How Educators Use the Environment to Help Students Thrive

How Educators Use the Environment to Help Students Thrive

To escape the polio outbreaks so rampant in the U.S. through the 1950s, my mother Nancy and her cousin Bev left the city to spend their childhood summers in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. We visited recently and stopped by their first home, which their grandfather designed and built in 1940. We parked at the house to take photos outside.

At that same moment, Yan Rotenstein drove down the driveway with his two children. They were leaving, but Rotenstein encouraged us to explore the backyard which, to our surprise, featured a huge TeePee, a hobbit’s home, roping and netting like a pirate’s getaway, and other settings. Everywhere we looked, we saw a vignette where children could interact with their environment. We couldn’t help but wonder why the home, which turned out to now be a school, looked that way. Curious about how setting factors into a child’s education, I couldn’t wait to interview Rotenstein and teacher Courtney Steed of Children’s Garden Myrtle Beach to learn more about what the Waldorf educational approach means, and how different environments can be leveraged to help student learning.

Jenny Rankin (JR): Please explain what Waldorf-inspired schools are.

Yan Rotenstein (YR) and Courtney Steed (CS): Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy of education emphasized the importance of a naturally beautiful setting conducive to educating the child’s sense of aesthetics, and creating a supportive, not distracting or even harsh, space in which to learn. There are no right angles here. The enclosed spaces here, the TeePee and the earth mound structures, are round. Waldorf schools turn to organic materials, high-quality art supplies, and a sustainable approach to create a most natural atmosphere in the classroom. The curriculum is based on the key elements of Steiner’s ideas about holistically educating the child’s mind, body, and soul.

JR: How does this approach differ from that of traditional schools?

YR & CS: It is precisely this, the holistic approach to educating the child, that differs most from traditional schools. Also, the natural environment and emphasis on outdoor play and movement. For example, our daily curriculum includes yoga, ballet, organic gardening, and an hour nature walk.

JR: How does the environment in which students are learning impact their growth?

YR & CS: In a huge way. Just a few minutes spent with students speaks to the power of this approach to education. They are tree climbers, as an example; you can imagine the coordination and agility developed by spending time daily climbing trees (barefoot of course). The play yard has a ninja ropes course, slackline, zip line, trampoline, and climbing web. These are children who are in tune with their bodies and the level of confidence they thus demonstrate is immediately evident. They walk around with erect posture and are prepared to tackle whatever the day has in store—always ready for the next adventure.

JR: What combination of instructional strategies do you find best translates into learning for kids?

YR & CS: Our teachers use the holistic philosophy of Rudolf Steiner combined with a deep love and respect for Mother Earth to educate our children.

JR: You also run a rejuvenating retreat for adults. How does the instructional method for adults differ from the approach with children where the environment is concerned?

YR & CS: As far as the difference in teaching the children vs. the adults of our evening retreats: I would say it’s not that different, the environment takes care of the priming of the child or the adult; it takes their guard down and makes them excited for something special. However, because the retreat only lasts one evening, the short time that is left is used to shock the adult back to a state of normalcy through very intense and spiritual practices that include breath work, gong, chakra meditation in a sweat lodge, and a freezing cold bath. The child having a year-long curriculum can experience the change and the growth in a much gentler way.

JR: Thank you both for your time describing these different approaches to learning, and for all you do to help others grow.

Jenny Grant Rankin, Ph.D., is a Fulbright Specialist for the U.S. Department of State.

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