Anthroposophy highly emphasizes the importance of “play” for children during their first stage of development, which is from 0-7 years old or before the changing of primary teeth. This is contrary to contemporary learning methods which emphasize more on knowledge acquisition. However, this “play” is unique, and how can we provide an environment to support children in their play that will lead to a wholesome and healthy body, mind and spirit?
Since 1998, the Lapis Lazuli Light magazines have continuously published materials by Dr. Steiner on children education. This information has brought to my understanding of how anthroposophy takes a holistic approach in taking care of a child’s body, mind and spirit. It is fortunate that my children are enrolled in the Rudolf Steiner’s kindergarten to “play”, that I have a chance to observe the way the School leads the children. Parents may wonder how they are going to “play with their children” at home. Instead of saying “playing” all day, the more appropriate way to say is how to plan for our children’s daily activities. Hopefully, my observations on the Waldorf School, along with my own experience, can be used as a reference for you.
THE RYHTHM OF EXPANSION AND CONTRACTION
Rhythm is highly emphasized in Waldorf’s education. This living rhythm is just like breathing, inhaling and exhaling, contracting and expanding. With a rhythmic lifestyle, parents will find it easier to take care of their children; there will be less incidence happening and children will also form healthy habits from this lifestyle. At the Waldorf School, the day starts with outdoor activities, while the School waits for all children to arrive. After the children enter the classroom, they may begin with a drawing lesson. After that, it can be free leisure time, and then all are seated and drink water. Next, they may form a circle and do some singing or to play some games, and then followed by a tea break…. From this example, it is obvious that there is a rhythm of expansion and contraction. I feel that it is very considerate of the teachers to specifically add a “water drinking time” into this rhythm. My family also tries to incorporate this kind of expanding and contracting rhythm into our daily family activities. This will not only let the children learn to naturally engage in activities that involve movement and stillness, but also enhance their etheric (qi) body.
I know of a mother, a Lapis Lazuli Light member who has successfully arranged a well planned daily routine for her child. In addition to this routine, her child is on a pure organic food diet (at least 99%, even the nappies are made from organic cotton), dinner is served early (the dinner serving is smaller and the child goes to bed punctually at 8pm). This child has been sleeping very well since young, and the appetite is amazingly good. When I asked this mother what to do when a child was ill, she said she was very sorry but she could not help me because her child was never sick. She said she would not have a clue if her child had a slightest cold. I think she is a role model for us.
GET INVOLVED IN THE TRANSORMING PROCESS AND EMPHASIZE THE MOVEMENTS OF FINGERS AND FOUR LIMBS
The Waldorf teachers try diligently to let children see the transformations of physical things or experience the rhythms of the year and seasons. Throughout the changing of the four seasons, there are always different displays in the classrooms, reflecting the changes in spring, summer, autumn and winter, or illustrating the observations and celebrations of different festivals. Generally, this can be easily done in most households. For example, when we celebrate Chinese New Year, we always paste Chinese calligraphy, light fireworks; during the Dumpling Festival, we would stick stalks of myrrh and make dumplings; such activities allow the children to be involved in the traditional customs and festivals.
Generally during lessons, the teachers would let the children make flour from wheat using a hand grinder, and then the wheat flour is used to make bread. The children are also taught to use strings to make into ropes; other activities include playing with sand, molding beeswax, sewing, planting flowers, and all other activities that allow the children to experience and to get involved in the process that starts from scratch and have it made into something. In effect, the children get to exercise their fingers.
The teachers also incorporate specially designed lessons into singing and game sessions, leading the children to exercise each and every finger while they sing and play. What is the benefit of moving the hands? When children exercise their little bones and muscles (especially those of their hands), these movements stimulate the growth of brain cells. Research also found that children with clumsy fingers tend to make more mistakes in their mathematical tests. We ought to be aware that a lot of commercial toys tend to minimize the movements of children’s hands. The worst type is those toys that only require pressing a button to play. In fact, these toys were initially designed for the handicapped. Yet now, these toys are commonly marketed. We ought to encourage more finger-moving activities such as molding clay to form into birds, etc., in order to stimulate children’s imagination, and not taking the mold of a bird and directly mold the clay into the given shape. After cutting teeth, it is then more suitable for the fingers to play tool-like toys.
Whenever I step into the Waldorf School, I immediately feel nurtured by being in the environment. I see all elegant and beautiful displays; the ingredients used are as pure and natural as possible, I am tempted to turn my home into something similar.
There are many tools and toys in class for free-playtime, for example, different sizes of glass stones, wooden blocks (more of round and smooth shapes), rubber tree seeds, shells, wooden or cloth puppets, wooden, metal or ceramic household toy utensils (bowls, plates, cups, forks, spoons), some rugs or silk cloths, little backpacks or bags, various kinds of costumes: princess, warriors, witch hat, etc. Larger tools include frames (two movable frames topped with a cloth becomes a little house), wooden horses, swaying cradle (when overturned, can be made into a little ladder), so on and so forth.
For outdoor activities, there are usually wooden sandboxes, swings and so on, children are also encouraged to climb trees, to run and jump. Any kinds of simple natural ingredients, a few pieces of logs are enough to allow the children to express their potential creativity.
At the school, the candles used at school are made of natural beeswax, beeswax clay is used for playing and molding, natural wool fiber is used for stuffing sewed dolls. Snacks served are all organic and freshly-made food or bread freshly baked from the flour kneaded by everyone in the bread making class the day before. These natural ingredients may not be cheap, but the good intentions from the school are obvious, and it is hoped that children are in contact with natural ingredients since young, so that the children’s little spirit are not influenced by overly beautiful artificial colour or inflexible plastic toys.
REAL LIFE LEARNING
After everyone is seated for a meal, the teachers usually lead everyone to sing a song of gratitude, then two children are assigned to help, the teachers prepare the meals and beverages, and these two children help bring food and water to every child. When a child is done eating, he/she is responsible for bringing his/her own plates and cups and leave them in a big steel basin. If there are leftovers, the food must first be thrown into a bucket. In another Waldorf School, children are required to clean up the tables and even wash the dishes; the teachers let the children learn to help so that the children know better how to help out at home.
What is worth mentioning is that all the bowls used are ceramic and cups are made of glasses, however, the incident of breakages is very minimal. Compared to kindergartens that use only plastic plates or disposal cutlery, this kind of special feeling is more than the word “warmth” can say.
Because I always have many things to do, as soon as my children are asleep, I would attend to my own chores (especially those that require computer), and try to leave the housework until later when my children are awake so that they can help with the housework, after all, the kids and I spend time together all day, why not let the children “play” with me for a while and I “play” with them for a while. In fact, in doing so actually corresponds to the anthroposophy education concept, that is, early childhood learning is largely experiential, imitative and sensory based.
When my children started to stand, they would crawl on the side of my dish washing sink and “observe”. In cutting vegetables, I would give them a little blunt knife so that they would not be hurt even if they cut themselves; to make incense offering in the morning, I would place the candles first and my children would help to light them; in making buns, my children would help add in flour, water, …., that is engaging the kids to do little things that are within their capabilities. My requirements are very simple, the first few rounds are the “observational” stage, and they can only observe and listen to my explanations. My only principle is that if they do not follow instructions, they have to leave and lose their choice to play (rules such as: do not point the knife towards others, do not intentionally throw the dough on the floor), very soon my children learn in what ways they get to play with the adults.
Unlike other adults, I usually do not worry about certain things that children may do, such as using knife, lighting fire, handling needles and thread, all I do is teach them how to avoid danger, and my children have never been hurt from such activities. Of course my tolerance level is high, I do not even mind if my children grab the soil in the vegetable garden and put the soil into their mouth, because I know that once they taste it, they know that such a thing does not taste good, so there is no reason to prohibit them from doing many things. (Little kids begin by using their tongues as the sensual organ, which is why they tend to put everything into their mouth).
“Eating” is a very important issue in my family, because we live in a foreign country, there is limited variety of healthy Chinese vegetarian food, and whole wheat, organic produce are very expensive. To ensure that we eat quality food at home, I choose to grow my own food and make my own meals. My children follow me to the vegetable garden everyday, every week they have a chance to accompany me in making various types of buns (mantou), steamed twisted rolls, bread, etc, and my children’s favourite chores are to help out in making jelly, grass jelly (chinchow), ice cream and other snacks, and they also know that they do not get to eat if they do not help out. A mother in our neighbourhood, always quickly makes use of the time when her children are asleep to make buns, because she feels that the children are clumsy and would hinder her when she does housework. So her children has never helped with housework and do not know how to do any housework. Whereas for my children, they follow me in doing different kinds of housework, my eldest daughter was able to help me roll dumpling skin when she was only two years old. This reminds me of what Confucius said about himself “I had been very poor since young, so I am versatile in doing things.” Perhaps it is because of Confucius’ versatility, that he later had such accomplishments!
PLAYING WITH MY CHILDREN
I started spending more time to play with my children when they were two to three years old. The criterion is: play with things that I also enjoy or that have positive meanings.
We often played with recycled paper products, we would use hole puncher to make holes, use thread to bind the paper into booklets, or use the paper for drawing, paste paper parts, origami, or make cards. I always feel that it is worthy to teach children handicraft, because they really like cutting and pasting, once they get it, they will play on their own.
Once, I picked and printed out some interesting Chinese children songs, and picked related pictures from recycled magazines and let the children cut and paste, to make into their own Chinese children songbook. My daughter was only three. Since she was the one who paste the pictures, she was able to identify all the nursery rhymes that she was singing. She felt a good sense of accomplishment.
When I saw my children’s classmates following the “trend” in using cane baskets to carry lunch boxes, I really enjoyed this revival of the ‘good old days’. Eventually there were more and more cane baskets in my home, used mostly for keeping my children’s toys, though sometimes the children and I would bring the baskets to the park to collect some interesting ingredients to bring home (for handicraft purposes). For example, we would collect the walnut shells (walnuts have been eaten by squirrels) for toys, or collect seeds from big trees (to be used as stuffing material). The seeds from maple trees collected are thrown from upstairs to show the children the amazing natural spins of the descending seeds, or the seeds can also be pasted on paper to make into pictures of birds. When we were living in the dormitory, there was a soap tree, and we would collect soap balls from the tree. The soap balls would be soaked into water to make natural soap water to wash my children’s nappies. When my children wanted to take a stroll, we would walk around the neighbourhood and at the same time pick up some litter; in effect they learn to create merit since young. Frequently whenever we wanted to pick up the litter, there would be plastic bags lying around; with the plastic bags we do not need to carry the litters in our hands.
Together with a few mothers in my community we formed an informal meeting group. It started when I gave some of the mothers Lapis Lazuli Light magazines; some mothers began to be interested in vegetarian diet, some came to borrow vegetarian recipes because these mothers felt nauseated when they were presented with meat in their diet during pregnancy. So I came up with the idea that everyone come to my place and have cooking lessons with the children! Since then on every Wednesday, we would guide the children in kneading dough and make bread or pizza, etc (the mothers would take turns to come up with the menu), the children would play with the dough and the mother would participate in dough making while sharing daily experiences. The mothers would then prepare a vegetable soup, and when the bread was baking, the children would play outdoor. When the bread was done, the children got to eat their own hand-made animal shaped bread and drink soup. Those children who normally did not like eating rice and vegetables all had great appetite.
I am always highly protective of my children from various external pollutions. That is why we do not have a TV and there is no junk food at home. Initially I minimized my contact with my neighbours because I noticed that when children get together, there will always be some generous aunties distributing candies to the children. In our community, there are some children activities, many mothers would send their children there, so that they themselves can take a break. Whereas for me, I never let my children join such activities because the snacks prepared in such functions are prohibitive in my household, if I do not allow my children to eat those snacks during the parties, I am afraid that will generate mental imbalance in my children, and I am worried that my children may pick up some bad habits from these interactions. Over time our mother-children parties generated very positive meaning. On the one hand due to the Lapis Lazuli Light magazines, all the mothers had a common understanding, we all learned to use healthy ingredients for food, and on the other hand, by allowing the children to be practically involved in playing and cooking, the children were happy and the adults got to share their experiences in bringing up the kids. I learned a lot from all these.
With the community mother group, we always had ideas coming in that benefit many people. During a Dumpling Festival, all of us came up with some good ideas. I suggested letting the children sew a pouch that had real protection effect (footnote 1), some mothers taught the children to make the Dumpling Festival décor from folding paper, some mothers helped children to tie colour strings on their arm to protect them from evil, etc, and all the mothers made dumplings together. The children got to eat and play, that was really an unforgettable festival.
This college community mother group ended when most of us graduated and left the place, and I also moved to a new environment. It is very difficult to maintain a healthy living environment for my children, my daughter picked up nails painting during her visit to her new neighbour, when she came home she used crayon to paint her fingernails. When the parents of her classmate invited her over to play, I had to first explain to the parents that I do not allow my children to watch TV or eat junk food but fruit snack is acceptable. But to my great surprise, this classmate of my daughter is a Barbie doll fan, and so I later had to explain to my daughter’s friend that I am trying very hard not to let my daughter play with this kind of toys, that I hoped she would understand and would not bring her Barbie doll to my home anymore.
I am sure all parents wish to find their children perfect playmates so that they can grow and have fun in a healthy environment while having good models and picking up good behaviours, thus it is highly crucial if we can find parents that share the common understanding. I have been talking to several Lapis Lazuli Light mothers and realise that most mothers hope to be able to find others who share the same concept in their living areas, especially new mothers who are breast feeding or mothers who need friends’ support and advice when their children fall sick. It would be even better if there can be Lapis Lazuli Light community mothers’ gatherings. Here, I am willing to be the initiator, if you wish to get to know the Lapis Lazuli Light mothers in your areas, regardless of where you are, please contact me. You may actually find someone who is nearby your place! (to be continued)
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Ingredients for pouch: equal portions of sea salt, sand, cinnamon powder, sublimed sulfur powder. Keep the mixture in a small pouch and put next to the bed or hang in the car, etc. This helps ward off evil and protect the individual.
Reference: “How to Counteract Environmental Poisons”, Hanna Kroeger publications, ISBN: 1-883713-15-3