Educating through “Head, Heart and Hands” has been a hallmark of Waldorf educators for decades. The idea behind the phrase is that learning should involve the whole human being and be based on relevant and multisensory experiences, which is a more intuitive and natural way to learn than a passive, lecture-and-note style of learning.
With classrooms shuttered worldwide and most students now learning at home, how are Waldorf schools continuing to engage the whole child? What does experiential learning look like outside of a classroom?
Waldorf teachers are rising to the challenging task before them, adapting and working creatively to not just deliver curriculum, but to make sure students continue to feel safe, welcome, supported, and a part of a greater learning community. This task also includes a new layer of family support seen through open lines of communication between teachers and students, teachers and parents, and students with students.
The task of the curriculum is also multi-layered. While distance learning may be more suited towards delivering short term memory learning such as facts, vocabulary lists, or math worksheets, Waldorf educators continue to focus on applying and linking learning concepts to wider experiences. Maintaining this hallmark of Waldorf curriculum is where the creativity with distance learning really comes into play.
At Portland Waldorf School, science experiments are continuing remotely through video and students are asked to engage in observational learning around what they see on screen or what they are instructed to replicate safely in their own homes. For younger students, video may be used more sparingly. A teacher at Lake Champlain Waldorf School, for example, used audio prompts for a science lesson for fifth graders. As she hiked, she described her surroundings, interviewed hikers about what they could see, and listened to the sounds of nature to then deliver a botany lesson.
Seventh grade history students at several Waldorf schools are learning about the Age of Exploration and are receiving assignments to choose and research an explorer online. The remainder of the lesson is an experiential offline assignment including a written and illustrated biography to be placed in main lesson books and the creation of a board game both outlining and gamifying the journeys made by their explorer of choice.
Language arts lessons at the Aurora Waldorf School include pandemic journals for class 7 and 8 students to be designed with the understanding of what such a journal would require to be one day used as historical primary source material. Shining Mountain Waldorf School first graders cannot put on their play, but they can practice reading and writing by copying the script of the play into their main lesson books.
Math times tables can still be tied to jumping rope; fractions and units of measure to cooking; geometry to hand drawn geometric forms; and platonic solids to 3D modeling all with simple materials sent to or found in student’s homes. A Waldorf School of Princeton second grade teacher created a puppet show prelude to her students math lesson on division.
Subject teachers are also continuing their instruction in classes such as handwork, gardening, string and flute music, dance, and second language story and song. The music faculty at the Waldorf School of the Peninsula offered a virtual music jam collaboration in preparation for future virtual band performances with students. With woodworking difficult to implement at home, the practical arts teacher at Spring Garden Waldorf School is having students carve soap instead. Song and eurythmy instruction continues on video for many, and gardening in backyards and pots is the perfect distance learning alternative for garden teachers.
While care in curriculum addresses the head and hands, the heart is still an equal priority and Waldorf schools and teachers have found new ways to focus on community and connection. Resources for parents, like these offered by Cedarwood Waldorf School, are an integral part of the community support offered by schools and often include supportive instructions, songs, crafts, and other online resources parents may need to enhance both learning time and unstructured play time at home.
Parents of younger students can find comfort and community in written stories such as these written by early childhood teachers -- The Great Pause was written by Lake Champlain Waldorf School’s early childhood teacher, Elizabeth Emmet, and the Story of the Red House, was written by Waldorf School of Cape Cod’s Victoria Capon. Audio and video story, songs, puppet shows, and finger games are popular, such as those shared by Escuela Raices Waldorf. Articles are being written by schools too such as this one from The Waldorf School of Philadelphia about what open play and routine looks like in the home, and this one from the Waldorf School at Moraine Farm about how to inspire fort building.
Parents and older students are watching teachers come together in video verse, engaging in online video series like this one from Otto Specht Waldorf School -- Bridging the Social Distance, and watching teachers get creative and show humor about their new distance learning circumstances like this video seen by Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor high school students. Maple Village Waldorf School carried on with knitting meetings, but in the virtual world. Marin Waldorf School brought over 40 families together with their virtual community coffee to continue hosting their usual community coffee house where people offer musical talents and conversation.
Experiential education is, at its heart, about adaptation and innovation around students’ unique learning strengths and needs. As such, it is no surprise that Waldorf educators have taken distance learning in stride and that examples of innovative curriculum delivery and community building will carry on and expand in our communities as school closures continue.
Photo Credit: Bright Water Waldorf School