Wednesday, March 26, 2014


"They grown! They grown!" is the excited cry that is ringing through our house. Every one of our "bulbs" has sprouted in the onion basket. The root gnomes must be brewing root tea in their little pot! I guess Lady Spring has taken things into her own hands!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Tips for Starting a Seasonal Table

A friend of mind recently asked me if I had any tips for starting a seasonal table. I thought I would share some examples of simple seasonal tables and give some idea of where I started. I hope these ideas will be helpful! [So, this got kind of long! If you are just interested in some tips you can skip down to the ***** section! : p)

I greatly admire the seasonal table tradition that comes out of the Waldorf school movement. Because the Waldorf early childhood curriculum is based entirely on the seasons, early childhood classrooms have "nature tables" to help reflect the outside seasons indoors. There are a few things that Waldorf nature tables have in common, in my experience.
  • First, they are spaces that are set apart. They have a designated shelf, or table top, or bureau where the nature table always is. It doesn't move around the room, or get placed higglety pigglety, or thrown to the side when that shelf is needed. In this way, the nature table is a little bit alter like. It's not an alter, no one worships there, but there is something reverent about its placement.
  •  Second, while it varies from classroom to classroom whether children are allowed to play with and touch the nature table, there are almost always rules that the objects on the table must stay there. So, even if a child is allowed to move things around and play there, the play must stay at the table. In many cases though, the nature table is just there to be "admired" and is not for play. 
  • Third, the decorations and objects found on the nature table are almost always made of natural material; silk, stone, wood, seed pods, wool, shells, cotton, flowers, etc.
  • Forth, there is usually some representation or personification of the season; a figure like "King Winter" in winter, "Prince Autumn" in the autumn, or the Holy Family during Advent and Christmas. 

While I have never seen any rules for how to put together a nature table, these four aspects have been present in pretty much every Waldorf nature table I have seen.

In a Waldorf school the idea is to bring, into the classroom, the mood of the season. Colored silks are used to create a landscape which mirrors the current season. Figures are there to personify the season, and objects from nature are used to enhance the effect. Seed pods or flowers remind us of what is going on in the gardens and fields. Branches become trees that house little felt birds or piles of silk snow.  King Winter spreads his white cloak over the ground, or Mother Earth's blanket covers the table with fallen leaves. There is sometimes space for children to lay the "treasures" they find on a walk, but the underlying display is a scene designed by the teacher. There is a certain amount of whimsy that comes in here because objects are used not only to represent accurately what we are seeing in nature, but also as props for the figures. Therefore, a large sea shell becomes a pond for little fish, or hollow logs become homes for gnomes. Again, all of this is meant to bring the mood of the season into the classroom. Its purpose is to hang as a background to the children's play, and only rarely does it get mentioned or actively sought out.

Waldorf schools are not the only ones who have nature tables, however. A quick look through Pinterest reveals that there is another style of nature table. Sometimes found in Montessori classrooms, or in home school rooms, these "natural history style" nature tables have the more concrete purpose of giving children a direct and focused exploration of nature as the foundation for science. (Examples can be found here, and here.) The natural history style nature table has the first three aspects from above, a designated space, rules about how it is to be used, and natural objects. There can be trays that help categorize the objects; feathers, shells, seeds, grasses, etc. There are sometimes books and field guides. There are sometimes microscopes and magnifying glasses. All of these facilitate the child's understanding of the objects of nature. All the objects and tools, neatly laid out on the natural history style nature table, are quite beautiful, and quite different than the Waldorf nature table.

I personally like the whimsical character of the Waldorf nature table, and the look of draping silks, so our table often looks very "Waldorfy". I also really like the role the figures play. I like personifying the forces of nature. (Perhaps it is the artist in me?) I like representing the spiritual realities of angels alongside the natural world. I like that a season (be it a week, a month, a yearly quarter) can take on the character of a person. For example St. Michael the Archangel, for me, characterizes the whole Autumn season, and so he is present on our nature table right alongside the apples, and squashes and fallen leaves. And right now, with small children, I think that the relationship between the human, the divine, and the natural is more important to display than the concrete, scientific name of those same fallen leaves. I hope that as my children get older we can incorporate more found objects into our nature tables. As it is right now, however, with a three year old who is only beginning to understand how to put things away, and a one year old who puts everything into her mouth, I have to carefully select and limit the number of natural found objects we bring into the house.

All that theory aside,
  • I would start with a designated space.
  • I would decide if I want the children touching it, not touching, playing gently or what have you. 
  • I would get some cloths for the background/table cloth. Years ago I started with cotton cloths. I bought them in different seasonal colors. Some even had patterns to be leaves on the ground, running water etc. At the time I found silks to be hard to get and/or expensive. Now I get my silks from Dharma Trading Company. I dye them myself using fruits, vegetables and natural dyes. Lil Fish Studios is a blog that talks a lot about experimenting with dyes; it's a good blog to browse. Here is a beautiful post from Poppytalk about experimenting with food as dyes. Here is an article from Mother Earth News about mordanting your fiber (yarn or cloth) before dyeing it. (Mordanting helps make the color brighter and fade less over time.) If you are interested in a quick dye job, but don't want to spend tons of money or learn the whole art of dyeing, you can use Kool-Aid. I don't have any experience with this though, and I would guess that the colors end up being more neon and less natural unless you use several colors at once so they mute each other.
  • You can use things under your table cloth to add contours to your landscape. Small food boxes (well cleaned, of course!), rocks, small stumps (like those cut from the end of the Christmas tree), etc.
  • Now that the table is set it's time to set the scene! You can start bringing in items from outside, a small vase of flowers, small branches, interesting knots of wood, stones, crystals, leaves, bark, shells, etc.
  • And then come the figures, which require a whole post to themselves! Although, I will say that the quickest people are peg people, especially if you choose to paint them rather than dress them in cloth. You can find my tutorial for making peg dolls here.
  • And then, just realize that this is going to be a process. One silk, one figure, one pine cone at a time you will learn your own style, and you will learn which elements are important to you. Enjoy the journey!
Here are two examples of very simple nature tables. The first is B's seasonal table. We found this sweet little chest at the thrift store. It sits in B's room, and is totally accessible to him. It often gets used for other purposes (as you will see!).

I made a little gnome to live in the lower portion with his crystal. I liked that the chest gave us the opportunity to have many layers of beings. Since gnomes are associated with the underground, I put him down below.

The saints peg people sit on top. The table cloth is a little folded silk handkerchief. In theory we could change the color to reflect the season, but we haven't really done that. The icon is always there.

B really prefers to use the chest as a tabernacle : ) I recently put the gnome away because B usually takes him out anyway, and he's right; the chalice and paten look right at home in there!


This next one was created by my friend and colleague Liz Hagerman for the parent and child classroom at Acorn Hill Waldorf Kindergarten and Nursery. So simple and so beautiful! (Note; this nature shelf hangs above the reach of the little children who use this classroom. So, not for playing with, but for admiring.)

A little shelf. The background hangs from the wall. A small vase and candle. Three felt stars.

And two wee babies! Perfect!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Lenten Seasonal Table

We woke up on Ash Wednesday and there were caterpillars in our Easter tree!! B was really interested in them, and we mused aloud about why they were there, and what they ate. B finally asked me, a little apprehensively, if they were the kind of caterpillar "that crawls". I was able to assure him that this was not the kind that crawls. And I sighed a sigh of relief that I had indeed decided to make pipe cleaner caterpillars instead of having real ones. I had debated because there is something in me that always wants the real thing. But, I decided on pipe cleaners because I want to be the one who chooses when these caterpillars build their cocoons and when they emerge. And now I am really glad I did! No need to traumatize my children with creepy crawlies!

Below the caterpillars we have a crown of thorns. This is a tradition I have seen many places on ye olde internet, so I am not sure where it comes from originally. (These two places + + may be the first two places I saw the idea.) The crown is made of a grapevine wreath from the craft store. The thorns are tooth picks that I dyed with instant coffee. The idea is every time one denies oneself, one can remove a thorn to symbolize the desire to lessen Christ's suffering. We haven't actually done the active part of that tradition; B seems a bit young for it. I wanted the crown there though, to set the mood of the season.

St. Joseph is still out, although we have not yet successfully said the St. Joseph litany. We have a few Sundays left, so there is still hope! I was super jazzed to find a holy card of St. Joseph where he is wearing same purple and goldy brown as our figurine!

I absolutely love this figure of Christ carrying the cross. I think it is so subtle and utterly heart breaking. It came from JoyWares.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Shrove Tuesday

Pancake Day! Pancake Day!
Don't let your pancakes frizzle away!
                                                                                                   -- Traditional


We went on a little outing to our fancy health food store in search of a Shrove Tuesday snack. I am always in mind of a little photo-copy a friend sent me that comes from Hints on Child Training by H. Clay Trumbull, wherein the author describes ways to make the Sabbath day stand out in a child's mind, even from their earliest days. I am usually a little suspicious of things that talk about "training" children. I worry that they are geared more towards the convenience of adults rather than the good of the child. In this case, however, I think "training" actually means "building a foundation" rather than "eradicating unwanted behavior". Trumbull gives delightful descriptions of saving a child's best clothing, toys, and foods for the Sabbath day so that the child actually feels in every activity that the day is special.  He says,

It is for the parents to make clear the distinction that marks, in the child's mind, the Lord's day as the day of days in the week's history. The child may be differently dressed, or differently washed, or differently handled on that day from any other. . . . There may be a sweeter song sung in his hearing, or a brighter exhibit of some kind made in his sight, . . . which links a special joy with that day in comparison with the days on either side of it.

It seems quite apparent to me that one can expand on this idea to guide the celebration of the seasons as well as the weeks. Having never read the whole book, perhaps Trumbull does just that, but it has become a guiding light for me as I bring the liturgical seasons to these littlest of children. One of the most basic things we all take part in is food. Changing the kind of food one eats is a very simple and all encompassing way to mark one season as different from another. And so we went to our fancy health food store to find cookies, but also to find beans.

"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." John 12:24
I was super excited to find a bean called the Christmas Lima. It's the second one to the left. I don't think it gets more poetic than that: the Christmas Bean must fall to the earth, become food for us, and rise again with new life! It's like everything Lent rolled into one! We will have to plant some of those! So, with a cupboard full of beans, a refrigerator full of stock, and pancakes in the making I think we are all set. Happy Shrove Tuesday!

Monday, March 3, 2014

Lenten Practices

I seem to have acquired piles of unfinished embroidery and sanding projects. In general I don't do embroidery or woodworking because they pretty much drive me bonkers with their tediousness. For some reason I am completely happy blanket stitching tiny felt animals, or sewing on beads one by one. I even made a dragon claw once where I had to color and then glue on individual scales. Granted, I never did make another one of those. But embroidery and woodworking? I try to work around those whenever possible. My dislike of them, however, doesn't stop me from designing embroidery or woodworking projects, I just usually know better than to even get started. But sometimes things can't be helped. Sometimes they are the perfect medium. And so, I think I have my lenten penance laid out for me.

I am going to use God Under My Roof; Celtic Songs and Blessings, by Esther de Waal to deepen my work. This is a little collection of oral prayers from the Hebrides in Scotland. It is a little pamphlet-y book that a friend gave me years ago, and I have never known quite what to do with it. It is laid out in such a way that it appears that one is supposed to read it cover to cover, like a scholarly work, with the prayers simply being examples of the author's thesis. It has prose that tells quite a bit about the spiritual context where the prayers were found. But there are so many prayers in the book, and they are quoted so completely, that I find it difficult to read it straight through while also doing justice to the prayers. It feels like trying to read a book of poetry all in one sitting. So my goal is to read it as though the prose was commentary on the prayers, and to actually try to learn the prayers by heart while understanding their context. I hope and imagine that B will join me in my wood sanding (he's a little too young for embroidery just yet), and learn some of these prayers along with me.

God Under My Roof; Celtic Songs and Blessings, by Esther de Waal