Waldorf School and Winter Wonder

Embracing the season provides educational opportunities and more!

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When winter arrives and the thermometer starts dropping into some very chilly temps, most schools aren’t getting the kids ready to go outside for a walk in the forest or an outdoor science lesson. But that’s exactly what happens at a Waldorf school. “Being in nature can’t be replaced: the weather changes dramatically in the four seasons here and one is not better than another,” says Heather Church, pedagogical chair at Toronto Waldorf School in Thornhill, Ontario. “We are part of this earth – and being connected to nature goes farther than just learning about it through a story or by watching a video.”

In fact, getting outside – no matter what the weather – is part of the whole philosophy at Waldorf. Based on the insights of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian scientist and philosopher, Waldorf schools belong to an educational community of more than 2,500 schools and kindergartens around the world. For almost 100 years, these schools have supported students, instilling confidence, teaching creative problem solving, and helping them develop a personal connection to the world, their community, nature and themselves.

Although every Waldorf school is independent, all share an approach that is fundamentally unique. Wherever you go, the core is consistent. “There is an emphasis throughout the curriculum on being in the natural realm as much as possible,” says Cathie Foote, the school administrator at Calgary Waldorf School. “And if you are comfortable in your natural environment, it doesn’t become something that you want to protect yourself from; instead, you embrace the physical world.”

“All of nature begins to whisper its secrets to us through its sounds. Sounds that were previously incomprehensible to our soul now become the meaningful language of nature.” ~ Rudolf Steiner

It’s better outside!

Any way you look at it, we get a lot of weather across Canada. At the Toronto Waldorf School, the early childhood classes are outside about one-third of the time every day. “The extreme weather we had last year was the most fun – all that ice!” laughs Church. Activities run the gamut from tobogganing, building snow forts and snowmen, and games and sports like winter soccer!

Depending where you live, it can be a very different experience. “In Toronto when it gets dark, for instance, it is an illuminated darkness, but Vancouver has a rainy, dark season. It’s a rainforest – but the children put on their rain boots and hats and go outside every day,” says Kathleen Brunetta, the pedagogical administrator at the Vancouver Waldorf School.

In Western Canada and the coast, it’s all about the mountains. “It’s a big ski culture – the mountains are literally in our backyard,” says Brunetta. She’s not kidding: the school is located in North Vancouver, a 20-minute walk from parks and trails that they access rain or shine. “And the mountain is right behind us,” she adds.

Similarly, in Calgary, the kids don’t complain about the weather. “We always say that you have to find ways to make use of the winter and learn to love it because if you don’t, you will spend a lot of the year being unhappy,” says Foote. “We are a northern climate and because we are so close to the mountains, people build winter activity into their lives.” At one of the most popular activities at the school, the older kids build quinzee huts, made out of snow, and spend a night in them. “Teaching kids how to build a shelter develops a real sense of accomplishment,” she adds.

In Eastern Canada, at the South Shore Waldorf School and Kindergarten in Blockhouse, N.S., they’re also happy to take whatever comes their way. “I tell the kids we have to feel the hot and the cold, the wind and the rain, and the sun and the snow – they love it, especially when it’s windy,” says Donna Himmelman, the chair of kindergarten at the school. Her personal opinion? Children spend way too much time inside in front of screens. “Children thrive on physical activity and being outside is so calming for them,” she says. “Nature is inspiring and engaging – and there are no batteries required!”

The children in Himmelman’s class start each day with a forest walk. Recently, after a rainstorm, they went outside. Some children started shaking the branches on a tree, making raindrops fall on other children. “They were putting everything they had into it, and they created their own rainstorm,” she says. Another day, a porcupine was in a tree, chewing pinecones and tossing them down, leading Himmelman into a wonderful story about how the animals are preparing for winter.

Celebrating the season

Many of the Waldorf schools embrace winter traditions and festivals, such as the magical Children’s Winter Festival in January held at the Toronto school, which begins with a fairy telling the children a story and ending with boats set afloat into a woodland pond. And winter activities like skating on nearby rinks are also a good opportunity for kids to celebrate the season and to bond and build relationships, says Church. “The Grade 1 children all have a buddy in Grade 12, so throughout the year they might go skating together on a pond or on skating paths,” she adds.

At the Winter Concert at the Calgary Waldorf School, the winter comes with a tradition of celebrating different cultures, so children perform, reciting poems and singing Christian and Hanukkah songs, for example. Outdoor activities are as plentiful in the winter as they are in the summertime, including an overnight ski trip for Grades Four to Six, accompanied by adults. “There is nothing better than being in the Rockies with a bright sun overhead, on the mountains with good snow – even bad snow!” says Foote.

Every February, the Vancouver Waldorf School celebrates the Chinese New Year. “We have a large Asian population, and the Chinese parents facilitate the event,” says Brunetta. “It is a turning point, as the rainy season is coming to an end and the flowers are starting to bloom.”

At the South Shore Waldorf School and Kindergarten, they celebrate many traditions, including Christmas, Chinese New Year, and Hanukkah organized by the parents. Perhaps, then, Himmelman says it best: “We embrace everything – and push nothing.”

5 ways to embrace winter

  1. Keep it quick & easy: Go for a brisk walk with kids after dinner. It doesn’t have to be a marathon; even 20 minutes can be very invigorating.
  2. Take up a cold weather sport: Outdoor skating, skiing, snowboarding, and winter hiking are a lot of fun and not something you can do in the warm-weather months!
  3. Shake up your winter gear: Bright and colourful coats and jackets are not just for kids.
  4. Check your attitude: Stay positive and enjoy the gifts of winter, such as a roaring fire, a bowl of chili, and a hot beverage.
  5. Plan a winter vacation: It will give you something to look forward to.

Winter treats

  • There’s nothing like a cup of hot chocolate to warm you up after coming in from the outdoors. Here, a few more warming ideas.
  • Hot apple cider, lemon and honey, or herbal teas like chamomile are a good way to take the chill off.
  • Dishes such as beef or pumpkin stew, minestrone, and hot puddings will make family members happy.
  • A baked apple with cinnamon, a little brown sugar, and sprinkled with nuts is a healthy good-for-you treat.
  • Chocolate chip, shortbread, or gingerbread – pick your favourite, the cookie-baking season is here!

*Originally published February 23, 2016