“I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel when introducing a young child to the natural world. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil.” -Rachel Carson, A Sense of Wonder
Two decades ago, in his book Beyond Ecophobia, renowned environmental educator David Sobel asserted “Authentic environmental commitment emerges out of firsthand experiences with real places on a small, manageable scale.” Sobel is an advocate of place-based environmental education, the idea that an education based in a student’s own schoolyard, neighborhood or community holds more relevance for him or her and therefore makes more of an impact. As we celebrate Earth Day, it feels like a great time to reflect on the elements of Waldorf education that uphold these principles and foster environmental stewardship in our students.
From the earliest days in our school, children sense and experience the natural world directly and in all kinds of weather. At our Early Childhood Center on Lake Avenue, children experience intimate and nurturing classrooms and a play yard and gardens within a friendly neighborhood setting. Indoors, toys are made from natural materials and outdoors, unstructured, child-directed free play occupies much of the day. Children learn to cook soup with fresh vegetables from the garden and care for their surroundings. Our Forest Kindergarten, located on Spa State Park land, features numerous forested hiking trails and ample yard space for climbing, gardening, digging, playing, and working. Children at “The Forest” spend most of the day outside year-round, and the natural world is front and center of the student’s experience. Always changing, nature provides new problems to solve and situations to explore depending on the season and weather.
Immersion in our local natural environment does not end once our students enter our lower school. Local nature walks are a regular part of the curriculum. In third grade, as children begin to become more independent and sense that one day they will live on their own in this world, our weeklong visit to live and work on a working farm in Ghent, NY becomes a pivotal event in their development. This week spent with their classmates develops in them a sense of self-sufficiency, confidence and competence through caring for animals, cooking and participating in life on the farm. Throughout the early grades, the study of everything from ancient civilizations to geography to science instill a reverence for the local environment. Third graders learn about how the shelters developed by various civilizations are deeply connected to each society’s natural environment. When studying geography, students begin by learning about and creating maps of our local natural landscape — the Adirondacks and Catskills, the Hudson River and Erie Canal — centering their sense of place on the natural world around them instead of what highway exit number they live closest to. And you will find fifth graders on the Spring Run Trail throughout the year studying botany by sketching local flora along the wetlands there and observing how it changes with the seasons.
That direct connection to nature continues into the middle and high school as science continues to be centered on phenomenology, or direct observation of that which they have experienced in the world around them. The natural world continues to be an integral part of just about all of our academic subjects as evidenced by our signature high school immersion trips, where students study everything from Moby Dick to trigonometry, in addition to zoology and ecology, through interacting with nature. In the near future, we look forward to a working partnership with the Pitney Meadows Community Farm that will allow our students to get their hands dirty while maintaining a community garden plot, learning about composting and bees and pollinators, and more!
Sobel noted “What’s important is that children have an opportunity to bond with the natural world, to learn to love it, before being asked to heal its wounds.” At the Waldorf School of Saratoga Springs, we believe it’s important to provide that opportunity every day as we strive to graduate a generation of students with a reverence for life, individual initiative, social responsibility and moral strength as future stewards of our planet.