The Waldorf School Grade 5 Olympiad was an incredible event to witness: from the opening ceremony to the presentation of the laurels and the exchanges of congratulations among teachers and students, I was moved every step of the way. The displays of commitment, perseverance, form, grace, mental and physical strength, will, respect and support were nothing short of awe-inspiring.
The children have been training all year and this was the culmination of their preparation and hard work. The conditions were certainly not ideal - it was a cold, dark, rainy day, the field was muddy and unforgiving - but that did not dampen the spirits of the children.
There were countless touching moments, but one poignant moment for me came at the end of the day during the last run. The children were tired, cold, wet, and hungry and facing a degraded runway of water and mud, but none of that mattered. They were all totally immersed in the spirit of the event; they were truly present and living it. A boy running in the middle lane caught my attention. He demonstrated power, determination, form, and grace. In short, he displayed beauty in its most basic and purest form. He was striving to achieve his full potential. At that moment, he was the embodiment of the Olympic spirit. We all want to win. However, being successful at the Olympiad isn’t about jumping, throwing the javelin or the discus the farthest, running the fastest, or dominating your opponent in the wrestling ring. The most important aspect of the Olympiad is the display through your body and mind of the beauty of the human form and will.
Another noteworthy moment came as teachers placed medals around the necks of the children. They had guided these children every step of the way, observed every moment and relished every achievement. As they presented each medal, they spoke to each Olympian. I could see the love and dedication of the teachers as their faces beamed with pride. At that moment, as they looked into their eyes and saw the soul of that child, the immediate surroundings melted away. Their undivided attention served to give each child the reverence that they quite deserved. Each one had battled the elements honourably and gracefully. In the eyes of the teachers, all the children were champions.
I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to witness the beauty of mankind. Surely the Greek gods were pleased and were beaming with pride just as the teachers and spectators were.
RSCT Summer Festival of Art and Education
Encounters with Imagination:
“You may not believe this, but a bear caught his fur on the door latch as he was going out of the house, and… momentarily… the golden glow of the hidden prince that he truly was gleamed through.”
This happened in the festival storytelling course that I attended in the afternoons led by Dawne McFarlane. But, it happened all the time, really. I certainly experienced it in the ‘Bringing Language to Life’ course that I offered in the mornings – hatching the beauties hidden in the words we use and, as we attended to one another in the circle, catching glimpses of the gold in each one of us.
Much more than a school of instruction where knowledge is merely added, this ‘festival’ multiplied inside us. And not just in the classroom. The ‘encounters with imagination’ that we had signed up for moved out into the corridors of the Rudolf Steiner Centre and into our human encounters in snack times and mealtimes, into the pizza feast that Warren delighted us with in the garden, into the evening when we gathered to savour song and poetry and story. We laughed a lot during these weeks, cried a little, as the weather with its shining and thundering conspired to accompany us. So strong was the heat, in fact, that never in recorded history had Toronto experienced the like. It made the fire alarm go off at a crucial point in one of our afternoon stories.
What’s more, all the traffic lights in the neighbourhood revolted and nobody knew for a while whether it was time to go or stop or maybe… Such is the power of imagination - to discombobulate you sometimes, turning princes into bears, bears into princes. There is no maybe about it, though, that go we did at the end of our time together, out into the world, encouraged and inspired for our lives and work and relationships, and most grateful to those who arranged these festive encounters for us.
- Paul Matthews
by Dawne McFarlane - Storytellying Educator at RSCT
“ The child’s soul has an overpowering need to let fairy tale substance flow through itself,- just as the human body needs to let food substance circulate through it.” Rudolf Steiner (from “Fairy Tale Hunger,” Von Kugelgen)
As you can nourish your children’s growing bodies, so you can nourish their imaginations with stories. Fairy/folk tales are rich nourishment for the listener and the teller. There are rhythms and rhymes, patterns and repetition that appeal to children and guide the teller in remembering the sequences of the story. There are archetypal characters that symbolize goodness, evil, kindness, selfishness, loyalty, betrayal, light and dark. Goodness is always rewarded, and evil is always punished. Archetypal characters portray the human condition, providing noble examples to follow, evil ones to beware, and much more.
“A true fairy tale speaks pictorially of transformation, enchantment, release, telling over and over in this way the secrets of human existence. Man’s spiritual origin, his challenges, his victories and deliverances, all are described in child-language for a childlike humanity.” Helmut VonKugelgen, “Fairy Tale Hunger”
Children, in their innocence, still encounter darkness and light within their own character, and stories provide a safe and contained place for these emotions and sentiments to play out.
"Folktales are records of emotions carried through the centuries- part of a child’s rehearsals for adult life." Bruno Bettleheim
There is no need to explain who is good, bad, selfish, or kind in the stories. It is clear to the children in ways that adults may not be aware of. The British storyteller Peter Chand recalls telling the story of “The Three Little Pigs” to a classroom of young children. When the wolf blew down the little pig’s house, one child cried out “the bastard!” Later the teacher explained that it was unusual behaviour for that child to speak out like that, but the landlord was evicting his family from their home.
Stories can be selected to address issues the children are dealing with. When my oldest son was around 4 years old, he started having temper tantrums of great dimensions, usually in very public places while my arms were full with my youngest son. I tried carrying protein rich snacks at all times to ward off such moments, balancing our activities more mindfully, and other tactics I thought would solve the problem, but the temper tantrums continued and my patience wore thin. I read Dan Yashinsky’s account of using storytelling to distract children from difficult moments and help move through them. So the next time it happened, I started telling “Rumpelstiltskin,” who has a big temper tantrum at the end of the story and pulls himself in two. Of course I didn’t mean to frighten my child, and yet I thought there might be something cathartic about it for him. It distracted him and his brother, allowed me to breathe, and helped me to be a better parent in a precarious moment. I brought out that same story years later while they were arguing in the back of the car while I was driving on a long journey, and spun it out in “pre-teen” lingo for 2 hours, and their tempers cooled. It all sounds very calm now in recollection, but of course it wasn’t at the time and I wasn’t as mindful about it all in the moment as I can be looking back on it. It did illuminate to me that telling stories can be healing for listeners and tellers, and can help transform a difficult moment into a magical one. That doesn’t mean when they start hitting each other you launch into a story! It just means that in addition to instruction, “we don’t hit each other,” a story can help transmit lessons of good and bad behaviour in picture images to young children that they can receive readily.
"We’re hard wired for stories. If you want to tell somebody something…and really get the point across, you’re much more likely to be able to do it, in an emotionally affecting way, through a story." Margaret Atwood, Oct. 17/11 CBC radio interview
When children are older, you can talk more about the meaning of the story with them. My sons got really tired of the story “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” where each man thinks that the whole elephant is just like the ears, tusks, tail, or whatever section they can touch. However, it did help us to talk about all of the different points of view of the conflict at hand. The older the child or young adult, the more you can talk about the meaning of the story. And yet, there is always ancient wisdom that remains mysterious, lying just beyond our consciousness, working within us in ways we may realize years later. I worked with the story of “Snow White and Rose Red” for years before I noticed that there were two girls but only one guardian angel, and began to wonder what that might symbolize. And that’s the magic of story- there is so much to discover.
“The folk tale is the primer of the picture language of the soul.” Joseph Campbell, from the Commentary in the Grimm’s collection
There is a wholeness in fairy/folk tales that is important for young children. The kingdoms of nature, animals, and people live in harmony. Magic and wonder can be found everywhere. Young children perceive the world in this way, and fairy tales make sense to them. Nourishing them with picture images of wholeness and harmony gives them the capacity to imagine wholeness and harmony. It seems to me the more children are nourished by images of goodness and beauty, the more they will be able to face the darkness in the world when they are older, and imagine how the damage they encounter may be restored to wholeness and beauty. And therein lies our hope for the future.
Come and work with Dawne McFarlane at her summer workshop:
I have just returned from Brazil where the public schools are so under-resourced that anyone who can afford it sends their children to private schools. These offer a ticket to opportunity and a better life. Waldorf schools are a small but growing part of this sector. They offer a real alternative to the overly academic, test driven education that is on offer elsewhere. Waldorf schools, whose work is grounded in the arts, not only offer holistic education, they create opportunities for whole communities to wrestle with the ideals of human development: body, mind and spirit. Such idealistic striving sets them apart from the others and it clearly meets a deep longing these children, their teachers and parents have for a meaningful, active and artistic education. Waldorf schools actively encourage parents and teachers to engagement with one another in practical, conscious spirit-life. Waldorf education offers a unique space, a space for the mysterious, where universal spirit unites with human endeavor in the service of educating children. Furthermore, Waldorf schools are places where people striving together to offer the best for their children and to build hope for the future. Seeing the struggles that educators face the world over, it is ever clearer that Waldorf schools are oases in the desert of 21st century materialism. They secure and nurture seeds for the continuing development of humanity.
Making Space for the Mysterious is the theme for our Summer Festival of Arts and Education. We have invited an inspiring roster of workshop leaders whose aim is to work through their uniquely cultivated specialty to create a fertile, creative space to foster professional and personal development for all participants. Please consider joining us this July.
We are fortunate at RSCT to be surrounded by a number of anthroposophical initiatives. We share our campus with the Toronto Waldorf School, Arscura School of Living Art, Hesperus Village Retirement Community, Pegasus anthroposophical medical practice, the Anthroposophical Society Library, My Child Myself and a Christian Community Church. There are also a number of anthroposophical initiatives and Waldorf schools within easy reach of our centre: Waldorf Academy, Halton Waldorf School, Trillium Waldorf School, Mulberry Waldorf School and the London Waldorf School as well as others. This allows for a diverse community life and places us in daily contact with students of all ages in the rhythms of a fully-developed Waldorf school community.
Not all Waldorf schools are so fortunate. I am presently visiting Rio de Janeiro where there is one small and growing Waldorf school, Jardin-Escola Michaelis. It has been a pleasure to work with the faculty, parents and board of this school as they have all grown over the past five years from a small kindergarten to a growing school that encompasses severeal multi-age kindergartens up to grade four. They have outgrown their first school house and are presently nearing capacity in their second. It is not easy to grow a spiritually minded community school in Rio, the capital of CARNIVAL, but these families are doing a remarkable job. Without any outside help, they have managed to create a thriving Waldorf school right in the heart of this vibrant city. Its creation and conitnuing existence is a miracle whose value is most clearly visible in the faces of the happy children.