It might sound counterintuitive to think of an urban school providing a hands-on outdoor education focused on building a lifelong relationship with the natural world. But that’s exactly what happens at Waldorf Academy.
Our heart-of-Toronto campus features ample outdoor play space, where children from the youngest ages up to our oldest students spend time every day – in all weather. Waldorf Education believes that daily time outdoors is essential to forming a well-rounded, aware, and interested person.
Research from Finland reveals that time spent outdoors helps solidify classroom lessons, giving children time to process and distill information they gather at their desks:
That’s why students at Waldorf Academy wander through nearby ravines on integrative nature walks and venture to Spadina House Gardens, part of the whole approach to science that begins in kindergarten, building observations of the seasons and even seeing water in its many forms – ice, steam, rain – it sets the groundwork for phenomenology later on in science.
Many schools talk about building “rigor” in children; we focus on “vigor. In any weather, our students study nature on walks and hikes, and every Friday, kindergarteners spend whole mornings outside, building a fire, cooking on the fire, sharing stories, and other interactive activities in which they can fully immerse in nature.
We Connect With Nature Year-Round
Our youngest children also devote a lot of time and energy to their very own garden plot, which is an activity that families can continue during quarantine, as they can with all of the outdoor/environmental learning that happens while in school.
Even in Toronto’s cooler climate, gardening becomes a year-round activity. Children put it to rest in fall, harvest the plants, lay down straw and transplant garden items into the classroom for craft or cooking projects. In winter, they observe the changes to the garden under snow, learning how the environment regenerates itself through its winter slumber.
Come spring, there is much practical work to do – families come and put out new compost and mulch, engage in planting once the last frost is behind us. In normal times, we host a full community day in the early childhood where everyone takes part in rousing the garden for another fruitful season.
Even more than that, children make dye from some of the flowers on our grounds. They learn discipline and self-regulation by doing chores associated with gardening. And as happens with much of Waldorf education, the literal and figurative seeds planted early on set a foundation for learning in later grades.
For instance, in early childhood, children go apple-picking in fall, cut apples into five-pointed star, which carries with them into grade 1 math. They make applesauce and collect the seeds from apples and a variety of vegetables, and use those seeds to grow young plants in the classroom during the year. It’s a full array of tasks from just engaging with what grows in the wild, which is not only fun but educational on a visceral level.
By grade 3, children have a rich relationship with the natural world. Grade 3 is known in Waldorf Education as the year of doing, a pivotal time when children advance from the dreaminess of early childhood into the thinking stages of their development. They realize that they are separate from their parents and while that can be a scary realization, grade 3 prepares children to stand on their own two feet as they grow.
They knit a hat, garden and farm, learning they have abilities to dress and feed themselves. A business math unit involves cultivating items from the garden and creating products – dried herbs, baked goods. They take their first overnight trip to a biodynamic farm and participate in the farm chores, growing in their connection to where food comes from and how hard work feels.
At our school, teachers bring in layers of authentic tasks connected to gardening and the environment that works throughout the year, and throughout the various lesson blocks.
We are fortunate that our campus links into Toronto’s ravine network, within a 10-minute walk to a forest. We also spend time at nearby Spadina House, in its 18th century full vegetable flower gardens. Children have renamed a giant tree on the premises into the grandfather tree, and spun lore and magic around it. They observe bumblebees and notice which plants attract butterflies. Teachers teach through song and give the children time to observe nature and come up with their own conclusions.
So what happens when we are relegated to the home front due to a pandemic?
Teachers innovated and sent assignments and activities home that continue to connect children to the natural world – and further their learning.
One such assignment asked the children to make seed bombs – a supportive way to establish seeds in the ground. A seed bomb is a ball of native seeds rolled into a mix of clay and compost. (Native seeds prevent invasive plants from overtaking local ecosystems.)
And here’s what you need:
2 parts seed
3 parts compost
5 parts clay powder
2 parts water
While it’s not talked about often in Waldorf Education, it’s widely known that Biodynamic Farming was a passionate teaching of Waldorf founder Rudolf Steiner. Just as he encouraged teaching the whole child, addressing all of their developmental needs and not just their intellect, Steiner’s approach to farming was holistic and far-reaching, with great reverence for the natural world.
Holistic, ecological and ethical farming practices can be employed even in a backyard garden. Biodynamic farming and beekeeping are sustainable ways to cultivate a healthy connection between humans and the natural world. One of the goals of Waldorf education is to “awaken and enliven co-creative relationships between humans and the earth.”
For when children connect to the natural world in meaningful and even spiritual ways, they come to better understand themselves. Children learn science at a deep level when they understand where food comes from and build a love of nature.
Studies show that children learn and behave better when they have ample time outdoors, especially engaged in useful work in a garden or natural setting. These outdoor experiences help children gain confidence in themselves and their abilities, and feel more like they belong in community and in the classroom. (Here’s another study.)