Walking into the Children’s Garden of the Waldorf School, you might notice something a little different. Not the brightly colored gnome hats in the corner or the kindergarteners kneading bread (though these are, granted, not unsurprising sights), but an absolute lack of anything … school-like. The classrooms are conspicuously devoid of the usual A-Z posters lining the walls, number charts or, really, writing of any kind. Instead, kids retrieve their bucket hats and galoshes from a cubby featuring their designated symbol, plant sunflower seeds and push wheelbarrows full of rocks around the vegetable garden.
Yes, this is really school—and while it may sound a little eccentric, Waldorf’s nontraditional approach is one of many gaining popularity among Baltimore’s pre-Ks.
“We want to focus on building a foundation of all those basic things that aren’t so basic,” says Children’s Garden Chair Lisa Bechmann. “Our students learn through self-directed imaginary play, through sensory experiences, through movement and storytelling. Academics come later.”
Ilene Meister, early childhood education director of the Owings Mills Jewish Community Center, agrees. Though the JCC offers a slightly more structured environment, their philosophy is similarly based. For example, she describes a lesson about the letter “S,” centered on cooking spaghetti. During the process, students covered ground in geometry, chemistry, math, languages and geography. (“Can you take your ssssticks of sssspaghetti and put them into a ssssquare?”)
“Instead of a teacher just throwing facts at them, they’re engaged in the process of learning,” she says. “It’s so important to teach kids to think and put facts together, exploring and making discoveries for themselves.”
The shift, while surprising to those of us who received more traditional schooling, makes sense. In fact, students who are pushed into strictly academic studies may have a more difficult time than those whose first learning is play-based.
“We do math, language arts and science, but we zero in on social and emotional growth,” says Nancy DeBell, admissions director of the Wilkes School. “Children will gain their academic knowledge in an easier way if they know how to socialize, control their emotions and follow directions.”
For many, that means providing routine and structure that allows for such independent play and discovery—a sort of carefully organized chaos.
“You don’t want to do workbooks or worksheets with young children,” says Meister. “They’re going to do that all their lives. You want to give them experiences, to let them learn through play. For example, I’d rather have a child take a tape measure and go outside to measure the circumference of a tree than add 1 plus 1. If you want them to develop a passion for lifelong learning, then you need to be creative.”
As Judy Bickford, assistant director of the Park Heights JCC’s Early Childhood Education program, points out, sometimes that means letting the children take control.
“We offer academics for each child at their own level and following their own interests and abilities,” she says. “If a child is interested in trains, the teacher will bring in train books and vocabulary words and allow him or her to study trains in depth or even to study numbers through counting cars.”
Linda Butler, a pre-K teacher from The Park School of Baltimore, concurs, noting that children’s role in their own education is critical. “The classroom is really their community and we are the facilitators,” she says. “We want them to have ownership and feel like it’s their space so that they become used to making choices for themselves.”
It’s this, she says, that makes a successful kid—not the standard benchmarks often associated with education.
“We’re not rushing to teach the test, to get through an alphabet curriculum that doesn’t mean anything to them,” she adds. “We’re giving kids time to explore and think. They’re starting simple and learning deeper, and their ideas will continue to grow and grow.”