A different way to learn: Tamar Valley Steiner school two years on from launching

Education: Ava Radbone during a reading session at Tamar Valley Steiner School. Pictures: Phillip Biggs
Education: Ava Radbone during a reading session at Tamar Valley Steiner School. Pictures: Phillip Biggs

From little things, big things grow.

A playgroup becomes a kindergarten, a kindergarten a primary school.

And, hopefully, in the near future, that primary school could become a high school.

Tamar Valley Steiner School opened for the first term of 2016 as a natural extension of the Rainbow Garden Steiner playgroup, with eight pupils commencing their formal education under the Steiner system.

Just two years later, the school has 42 pupils and is already outgrowing its year-old home in St Leonards, at the old Soldiers Memorial Hall.

The Hall is almost unrecognisable from the early days, with a new fence and a large transportable room extending the hall building to create a second classroom.

Out the back of the property is space for children to build, climb, swing and play around several self-contained vegetable garden beds and several large old trees.

Walking into the property feels less like walking into a school and more like visiting a family home – the comfortable kitchen holds a spacious table and chairs, a big old bookshelf stacked with children’s books, and a kettle on the boil.

It’s not until you open the door through to the main room of the old hall that you realise you’re in a school – rows of desks facing a blackboard decorated with poetry and sketches of mountains, a tray of art supplies and about ten children sitting on the floor listening to a story being read aloud by their teacher.

The Steiner education system is focused on learning through play, breaking down the structural demands of English, maths, geography, art, science into more free-form ideas of learning through doing.

Art and self-awareness are core tenets of the Steiner system, with all children beginning their day with movement before settling down to the more book-focused learning.

College chair Annie Ball said the school’s increasing popularity means the school has commissioned a second transportable classroom for next year.

“Next year we’ll have our first single-stream class, so this year we’ve had two composite classes,” Ms Ball said.

“We’ve very quickly outgrown this site.”

It’s a rapid rise for such a small school, and suggests some of the hunger for alternative learning options.

Ms Ball said she believed the attraction for parents was the evidence-based focus on play-based, imagination-led learning for young children, removing them from the structured expectations of the traditional school systems.

“All the research now points to that being the best foundation for learning,” she said.

“The extent to which imagination is developed in early childhood is actually the foundation of creative thinking later.”

College Chair Annie Ball outside Tamar Valley Steiner School in St Leonards.

College Chair Annie Ball outside Tamar Valley Steiner School in St Leonards.

Ms Ball said balancing art, song, dance and play with the main lesson – a deep investigative focus on a particular topic for three or four weeks – means children develop their creativity and critical thinking into lifelong traits.

The school offers a range of subjects for pupils, from Bush School fostering an understanding of the native landscapes to seasonal festivals connecting pupils to nature and the wider community.

Due to the emphasis on art and creativity, Ms Ball said there can be a perception of Steiner graduates as weak in sciences or ‘harder’ subjects – but that’s often incorrect, with graduate data showing many graduates pursued careers in sciences.

“People tend to see Steiner schools as being artistic because we have so much music and movement and art, but actually because … that sense of awe and wonder is kept alive in children, they take that into their scientific pursuits,” she said.

“We want to educate for life, not just a career – both are important.”

Tamar Valley Steiner is one of just two Steiner schools in Tasmania, with Tarremah Steiner based south of Hobart its older cousin.

Tarremah runs from Kindergarten to grade 10, and has grown from similarly humble beginnings to a full-sized school.

The Steiner system’s encouragement of children to learn how they choose, through imagination and creativity, can divert the more expected focuses of education standards in children’s early years – literacy and numeracy tests, for example.

But Tarremah offers a glimpse at the future of Tamar Steiner, particularly in their NAPLAN scores – while Tarremah’s grade 3 reports may be lower than the national average, by grade 7 those scores are almost all higher than the national average.

The first Steiner school was founded in 1919, based upon the philosophy of its namesake Rudolf Steiner – the system is also known as Waldorf, with more than a thousand schools now operating world-wide.

In Australia the independent system is growing fast, from its first Sydney school in 1957 to a number of schools, like Tamar Valley Steiner, developing over the past few years across the states.

Ms Ball believes the increasing interest in Steiner comes from the system’s focus on grounding children in a deeper awareness of nature, and a holistic balance of physical, mental and spiritual health.

For 2018, Tamar Steiner will stay at St Leonards, but the school is already searching for a new location to create purpose-built facilities.

“Next year hopefully there’ll be a real consolidation of all that’s been [growing] this year,” Ms Ball said.