A School Director’s Perspective: How a Waldorf Education gets Kids Outside
Mother to Marcus 16 and Kalea 13
Interviewed by: Jason Sperling
Introduction: Jane Zeender spent her early career in various sales, management, and marketing positions in Fortune 100 companies and start up organizations before finding herself involved in Waldorf Education. Today, she leads one of the most innovative Waldorf schools in the world, Shining Mountain Waldorf School, in Boulder, Colorado, where her two children are enrolled and she has been instrumental in redefining modern education. Besides a rich and effective pedagogy and curriculum, the program has been architected with an emphasis on nature connection both physical and structural. The campus sits at the base of the foothills, with a stream running past the buildings, garden, and chicken coop. Students spend time everyday – even when it is 10 degrees – outside enjoying the natural playscape, hiking in the nearby hills and lake. Older classes take regular overnight outdoor trips. This valuing of nature-connection is not surprising for Waldorf – or for Jane, either. She walks the talk. Beyond campus, you can find her hiking, mountain biking, and cross country skiing with her family.
Can you start off by introducing the Waldorf education and philosophy?
Waldorf Education was founded almost 100 years ago by an Austrian philosopher by the name of Rudolf Steiner, who was approached by the owner of the Waldorf-Astoria Cigarette Factory to create an educational system that would raise healthy balanced human beings so that the world could avoid another World War like the first one. Today, Waldorf Education is the fastest growing educational movement in the world, in both the charter and private schools, and our fastest growth is happening in China, which really speaks to the continued need to educate children in this holistic way. In Waldorf education, we not only focus on the intellect, but the social/emotional growth of the child, as well as the physical development of the child. All of our work with children is done with a deep understanding of healthy human development, so that we meet each child, at each age, with what speaks to them intellectually, emotionally, and physically. Our students graduate from this school with a deep knowing of who they are, with personal connections with others, and with the capacities to go out into the world in service to humanity.
Why is outdoor time valued so much in the Waldorf model?
Spending time outdoors is critically important to all of our students. Research now shows what we have known for almost 100 years- deep connections to nature allows a child’s spiritual life to unfold, for a child to experience wonder and joy in their surroundings, to feel a connection to the cycles of the year, and to being part of the world that we live in. For our youngest children (ages 2-7), they learn best through imitation and “doing”- and spend a good portion of their time here outside. Early science is introduced through play- playing in the sand, playing with water, building with natural materials and seeing what happens when structures collapse and fall. Many of our students go into engineering and the sciences, and they credit their love of engineering from their years in a Waldorf kindergarten! For our students ages 7-14, time spent outside is used to help hone their observational skills, a critical component of learning, especially in the sciences. I was on the playground just this week, and a group of 3rd graders, both boys and girls, were actively collecting bugs out of the Silver Creek Ditch that runs through our property. Some were working together to build a dam, others to collect insects, and others to chart what they had found. Through this time together, they were building skills in collaboration and goal setting, leadership and problem solving, all with minimal, if any, adult supervision and structure. In our Middle and High School programs, we do several wilderness trips with the students each year, all designed to challenge them physically, intellectually, and emotionally, as they are pushing their own boundaries as emerging adolescents. Through these experiences, we desire to provide them opportunities to be challenged in a healthy way. As they get older, they take on the majority of the planning of these trips, including packing, cooking, wilderness safety, and even avalanche training!
For all of our students, time on the playground builds the skills for success in life. These students, many in mixed ages, create their own games, decide the rules (and what happens when their friends break them), and actively engage their bodies outside several times per day. When they come back to the classrooms, they are calm and ready to focus on their bookwork and I can guarantee that our students sleep very well at night!
Can you tell us about Shining Mountain’s no “screen time” policy and the broader ideas of shielding children from modern life?
One of the core values of Waldorf Education, and especially Shining Mountain, is that young children learn best by “being in the world”- actively working with their bodies, their hands, their will forces, and with direct interaction with other people- be it their teachers, parents, siblings, classmates, and neighborhood friends. Every minute spent in front of a screen is a minute not actively engaged in the world, and in life. We ask kindergarten parents to commit to no screen time for their children in their homes, and for our students in grades 1-8 to have no screen time on school nights, and minimal thereafter. What I have seen, is that the families that uphold these values have children that are not addicted to video games, social media, and the internet, and tend to be voracious readers, creative thinkers, skilled musicians (all of our students play a musical instrument through 8th grade,and many continue), and have strong social emotional connections with themselves and others. As a parent, I have seen for myself what a convenient and addictive “babysitter” a movie, video game, or IPad can be. What I have also seen is that children given the space and time away from these screens can easily keep themselves busy because they develop so many interests on their own. Currently, my 16 year old son is beginning to compose music, my daughter is an avid reader and writes short stories, and they both love to play board games. I believe the best family decision my husband and I made was to eliminate screens from my children’s childhood and from our family’s home life. The payoffs are immeasurable.
“For all of our students, time on the playground builds the skills for success in life.”
Neighborhood friends of my children sometimes turn down “come outside and play” requests because they are stuck inside doing homework. What is Shining Mountain’s view on homework?
We do not assign official “homework” until the fourth grade, where we feel it is developmentally appropriate for the students. It is 20-30 minutes, a few times a week, at most. In third grade, the students begin stringed instruments, (violin, viola, cello) and their homework is to practice their instruments 4-5 times per week. Homework steadily increases as the students get older, with Middle School students doing about 30-45 minutes a few times a week, and High School students, depending on their Main Lesson Block, about 90 minutes per night. This is about half of what we see in mainstream education. We believe time spent doing homework prevents students from participating in family life, doing chores, playing outside, and pursuing other interests, all critically important to becoming a healthy person.
” In Waldorf education, we not only focus on the intellect, but the social/emotional growth of the child, as well as the physical development of the child.”
How does the curriculum that de-emphasizes academics in early years work out in the end – are children prepared and able to succeed?
We now have over 400 HS graduates, and what I have observed from many interactions with them, and from conversations with their parents, is that they are “amazing human beings.” You know when you are speaking to a Waldorf Alumni because they are engaging, personable, passionate, can do anything they set their mind to, and are pursuing self directed and interesting careers- all over the spectrum. They are engineers, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, musicians, doctors, lawyers, artists, architects, and computer scientists, plus any other career you can imagine. It has been my experience that our HS Seniors are drawn to small, liberal arts colleges, because they are used to small classes, strong relationships with their teachers, and they like to sample everything! That being said, many also go to CU-Boulder where they find their niche and thrive. We have graduates at Notre Dame, Princeton, Williams, Vanderbilt, Lewis and Clark,and other fine colleges and universities. Waldorf graduates are highly sought after by colleges, because they are very unique human beings, with many varied experiences and a different way of looking at the world. They add diversity to college campuses, they are emotionally regulated, eager to learn, and come with a healthy body, mind, and spirit. They are changing the world, one graduate at a time, and I am proud to call them graduates of our school.
Every now and then I run across an interesting article on unschooling, where the kids seem to spend a lot of time in unstructured outdoor nature play. What’s your opinion on unschooling?
I fully respect every parent’s right to find the right educational environment for their family and their children. I have several friends who “unschool” their kids, and support all kinds of educational modalities for families. We are very fortunate to live in today’s world where we have these options for our kids. I had planned on being an unschooler/homeschooler, until I discovered Waldorf education, and knew it was the right path for my family as well as my children. I always encourage parents to do their due diligence, based on the desires they have for themselves and their kids, and invite them to take a look at what Waldorf education has to offer. It is not for everyone, but what I can see is that the children at our school are thriving, they are kind, they are healthy, creative, and love to learn. What else could a parent wish for than that?
Disclaimer: Jason Sperling’s daughter has attended Shining Mountain Waldorf School since Kindergarten (she is in 2nd grade at the time of this interview).