At first, it was just a dream. Andrea Gordon was a young mother feeling through the toddlerhood of her twin girls and the play groups and “Mommy and Me” classes that she found in the bustle of Manhattan didn’t feel right. As is common with new mothers, she figured she just didn’t know any better. Maybe lots of stimulation and more toys than seemed reasonable was just how you raise children, she thought. But then she met Lisa Bono, who taught a parent and child class based on the Waldorf school of education in Manhattan.
“When I went to her class it was a revelation,” said Ms. Gordon. “What happened in that room was the polar opposite of what I had seen in other places, where the goal was to stimulate the kids.”
That was not Ms. Bono’s philosophy or the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, who founded Waldorf education in the early 20th century.
“I came into this room which was silent,” recalled Ms. Gordon. “Children were independently playing with wooden toys while mothers sat in the background knitting. It was so relaxing and harmonious and grounding and beautiful.”
Part of what drew Ms. Gordon to Waldorf education also drew her to the East End — the beauty, the natural rhythms, the outdoors. When she moved to the South Fork full time, she knew wanted to bring Waldorf philosophies with her.
“Once I saw what it was I couldn’t let go of it,” said Gordon.
At first, she started bringing her mentor, Ms. Bono, out to her home to teach classes. Originally, she thought it would just be for her children, but then other parents wanted to get involved. Soon they found a teacher, a young vibrant woman who had already earned her Master’s in education, but was willing and capable to learn the ways of Waldorf.
Maggie Touchette, lovingly known as Miss Maggie to her students and their parents, went through a Waldorf certification process, and opened Our Sons and Daughters out of Gordon’s house in Sagaponack. The school moved to the Hayground School in Bridgehampton, and by the time Gordon and her twin girls had outgrown the early childhood offerings of Our Sons and Daughters, it had found its own home at the Methodist Church on Carroll Street in Sag Harbor.
“Thinking back to that time,” said Ms. Touchette, “we were just all so excited about this idea. There was this true interest and passion to bring Waldorf education to the area.”
The years passed, and Ms. Touchette and her students sunk in roots. Gardens sprouted up and goats and chickens came home to roost. Now there are 29 children enrolled in two children’s garden classes, with four teachers on staff. The parent/child program, where children from 15 months to three years come to the school to bake bread and sing songs while their parents learn to knit and soak in the teachings of Waldorf philosophy, has about 25 families per session.
In a high-tech, fast-paced world, Waldorf education feels for many like the perfect antidote, says Ms. Touchette.
“It really offers a space for children to be children,” she said. “In this world where everything is moving really fast, and there’s this rush towards adulthood and this need to be busy all the time, we’ve totally overscheduled our own lives and our children’s lives. In a Waldorf classroom, we are saying, let’s slow down.”
In Waldorf education, timing is everything. Ms. Touchette remembers when she was first learning about the philosophy and there were some things she balked at. She had just gotten her Master’s degree from Fordham University and the idea of waiting to teach a child to read until they were seven years old seemed revolutionary and even counterintuitive.
“It was a long process to really totally get behind,” admitted Touchette.
But now she gets it. Because it isn’t just about preparing them for first grade, although that’s an important part of it. It’s also about preparing them for their whole lives.
“Young children need time to develop their physical bodies, and through the development of their physical bodies, their senses are integrating and their brains are developing neural pathways,” explained Touchette. “The bodies need this to be healthy academic learners when it is time.”
That’s why there’s such a strong emphasis on outdoor play, all year long, every day.
“They climb trees, they roll down hills, they lift heavy buckets,” said Ms. Touchette. “Then they come together in circle time and learn specific songs and gestures as part of the pre-literacy curriculum. They develop memory skills, sequencing, and comprehension as well as gestures like crossing the midline and other movements that support the development of their sensory body. Once their sensory body is developed, then they’re ready to start on academic learning.”
In late December, the whole school came together for the annual Spiral of Light, a quiet Waldorf tradition during which each child takes a turn walking through a spiral made of evergreen boughs and places a single candle on the path. The parents, grandparents, siblings, and students sang a simple song again and again as each child took his or her turn. By the end, dozens and dozens of flickering lights illuminated the room. There were no meltdowns. No tantrums. Nearly an hour of repeating the same song over and over and watching the same process unfold with each classmate and these children had the patience and respect to be present.
“None of the children were flinging themselves across the spiral,” said Ms. Touchette. “They practice self-regulation and impulse control every day. That is such an important part of what we do.”
Andrea Gordon’s twins are in high school now, and she’s moved away, as many committed Waldorf families have had to do, because there’s no Waldorf education past kindergarten on the East End.
“When we lived there I was pushing for a Waldorf elementary school, but that didn’t come to fruition,” said Gordon. “But maybe what it is now is exactly what it needs to be for the community.”
For Pia Leighton, a mother of two children who have attended Our Sons and Daughters, the devotion of the teachers and the deep wisdom of the philosophy give her confidence in her children’s education and her own. That’s why she decided to join the Board.
“Not many people have had the opportunity to learn about Anthroposophy and what Waldorf education really is beyond a school where kids play in nature,” she said. “But these teachers are committed to their own development for the benefit of the community in a non-religious spiritual system. They meditate on our children… Our kids are being guided in a way that they will always have no choice but search within and reach for the light.”