shlurpy, crubbled, pongling all came out of messy play!


At home, while sometimes I set up gloop, slime, shaving foam or fingerpainting (and recipes are here) usually messy play just happens. I have found that keeping a big pile of old bathtowels and teatowels is invaluable, as are longsleeved bibs and waterproof overalls. And of course, there’s always the bath tub! Most importantly though I try to remember that before I know it this phase of my life will be over, my house will be tidy and I will be glad that I really sucked every moment of magic and pleasure out of these years.

Some of my favourite ideas for messy play at home.

Making Concrete

This started after we watched some workmen laying new concrete on the footpath. We take a plastic bucket and a large wooden spoon and stir in various stuff .. sand, flour, leaves, grass clippings, and water of course. Its often never actually ‘laid’ on the grass … its really just making a potion in a bucket!

Enough said! And yes, its vile-ly messy! But keeping old ice-cream containers and other suitable ‘recyclables’ makes this lots of fun. Shells from the beach are great decoration, and twigs make excellent candles. And you can alway carry your child from outside to the bathtub. (Did I mention adults need messy play clothes too?)

Soap play
This could really be water play or messy play .. but I save ‘soap ends’ and we use those with water. As the soap softens it becomes very gooey (especially natural soaps I have found) and wonderful for messy play. Older kids really seem to enjoy grating bars of soap for the same effect.

We don’t have a sloped area in our section, mores the pity. But anywhere there is a grassy, muddy slope Munchkin sees as an invitation to slide down it, each time getting a little muddier. A pair of waterproof overalls and a warm bath fix this mess up, and its heaps of fun.

Baking is probably not intended to be a messy play activity, but it sure is for us. We do a lot of baking and while what we make is usually edible that’s almost an aside. Rubbing in butter (and eating half of it), kneading dough (and eating half of it) breaking in eggs (yes, she’ll even eat raw egg), squishing fruit for cakes … remember the play value is ‘to integrate their sensory experiences’. (In the New Zealand context, its culturally inappropriate to use food products for play, but I think in the context of baking something that will actually be eaten it is considered acceptable. Please correct me if I'm wrong)

Making Potions
We haven’t done this yet, but its on my list for when she gets a bit older. I plan to go to a plasticware shop and buy a bunch of droppers and small bottles. I will then fill the small bottles with various things … baking soda, vinegar, food colouring, glitter, cornflour, things from the collage table .. and then set up Munchkin to use the droppers to make ‘concoctions’. I have seen a friend do this with her 4 year olds and it looked fantastic fun … apparently they would spend hours playing at being witches!

Sawdust and corndust
You can put sawdust into ‘slime’ or just mix it with flour and water to make a glue. (make sure you use untreated sawdust) or make sawdust playdough and then dissolving it in water. (old playdough in water is excellent messy pay!) In summer, you can get eaten corn cobs and get the children to grind them together to create a wonderful ‘corndust’ that you can use instead (I got this idea out of Sharifa Oppenheimer’s wonderful book). Textures in messy play are great!

My last thoughts about messy play are about 'natural' materials. I think its fair to say that an increasing number of parents are concerned about their kids covering themselves in chemicals in the name of play. No-one is about to suggest flash Weleda shaving foam for the kids play (well, maybe you would - leave me a comment!) but it does seem worth thinking about. I'm ashamed to say I have never tried using plant based dyes for painting and playdough, although I know people have had great success with it. GardenMama's approach is inspirational, using petals to create watercolour paints ... definately on my 'to try out' list.

So, until I master the art of the plant dyes, I try to strike a balance. I keep most of our messy play materials 'natural', as you will see in the ideas I have outlined, and have the paint or food colouring based stuff for special occassions. Something to think about!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sleeping Montessori Style ... Floor Beds

Just a quick break from my very loooonnnggg posts on the areas of play (I hope to have Messy Play up in the next couple of days).

A friend kindly forwarded me a link to the University of Auckland's early years education journal, which is now available online. And in it, along with a very interesting article on gun play, was this article about Montessori Floor Beds.

Its an article from the floor bed concept, which I first came across in 'How to raise an amazing child' (could there be a worse name for a book???)

Munchkin was in a 'floor bed' when we stopped co-sleeping at about 9 months. It meant I could still co-sleep part time, and she slept so well there ... while she never settled in a cot. This article explains the ins and outs of it extremely well, I encourage you to have a read!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Family Play Part 2 - Setting up at home

"The serious side of life, with all its demands in daily work, is re-enacted in deep earnestness by the child in its play". Rudolf Steiner

Family play is such a fundamental part of a child’s life that I couldn't just stop at one post! I really wanted to share some ideas about setting up family play at home, because this will lead into all sorts of other play too.

The kids and I spend a lot of time at home these days, so our home becomes our kindergarten - and boy, looking around our lounge at 5pm you can sure tell! The cushions could be on the floor having been a makeshift hospital ... the children's chairs have been tipped upside down to make a cafe counter … there is a sheet over the dining table creating a play house with most of my pots and pans inside.

My point is that setting up play at home isn't actually about lots of resources ... its about allowing the home you have to be a playspace. Tidying up time can be a bit of a mission, but really in the big scheme of things what’s a bit of mess? I believe we give our children a great gift by allowing them to really, really play in their own homes.

Whether you are a 'Waldorf mum' or not, I think the Steiner/Waldorf approach to family play translates extremely well to the home environment. This is because, rather than give our chidren 'formed' toys that they quickly tire of, we provide resources that are limited only by the imagination of our little ones. Here are my picks for the 'essentials' for Waldorf family play at home.

A basket of playsilks or muslin wraps. Silk is a beautiful fabric for play, but we all have budgets so baby muslin wraps dyed a variety of colours will do almost as well. I bought a 3 pack of wraps at the supermarket in red, yellow and green ... and they have been the most popular 'toy' I have bought. These wraps get used as wrapping paper for pretend presents, blankets to wrap babies, hide and seek blankets, green grass or blue sea for a story, a sling for a doll baby ....

Cane baskets of varying sizes. While a doll's cot is really lovely, a basket can be a baby's bed, but can then turn into a car-seat, a boat, tipped upside down to become a mountain. As a toddler, Munchkin loves carrying baskets around filled with heavy things, dumping them out and refilling them for sheer pleasure. Now she is deep in imaginative play they are used in new ways every day.

Unformed 'Waldorf blocks'. These are easy to make - get a branch, saw it into different widths, sand them and polish them with olive oil or beeswax. These are wonderful toys - your toddler will build them up and knock them down, or put them into a cane basket and carry it around. In the imaginative eyes of your preschooler these blocks can be anything - a car, a boat, a highchair, a present, a mountain. A 4 year old girl who visits here often always sets them up as a tea party – beautiful!

Small dishes and utensils. If money is no object, then there are beautiful wooden sets available for children, and if plastic doesn't bother you there are a myriad of plastic ones available for nix. Often homewares stores and souvenir shops sell small wooden side plates at reasonable prices. We use wooden honey spoons, metal ice-tongs, teaspoons from the kitchen drawer, all sorts of thing! Those of you that manage to find good deals at op shops will find them a treasure trove for this sort of thing. Put them in a basket and see what emerges.

Child sized table and chairs. These have incredible play value beyond just somewhere to sit. The table can easily become the shop, a chair becomes a doll's highchair or put the chairs together and create an oven. Then turn table upside down to become a boat, or cover the chairs with a playsilk. Of course, like all Steiner mums I dream of owning some Waldorf playstands … I’m working on hubby to build some!

Baskets of natural materials. Think large walnut shells cut in half, wooden pegs, large shells, pinecones, some unspun wool, seedpods, acorns, (watch out for choking risks of course). They are used in so so many ways ... the food in the cafe or the kitchen, coins for the shop, spoons for feeding baby ...

A special doll. Every child needs a special doll ... even boys who, while they play with dolls quite differently still need to 'play out' what they see in the world around them. I personally love the soft, cuddly warmth of a handmade Waldorf doll, even if they aren’t as practical as a plastic one. But whatever you choose, this doll will become your child's baby.

A dolls pushchair. One of the few 'formed' toys that I think every child needs is a decent quality dolls pushchair. I am always struck by how popular these are. Toddlers who are just learning to walk love pushing these around - one very active boy at our Steiner playgroup used to spend almost the whole session pushing one around at great speed. Older boys seem to enjoy them almost as 'indoor wheelbarrows', while girls typically (and I hesitate to sterotype) enjoy pushing their doll babies, with a handbag (read cane basket or tied up playsilk) attached to the handle. You can buy plastic versions very cheaply, but they do tip, and eventually break. A good quality wooden pushchair will outlast all your children, and probably your grandchildren too.

Most importantly though, we need to give our children something to imitate in their play. I've already mentioned the way that children learn through imitation, and the way that Waldorf teachers carry out 'worthy' tasks during a kindergarten session.

At home, it makes a huge difference what mum is doing. If we are busy on the computer, quickly rushing around with the vacuum cleaner, throwing the washing in the dryer and cooking dinner out of jars, our children don't see a lot they can imitate in play.

But when we purposely slow down, and do just some of our tasks the old fashioned way, we give our children a wonderful source of ideas. This means sweeping the floors, chopping the vegetable, using an egg-beater rather than a food processor, pegging out the washing, kneading bread rather than using a bread maker, washing dishes by hand. I can feel you all rolling your eyes at me, and I'm not suggesting we do all these tasks all the time, but when we do we make our life at home welcoming and inclusive of our children.

"The primary reason so many parents today find it difficult to be with young children is because modern life doesn’t provide what young children need ... The Waldorf teacher models her classroom and activities on the healthy home. You, the parents, have such a home, or at least the possibility of creating one" Rahima Baldwin Dancy,
You Are Your Child's First Teacher

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Make Believe - Family Play

When I think of children playing, I think of make believe. Whether it’s playing shop-keeper, or mummy putting baby to bed, or Cowboys and Indians - make believe is a fundamental part of how children explore and understand the world around them.

In both Waldorf/Steiner and Playcentre, make believe play is a huge part of what the children do - it extends across all areas of play as children 'live out' what they see and experience in their lives.

There are two 'areas of play' in Playcentre that specifically encourage and nurture make believe play - Family Play and Fantasy Play. Today I'll look at Family Play.

The Family Play area of a Playcentre is usually set up in three ways - a doll's area with dolls, cots, clothes and highchairs, a play kitchen set up, and a 'shop' with a pretend cash register and empty boxes of common foods - like cereals, biscuits, flour etc. The dolls are very 'real' - newborn babies with exact features, in hard plastic that allows them to be washed in the water trough, fed playdough, buried in the sand, painted ... and cleaned up again at the end of the session. With my Steiner-tinted glasses on I find them almost aggressively ugly in their hard plastic bodies and polyester hair, but the children love them just the same.

Photocredit: Angelina's Mummy

One of my 'complaints' when we joined Playcentre was the way the dolls were treated - usually just thrown, naked, into a pile in the corner at the end of a session. I was very surprised to read in my Course 1 training that the dolls represent babies in Playcentre, and should be treated with care and love. Clearly the intention is there, but in a busy parent-run Playcentre, taking the time to properly care for these 'babies' just doesn't often happen.

In a Waldorf/Steiner kindergarten, Family Play is fundamentally very similar - doll babies are pushed in pushchairs and put to bed imaginary meals are cooked, and purchases are made from shop counters. The materials are quite different - cots are unpainted wood, the teasets are works of art, the blankets are hand-knitted, and there are baskets of 'unformed' materials like shells, pegs and branches which are transformed by the children's imagination into all manner of things ... shells become plates and cups, or money for a shop, pegs are spoons to feed a baby, a small branch becomes a bottle, or a cash register, or a present to wrap in a playsilk and give to a friend.


Family play is particularly nurtured in the Waldorf context by the teachers, who carry out all sorts of real work for the children to imitate and transform in their play ... you will see the teachers grinding flour to make bread, chopping vegetables for the soup, sweeping floors, mending toys. Children see this work, and it gives new life to their play.

Perhaps the best known of the Waldorf toys is the Waldorf doll, hand made cloth dolls with deliberately simple features so that the child can imagine the doll to be anyway, or anyone, the child chooses. Dolls are treated with great care, I remember a playgroup teacher saying she actually couldn't sleep knowing that our playgroup dolls had no mattresses in their cots. Dolls are never left unclothed, or in a heap ... if a teacher sees a doll on the floor she will simply pick it up, straighten in out, wrap it in a blanket and put it in a bed. Over time, children imitate this care.

Photo credit

When it comes to Family Play, the 'odd one out' is Montessori. You won't see play kitchens, or dolls, in a Montessori pre-school. Maria Montessori found that when she provided children with both these 'conventional' playthings and more structured 'work' activities, the children always chose the real work. In addition, the Montessori philosophy tends to stay away from 'make believe' play, encouraging children to be grounded in what is real.

Personally, I really struggle to imagine re-directing children away from this type of make believe play ... but I haven't spent enough time in a Montessori pre-school to have seen this in action. I would certainly be interested in anyone's experience with this. I raised this issue of play with a favourite Montessori blogger of mine ... and she had this to say (although I encourage you to read the whole post!)

Montessori doesn't exclude "play", but it also doesn't purposely put it out in the classroom. For example, many early childhood classrooms have an area for "dramatic play", which might include costumes or themed play sets. You won't find these in a Montessori classroom. Montessori believes that children, at the Primary level, should be grounded in reality (before fantasy) in order to best understand the world around them. Under this principal, much of the Practical Life area makes a lot of sense. Why play with a toy kitchen, when you can best understand and experience a kitchen by doing actual work that would be done in a kitchen?

For me, I think I can just about live with this - that both structured activities and free play can exist, but they are not the same thing. I do struggle with the way that Montessori pre-schools (here in NZ) split 'free play' time and 'Montessori work time' ... I personally love the free-flow of play that happens in Playcentre. What do you think?

Thanks to WaldorfMama for generously letting me use her beautiful photos to illustrate this post.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Water Play

There is something very special about water for young children. It has an elemental quality that is soothing and entrancing. I love the look of concentration on a toddlers face as they carry bucket of water, fill a bottle from the tap or just splash happily at a water trough.
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Every early childhood centre I have seen has water play set up. Its one of the few activities (along with sand and swings) that I have seen set up pretty much the same way at Montessori, Waldorf and Playcentre. Usually its a water trough that is set up at toddler height, which is great. Some centres are lucky enough to have water that moves - an old fashioned water pump (which I have seen at a Playcentre next to the sandpit) or a water feature set into a hill ... but an ordinary tap works pretty well too. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a shallow stream running through your centre ... if health and safety regulations would allow it!

Water play isn't just for the water trough though ... its pretty much everywhere for young children ... pouring a drink, doing the dishes, washing dolls clothes in the laundry tub, washing hands, having a bath, splashing in puddles, collecting rain water, watering the plants, helping Mum and Dad wash the car, at the beach or the swimming pool ... its endless.

At Playcentre there tends to be a lot of 'extension' of water play that involves colouring the water and adding glitter .... or maybe that was just my experience. I'm not sure that's totally necessary - water is amazing enough in its natural state. In the Waldorf context glittery, brightly coloured water is seen as quite harsh on a child's senses. Adding bubbles is great fun though (although you wouldn't see it at Waldorf). What I would say is that adding detergent for bubbles can end up in eyes ... keep the lux flakes for messy play. In the water trough no more tears shampoo is a better idea. Oh, and please keep the water luke warm ... cold water is not great for littlies, especially in winter.


There are lots of ways to extend water play beyond the obvious - a few that I have seen work really well are:

- Put a large hunk of ice in a water trough or large washing bowl. (hardware stores often sell really large washing bowls ideal for home water play) Provide some spatulas or metal spoons to 'chip' away at the ice, and containers of water to pour over the ice as it melts.

- Set up places for children to create their own streams with rocks, grass and perhaps some plastic sheeting underneath. A hose can make this really great fun.

- Set up an old fashioned washing board for dolls clothes, complete with scrubbing brushes and soap.

- A fantastic activity I have seen at Playcentre was stringing up old milk bottles on a line for children to pour water into - all ages seemed to really enjoy this.

- Give children large paintbrushes (industrial type ones) and let them paint with water - stones, wooden pailings, concrete paths.

- Older children can help make little walnut boats - take a half walnut shell and use blu-tack or modelling beeswax to insert a toothpick and stick on a sail made from felt or heavy paper. See if they will 'sail' and make wind by blowing on them.

Another activity often suggested for water play is seeing which objects float or sink. Here, the approaches between Steiner, Montessori and Playcentre are all actually fairly similar, and yet distinctive. All three approaches caution against 'over intellectualising', or bringing adult consciousness to it. They differ however in the degree to which they apply this.

In Steiner/Waldorf, children would discover this for themselves while playing. The kindergartener wouldn't get terribly involved not wanting to alter the natural course of play, nor to bring an adult 'intellect' into the young child's conscious.

At Playcentre, children would also discover this while playing. The teacher/parent might then suggest 'I wonder what else might float' or 'hey, look that one is sinking'. Gwen Somerset then suggests giving children a bunch of different objects and asking them to guess what will float/sink and why. She goes on to say 'young children, unde 7, have little understanding of what causes one objecct to float and another to sink, but the objective is not to supply facts, but to keep children wondering about a problem'. Gwen Somerset, Vital Play in Early Childhood.

In Montesori, the approach is well outlined here by Susan Stephenson "One experiment usually found in 3-6 classrooms is called simply "sink and float." For this experiment, we have a tray containing a box of objects, a vinyl mat or small towel to work on, a clear glass bowl, a pitcher for bringing water to fill the bowl, a bucket for taking the water to the sink when the work is finished, and a small cloth for drying everything when the experiment is finished. We show the child how to carefully place one object into the water, and to observe if it sinks or floats. We make one group, on one side of the bowl of those objects which sink and another, on the other side, objects which float. We do not talk or explain this phenomenon from an adult point of view, we give no labels or language, but let the child ponder, and repeat the experiment whenever she is interested. It is not uncommon for the child to carry out the activity, carefully dry everything, repeat and repeat these steps, as a deep and private understanding of the physics principle grows in her. It is only after the child has had some experience that we introduce the terms "sink" and "float" if the child does not know them yet.

Theory aside, how we as parents react to our children will probably have less to do with our chosen pedagogy, and more to do with our own interests, personalities, and of course, habits! I can't think of anything worse than rushing to a textbook everytime Munchkin discovers something new ... but I do find all these different ideas fascinating. I hope you do too!

I would love any comments with other ideas for Water Play .. I'm sure we all have days when we desperately need some play inspiration!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Children at Play ... Steiner, Playcentre and Montessori

'Play is the road to childhood happiness and adult brilliance' Joseph Chilton Pearce

I was talking to a Playcentre mum the other day, and we were discussing the ways that children play in different environments. I've been thinking a lot about this, and I thought it might be interesting (well for me anyway) to look at the 16 areas of play that constitutes the basic Playcentre set up, and compare and contrast the differences betweeen Playcentre and Steiner/Waldorf, and also to look at Montessori while I'm at it!

Before I start with this, I thought it might be helpful to give a little bit of context about the differences between Waldorf, Playcentre and Montessori. These are meant as summaries only, but please feel free to comment if you feel I have missed things out,


Playcentre is marked by a stimulating environment, providing a diverse and rich range of experiences, unlimited free play across all 16 areas of play, and a child initiated curriculum. Early academics are out, its play play play! If a child wanted to do nothing but woodwork all session, every session, she could. The environment is pretty similar to most mainstream kindys, lots of primary colours, children’s art on every wall, recorded music playing and lots of noise and clutter. At Playcentre nationally there is talk about the importance of natural materials, but individual centres differ in how seriously they take this – it tends not to be seen as a top priority. Playcentre teachers are trained parents who take quite a hands on approach in facilitating learning, using a lot of open ended questions to extend children’s thinking.

Steiner Waldorf

Steiner/Waldorf seeks to reduce over-stimulation and to provide a slow and gentle 'awakening' of the young child. The spiritual basis of the Steiner approach influences everything in the kindergarten, although it is more underlying than overt. Waldorf kindergartens provide deep creative play experiences, rather than a diverse range.

In a Waldorf kindergarten there is a strong rhythm, with a balance of free play and collective activities like circle and story time. There is also a weekly rhythm, so rather than all activities being available every day, there is a baking day, a painting day, a modelling day etc.

A lot of care is taken with the materials used - they will be almost all natural, and colour-wise its wood and soft pastels. The walls will be sparsely decorated - a picture of the Sistine Madonna will probably be the only thing hanging up. The Steiner kindergartener (as the teacher is called) is particularly conscious of being 'worthy of imitation' and will typically move slowly and calmly, singing as she works around the classroom engaged in practical tasks like sewing, baking or craftwork. The kindergartener will try to avoid direct instruction or formal teaching, as this would call on the child's intellect rather than allowing him or her to remain in the dreamlike state of early childhood.


Montessori is the other approach that I have a lot of time for - although I have less experience here. Montessori sees children as 'little scientists' who go through a series of 'sensitive periods' during which a child is particularly able to learn, for example, music or language or social skills. The Montessori environment is prepared with great care, it is orderly and laid out so that children can access materials independently - everything is child sized and at child height. Children are encouraged to be firmly grounded in reality before being exposed to fantasy. Montessori classrooms are typically very quiet, as children are deeply absorbed in their work. The teacher takes a facilitative role rather than a direct teaching role – he or she prepares the environment, presents the materials, and intervenes if necessary but the focus is on independent learning.

With over 250 years of experience (The first Montessori school opened in 1909, the first Waldorf school in 1919 and the first Playcentre in the 1930s) between them, these three approaches to early childhood education all have impressive pedigrees. I find there is much to be learned by being flexible and looking at different approaches, rather than just sticking doggedly to the Steiner/Waldorf approach which is the one that I happen to feel most closely connected to. I hope you all find these next few posts useful!

Links to Areas of Play Posts

Water Play

Family Play

Family Play continued

Messy Play

Stories and Literacy

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Winter Story

I thought I would share one of our winter stories with you. This one is gorgeous .. and very easy to do.

To start, take a square of muslin or a flat nappy, and tie a knot at the top, and then two of the other corners into knots as well. If you hold it by the top knot, you'll see you'll have a very basic doll. Then, get a pair of baby booties to use later in the story - these go on the second two knots which become the dolls feet. (does it make sense .. if not I will try to take a photo).

Anyway, the story.
There was a giant big and bold
Whose feet were getting rather cold
He came one day into our town
And walked the streets both up down.
The giant cried most piteously
"My toes are freezing bitterly"
Along came a gnome who was old and wise
Who offered him some sage advice
He found a piece of pretty stuff
The giant thought it good enough
He wrapped it round, the pain was eased
The giant went home, both warm and pleased!
Hope you like it!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Imitation and Inner Work

Our responsibility for a true 'order' needs to extend inwards as well as outwards. Just because all that we do is imitated by children at such a deep level, we are faced with the task of being responsible for all that goes on in the childs surroundings, for our movements and gestures, for our speech but also for our inner feelings, thoughts and impulses which we may try to keep hidden. They are probably not as hidden from small children as we often believe, even if their experience of what is going on in us is not fully conscious ... Gudrun Davy
The Journey of a Mother,
Lifeways - Working with Family Questions
Mindful parenting calls on us to be better than we ever thought we could be. What we do shapes our children's worlds ... who we are shapes who they will become. This quote by Gudrun Davy really brought it home to me - if I don't like something my children are doing, I need first to look at what I am doing.

In Waldorf education, imitation is seen as the primary way that young children learn. In Steiner's own words"the little child, up to the age of seven, up to the change of teeth, is essentially imitative. He learns by doing what he sees being done around him. Fundamentally, all activities of the child's early years are imitations.

Its one thing to be aware of the example we give children with practical things - pouring milk with two hands for example, or sweeping the floor. If I am rushing, short tempered, clumsy, not concentrating ... should I be suprised when Munchkin tries to pour the milk one handed and spills it everywhere???

But the concept of imitation goes much further - we don't just teach practical skills by imitation, we teach skills of the heart. The way that I might sigh heavily as I hang up the phone, having just learned hubby is coming home late from work. The expression of frustration on my face when a shopkeeper takes too long to scan my groceries. The way I stifle a yawn when listening to a toddlers very confusing explanation of something. The way I get frazzled when the house is a mess, and rush around with gritted teeth cleaning up.

And its not enough just to put on a happy face, or to sing a song as we work, with a light voice but a heavy heart. I heard a mother say that she 'usually tries to fake a good mood' around the children, even when she doesn't feel like it. But, the problem is, children are smart. They will pick up this faking, they will learn from it, they will imitate it. As Gudrun Davy says, what is going on inside us is 'probably not as hidden from small children as we often believe'.

So where does this leave us? We are certainly not perfect, none of us are, yet this job of mothering is so impossibly hard, and critically important. Beating ourselves up isn't going to help, unless we want our children to learn that too!

In my mind, it brings me back to the importance of inner work. What do I need to do for myself to make sure I am calm, energised, focussed, happy, content?

Well, of course, Steiner had a lot of thoughts on this and gave teachers instructions on inner work. (If anyone has a specific link to this I would love to know!) Steiner stressed that meditation is absolutely the most important thing to do, but it can seem impossible when you are up late rocking a crying newborn, and up early with a fracious toddler. Even so, I find that when I discipline myself to do few minutes of focussed breathing before bed it is easier to stay calm in the chaos of the day. If I can, even just occassionally, provide an example of inner calm to imitate, that must be worth something!

I read somewhere that Steiner teachers are encouraged to be in bed by 9.00pm, sensible as we all know what a good night sleep means for both children and parents! The other exercise that Steiner teachers are encouraged to do, is as you go to sleep at night, bring each child into your minds eye and hold them in love and reverence. Give thanks for this child in your life, and see them as the spiritual beings they are. I find (and again, I wish I could say I did this every night) that this helps me to move on from the days frustrations and hurts, and to start the morning anew.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Spring Story

Inspired (yet again) by a post of Carrie's, and by the glorious weather we have had this week, I have been doing a little bit of planning for spring.

Storytime is something that Munchkin really got into when she was about 2. Before that, we hardly ever stayed at playgroup for storytime, she simply wasn't ready to sit still and listen and I didn't want her affecting the atmosphere of reverence that the teacher tries to create around the story. Now, story time is her favourite part of the morning, and woe betide me if I try to leave early.

So, the first thing that came to mind for spring planning is what our story should be. I tend to do a story for a good month or two, depending on my mood and her enjoyment of it. This is my version of the story our playgroup teacher told last year - I hope you like it.

"Once upon a time there was a beautiful green meadow. In the meadow lived a mother sheep, with her baby lamb. Every day the mother sheep would take her baby lamb out in to the fields where they would feast on the new spring grass.

After they had eaten, the mother would rest and Lamb would play with his friend Butterfly. Lamb wore a bell around his neck, that made lovely music as he played.

But one day, as they ate the mother noticed that the grass had nearly all gone in the paddock. She did not know where their next meal would come from. While she was sleeping Butterfly took Lamb across a little bridge, all the way to the neighbouring paddock. Lamb and Butterfly played in this field and had a wonderful time.

Meanwhile, the mother sheep woke up and she could not find Lamb. She bleated and bleated, but he did not come. Then she heard his little bell tinkling in the distance. She looked up and saw Butterfly over in the next paddock. Mother sheep ran across the bridge to her lamb, and was so pleased to see all the lovely green grass for them to eat. She thanked Butterfly for showing them the way. "

Materials: green silk/muslin for field, felted or knitted sheep, lamb with bell ,butterfly on a string so it can be flown, bark for bridge.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Circle time songs for full moon days

It might not be scientific fact but most parents, teachers, ambulance drivers ... even check-out operators ... swear that the full moon has an effect for the worse on children's behaviour. Children seem to find it harder to settle, they seem rowdier, more aggressive and more tantrum prone. Its been just my luck that on the few occassions that I have led our playgroup circle, its been on a full moon day!

Just getting everyone to sit down can be impossible on days like this! So, a great suggestion I was given by our old playgroup teacher is to literally 're-form' the space by bringing the children (or child) together and doing a really 'active' circle time.

Active songs and finger plays help children focus their energy, while at the same time bringing everyone in the group into harmony. Finger plays that require a bit of concentration are great for calming things down, and for changing the energy of the day.

To start, a little bit of 'follow the leader' - getting a couple of children to come with you while you 'pick up' the other children while singing whatever song you use to start circle. Think 'pied piper' here! I haven't tried it, but a big game of 'ring a rosie' could be a good way to all end up sitting down in a circle!

Once everyone is together, some of my favourite action songs are

Galoop went the little green frog last night

Head shoulders knees and toes

Row row row your boat.

I'm a little teapot

One Finger One Thumb Keep Moving

Dingle Dangle Scarecrow

So, I'd love to know - what are the favourite full moon day songs and activities at your place?