At Taos Earth Children, we focus on getting the children “into their bodies” and out of doors. Through the developing coordination of our limbs and fine motor skills, as well as the routine practice of observation through our senses, a child’s mind and imagination are fully engaged and activated. No classroom can compete with the tactile reality of Mother Earth, and most school days will be spent outside full time, often hiking into canyons and forests, visiting rivers, and other wilderness settings. By moving through the landscape, we open our eyes and ears, our minds and hearts, to the world that surrounds us, helping shape a child’s quiet reverence and enthusiastic joy for their own body, their immediate surroundings, and the value of the earth as a whole.
Informed by the Waldorf curriculum, our outdoor, nature-based kindergarten involves movement and rhythm games, songs that weave together the holidays and seasons, pedagogical stories, and lots of creative play. Crafts are designed to encourage children to use the resources that surround them, making gnomes out of tree branches, weaving grass into crowns, and grinding colorful rocks into powders and pastes of color. Each day the children observe the animals and insects that inhabit the location, and feel the temperament of the weather. Being outdoors requires a constant attunement to the sky and landscape. We never forget where we are. These lessons imbue each child with an attentiveness, a resilience, and an ability to learn, adjust, and adapt.
In her training as a European educator, Silke Markowski studied the developmental stages from infant to adult. After thirty years of teaching, she has had the fortune to witness children in her kindergarten classes go through grade school, high school, college, and even become young adults, some of whom now have children of their own. “Children who connect early on to their bodies and hearts, who know their local springs, plants and fairies, these children become healthy adults, capable of standing in leadership through a firm sense of self.”
We support this process first by observing the unique gifts within each child. By meeting each individual where they are, we can then help them find a way to contribute to our little tribe. Along the way, we develop the social skills required for the survival of the whole. We also learn to walk in gratitude, to ask permission when we enter into nature’s classroom, and to express ourselves honestly. Often we are joyful, but sometimes we are grumpy. Sometimes our best friends find a different playmate and turn a cold shoulder to us. Through song, story and play we meet these feelings and other concerns of children. When conflicts arise, we listen. By give space and attention, each child has a chance to feel heard and contribute to a resolution. Each day is full of surprises, whether it comes from the weather, an animal visitor, or an internal storm. The children often carry each other’s backpacks, or offer to carry a friend’s jacket. As a small tribe, we have to rise to each occasion as a whole, and this teaches the children the importance of interdependence.
Readiness for life is learned in every storm we encounter. We huddle under tarps during the late summer rain, build shelter in the fall to protect from wind and snow, and make fires when the temperature drops in winter. Our climate is unique, but the readiness and skills the children learn can be carried to any setting. In extreme cold spells in winter and early spring, we have indoor spaces we can resort to. The program is shaped around the seasons and not around the public school schedule. We start in September after Labor Day, and end with the summer solstice in June. Our songs are offerings to Mother Earth, e.g., “The earth is our mother, we must take care of her”; “Oh great spirit, earth, wind, fire and sea”; “The heartbeat of the universe is dancing with my heartbeat.”
Arts and crafts become very functional activities, such as cutting wood, sanding, nature pictures, mandalas, chalk drawings on rock, rock drawings on soil, wood and rock sculptures, collecting different colored items, such as red clay, purple flowers, and golden stalks of grass. We draw with dandelions, make animals and gnomes with mud, weave flower crowns, and make grass angels for the outdoor Christmas tree. Puppet shows with dolls made in nature, such as Chamisa Girl and Juniper Boy, create unique magic for the children as stories literally rise from the earth. Hollow bones become a spy glass with which we watch the real eagle that soars nearby, or the mountain goat that jumps through our little canyon. Snakes find their way into our hands, as do lizards and spiders. By doing so with guidance, the children learn to identify plants and creatures that are safe, and those that are dangerous. We learn to respect the cactus as a guardian of the land, to identify poisonous plants and animals, and to be cautious near the river, on steep paths and icy patches.
Nature puts us to the test daily, as do humans. We teach the children to approach every human with eye contact and a direct approach. While many people have dogs that are not used to children, we help establish contact and also teach children how we can be a fierce Mama or Papa Bear if a dog is approaching us with a fierceness that is scary. The children learn to gather around the teachers and to respond quickly in the case of a challenging encounter. Most people in the outdoors appreciate our presence. We collect trash and try to contribute to the beauty of nature. Our beauty as human beings is expressed through our song, our laughter and tears. The nature spirits are truly happy when the children shout: “Oh, this was the best day ever!”; “Look what I found!”; “This is the trail we walked in the fall. Look, it’s all flooded by spring snow melt!” By knowing our surroundings through all seasons, we come into right relationship.
In addition to our regular locations, we connect with people and places that encourage healthy and sustainable living, such as Mer-Girl Gardens with farmer Ron Boyd, where we participate in fall harvest and spring planting. At Auromesa, an ayurvedic healing center on the mesa, we are introduced into the art of meditation, sound and story from the East. At Lama Foundation, an intentional community that has sustained itself for over fifty years, the children get to experience a fully-functional “off-grid” community, where the water is sourced from life-sustaining springs, and all power comes from the sun. The open Sky Dome, the outhouses, communal kitchen, and altars on the forest path invite the children to experience something very unique that many people travel thousands of miles to seek. At Taos Pueblo, we honor the local people, which have sustained themselves and lived through tremendous changes while continuing to uphold traditions, dances and important knowledge about farming and hunting in the Taos area. We encourage our families to participate in their feast days and to take off school during events like San Geronimo Day.
At New Buffalo, another fifty year-old community, we plan to celebrate our annual festivals among people who are active participants in creating community. The multi-generational community, of which Joe is a member, upholds the multi-generational aspect of village life which is important for our children to witness to have a true understanding of what it means to be human. The elders rejoice in the presence of the young children, the children are delighted by the games and events, and the parents are supported. All have an opportunity to experience the village ethic. With animals, gardens, a flowing acequia, a pond, labyrinth, indoor and outdoor gathering spaces, the buffalo community room, and a shared kitchen, festivals become easy endeavors without the need for so much preparation and organization. Our events become a reflection of a life lived with a consciousness that respects the other and knows how much we need and rely on each other as human beings.
Silke Markowski is a teacher with more than thirty years of experience. She carries the core curriculum, such as stories, poems and songs in her being and with every movement of her body. Her assistant teacher, Joe Brodnik, who has a young daughter in the class, is deeply connected with nature and community. His storytelling skills, which are entertaining and scientific, are a beautiful addition to the magical tales of fairies and gnomes that inhabit Silke’s stories. We teach the children through working together, like a mother and father, giving a sense of wholeness to every child in our care. This is vital in a time of fragmentation, disconnection from family, divorced parents, and cross-country moves. We form a little tribe in the great outdoors, and thus teach the lesson of family. The children become like brothers and sisters, and our bond lasts long beyond the kindergarten years. Though Silke is a certified Waldorf teacher, and we study many unique schools and traditions from around the world, we do not seek affiliation with larger organizations. We remain independent and free, so that we may grow organically. We make an impact through our core strengths and our ability to show up authentically at any given moment.
Parenting work is different with Taos Earth Children, as many parents did not have the opportunity to experience learning in this way for themselves. Therefore, it takes tremendous courage and trust on the parent’s part to release their child into nature and to stand their ground in an educational culture that pushes conformance and standardized testing. Our parents are generally unique individuals who have a strong sense of self. They do not fear being seen as different, and often continue with a home school curriculum or a Waldorf learning journey through grade school. For most of our parents, the education of their child is interwoven with their personal beliefs and the way they choose to live life.
Participation in festivals, farm work fieldtrips, individual parent meetings and willingness to read the weekly parent newsletter is requested of all involved. We encourage families to tend to their needs, and our families often travel during the school year while remaining committed to the program.
Taos Earth Children invites children and parents of all cultural backgrounds to add to their uniqueness and to help lay the foundation of a multicultural community. By understanding the gifts each one of us has received from our parents and historical backgrounds, while at the same time fostering the soil for the new growth of healthy, balanced human beings, we keep the indigenous seed in all of us alive and strong.
Waldorf Today - A website devoted to sharing the ideology of modern Waldorf schools, with excellent articles and resources.
Forest Kindergarten Article - NY Times article, with accompanying video.
Forest Kindergarten Video - A brief introduction to a forest kindergarten in Denmark.
Forest School Guide - An in-depth guide for parents of children in similar schools in Canada.
Child and Nature Alliance of Canada - A Facebook resource for like-minded folks.
Is the U.S. Education System Producing a Society of “Smart Fools”? - An article in Scientific American May 31, 2017