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Science without the fear element

Barbara Hyslop cooks up an acidity test at the Edinburgh Rudolf Steiner School workshops and samples some other imaginative ways of teaching

Chop, boil, squeeze, drip. We soon got the hang of it! In the "chemistry lab" the blue liquor of the boiled red cabbage sorted the acids from the alkalis with ease and produced a whole necklace of jewel-like colours to entrance 12-year-olds and their parents alike.

Not that any 12-year-olds were present. This hands-on demonstration of how the Steiner Waldorf curriculum introduces chemistry was for the benefit of the 12-year-old within I within the average tired-out, stressed-out, Saturday-saggy adult.

With its own teacher training course on site, the school is well placed to demonstrate how its curriculum - which is followed by more than 870 schools in 55 countries worldwide - aims to educate the "head, heart and hands" of every pupil.

Introducing a subject, any subject, even a science one, by appealing directly to a child's emotions and imagination is central to the Steiner Waldorf approach. In all subjects, topics are chosen which have emotional and imaginative meaning for a particular age group.

The Edinburgh school takes a full age range of pupils, from four to 18 years. The chemistry experiment was chosen to fit in with the life experiences of 12-year-olds. Studying the hidden properties of everyday foods, such as oranges, lemons and baking soda as well as red cabbage, gives insight into the familiar. It is reassuring for the pupils to know what is going on in the physical world around them.

The learning process at a Steiner Waldorf school is threefold. Pupils are encouraged to experience (through emotion and imagination), then to recall and finally to commit their knowledge to paper for future reference.

Had the chemistry demonstration been a real lesson, over a period of days or weeks we would have recalled our experiences, adding to them or repeating them in a different way, and then would have written and illustrated our very own chemistry textbooks, using colouring pencils to get just the right shade for each degree of acidity and alkalinity.

On this occasion, however, we had no written work to do. So we could go straight on to engage our emotions in another subject. The range was wide.

Geometry is introduced to children on day one of class one, not as a named subject but as a whole body experience. Youngsters are taught to stand tall in a straight line, to hold a piece of chalk with a straight arm, to bring that arm up and over and s-l-o-w-l-y down the blackboard to make another line, like themselves.

By the age of 11, their multicoloured dodecahedra and icosahedra (constructed by them from their own calculations and measurements) hang across the classroom in the manner of Christmas decorations, while intricate 24-point "lace" designs, made using a compass and thread, adorn the walls.

The adults who attended the music lesson and were making music without reading a note came out feeling euphoric.

Those who had traced the path of light, or at any rate our knowledge of it, from Ra and the ancient Egyptians, via particles, waves and wavicles (golf balls were mentioned somewhere) to quantum theory and the uncertainty principle were still clutching prisms and muttering mystically about "the missing magenta" until well after the virtual bell that they nearly missed lunch.

At the end of the day we all gathered in a circle (that had less to do with geometry than community) to tell one another of what we had missed, for it wasn't possible for one person to sample everything on offer. But there will be more chances to do so in the future.

The Edinburgh Rudolf Steiner School, tel 0131 337 3410; e-mail

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