Children learn with ease at Plum Hill

Riley Cameron, Sophia Decker, and Felix Colon
(From left) Riley Cameron, Sophia Decker, and Felix Colon reach for a sparkling bubble on the Plum Hill School porch. Photos by Ralph Stewart

By Pat Waring - November 1, 2007

It's a misty morning at the Plum Hill School in West Tisbury where a handful of young children cavort in the grassy yard before heading indoors to begin their day. There is a rope ladder, a slide, and a tire swing, which is most popular of all. Marigolds, basil, squash vines, and a tall sunflower thrive in a little garden nearby.

"Come on, children, I need all your help," sings teacher Stephanie daRosa in a light, airy voice. "Let's clean up all our toys."

Continuing to sing softly, Ms. daRosa moves around the yard, encouraging the youngsters as they gather playthings and line up at the door. Then it is time for morning stretches ("Reach so high, you'll touch the sky," she sings) before entering the schoolroom.

The atmosphere is both cozy and inspiring, with furnishings and materials set up to entice creative play. A dollhouse is arranged with simple wooden furniture; tables hold natural treasures like feathers, shells, dried ferns, a bird's nest. There are baskets and boxes brimming with art supplies, balls of colored yarn, dress-up gear, and dolls. Bright silk curtains draped here and there add color and a magical touch. Plump, velvety pillows are heaped on soft mats in the relaxation corner.

Lucas Taylor
Lucas Taylor zips down the slide.

At the far end of the room, a homey kitchen area is equipped with a low table and chairs for all, along with basic cooking equipment and supplies.

The Plum Hill School was established in 2001 through the efforts of the Island Waldorf Community, a group of individuals interested in the pursuit of Waldorf education here. April Thanhauser and Wendy Gray, who had been offering day care services based on the Waldorf model, were instrumental in beginning the school at Featherstone Center for the Arts In Oak Buffs. It moved to a rented home in West Tisbury last year.

According to the school's brochure, "The Waldorf approach emphasizes protecting the realm of early childhood in all its wonder and magic." This approach, developed years ago in Germany by Rudolf Steiner, is clearly evident throughout the school day: the mellow pace of activities and the gentleness with which the staffers treat the children. From the materials to the activities themselves, there is a stress on nature. The schedule flows in an organic way, deriving from the Waldorf focus on the rhythms of nature and the seasons. This regularity is meant to offer children a sense of security.

Ms. Thanhauser said she is particularly fond of Waldorf's ever-growing stress on allowing children to experience nature directly, not only intellectually. This focus gives youngsters the chance to develop understanding of and reverence for nature, she said.

"I have always loved the emphasis on the world of imagination and creativity," said Ms. Thanhauser, citing especially the use of fairy tales as embodying human wisdom. "I appreciate the Waldorf quality of feeding the soul through beauty, creativity, wonder, and reverence," she said. "I feel Waldorf education does take in an element of spiritual aliveness."

Director/teacher Stephanie daRosa shares classroom responsibilities with assistant teacher Josie Black. Ms. daRosa, who grew up in Chilmark, earned her Early Childhood Teaching degree at Wheelock College and also holds a BA in Arts and Elementary Education. She had several years' experience working with young children in Boston and later as a teaching assistant at the Chilmark School.

Waldorf education had long fascinated her and so when Plum Hill began looking for a teacher in 2001, it was the perfect job for her. She has attended special training and workshops on Waldorf education.

"Waldorf seemed so beautiful for children," said Ms. daRosa. "It provides a home away from home, a sense of safety and balance and community, and there is so much available at their fingertips. Their love for learning develops and isn't stifled."

Stephanie daRosa
Teacher Stephanie daRosa and the children hold hands and offer thanks for the food.

Plum Hill currently enrolls 11 children from 2.9 to about five years old, leaving several spaces available for new students. The calendar roughly parallels that of the Vineyard public schools. A board oversees the school, which is licensed by the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care and accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

The day continues with a gentle flow, the youngsters moving from activity to activity. Circle time features simple yoga movements and a gardening song, which eventually brings the seated children to their feet, standing upright like new flowers in bloom.

Children scatter around the room during free play time, some heading off on their own, others getting together in small groups. One little girl dons a rainbow-hued silk cape, another a bright headdress and flowing skirt as they dance around the room. Boys, being boys, gather wooden toys and furniture to build a space ship.

Although the playing is spontaneous with plenty of chattering and laughter, the children are well behaved. There is a sense of gentle but clear order and decorum. Teachers keep a close eye and ear on the children, making sure that words and voices remain polite, movements gentle, interactions polite and caring. Any rudeness, thoughtlessness, or misbehavior is quickly addressed, as the teachers remind the children to be considerate of others. There is intentionality about every activity, and a sense of simple ceremony and spirituality as the children sing songs to welcome the morning and bless their food.

"Who's ready to make monster bread?" sings Ms. daRosa enticingly, drawing the children from their play and into the kitchen. Here, after careful hand washing, each child receives a lump of dough to knead and shape, preparing for snack time.

Isaac Richards, Tripp Hopkins, Lucas Taylor, Riley Cameron, and Maple Ben David
Sharing a group hug are (from left) Isaac Richards, Tripp Hopkins, Lucas Taylor, Riley Cameron, and Maple Ben David.

Even the snacks are based on the Waldorf philosophy, Ms. daRosa explains. Each day's menu features a certain type of food, a specific whole grain, depending on the day of the week. Soon the sweet aroma of baking fills the air and the youngsters flock to the tables where, family style, the teachers serve plates of warm, fresh bread, butter or almond butter, raisins, and little mugs of herbal tea. Later there will be rest time and an outdoor adventure, which happens faithfully, rain or shine. Hiking to a nearby farm or exploring the woodsy trails right outside are favorites.

"We're always looking for a home, as are so many on the Island," said Ms. daRosa, adding that if the school could acquire property there are many families who would pitch in to build a school. A permanent home would make it possible for the school to hold a summer session and expand services to a larger age group. The Waldorf group also hopes to provide resources including a library, guest speakers, and group meetings.

Plum Hill extends its work beyond the classroom walls with a number of seasonal festivals and special events. Among them are Martinmas, a festival of lanterns at North Tabor Farm on Nov. 12, and the Advent Spiral ceremony in mid-December, which symbolizes bringing light into the time of darkness. The joy of spring and rebirth is the focus at Easter time, and May Day is always a bright event, complete with a traditional Maypole. All these celebrations welcome the public to share in the wholesome magic that marks Waldorf education.

For more information, call 508-696-7701 or email islandwaldorfcommunity@hotmail.com.