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Education: Learning through pllay, the Steiner way.

Byline: CLAIRE HILL

TUCKED behind the facade of a terraced house in the Welsh capital lies a kindergarten dedicated to the power of play.

Children are offered a bowl of conkers, a block of wood or a chair and invited to create a fantasy world of fun and games.

However, they are not just frivolously playing, but taking part in an alternative structured school day.

The Fountain School, in Cardiff, was set up by parents who were worried about mainstream schooling and methods of teaching.

The school is part of the Steiner School Initiative, which does not introduce formal teaching until the children are six or seven.

Gail Donovan says she stumbled on the school and the alternative methods by accident.

She said, ``I took my son Joe to the toddler group and it was completely different to others I had visited. It all seemed much calmer and the children were not running riot.

``So when it came to putting Joe into school, I decided to pick the kindergarten as I began to believe more and more that the school's methods were correct.''

A social worker in childcare for 19 years, Ms Donovan says the delayed learning not only helped her son but might have benefited a great deal of the children she saw profess i ona

y.

Steiner schools were first created in 1919 by Austrian scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner, after workers at the Walforf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, asked him to form a school.

Since their inception the schools have spread across the world. There are now 780 Steiner Waldorf schools and 1,500 kindergartens worldwide.

In Wales, there are two Steiner schools, The Fountain School kindergarten, in the Adamsdown area of Cardiff, and Nant-y-cwm primary and junior school, in Pembrokeshire.

The schools are funded solely by fees paid by parents and fundraising events such as coffee mornings and annual fairs.

The basic premise of the schools is that children learn through play. The everyday pressures, which children can feel as early as at the age of four, dissolve as examinations and formal assessments are absent.

Cath Little, teacher and parent explained how the children learn through imitation.

She said, ``Every day there is a set structure, the children play, hear stories and sing and then take part in the daily activity. Monday we bake, Tuesday we paint, Wednesday we draw, Thursday we sew and Friday we clean.

``Children learn all about language and maths through these skills, but they do it subconsciously. As teachers we become the example and they join in the activities when they are ready to.'' At the age of four, in mainstream schools, children will begin to learn to read and write. This is not the case in a Steiner school.

In the lower years the attention is focused on play and children are encouraged to develop a sense of imagination.

Simple toys are used to help create a fantasy world where ``anything can become anything''.

Ms Little said, ``Some of the children do need some help with creative play when they first start as a lot of the toys are very simple. Once they develop this they can play on their own and with each other without the need for adults.''

Those children who attend the Steiner junior school in Pembrokeshire are given a more formal education, with the focus on maths, language, history, geography. However, it still differs signific-antly from mainstream schooling. Examinations and constant assessment are not necessary as one teacher stays with a class throughout their school years.

Ernst Wegerif, helped to set up a Steiner School in South Africa and currently works in Nant-y-cwm.

He said, ``Children are ready to learn when they become goal-orientated. They are no longer satisfied playing with a piece of wood, they want to turn it into a boat which can sail.''

Currently in Wales there is only very limited kindergarten, primary and junior provision within the Steiner system. But, say Steiner teachers, despite the alternative methods their former pupils who enter mainstream education at sec-ondary school level do not have problems adapting to the National Curriculum.

Both Gail Donovan's and Cath Little's children have now entered mainstream school and even though they were behind in reading and writing when they began there have been no long-term problems.

Ms Donovan said, ``The teaching methods suited my son and he has thrived and become more confident. When he first attended primary school it took him a few weeks to readjust and get used to the large classrooms. But now his teachers are amazed at the progress he has been making and they are very supportive.''

Cath Little's son Joseph goes to a school in Canton and the teachers have been very interested in the Steiner School methods.

She said, ``He would not have been ready to read at four, as he naturally wanted to play. Now he really wants to read and learn.''

One worry for some of the parents is that they cannot continue a Steiner education for their children in Wales.

The future for the Steiner Schools in Wales, however, does look positive, as the Assembly's Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning Jane Davidson says she is open to the focus on play in the early years.

Fame school

WHILE Steiner School education might be a strange concept to many people, a host of famous faces have been involved through the years.

Jennifer Aniston, star of American sitcom `Friends' developed her love for drama when she attended the Steiner School in New York.

Former pupils have also included Annie Lennox and Cherie Blair's mother, Gale.

Famous parents such as Robert Plant, astrologer Jonathan Cainer and fashion designer Katherine Hamnett have sent their children to Steiner Schools.

CAPTION(S):

PLAY-LED: Children at play in the playroom at the Fountain School; ALTERNATIVE: Cath Little helps children to prepare fruit for a snack at the Fountain School in Cardiff; FAN: Jennifer Aniston; FAN: Robert Plant; FAN: Annie Lennox
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Feb 7, 2003
Words:994
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