“Science is not flat knowledge, formulae, names. It is curiosity, discovering things, and asking why. . . We must always begin by asking questions, not by giving answers . . . You can teach only by creating interest in what is around you, by creating an urge to know.” —Physicist Victor Weisskopf
In Waldorf schools, science education begins with experiencing and observing phenomena. Children are natural scientists—constantly exploring, observing, asking questions, and experimenting to understand the world around them. Young children in a Waldorf school acquire the basis for later scientific thinking through rich, sensory experiences, a variety of physical activities, and opportunities to observe and explore the natural world. Teachers share stories—fairy tales, animal fables, and nature stories—that help develop children’s imaginative relationship to the kingdoms of nature.
As they reach the older grades, children are beginning to develop a more objective relationship to the natural world. Students in main lesson blocks, such as botany, chemistry, and physics learn to carefully observe phenomena, and then engage in active thinking to discover order, patterns, and relationships; draw comparisons; refine observations; and experiment.
The science curriculum, like all aspects of Waldorf education, works with children’s developmental stages. For example, a third grader begins to feel him/herself growing up, gaining independence, and becoming part of the outer world. The third grade science curriculum—which includes farming, building, and measuring—gives students the opportunity to learn about three essential requirements for all of humankind: how we work with nature to provide ourselves with food, clothing, and shelter. These practical activities resonate with the children as they develop and solidify students’ scientific knowledge.
In science, as in other subjects, Waldorf teachers avoid giving students abstract, lifeless concepts and definitions. Instead, they strive to help students develop concepts that can grow and change. This “phenomenological” approach to science not only develops rigorous thinking, but also helps preserve the sense of wonder and reverence for the natural world that will serve the child for a lifetime.
The Science in Nature Program at the Waldorf School at Moraine Farm
Our Science in Nature program supports our teachers and the Waldorf curriculum through engagement with the rich and diverse natural world at Moraine Farm and nearby J.C. Phillips Preserve.
As part of the program, Coleen Ryan, an experienced environmental educator, thoughtfully identifies outdoor activities that can be integrated into the curriculum and helps class teachers engage the students in these activities. The third grade yurt visit organized by Coleen Ryan is an example of a recent Science in Nature excursion.
The Third Grade Visits a Yurt
In January, the third grade class visited a yurt at Project Adventure, a partner organization on our shared Moraine Farm property. This visit coincided with the students’ shelter block, in which they learned about and constructed different types of shelters and dwellings. Exploring the inside of the yurt enabled the students to study the internal structure and imagine where they would sleep, eat, and work—an experience that fueled their thoughts about how they would build their own shelters.
After the yurt visit, the class headed down a trail and found a quiet spot overlooking Wenham Lake. It was an unseasonably warm day for January and there was a blanket of mist on the water. Each student sat next to a tree, taking some time to reflect in silence. During this time, they noticed what they could observe using their senses: touch, smell, hearing, and sight. Ducks swam by, crows cawed, and lichen was discovered in the minutes that passed. The group even saw a bald eagle fly across and land on a tree on the opposite side of the lake. When it was time to leave, all the students wished they had more time, and agreed they would need to return again soon.
For more information about the phenomenological approach to science in Waldorf schools, see The Teaching of Science by David Mitchell and Learning to See Life: The Goethean Approach to Science by Craig Holdrege.
By Jenny Helmick, Coleen Ryan and Miriam Silva Preas