Waldorf Without Walls

Waldorf Science

by Barbara Dewey

Western culture has created a powerful wealth of scientific knowledge, based on total objectivity.  This objectivity means that the observer must be isolated from the observation.  It also means that we must ignore, as scientists, a humanly meaningful occurrence such as  “a warm smile.” To measure it instrumentally would be ludicrous, because all meaning would be drained from it.  For this reason, humanists in our culture have given up any claim of “knowledge.”   And science gives up the meaning of being human.  As Stephen Edelglas states in The Marriage of Sense and Thought (a book I suggest all parents read), “If  we systematically think of a world in which human beings don’t exist, we should not be surprised to find ourselves creating a world in which they can’t exist.”

In the earlier part of this century, it was truly believed that science would be able to solve all the world’s problems. Anyone who criticized this belief was considered a crank, and yet, as the dawn of the twenty-first century approaches, it becomes very clear that science has created as many problems as it has solved, largely because science, and the legislation based on it, have failed to take into account the human aspect of life on earth.  Our materialistic philosophy of life causes us to believe that “having” is more important than “being.”

It behooves us, then, to connect, with real engagement, to the world around us.  We have to begin to be philosophical about science.  What better place to start than with our children?

In the early grades in a Waldorf School, science is not taught as science.  The young child still regards herself at one with the world and so, for the young child, observing nature, hearing stories about nature and playing with natural materials is developmentally appropriate.  She is connected to the world, and we want to keep her that way.  Science for children of all ages should be taught as an experiential observation of phenomena – not giving answers but leaving the children with the questions. So when your child asks, “Why…,”  say, “I wonder….” It is important that we as adults not be too attached to explaining everything scientifically to children, but to allow them to enjoy experiencing the phenomena.  Those imaginative individuals who were able to overlook the “science” of their contemporaries and develop new and better explanations for the same phenomena have made the best discoveries in science.  Thus imagination can be more important than explanation.

The homeschooling family has endless opportunity for serendipitous scientific learning experiences.  Be conscious of this in everything you do around the house! The young child is a being of will (as you know!), a huge sense organ who explores the world of which she feels a part, tasting, touching, smelling, seeing, hearing everything. This exploration is crucial to her development and must not be interfered with by pressure to learn abstract material. Through imitation she must make sense of the world in the microcosm of a good home.  This “making sense of the world” is the foundation of ANY science the child ever learns.  If vicarious experiences, via television or other media, are substituted for this exploration, the foundation will be weak. Even though the child may be able to spout scientific facts with great alacrity, THE FOUNDATION WILL BE WEAK.

Remember that the child up to age seven uses her etheric forces to build and strengthen her physical body.  If these forces are used to memorize facts, her body will be less perfect, and later health and vitality may be affected.

The Waldorf kindergarten is a cosy but roomy, warm place, a good, old-fashioned home. In it are natural materials: logs, and sticks and boards of all sizes, stones, nuts, very large to very small cloths, wooden tables and chairs, yarn, string, rope, baskets, sea shells, etc. There are usually small pets, such as a fish, turtle, hamster, cat or dog.  The yard or play area has bigger natural materials in it, including puddles and piles of snow some of the time. It usually has a see-saw and climbing equipment. The children use all these things in the freedom of their imaginations to make their own toys and play settings.  In the process, they experience physics: gravity, leverage, inclined planes, force, distance, time. They experience mineralogy and geology: snow melts into water, water moves earth, water freezes into ice, ice breaks things, mud has little rocks in it, rocks in the creek are round. They experience astronomy: the sun is warm, sometimes the moon shines in the daytime; and biology; the fish and the turtle feel cold to the touch, but the hamster, the cat and dog feel warm, etc, etc.

The parent tells stories whenever possible and they sing and play circle games. The day is a rhythmic whole the children can count on.

Early Childhood, in the Waldorf tradition, is when the child learns to work and play with others, learns, through all the senses, about the earth, and, through imagination and imitation, to create meaningful life with the materials provided by the earth.  This exploration is the foundation of all later scientific study.  All this time she is building and strengthening her body for her mission in life.

It is good for children to have mealtime be a ritual, including cooking, setting the table, saying grace, serving food, excusing oneself from the table, clearing plates, wiping table, washing dishes.  Even the little grace, “Blessings on the blossom, blessings on fruit, blessings on the leaves and stems, blessings on the root” names the parts of a plant! All these things prepare a child for later science learning.

It is good to have a short (15-20 minutes) formal time once or twice during the day with young children, a time when a candle is lit, songs are sung, and perhaps circle games or finger plays are done.  This is usually done around a nature table, a seasonal table displaying natural objects the children have found, interspersed with imaginative figures created by the teacher or parent.  For instance, a winter scene might have the figure of king winter surrounded by white silks and clear or white rock crystals, perhaps with a small tree branch bare of leaves.  As spring approaches, Mrs. Thaw, and elderly doll figure might be added, sweeping the snow away with her little broom. (See The Nature Corner, by Leeuwen and Moeskops)

Children at this age regard themselves at one with nature.  There are many nature songs in Let Us Form a Ring, a “must have” for the family working with young children. The book also includes many fairy tales, puppet shows and circle games dramatizing natural phenomena.

Fingerplays are good sources of nature play for children: “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” “Here’s the Church,” “Where is Thumbkin?,” “Whoops Johnny”, I’m a Little Teapot,”  and many nursery rhymes you may remember from your own childhood.  Your local library can provide books to remind you of them and teach you many new ones.

Gardening is a family function in which young children may participate as their age permits.  Even if you live in an apartment, a few pots of plants on the windowsill can be an experience for your child.

If you have a plot of ground, there are wonderful things you can do with children, like growing a sunflower house.  To do this, choose a flat, sunny spot.  Trace a large rectangle, about 6x9 feet, leaving about a 2 foot opening for a doorway.  Gouge out a trench along the traced rectangle and plant sunflower and heavenly blue morning glory seeds.  Cover the seeds and water daily.  When the sunflowers reach approximately 5 feet in height, lace string back and forth from one sunflower head to another across the rectangle to form a roof.  Soon the morning glories will fill in the roof with green leaves and blue flowers.  What a place to play and dream!  This idea, and many more may be found in Sunflower Houses, by Sharon Lovejoy.

Cooking is another family function which provides a wealth of scientific phenomena for children to experience: cooking eggs, rice, oatmeal, making mayonnaise, gelatin, meringue, bread, all these operations will be understood differently by children of various ages.  That is why it is important to do them with children on an ongoing basis.

You will find, in doing all these things with your young children, that you will make some discoveries yourself and rediscover the wonder of living in this world.


Dewey,  Barbara, Science as Phenomena, available from this website

Edelglas, Maier, Gebert, and Davy, The Marriage of Sense and Thought (revised edition of Matter and Mind), Lindesfarne Press, 1997

Holdredge, Craig, Genetics and the Manipulation of Life

Kraul, Walter, Earth, Water, Fire and Air, Floris Books, 1989

Mitchell and Petering, ed, Waldorf Science Newsletter, AWSNA

Waldorf Kindergarten Ass’n (301-460-6287), Let us Form a Ring