Waldorf Education in the Jungle

By Samira Fürmetz, February 2023

Samira Fürmetz reports about her internship at a Thai jungle school. When everything that is usually part of the idea of school is missing, what do you do? And is it then still “school”?

The Waldorf-inspired Oak School in Kathu (Thailand), where I did a four-week internship, is certainly many things, but one thing it is not is ordinary. It lies fifteen minutes’ walk from the edge of the city, in the middle of the dense jungle of Thailand’s southern tip. It consists of three bamboo huts built into the forested mountainside. A classroom, a kitchen and a study room beyond the kitchen. Classes run from 9am to 3pm, with meals, breaks, showers and time to play by the stream that runs right through the grounds in between. The ages of the children are just as varied as the seven nationalities represented in the one school class. The youngest is three months old, the oldest nine years. Three of the children have no passport, speak neither English nor Thai, and are stateless Burmese whose parents fled to Thailand by boat a few years ago. Two of the children have support needs to an unknown extent. The staff consist of the Thai Khru Bo, the Italian-born founder and child psychologist Debi, the cook Susu and (for four weeks) me. 

Many things are reminiscent of Waldorf education, others are not. The concept of the school in various areas is sometimes more and sometimes less clear. Many things are completely different. I have often taught at schools in Asia, had my first teaching experiences in Laos, and yet many things here are completely unconventional and new for me as well.


A small glimpse into my first day illustrates this. I am standing in the middle of the jungle, surrounded by children running in all directions of the forest; only half of them speak enough English to communicate with me and also seem to have little interest in doing so. I stand there and ask myself: What is going on here? Are they allowed to do that? Are they allowed to climb on the stones over a drop over there and throw themselves into the cold stream to smear themselves from top to bottom with sand and mud? Over here one child is wobbling on one leg on a rotten branch, the other is rolling a stone weighing twenty kilograms down the slope. I am not really an anxious or overprotective person, but the children are under my supervision. Are they taking advantage of my inexperience? Do I have to put a stop to it? Self-efficacy and exploration are important educational ideals, but to what degree? And why am I all alone, anyway?

The school

The school is a private school. There used to be more foreigners here. Children whose parents wanted to give them the adventure of a jungle school, others who hoped to have found an alternative to the Thai school system or the elitist international schools (which often cost 1,500 euros a month). Everyone is welcome here, regardless of talent or social background. The converse world looks different in Thailand: from infancy onwards, many children already spend several hours a day in front of smartphone screens. Local parents have jobs at street kitchens, have to keep their children occupied from early on in the absence of affordable childcare so that they can work themselves. The smartphone serves as a babysitter. The baby baskets lie under the stalls, mobile phone grab arm included. Poor motor development, poor concentration, emotional and intellectual deficits are the result for many children. 

The Jungle School offers an alternative model to this: it seems to me like a utopian micro-experiment in a bubble. No one is judging or evaluating here. No Ministry of Education, no community, no long-dedicated Waldorf teachers. Why always talk so much about it and not just try it out, is the motto here.

And it seems to be working. People often talk about the advantages of mixed-age classes, for example at Montessori schools. But mixing toddlers and class four pupils is not something that is contemplated. We remain stuck in pigeonholes: mixing yes, but only in a specific way. Integration yes, but only within a certain framework. But what is a three-year-old child doing in a class of older children? It often resembles an extended family more than a school. Not least because the young children are showered and changed here once a day before lunch. The older ones help voluntarily. At first I found this proximity and variety of tasks strange. I thought: I’ve made it as far as a Master’s degree and her I am in my internship, an unpaid nanny bathing and feeding children. 

On the other hand, as a teacher, I am always shown a lot of respect on the street and by parents. Being a teacher here has a highly respected status in society. But culturally the school and the way the children are treated are very different. True to the concept that “it takes a village to raise a child”, there is no division of tasks here. Susu, the cook, who is like a grandmother to everyone, cooks the food, and we, the teachers, teach, but everything in between is done together: cleaning up, changing, bathing, heating up milk ... There is no underlying moral requirement to put everyone on an equal footing, we simply are. 

This also distinguishes the Oak School, because in Thai schools there is discipline (often with cane), a strong hierarchy and discrimination between foreign and local teaching staff. Local teachers participate in cleaning the classrooms and serving the meals. The foreign teaching staff keep out of these everyday tasks on principle, although (or because) they get a higher salary.

Before I came here, during my studies at Alanus University, I did a lot of research on what school is and what it can be. What was school like in the past and what is it or should it be in the twenty-first century? When does school start and where does it end? Is there a limit to education? Is one learner and one teacher enough? How many children do I need to form a class? How many for one school? Are special chairs and tables, books and materials from the Waldorf online shop needed to realise Waldorf education? Moving classroom or not? Which wax crayons are the right ones? All questions that seem more and more irrelevant to me here. What are we measured against as teachers? Our methods, our character or our CV? And what if there is simply no one there to measure or evaluate you – but only we ourselves and of course the children? Do we ourselves not always take the highest maxim as a guide? Isn’t it only when we can overcome initial insecurities that we become the best of ourselves, that we grow from our mistakes, as we always tell our pupils? I think after these four weeks many of my views have changed once again. 

So, I’m standing in the jungle and I really don’t know what to do. I lack specific instructions. I was not prepared for this situation in my seminars. There is no handbook for something like this. And what is the legal situation? Am I liable for accidents involving the children? Can absence of a concept be a concept? And if so, where does it start and where does it end?

I remember the words Debi said to me shortly afterwards: 

“I trust your decisions. You won’t always decide the way I would, but if it’s the right decision for you, it will also be the right decision for the children. Look at them, they can do so much more than we give them credit for.” All right, then. I am standing in the jungle surrounded by children who are testing themselves in the trees, on the steep slopes, like a horde of little monkeys. Breathe deeply. Trust them. You can do it.

Samira Fürmetz, born 1994, Bachelor’s degree in Development and Environmental Policy in London. Previously worked in humanitarian projects abroad, mainly in South East Asia. Hobbies: coral reef preservation and restoration, photo editing and film editing, permaculture. Currently studying for a Master’s degree as a class teacher at Alanus University. “I hope to visit many Waldorf schools around the world in the coming years and welcome invitations to the most venturous corners of the world!”