Thursday, December 12, 2013

German play

If you’re like me, at one time or another you have been completely charmed by Waldorf play. In fact, Sebastian was this close to going to a Waldorf school here in Germany. For reasons I won’t go into here, we decided the week before he was to start that we didn’t want him to go there. It was a mix of disappointment and relief for me.

In the end, I was excited about the Evangelische Kindergarten that he was to go to, but couldn’t shake some sad feelings about how he wasn’t going to have access to the play things available at the Waldorf school that I felt would so perfectly nurture his imagination. Oh the atmosphere! The windows! The warmth and simplicity of that place was unmatched, and I wanted that kind of surrounding for my little man. But from day 1, Sebastian has loved the Evangelische Kindergarten. He frequently refers to his teacher as, “The nicest teacher,” and just yesterday, Cody realized that when Seb sings the ABC’s in German, he replaces the end of the alphabet with her name, because the sounds are similar. Awesome, I tell you. 

As for the atmosphere at the Kindergarten, there are bursts of primary colors throughout, and it’s always a bit kid-chaotic, if I may coin a term. But you know what, I am really glad for those things. Kids love color, and kids, when they’re free to play, are going to get loud and messy and talkative. I am so thankful that God redirected our steps to Seb’s Kindergarten, and was from the onset pleasantly surprised by the ways in which this Kindergarten seemed to mimic Waldorf schools in a few ways. 

I’ve finally lived in Germany long enough to start picking up on some of the subtleties of this place. I have enough context now to know that, oh, German families have and love Playmobil. It is to Germany what the Fisher Price Little People are to the U.S. Germans also love mobiles. Go into any classroom, kindergarten, or child’s room and you will find at least one, if not 5+ mobiles hanging from the ceiling, and most made out of wood. (And here I thought mobiles were reserved for those extra fancy nurseries belonging to people with a substantial disposable income!) Similarly, the windows are smattered with bright pops of homemade paper decorations. Currently, in the season of Advent, nearly every window we pass is sporting one or more Fenstersterne, and the windows of every Kindergarten are lined with a row of black paper houses with colorful tissue paper windows. Within the walls of a Kindergarten or home, the differences are subtle, but there all the same. Mostly the amount of crafting supplies abounds. Germans do not kid when it comes to their crafting. For example, the parents at Seb's kindergarten unanimously agreed to make Christmas gifts together for the children. Half of us painted mugs, and the other half made beaded star ornaments. I ask you, have I moved to the coolest land ever?

After I mulled some of these thoughts around for a little while, it hit me like a facepalm that, duh, Waldorf schools aren’t this crazy unique thing not found anywhere else... they’re GERMAN! Felt, wood—natural, simple play—it’s so very German. Your average Kindergarten in the U.S. won’t look very Waldorf, it will look American. But your average Kindergarten in Germany will look very Waldorf, because Waldorf is very German. And suddenly so many things fell into place for me. Seb’s Kindergarten isn’t mimicking the Waldorf style, it is simply a German kindergarten, and that means, much to my delight, they have felt playmats, a plethora of wooden figures and animals, and play scenes with natural fibers made to look like moss-covered hills, all perfectly suited for nurturing a little imagination. 

I find the play atmosphere for children here to be so soothing, and refreshing. Perhaps it reminds me a bit of my childhood. I remember my siblings and I frequently telling our mom, without any advanced warning, that we wanted to do a craft. And just like that, we had a craft. I’m still amazed at that. Some of my other fond memories of play as a child involve pretend play with old pots and pans, pinecones and mud, and playing with my friend’s vast supply of Playmobil.

Zum Schluss, here are a few things that we will be slowly working into our “playmosphere” in the coming months and years.

Playmobil. Playmobil 1-2-3 is great for the littlest ones. We recently bought a nativity set for half price, and Bruno has especially enjoyed playing with it (He is a dollhouse/baby playing kind of a man if I ever saw one). It’s a great option if you want something well-suited to imaginative play, but without the pricetag of so many wooden playthings. I think it’s a great alternative to some of the other plastic toys that look unnatural. Playmobil does great with details. For example, a playmobil horse will have texture and depth, like it was made from a recycled milk jug.

DUPLO. I swore by DUPLO in my pre-Germany days, and I stand by it. I think Germans are with me on this one. We actually brought the entirety of our DUPLO collection with us to Germany! (LEGOS for the older kiddos, of course).

Ostheimer. I have no illusions that our entire play collection will be made up of wooden toys, nor do I believe that a toy is inherently good because it is wood. However, Ostheimer is special, and in my mind, there will always be a place for wooden animals and people. Just as it’s important for children to have many different tactile experiences, I think it’s important to have a variety of figures that don’t necessarily “match.” It’s amazing to see a child create a story out of mismatched bits and bobs.

Mobiles. I don’t plan to go crazy or anything, but I did buy one, just so I can feel more German. Wooden mobiles are a lot less expensive here!

Paper-crafts. This has already begun to transform our home life in a big way. After having a major case of the blues because of my inability to ever be prepared for advent, I committed to sitting down for a while and doing a little search for some interesting—but doable in an advent-has-already-started kind of a way—projects. I came across this one, from The Little Red House. I walked to the city the next day to get the things I needed, and put our little advent calendar together that night. I felt so great about an advent calendar that would give us activities to engage in, and time to be creative and work on something together, instead of one that would lead us on a 25 day adventure of 2-minute chocolate binges. I wanted our advent calendar to reflect the joy in anticipation, in giving, and in creating. Although when I tell Seb that we’ll open another envelope tomorrow, he inevitably asks, “And then will it be Christmas??” So yes, crafting. Game changer for me.

Felt playmats. These are the coolest, and quite simply, I wish every child had one. So many possibilities, and so fun to make. You can see a picture of the one I made below. Next time I will try a simple design with grass, a small body of water, and a dirt path.

Finger puppets. It seems that at every art or Christmas market I’ve been to, there are always little hand knit finger puppets for sale. I always thought they were the cutest, but wasn’t sure if my boys would find them interesting. While I was in Munich a couple weeks ago, I found the most perfect little finger puppets. I mean, perfect. It took some restraint to only buy two, and to my pleasant surprise, Seb and Bruno love them both. Now I wish I hadn’t used so much restraint!

The great outdoors. If you’ve got this one, you’ve got it all. Living in Germany has transformed the way I relate to the outdoors. Of course, the cold weather always makes it hard, but being outside is just so important for kids, even the littlest ones.