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Garden cultivates children amid jungle of education; Learning: Forget what you know about kindergarten. Baltimore's Waldorf School says it has found a different, better way.


THEY CALL IT THE Children's Garden. It's a place where you can pause and catch your breath in the great race to teach reading at earlier -- ever earlier -- ages.

The Children's Garden at Baltimore's Waldorf School is so much different from the emerging model of public school kindergarten that you think you're in another world.

Kindergarten these days is a colorful hothouse. The Children's Garden is cool. Start with the subdued lighting, the soft brown walls uncluttered by posters and "word walls."

Hear the teacher as she gives instructions in song: "Jason, bring your chair."

(There's method: Because it's song, the child can pick it out from the babble of the other kids, and the teacher never has to raise her voice.)

Watch the children as they engage in carefully planned play -- building houses out of natural materials (no plastic), baking bread, gardening, playing outside, meeting new friends, bouncing a ball inside and out, dancing, painting, watching a puppet show and then staging a show of their own, taking a nap.

No activity could be described as desk work, and not a computer can be seen.

Computers, at least in this combined grouping of 3- to 6-year-olds, are considered dehumanizing.

Reading isn't formally taught until the second and third grades.

It's not a cult, though it's been called that. Nor is it a religion, though it's been called that, too. The private Waldorf School is one of about 600 in a worldwide network founded 81 years ago for the children of workers in a German cigarette factory.

Waldorf approaches learning with a humanistic philosophy, not with the vengeance that characterizes so much of education today. In a world in which parents panic if Johnny and Jane aren't fluent readers by first grade, Waldorf is an oasis.

"We take the long view," says Andrea Gambardella, a Children's Garden teacher at the Waldorf School in North Baltimore. "When we're looking at a child at 5, we're thinking of who he or she will be as a human being when they're 14. We think children have different learning styles at different stages of development."

In the ages represented in the Children's Garden, 3 through 6, children learn by doing and imitating. Play is a science; there's nothing chaotic about it, says Gambardella. The development of a child's imagination and social skills is an important precursor to reading and writing, which Waldorf takes up formally (and unapologetically) at ages 7 and 8. The school runs through grade eight.

Also important is a child's physical development.

"Big body work and fine motor work have a lot to do with language development," says Gambardella.

At Waldorf, activities -- and language -- are designed to accommodate a child's unique sense of time and space. Children's Garden teachers speak of "painting day" rather than "Monday," an abstract word for kids. Similarly, "Sunday" is "Daddy day" or "Mommy day," the day Daddy or Mommy (often both these days) are home from work.

As for computers, Gambardella says: "They're a part of our lives as adults, but for these children they're a total waste of time. They don't offer anything to a young child about what it's like to be a human being with human enthusiasm, human cautions. Machines don't do any of that."

Katherine Aertker, whose 4-year-old daughter, Mary, is in the Children's Garden, draws a parallel between the Waldorf philosophy and her attempt to learn French using the Berlitz method.

"You listen to the tape first, then you look at the book. That's the way they do it here. It just makes sense," she said.

The Waldorf approach to education clearly isn't for every parent, every child. But those who like it speak with almost religious zeal.

Aertker is one of them. "I haven't seen anything in education so nurturing," she says. "We moved here from Vermont, where we had a Waldorf School with an identical program, same toys, same good manners. When we move again in a year or so, we'll go where there's a Waldorf School."

Tremendous pressure is exerted from the media and from some parents to speed things, Gambardella says. "Every year I feel the pressure, and every year the children themselves reassure me.

"Children must have their childhood, and there's only a short time to be under 7."

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