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Like little butterflies, the children have been fluttering in for half an hour. School starts at 8:30, but that's not a hard and fast rule. Parents drop them off and they join the others in free playtime, building forts with sheets and blocks and small wooden chairs in the middle of the room. A white-haired woman in a grandmotherly apron stands nearby; the children call her Miss Dorothy. Miss Dorothy drops off a packet with the curriculum and remarks, "We're part of a much bigger picture here."
Shining Star Kindergarten in northwest Houston is indeed part of something much larger: Waldorf methods, a philosophy based in part on spirits and the cosmos at large. The watercolors on the wall hint at the gentle, pastel, Monet-like existence that Shining Star, now three years old, strives to cultivate. There are no TVs, no computers and no commercial toys. In a childhood world painted Pokémon, Shining Star is a burst of Little House on the Prairie. "We don't use plastics, we don't use play cloth -- all our cloths are cotton or silk -- and we don't use any nylon," says Miss Dorothy. "A lot of things are very toxic to our children." These toxic things include worksheets, testing and learning how to read.
A parent of a prospective student sits down at a low table, and Miss Dorothy brings over a basket of sandpaper and blocks and a sheet of paper. It reads "No spectators in our Kindergarten Room" and explains how the visitor must be engaged in a task that can be imitated by the children. The visitor goes to work, rubbing at the tree block. A few minutes later, sure enough, three children float over to the coarse sawing noise. They, too, begin sanding without instruction.
"Clean our room, clean our room." Miss Dorothy's singsong voice loops over their giggles and chatter like wind chimes. She gets the room in order, as both parents and children gather in a circle around a violet candle.
"Let's see what Dusty Gnome says," Miss Dorothy asks, pressing her ear to a small hooded doll. Ten feet away, Dusty Gnome's response is not audible. The children and adults raise their hands toward the ceiling. "I reach high into the sky and bring golden sunlight into my heart," they recite. A child lights the candle and the group bows before it. "Good morning, dear earth!"
A Shining Star brochure claims the Waldorf approach "allows the fantasy world of the child to develop, giving full reign to creative and individualistic expression." About ten children, ages three and a half to six, attend the school for up to five days a week. Their monthly tuition varies from $285 to $530, depending on whether they stay for the afternoon session. To a neurotic outsider, the day's schedule might look like it was designed by The Dude from The Big Lebowski(sans joint and white Russians): playtime in the morning, maybe a bit of watercolor or modeling with beeswax, snack time, free play outside, some storytelling, lunch, a nap, then back outside for more play.
"We've brought so much academics down to the K and pre-K level, they're miserable," says Miss Dorothy, whose last name is Ogle and who has been teaching Waldorf methods for more than 20 years. She bemoans the idea of "ditto sheets" -- wincing at the very mention of the copy-and-repeat exercises -- and stands firm against teaching children to read too early, exposing them to media and technology or giving them tests before high school. Waldorf believes children learn by imitation up to age seven, then advance into the feeling realm until they reach age 14, when they finally enter the thinking realm.
Although their classroom is located in the back corner of the Unitarian Fellowship church, school leaders say the connection is in rent alone.
"We're not religious at all, no, because we teach no dogma, we teach no certain way to believe," says Ogle. "I, as a teacher, recognize that these children came from the spirit world -- but I don't teach them that. That's a lot different."
They've learned a verse that's recited before they eat: "Earth, who gives to us this food, sun who makes it ripe and good. Dear sun, dear earth, by you we live, our loving thanks to you we give."
"So there's never at any time any type of dogma," she adds in a sunny voice.
Some are not so sure. The underpinning for the Waldorf education comes from a spiritual movement known as anthroposophy, developed by an Austrian named Rudolf Steiner. Steiner opened the first Waldorf school in Germany in 1919. According to the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America, there are now more than 850 schools worldwide, including 169 in North America -- they claim it is "the fastest-growing nonsectarian independent school movement in the world." Waldorf methods such as delayed reading and removing competition from school have never been tested quantitatively against public schools.
"It's hard to describe the value of this education," says Ogle. Waldorf educators and parents argue that the very nature of the curriculum makes it impossible to measure according to traditional standards, pointing instead to the anecdotal evidence of recent graduates.