On one of the first days of school two years ago I drove up to my son's school to find him high in the branches of a sweet gum maple. His teacher stood relaxing below, her eye watching children speckled around the yard nearby. After I parked and approached the school, he began calling out with an obvious confidence and pride: "Mom, I'm up here! Mom, I'm up here!" The litigious society we live in has taken us quite a distance from the world I explored when I was my son's age and spent countless hours high up in any tree I could find. But here was my son, living proof that a place still exists where children can climb and enjoy and experience themselves in childhood. For the past two years he has come home from school with stronger sense of who he is in the world. And it's not just because he's allowed to climb trees at school.
My son attends the Shining Rivers School, now located in Webster Groves. Shining Rivers is St. Louis' Waldorf School. Even though I have had a good portion of my life in arts and education, I had not heard of Waldorf until just a few years ago myself. But since then, I have discovered what most of Europe and many cities and communities along both coasts in the United States know well: the Waldorf approach to education attends to a child's development with a unique multidisciplinary curriculum. "Schooling the Head, Hands and Heart," reads a tag line on many Waldorf publications. These days, everybody knows what to say in selling schools. We talk of "learning styles" and "multiple intelligences." At Shining Rivers School, I've found a gem of an institution with genuine resolve in action towards holistic education. More than in any educational environment I've ever worked in or been a part of as a parent, Shining Rivers dedicates itself to each child.
To be sure, a Shining Rivers student will have more outside free time, in any sort of weather, than any other student in the metro area. They will be allowed to run and pretend in creative and unstructured play throughout their elementary years. Since gardening is an important part of the Waldorf pedagogy, children working the soil, planting and harvesting, increases the amount of time they spend outside, too. Field trips generally are dedicated to explorations of nature: walks along hiking paths, harvesting apples or pumpkins, watching eagles, or, with older students, caving and rock climbing.
In the classroom, elements of rhythm underscore a Waldorf student's day. A Shining Rivers student will follow a highly structured schedule of academic classes. Much is predictable. Every child meets his/her teacher each day upon entering the classroom with a good morning handshake with direct eye contact. Students change into "indoor shoes" (soft soled slippers) and find their individual desks. A morning verse is said together followed by the class playing a recorder tune. Children then set to work on "main lesson." The one and a half hour block of time is devoted to either language arts or math. These blocks of main lesson time alternate monthly. In this way students give considerably concentrated attention to a particular subject. Children do not study subjects from textbooks, and students and parents will see few worksheets. Shining Rivers students will never be placed in front of a video for either instruction or entertainment. Without computers, children write and illustrate their own main lesson books.
Children practice physical exercises as part of academic work, as well. Both math and language arts incorporate movement and dance exercises called "eurhythmy." With eurhythmy, the rhythm of body and mind work together. Children recite poems, verses and mathematics as simultaneous exercises with eurhythmics. This mind-body connection builds a strong foundation for each student's understanding of essential academic elements. Another Waldorf essential has children study two foreign languages. At Shining Rivers, "grades students," as elementary students are called, study German and Spanish. In the afternoon hours, handwork, gardening, cooperative games, wood work or free play balance the day.
I want my child to have meaningful relationships with people he cares about and who care about him. No, I cannot guarantee or expect that Jacob will grow up to agree with all of the values our family emphasizes. But we do feel lucky and comfortable in a school community that dovetails so implicitly with our home life. The cultural aspects of Waldorf education and Shining Rivers School were a perfect fit for our family. Just yesterday, my son attended a birthday party for one of his classmates. Her gifts from other children included polished rocks, a beautiful handmade necklace, hand-painted glass eggs, and homemade cards. The party was special for the friends gathered, not for the amount of money the host family had spent on the party nor the dollar value each family had spent on a gift.
Shining Rivers, like all Waldorf Schools, does recite verses that reference god, soul and spirit. For example, each morning, my son's class says:
"The sun with loving light makes bright for me each day,
The soul with spirit power gives strength into my limbs,
In sunlight shining clear I reverence oh God,
The strength of human kind which thou so graciously hast planted in my soul
That I with all my might may love to work and learn.
From thee come light and strength to thee rise love and thanks."
Children are shown and taught a reverence for nature. They will study stories from holy books, folklore and world mythologies. However, the god talk children and parents encounter is ecumenical, openhearted, inclusive and respectful. The Shining Rivers School community includes and welcomes people of any faith and no faith.
Three more shared values rest in the center of Waldorf education and Shining Rivers School. For one, families encourage healthy eating habits. Some of our families are vegan or vegetarian, and some eat meats and fish, but all of us agree to send our children to school with nutritious lunches and snacks. Second, we all agree to limit the amount of media, television, radio and computer/video games our children consume. Thirdly, we adhere to a dress code for the children of loose-fitting play clothes without logos or advertisements.
All schools rightly ask for devotion and time from parents. Parents, no matter where children attend school, find the best results for their children and themselves when the school culture and the home life fit comfortably. We were lucky to find Shining Rivers for Jacob. We were also lucky to find Shining Rivers for ourselves as parents. At pick-up time, I might find Jacob in a tree, or laughing with friends. And sometimes, if timing is just right, I'll get there in time to hear the children sing the school song at the end of the day. This moment always reaffirms why there is no other place like Shining Rivers.
"Shining Rivers flowing free
Fonts of wisdom may you be
With our hearts and heads and hands
We'll share our love throughout the land
Share our love throughout the land."
Francine Brungardt parents, gardens, tends to civic
matters, reads, writes and makes art. She lives in the whole wide world and
yet resides in University City, MO, with her husband Paul Rothstein, their son
Jacob and a hissy family cat named "Poodness."