Inside a Waldorf school

Anandhi

Spaces in a Waldorf school… the theme first of all begins with inner space expressing itself as outer space. Do we in our schools have inner spaces for our children or ourselves as teachers? Should a five year old learn about the solar system… where is the inner space to wonder about the ‘moving sun’ or the ‘moving moon’? As a teacher am I bogged down by the need to complete my portion… or can I have the time and space to learn as I work with the learners…wonder with them before thinking about something?

Are ‘thoughts’ and ‘thinking’ the same? The former fills space, while the latter creates space within our minds. As educators how seriously do we take this question of space? Our lifestyle seems to be symptomatic of schools – success somehow is equated to ‘the more one accumulates’… it begins at schools with ‘more marks’, ‘more stuffed in the memory’, ‘more books’, and so on. Yet, there seem to exist small oases where ‘more’ is not the mantra. The number of flowers accumulated as a bouquet can somehow never match the quality of a lotus quietly blossoming in a roadside pond… (well, if there is one in our cities that is…).

Sloka-school
Today as I walked into my class, I saw the radiant faces of my children matched only by the radiance of what they were watching, a water lily in bloom. They were stretching themselves across the bamboo bridge over a small pond we have at school. I had no heart to call them in to teach them… they were learning from the greatest of all teachers – Nature. They were learning joyfully, supportively, and most importantly – what they wanted to learn; not what I wanted to teach.

It is hard to describe the wisdom behind Waldorf education – but one way of viewing it is that it springs out of an understanding of the ‘inner space’ of the growing human being. What does this inner space at each developmental phase require as its nourishment?

The Kindergarten years of a child (0-7) requires that we allow the child to grow in health. How do we do this? The inner space of the child during these years requires nourishment through all the senses. The food they eat needs to be nutritious. The habits of eating must be filled with rest – not hurried in front of the TV, for instance. The sense of touch needs nourishment through natural experiences – hence wooden logs, simple puppets made of cloth, cotton material, sand and water for play, subdued colours as against loud and jarring ones. The same goes for sounds – soft spoken teachers who can sing like angels, pleasant sounds of instruments, speech, and stories told as grandmothers tell them – without being affected by artificial drama…

Anyone who sees a Waldorf kindergarten will fall for its sheer aesthetics – the whole space reflects the commitment of the curriculum not to ‘invade’ the senses of the child, but rather nurture it. Cosy corners, doll’s houses, spaces to eat, paint, or draw are all part of the space planning. An ideal kindergarten might have rooms in a circular fashion – a form that gives children immense inner security and warmth.

Then come the grade years – 7 to 14 – a time when children learn out of their love for adults. The adults understand how important it is to plan the spaces aesthetically. Enthusiasm for learning can be awakened through a sense for beauty. The classrooms always have enough natural light and are airy. The rooms of younger children have little corners, where the mood of Nature is reflected within the classroom. All rooms usually have pin boards to pin the artistic work of children. The blackboards are large with wings on either side, giving enough scope for the teachers to use them creatively. More often than not beautiful blackboard drawings adorn these boards – since art is viewed as an awakener of intelligence.

The adolescents are happy to work in a laboratory… makes them feel grown up. And then there are the common spaces – library, a large hall for assembly, or presentations. Spaces for specialized music teaching. The outer spaces are planned for specific artistic activities like wood work, pottery, metal work, and so on. Of course, there is then the need for open spaces for children to run and play and be agile in their bodies.

To have inner and outer space means ‘not to invade’. I believe that primary commitment of education must be – ‘not to be invasive in the name of teaching’. There is not a day that passes without a silent gratitude (along with many colleagues at school and in the Waldorf movement) towards all these expressions of space that we believe are important aspects of living with intelligence.

The author teaches at Abhaya, a Waldorf school in Kompally, Hyderabad. She can be reached at vijuanu@yahoo.com.