Many parents who have a child attending a Waldorf school have a distinct memory of their first time seeing or visiting a Waldorf kindergarten. The early childhood rooms in every Waldorf school have such a distinct feel. It’s warm, inviting, and serene. From my experience as a parent witnessing little ones in this space, I believe it sparks a real sense of warmth and security that allows for the best expression of open-ended free play. In my last post on color, I discussed how much the color of the classrooms plays into the feeling within the space, but what about the contents of the room? The wood, the wool, the beeswax. Why is nearly every material natural? This is something I was curious about not just within the kindergarten, but through the older grades as well.
What exactly are the materials used in Waldorf Education? Just look at any photo of a Waldorf classroom. There are lots of natural woods: wooden toys, desks, chairs, and climbing structures for play. Dolls are often faceless, made usually of cotton and wool. Play silks can become anything when played with by a child. When painting is introduced, water color paints are always used. These paints, usually Stockmar, have no heavy metals and are non-toxic. Speaking of non-toxic, so are all the crayons. Beeswax is the chosen medium for drawing in the early grades, at first in block form, and then in a traditional crayon shape. Students then graduate to color pencils for drawing. Wool is used to teach knitting and other handwork projects, and natural woods are used to whittle, carve, and sand into all kinds of creations in woodworking class.
So many natural things! But why?
The ideas around this start when a child is a baby. Rudolf Steiner believed that when we come into this world we are one big sense organ. We are born with no filters. There is no ability yet to distinguish things like differences in texture, soft or hard, or to feel the temperature of an object, warm in nature, or cold. As soon as we are born we take in everything. Eventually boundaries come, and we are then able to distinguish different sense experiences. Surrounding young babies with warm, beautiful things is preferable because that is all they will experience. They will begin life with a connection to the earth’s beauty through its natural textures.
How does this line of thinking progress as the child grows? Possibly the most intentional aspect with surrounding the young child with natural materials is to inspire creativity, imagination and free play. As I mentioned above, cloth dolls are usually faceless. Often no eyes, or mouth, and sometimes no nose. This allows the child to create in their own world. They can fill in with their imagination what the doll is feeling and thinking. Using this particular example of play with a doll, free play allows the child to express their inner feelings, like stress, happiness, or sadness, in a context that comes naturally for them. Children may sometimes even act in anger towards a doll. This is a very healthy way for them to express their inner emotions. Having toys that inspire the most open ended play possible allows them to explore this.
Natural materials also feel nice. Isn’t that what you would choose if you had the choice of play materials? Young children live so fully in their senses. Natural materials are warmer feeling than synthetic ones. Imagine the feel of a wooden sword next to a cold plastic one. I think some may argue that with synthetic materials we can create toys that are more “realistic” and accurate in their appearance and even their feel. However this isn’t what young children need. They need the space to fill with their own imagination. “What color is my sword?” “Sometimes I pretend it’s a magic wand instead of a sword”. The possibilities are more open. Beyond just natural, many of the objects in the Waldorf classroom are handmade. Playing and learning with handmade things cultivates a reverence for beauty and craftsmanship at an early age.
Natural materials also inspire free thinking. As children progress through the grades they begin to create their own main lesson books. These main lesson books are filled with lessons they learn within each main lesson block. Using color pencils, essays and artistic renderings of the content of each lesson are depicted. In creating a reverence early for craftsmanship and an appreciation for the handmade, children in the older grades are inspired to take pride in their work and creations.
Ultimately all ages, infancy through adult, benefit from being surrounded by things that are natural vs things that are not. Imagine spending a day outside, in the sunshine: observing the changing weather, animals, and flowers. Then imagine a cool, sterile white room: filled with florescent light, no windows, and a cold metal chair and plastic table. I choose this extreme example as a comparison because it is also bright and light. The difference is to be experiencing our natural world evokes joy for us as humans. This isn’t just an anthroposophical or Waldorf belief, it’s something you can observe yourself and benefit from at any age. For children and adults we thrive with more warmth, joy and connection in our lives