For the “Youth Report on Nature 2010” i, 13,000 German pupils from grades seven to nine have been questioned about their understanding of nature. Only every third pupil has ever held a beetle or a butterfly in their hand. These same young people spend four or more hours a day in front of a digital screen, and only ten percent of the pupils believe that their school science lessons teach them anything about nature.
Gerd Sonnleitner, chair of “information.medien.agrar e.V.” comments on the result of the study, “Today, very few children and teenagers have the opportunity to experience nature in any way. Activities which were common for my generation, such as helping on a farm in the summer holidays or doing some gardening, have become completely exotic. It is therefore not really astonishing that some children believe that a hen lays more than six eggs a day.” ii
An educational view forward
Of course, we cannot reverse time. Digital media has become a normal part of young people's lives. Therefore, it is even more important than ever that schools offer natural science education which is practical, in immediate contact with nature and, above all, full of hands-on experience. Practical activities coupled with sensory experience as a “window to the world” can serve as a harmonizing medicine for the adolescent.
The following is the pedagogical view promoted by Waldorf schools. Here at “Freie Waldorfschule Oberberg” in Germany, education about nature starts in grade one. Practical activities connected to nature such as baking bread outdoors in a clay oven, felt making in the school garden or caring for a piece of land, for example in the farming main lesson block in grade three, are offered on a regular basis.
Horticulture as a school subject is taught continuously from grades six to ten. In the grade seven forestry placement, the pupils practice landscape observation and forestry skills. Grade nine pupils, through their farming placement, experience the busy lives of farmers. This is followed by a final year of gardening in grade ten when the students care for natural and man made biotopes. Finally, in high school, there is an ecology field trip and the analytical study of life sciences.
Horticulture in Waldorf schools is an important contribution to young people's holistic understanding of nature and the world as a whole. This understanding can provide a real basis for life, especially in the current age of digital media, no matter how realistic the “secondary” computer worlds and social networks might appear to be. People, as biological beings, are part of and dependent on the whole of nature's cosmos. Children need to experience, enjoy and observe their natural surroundings in order to gain a positive inner attitude towards the environment.
However, observation is not enough. This is why the pupils work on and care for the soil, the vegetable beds and plants through hands-on learning. They also learn to shape the landscape in the form of biotopes. Furthermore, they work on their “soft skills” such as planning and implementation, stamina, independence and creativity. Everything the young people are confronted with outdoors strengthens their willpower and helps their further development.
Educational Horticulture – a distinguishing feature?!
The school subject “Educational Horticulture” is a distinguishing feature of Waldorf schools which is to say that this subject is rarely taught in other schools. Teachers of horticulture, as teachers of a subject not commonly taught, are constantly challenged to “justify” their work. This happens even though horticulture was formally included in the curriculum in the conference on 6th March 1920 and has therefore been an integral part of the Waldorf curriculum for around 90 years.
As M. Mackensen states in “Lehrerrundbrief”, “Horticulture is sometimes seen as marginal. However, I want to show that it is a core part of the transition into the upper school. Waldorf education indeed demands it. If we cancel horticulture, then something will be missing in the whole of the upper school. From an anthroposophical viewpoint, the teaching of biology in grades seven to ten, with its upward spiraling anthropology, is intimately connected to puberty. The main lesson blocks open up a spiritual view onto the cosmic aspects of human beings. Horticulture practices volition towards the cosmic aspect in the outer world. If the experience made by the systematic work in the garden is missing, then the will to work is threatened in the whole of the upper school. Is there a school which does not suffer from this lack of volition? Does not indeed the whole of mankind suffer from it?” iii
Further, I'd like to quote Rudolf Steiner as he spoke at the first conference for horticulture teachers in the 1920s.
“It is of utmost importance to a person's social development to have experienced right into their own hands that people always depend on other people's work.”
And: “People who have been taught educational horticulture will be able to decide whether a particular agricultural method or action is right or wrong; not because they have studied it, but based on their intuition. Moral strength is also practiced in this kind of education. The effects of such teaching will only show in the social attitude of the adult.”iv
For parents, an understanding of the educational meaning of horticulture becomes important as soon as their child starts gardening lessons. The author has identified three essential educational aspects of this school subject:
1. Horticulture supports the adolescent's development
In puberty, the body reaches sexual maturity; personal judgment and intellect awaken. Teenagers view the world less and less through the eyes of parents and teachers. The adolescents must be offered opportunities for meaningful experience on the basis of which they objectively discover the world's guiding principles as well as their own skills.
The adolescent's judgements are corrected and honed by the world itself: by the practical results of their gardening efforts which speak for themselves.
Hands-on work is the opposite of clear, abstract thinking, found for example in mathematics. Artistic activity is rooted in the centre, in the feeling life. This unity creates a balanced foundation on which thinking, feeling and willing are harmoniously developed in the human being.
2. Horticulture enables an encounter with the world and trains the will
Educational horticulture at Waldorf schools is part of the reality of life “where we connect actively to the world and therefore experience it all around.” (M.Mackensen)v
The inter-connectedness of the world is visible in the garden, in the individual activities of human beings and the land. Educational horticulture calls the pupils to actively connect with the garden's organism, to become aware of the necessity of gardening work and to learn its techniques.
Gardening teachers aim to develop awareness, to differentiate and deepen the perception of living organisms, and to use willpower in meaningful activities.
3. Horticulture as the basis for responsible ecology
Horticulture is one element in the Waldorf movement's ecology concept.
The adolescent should learn to interact with the environment in a responsible manner. As biological beings we are part of the cosmic network. Developing the students' ecological awareness should therefore aim to inspire a positive inner attitude towards nature and the environment. In order to achieve this, it is important for the pupils to learn to perceive and enjoy the environment, to observe and investigate it, and to cautiously work on and care for the land.
It is fundamental that the pupils experience the changes in nature throughout the year. For financial reasons, schools sometimes offer horticulture only for six months, it is not taught up to grade ten or it is omitted in the lower grades of the upper school. All this is saving money in the wrong area.
The School Garden – Heart of the School or just an Expense?
The participants of the International Conference for Horticulture Teachers in Dresden, Germany, in January 2010 asked the question: Is the school garden – with its gardens, meadows, fields and ponds, with its pavilions, compost heaps, barns and animals – just an extra expense or is it the heart of a Waldorf school?
We wish for the later to be true! The school garden is a place of experience where children and teenagers not only work but also perceive, observe, feel, overcome obstacles, are happy and enjoy themselves. And it can be even more. It is the place where we harvest fresh vegetables for the school kitchen and for the staff room. Teachers may sit in the school garden, breath deeply and enjoy the flowers.
Holger Baumann: Born in Stade in 1955. Completed his “Abitur” in 1973 and studied theology, indology and religious science for a few semesters in Hamburg and Münster, Germany. He lived and worked on a self-sufficient farm with organic gardens, craft and wool workshops. First contact with anthroposophy. Travelled to Afghanistan and India, lived in an Ashram. Started to study biology in Göttingen, Germany in 1980 and graduated in 1987. Worked for the focus group “environmental history” at the University of Göttingen and for the environment agency of Harz. Freelance teacher for adult education in ecology and further education.
1993 – 1997: Founded and established the farmers' garden at the Wilhelm-Busch-Mühle Museum in Ebergötzen.
1995 / 1996: Trained as middle and upper school teacher for biology, horticulture, geography and chemistry at the Waldorf Teacher Training in Kassel. Has been a teacher at FWS Oberberg, Gummersbach, Germany since 1997.
From the German by Karin Smith
iii Lehrerrundbrief der Pädagogischen Forschungsstelle beim Bund der Freien Waldorfschulen, Stuttgart. Date unknown.
v Lehrerrundbrief der Pädagogischen Forschungsstelle beim Bund der Freien Waldorfschulen, Stuttgart. Date unknown.
Forum group on the topic "Horticulture" see here