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Waldorf at Home with Young Children: Part One

When I was going through my initial search of local schooling and education options, I came across the Waldorf school.  I was immediately attracted by the beautiful toys made of natural materials, the attachment between the teacher and child, which is preserved by keeping the same teacher with the same class for several years, and their belief in the value of creative, imaginative play.  These things resonated with my own beliefs about what young children need, but I was dismayed by the tuition fees.  There was no way we could afford to send our kids to a Waldorf school.

However, I soon discovered that Waldorf lends itself very well to the home environment.  I wouldn’t say we are Waldorf homeschoolers, or any other label-based homeschooling description, for that matter.  In general, I try to take what fits for our family from the resources and philosophies I come across instead of subscribing to a philosophy in its entirety.  In any case, here are the Waldorf-inspired ideas that have worked really well for us at home:

Natural Toys

doll having a cup of acorn teaWaldorf teachers believe that simple toys made from natural materials help encourage children’s imagination and creativity, are more calming and peaceful to handle, and are open-ended enough that children can create any kind of play scenario they wish out of very few toys.  A traditional Waldorf classroom would contain simple handmade dolls and carved wooden animals, smooth stones that had been polished by the river they came from, pieces of logs and sticks and some silk cloths.

Recently, I discovered that my girls far preferred to play with dried beans, whole cloves and acorns in their kitchen set than with the clunky wooden food I’d bought for them.  I figured the play food was wooden and that was natural enough, but little hands LOVE to pour, sort, pick through and smell the natural, aromatic beans and nuts.

Appreciation of Daily and Yearly Rhythms

Rhythm is a big part of Waldorf philosophy.  Rhythm spans from moment-to-moment rhythmic activities, such as knitting, to daily rhythms that include regular times to wake up, eat meals, play, rest and go to bed, and bigger yearly rhythms that recognize the changes in season and holidays.  Many Waldorf homsechoolers have a nature table where they display things from nature that reflect the current season.  A smooth daily and yearly routine gives kids and adults a sense of security in knowing what will be coming next, and helps everyone get more sleep.

I am working towards a regular daily routine by streamlining my housekeeping, and we recently took the Usborne Book of the Seasons out of our public library to give us some inspiration for seasonal crafts and activities.  Beatrice LOVED this book, as it has lots of beautiful colour pictures and a nice mix of educational activities and crafty stuff.  We did just about all of the activities in the fall section before we had to return it, and I’m definitely considering buying it to have at home.

Time for Creative Play

Creativity is highly valued in Waldorf, and there is starting to be more and more scientific research to back this up.  It turns out that kids who get to choose how, when, where and with whom they play (including playing by themselves) have better executive functioning.  This means they develop better self control, the ability to follow instructions and find solutions to problems.  Constantly being told what to to or playing highly structured games doesn’t produce the same increase in self control.

In our house, we’ve made time and space for creative play ever since Bea started carrying dollies around.  The dress up clothes are within easy reach, as are the blocks and dolls.  Every day we have at least a little time for the girls to play on their own while I write emails, clean the kitchen or fold laundry.  This downtime for me is just as valuable as the creative, self-directed time is for the girls.  It’s a win-win.

handmade waldorf doll

The other thing that is great about Waldorf is that it meshes really well in a frugal, environmentally-conscious household.  Sure, you can spend a small fortune buying Waldorf toys if that’s what you want to do, but you don’t have to.  Smooth rocks from the river are free, as are acorns and horse chestnuts.  Dried black beans are very, very cheap.  Having a routine costs nothing, just the time and energy to figure one out and stick to it.  If you have a little skill with scissors, needles and thread, you can make your own Waldorf doll out of scrap cloth and sheep’s wool.  This is the traditional way toys were made instead of bought, and it’s possible to learn these skills yourself too.

Come back next week for Part Two of Waldorf at Home with Young Children.  There’s more!

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{ 8 comments… add one }

  • Cynthia November 8, 2010, 9:09 am

    My frustration is that my kids seem to prefer the plastic toys that work their way into our home (gifts, etc) rather than the more natural toys I provide. Ironically, my older son’s favourite toy car is a cheap plastic dump trunk from a corner store that I bought as a special “we’re out of town and you’re going a bit stir-crazy so here, play with this” treat, intending to throw it away when we got home. And even the baby prefers gnawing on a hunk of plastic over any of the nice soft cloth toys he has.

    That said, we do have a lot of more Waldorf-inspired toys that they do love. Wooden building blocks are among the most played with toys in our home, by both children. And goodness knows we can’t come home from a rock without bringing half the trail home in our pockets!
    Cynthia´s last blog post ..Capitalizing on breastfeeding moms

    • michelle November 8, 2010, 9:26 am

      I’ve found this true as well – I was crushed when I sewed a waldorf style doll for Bea and then she promptly abandoned it for the beanie baby that’s in the picture. But I’ve found that over time the plastic stuff has gradually worked it’s way out of the living room and the girls are more interested in the more natural stuff. We’re definitely not plastic-free by any means, but it’s slowly dwindling. And yes, I know the feeling about taking every pebble home! We have several random bowls of rocks/seeds/dry leaves/acorns scattered around the house to try and keep the stuff contained. When Bea was a toddler she went through a very intense pinecone phase, and we must have had a hundred pinecones come through our house!

  • Eva November 8, 2010, 2:06 pm

    Yes, it can be a little difficult when kids are exposed to colorful plastic toys every where! I think it’s a good idea to just keep showing them other better quality options. Eventually they will learn the difference and appreciate the quality of the natural toys.

    • michelle November 9, 2010, 8:27 am

      Hi Eva – I think that’s true that kids will eventually get bored of the toys that beep and flash. I’ve also done a fair bit of educating my family in terms of telling them what toys I want my kids to play with and why. My mom’s totally come around to the idea of wooden toys and is really supportive of that now.

  • Kellie November 9, 2010, 6:59 am

    I love this post! We do Waldorf inspired preschool at home as well and I love what my children are learning from it! They are so creative, and they play by themselves/with each other so well. They know real life, functional things and are so reliable and steady. It is just amazing to me what they are learning through play and actually watching and participating in housework.

    • michelle November 9, 2010, 8:29 am

      Hi Kellie – thanks! I’ve been loving how my girls play with each other too. It was tough for a while when Claire was too young to really play with her big sister, but now they’re really good at playing together. There are some inevitable disagreements, but overall they are great. :) Whether this is due to Waldorf philosophies or just the sheer amount of time they spend together I’m not sure, but it’s working out well for us.

  • Bluebirdmama November 9, 2010, 2:20 pm

    Nice post Michelle. We’re trying to incorporate the same things into our homeschooling this year as well. We are focusing particularly on the various incarnations of rhythm and really enjoying it. I still have to work on our daily routine – it’s a work in progress.
    I agree with the other posters on the toys. I’ve gradually been getting rid of a lot of them, but nevertheless, the plastic persists. At least we have only 1 battery powered toy!
    Looking forward to the next post!
    Bluebirdmama´s last blog post ..Begin at the Beginning

    • michelle November 9, 2010, 9:56 pm

      Thanks Alison. :) We used to have a battery powered pink and purple fun fur covered horse that walked when you pushed one button on the controller and whinnyed when you pushed the other. My daughter and every single other child who came over to our house LOVED that toy, but I have a do-not-replace policy for battery powered toys (especially that one). Thankfully, the battery has now run out of juice and the horse has now disappeared to the bottom of the toy drawer.

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