Nourishing Spaces Part 1: The play-space as a space for imitation and imagination

Updated: Oct 4, 2020

Waldorf Education was founded over a century ago by Rudolf Steiner. An educational approach which respects the development of the whole child it seeks to allow the harmonious development between the child’s physical and spiritual self, it is a philosophy which respects the child and their need to develop in their own time.

The first seven years in Steiner~Waldorf education is the phase of Willing, of Imitation. Children are born imitators they absorb the world indiscriminately, the repeat whatever they hear - in modern times as we have come to understand the process of rapid brain development children go though in the first three years more and more, we have seen it as an opportunity in early Childhood Institutions and Educational Systems to feed children information, and early intellectualisation in this period of a child's life is seen as a sign of cleverness, of achievement.

Rudolf Steiner even 100 years ago saw the early intellectualisation of children as being counterproductive to them harmoniously developing as a whole being. Steiner believed over intellectualisation does not allow room for the child to develop on a deep soul and physical level. In these early years whilst children are making sense of their place in the world, witnessing the beautiful and amazement in the smallest pine cone, in a seed floating through they sky, do they gain joy and satisfaction from matching numbers or phonetic sounds, from counting and analysing what they have done and why they have done it? Or is it the adult that seeks confirmation they are raising a ‘clever’ child in this process?

It is for this reason free play is the focus of early childhood, childhood is treated with reverence and respect, the child's individual journey is respected as parents and adults we look into a world which we have long left behind, which we can only imagine with wonder and awe. As adults our responsibility is to provide a loving environment, carefully considered to allow safety and comfort, the development of the imagination and the important task of play through imitation, where a child may make sense of the world they exist in through their own work, their own willing. Reading, writing and maths are not introduced until around age seven, and children explore these concepts broadly through oral storytelling, song, movement and play. Developing their own inner imagination and voice, before the voice and imagination of others are imposed on them through books, tv shows, and adult led tasks.

One simple example of the over intellectualisation of children can be drawn from my own toddler being read the Julia Donaldson book ‘Stick Man’. The book, which follows a stick man getting lost far away from home at one point describes the imaginative uses for sticks..

‘I’m not a mast for a silly old flag, or a sword for a knight, or a hook for a bag. I’m not a pen, or a bow, or a boomerang no..”

The irony comes that in the reading of this book a stick quickly became none of these things for my daughter but simply was that ‘Stick Man’ the powerful pictures we present to very young children whilst they are still working through and making their own sense of the world and their place in it , through the ideas and words of someone else can be impressionable and Steiner believed detrimental to the developing imagination in young minds, and so, with the goal of raising ‘free thinking’ human beings we allow children in early childhood to develop concepts and ideas themselves, to allow their thinking and imagination to grow independently, allowing those bridges to forge themselves, no fast tracks.... why...because we have time. Children have time. They are not going to fall behind and live a life of destitution because they don't learn to read as soon as they can talk, or because they cannot link a number to its sound, when they would rather be relating that counting to hops over stepping stones, or claps in a game.

The play space as a haven for childhood.

The Steiner Kindergarten is designed as a space which replicates the home, indeed Steiner himself is not thought to have advocated kindergartens, but they opened nonetheless due to the demands of modern life and a need for quality childcare which respected the Anthroposophical beliefs and roots of Waldorf Education, spaces generally are warm spaces with a womb like feeling, natural warming materials, wools, wood, silks, shells, stones and simply made toys provide a nourishing open ended foundation for play, where children can deepen their play and imagination.

The Home Corner

The Home Corner I feel is probably the most ‘structured’ area in a Steiner Kindergarten, amongst the open ended items for play it provides what I like to think as an anchor point to the child’s world. Its a space they are familiar with, a space which enables them to work through processes they see everyday and a space which can provide a catalyst for rich industrious and imaginative play.

The kitchen helping promote imitation, independence, feelings of value and trust in a child.

It was important to me when thinking about this are in my playroom that it not only provided items which were accessible to my daughter, but were real. Children soak every thing in, they know when they have plastic plates they are not the same as ones in your kitchen, this may not matter when in the throes of play, but the sensory experience real items create for them as well as the care and attention they show these items in play reflects greatly in how they see them used in real life. Cause and effect has a great role to play here, and if something breaks because it has been thrown for example and we show care and attention in cleaning it up, that becomes part of the child's experiences and they being to understand and process it in their play. I once cared for a child who had a trajectory schema, which meant the child loved throwing things, they would throw everything indiscriminately, everything the child's parents provided were plastic and they were concerned that using the ‘real’ items in my kitchen would pose a danger, indeed the child did throw a plate and it broke... but they never threw one again and instead took great care in placing plates and teapots down. They threw only things which wouldn’t break in future and this was a great milestone in their own development as they went on to use real plates and glasses at mealtimes, indeed they felt valued and trusted as every child should. Real items such as jars have also provided a wonderful way to explore lids, shapes, size and volume in play. Pestle and mortars help physical development further and provide rich sensory experiences as herbs and spices are bashed and ground by little hands. If children have watched you do these things you will be sure to see them appear here. A doll is central to waldorf early childhood, as the representation of the human being having one, with some blankets and somewhere to rest (it could be something as simple as a box trimmed down) is so important to enable children to enact caring for another. Always end the day tucking the doll in bed and modelling caring, nurturing behaviour.

The kitchen helping to promote imaginative play

Allowing children the chance to develop their play imaginatively without interruption is so important in their holistic development. We allow children to stay in a dreamlike state, when they seem in their own thoughts or world, not to awaken them for our own needs and questioning. For we are not to know what they are thinking, how many times have you witnessed your child looking at a piece of grass or a leaf, only yo ask them about it or draw their attention to the colour for example, for them only to throw it on the floor and walk off. In those moments of wonder we must respect that we are on the outside of their world and we must respect that without trying to bring them into ours. Providing loose parts as opposed to manufactured play food is a great way to support imaginative play, these objects can be found and inexpensive and allow the child to transform them into what they like, large shells can become telephones, plates and boats. Stones can become cakes, treasure and mountains, pine cones can become eggs and trees, the only limit is the imagination and the great sensory element this gives the child is so enriching. Silks and cloths can be hung or worn, they can become sails, flags, capes, blankets and these are primarily kept in the home corner in my playroom in a basket. Again they don't have to be expensive and can be home made and hand dyed with things as simple as coffee, turmeric and even watercolour paints

The Kitchen Units

Kitchen units do not have to be flat packed mini versions of home, they can be a side table with a curtain fixed to the front, an up-cycled drawer or cupboard, I wanted my kitchen area to be as rich in texture as possible and eventually I found a second hand (could be third, fourth, fifth) one online, it needed work but slowly has come up beautifully. Be open minded in what you use. Manufactured kitchens are great but they are expensive and beautiful spaces can be achieved for so much less. Equally the ‘Table’ I have which forms part of the kitchen and which we craft at, is an inexpensive dining table which I sawn the legs down on. Perfect table and a third of the cost of others which you but specifically for early years, have a look for an old coffee table and saw the legs down, teak coffee tables are sometimes quite cheap at the moment and the beautiful colour and wood grain make them beautiful to look at and touch.


I know myself that when I am cold I cannot function 100% our bodies focus on keeping warm as opposed to allowing our brains to be fully focused, warmth is seen as so important in early childhood in Waldorf Education, this is another reason warming natural materials such as wool and sheepskins are used in kindergartens, to promote warmth and the regulation of body temperature in children. It was important to me that the home corner had a wool rug, I trimmed the rug on the edges to a curve to allow the area to flow into the rest of the playroom, as leaving it rectangular felt to abrupt and it felt like it separated the area too much.

Enclosing the space

Making the space cosy and warm also involved enclosing it, not only to provide a quiet area away from the play kitchen but to allow children to feel comfortable. I always remember years ago visiting a hotel with my ex husband which had grand high ceilings and a massive room, I felt so exposed and uncomfortable I couldn’t sleep all night, it is recognised that children's communication improves in small spaces where they feel secure and so adding a canopy above the head to lower the ceiling as well as a play frame to separate the area helps that. I provide a basket of wool to allow for ‘washing lines’ to be tied up between the frame and the hook on the wall for the canopy, of course this washing line isn’t just for clothes and sometimes we find the fabric hung from there becomes windows and doors, portals to another world. The canopy I made from a large branch I found in the garden past spring, after drying it out in the shed for a couple of months I sanded the bark smooth, before cutting it down to size. It is suspended by simply wrapping each end with a wire wrapped in twine, the end of this wire is then wrapped around the head of a screw fixed into the wall. The arm of the canopy to one side is a branch fixed onto the he wall with a finial fixing, the fabric simply two Ikea net curtains (I couldn’t afford silk) costing £8.00 sewn together to create one long piece, hung through a lace which is looped over and suspended from a hook in the ceiling.

Simple is best, and for all the expensive beautiful toys you see online, to truly provide an nourishing early childhood for your child and provide a home corner that provides a catalyst for rich industrious imaginative play you needn't spend a lot of money at all.

I hope this post has given a good starting point into the ideas behind my playroom, I look forward to sharing our loose parts area next!

K x

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