In our educational leadership series, we’re introducing you to individuals who shape the landscape and school culture at our partner institutions. This week, meet Pat Whitehead, Executive Director of the Waldorf School of Baltimore. Not only is she an educational leader at the school, but she is an alumni parent as well. She’s sharing why play is the serious work of childhood, what makes Waldorf a joyful learning environment, and what’s next for the school.
Meet the Executive Director: Pat Whitehead, Waldorf School of Baltimore
You’ve not only been an educational leader at The Waldorf School, you are also an alumni parent — your two sons graduated from the Waldorf School. As a parent, what drew you to the school? What excited you about the school?
As a parent, I was drawn to the teacher’s dedication to the children’s academic, personal, and social well-being. Faculty and staff at this school are the embodiment of the Rudolf Steiner quote, “Receive the children in reverence, educate them in love, and send them forth in freedom.”
I was also attracted to the richness of the preschool and Kindergarten’s language program, where stories from various cultures and countries are presented via the oral tradition, instead of reading from a book. This use of narration goes farther in immersing children in the complex beauty of language, where they craft their own mental images.
Last, but not least, it was also important to me that my sons were in a play-based learning environment. This helps little ones discover and experience their relationship to the world and people around them, which is constantly growing and changing.
Your family moved to Baltimore in 2001. How have you found the ‘traditional’ preschool and early elementary school experience compared to that of the United Kingdom? How does the Waldorf experience compare?
My children attended a small Waldorf school in the middle of Nottingham, England, in the shadow of Nottingham castle. My husband and I initially chose Waldorf in the United Kingdom for the same reason many parents choose Waldorf here in the United States – we wanted a joyful school that was free from testing regimes; taught respect for self and others; cultivated the virtues of teamwork; while making time for recess, rest, and play. We wanted an education that also looked towards the future, nurturing the flexibility in thought necessary to prepare children for the unknown world of tomorrow.
Let’s talk a little bit about play. How would you describe the role of play in Waldorf Education?
We believe every child is an enthusiastic and engaged learner, and place an emphasis on the role of creativity and the imagination in learning. Young children gain valuable first hand learn through imaginative and self-directed play. This is how they experience and make sense of the natural laws of the world.
When a young child asks to see something, they are asking to touch it and manipulate it. When children build a tower out of blocks and it topples over, they experience the laws of stability and gravity. When they pretend to be doctors or firefighters, they make sense of experiences. In the midst of this play, they are fine-tuning their social skills, such as sharing, cooperation, leadership, etc.
Play really is the serious work of childhood.
Waldorf is a ‘green school.’ What does that look like on campus?
Nature is a transformative force in a child’s world. Our campus is a certified wildlife habitat that boasts a pollinator garden and a thriving beehive. All onsite events are as close to zero waste as possible. Our students are also actively engaged in school wide composting programs, eco-literacy based field trips, Nature Studies coursework, and Forest Aftercare Programs.
One aspect of Waldorf’s curriculum is Eurythmy, which might be a new concept to some parents. What is it and what does eurythmy instruction look like in the classroom?
Eurythmy is a system of gestures and rhythmic movements designed to make language, music, and rhythm visible. Our arms and hands may show the pitch, the intervals between the notes, major and minor modes, and even individual chords and notes. While our feet are used to emphasize staccato notes or other aspects of rhythm.
At WBS, we begin teaching Eurythmy in Kindergarten to rising 1st Graders. Copper rods are introduced later in elementary school. Movements continue to increase in complexity, with students forming intricate geometric shapes in middle school. Over time we see marked improvements in our student’s dexterity, spatial awareness, geometry, and appreciation of music and poetry.
We often hear that every independent school in Baltimore has its own personality. How would you describe Waldorf’s personality?
We would describe ourselves as welcoming and joyful. Our kids love being here, as do our parents and faculty. We have built a thriving community that lives, plays, and works together all year long.
Our focus for this school year is “You and I are We.” Simply put, all relationships and interactions between members of a community require nurturing. This can be hard work, but it is important that we look after each other, and provide a positive role model for our children.
Waldorf is a school with many traditions. Which is your favorite and why?
An important aspect of Waldorf education is our seasonal festivals, which create a living calendar of rhythm and harmony for our students. Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter are noted and celebrated for their distinct features, mysteries, and shared human experience with nature.
My personal favorite is the Winter Garden. This festival symbolizes the darkness of the winter days. After hearing a seasonal story, each child (starting in 1st grade) walks to the center of a spiral of green boughs carrying an unlit candle. In the center, an Eighth Grader helps each child light his or her candle. Then the child retraces the path, placing their light along the spiral, amid the pines. Hidden amongst the greenery are little treasures of nature, crystals, stones, stars, and seashells; as the candlelight grows ever stronger, these gifts of the earth begin to sparkle in the darkness. The mood of the Winter Garden is one of wonder, peace, and joy.
Fast forward five years — what does school life look like at The Waldorf School?
The Waldorf method offers a renaissance in education, favoring hands-on, experiential academics over rote memorization and technological reliance. Our students are immersed in a rigorous, yet nurturing environment that fosters intellectual curiosity, collaboration, emotional resiliency, and a strong sense of themselves in relation to the rest of the world.
Our community will continue to grow and thrive as society realizes the need for out-of-the-box thinkers to solve the unforeseen problems of tomorrow; scientific research validates and promotes the short and long-term benefits of Waldorf education; and parents crave well-rounded and educated, creative and curious children.
This article is part of our school partner profile series. To learn more about Waldorf School of Baltimore, visit their profile in our independent school directory. Photos by Laura Black.