What is Waldorf?
We interview Cannie Bennett, founder of Garden House and chair of Hong Kong's Waldorf Association, to figure out what a Waldorf education looks like
Today, there are more than a thousand Waldorf schools in 83 different countries. These ‘holistic’ campuses are popping up all around the world, and the rate of growth puts the Waldorf schooling among the fastest growing independent education systems. But what exactly is Waldorf and how did it all begin?
Cannie Bennett, founder of Garden House and chair of Hong Kong’s Waldorf Association, opens up to GeoBaby about starting her first kindergarten, a day in the life of a Garden House student, and why parents might choose Waldorf over a more conventional education.
As one of only two Waldorf schools in Hong Kong (the other being Highgate House), Garden House has been a pioneer in bringing this unique learning tradition to our city.
The Media Buzz
It’s no secret that tech industry executives have shown a tendency to enroll their children in Waldorf schools.
This is interesting for many people outside the tech industry, because Waldorf's teaching philosophy makes a point of not using computers in the classroom.
“I fundamentally reject the notion you need technology aids in grammar school,” Google Communications Officer Alan Eagle told the New York Times. “The idea that an app on an iPad can better teach my kids to read or do arithmetic... that’s ridiculous.”
Why would technology pioneers elect to have their children study in a school that shuns technology? What does a Waldorf education offer that appeals to these parents?
Q&A with Cannie Bennett
GeoBaby: What inspired you to open Garden House?
Cannie Bennett: When I had my own children, I wanted them to have an environment where there was plenty of outdoor space to run around and explore, to be closer to nature. In those days, 20 years ago, kindergartens in Hong Kong were mainly indoors with indoor playgrounds. I started to look for a loving teacher, and a few mums also agreed to share the cost and have this teacher rotate in our homes. Within a short time, there were 30 families that liked the idea and wanted to join our group. The first kindergarten was started.
GeoBaby: What’s the average day like for a student at Garden House?
Cannie Bennett: The children are busy all morning doing many tasks, imitating the teachers in whatever they do. We have a structured timetable with “breathing in” and “breathing out” exercises to support the children’s growth. Each activity is planned carefully to ensure that children are learning and taking in new information (breathing in), and then are able to exert their natural energy through movement, such as dance or active play (breathing out). This rhythm creates a gentle flow to the lessons. Conscious effort is made to provide children with practical and traditional skills, such as:
Handicrafts: Finger-knitting, sewing, gardening and woodworking are part of our curriculum. Even the youngest child can learn how to do these things, as they are very simple.
Baking: You will find most Waldorf kindergartens are bathed in the aroma of freshly baked bread. We bake bread with the children at least once a week. It's a good chance for the children to knead the dough, perhaps shaping the dough into bread rolls or other shapes. We do not provide play-dough. By using bread dough it makes the task more meaningful. The tactile quality of kneading the dough assists with aesthetic learning. The bread is usually then shared during our snack time and a small roll will be sent home so the family can enjoy it as well.
— Rudolf Steiner
Creative Play: Creative play provides the children with the opportunity to engage in dramatic and role-play activities, such as dressing up as kings, queens, and princesses. We find that the children also love to imitate their teachers or parents, assuming roles such as cooking a meal or pretending to go shopping and so on. This time allows them to use their imagination in order to create their own play environment.
Circle Time: The children will sit together in a circle on a round carpet and join together in counting games, hand games, singing, movement or puppetry.
Watercolor Painting: You will find wet-on-wet painting in all Waldorf schools which is where the paper is wetted with clear water and then the child paints with watercolors, allowing the colors to slightly run into each other. In kindergarten, we use three prime colors only; the children love to see the way two colors mix to form another color.
Snack Time: Snack time is an important part of the Waldorf routine. It provides an opportunity for the children to sit down as a class and enjoy socializing over a meal. The idea is to create a warm, family-like environment.
Outdoor Play: Outdoor play is essential for all children, especially at this age. It gives them a chance to exert their physical energy, refine their gross motor skills, and just have fun!
Story Time: The kindergarten day always end with a nature story or fairy tales which are told through a puppet show.
GeoBaby: We’ve seen the Waldorf system compared with the Montessori system. How do the two methods differ?
Cannie Bennett: Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the Waldorf method, was a pioneer in the area of developmentally based, age-appropriate learning, and many of his thoughts and concepts were picked up by Montessori, and other educational theorists such as Gesell and Piaget. Therefore, there are many similarities in the two systems.
A fundamental difference between the two is the role of the teachers in the school. In Waldorf kindergartens, the teacher plays the important role of the role model and leads the children in a variety of teacher directed activities; whereas in Montessori schools, the children work with independent learning activities which have been selected by the child. In Waldorf schools, children learn how to work together in a group to support each other. The emphasis is on the development of the young child within a group. Whereas in a Montessori school, children are taught to work individually, not to interrupt their friends while they are working but are encouraged to help younger children complete a task with which they are unfamiliar. Montessori described the classroom as a place where children are free to move about at will and where the day is not divided between work periods and rest or play periods. The protection of the child’s choice is a key element of the Montessori method.
Finally, Waldorf teachers see the child thriving in a rhythmical atmosphere created by the teacher that includes a balance of activities. Students in a Waldorf classroom know what to count on from day to day and week to week. A regular rhythm of age-appropriate activities is also employed in the elementary school. Each morning lesson has a three-step rhythm that includes recall of previously presented material, presentation of new material, and independent work. Similarly, each day and each week have a rhythm of more intensive and less intensive activities. Eventually these external rhythms are internalized by the child, so that he or she is able to take up and complete the more challenging tasks of later life with purpose and conviction.
GeoBaby: What do you believe are the reasons parents choose Garden House over other pre-schools?
Cannie Bennett: It’s the peaceful environment, the loving teachers, natural toys, home-baking activities and ample time for both indoor and outdoor play.
It’s all part of a conscious plan to provide a concrete rather than an abstract learning experience for our children, and to try and remove academic pressures away from the young child. We teach stories, poetry and folk legends, and these provide the foundations for developing reading skills. And to develop fine motor skills, we do plenty of sewing, gardening, knitting, planting vegetables and herbs in our own farm and doll making with the children to prepare their minds for later academic work.
7 silverstrand Beach Road,
Clearwater Bay, Kowloon,
Highgate House School
2/F, 100 Peak Road,
GeoBaby: What’s the application process like for Garden House?
Cannie Bennett: It’s simple, just fill out the application form and return it to us. We do not “interview” the children, but in some cases we do “interview” the parents. We like to encourage our prospective and existing parents to support less TV and computer games for their kids, and emphasize healthy eating and a healthy sleeping pattern.
Some classes are more popular than others, so there is a waiting list for some of the classes but not all. We advise parents to check with the office on availability to avoid disappointment.
GeoBaby: So what's your favorite part about working in Garden House?
Cannie Bennett: I wouldn’t call this work; Garden House is intrinsically a part of me. I feel that teachers and staff who work at Garden House genuinely enjoy being here, and there is a sense of family in our team. I look forward to coming here every day, not just because I get to be around the lovely children, but also because there is a tremendous amount of warmth and support from the parents, teachers, and children. I feel at home.
GeoBaby: What kind of training is required for teachers at Waldorf schools?
Cannie Bennett: Most of our teachers are qualified kindergarten teachers. There are many countries that offer a diploma in Waldorf teaching. In Hong Kong, there is one diploma course for early childhood which is run at Garden House and is open to Garden House teachers, other teachers and parents.
GeoBaby: There are Waldorf schools overseas that teach from kindergarten through secondary schools. Do you foresee a Waldorf ‘through-school’ opening in HK in the near future?
Cannie Bennett: We hope so. A group of parents who attended the Waldorf Teacher Training program got together with Garden House over a year ago with the aim of setting up a Waldorf Primary school in Hong Kong.
We have set up a charitable organisation, we’ve found a school building, and have submitted the relevant paper work with the hope of opening the primary school in the near future. We’ve also been giving talks to different organizations in Hong Kong, such as the Rotary Club, to raise awareness and community support.
From Humble Beginnings
It all started in 1919, when a factory owner named Emil Holt invited Rudolf Steiner, an outspoken Austrian philosopher, to come lecture his factory’s workers. The young philosopher preached social reform and the importance of separating state from education. He articulated a range of theories on childhood development that were just as radical then as they are now.
The man so thoroughly moved the factory workers that, on September 7th of the same year, 191 of their children were enrolled in what would later become known as a ’Waldorf School’. Curious parents from the surrounding area supplied an additional 65 students and the first Waldorf School was officially and independently established.
The Waldorf Education has its roots in Stuttgart, Germany, and owes its name to the Waldorf-Astoria Cigarette Factory where it all started. Prior to 1919, the ideals practiced by Waldorf Schools were no more than one man’s passionate theories.
Among his wide range of other strongly held beliefs, Steiner outlined three major developmental stages in childhood that would come to characterize the Waldorf education:
Learning in early childhood is characterized by experiences. Children learn motor functions, coordination, and communication at this stage, and these skills are learned predominantly through doing, seeing and hearing. This period in a child’s life forms the foundation for the way the rest of his or her life will be lived. Steiner strongly believed that young children have an innate understanding of good and a deep awe and respect for the world they are experiencing.
The second stage of childhood development involves the inward expansion of imagination. In this stage children are most receptive to imagery and their creativity develops by leaps and bounds. They are not so much thinking abstractly as they are feeling innately, and these feelings are influenced by the images they see and expressed through the images they create. Where children in the first stage show an understanding of goodness, children in the second stage show an appreciation for beauty.
Closer to adulthood children develop the urge to take control of their own lives. Abstract ideas can be considered from multiple angles. The need to question everything takes hold and the young adult begins formulating critical opinions about the surrounding world. Individuality and idealism meet and reality is put to the test by the young adult’s constantly developing thought process. Steiner believed that ethics should be nurtured and stressed that children in this stage needed good role models to prevent their idealism from slipping into destructive cynicism.
Steiner's well-grounded views on education have steadily flourished for almost a century. We hope to establish a Waldorf through-school in HK soon but, in the mean time, schools like Garden House and Highgate House will continue to teach young children life lessons through the sharing of invaluable human experiences.
Want more info about Waldorf schooling methods or Steiner's unique take on childhood development? Check out these books for some expert insight.
Understanding the Steiner Waldorf Approach: Early Years Education in Practice
By Janni Nicol and Jill Tina Taplin
Written primarily for childcare and education professionals, this book is packed with comprehensive info for curious parents. Covers topics like methods and key principles of the Steiner approach.
Children at Play: Using Waldorf Principles to Foster Childhood Development
By Heidi Britz-Crecelius
This book discusses the importance of imaginative play for children’s development, particularly at the early stages. Includes recommendations for specific toys and games to complement young inquisitive minds.