Gallery: Early Childhood Outdoors

Many families at Marin Waldorf School were first drawn to Waldorf education when they discovered our magical early childhood programs. Every year, our skilled and nurturing early childhood teachers create a warm, homelike environment for their young students, with natural rhythms, homemade snacks, and lots of stories and outdoor play.

Our preschoolers and kindergartners generally spend a large part of their day outdoors, with large oak- and redwood-shaded play yards just for them. Even so, it was hard to imagine our cozy early childhood classrooms moved almost entirely outdoors! But, as we prepared to reopen campus, early childhood, like the rest of our school, is taking advantage of our abundant outdoor space.

Behold the magical environment our early childhood teachers created for Marin Waldorf School Outdoors. From the new vegetable garden in the Hollyhock classroom to Ms. Sarah’s seasonal felted fairy wearing her face masks, not a detail has been overlooked. Welcome home, students!

And here are a few shots of Ms. Brenda’s beautiful Sunflower classroom from our earlier post Sweet Spaces for Early Childhood.

Bravo!

Gallery: Orientation Days

This week, we invited small groups of students and their parents to campus on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday morning. It was an opportunity for the children to use their outdoor classrooms for the first time and begin learning the new safety procedures for the 2020 school year. It was also an opportunity for our parents to see the classrooms they’ve worked hard to create one last time: When school starts next week, parents and visitors will no longer be allowed on campus.

We continued to put the finishing touches on our classrooms, learned how to use the bathroom safely, and spent a lot of time practicing our 6-foot distancing.

We also have a few adorable videos from our first days back. Here’s the second grade students and parents sewing cushions for their outdoor classrooms, and the third graders trying out their new outdoor balance beam.

Here are some happy third graders with their harvest of fresh grapes. Gardening is always a central part of the third grade curriculum, and a small garden space on the east side of campus is usually set aside for the third grade to plant and tend. This year, that garden is their classroom!

2020 has been a year like no other, and as we head into Labor Day weekend, going back to school, and all the simple pleasures that come with it, has never felt quite so grand!

Sweet Spaces for Early Childhood

Over the past few weeks, we’ve had pictures of hay bales, wheelbarrows, and pickups rolling around campus. Now, we’re starting to put the finishing touches on our new outdoor spaces. For early childhood students, our teachers are hard at work re-creating the cozy, warm, homelike environment we love in their outdoor spaces.

Sunflower lead teacher and early childhood director Ms. Brenda has been busy in her new classroom, as she writes to her families this week:

“Every good Waldorf teacher knows that the classroom is another teacher for young children, so planning for a mixed-age class has provided me with the opportunity to broaden my imagination.  For the past week, I have been getting the basics in place. I have made, bought, received, rehabilitated, acquired, or polished wooden toys, huge building blocks, 12 new cutting boards for vegetables, 12 Kindergarten hammers + other woodworking equipment, place mats that ensure social distancing, hand-dyed silk for play, babies with dresses and pinafores, a little kitchen, soft rugs, outdoor rugs, and so much more.”

“All of this work has been done with an understanding of how to build a classroom during a pandemic,” says Ms. Brenda. “Can you believe it? I can. Now I am working on creating a pulley system for our older children (the younger ones will be captivated), one that will help us move all kinds of important items. It’s science in action!”

Outdoor Classrooms Across the Country

If you’ve been following along on this blog or are already a member of the MWS community, you know we’ve been working hard all summer to prepare our school’s outdoor classrooms for a safer reopening of campus this fall. Last week, our school applied for a waiver from the county and state to reopen to in-person learning on September 8.

While distance learning was a challenge for our close-knit, tech-free community, spending time outdoors is right within our element as a Waldorf school, where building a relationship with and respect for nature is an integral part of education. While we wait for a response to our application for a waiver, we’ve been feeling inspired to be a part of the nationwide movement to move learning outdoors. From Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to Burlington, Vermont, teachers are pulling out whiteboards and setting up umbrellas and shade sails to create new classroom spaces. Just yesterday, New York City shared a potential plan to move classrooms outdoors, taking students to nearby parks and even into (closed) city streets!

In this story from PBS News Hour, Sharon Danks, co-founder of the National Covid-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative, says, “Schools have a lot of potential to use their grounds that they’re not tapping.”

“So in this case, in the COVID context, we think they have plenty of space outside that can augment the inside space when they’re looking to spread kids out for social distancing,” she continues. (You can read more about Danks’s project, National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative, here.)

Here in California, we have mild (if, hopefully, rainy) winters, but Danks says it’s possible to move education outdoors across climates. “We have great examples from Canada and from northern Scandinavia where they can go outside in the winter. And actually in Chicago in the pandemic in 1918, tuberculosis and the Spanish flu pandemic, they did go outside even there all winter in some schools,” she tells NewsHour.

We love seeing so many other Waldorf schools across the country redesigning their programs for outdoor learning. Just this morning, the Lake Champlain Waldorf School was featured on the Today Show segment about outdoor classrooms while a fourth grade teacher at Prairie Hill Waldorf School was featured in the national news for her unique outdoor classroom design.

Is this the beginning of a new movement in Waldorf schools and education in general?

Gallery: Our Campus in Transformation

Every Monday this summer, our faculty has come together on Zoom to discuss our plans for the upcoming school year. During our meeting this week, each of our class teachers took a few minutes to describe their progress on and vision for their outdoor classroom. We heard about a planned arbor at the entrance of one room, a planting project atop the straw bales that form a classroom’s border, a wall made of twined willow, spaced tree stumps, and more. With each class, our excitement grew.

At Marin Waldorf School, we have always been grateful for our beautiful campus, with its big grassy field, abundant working garden, surrounding open space, and groves of redwoods and valley oaks throughout. As we approach the next year, this beloved space is becoming all the more essential as we re-envision our students spending their days almost entirely outdoors.

On Sunday, we shared some photos from the first few weeks of our classroom build out. We’re back today with some gorgeous shots taken by one of our parents. Look at these beautiful classroom spaces for the fall of 2020 (that’s 5th grade under the oaks in the first three pictures, 1st grade nestled amid the redwoods, and 7th grade in the last picture on the bottom right).

And here are a few more fun action shots from the building.

We’ll keep posting photos, so please check back for images of the arbor and willow walls, the new plants and the new chalkboards very soon!

Stumps, Straw, and Chips: 2020 Classroom Building Begins!

Last week, NBC News ran a story that featured our colleagues at the Detroit Waldorf School, who are planning to open their classrooms entirely outdoors this fall. The writers pointed out that their back-to-school shopping list is a bit “unusual.” “The Detroit Waldorf School in Michigan is buying carriage bolts, berry bushes and 8,000 square feet of cedar wood,” the authors report.

Our own shopping list is somewhat unconventional too: In the past week, our campus has received shipments of wood chips, tree stumps, straw bales, shade sails, recycled wood, and Crazy Creek chairs. (We’re also stocking up on Humanity Shields and alcohol-based hand sanitizer.) Last week, we shared how work on outdoor classrooms had started, and now, as supplies are arriving on campus, that work has begun in earnest!

In the photo to the left, Ms. Percey gives the 5th grade classroom a test run, with masked students seated on hay bales and fold-up chairs. Their lap desks, which students may use on top of a folding table or on their lap when seated on the earth, seemed to work very well in our test run.

What a lovely spot for our 5th graders to learn this year—and especially appropriate for the 5th grade botany block!

Beneath the shade of the oak trees in the Magic Forest, the 7th grade space is clearly marked with hay bales along its border, and tree stumps are set up at 6-foot intervals.

In this picture, you can see the frame for the chalkboard at the front of the 7th grade class, with the branch of all beautiful valley oak tree serving as a natural wall.

Early childhood classrooms will each their own dedicated outdoor space, where children will spend a large part of the day, rain or shine.

In the photo at the left, a family in our new mixed-age early childhood classroom Manzanita helps prepare the new play space for our smallest students. Manzanita teacher Ms. Sarah imagines a big garden in this space, where the children will grow plants all year.

We can’t wait to see the way our classrooms take shape over the next few weeks, as our teachers and parents bring their goodwill and creativity to the great outdoor classroom build out of 2020. We will have even more pictures of the outdoor classrooms this week… so check back soon.

Second Nature: Learning Outdoors in Waldorf Education

This summer, our faculty and staff are busy creating beautiful, sun-shaded outdoor classrooms across our 11-acre campus so that our students may more safely return to in-person education in September. (Read more here.) While outdoor classrooms may sound nontraditional, learning outside is, in fact, nothing new in a Waldorf school.

In Waldorf education, building a relationship with nature is central to a child’s development. Time outdoors teaches children about the Earth’s natural rhythms and cycles, allows them to experience natural phenomena before studying them in a classroom, and fortifies the child’s relationship with and respect for the natural world. To learn more about Waldorf schools and their relationship with nature, please check out this wonderful piece, “Waldorf Education and the Nature Connection,” from the blog Loving Learning by our colleagues at Philly Waldorf School.

At Marin Waldorf School students in every grade, starting in preschool, spend a large part of their day outside, rain or shine. Kindergartners take weekly hikes in the hills near campus and learn that, as the saying goes, “there is no such things as bad weather, only bad clothes.”

Throughout the grades, the relationship with nature that was built in early childhood continues through gardening, environmental education, outdoor education trips, and weekly hikes off campus.

For many of our students, a snowy ascent up Mt. Shasta or jumping into nearby Miller Creek during an environmental education class may be among their best memories at school.

6th Grade class trip to Mount Diablo.

A group of kindergartners stops for a snack on their weekly hike to Dragon Mountain.
Third graders harvesting in our school’s garden.
A 6th grade social ethics class takes places in the shade of an oak tree on campus.
A group of first graders climbs a waterfall.

Like Marin Waldorf Schools, many Waldorf school across the country are finding its an easy transition to create safer outdoor classroom spaces for fall 2020. Sanderling Waldorf School in Vista, California, was recently featured on their local CBS station for creating an outdoor program. Watch the story here.

Atlanta Waldorf School was featured in the CNN article “More than ever, we need nature. It makes us and our children happier.”

The many benefits of connecting with nature and learning outside have been studied by scientists and psychologists—long before the pandemic made the reality of outdoor classrooms even more urgent. Here are a few of our favorite recent stories about outdoor learning.

The Great Outdoor Classrooms

At Marin Waldorf School, we nourish the relationship between children and the natural world. Starting in early childhood, our students spend ample time outdoors, playing, hiking, and lunching beneath the oak trees. As grades students, they hike in the open space that surrounds our school, care for and study our campus flora, and work in our school’s abundant garden.

We are building on that foundation now. This summer, we are creating open-air classrooms for each grade, scattered across our 13-acre campus. (In the drawing above, you can see a snippet of our reimagined campus map, with outdoor classrooms for each grade level.) The classrooms will allow for fresh air and maximum social distancing—and of course they will also be beautiful! To the left, our woodworking teacher Mr. Neale paints one of the blackboards that will be installed in each of the classrooms. Lap desks, hay bales, and sun shades will follow.

There is strong research to suggest that outdoor classrooms would be safer for students during a pandemic, but are they effective places to teach?

Last week, many people in our community noticed this fascinating story in the New York Times (right), which documents the use of outdoor classrooms in early 20th century New York to fight rampant tuberculosis infection in the city.

The article outlines the compelling safety reasons for building outdoor classrooms (“one of the few things we know about the coronavirus with any degree of certainty is that the risk of contracting it diminishes outside — a review of 7,000 cases in China recorded only one instance of fresh-air transmission”). However, it also outlines the emotional and pedagogical benefits of being outdoors.

Among other compelling research, author Ginia Bellafante shares the following: “A 2018 study conducted over an academic year looked at the emotional, cognitive and behavioral challenges facing 161 fifth graders. It found that those participating in an outdoor science class showed increased attention over those in a control group who continued to learn conventionally. At John M. Patterson, an elementary school in Philadelphia, suspensions went from 50 a year to zero after a playground was built in which students maintain a rain-garden and take gym and some science classes, the principal, Kenneth Jessup, told me.”

This morning, the Marin Independent Journal shared another story, “Marin school finds pandemic workaround: the outdoors,” about the local Terra Marin School in Mill Valley, which is going to be operating outdoors this fall.

We’ll be sharing more photos and updates of our classrooms this summer, as well as more research about the benefits of outdoor learning, so please follow along.

Audio Story: “The Fairy Helpers”

Mr. DeRienzo, our school’s aftercare lead teacher, is a storyteller extraordinaire. This summer, he’s sharing a series of original audio stories featuring an imaginative cast of recurring characters, appropriate for preschool-and-kindergarten-age children (appropriate and enjoyable for older children too)!

In our first tale, Gold Monkey and Jeremy the Giant accompany Mr. DeRienzo’s sidekick Ozzi to help the fairies in the forest. It’s fun work … but silly antics always ensue when our friend Gold Monkey is involved!

Story #1
“The Fairy Helpers”

If you liked that story, subscribe to the whole series on the registration page here! New stories will be posted every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from June 22 to July 17.

All material © Rod DeRienzo 2020. Please do not share or distribute without express permission from Mr. DeRienzo and Marin Waldorf School.

Lasting Bonds

Recently, our school director Ms. Neale shared these sweet photos of her daughters’ “wee ones,” Sunbeam and Moonbeam, sitting together in her garden on a sunny summer morning. Kindergarten parents make these small fabric dolls for their children, which are magically delivered by fairy mother to kindergartners throughout the year.

Ms. Neale’s daughters graduated from our school eight years ago, but her daughters’ wee ones still live at home.

This is one very small illustration of the way Waldorf education touches the whole family, creating memories and experiences that bond us to our children and last for decades. Thanks for sharing, Ms. Neale!