To understand the modern concept of the early years environment it is essential to be aware of the historical development of this concept. No one concerned with the problems of creating the right educational environment can afford to ignore the effect, which an Austro-Hungarian philosopher and practitioner, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), have had on the current understanding of the idea. Steiner is most widely known for his innovative approach to children’s mental, physical and emotional development and as the founder of the Waldorf Schools based on the belief that creative activities are psychologically valuable for educational purposes. The first Waldorf School was opened in Germany in 1919 to serve the needs of Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory workers’ children. Considered revolutionary at the time, the methods have proved themselves to be thoroughly practical and effective.
Steiner developed a totally new conception of educational environment where a child is recognized as a being of body, soul and spirit, and consequently environmental scheme aimed to attend to all three. Rudolf Steiner believed that children should be given a complete education and not simply some kind of training, which meant that the education was to help each person to find his/her right space in life and to fulfil a personal destiny, and one of the main factors in achieving this aim was creating the right environment. According to Steiner,
“not until the age of nine or ten does the child really learn to distinguish himself from his environment” (R.Steiner, 1974, p.44), that’s why in the Waldorf Schools the role of the environment in the early years education becomes paramount. Once we realize how extremely sensitive to the influences of their surroundings young children are, then the role of primary education also becomes clear: it has to serve as a protector and a healer so that human beings shall not grow up empty of soul and weak in spirit. (L.Francis Edmunds, 1962, p.13)
The Waldorf School builds its environment mainly around the notion that the earth is the children’s first home. Before a child reaches into the sophistications of modern life, the School gives the children a firm foothold in the natural world and opportunity for observation. In all crafts and handwork the children are provided with natural materials and encouraged to experiment with colour, imagery and form. There is a natural flow of clear, bright colour both in decorating and in the displays of children’s work.
Toys and furnishings are also carefully chosen from natural materials and simple handmade items to allow freedom of imagination and a home-like atmosphere. Playing with these toys and with gifts from nature, such as shells, stones and wood, the children strengthen their creativity and their connection to the earth: a beautiful stone can awaken the child’s own observation and awareness, a single piece of driftwood can become a castle wall, a hedge, a snake, a tree, a person.
The objects of play are as simple as possible, so that the child can apply to them his own powers of fantasy. A rough and ready doll made of a piece of material or even out of a table napkin calls out these fantasy forces, for to the little child everything is “alive”; a “perfect” doll may seem to satisfy but in the end it cloys – it leaves no room for the imagination and therefore works against the original and spontaneous forces of childhood. (L. Francis Edmunds, 1962, p. 23)