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Waldorf School and Children's Garden team up for new program

Students at ‘Autumn Explorations’ work together to construct a zipline. Alyvia Covert/Ithaca Week
The Ithaca Waldorf School will implement a new afterschool program this fall in collaboration with the Ithaca Children’s Garden. The program, called Autumn Explorations, focuses on play in order to develop a child’s creative thought process.

Andrew Strauss, the afterschool program coordinator at the Ithaca Children’s Garden, has created a new curriculum for Autumn Explorations that educates the students about the environment and encourages them to think independently.

Strauss has based his plans for the program this year around a philosophy implementing playwork into a child’s schedule. Playwork, a term coined by Carl Theodor Sorensen in 1947, revolves around the idea that children should be in charge of their own playtime, free of any adult control.

“It’s based around [the idea] that kids have the right to play and to direct their own play because it’s really the only time they’re in control of what’s going on. Going along with that, play is important for all kinds of development. Kids are exploring different social roles. It’s about being hands-off and making sure you’re following their agenda,” Strauss said.

Strauss has provided a very flexible curriculum for Autumn Explorations that gives children time to play in order to promote their independent minds. The program activities vary weekly but Strauss permits the children to play freely and work together to decide which activities they would prefer to do. This method allows the children the opportunity to cooperate with one another and to become more autonomous.

The collaboration of the Waldorf School and the Ithaca Children’s Garden (ICG) has combined Waldorf curriculum and philosophy into a playtime within nature to help foster learning as a young environmental steward. The afterschool program is funded by an entrance fee of $16 a day and allows the children the opportunity to choose between several different activities each week. In the first week of the program, the children created nature mobiles and worked in tandem to construct a homemade zip-line to ride along.

Erin Fitzgerald, director of the Ithaca Waldorf School as well as the movements and games director, believes that this playtime is an important aspect to a child’s developmental process.

“We follow the kind of philosophy that gives the children a curriculum that meets them where they are developmentally,” she said, “So our early childhood program is focused on physical play because the children are really learning through their physical actions.

Along with taking a more hands-off approach to play, Strauss said he realizes that he cannot bombard his students with information.

“This is an afterschool program, and it is after school, so I don’t want to overwhelm them with more structured learning. Giving them that space is helpful in terms of development,” Strauss said.

Katie Woodworth, a kindergarten teacher at Waldorf, stays after school with students everyday. She was excited about the Autumn Explorations program because it gives the children she supervises the opportunity to expand their school day beyond the classroom.

“They’re still learning but they get to do some things that there isn’t time for in the class setting. They get the chance to play with someone from a different class or to build stuff with their hands,” Woodworth said.

In addition to encouraging independent thinking and creativity, administrators said the Autumn Explorations helps to cultivate environmental awareness and appreciation early in the children’s education.

“Creating a time and place for kids to zone into nature is a wonderful thing,” Erin Marteal, executive director at ICG, said, “[There is] a greater aptitude for appreciating, and therefore growing up to care about and conserve the natural world as adults.”

Strauss said that fostering this environmental understanding was an important part in the work he is planning for the children. He also addressed the practices the children can take with them as they grow older.

“The main goal of ICG, and what I’m trying to do, is connect kids with nature and tie play into that,” he said, “When you care about being outside, you care about taking care of it.”

Strauss said he has several other innovative activities planned for future programs at the Waldorf School, including one called Sounds of Nature, which will focus on combining music with the environment.

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