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Fall/Winter 2006, Issue #51: A Whitsun Letter

Download the article: A Whitsun Letter

I am writing to share my delight in reading about Ruth Ker's work with older children in the kindergarten. Her descriptions took me back immediately to my mixed-age kindergarten teaching years, and memories of individual children arose over and over.

But my greatest joy was not in these memories, as wonderful as they are. My delight was in Ruth's delicate tapestry of the subtle elements of a Waldorf early childhood program for older children. One after another, Ruth articulates, with living examples, the pedagogical elements of Waldorf early childhood education. These gossamer threads shine with the radiance of the life forces and powers of true imagination that identify such a program. Her equanimity, positivity and openness to what the children in her care need, to the subtle processes of human development that the older kindergarten child undergoes, are the hallmark of the blessing that this education can bestow upon the incarnating individuality.

Ruth's understanding of rhythm and breathing, her inclusion of the fruits of the past decade's study of remedial education, movement education, the contemporary situation for children in their process of incarnation - all these underlie the description in her article. But they are all invisible, because like every master teacher, Ruth has made the work her own through the penetration of the daily details as she has thoughtfully studied, observed, and reflected upon the most fundamental principles of Waldorf education.

I emphasize this point because I believe that Ruth's article unknowingly addresses a deep concern of my own, the current tendency toward divisiveness among practitioners of Waldorf early childhood education. Rather than one stream arising out of our observation and study of the nature of the human being, his life between death and rebirth and death once again, we now hear and speak of Pikler- or RIE-influenced programs, of "hybrid" programs, to name a few. I suggest that rather than look for labels to differentiate approaches, that we look instead to the whole, to the fundamental sources of Waldorf early childhood education, and then determine whether our work as teachers is striving in this direction. Whether our work is with infants, toddlers, three-, four-, five- or six-year-olds; whether we are providing out of our best insights providing care for the mornings, full days, fuller days; whether we work at home, within an established Waldorf school or a new initiative, in another setting altogether; whether we begin the day indoors or out - none of this is in any way the defining characteristic of our work. Let us not be distracted by the material external picture of our individual working situations. Without the fine soul - touching that Rudolf Steiner describes in the teachers' meditations, without carrying the profound picture of the nature of the human being that he describes, none of our work is Waldorf education. And if we do work out of these places, all of our work is Waldorf early childhood education.

Let us put aside the question of caring for infants outside the home for once and for all. Let us, rather, discover through courageous observation and study how we can best support the family in which such care is needed. Let us truly engage in the cultural conditions of our times to see what families actually experience in their daily lives. There are Michaelic individuals throughout the earth who work on behalf of the incarnating human being, who have tremendous insights to offer to us as Waldorf educators. It is our privilege and responsibility when possible to meet them, to develop working relationships with them. These opportunities serve us well to extend our insights, to offer contrasts that enable us to become clearer about essential elements of our understanding and practices. To close our door to new ideas out of fear - whatever that fear may be - will not strengthen the Waldorf movement. I have heard Suzanne Down for many years quote Adola MacWilliam, acclaimed curative educator: "Don't say 'no', say 'oh!'"

I believe that Adola is merely offering us each an admonition to practice the fundamental exercises of which Steiner tells us that if anthroposophists worked with these only, in sufficient intensity, no further esoteric teaching would be necessary. So doing will open our hearts as well as our thoughts. These capacities will enable creative, non-judgmental discourse to arise among us as colleagues, and also with the parents of the children in our care and with the parents who are considering bringing their children into our care.

Just as we fully anticipate that an architect working out of the stream of anthroposophy will be firmly grounded in the traditions of architecture through time as well as in the contemporary insights of other practitioners; just as Jaimen MacMillan has crafted a rich approach to movement that has enriched the experience of Waldorf students throughout North America and beyond through his depth of understanding of many, many forms of movement; just as our anthroposophical physicians study far beyond the bounds of Rudolf Steiner's work and make good use of allopathic approaches when they are needed, let us too find interest in the various insights of early childhood educators who work outside of Waldorf education. Let us find our own insights and questions through the exploration of their work, as we all the while deepen our understanding of the human being out of the insights of anthroposophy.

We need to take risks, we need to "experiment" with various rhythms, movement possibilities, outdoor environments, age groupings. Hopefully our intercollegial dialogue will forever be enriched by our differences, our courage to bring something that raises a question and extends our insights. Nothing in Waldorf education is meant to be codified or formulaic. How could it be, in any external material way, based as it is upon our deepest possible striving to understand the human being as a spiritual, re-incarnating individuality engaged in particular experiences in an earthly life?

In the mood and substance of Whitsun, I invite us all to abandon labels, brand names, and tendencies toward fragmentation: to bring our work forward out of our unifying insights and our courage to meet the conditions of our situations with fresh ideas. I invite us to look outward at the cultural conditions of the twenty-first century and honor the journey of those currently experiencing earthly life as female or as male, as infants or as adults. I encourage the Waldorf early childhood movement to create a diversity of approaches that leaves the "Waldorf catalogue" far behind as our insights into true human needs grows ever richer and deeper. My plea is that we waste no valuable energy or resources on questions regarding whether infants ought to be cared for out of the home, whether mothers ought to work out of the home, and acknowledge that they are and they do. Better questions need to be:

  • How we can support these choices with full respect?
  • In what creative ways our programs and forms can help (or whether we might be hindering?
  • Who else is doing work that can bring insights and new possibilities to our striving

Let our individual voices unite, not divide. Let us be unafraid of creative tension and even conflict as we explore and articulate our insights. Our identity as Waldorf educators arises from our inner commitment to strive to understand the human being out of Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophy. Let us allow all other labels to fall away.

Susan Weber is the founder and Director of Sophia's Hearth Family Center in Keene, New Hampshire. She is a member of the WECAN Working Group on RIE/Pikler and Waldorf early childhood education and is North America's representative on the International Association's Working Group on the Very Young Child. She is a former teacher at the Monadnock Waldorf School and director of early childhood training at Antioch/New England Graduate School.