Letting Children Be Children

New Waldorf school keeps technology out of classroom

    The comforting smell of cooked lentils with rice and freshly baked bread filled the classroom last Thursday at Our Sons and Daughters, a Waldorf preschool located at the Hayground School in Bridgehampton. In existence for three years, the program grew from parent-child classes steeped in the Waldorf approach, which values imagination and creativity over technology, to a small school with 12 students ages 3 to 6. There are no computers in the classroom, and the soft pink walls have been intentionally left blank. The children are encouraged to develop their language skills through routine play and practical tasks rather than traditional visual methods of reading and writing.
    Unlike in a typical preschool, the alphabet and written numbers are nowhere to be seen. There is a sense of calm and warmth in the room. Andi Pisacano, co-teacher-teaching assistant and administrator at Our Sons and Daughters, who has taught for 22 years at mostly Waldorf-inspired schools, explained the philosophy behind it. “We’re not teaching them letters, and we’re not giving them a lot of input on the walls,” she said. “The development of language the first five years of life is the most important. Their language skills are what people have expected the child to succeed at first, which develops from repetition and example. Since so many children aren’t exposed to the type of beautiful language anymore — it’s TV or what’s on the radio — it’s not the development of language that students are exposed to. We do that here. We’re careful in how we bring language to the children.”
    A fundamental aspect of a Waldorf education is its emphasis on a learning progression that evolves without modern tools of technology. “We believe it’s really important for the child to develop their capacity for memory through active learning. We don’t believe in sitting them in front of a TV. More educators are realizing that to put a child on technology too early is stifling their ability for imaginative play. The other thing about media, children repeat all the time what they see,” said Ms. Pisacano.
    The classroom has an earthy feel with all-wooden toys, including a dollhouse, stove, and plenty of bricks. A wreath is suspended from the ceiling with rope, and felt stars dangle from it. Next to a rocking chair is a plain tree stump. “They experiences from these natural materials. The children make their own play from there,” Ms. Pisacano said. The art on one wall is a magical scene done in pastels. On another is an art piece made of blue fabric, wood, and sticks surrounding a figure. The overhead lights are kept off, and the classroom purposefully relies on natural light from ample windows, and two small dim lamps.
    Maggie Touchette, the lead teacher, who has taught at Our Sons and Daughters for three years, sketched a brief outline of the day. “We work with having a rhythm. There is free play, you have your own experiences, and then there are moments together. These include snack time, circle or story time. Circle time is little nursery rhymes or finger games. When there are bigger verses or a movement journey, which is a rhythmic story, it is accompanied with gesture.” Painting and crafts are also scheduled during various times of the week. Nature is a fundamental aspect of the program, as well. “They’re creating their own world in which they play in,” Ms. Touchette said.
    After a non-structured early morning play period last Thursday, the children cleaned up the toys while Ms. Touchette sang a song about tidying the room. Some boys were throwing wooden blocks until Ms. Touchette interrupted them, “We do not throw blocks at school.” The boys looked mortified, and seconds later they helped one another put the blocks away.
    The children then gathered in a circle to sing and repeat rhymes that have coordinating body motions. “Where it’s rhyme and verse, the language we use is consciously beautiful language. The stories we tell them or the songs we sing them are carefully thought out. When they go home, they’re not singing what they hear on the radio. They’re singing something that is appropriate for where their imagination is,” said Ms. Pisacano. The teachers recite the verses or stories from memory.
    “We don’t believe we need to teach them to read in preschool or to color. We show by example,” Ms. Pisacano said. “We bring them language that’s real. They can form pictures in their head, and that helps them develop their brain.  From 0 to 7, they don’t really need to have external stimuli. They don’t need to learn how to write their letters.”
    During a brief nap, Ms. Pisacano lightly touches the children’s hands with lavender oil (“fairy drops”). When it was time to get up and have a snack, Ms. Touchette walked around the room and tapped each child with a fairy finger puppet.
    A long table was set with cloth napkins and a glass for each of the students. Adjacent to the table, in the kitchen, were three large tubs set up for dish duty. Through routine tasks, from food preparation to washing their own dishes, the children learn how to work cooperatively in a group, and develop a sense of accomplishment.
    Rain or shine, outdoor play and exploration are daily activities at a Waldorf school. Last Thursday, after the children took off their inside slippers, they changed their shoes, zipped up their coats, and put on hats. When the weather is less than desirable, the students are prepared. “They have rain pants, and if there’s snow, they wear lots of layers,” said Ms. Touchette. Once they were bundled, the children took off in different directions and formed into small groups. An old dried worm was of interest to some, as were the leftover evergreen trimmings from a previous event at the school. The mud was a big draw. So much so that Ms. Touchette ended up with it all over her face. There were no arguments, and the children included one another as they played.
    Puppet shows are another means for teaching language skills. “They have some sort of nature story to them. They’re human; they’re not fantastical. It’s just a picture of how language is used to develop the child’s sense of security and presence in the world. We do it very consciously,” said Ms. Pisacano. The next scheduled show is about getting ready for winter. “Instead of it being a mundane, practical get your clothes on, your boots, it’s more of how to look out for ways to bring kindness to each other,” said Ms. Pisacano. “We would bring an image of a little child who has the desire to share their light, their goodness with the world. They go on a journey. The journey is dark. They ask for help. They’re given tools, and they’re given a better level of understanding. It’s a way of promoting goodness by showing someone who wants to help the world,” said Ms. Pisacano.
    Students react positively to these shows. According to Ms. Pisacano the metaphor for light helps the children feel more confident, and “after a puppet show like that, the kids look at one other and say, ‘This was the best puppet show ever.’ ” Young children are not able to distinguish between reality and fiction, Ms. Touchette explained. “When in front of computer screen they’re presented with images that they can’t really process. We provide them with a puppet show, it moves slowly, and they can process it. They can understand and get something out of it,” she said.
    Festivals that are tied to the change of season are central to a Waldorf education. Recently, Our Sons and Daughters held a festival to celebrate and mark the beginning of winter. Ms. Pisacano pointed out that these festivals have been going on for hundreds of years. “The kids walk the spiral of boughs of green spruce. We trim the trees and make a huge spiral, and they walk inward. We prepare ourselves to walk inward to winter. It’s a symbolic festival,” she said. The children also walked with candles to create a feeling of peace about winter and light in the darkness. A festival in March will celebrate the arrival of spring. “We do four a year,” Ms. Pisacano said. Part of the curriculum is to teach about the world through celebrating festivals. “It brings everyone together, families, it’s a nice way to build community.”
    “We don’t bring them images from the modern world; we give them archetypical images that are good and calm. They get a sense that the world is good and it’s not too much for them to handle,” said Ms. Pisacano. The Waldorf philosophy emphasizes allowing children “to unfold in their best way without presenting them with too much stimuli at once. So they can learn how to trust themselves and behave in a group with other human beings, and develop at their own pace,” she added.
    The push to read in traditional preschools concerns Ms. Touchette. “I don’t think human development has changed in the past 40 years. This is a concept of modern culture: ‘I want my child reading at 4. Then at 6, then they can do this, and they can go to Harvard. They can be the top of the game,’ ” she said. Alternatively, the focus at Our Sons and Daughters is on giving children the time and space to be children. “We’re giving them what we think they need: time to play, time to be with nature, time to hear stories, and time to be with their friends and learn how social relationships work,” Ms. Touchette said.
    In January, Our Sons and Daughters will offer a parent-child class with activities similar to those of a typical school day. Children will take part in the activities and parents will observe without intervening. “The children get to experience it without someone directing them,” said Ms. Pisacano. “It’s planting a seed to be with your child in a group without any real stress. It’s a simple way of being with them. It’s structured without seeming like it’s structured,” she added. Those interested in the class can find more information at the school’s Web site, oursonsanddaughters.org.