Sunfield Farm and Waldorf School dig deep to the root of learning

Posted 4/1/21

The withered branch lay rigid in her hands, but its soft fibers shifted against a steady breeze.

She spoke of the beauty and the versatility of cotton as she turned the plant in observation, …

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Sunfield Farm and Waldorf School dig deep to the root of learning

Posted

The withered branch lay rigid in her hands, but its soft fibers shifted against a steady breeze.

She spoke of the beauty and the versatility of cotton as she turned the plant in observation, letting its white tufts catch the sun. In her lesson, the teacher imparted the emotional weight the cash crop has carried for generations – at the surface, an unblemished boll that, inside, encases the sins of the Antebellum South.

At Sunfield Waldorf School, wonder and curiosity are at the root of learning. In the traditional Waldorf way, Sunfield takes a different approach to education, integrating the arts into academic disciplines while cultivating intellect, emotion, and spirit within their students.

With their rich and innovative curriculum, the academic path is an abstract one in which students learn with their hands, hearts, minds – through their whole beings. This form of education gives students the freedom and the tools to fully develop their own individual gifts.

It is because of Sunfield’s unique education model that they have been open in-person all year while many traditional schools have struggled in the face of the pandemic. With COVID safety in mind, the teachers creatively harnessed the environment through the use of outdoor classrooms and experiential lessons.

The school is situated on a working biodynamic farm that stretches across 81 acres of fields, forests, and wetlands. Providing hands-on agricultural and environmental learning experiences, the property serves as a natural playground for its students while acting as an invaluable educational resource. A holistic academic education is incorporated with the daily pulse of farm life and the applications of gardening, sustainable farming, and animal husbandry enrich the programs offered at Sunfield.

During the fall and winter months, children came prepared with hot lunches and were equipped with snowsuits and sleeping bags to fight off the chill. When extra layers weren’t enough to keep the cold at bay, experts assisted in making sure classrooms were well-ventilated in order to create more viable indoor spaces.

“We’ve had very little illness this year,” said Sunfield’s Education Director Bryan McGriff.

When the pandemic first reared its head in 2020, Sunfield closed for the remainder of the school year, transitioning completely to online distance learning within a week.

“We were excited to be able to come back in person in the fall,” McGriff said, even with the loss of 40 percent of families who didn’t want to take their chances with in-person schooling.

The school has seen several students joining in mid-year from families that are feeling more confident about Sunfield’s practices and about COVID in general, however.

“We’ve been really lucky,” McGriff said.

One of the reasons for the school’s success mid-pandemic McGriff attributed to good communication with the students and their families.

“They’re clear on our guidelines,” he continued. “Anytime we update, them that’s really clear. We’re sticking to stringent protocols and our families are following along with us.”

Classes have been limited in number for physical distancing. For instance, an indoor classroom that once accommodated 24 third-graders is now maxed out at 18 students.

Like a lot of things due to the pandemic, some elements very characteristic to Waldorf learning had to be limited as well.

“A Waldorf school is filled with festivals. We have a festival for every season,” McGriff explained.

During a non-COVID school year, festivals would act as seasonal turning points, establishing a yearly rhythm for students. Sunfield students, families, and community members would normally come together in celebration.

Through playing together and helping one another, a sense of community is created between the students on a Waldorf campus.

A buddy system and a mixed-grade playground – pairing younger students with older ones to create connections and establish relationships – is not a possibility for the time being.

Students may have been able to receive an in-person education all year, but sacrifices were inevitable in order to make that happen.

“I’m looking forward to having the parents back on,” said McGriff. “For me, I’m new here … I’ve barely gotten to know any of the families.”

“And having our students back together again. That’s such an important element,” he added.

After a successful winter filled with outdoor learning, spring brings even more opportunity for education. Much like the lesson on cotton, teachers are continuing to use natural elements in their teaching as this new season awakens. Students are actively involved in planting crops, caring for the land and neighboring ecosystems, and raising the myriad of young animals coexisting on their farm/campus.

“The thing I love about Sunfield is the whole aspect of working and working on the land as a part of our curriculum,” McGriff said.

Working side-by-side with the farmers throughout the school year, Sunfield students get to experience the benefits of caring for the land and livestock. A quarter of the bounty yielded from the farm is sold at a school-owned farmstand while the rest of their harvest goes to local food banks. The students make a positive contribution to the community while also gaining a valuable understanding of working in harmony with nature.

Sunfield was recently awarded a “Sustainable School Award” from the Washington State Department of Ecology. The Waste Not Washington School awards celebrate institutions for their environmental efforts and set out to fund and expand their programs in the name of sustainability. The Sunfield Farm and Waldorf School plans to use the funding to upgrade their on-site compost set-up for both classroom and biodynamic farm use.

To learn more about Sunfield, the farm, the school, and the community, visit sunfieldfarm.org.

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