July-August 2010 Selected Content
Sunshine, Fairies and Physics? - Angela Chenus
Discovering balance at Heathrow Airport, London
Gently encouraging, a little more insistent, and finally my removing covers and bodily pulling children out of bed was the way we began our first day of exploring physics. Both children had agreed to rise pre-dawn with me to go for a walk in the dark and listen to what the world sounded like early in the morning. They had, in fact, insisted on doing so right away, the day after I proposed the idea. Originally, I thought I would take one out at a time, to make it special and to ensure silence. They had fought over who got to go first, and I ended up conceding to let them both come along on the same day. However, even an enthusiastic junior scientist has a hard time at 4 a.m.
Pondering the silence, or what you can still hear when the world seems silent, was the aim of our early trek. We did not speak; we made our way down our suburban street to our favorite bike path along a wide creek, first led by porch lights and then by flashlights as the darkness became complete in the woods. It felt mysterious, a little dangerous, a little spooky and hopefully a little bit reverent, to be out when most of the world around us slept.
The ensuing journal entries upon returning home were less than inspiring. "Mama took us to Duck Creek Bridge and we heard the traffic from the road and some frogs." But it was a start. The following day, we spoke of the sounds we don't always pay attention to but that surround us nonetheless. We talked about how the human ear can pick up so much yet can also block it out when it wants or needs to--like when you are in the middle of a really good book, and Mom is calling you to set the table. Next we would consider music and how different songs made us feel, how words too, affect us. We listened to poetry describing the sounds of the creation of the spheres. Then we considered; can we block out the words that hurt us and pay attention to ones that make us feel and act better? We then went on to the mechanics of sound; how it is produced, how it changes with different sized pipes, containers and lengths of string. We were studying physic, in sixth and seventh grade.
In our own Waldorf-inspired way, we have progressed from many walks in the woods, sailing on the Mississippi, and camping and gardening, to delving deeper into the workings of the heavens and the earth. I have five children, aged two up to thirteen, so they are all at different levels of questioning and comprehension.
For years I have read stories of fairies and gnomes and all of the helpers seen and unseen that help the flowers grow. There were wonderful tales of how the gnomes deep underground take care of the crystals and minerals that introduced children to geology. We have gazed up at the stars and the moon and told the stories the ancient peoples of Greece and America told of the way they came to be. We have enjoyed many sunsets, painting the beautiful colors in reverence the following day. Anne of Green Gables and her fanciful names for all beautiful places outdoors has been a part of our lives. While we all still delight in the antics of Puck the Gnome and naughty leprechauns, the older children are full of more questions and curiosity that go beyond their younger days.
Botany, naturally, is the first topic to be formally presented in the Waldorf curriculum in grade five. It springs from everything immediately surrounding us and in use every day. When we eat, breathe and look out of the window, we use and see the goodness and beauty of plants. In our family, gardening has always occupied many of our hours of the spring and summer. Watching a tiny seed to a sprout to a tomato or a sweet pea, the children have observed, cared for and partaken of the bounty of the harvest.
Botany studies ranged from examining yeast and the way it operates to learning and drawing the parts to flowering plants. My daughters, typically, love the tulips and the butterflies best, my son the bacteria.
Our physics unit progressed to optics; we studied the sunset one evening, just the three of us. In a family of five children, I have found that creating reverence for natural phenomenon can be as simple as including just one or two children for a special experience. The fact that they get to go along and not the others makes it different from an every day trip to the library or grocery store.
The younger children love to look up activities in The Kids' Winter Handbook or Sunny Days and Starry Nights. They like to have their own science projects, and my eight-year-old can be very busy hidden in the bathroom doing experiments for hours on end. She was given a children's science kit for her birthday. We have had no end of gooey blue, orange and green substances produced in petri dishes, along with truly awful perfumes she has concocted, some stored way too long in the basement.
Our current unit is astronomy. We are waiting for a clear night to chart the constellations here in the US before heading to France and comparing the night sky there. Along the way we will see documentaries on famous French and American astronomers and get out the fables and Native American tales describing how the stars came to be placed in the sky. It should be a perfect summer endeavor.
Can I always calibrate what they have learned on a given day? Can it be graded, corrected and deemed useful? I am not sure the children need it to be. What I am certain of is that there is wonder and discovery and a desire to learn more. This is my main job; the rest is up to them.
© 2010, Angela Chenus