Huddled among the gardens and historic buildings within the Abbotsford Convent precinct is a Steiner school. Each week the little pitter patter of feet make their way along the winding paths to the playgroup for the under three year old’s in the cottage and the nature playgroup down in the veggie garden for three to five year old’s. Like the plants that sprout and grow around them, the children are in a continuous state of development. Here the parents and children become knowledgeable about the seasons and the outdoor world through exploratory play. Friendships are forged as the playgroup children play and discover things in the garden that create moments of wonder and delight. Steiner early childhood education is all about the child's creative experience, self-exploration and learn as they go approach. Stories, nature, art, imitation and human interaction guide this learning at a playgroup age. This month, we visit the Sophia Mundi Steiner playgroup and consider the different ways learning and well-being is shaped during early childhood.

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Parents and children gather. It is a natural phenomenon and an intrinsic human need. A type of playgroup has forever been part of communities. The simple notion of families getting together to allow their children to play has been longstanding. Our forthcoming generation of parents and children are having a different experience than those who have come before them as technology propels us all into a sphere where contemporary modes of communication are commonplace, even for the very young. Steiner and Waldorf education has offered an alternative to mainstream academia for children around the world for some time, now in its 100th year. With an increasing focus on gadgets and automisation, the Steiner philosophy is an appealing prospect for many parents in the modern world, as they explore what they believe is best for the well-being of their child.

On the north-east edge of the Melbourne city grid, behind hipster coffee shops, trendy bars, op shops, office nooks and trundling trams is a patch of green. On this bit of acreage in Abbotsford, birdsong fills the air, farm animals potter in paddocks and children play happily at the Sophia Mundi Steiner School.

The school was founded in 1985 and has quietly been a great source of joy for children, especially those who attend the playgroup.

Playgroup leader Vicky Stock describes it as a small village-like school on the Abbotsford Convent site.

“It is blessed by being surrounded by bush with views across to Collingwood Children's Farm. It is a sanctuary in the middle of the city, offering an enriching and holistic education.” 

Both Steiner playgroups centre around self-exploratory play.

“The children are invited to join in with singing and simple movements but are never coerced. We know young children take in everything in their environment and they often will join in through the strong desire to imitate whatever we do. However at this age if they need to be moving and playing instead of sitting for a story then that's fine.” 

There is a rhythm to both playgroups that allows for a “breathing in” time and a “breathing out” time. A balance between free play and times when the group comes together. This rhythm ensures that the children do not get overtired and go home cheerfully.

There is a calmness within the playgroup that one cannot help but think stems from the interconnectedness with the natural surrounds. The children can run around outside and explore their playgroup cottage, becoming attune with the weather and the seasons as they traverse and change. It is here that the children experiment and find their place in the world which is very big to them.

“Young children thrive in the outdoors. Away from the distractions of screens and four walls they can be in their physical bodies - moving, rolling, climbing, digging. Experiencing the elements- rain, wind, sunshine. Feeling connected, restored and gaining a sense of belonging. So vital in building a healthy body and healthy brain."

As the young children’s brains and bodies are scurrying to learn more and explore more, they are making subtle progress in continuous momentum, in a slowly changing environment. Vicky watches as the children play and discover more about the natural cycles of our world. From a young age, they are learning cause and effect from the ground up.

“In our nature playgroup the children connect to the natural world through sensory exploration, digging and finding worms, harvesting herbs to make pot pourri, learning how to grow plants and gain a respect and care towards all living creatures. Parents too feel revitalised and gain a sense of well-being.” 

The Sophia Mundi nature playgroup is quickly being joined by other nature groups and schools that are popping up in the background like wild flowers in the bush.

Green School in Bali opened in 2006 by founders John and Cynthia Hardy with the idea of providing their home schooled daughters with a beautiful place to learn. Their idea burgeoned into something meaningful, allowing children to learn things of practical use, while also learning hands-on skills and caring for the environment. People travel from all over the world to have their children attend the Green School.

The students at Green School in Bali build bridges and bamboo bikes. Here the kids are implementing sustainability in their every day. It is an incorporated and fundamental part of their learning, similar to the experience of school students who visit to the Collingwood Children’s Farm. At the farm there are animals that need to be milked, fed and cared for and a farmers’ market teaches the children about the home-grown sustainable approach to living. 

If we take heed of science and all that it is predicting, we require alternatives to fuel us and keep us functioning sustainably into the future. One part of that enormous, complex dilemma is providing the younger generation with an appreciation for nature and ways in which to keep it healthy.

The Merri Creek Bush Playgroup in Brunswick and Wild Things Bush Playgroups created as part of the BushPlay Project in North East Victoria are preaching similar philosophies.

BushPlay Project founder Jarrod Paine strives to connect people and nature.

"Encouraging and empowering children and their carers to interact with the natural world regularly is where true human-wealth is located. The feel of rough bark across enquiring hands and soft mud between the toes are priceless investigations, vital to understanding the world we live in and our part in it. Play in nature knows no boredom, but a child who knows not how to play in nature does. As part of the work of the BushPlay Project I'm passionate about investing in adults to get outdoors with their little Wild Things and to do it regularly, safely and with their peers."

As we imagine and ponder what the future holds, the question remains, what learning practices work best for our children; what will hold them in good stead for the future. Research continues to show that children are becoming anxious earlier and that can be attributed to less outdoor play and human interaction- and less free time for children to get bored. There is less opportunity to get bored these days as smart phones, iPads, Netflix and computer games draw children to technology.

For playgroup-aged children, free play is still vital to aid development and refine skills.

Renowned American children’s entertainer Fred Rogers said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” It was an astute observation and one that studies attest.     

Playgroup Victoria’s Research Manager, Dr Joanne Tarasuik loves data. She applies evidence and logic to her work every day and readily endorses the merits of free play and indeed the freedom to play.

“Play is so important that the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child recognizes that play is a right of every child.”2

In 2018, play can be eclipsed by a need to fill, to see and to stimulate. Dr Joanne observes this in both children and adults.

“With so much engagement for adults and children alike, it is possible to not experience boredom, especially now that we have mobile access to technologies. Boredom plays an important role in development. It helps a child’s imagination grow. So too does it offer opportunities for creativity, with the purpose of nothing more but passing time.”

Dr Joanne said that early years centres do not use an academic style of teaching, as you would observe in a school.    

“Instead they use play-based learning; “a context for learning through which children organise and make sense of their social worlds, as they engage actively with people, objects and representations”.3

Joanne said that while parents are encouraged to provide a stimulating home environment for their child and engage with them to enhance their potential, this can still be playful.

“What children learn each day enhances their understanding of the world from there on, so providing children with a strong foundation for future learning is important; it just doesn’t need to look like learning.” 

Learning comes about in many shapes and forms and it seems children require structure and free play to maintain a state of balance. They need books, stimulation and challenges, and they need time to switch off and soak in some fresh air. “We all need a tonic of wilderness,” said philosopher and naturalist Henry David Thoreau and he is indeed right in that assertion.

At the Sophia Mundi playgroup, screens are not introduced. The school does not use mobile phones, iPads, laptops etcetera in any of their programs that includes Primary - although the grade 6's might check things on a computer from time to time. 

“We acknowledge that technology does have a positive side and a place in our modern life but feel concern when younger children are increasingly spending time in front of screens instead of being fully present and engaging in the world. This is a time when they have so much to learn from the world around them. It's all in the doing and exploring and at times of course of having quieter moments to ponder and reflect,” said Vicky. 

Vicky Stock has not always been a teacher of the Steiner school. She initially trained as a teacher in the UK but came across Steiner education when her son was three years old. From there she attended a course on Wednesday nights at the Melbourne Rudolf Steiner School. When Vicky had her own child she sought something different.  

“It appealed to me because it gives students such a well-rounded education delivered creatively and with reverence. The whole child is nourished and the family too.”

Vicky relishes the unhurried time that she can shares with the playgroup.

“It is unhurried time that is of great value. We can really be in the present moment. We are on the land, using all of our senses.”

“There is always comfort to be found in nature. You can feel a part of it. Sometimes our lives are so complicated.”

Vicky hopes to inspire parents to continue to take children out into nature throughout their childhood after their playgroup years finish.

Vicky started the nature playgroup because she wanted families to have the confidence to take their children out in nature, not necessarily in parks, the botanic gardens or even the Collingwood Children’s Farm.

“Those times when you go for a walk along the creek or out into the bush or wander freely, to see where these wonderful things in nature are happening.”

“That curiosity, that wondering, that springs up for themselves.”

Sometimes the playgroup stops in the Convent garden and lies on the grass, looking up at the sky.

“We slow down and enjoy that unhurried time, even if it is just five minutes of time before we get up and move on.” 

Article by Sinead Halliday

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References:

1. Vanderbilt T. Welcome to the jungle: the Bali school attracting wealthy Western families. The Sydney Morning Herald. https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/welcome-to-the-jungle-the-bali-school-attracting-wealthy-western-families-20180117-h0jri9.html. Published February 3, 2018.

2. Office of the United Nations of High Commissioner for Human Rights. Convention on the Rights of the Child. General Assembly Resolution 44/25 of 20.; 1989. https://www.humanrights.gov.au/convention-rights-child.

3. Department of Education E and WR. BELONGING, BEING & BECOMING. The Early Years Framework. http://files.acecqa.gov.au/files/National-Quality-Framework-Resources-Kit/belonging_being_and_becoming_the_early_years_learning_framework_for_australia.pdf. Published 2009. Accessed December 22, 2015.

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