In Richard Louv’s recent book, Vitamin N, Louv shares 500 actions to bring more nature into our lives. One of my favorites is the suggestion that parents choose schools, such as Montessori or Waldorf schools, that support direct-experience learning often in natural settings. In the following interview, Jane Zeender, the Director of Shining Mountain Waldorf School in Boulder, Colorado, shares how Waldorf Kindergarten programs can impact children’s health and happiness.
Jason Sperling: What is Waldorf Education?
Jane Zeender: Waldorf Education was founded almost 100 years ago by an Austrian philosopher by the name of Rudolf Steiner, who was approached by the owner of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory to create a new educational system that would raise healthy, balanced, human beings so that the world could avoid a repeat of World War I. Today, Waldorf education is the fastest-growing educational movement in the world, in both the charter and private schools, and our fastest growth is happening in China, which speaks to the continued need to educate children in this holistic way.
In Waldorf education, we not only focus on the intellect but also on the social/emotional growth of the child as well as the physical and spiritual growth of the child. All of our work with children is done with a deep understanding of healthy human development, so that we meet each child, at each age, with what speaks to them emotionally, physically, socially, as well as intellectually.
Our students graduate from our school with a solid understanding of who they are, with personal connections to themselves and others, and with the capacities and skills to go out into the world in service to humanity. Waldorf graduates are unique, healthy individuals with a strong sense of purpose and who find meaning in the world and in their lives.
Jason Sperling: Can you tell us about the kindergarten campus at Shining Mountain?
Jane Zeender: We have three mixed-age kindergartens at our school, in an enclosed campus from the older children. Our classes consist of about 18 children ages 3- 6 years old, with a lead teacher and an assistant teacher. Our outdoor space is beautiful, filled with natural materials (no plastic!), sand, climbing structures, logs for building with, stumps for stepping on, a “mud kitchen,” water pump, and several swings for lots of vestibular movement. Our indoor spaces are exquisite and have to be seen to be fully understood—and felt. The Waldorf kindergarten classroom is designed to feel very home-like, and connected to nature, with a seasonal-based nature table, kitchen area for cooking and making snacks, tables, and chairs for sharing meals together, and a play area filled with simple, natural toys (made of silk, wood, felt, and items found in nature) for imaginative, creative play, which is the foundational experience of the Waldorf kindergarten program. Our kindergarten backs up to the Boulder Parks Open Space, which is thousands of acres of protected parkland which the children go out into on their weekly hikes and explorations.
Jason Sperling: How is nature used as a tool in your programs?
Jane Zeender: Nature is the foundation of the Waldorf kindergarten experience. In the Waldorf kindergarten, we celebrate the cycle of the sun around the earth. The autumnal equinox is our Michaelmas, the celebration of St. Michael slaying the dragon. As the sun turns towards winter, Michaelmas reminds us of our need to face our internal dragons with courage, strength and a striving towards the truth. As we head towards the darkest days of winter, we celebrate the festivals of light, with a beautiful labyrinth walk with a lighted candle in a cored apple. This festival of light represents the inner light that continues to shine in each human being, and how our inner light illuminates the darkness that exists in the world. In the winter, the children hear stories of the little root children and gnomes, who are sleeping deep under the ground, waiting for spring and life to appear again. The spring brings stories, songs, and festivals of a new life emerging, and the regeneration and rebirth of the natural world. The school year ends with May Day, and the coming long days of summer and all the glory that this time of year brings our world.
We believe that by immersing our children in the natural world, they can experience beauty, joy, and reverence for the world, and their place in it.
At this age, the young child needs to be actively engaged in the world, and through playing outside and with natural materials, their senses are soothed, their bodies grow physically strong, and their neural networks grow healthy, multifaceted connections in preparation for academics when they enter grade school.
At this age, it is our experience that children need to be engaged in creative play, using their bodies in imitation of all they see around them. To use the natural materials around them, to hear and experience the cycle of the year, and to spend hours and hours outside in the fresh air. There is no greater gift we can provide our children than these simple, yet very powerful, early experiences. They all lay the foundation for a healthy body, healthy immune system, and a brain primed for their next stage of development.
Jason Sperling: I often hear about all-weather schools in Europe. What’s your policy on getting children outside throughout the seasons?
Jane Zeender: Our children are outside every day, for several hours, regardless of the weather. I think the only restriction we have for staying inside is wind greater than 40 mph, which we monitor on campus with our own weather station! The children come properly dressed each day with multiple layers in the winter, to stay warm and dry regardless of what the day holds. Some of my own children’s favorite memories of the Waldorf kindergarten were their rain walks, jumping in huge puddles and soaking their rain gear! They also have fond memories of their days in the snow, building forts, making snowmen, and building tunnels in the drifts. I don’t think life gets better than that, does it?
Jason Sperling: Does Waldorf education at the kindergarten level impact children’s later schooling or adult-life in a meaningful way?
Jane Zeender: Absolutely. What can seem counterintuitive to many is very clear to us—delaying academic learning until children are ready (in our case, first grade), creates an environment where our children love to learn. What takes mainstream education years to do, teaching children to read, moves pretty quickly at Shining Mountain, because our children are emotionally and intellectually ready to read AND they are hungry to read. They just cannot wait to dive into the books on their own. Learning to read, write, and do math, is not that easy. Children who are emotionally, physically, and intellectually ready take these skills up quite quickly and with great enthusiasm. The other thing that we hold as a core value in the kindergarten, as well as our entire lower and middle schools, is delaying access to screens until the children are much older. By removing this very addictive technology from our classrooms and homes, we create the space in these children’s lives to play, think, dream, draw, read, play music, do chores, and be fully engaged in living—not sitting or being engaged with a screen. This one action, in my humble opinion, is one of the most important gifts parents can give their children— and their families—in helping raise children into adults who are lifelong learners, connected to others, with a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives. By taking a strong stand against the early use of technology, Waldorf schools stand apart, and united, in our belief in what is best for young children, no matter how unpopular in our modern culture, has a life long impact on a child’s quality and experience of life.
Additional Reading & Resources
Get a deeper look inside Shining Mountain on Instagram
VITAMIN N AT HOME: Backyard Fort Building
SMALL STEPS, BIG FUTURE: the Profound Experience of Starting a Tiny Family Nature Club
10 Reasons Children, Adults & Communities Need Vitamin N
5 Ways to Get Kids into Nature — Outside Magazine
10 Vitamin N Strategies for Families, Organizations and Communities
Vitamin N Book Excerpt: San Diego Magazine
Nature Clubs for Families Took Kit provides worksheets, templates, examples, and more resources for getting your club up and running.
Nature Clubs Directory connects you with existing clubs and leaders around the world for support in starting your own club.
C&NN’s Family Nature Club Leaders Facebook group provides ongoing support and inspiration.
Photo(s) credit: Shining Mountain Waldorf School
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Note: Jason Sperling’s daughter has attended Shining Mountain Waldorf School since Kindergarten (she is in 2nd grade at the time of this interview).