By Bene Foley, Grade 1 Teacher: John Burroughs once said, “Knowledge without love will not stick. But if love comes first, knowledge is sure to follow.” This quote by Burroughs expresses the impulse of the Waldorf science curriculum. And, this notion can help us understand why there are no formal classes in nature studies in Waldorf schools until the third grade.
Children before the age of nine are not “taught” science, but they experience it every day. In preschool and Kindergarten, children are allowed plenty of free time to experience nature (and science). They move sand and earth with shovels and wheelbarrows, build forts, make mud pies, swing and engage in many other activities that allow them to experience how things work in the world.
Brien Masters asserts in Adventures in Steiner Education that the young child should experience natural phenomena “unhindered by human intellect.” At Portland Waldorf School, we are lucky to have the wonderful “Tree World”, where young children can run around in (very) untamed nature, climbing through bamboo, building bridges and making fairy houses with found objects from nature.
In first and second grade, the teacher will bring a little more attention to some of the nature surrounding them. A story may be told of the sturdy leaves of the crocus pushing through the barely thawed earth, quietly encouraging children to take notice of the changing seasons. The children will hear and learn stories, songs and poems about the four elements, the seasons and the four kingdoms. They spend time touching, smelling, watching, listening and feeling the world around them. They are guided to look at the world with awe and wonder before entering the world of facts.
Beginning in third grade, science study becomes more focused as the children go through the nine-year change and have a need to feel confidence in themselves and their ability to live on the earth. The curriculum in these middle years of childhood begins with the farmer and the way farming connects minerals, plants and animals to us as humans. It then moves through the individual subjects of animal studies, botany and mineralogy in fourth, fifth and sixth grade. Teachers approach each with a focus on feeling and helping students to see the interconnectedness of nature: how an animal lives within a habitat, deeply connected to and defined by that environment; how plants thrive in different geographic regions; how the predominance of one mineral creates certain types of soil.
In grades 6-8, our methodology remains the same. However, what we ask of students increases as they are more and more able to discern phenomena on their own. We ask that students use their powers of observation in Physics and Chemistry, rather than filling them with facts: What happened to the sand when we pulled the cello bow against the Chladni plate? What does this tell us about vibration?
My father, a skeptic, asks, as many of us do, “But if we don’t start early, how do we teach children to respect the earth and work toward healing the damage previous generations have done?” I can start by telling him what we don’t do. We don’t show young children pictures of dolphins with their noses stuck in plastic bottles. We don’t tell the children how hard we have to work to save the planet.
In an article called “Look, Don’t Touch: The Problem with Environmental Education,” David Sobel asserts that though environmental education has the aim of connecting children to nature, it actually does the opposite. Using anecdotes and studies to strengthen his case, Sobel reveals that those most likely to care for the environment as adults were, as children, not given classes, or taken on multiple “nature walks,” but given the chance to run wild in nature— to climb trees, catch lizards, pick flowers. This idea aligns perfectly with the Waldorf approach. We believe it is the sheer joy of being in untamed nature that teaches children to love and respect the natural world. Rather than instilling fear at an early age, we teach children to love the world around them. “For,” as Betty and Franklin Kane write, “Without love for the world, what is there to conserve?”