Kindergarten, Kelly Bardner says, should be fun, not stressful.
So, when her 5-year-old son kept bringing back a nightly load of homework from a private Catholic school in Granada, Bardner did what every frustrated parent has probably contemplated doing at some point: she started her own kindergarten class.
“Let them enjoy their childhood,” she said of her teaching philosophy.
The school, called the Sacuanjoche Waldorf Kindergarten, is the first of its kind in Nicaragua. It joins some 800 other similar schools around the world that loosely follow the writings of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who founded the Waldorf teaching method in 1919.
Steiner believed that each person has an inherent wisdom that can be harnessed to transform both themselves and the world. Children need plenty of time to discover this inner spirit, Steiner felt, so early schooling is geared towards a process of self-discovery instead of academic formation.
In practice, Bardner says, this means that children at the Waldorf kindergarten get to act more like children than young academics.
“No one cries when they get dropped off at school,” she said. “Kids want to be here.” Bardner started the school last year with a handful of expat families in Granada. The kindergarten has since grown to 14 children, and more than half of those enrolled are Nicaraguan.
Located in a colonial home on Calle Estrada, complete with an open garden and a labyrinth playroom, the school is a throwback to a gentler, more stress-free childhood.
Kids are not taught math or other gradeschool basics. Rather, the focus is on enhancing their developmental skills, their imaginations and their coordination and dexterity.
While many kindergarteners are busy memorizing the alphabet, children at the Waldorf school are listening to fairy tales, playing games and learning to cook. Suffice it to say, there is no homework.
Waldorf teacher Lisa Vilstrup was first drawn to the teaching method as a student in Denmark.
“When you meet a child who has been at Waldorf, they are different,” says Vilstrup.
The teacher claims that by helping to foster creativity and social skills first, the students are better suited for a more formal education later on.
“We give them the best surroundings in which to grow,”Vilstrup said.
Every school week starts off with a new fairy tale, which is read in English and Spanish. There is ample time for playing out the parts.
The one rule: no plastic toys. All the dolls and animal carvings are made from wood to create a more natural environment.
When the children aren’t playing, they’re making clay, baking bread, or tending to the garden.
All the hands-on tasks are aimed to help the children build physical dexterity and creative thinking, says Vilstrup, adding that these skills form the basis for further learning.
Vilstrup doesn’t worry that the Waldorf kids might fall behind others when they reach a more traditional elementary school setting later on.
“Children will learn quickly and pick up what they missed,” she said. The new kindergarten, which charges $100 a month for classes, is not accredited with the Nicaraguan school system, but Bardner hopes to get formal backing in the next few years.
Though the school offers scholarships to Nicaraguan families who can’t afford to pay the full price, the non-traditional school has taken some getting used to by local families.
“A lot of Nicaraguans wonder when the kids will learn to read and write,” said Bardner.
But supporters of the school say they aren’t worried if their kids aren’t doing long division at the age of five.
“There is plenty of time to be an adult,” said Tracy Finch, who has two children enrolled in the school. “The kids should have fun while they can.”
For more on the Sacuanjoche Waldorf Kindergarten, visit Web page www.waldorfgranada.com.