Not far from the steps of our textile factory in Egypt is the Sekem school. It’s not unusual to see teachers inside the factory requesting materials for their students’ upcoming projects. Once, while walking up the long stairway to the 4th floor (without losing my breath once, I’m sure) I met Sophie Hassan. Sophie is the Preschool and Kindergarten teaching coach who had moved to Egypt from Switzerland two years ago with her husband and three daughters. Her family lives on the farm, where her personal and work lives are intertwined and her youngest daughter Malika attends her preschool class.
As we talked, Sophie told me about how the school was in need of some of Under the Nile’s fruit and veggie toys for their play kitchen and asked if I could donate some to her classes. This request sparked a notion—this would be a great opportunity to exchange toys for a visit to the preschool, where I could learn more about their Waldorf pedagogy and meet the children.
On my visit to the school, I learned that Sophie is responsible for putting together the curriculum, which is based on Waldorf pedagogy, and then coaching teachers on how to incorporate elements such as movement and self-expression into their teaching methodologies. She explained how therapy through movement encourages creativity and helps the children perform better in school. The Waldorfian style of teaching helps young children learn in a way that helps them develop their physical, emotional, and mental health.
When I first arrived at the school, the children were being introduced to their new fruit and veggie friends. The introduction included the names of the fruits and veggies, descriptions of what they looked like, as well as their colors and sizes. Once all the introductions were done, the students were excited to try out their cooking skills during “free play” which encourages imagination.
In Waldorf Education, the learning process essentially involves engaging three different elements: the head, heart, and hands—or thinking, feeling, and doing. This is the basis from which Waldorf teachers work to nurture and engage each child through a curriculum and methodology that integrates academics, arts, and practical skills.
While I toured the school, Sophie explained that there are many activities that encourage the children’s imagination and creativity at this age like drawing, painting, and craft work, which all teach children to be creative and use their imaginations.
Group activities dealing with body movement helps the children to develop balance. In one of the class activities I observed, the children took turns pretending to be different animals. They imitated the walk and behavior of all kinds of animals, laughing and having fun the entire time. This type of activity, Sophie explained, also teaches children to understand their body limits and assists in learning body coordination which is very important at their age.
Another activity that the children enjoyed, involved putting together puzzles, which is a useful tool in understanding shapes and improving overall cognitive function. Sophie showed me puzzles that she handmade for the children, fashioned out of popsicle sticks—a fun and easy learning exercise that can also be easily done at home.
The kids also strung necklaces with beads, an exercise in building hand-eye coordination and learning about colors. Sophie pulled out a bag of beads and pipe cleaners for this assignment.
I asked Sophie how she defines a student’s success and accomplishments at the end of the preschool year.
“Well there are many ways to measure success,” she explained. “For example, we look at how quickly and easily a child can put together a puzzle at the end of the year, compared to the beginning. At the start of the school year, the children had no idea how to put these puzzles together. They would grab the pieces from each other and throw the pieces on the floor. By the end of the year, the children sit in their places and work with the pieces until they complete the puzzle. Everyone gets excited by their accomplishments.”
Another measure of success used at the school is looking at a student’s ability to draw and color over time. By the end of the year, students can color within the lines and are more precise in the activities they perform. For instance, during movement exercise, the children have more balance and can stand on one leg without falling over.
Throughout my tour of the school, I thought about the key differences between the teaching techniques that I had learned were used in Egyptian public schools— which tend to be solely based on memorization— and the Waldorf method used at the Sekem school, which strengthens individuality and creativity. When I spoke to family members and their children about their public school education in Egypt, they complained about its quality and described how stressed out everyone is during the school year. The basis upon which a student is able to pass or fail their grade is a single exam that is administered at the end of the year.
However the parents and students had a completely different attitude when speaking about the Sekem school. It was apparent to me that the children loved learning and going to the Sekem school. I was amazed by their open minds and willingness to try new things. With the Waldorf pedagogy, they learn to be good citizens and how to be socially responsible, which in turn will make them better community members as they get older. Seeing the methodology in action showed me how important it is to develop and implement alternative styles of learning within schools in Egypt, as well as around the world.
What do you think of the Waldorf style of learning?