Eileen Straiton, the author of Little Acorn Learning, and a Waldorf Childcare teacher, sits down to share her view of Waldorf education, and how it influences her daily life with her little ones
Tell us about your family life, and how you became involved in Waldorf education
When my second child was born, I decided to open a childcare program in the lower level of my home. My discovery of Waldorf was around this time as I began to seek out like-minded people and parenting philosophies. I have four daughters ages 15, 8, 5 and 3. I was already very nature-based in my approach with my own children and have always had a strong connection to the spiritual world. As a mother, I do my best to follow my instinct on what feels right and what does not as I care for my children. I strongly believe that children learn best when they are free to discover their environment creatively and naturally. Young children need to play. In this world, we are moving our children away from opportunities that inspire them to create and imagine for themselves. So much learning is done through the art of play – it is essential! I feel compelled to do my part and help protect the sacred time of childhood. Waldorf spoke to me immediately and I have been very inspired ever since.
You run a small waldorf nursery school from your home. What is the rhythm of your days together?
I am currently open three days per week and offer my program to six children under the age of 5. Our morning begins with children arriving and exploring their environment, engaging in free play and other simple activities such as beeswax coloring. We then enjoy a simple circle time which includes fingerplays, verses and songs based on our weekly theme – we celebrate and create awareness of the seasonal time of the year. During our circle time, we also do a verse about the weather and the children ‘tip-toe’ to the back window to see what the weather looks like outside. It’s a routine they know by heart and it creates such excitement in them. After we close our circle, we move into a planned activity such as modeling beeswax, watercolor painting, baking, cooking or other crafting depending on the day of the week. We then clean up and enjoy a healthy snack before spending the rest of our morning enjoying nature outdoors. In the nice weather, we often eat our lunch outside; otherwise, we eat together inside family-style. We then listen to a simple story and soft singing as we prepare for nap time. The children rest and when they wake up we again engage in free play either indoors or out until dismissal. The children have become very used to what comes next and that predictability nourishes and soothes them during their time away from home.
You are also the creator of Little Acorn Learning, a waldorf curriculum. What motivated you to create a years worth of education for families?
I wrote the guides out of a true need to help myself create a healthy rhythm and routine to my home and my nursery school. I follow the guides in my own program as well as with my family. I put countless hours and thought into creating them – it is truly a labor of love! After showing friends and family, I was encouraged to offer my plan to the public. I did so and was so overwhelmed with gratitude from the response. It means so very much to me that the guides can benefit other parents and caregivers and reach so many children beyond my own home. It is a clear indication that the world is truly a good place… parents and caregivers really WANT to offer children a childhood full of beauty, truth and love. It can just be so very overwhelming putting it all together and knowing what to do. Writing it all down and planning it all out, for me, was essential if I was going to create a balanced home and program for the children in my care. I feel very blessed to be able to do what I love while helping others do the same by sharing my writing.
What do you consider to be the most important part of rhythm for a child’s day, and how do you express that in your curriculum?
I think the most important thing we can offer our children daily is consistency and balance – times of inward and outward activities. Children need space to move, to be and to imagine. They also need moments of quiet focused work and periods of taking in the world around them. This means providing time to explore nature, to run, to climb, to jump and play. It also means time to wash, to paint, to sew, to learn and create. If we can offer this balance in a consistent way – a way in which the child can depend on and know what comes next, then children begin to trust the world around them. They can then move with the world in a beautiful dance of both inward and outward motion. To start life off in this way will follow them along their journey into adulthood. So we can begin simply: What day will be baking day in your home? What time will lunch be? And within this simple framework the child thrives and so does the caregiver.
What are some of your favorite handwork projects that you do with your own children, and the children who attend your school?
The children who attend my school are very young. Most of our time is enjoyed through play and practical life activities such as gardening, baking, cleaning, washing, dressing and other home tasks. We also engage the children in some simple artistic activities such as watercolor painting, modeling beeswax and dough, coloring as well as crafting bird feeders, small playthings and other simple natural activities. So handwork in the sense of crafting is only a small portion of our time spent together – the emphasis is really placed on creating rhythm and allowing the little ones to come into their bodies and their environment freely.
With my own older children, we spend a lot of time knitting, sewing, cooking, gardening, painting and celebrating the festivals together. I have a renewed love for knitting and crochet and enjoy teaching my older children new stitches. We also love to paint… in my spare time, I create mixed media artwork and I always encourage the girls to put on their aprons and take their paints out when they feel the urge. I think it is important for parents to allow their children the freedom to be creative… without worrying about the mess – childhood is messy and it wouldn’t be fun otherwise J
Creating an appreciation for the arts and living a creative life is an important part of my approach in working with children…. However, I think it is important for us to remember that very young children need to first learn through play and imitation – so we model the behavior and create the environment that best supports the child through our own creative works, through storytelling, creating rhythm, singing and fingerplays – while allowing the children to explore their natural environment freely. Very young children should not be expected to sit and craft or to focus for long periods of time as an older child would. They should be allowed to weave in and out of what you are doing as they explore and come into their own bodies. There will be plenty of time later for more focused work and crafting.
What are some of your favorite stories and fairy tales that you have found to be beneficial for children?
The best stories we can share with children are those that are inspired from our own life or imagination. Using our daily experiences with the children as a springboard for creating simple stories speaks to the child on a deeper level than many fairy tales that are found in books can. There is nothing wrong with sharing those wonderful stories too! I just think it is important for us to keep the art of true storytelling alive as we work with the children who come into our lives. These stories you tell do not have to be perfect or elaborate. You may be gardening with your child and tell a story of a little seed who did not know of what he was to become… he sat cold and worried through the winter longing to see the sunlight once again…. Until Spring arrived and he felt something inside of him burst with happiness… a sprout of green life that followed the warmth of the sun until it reached beyond the dark soil above the ground … maybe you will then talk of the little girl or little boy who comes to the garden overjoyed to find this tiny plant is now bearing fruit. When our children hear stories like this, the process of planting the seed becomes so much more to them…. They are able to imagine, to hope and to excite themselves with the possibilities. And what better way to look at the world – with eyes filled of hope and possibility.
I do have very sweet stories in my monthly guides that the children love. We use them with props often to create a sort of simple puppet show. And these are wonderful to share, and we should share them! But do not let these or other fairy tales in books take you away from the art of true storytelling with your children. Simple little tales – that come up from your own childhood or your current experiences – are the tales that speak to the child on the deepest level.
What piece of advice would you give to families who are either starting out homeschooling in the waldorf tradition, or thinking of enhancing their daily rhythm with curriculum like yours?
Do not feel like you have to do it all and forgive yourself – often. Raising children is difficult work… we are human and we are not perfect. What is important is that we are motivated by love and that we aspire to do better. Remember to fill up your own soul or you will have nothing to give back. Remember that children do not need to be overscheduled to become whole. They need a warm, loving environment with someone to look to who is worthy of their imitation. They need love. Keep it simple maybe one activity per day – Monday baking, Tuesday painting, Wednesday coloring etc. Celebrate the holidays and festivals that speak to your family – simply. Cook around them, decorate around them, sing around them. Laugh with your children. Get enough sleep. Accept help when you are offered it – ask for help when you are not. Love yourself where you are right now and forgive yourself for past mistakes. Feed your spiritual self. Always remember how very important the work you are doing is and how very important you are to this world. The work we do with our children truly can change the world around us.
What is your favorite time of day with your own children?
I love the early morning hours with my girls, especially when it is a weekend day and we have time to sit together on the couch, look out the window and say our morning verse, read together, knit together and just love each other. Each morning I wake I make a conscious decision to fill myself up with thoughts of gratitude for being given another day to mother these special little people in my life and I remind myself of all the possibilities that lie ahead of us. It’s a meditative time almost… and I think it is important to take time each morning slowly to approach the day ahead of us with love, gratitude and excitement.
Is there a special saying that you think sums up the seasonal nature of childhood?
I just love the following quote, it is such a big part of the Waldorf approach to education and it’s on my blog for that very reason:
“Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water bugs, tadpoles, frogs, mud turtles, elderberries, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb. Brooks to wade, water lilies, woodchucks, bats, bees, butterflies, various animals to pet, hayfields, pine-cones, rocks to roll, sand, snakes, huckleberries and hornets; and any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of education.”
My own children do not attend a Waldorf school and it often saddens me that they are missing so much of nature during their time in school. For this reason, I am more mindful of creating plenty of opportunities for them to explore their natural environment when they are home. I want to make sure they see and know the natural world they live in and understand fully that they are a part of it – not separate from it. What we do to our world, we do to ourselves. When we teach our children reverence for the earth, they will make choices later in life that support that truth.
Thank you so much to Eileen for sharing her time and wisdom with us.
Eileen is a work-at-home mother to four daughters. She writes and publishes monthly nature guides for parents and caregivers of young children at Little Acorn Learning and has many ideas and activities for parents on her blog at Eileen’s Place