Learning with Joy
With its 75th anniversary on the horizon, Kimberton Waldorf School continues to build upon a legacy of excellence in educating the “head, heart and hands” of each student
by Leigh Stuart

As any Waldorf student will say, the experience one gains from attending a Waldorf school is unlike any other educational experience there is. Families in the area seek out this experience at Kimberton Waldorf School, which is America’s second-oldest Waldorf school and one of more than 1,000 Waldorf schools worldwide. Here, hands-on learning and classroom education share equal parts in developing each student into a well-rounded human being—one who, as the school’s founding motto suggests, learns with joy.

When asked what sets a Waldorf school apart, Kevin Hughes, dean of Kimberton Waldorf School, which will celebrate its 75th anniversary next year, cites a number of factors. “First, we have what I consider to be a unique and powerful approach to teaching academics,” he says. “Second, our curriculum is based on child development; and third, we educate the whole child. At Kimberton we like to say that we educate the head, heart and hands of our students, with the goal of teaching them how to think, not what to think.”

Waldorf schools approach education as a developmental process. In other words, the methods used to instruct kindergarten students are different than the methods used to teach students in grades one through eight, and these methods, in turn, differ from the way high school students are taught.

Grade school teacher Carmen Maciarello uses Kimberton Waldorf School’s approach to educating 5- and 6-year-olds in the kindergarten program as an example. Studies have shown children at this age learn best through play and imitation, and the early childhood program emphasizes these learning modalities.

For Anna Zay, the school’s director of college counseling who also teaches history to high school students, the way the school works with students “feeds what adolescents yearn for in their development.” This includes what author and educator David Sloan describes as “three main yearnings”: finding meaning and purpose in one’s own life; finding meaningful relationships with other people and the world; and feeling empowered as individuals that “have a role in the world today.”

When a child is ready for a more structured learning environment—usually around age 6 or 7—the student begins a new phase of their education, which takes place in grades one through eight. Waldorf schools believe that the relationship between the teacher and the student is just as important as the subject being learned. For this reason, the main teacher moves with the students from year to year: from first grade to second grade, second grade to third grade, and so on through eighth grade. This method ensures a personal relationship between the teacher and each student, and that each child is approached as a unique, individual learner throughout these crucial stages of development.

In high school, when students are in their phase of seeking to develop independent judgment, the school fosters the child’s independence and native idealism.

“We see the emphasis on the combination of academic education, artistic education and experiential education as being crucial to who our children become,” says Zay. “Waldorf students think they can try anything. They’re not put off by the complexity of a challenge.”

In ninth grade, for example, students may be asked to design and build a machine to demonstrate aspects of thermal physics. In 10th grade, students go on a seven-day backpacking trip along the James River and Appalachian Trail to complement their reading of Homer’s “The Odyssey.”

“The students continue to talk about the book as they explore,” Zay says. “This connects them through their own experience, their experience as a group, and their own individual struggles as well.”

In 12th grade, students participate in a history trip paired with intensive studies of the Holocaust. Students travel to Washington, D.C., to visit the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and partake of a symposium with survivors in Philadelphia. Another 12th grade trip takes students to Hermit Island in Maine for studies in marine zoology.

“We have a rich academic program,” Hughes says. “Our students study math, chemistry, physics, biology, botany, zoology, embryology, geology and mineralogy, astronomy, meteorology, history, geography and foreign languages. Beginning in first grade they study not one but two foreign languages—Spanish and German—and in high school they have the opportunity to study abroad in our international exchange program. They read great literature and philosophy. They learn how to write and to write well. But more importantly, they learn how to think for themselves.

“Our approach to academics,” he continues, “is to not simply feed our students information and concepts for them to memorize for tests, but rather to provide our students opportunities to arrive at their own conclusions, to discover concepts for themselves—to learn how to think.”

Waldorf students are also nurtured in their physical and emotional health, Maciarello says, noting, “I think our school helps that because what we’re really looking at is fostering that physical, life-giving health that comes from playing and working outside.”

There is ample room to do just that on the school’s sprawling and bucolic campus. The main campus and facilities, including the organic school garden, track and extensive athletic fields, are surrounded by woodlands and a biodynamic dairy farm.

“Our campus is located on 430 acres of Chester County farmland,” Hughes says. “French Creek borders our campus. We also have a beautiful and bountiful school garden, playing fields for sports and games, and trails through our woods for our cross country running team and other environmental and outdoor programs.”

The organic farm plays a pivotal role in the Waldorf experience. The school lunches, which are lovingly prepared in the school kitchen by staff and parent volunteers, feature items grown in the school’s own garden, which is tended by students, as well as a host of other organic foods, most of which come from an area within two miles of the school.

“At this school,” Maciarello says, “everything feels like it has meaning, from working with animals to studying chemistry to the nature-based kindergarten where children are learning outdoors to the experiential trips students go on.

“Everything has meaning,” she continues. “Everything is interconnected. This means that students leave our school feeling very much that idealism is nurtured, that they can do something, that there are solutions, that there is meaning to life. I think that is primarily what we’re nurturing here.”
Kimberton Waldorf School
410 W. Seven Stars Road
Phoenixville, PA 19460

Photograph by Nancy Coe Photography