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Learning for life

Nurturing the senses and fostering imagination is child's play. Literally.

That's the concept behind Waldorf Kinderhaus, a kindergarten for 3{- to 6-year-olds that will open in September. Here, children are gently introduced to the world through art, beauty, nature and plain, old-fashioned playing.

The Clearwater school is new; the technique is not.

Based on the Waldorf method, an international non-sectarian educational movement, teachers embrace the philosophy of addressing the whole child: head, heart and hands.

Since 1919, nearly 700 Waldorf schools have sprung up worldwide. The Waldorf theory is the brainchild of the late Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian scientist and author who had an intense interest in education.

"Children's play is their work. It's how they establish who they are," said Kinderhaus teacher Barbara Bedingfield, who has taught in private and public schools. "Through play, they learn social skills and about building a world. As teachers it is our job to massage their souls so they become sensitive to the world."

Young Waldorf students learn language development through fairy tales, nursery rhymes and songs rich in tradition and eloquent language. Handiwork like finger knitting and simple woodworking help develop fine motor skills.

And, when it comes to play, the most vital form of learning, simple unpainted wooden toys and small woven baskets filled with rocks sit on Kinderhaus shelves. Smooth misshapen knots of cedar line the windowsills. Larger baskets are filled with soft handmade dolls and puppets made of unspun wool dyed in soft pastel colors.

Kinderhaus grew out of the Suncoast Waldorf Association, which was formed in 1991 after the Times ran an article about a Waldorf school in Gainesville. As membership increased, Waldorf play groups were formed. In January, the first official play group was held at Kinderhaus, a made-over home on Nursery Road that is being leased from a church on the same property.

At a recent two-hour play session, nine children from 23 months to 6 years engaged in a delightful world of wonder as their mothers gathered in a smaller room to chat. Together, the children built their own imaginary world with smooth rocks of different sizes, wooden sawhorses draped with a purple gauze cloth and paper filled with the muted colors of beeswax crayons.

Words spoken by Bedingfield and her assistant, Dianne Canniff, came from gentle voices. When it was time to put the creations away, the voices changed to song, softly singing, "Time to put the toys away." Gradually, the toys were placed back in their homes.

Storytime, a Maypole dance and, finally, refreshments. Seated at a wooden table covered with a white linen cloth, the children were served rice and crunchy orange carrots in pottery bowls and ate with sterling silver spoons. They drank berry juice in glasses served from a silver tray. A twig of blooming Confederate jasmine graced the center of the table, its sweet, nutmeg aroma penetrating the room.

For Robin Peacock, a former elementary teacher and an original member of the Suncoast Association, Waldorf is a natural way to educate her two girls.

"It's honest. A child who grows in Waldorf never goes without," she said. "Children are treated with so much respect. They don't need to be entertained because they learned how to entertain themselves and they have a deep respect for Mother Nature and life."

A typical Waldorf school adds academics at age-appropriate levels. By high school, a traditional curriculum integrated with arts and music is standard.

Sept. 9 will mark the official opening of the school. Children will attend class from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. five days a week. Cost is $365 a month.

It is Bedingfield's hope that as the children grow so will Waldorf Kinderhaus. For now, she says, the chance to unlock the beauty, romance and magic of the world for little ones is enough.

"These are the things that keep them interested in learning all through their lives."