As we begin a new year and continue honoring our 50th anniversary, we will be sharing articles written by staff across our organization reflecting on our history, mission, and daily work. As we begin a new semester of a new year in the midst of the Omicron surge, we feel this article on educating in the 21st century is a relevant and fitting meditation for these winter days. Janene Ping is the lead teacher of the Morning Star Kindergarten and the Kindergarten Chair at Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School. She has taught early childhood for over two decades, and is also the founder and Artistic Director of the Magical Puppet Tree, which presents many beautiful puppetry stories at Hawthorne Valley festivals throughout the year.

by Janene Ping, Morning Star Lead Teacher & Kindergarten Chair

As I walk with the Kindergarten children through the fields and forests of Hawthorne Valley these days, the winds of change whisper in the trees. They send the leaves twirling in flight across the brilliant blue sky. A new school year has begun. We set our sails into the winds of the unknown. These are uncertain times—stormy seas are plentiful and vast, and yet, we are guided by the stars. Stars that invisibly hold up the blue day. Stars that gleam with intimation of the eternal – inspiring humanity through the ages with wonder and meditative inquiry to embrace the light of wisdom.

How often have I meant to go out to star gaze when the night is clear? Too often distraction or sleep overtakes me. I was thinking of this as I recently came across a poem that I have long admired:

The human heart can go the lengths of God…
Dark and cold we may be, but this
Is no winter now. The frozen misery
Of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move;
The thunder is the thunder of the floes,
The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.
Thank God our time is now when wrong
Comes up to face us everywhere,
Never to leave us till we take
The longest stride of soul we ever took.
Affairs are now soul size.
The enterprise
Is exploration into God.
Where are you making for? It takes
So many thousand years to wake,
But will you wake for pity’s sake!
Martinmas Lantern Walk
A Sleep of Prisoners introduces provocative insight into our navigation of this 21st century. Within the words Christopher Fry has sculpted, we gain an intimation that our adult awakening, hard won, is essential if we are to create the healing that humanity is in need of. As we have witnessed from current world-wide events, we suffer a pandemic of the coronavirus. But is there not also a spiritual dimension in which the continuing complex issues of prejudice, violence, and social/economic injustice sicken the soul? What are the remedies for such illnesses? Spiritual discipline that builds equilibrium of perspective is needed if we are to meet each day with renewed courage and commitment towards the good. Study, inspirational verse and prayer, meditation, immersion in the arts, play with children, communion with nature, service to others, embracing regenerative practices, being present to what life is asking of you, taking care…these are remedies that are available to us. Such conscious activities clear the skies so that we can steer our ship in the navigation of life. Then, perhaps the wisdom the stars intimate will be available to us.

As an educator of young children, I am consciously working with many aspects of our navigation through pandemic times that significantly affect individual well-being, relationships of family and community, and the biosphere of the earth. These are major influences on the development and learning capacities of children. In the microcosm of our Kindergarten world, we seek to support health and well-being. The creation of rhythm, and a gesture of care, is a good beginning – not only for the young child but also for generations of all ages. The tenets that guide our work may seem simple, but they require a discipline that is not to be taken for granted in the business of daily life. Below are some reflections from working with young children in this 21st Century.

 

Rhythm in Time

All the universe is in motion of cyclical rhythms; life upon this earth is possible because of this. Rhythm is the consistent repetition of sustaining activities that embrace diverse experiences. In an important way, breathing is a great example of a rhythm that sustains life, moving between two very different polarities. Both expansion and contraction are held within this rhythmical process. Healthy rhythm in the Kindergarten consists of play, work, and rest, activities that are oriented to the group—or the individual—and that which is teacher-led or child-led. These follow a schedule during the day that has the same time for meals, rest, and active engagement. The child that can trust in the rhythm of the day becomes secure. Within it, we have an opportunity to build healthy growth and resiliency.

An interesting facet is that no matter how much we strive to create such a rhythm, there will always be life situations that call for us to also be flexible. If consistency is established within the rhythm of the day, and also within the boundaries and guidelines that establish a healthy social culture, flexibility can be healthfully experienced. This equilibrium is resiliency. Throughout this, we need a sense of the “normal” – that which is expected, and we hope, will be fulfilled. One of the challenges during these times of disruption for the planet is a great sense of uncertainty – this brings stress and tension for most people.

The beauty of working with young children is that the rhythms of nature teach us the secrets of how to build a healthy life. We strive to create a spaciousness within each day in which we have the time needed to discover these.

Throughout the year, the rhythm of the day includes seasonal activities, including making beeswax candles.
A key part of each day is taking a walk and exploring the woods, fields, and streams that surround the school.

Relationships

Education is most successful for the young child if learning is in contextual relationship with family, friends, community, and world in which they live. The basic foundation of neurological pathways in the brain are built upon meaningful context, rhythm, and repetition. These early years are a time for healthy sensory immersion in nature, the building of small and large motor skill through active play, arts, crafts, and work, and loving relationships. It takes so much time for a child to develop a healthy sense of themselves in the world!

I have found that children who have had increased screen time due to pandemic isolation have less capacity for small and large motor skill tasks and more challenges with interactive social relationships. A child immersed in the context or real life, free of screens, learns how to tap into their own “locus of control,” to engage in life activities with good will. They are more likely to push through boredom and “occupy the present” with creative ideas. Keeping a child’s relationship to real time and place in meaningful context also allows for their healthy processing of challenges that are (hopefully) “child-size” and not overburdened by media images of a world that is beyond their (and sometimes, our own) comprehension to make sense of.

 

Resting in Goodness

Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School kindergarten
Because of the pandemic, many classes at HVS have spent as much time outside as possible. Here the Morning Star Kindergarteners have outside rest time, hanging in hammocks and listening to a story.
Each day in the Kindergarten we have a time for rest and story. To have time for rest, coming to quiet on an outer and inner level, is important for all of us. We tend to fill so much of our day with stimulation and business—but the balance lies in rest! Not all children are at peace in rest time; I have found there is an essential quality to bringing a sense of goodness to a child that allows them to truly rest. To feel safe, included, seen, heard, and loved builds a sense of well-being that is healing. This is so needed in today’s world.

When choosing a story to tell the children each week during rest time, I look to the wisdom within world folk and fairy tales—age old ethical values of kindness, compassion, courage, and service are treasures found within these tales. Within them, we can bring a living picture of how weakness is related to strength, how a fear can transform into a new capacity. It is essential that the young child can experience the truth of the goodness within humanity and the world. We work to bring many universal soul archetypes through these stories that embrace diversity and respect for our full world humanity. We are truly blessed if we can think back to a time when, as a child, we could rest in the goodness of the world.

Through it all, we strive for simplicity, and it is so important that we develop balance. In the world today, humanity often walks a tightrope of extreme tension. Polarized views tip us off balance. It is easy to misunderstand each other, and to categorize the “other” as they who have lost reason and their humanity. As I strive to learn more about all of the unique differentiations that human identity can embrace, I know it is human to make mistakes. Still we strive onwards, and hope our practice of forgiveness can be one of those stars that light the navigation of our course ahead. Our children learn from the ways we are in the world, the way we embrace challenge and work towards truth, beauty, and goodness. Our founders – Karl and Arvia Ege, Henry and Christy Barnes, and countless others in the years since, inspired us with these qualities. It has made our work here possible. May we continue in this stream—learning in today’s world, and into the future.