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!

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