The Natural Classroom
“We need the tonic of wildness, to wade sometimes in marshes…and hear the booming of the snipe… we can never have enough of nature.” -Henry David Thoreau Walden, 1894
I am often amazed at the extraordinary wonder and interest for nature that the children in my class demonstrate on our walks along the shores of Siesta Key Beach. The shrieks of joy at discovering a sea urchin or jellyfish in the sand are often a counterpoint to the still quiet moments found in examining the fascinating design of a sea shell or empty crab claw. I am also impressed when my 1st and 2nd grade class and the kindergarten children join for nature walks around the campus. Their astute observations and perceptions of plant and animal life are always enlivened by their imaginative capacities. Their empathetic dialogue with scrub jays and squirrels are conversations nurtured by an enriching exposure to the nature stories and native legends that permeate our classroom presentations.
In our Early Childhood classrooms, teachers provide a reassuring sense of comfort and security for young children who are newly discovering the world of nature around them. Because children of this age learn naturally through imitation, the Waldorf Early Childhood teacher is a figure worthy of emulation. Patient, gentle and nurturing, she quietly engages in domestic tasks and artistic activities, knowing the children will naturally follow. The teacher inspires her young children to develop their imaginations and investigate their world by encouraging dramatic play and allowing ample time for them to explore the natural elements of their local environment. Whether sitting alongside them preparing the food at the table for a hearty whole grain meal or leading them on a walk discovering tadpoles and butterflies, the Early Childhood teacher strives to guide her children in their important ‘work’ of joyful and creative play.
As young children mature and enter into the early primary grades they become more awake and conscious of the outside world. They are no less sensitive to the rhythms and physical manifestations of nature. Just as the process of life is inherently anchored to the natural rhythm of breathing, our class lessons and activities are formed and ordered to best respond to the ebb and flow of the children’s attention and energy for learning. The rhythm of ‘thinking, feeling and doing’ permeates each day, week and month of the school year and is often marked by the seasonal celebrations that are so much a part of our cultural life.
The use of natural materials such as beeswax, natural fabrics and fibers for drawing, theatrical costumes and handwork are standard tools in our everyday class work. Elements of the natural world in our classroom are also reflected in the warm colorful ambiance of environmental accents, wooden furnishings, and nature table displays that evoke the awareness of nature’s seasonal transitions.
The concept of the natural classroom, of course, is much more than the physical elements and the conscientious shaping of lesson plans. Joseph Chilton Pierce once said to me that our school philosophy was a ‘state of mind’ carried by heartfelt intentions and that, “nature’s prime agenda in childhood is to develop imagination – the ability to create images not present to the sensory system.”
He also noted that, “…the child needs time to just be a child – time to daydream, leave the outer world of corrections and demands and enter the quiet inner world of the heart. From this inner world, the balance with the outer world is found, memory and learning are assured, and the child lives in the natural joy that learning about his wonder-filled world should bring.”