The Children's Garden

Steiner Early Years centre for Exeter

Steiner Waldorf Kindergarten

Introduction

The Steiner curriculum is founded on the work of the Austrian philosopher and educator Rudolf Steiner who wished to create a form of education which would help pupils achieve clarity of thought, sensitivity of feeling and strength of will. After listening to his lectures, the workers at the WaldorfAstoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart asked him to form a school for their children and in 1919 the first Waldorf school was founded. Today, from the favelas in Sao Paulo to the villages of Nepal, there are some 800 schools and 1700 Early Years centers in over 60 countries serving children from birth to eighteen years of age. The kindergartens began in 1926, and spread first amongst the European countries, then into the UK and USA, before spreading throughout the world (over 2,400 in 2012). The Steiner approach to the care of young children encompasses birth to seven years and includes parenting, home childcare and pregnancy. In addition to providing kindergartens (3-6+), Steiner EY settings usually include sessions for parent and child groups (birth – 3), playgroups, nursery groups (2.5-4 yrs), where an understanding of this approach is developed before the child starts kindergarten.

The Kindergarten Day

Children enter the kindergarten between the ages of three and six. Some settings prefer to have separate groups for children up the age of 4 to enable the youngest children to settle in a smaller group. Each kindergarten group usually has between 16/18 children although sizes vary. (With a ratio of one adult to 8 children (in line with the statutory welfare requirements). Each group comprises mixed ages to create a large family structure where older children can become aware of the needs those younger, and the younger imitate the older child. Older children who are familiar with the rhythm of the kindergarten are encouraged to help the younger children and to ease their integration into the group. The number of sessions a child attends varies according to age. Each session lasts for approximately four+ hours. Where the Kindergarten includes afternoons, lunch (often brought from home) is eaten together around the table, followed by a rest and then further periods of play. There are also many separate playgroups or nurseries, which provide a transition from Parent and Child to the kindergarten. This generally takes children from 2, and the groups are smaller with a higher staff:child ratio, and a gentler routine.

The day is structured so that there is a varied pace, with periods of contraction and expansion to provide a balance between times of activity and times of rest. In practice, this might mean that creative play would be followed by a more concentrated ring-time (music and movement), or energetic outdoor activity by a quiet story, that is, child-initiated activity is alternated with teacherled activity. The latter is a comparatively short period at this age. The kindergarten day follows a consistent and predictable pattern and the children do the same things at the same times, carried through imitation of others. Within this rhythm the children feel held and safe and rarely express a wish to be excused from an activity or event.

The structure of the kindergarten day follows a broadly similar pattern in most settings as follows:

Arriving time and play/activity time

As the children begin to arrive, they hang up their coats and change into indoor shoes and say goodbye to the parent/carer before the kindergarten teacher welcomes each child. The day begins with a period of free play (see below), perhaps getting the dolls up and dressed, building with small logs or driving a bus made from upturned chairs. During this free-play time, the teacher and assistants are usually engaged in some task, such as preparing the dough if it is baking day. Each day of the week is identified by a particular ‘doing’ activity such as baking, gardening, painting, a seasonal handicraft, modeling, cleaning or woodwork. They might make things for particular festivals, such as window decorations, lanterns and mobiles, sew or braid, either for the kindergarten room or to take home. The children are welcome, but not required to ‘help’ with the activity and they are expected to engage in the activity only for as long as their interest lasts. In all these activities the children learn by example, finding their way in to the experiences at their own pace. Some of the children may prefer to be around the adults, as children traditionally have been, watching or helping, while adults work. These informal moments are vital, not least in a world in which parents are often so busy. In this way the children learn to explore and be creative whilst acquiring a love of work. This manifests itself in an increasing mood of self-reliance and calm industriousness when the children are engaged.

The teacher and assistants initiate the next phase by beginning to clear the things away and the children join in helping each tool or object to find its place on shelf or in basket – sorting, matching, folding and stacking. Tidying up is an important task and it is done in such a way that it does not occur to the children that this is something that spoils their fun or is a tedious chore. It is done out of imitation of the adults and more experienced children, and soon becomes part of the rhythm of the kindergarten day.

Ring time

Once things have been put back in their places after the ‘doing’ activity and play, the children gather for ring-time. The activities in ring time help focus the children's attention, develop their linguistic skills and help strengthen their motor skills. Ring-time is when the children come together in a circle and sing traditional songs, play games and rhythmical verses are spoken and acted out. Listening and clear articulation is practiced through this kind of rhythmical recitation which is repeated for a week or more. Children leave kindergarten with a rich and varied repertoire of songs, stories and poems, including verses in French, German or other languages, which they have learned during ring time. Sometimes the eurythmist (movement teacher) or foreign language teacher may visit and contribute to the ring-time activities. Ring time is sometimes referred to as ‘circle time’.

Snack time

Next, the children go to the toilet and wash their hands in preparation for snack time. Some of the older ones help lay and set the table with mats, cutlery and a vase of flowers. Bread and fruit, or a variety of healthy organic snacks such as muesli, fruit salad, rice pudding or soup are placed on the table and everyone gathers to say a blessing on the meal and they may also sing some seasonal songs before eating. Meal times offer an opportunity for moral, social and mathematical development to work together as children engage in sharing out of food, partaking in conversation and listening to the comments of others about various bits of ‘news’. Some of the children help clear up while others get ready to go outside.

Outdoor time

Every kindergarten has a safe outdoor play space usually with sandpits, trees, bushes for dens/hiding areas and small-scale paths. The outdoor space often also includes an organic vegetable garden where the children can work alongside the adults in caring for the garden or vegetables or playing together. The produce is used for the snack. Recycling and composting is part of the ethos. All children help to tidy the garden before coming in to hang up coats and scarves and put on indoor shoes. The development of the physical co-ordination through movement, balance etc is fundamental at this age. Climbing trees, balancing on poles, skipping with large and small ropes, or doing hard physical digging all provide an excellent opportunity for children to develop these capacities and to find their own boundaries. Further, play out of doors has a different quality/mood from the indoor play and allows for a different social dynamic to emerge. It also provides an opportunity for children to begin to appreciate their environment.

Some kindergartens are particularly committed to the importance of the outdoors and so have prioritised the establishment of extensive rhythm of activities. It could be that children begin outside in the morning, or the whole morning is spent outside.

There is a new movement towards forest or woodland kindergartens, and a number of parent and child groups and kindergarten in the UK where one or more days is spent in entirely the woods all year round.

Story time

The morning concludes with story time. Story time is always a very special event. The mood is hushed and the expectation is that children will listen and respect that this is a quiet time. The children are told (never read) many wonderful stories that belong to the literary heritage of the culture of childhood, sometimes supported by a puppet show by the teacher. Fairy tales and nature stories address the feeling realm and awaken a moral sense. A well-told story creates an appreciation for the human voice and the beauty and rhythms of language. It also helps to extend vocabulary and to aid the development of a good memory. Children love to hear the same story many times and delight in the repetition which brings the opportunity for children to familiarise themselves with the material and to deepen their relationship to it. By the time the story ends, parents/carers are waiting outside to collect the children.

Extended day or After care

Many kindergartens offer after care or extended days. These also follow a rhythm to make the transitions easy for the children. In many cases, they are provided with lunch, some bring packed lunch, and they rest before spending the afternoon doing crafts, playing and enjoying being with their friends.

The Kindergarten Environment

The indoor space

The Steiner early childhood curriculum is based on an understanding that all the senses of the young child are very impressionable and that everything that surrounds a child has a direct although sometimes extremely subtle impact on the child. Very careful consideration is therefore given to the detail of the quality of all aspects of the kindergarten environment to ensure that it is gentle to the eye, ear and all the senses. The physical space is designed to be home-like and as free from exterior distraction as possible. The scale of the space should not overwhelm a small child and so where possible the ceiling is low, there are no ‘hard’ corners and it is decorated in soft tones of pink to create a gentle, secure feeling. Each child has his/her own coat peg with their name above it and somewhere to leave a change of shoes. There is a nature table, which follows a seasonal theme, and the decorations are also seasonal and are always displayed with moderation, using soft material and pastel colours. There is a quiet corner, a home corner, an area for floor play and building large constructions, an area for the activity or snack tables and chairs. The kitchen area is partitioned but usually within the room.

Materials and toys

The furniture is made of wood and is intended for open ended or multi use by the children. Toys are made of natural materials and are deliberately crafted to be relatively undefined to allow maximum scope for imaginative use as props in children’s play. They include wooden blocks and logs, natural plain cloth, shells, and hand-made dolls. Equipment includes grain mills, juice presses, woodwork tools, spinning wheels and other simple manual tools, watercolours, broad brushes, beeswax crayons, sheep’s fleece, sewing materials and beautiful picture books. There are also a variety of materials in soft colours for dressing up or using to cover the wooden screens, which can make houses, boats or castles. In the home corner there are small cradles, prams, table and chairs, kitchen equipment and more. There are often instruments for musical activities, and sometimes a quiet/book corner with a few carefully chosen picture books, which are changed regularly.

The outdoor space

Every kindergarten will have a protected and safe outdoor area for play and work where the children are allowed to climb trees, hide in bushes or play in the sand or mud pit. The outdoor equipment is simple, with a choice of skipping ropes, digging or raking equipment, and logs and branches for building dens. Where outdoor space is limited, children are taken to the local park, playground or wherever they can experience nature. Where possible, children are introduced to gardening/composting in the kindergarten garden where there is an opportunity to become familiar with the process of growing from planting to harvesting.

This is an extract from Information about Steiner Waldorf Early Childhood Settings [PDF] by the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship