Imagining Childhood. Working for the International Association for Steiner/Waldorf Early childhood Education

Clara Aerts

It was at one of those moments in 1998 that Joan Almon from the USA said the following words that I will never forget: “For years now we hear in the reports from different countries about how childhood is under attack. When are we as Waldorf movement finally going to do something about it? If we want to turn this tide, we will have to learn to work together with other like-minded partners, because it is clear that by ourselves we are to small to bring about real change.”

These words spoke right to my heart because they addressed the universal “I” in myself and in each one who is willing to work together for a higher cause that bridges the differences and brings us together as contemporaries in this spiritual quest. In this cradle of Waldorf Early childhood educators, the ‘Alliance for Childhood‘ (AFC) was born and established with the help of its godparents: Joan Almon, Dr. Michaela Glöckler, Christopher Clouder and Jürgen Flinspach. 

Sharing our thoughts

The AFC was first launched in 1999 at a conference in Spring Valley, New York for the US and then in 2000 in Brussels at an international conference with the title  Alliance for childhood: A bridge to the future.’  As an outcome of this conference, AFC movements started to become active in several countries in Europe, Brazil and lately also in Peru and Hong Kong, and AFC conferences followed in 2005 in Salzburg, 2010 in Budapest and recently from 23-26 October 2013 in Brussels once again.

The European AFC network has several members and partners who work on behalf of children, either in their countries or in Brussels working on a policy level. Among them are leading umbrella organisations and NGO’s in the European landscape such as Eurochild, Learning for Wellbeing Institute, Nivoz and many others. From the beginning the Steiner/Waldorf movement has been a strong and active collaborator in the AFC work in Europe, primarily through Christopher Clouder, who for many years represented ECSWE and has been a voice advocating for a Quality of Childhood in the many platforms and conferences where he is asked to speak, and also through IASWECE, represented at first by Geseke Lundgren and since 2008 by myself. Later on, ELIANT also joined as a partner and with this a link to various initiatives for applied anthroposophy was established.

In 2006 the (European Network Group) was able to found a working group for the ‘Quality of Childhood’ (QOC) and since then this QoC group organizes a session every 2 months in the European Parliament, inviting researchers and other prominent speakers to share their findings. The overall objectives of these meetings are:

  • To gain a better understanding of the Quality of Childhood in the EU member states, each time focusing on a different element, and to think about the role that the European institutions could play to improve the situation.
  • To get to grips with the values, principles and approaches that could lead to improvements for children.
  • To form an effective working group and to get a sense of how to move on.

Reports of these meetings have been collected and published in four books that are available for purchase. The reports gathered in the first 3 books are also available as a pdf version on on the QoC page.

Building a chalice made of courage

Working together with like-minded partners is a very enriching and at the same time can be a challenging experience. You’re forced and learn to revisit your own ideals and deepen them with understanding in order to become able to share from the essentials within them instead of speaking about the methods or from the outer forms that often become too narrow a window from which to look at them. At the same time, you feel strength is given to you if you open yourself with genuine interest for what the other has to share; in return, your own inspirational background becomes interesting to the other and is experienced as something valuable for them to explore.

In this collaborative outreach I have often found deeply shared concerns regarding children and an enormous amount of good will to do something to improve childhood. The image of a beautiful dance has often come to my mind in thinking about this collaboration with others in the AFC, where the music is leading both in a balanced choreography and there is no question or competition in who’s taking the lead and who has to follow. In this respect I remember the words of one of the other founders of the Alliance movement, Michaela Glöckler, who when asked about how we can work together with others without losing our own identity said: “In order to stay in balance we have to remember that for every step we take in the outside world, we have to take two towards a deepening of our inner work and understanding of the essentials.” In this sense, working in the Alliance sphere can be considered as a constant schooling of one’s own inner path of self-development.

Drops of light

The Unfolding Conference that recently took place from 23-26 October in Brussels was co-hosted by the network and the Learning for Wellbeing Consortium. It was a fine example of realisation in working together selflessly for a higher cause and aiming for “nurturing a culture in which each and every child can unfold her or his unique potential and engage in society.” Christopher Clouder, who gave one of the opening lectures, set the tone and spirit of this conference in a very artistic way and warmed the souls of the participants with his lecture on creativity and the importance of the arts in education. But most of all, he opened our hearts and awakened our imagination through sharing with us the beautiful poem, “Romanesque Arches” by the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, in which he is taking us into a spiritual dimension and painting in words the infinite depths of our human potential.

Romanesque Arches

Tourists have crowded into the half-dark of the enormous
Romanesque church.
Vault opening behind vault and no perspective.
A few candle flames flickered.

An angel with no face embraced me
and his whisper went all through my body:
"Don't be ashamed to be a human being, be proud!
Inside you vault after vault opens endlessly.
You'll never be complete, and that's as it should be."

Tears blinded me
as we were herded out into the fiercely sunlit piazza,
together with Mr. and Mrs. Jones, Herr Tanaka and Signora Sabatini;
and within each of them
vault after vault

(Translation by Robert Bly)

After engaging in the first 1 ½ day in lectures and workshops that looked from different angles at elements relating to the development of the child’s inner self and her/his relation with the environment, an Open Space was created in which all participants were invited to take initiative and responsibility for questions they wanted to embark upon with others who wanted to enter in a dialogue with them and exploring next steps for taking actions. In taking initiatives for working together in the future on action tasks such as articulating what we mean by age-appropriate child participation, bringing back the word ‘spirituality’ in the Flemish/Dutch translation of the Charter on the Convention of Children’s Rights, and many others, new networks and collaborations between partners were established for the future.

In addition to the task in the field of networking and outreach/collaboration with other likeminded partners, we also work together intensively with other partners in our Steiner/Waldorf movement. Together with the Pedagogical Section we try to disseminate the burning issues for Waldorf education and create opportunities such as conferences and colloquia to deepen our understanding of the phenomena and improve our pedagogical practice as an answer for meeting the needs of children. In this respect an international conference on transitions in childhood is planned for the first week of April 2015 in Dornach, where we hope to bring together professionals who work with the child from birth to puberty.

In IASWECE we also believe that each Steiner/Waldorf kindergarten or early childhood initiative where children are helped to develop the inner path towards freedom in the world of today is like an initiative towards world peace. Therefore we focus our support on the development of training and mentoring in many countries in a way that will empower local educators and foster the quality of education. By doing so we aim to improve their quality of life and, as a consequence, that of the children and families they will take care of as educators.

With the rapid development of new Steiner/Waldorf EC initiatives in the world there’s a growing need for supporting the development of Steiner/Waldorf training and mentoring. To keep an overview of the developments we have regular meetings with Nana Goebel from the Freunde and Claus-Peter Röh and Florian Osswald from the Pedagogical Section, and to coordinate the support, we collaborate with other anthroposophical associations and foundations such as Acacia (CH), Freunde der Erziehungskunst (DE), Helias Stichting – Internationaal Help Fonds and Iona Stichting Khedeli (NL), Sanduko (DK), Sofia (SE) and the Godparents Association (UK).

As one of the 3 members of the Coordinating Group of IASWECE, I have been given the trust of the council to be the voice on behalf of the small child in the different tasks and mandates mentioned above. And in this vocation I try to work out of the inner attitude that I’m also asked to develop within myself when working out of the Alliance spirit. 

It is my hope, that this inspiration will encourage all of us to form networks with local partners in the places where we live and work so that together we can turn the tide and weave an etheric sheath around the world in which a quality of childhood can become a cradle for the children that come to us from the future.

Clara Aerts (BE) is a Steiner/Waldorf Early Childhood Educator who since 2008 has been working as one of the members of the Coordinating Group of IASWECE together with her partners Susan Howard (US) and Philipp Reubke (France).