The Earth and Waldorf Education April 29 2020
It’s exciting to realize that in the same year that Waldorf Education is celebrating a hundred years on Earth, environmentalists like Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and Friends of the Earth celebrated the 50th birthday of Earth Day.
Waldorf graduates leave their schools with a keen awareness of the environment, the living quality of the Earth herself, and the interconnectedness of each of us with each other and with all living things on the Earth. This is not accomplished in Waldorf schools as a kind of “object lesson.” There is not an “ecology lesson twice a week” for forty minutes. This fact makes it difficult to raise money from foundations dedicated to educating the young in Earth science and environmental awareness because our schedules do not have subjects named after this awareness that happens rhythmically in the curriculum.
From kindergarten through high school, nevertheless, not a day goes by in a Waldorf school that activities are not connecting every student to the beautiful world in which we are lucky to live, and for which we are responsible. The outdoors are part of the Waldorf teachers’ classroom at every age. Kindergarteners spend a remarkable amount of time outside — playing, making mud pies, digging, running, building sandcastles in sand boxes, swinging through the air on swings, going on long walks through nature (even around the block in urban schools), collecting interesting stones, bark, moss, pine cones, acorns, and other valuables, and enjoying the great outdoors in myriad ways.
In fourth grade, for example, students study the animal world for their science block. An excellent book to complement this study is Little Bee Sunbeam, by Jakob Streit, a longtime Waldorf teacher, and master storyteller. In this book, we learn all there is to know in story form (digestible by the young with living feeling, not with dry facts) about how bees live, their habits and their needs, their social structure, and their interdependence — with each other and with us. The students will then not only understand a great deal about bees, but they will also learn to love bees and wish to help them.
In the study of plants in grade five, the teacher might not give a paper test to see what her students have learned but might give a treasure hunt instead: a listing of objects in nature to be identified to ensure the child understands. The list might include: a monocotyledon; a dicotyledon, a piece of bark from a tree they can name; a leaf they can identify; moss; lichen; a mushroom they can name; a sprig from an evergreen they can name; the location of a deciduous “evergreen.” In fall students plant daffodils and tulips to enhance the beauty of their campus or to memorialize a beloved, departed friend of the school or teacher or family. In spring they plant annuals and vegetables. In third grade, there is a block on farming and even urban schools go to farms for a day’s visit or, if lucky, a week’s visit. A terrific book appropriate for this grade might be Gerbert Grohmann’s The Living World of the Plants, turning conversations with the plant kingdom into knowledge.
In high school zoology, many twelfth grades camp for a week on a salt marsh to comprehend through experience the different life forms by the seaside, the miracle of a tidal pool, the richness of a marsh, the freshness of the sea, the living power of mud! In the smell of sea air and the discovery of living things from the microscopic to the size of a whale, they will forever comprehend that to go to the beach is sharing the environment with thousands of living things. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring might inform this camping trip with the fragile nature of such ecosystems and our part in preserving them.
Waldorf teachers understand that you cannot “teach” environmentalism. This has to be an ongoing, experiential river of feeling understanding of the living Earth and that children’s interactions with the Earth are what root the compassion and connection necessary for a lifetime of love for the Earth: our gratitude, and the reality that we are part of her, as she is of us. Imagine, for example, having twice a week lessons on the nature of parents and how to love them! We understand that this is as silly as holding “object lessons” on nature and ignoring it as a separate subject for the rest of the school day.
Waldorf schools are famous (or notorious) for saying “blessings” before snacks and lunch. These are simple, non-religious expressions of gratitude for the gift of having food to eat with some memories of how much work goes into a single vegetable. An example (this one is a song):
Thank you for this food, this food,
This glorious, glorious food,
And the animals, and the vegetables and the minerals
That make it possible.
Here’s one that is simply said, not sung:
We thank thee, Sun,
For ripening glow,
For rain and wind
That make things grow.
To Mother Earth
Our thanks we give
For all her fruits
Whereby we live.
For this type of recitation, we are called sometimes a “cult,” worshiping like pagans. It could be viewed as sad to think that we are such materialists in our culture that pausing to be grateful, and to remember with gratitude the Earth, for what she gives us each time we eat is cult-like! We do not mind the name calling so much in light of what it gives youngsters in mindfulness and a grateful inner sense for the many gifts we enjoy from the Earth.
Well, Waldorf schools have now been on the Earth for 100 years, and Earth Day is now with us for fifty years. Earth Day was invented to help us to remember consciously how responsible we are for each other and for the source of our life and health.
During the first Earth Day in 1970, environmentalists were very depressed and accusatory. They decried the clogging of the rivers with chemicals that choked off life. Fish were gone. The Detroit River was smoldering instead of flowing. “Now look what we have done,” was the dark and despairing statement. “Fish will never be able to swim here again!” This was the dire prediction at that time. But what happened was very different. We only needed to stop these thoughtless underinformed practices and Mother Earth responded, as all living things are bound to do. In a brief ten years, with legal halts to dumping dangerous substances into our rivers, fish swam again in the Detroit River, and many other rivers. We need only be mindful, careful, clean and the Earth has the chance to respond.
In this pandemic, quarantining, for the first time in centuries, all nations have slowed. We humans have slowed down. The skies are bluer, the roads are emptier, the air is fresher. May the Earth and this year of Waldorf100 help everyone to experience the joy of choosing to be mindful. May we all understand that we are connected with each other and the Earth! May we work to consider how to live supporting life and health. Blessings on Waldorf schools around the world! Blessings on our Earth!