Schoolyard Gardens: Waldorf
Anyone who thinks that kids today are lazy hasn’t met Michael Oellig’s third grade students.
These nine- and ten-year-old Santa Fe Waldorf School students are an enthusiastic bunch. They greet visitors with a Ute blessing that sounds like a lilting song, look adults in the eye and…think plowing a garden by hand is fun.
It’s a bright Friday afternoon, the sky outside painted with pale cirrus clouds. The kids have just come in from recess, and their cheeks are flush from running around the playground through the cool late-winter air. Their south-facing classroom is sunny, warm and welcoming. Potted plants thrive along the windows, and the deep yellow walls cast everything in a golden light. An inspiring sense of calm pervades the room, even as the kids move furniture about. They laugh with each other as they quickly set up chairs in a large circle, then stand patiently until everything is ready for what will be a vibrant discussion about one of their favorite things about their school: the garden.
Today, roots are on the minds of the third-grade class as they settle into their wooden chairs. Roots that spiral and twist and turn through the depths of the rich soil just beyond their classroom door. They are roots that supported the growth of crops the students planted and cared for last spring, when they were second graders. Plants like oats, barley, rye and millet. Also corn, soybeans, buckwheat and broom corn. Each child in the room holds a little notebook filled with notes and colorful drawings about last year’s garden, and in sing-song unison they read aloud the list of the plants they tended and harvested, landing, finally, on broom corn. As a group, they inexplicably say “broom corn” twice and erupt into laughter.
Broom corn is funny stuff.
Also funny: squash bugs.
“We had a lot of squash bugs,” remarks Ainsley Reynolds-Smith.
Her classmate Chance Knowlton quickly adds that they tried to get rid of the bugs by collecting them and taking them far from the garden.
“But,” he says, “they just kept coming back, I think.”
Andrea Bruno, age eight, jumps at the opportunity to talk about squash bugs. Her eyes wide with reminiscent wonder, she holds her hands up to indicate a very large squash and says, “There was a squash that was about this big, and guess what the squash bugs did? They made a little hole in it, and then they hollowed it out!” Andrea is practically out of her chair with excitement as she talks. She has no idea what sort of squash it was, but that doesn’t matter a bit. The squash was “giant” and it got eaten from the inside out.
The memory sparks more laughter…and more memories.
“The squash bugs smelled bad,” says Diego Martinez. “Like Jolly Ranchers,” he specifies.
Another voice chimes up from across the room: “No, they smelled like limes!”
More laughter. More memories. The garden may be lying fallow right now, but it’s richly alive in the students’ minds.
Nurturing imagination and creating an atmosphere that allows children to experience learning with their whole being is at the heart of the Waldorf philosophy. According to school administrator Barbara Booth—who describes herself as an “administrator who loves to teach, and sometimes gets to!”—Waldorf is education designed to nurture a child’s innate love for learning.
Waldorf education was born in the most unlikely of places—the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany. In April 1919, Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner gave a lecture to the factory workers on his idea of societal transformation that he called Social Threefolding. In it, he mentioned the need to develop a new kind of school that would be independent from governmental control and address education holistically, based on the developmental stages of childhood. The factory owner and workers approached Steiner following his lecture with the idea that he could develop such a school for the workers’ children. By autumn of the same year, the school opened with more than 250 students. Now, nearly 100 years and more than 1000 schools later, Waldorf is a worldwide educational movement.
The inspiration that was sparked so long ago in that faraway factory found its way to Santa Fe in 1983. That was the year that a group of local parents founded The Santa Fe Waldorf School, thereby expanding the educational options for Santa Fe children. The school opened with a program encompassing kindergarten through third grade and has since expanded to include preschool through 12th grade, with the first class graduating in 2005. From roots sunk nearly 30 years ago, the school now has grown and flourished on 13 evergreen-dotted acres on the southeastern side of town, where approximately 250 students are immersed in a multi-faceted learning experience that, in addition to a rigorous intellectual and artistic curriculum, includes knitting, movement arts, forestry, world cultures and, of course, gardening.
“These kids love to learn,” Booth says, pointing out that so much of what they take in is by osmosis. “What’s incredible about kids is they really get everything. You don’t have to tell them, you show them. They live it, they breathe it,” she says, smiling. What follows naturally from an environment where learning opportunities abound is personal empowerment—an idea that sounds simple, but is nonetheless a vital facet of a Waldorf education.
“These kids ask questions, they’re not afraid to question authority and they think for themselves,” Booth explains. Those values are already apparent in the smiling faces of the third-grade class, as one ebullient voice after another rises and intertwines with the next. The classroom is soon buzzing with a joyous cacophony.
Watching over the group with calm benevolence is their teacher. Michael Oellig, who, by Waldorf tradition, has been these students’ teacher since they started first grade (and will remain so until they pass through eighth), directs the energy where appropriate, with gentle reminders to speak one at a time and not interrupt. All the while, he smiles. It’s clear how deeply he cares about these kids and their learning.
Something else that’s apparent: how much Oellig’s students inspire him too. He listens raptly as the kids reminisce about their garden (“We grew really big beets!” and “We picked apples for cider and apple crisp!”); laughs along with them when one shares a unique observation (“Our apples are kind of green and red…they’re sort of zebra-striped!”); and smiles when their thoughts careen from school garden to…all sorts of things (“I have a guinea pig and two dogs!” and “Once when I was camping, someone was rolling a tire and it ran over me!”).
These kids are not at a loss for words. Nor are they lacking in wonder. Some would say that their experience nurturing life out of bare earth has made a profound and lasting impression on them—but that would be only partially correct. In truth, it seems more apt to say that cultivating the garden, including the “fun” task of plowing the soil by hand, has served to reinforce the wonder and joy that was already alive and thriving within each of them.
Across the school grounds, the sophomore class is more reserved, but no less invested in their educational experiences than the third graders. These older students are poised to spend a week intensively studying forest ecology—gardening on a larger scale, essentially.
“By high school the kids are moving out more into the community,” says Booth, outlining the natural transition from self to world that occurs with maturity. To this end, they will be spending their weeklong intensive not only studying larger patterns in nature but also assisting community members directly. “We’ll be pruning trees at a bed-and-breakfast up north,” Booth specifies, then tells the students that the property owners are so glad they’re coming to help that they plan to serve them a full lunch by way of a thank-you.
Faces light up at the announcement, and laughter ripples through the room. Learning to prune trees is interesting, certainly, but good food is inspirational.
Still, it’s clear that the lessons run deep, and that the motivation to engage with the greater world rises from more than just a free lunch. Though only a handful of the current Waldorf sophomores also spent third grade at the school, they understand how the scope of what they’re learning now relates to lessons fostered in the more contained space of a garden.
“We begin gardening when we’re little,” muses sophomore Victoria Lustig, “and it’s mostly learning to care for and tend to things in an enclosed space. But as we go out in to the forest it’s larger, and we can care for more things. It’s expanded.”
This expanded paradigm, which reaches from the self out into the world at large, is built on the same values that flourish in the enclosed space of the garden. It’s a paradigm that rests, in the end, on a foundation of little things, like Jolly Rancher–scented squash bugs and zebra-striped apples. On the wonder of finding an inside-out eaten vegetable and the joy of plowing the earth by hand. And, most importantly, on a deep and abiding love not only for what can be cultivated and cared for from the earth, but also from the self.
“To be truly human we should all be gardeners,” Booth says, as the sophomores turn back to their Spanish lessons. “Whether we’re gardeners of the soil, gardeners of the heart or gardeners of the spirit, it’s a kind of cultivating and enduring over seasons and time that speaks of the deepest rhythms and mysteries of life. That’s what happens when we connect to nature.”
And though Booth, as a school administrator, is delighted by the fact that colleges actively seek out Waldorf-educated students, she firmly believes that the lessons in themselves are valuable no matter the direction kids choose following high school.
“It doesn’t matter what you’re going to become later as a grown-up,” she concludes. “This connection first to self then to the world will inform your body, heart, mind and soul. That’s what it means to be a true human being.”
story by Ana June
photos by Jennifer Spelman