The Importance of Natural Toys and Environment for Children

Waldorf Toys and Tools: Why do we use these specific, natural, high quality materials?

By Maggie Crawford

During my Waldorf Early Childhood teacher education training, I was struck by a segment taught on parent evenings. Our teacher involved us in an activity she had shared with the parents that previous year. She had our class split up into two groups and she took us into two different rooms for almost 30 minutes to play.

In my group, we were presented with a great abundance of popular, bright, lively toys. Barbies, remote controlled vehicles, and a variety of plastic toys that made different sounds when you touched certain buttons etc. After several attempts to follow the assignment, I felt finished after five minutes. I even tried to pretend I was playing for a while after that, and it was a downer. The room was loud with the bleeps and siren sounds of the electronic toys, and many of my classmates were laughing and chatting away, telling stories not really pertaining to the class. I was impatient for the teacher to come relieve us. She finally came in at the end and asked us what our experience was like and we had a good conversation. Most of us were kind of bored after a few minutes of engaging the toys. Several of my classmates said that the toys were doing most of the playing. I remember reflecting that I felt apathetic about the experience, and there was something I couldn’t yet put my finger on.

doll-574011_640We were then directed to trade rooms with the other half of our class and we were brought into the corner of a Waldorf Early Childhood room that contained several “Waldorf” toys and other assorted natural items. I saw a “Waldorf” doll, silks, wood blocks of many sizes and shapes, some capes, rocks and shells, a couple of play stands and objects from nature. There were fewer objects than our previous play setting and we were again told to play for a half an hour. It took me a while to warm up to the idea, as I thought I was done for the day with child’s play, but I made myself gather some rocks and silks and before I knew it I was lost creating another world. I made a very realistic river out of gorgeous plant-dyed blue silks, a beach out of some rocks and a hillside nearby. I was transported and didn’t notice when the teacher came in and observed us for a few minutes. When I saw her, I glanced around the room at my classmates and laughed aloud.

My friend Jen had a baby wrapped in a silk “sling” and looked like she was preparing a picnic with pieces of bark as plates and shells as cups. My friend Joni had constructed an amazing cityscape with the wooden blocks, and others around the room were similarly engaged; the room had a nice, quiet hum. I had a feeling of satisfaction and calm in myself, like my playing had a therapeutic effect. The following discussion was pretty rich and lively as we were now able to compare the two experiences and relate it to our work as teachers. In reflection on this Waldorf style play-date, I realized that I felt a sense of heightened self-worth, working with such nice materials. I then could see that playing with the other toys in the prior setting, kind of lowered my sense of self. Those other toys did so much of the thinking for me and were made with inferior materials, some of which broke when we played!

Why do we use the materials we use in Waldorf Education? Why the rugged, openended toys made of wood, the soft, colorful silks, crayons made of bees wax, vibrant high quality watercolor paints, shells, sticks and rocks even?

There are so many reasons and one would do well to write a book specifically about it, I am sure! I will attempt to sum up what stands out to me to help families appreciate how the qualities of our materials help shape and nourish the young children we are so delighted to work with.

When children are between birth and seven years old, they are developing what we refer to as the lower senses, the will senses. I think of the word “lower” here as foundational or basic. These senses are called the life sense (sense of well-being), the sense of balance (vestibular), the sense of proprioception/movement (knowing where we are in space), and the sense of touch. These senses that are developed and cultivated in the younger years directly relate to aspects of our life as we grow older. For example, the development of the sense of touch relates to how we eventually express and/or experience social boundaries.

The materials we use in Waldorf Education are meant to nourish the senses and develop the whole child. I would like to take a moment to consider just the sense of touch. The largest organ of our bodies is our skin. When I first learned this I shuddered to think of all the chemicals I had put on my skin contained in lotions and products. I still do not use completely natural products, but I realize that my skin is like my mouth, taking it all in, drinking into my body whatever I slather on or expose it to. What an awakening! Our skin is completely covered with touch receptors. The quality of what touches our skin aids or detracts from the development of this most valuable sense. Some children have an under or over-developed sense of touch. The underdeveloped do not know when they are hot or cold, have food on their faces etc. The overdeveloped feel touch so keenly even a brush of the skin is an assault. To make things more complex, we emotionally react to our touch experiences, so quality and environmental integrity are important components to the materials we come into contact with.

It is especially important that we nourish and bring balance to the sense of touch by providing the most natural materials to wear against the skin, and have the young child be in contact with the most natural tools and toys. So many toys are loud and made of plastic, and are not as safe as wood or carefully made natural toys. Children often mouth and sometimes ingest residue or parts of what they are playing with, so care should be taken with this, no matter how safe the materials are reported to be. Plastic materials have their place in our world, but when it comes to children’s playthings we should be very conscious and careful. Many plastics contain BPA or Bisphenol A, a chemical that has been shown to affect the health of lab animals. The NIH, FDA and CDC have recently launched a $30 million dollar study to investigate the negative effects of BPA’s on our lives.

The toys we tend to use as educators also enrich and support the neurological development of the child since they are more open ended in nature. Our toys support imaginative play. The faces on our dolls are minimal so the child can impose their own perception of what the doll is feeling or expressing at the moment. The children make their own sounds for the toys they play with and this helps develop them in ways that are missed if they are more passive participants with a toy that has all of its own sounds. Self-directed and imaginary play grow a child’s developmental capacities at this time along with the movement and language work we teachers do in class. Children also love to imitate daily activities they see adults doing such as cooking and cleaning, or gardening etc. The ironing board, child size shovels, wooden fruit and vegetables we have in our settings support this important activity.

We seek to, within our means, provide materials that possess the best and highest natural quality that reflect the immense value of the children in our care. The smell of beeswax, the beauty of our dyed silks, the texture of a stone, these are true and beautiful parts of our lives that speak nourishment to the young child in ways that many current toys and materials do not. Waldorf Education also carries behind it an environmental consciousness that translates into our work and the materials we choose for this work.

Yes, there are so many reasons we use these materials. Each early childhood teacher considers the children in his or her class and their specific needs for movement, touch, balance, well-being, and so on, while fashioning the classroom every year. I feel I have only skimmed the surface of this topic and I am also aware I have focused more on Early Childhood at this time, given my experience. I am sure that even more can be said of the grades programs and the recommended materials for older students.

As I reflect on my experience with my classmates that day in my training, I have no doubt that the choice of using natural, high quality, open ended materials, can only bring growth and a sense of well-being to a developing child compared to so many other present day offerings. That day the exceptional qualities of the Waldorf early childhood setting showed me that the experience of playing has immense value. I am honored to elevate children’s well-being in my class in this way.

Waldorf Educators aspire to share what is true, good and beautiful, appealing to the deepest developmental needs our students have at a given stage in life.