The Green Curriculum in Waldorf Schools ~ Part V October 07 2015

Waldorf Schools strive to co-exist in a profoundly felt, right relationship with the Earth throughout the grades, building inner habits that prepare children to be environmentalists on the deepest levels. The practices and experiences which engender these inner habits are embedded in all aspects of the Waldorf School curriculum from grade one to grade twelve. Environmental sustainability lives and breathes through each grade of the Waldorf curriculum. Grade Five offers a good example!

From Roots to Bloom: Green in Grade Five

The fifth grade curriculum builds rich tapestries of heroic myths, epic stories and the histories of ancient civilizations. But perhaps the most cherished centerpiece of the fifth grade experience takes place in the great outdoors: The Fifth Grade Olympiad. Based on the classic games of ancient Greece, the students prepare and participate in a pentathlon of javelin, discus, wrestling, long jump and running meets, often with other nearby Waldorf fifth grades. The games each bring distinct qualities to life – balance, beauty, precision, levity and gravity – in a celebration of these attributes, ever-present in human experience and in the natural world.

In their studies of geography, students come to know North America and the myriad contrasts of the continent’s topography, climate and culture. Specifically, the intersection of culture and place is strongly represented in these explorations – as the class gains an experience and sense for the relatedness of a particular landscape and its traditional inhabitants. As such, the emphasis is placed not just on which rivers run where, and a tally of the most majestic mountain ranges, but on how the earth showed cultures where and how to live, how industries grew from the natural gifts of the land, how water is necessary for survival, and how the native peoples of each place lived in intuitive harmony with their surroundings with the underlying challenge of how we can learn from their wisdom. Regional biographies, songs and poetry underscore the vitality of these relationships and bring greater details and appreciation to their portrayal. In fact, fifth grade is the pivot point for children to turn into self-motivated students, able to pursue ideas on their own, able to use their imaginations to puzzle out the mysteries of the world, the students begin to focus more rigorously on the details and depths of many things, from the intricacies of sentence structure, and reading and writing, to the roots, stems and flowers of the plant world in botany. All of these experiences are reinforced through their artistic representation in colorful main lesson books and wet on wet paintings.

Botany represents the pivot point in many ways and usually starts in the great outdoors, viewing plants in context and observing how dandelions, for example, grow large in one area of a yard and tiny in another. Past stories of agriculture inform decisions students make about what is happening in the plant world to cause such variation in a plant that is “the same” as another. Botany is rich with pre-scientific thinking, calling on the children’s natural love of flowers and growing things and relating these to a newly sprouting capacity to observe, discover, and practice drawing conclusions from these observations. “Tests” might include treasure hunts in the outdoors for varying naturally growing things – acorns, leaves of a certain kind, bark, five and six petal flowers, a little branch from a deciduous conifer, etc. – to challenge the students to demonstrate all they do know from their observations and study.

Rigor and an artistic devotion to detail are also cultivated as the students engage their hands in working with products of nature in the practical arts: in wood-working the children might make flower presses, a mallet or a spoon; in handwork they might create animals and dolls, in addition to tackling the famous fifth grade socks project (in which one must make two!).

In countless ways fifth graders are led to take on the practices of the diligent and hard working hero or heroine, of the careful observer and scientist, and of the artist, with deep appreciation and fine-tuned sensibilities, and a feeling of relationship for the beauty of the world around them.