It’s the first day of school and a brand new class of kindergarteners are seeing the Waldorf School of Baltimore’s newest classroom for the first time. Fourteen sets of wide, wonder-filled eyes take in the newly constructed space as they are warmly welcomed by their teachers, Ms. Lida Lawrence and Ms. Haley Snyder. In this classroom, students find a beautiful play kitchen (built by a loving grandparent), open ended play materials, child-sized stools, and new wooden tables ready for snack time and art projects. No one can deny this is a beautiful space to learn. There is, however, one thing noticeably missing: this classroom has no walls.
In an era where early academic pressures are being put onto younger and younger learners, the Waldorf School of Baltimore is seeing the pendulum swing back towards a more developmentally appropriate entry into education. In fact, their Waldorf Kindergarten program has become so popular that this year, as the school celebrates its fiftieth birthday, they found need to open a second class and an opportunity was born: to create an outdoor classroom called Chestnut Woods to house their first ever Forest Kindergarten.
“The trend in mainstream education is to have kindergarten look more like an elementary grade with direct academic instruction and lots of desk time. We are giving children the gift of one more year to learn through self-initiated play, movement and ample time in nature”, says lead teacher Lida Lawrence, who is currently adding to her already accomplished list of accreditations by certifying as a level three Nature Teacher through the Eastern Regional Association of Forest and Nature schools.
The new Forest K classroom is nestled in the beautiful Waldorf Woods found along the northernmost edge of Baltimore City. Stone steps were built leading down from the main campus, which is itself a certified wild-life habitat and Maryland Green School. Wildflowers were planted and natural boulders and logs placed to provide terracing among the trails. Here the time-tested Waldorf Kindergarten curriculum of circle time and stories, painting and craft work, practical skills and social exploration play out in complete nature immersion (a beautiful classroom on the main campus can be used for exceptionally inclement weather).
The Waldorf curriculum translates easily outdoors and is supplemented by the unique gifts this exceptional space offers: bark, mulch, stone, wood, water and the seasonal breezes all provide important sensory input. The use of swings, slides, terraces, paths, and slopes out in nature engages the children in new ways and aids their emotional intelligence and their self-regulation. A water station with a cistern and a hand pump develops rhythm, hand dominance, core muscles – while allowing all types of sensory rich water play. Forest K students also enjoy a daily quiet or rest time swinging in a hammock, further engaging their vestibular systems and leading to to positive emotional regulation, balance, and focus.
And for all that, let’s not forget what the children say is the most important part: Forest K is just plain fun.