How sustainable is the Waldorf curriculum?

By Christian Boettger, June 2020

Book fair in Leipzig: on occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the Waldorf school movement in 2019, there was a large stand at which, among other things, a short presentation was given each day on the subject: “What does Waldorf education mean today”. On one of the days I fell into conversation with some people attending the fair on the question as to what extent the current topic of sustainability comes up in the Waldorf curriculum, and if it does, how Waldorf goes about getting its pupils to live and act accordingly.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

That is the crucial question: why is it that we have known for decades about the damage done to humanity by the immense consumption of energy and raw materials but hardly anyone is implementing any concrete and realistic concepts for themselves and their immediate environment, let alone their country, continent or, indeed, the earth as a whole? Why don’t we act as we know we should but continue to do the wrong things?

If we offer children clearly structured and really well thought-out lessons on sustainability, then in the best case the subject will be understood. But have we also penetrated the problems intensively with our feeling, have we had concrete experience of them so that they have impressed themselves as far as into our will? Is it not the case that we don’t have true access to this sphere of life until we have really experienced and gone through these things, including in our activities; that is to say, have also entered into an active connection alongside an intellectual understanding? If that is the case, do lessons which aim to educate for sustainable sustainability not also have to follow a concept which particularly includes the actively engaged person?

This connection between experience and knowledge is something that is particularly communicated in Waldorf education. It already starts in kindergarten when the small children experience and are involved in quite normal housekeeping activities. They help to prepare the mueslis, bake rolls, chop up vegetables and fruit and help in the garden if there is one; there might even be animals to look after. The children learn sustainability simply by taking part. All these activities are deepened by the children in play.

Take class three, for example: here the process from grain to bread is fully experienced. How hard it is to plough a field without motorised assistance and the tiny size of the grain which is then sown. During their regular visits, the children experience the plant shoots, their incredibly fast growth in their field, how the grain ripens, what it feels like, how it smells and tastes. Finally the grain is harvested and threshed by hand, milled in the school and baked into bread. Some of the grain is retained for sowing in the following year.

This process lasts a year and the children now are not just aware of the work stages and activities which go into a loaf of bread or a roll but they have experienced it for themselves. This gives them a real relationship, obtained from their own work, with bread as a food – creating a sustained connection with nutrition. It further includes the task of preparing their own beds, planting vegetables and then harvesting them – all these things are an experience which they go through with all their senses, not least also of taste, and which connects them with the value of food. Such experiences form the basis of an awareness of good, sustainably produced food later on.

A further area is represented by zoology and botany. Rudolf Steiner placed great value on connecting these subjects, which today are assigned to biology lessons, directly with the experience of the children and to relate them to human beings themselves. This human relationship with the animal and plant realm forms the basis for a sustainable education because all these things form a part of us which needs to be looked after just as we have to look after ourselves. In these periods the active connection is less important than the deep and experience-filled images which the teachers evoke in the souls of the children.

This human connection with “mother” earth does not cease in upper school either. In class 11, for example, in ecology field work in a moorland area, certain trees were taken out as instructed by the forester so that an opening was created again for birds to fly and access was created for other animals. While one half of the class was hard at work in the densely overgrown wood, the other half worked in smaller biotopes such as the course of a stream, sections of meadow, or field and wood boundaries on recording animals and plants and on mapping – activities that took hold of and shaped the earth alternating with reflecting observation in reciprocal enhancement.

A research question on sustainability might be whether children and young people who in this way are given full access to their humanity and responsibility for the life processes on earth know as adults not just what needs to be done for sustainability but also actively do it.

About the author: Christian Boettger was a class teacher for almost twenty years and for the last thirteen years has worked as chief executive at the German Association of Waldorf Schools and the Educational Research Centre.

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