Interview: Sarah Baldwin of Bella Luna Toys

Interview: Sarah Baldwin of Bella Luna Toys

November 09, 2016

Here at Craftspring, we pretty much think make-believe and playtime are some of the most important things that life has to offer!! So much so, that we are absolutely committed to cultivating and inspiring real-life play. We really want children to have the opportunity to develop through inspiration and follow their natural abilities to well-lived lives full of joy and curiosity. Our Make Believe and Waldorf Inspired collections were made with this kind of play in mind! So it was totally natural for us to want to explore further the diverse and thoughtful ways in which children are nurtured and grow through thoughtful play, celebrations and rituals. 

Meet Sarah Baldwin. Early childhood educator turned Bella Luna Toys owner extraordinaire. We are absolutely in love with Bella Luna and its selection of wonder-inducing, real-play toys!!! We reached out to Sarah and asked her about her experience as a Waldorf teacher, the power of storytelling and ritual for children and how her experience has shaped her way of doing business. We greatly admire her commitment to cultivating generations of inspired and authentic children. Letting kids have their childhoods and grow with care and support as they develop. 

Craftspring: We are entering the season of Celebrations! Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukah – and for Waldorf communities – Michaelmas, Harvest festival, Martinmas, Advent, St. Lucia, Day of the Dead. These are key moments in our culture – and I wanted to speak with you about these Celebrations – and how in the Waldorf tradition, that you are so infused and part of, you make these become moments of wonder, learning, and connecting.

Is there a celebration, Waldorf or otherwise, that you have a particular love for, and how do you choose to celebrate?

Sarah Baldwin: I think that my very favorite Waldorf-inspired festival is the Advent Spiral, which some schools and families may refer to as the “Garden of Light,” “Winter Spiral,” or something similar.

This festival usually takes place in early December, when the days are growing shorter and colder, and the nights are getting longer. It can be held indoors or outside. A large spiral of evergreen boughs is laid out on the floor or ground, and at the center of the spiral sits one lit candle.

Families are invited to enter the darkened room, quietly and reverently, and sit down. Then the children are invited to walk the spiral, one-at-a-time. As each child enters the spiral, she is handed an apple with an unlit candle at the center. The child walks slowly through the spiral to the center, lights her candle from the burning candle at the center, and as she walks back outward from the spiral, chooses a spot along the path on which to set her candle. Soft music may be played or sung while the children are walking.

After all the children have walked, the room that was dark at the beginning is now glowing with warm candlelight! The community may choose to sing “Silent Night” or another seasonal song together before the children leave quietly, and the candles are snuffed after the children leave.

The festival is symbolic of the need to find our inner light and shine it out into the world during the darkest and coldest time of the year (here in the northern hemisphere), and to witness this festival is truly heart-warming.

I describe the Advent Spiral in more detail, and share ideas on how to celebrate Advent with children in this video from my “Sunday with Sarah” series.

In your time as a Waldorf teacher, what was your favorite way to bring these celebrations to your students and classrooms?

During my time as a teacher, there were school-wide festival celebrations (like the Advent Spiral) that included all the school families and with the support of many teachers. But there were also smaller, individual celebrations that were observed in my classroom, like birthdays.

In addition, if I had a student in my class from a different culture, we would try to observe a celebration of that child’s family. For instance, a parent of a Jewish child might join us to tell the story of Hanukkah, help us light a menorah, and make potato latkes. Or we might celebrate Chinese New Year with a dragon parade around our building with the help of the parents of a Chinese student in my class.

These were wonderful opportunities for those students to feel acknowledged, and for all of us to learn about different cultures and their celebrations. All festivals and annual celebrations help young children (who cannot yet read a calendar) experience what we call “the rhythm of the year.”

What is your favorite way to celebrate in your home? Do you have any special traditions that you can share with us? Were these traditions created by you or passed down? Or did they just happen in an impromptu manner? (Food, crafts, stories, play etc.)

One favorite tradition in my own family developed when my children were quite young and we lived on a farm in rural Maine, surrounded by woods with many fir trees. We would wait until Christmas Eve to go out into the woods and cut down a tree. With the help of the children, we would haul the tree home, decorate it, and put real candles on it.

That evening, we would invite family and friends over and share a big pot of soup and home-baked bread. After our supper, we would gather around the tree, turn off the lights, light the candles on the tree, and sing Christmas carols. Some of us would then go to a midnight Christmas service, while others would go home to tuck the little ones into bed.

(Of course lighting real candles on a tree requires close supervision, with a bucket of water and fire extinguisher nearby. Fortunately, we never had to use either!)

We would leave the tree up for the 12 Days of Christmas or “Holy Nights,” during which time we could let go of the stress and busy-ness of the holidays and relax and relish our family time together.

The power of story and myth – often surrounding celebrations throughout the year - is now so overlooked in our more commercial way of celebrating. But the Waldorf tradition seems to bring back or rekindle the deep connection and intrinsic value of stories. I recently bought the beautiful Storytelling with Children book from Bella Luna and have already learned so much. Essentially about creating daily moments with stories for my daughter. Can you talk about the importance of storytelling for children, and what you think it adds to their development and enjoyment and experience of life and celebrations? 

Storytelling might be considered the heart of Waldorf education. From a parent/toddler class through 12th grade, students in a Waldorf school are fed a steady diet of stories.

Beginning with simplest nature stories told in a nursery class, students will hear many kinds of stories through their school years: folk tales, fairytales, fables, legends, myths, biographies, and historical stories, told aloud by the teacher and shared from the heart.

Even academic subjects− language, arithmetic, science, history, and more—are usually introduced through storytelling. For example, a first-grade teacher who is introducing the four processes of basic arithmetic may share an imaginative story about Princess Plus, Master Minus, Duke Division, and the Emperor Equal.

Storytelling engages a child’s imagination and enlivens a subject. It strengthens a child’s ability to create pictures inwardly in his or her mind, which is the key to creative thinking later in life.

I wrote an article on the importance of storytelling which goes into more depth and can be found here on my blog.

I have loved sharing the importance of candles with my daughter, for birthdays and important celebrations. We now have our Waldorf candle ring out on our table year-round, and everyone loves it. It’s such a magical and festive ritual to light them. Can you speak about the importance of light and the ritual of candle lighting? (Are these candle rings successful on your website?)

Lighting a candle brings a sense of awe and reverence to a child. Lighting a candle is a wonderful way to make the transition from what we Waldorf educators call “out-breath” experiences (such as free and active play) to “in-breath” experiences (such as mealtime or story time). 

As we know, candles are used in many cultures and many religions as part of their rituals. Universally, candlelight is a symbol of joy and our light within. By lighting a candle during daily rituals at home, say at dinnertime or before a bedtime story, we invite a moment of quiet with our children, during which they can experience reverence and gratitude.

Many families (including my own) celebrate the season of Advent with an “Advent wreath” with four candles, a new candle lit on each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. And many Waldorf teachers and families celebrate birthdays with the European tradition of a Birthday Ring, during which one candle is lit at a time while telling the story of a child’s life–recounting events from each year–from the year he or she was born up until the new birthday. 

I used a Birthday Ring to celebrate the birthdays of each of the children in my class (we celebrated the half-birthday of children with summer birthdays), and our Birthday Ring Set is one of our best-selling products at Bella Luna Toys. It’s a wonderful tradition to add beauty and meaning to the celebrations of birthdays!

At Craftspring – we are slightly obsessed with beautiful objects and things that are handmade. I think that this is why we love celebrations so much. It seems like the handcrafting of objects for celebrations is really part of the deepest memories around these moments. I still have Christmas ornaments that I made as a kid, and acorns that I spray-painted with my dad – and I love them! In the book All Year Round, A Calendar of Celebrations the authors note that one of the most important parts of celebrations is … “to share in the excitement of preparation and the pleasure of watching a creative process unfold”. They also note: “If we ourselves have made something, or perhaps just watched it being made, we care for that thing in a different way.” Is this something that you have also experienced? Do you think your Bella Luna customers are also sensitive to this?

Anyone who has made something by hand (and who hasn’t?), knows the joy of the process. Even though we sell many beautiful handmade toys and objects at Bella Luna Toys (including now many of Craftspring’s beautiful ornaments!), I would always encourage parents to make a toy for their child, even if you don’t think you are “crafty.”

Whether it’s a handmade doll, or a knit ball, or a hand-crafted wooden toy, the fact that you made it with your hands and imbued it with your love will make it so much more special to your child than a store-bought or mass-produced toy.

Making crafts together with your children is a special bonding time and requires us to slow down and be present, something all of us could use during the busy holidays.

At Bella Luna Toys, we have a variety of simple craft kits and crafting books full of ideas of seasonal and holiday things to make with your children, suitable for even the most novice of crafters.

I love the idea of celebrations as a calendar of the year, marking our growth and personal and family changes. The Waldorf school year seems closely tied to this kind of rhythmic change, the movement of the seasons, the coming and going of celebrations. There seems to be a different (old-fashioned, almost ancient) sense of time. Are there ways that this “Waldorf time” is still present in your life – even though your kids are grown up? How have celebrations changed for you now that your kids have grown?

Discovering Waldorf education when my children were young, and my years spent as a Waldorf early childhood teacher helped me to become more attuned to the “rhythm of the year,” and moving to Maine from California in 1999 certainly helped me become more attuned to the seasons!

Even though my two boys are now in their 20s, we still celebrate many of the same holiday rituals they grew up with, such as lighting candles on the Advent wreath and cutting down our own Christmas tree on Christmas Eve.

Another tradition that started when they were young was to find a new Ostheimer wooden figure or two in their Christmas stocking. This started when they were in preschool, long before I owned Bella Luna Toys. Now that they are adults, they both will still find a new Ostheimer wooden animal in their stocking every Christmas, and I can tell you that our personal collection of these beautiful figures has grown considerably in 20+ years. Groupings of Ostheimer figures can be found displayed in many corners of my home. One never outgrows them!

Now that your beautiful hand-felted ornaments from Craftspring are available, this could become a new family tradition of a child finding a new Craftspring ornament in his or her stocking each year. I know two young men who will be finding these new surprises in their stockings this year, and adding them to our tree!

We would also love to ask you a couple questions about the Bella Luna business—I really admire its beauty and integrity. How did you first conceive of what is now the ethos of Bella Luna Toys? How do you maintain the fun and the joy in your work?

The decision to take over Bella Luna Toys’ website in 2009 was a huge leap of faith for me. I was a teacher. I had no prior experience in business, retail, or e-commerce. But I knew the toys, art supplies, and crafts that the website sold under the previous owner. I used these same toys and supplies in my classroom and at home with my own two children for almost 20 years.

These were toys that I loved and was passionate about. I thought long and hard about whether this was something I should take on. My lack of experience made me fearful that the business would fail, and yet I couldn’t let go of the vision I had for the website – how I would redesign it and the new toys I wanted to introduce.

I also felt strongly that I didn’t just want a website to sell stuff, I wanted to also use it as a platform to share my knowledge and love of Waldorf education, and to support parents and families.

So embracing my fear, I decided to go for it, and am so glad I did.

From the beginning, I have been committed to only offering toys and playthings that I believe in. Before I decide to add a product to the website I ask myself the following questions:

    • Is it beautiful?
    • Is it made of natural materials?
    • Was it ethically produced?
    • Does it leave room for a child’s imagination?
    • Would I have put this in my classroom?
    • Would I have given this to my own children?

If I can’t answer yes to these questions, you won’t find it at Bella Luna Toys.

In addition to re-vamping the website, I also launched my blog Moon Child and started a video series called “Sunday With Sarah” on which I discuss parenting, education, child development and the importance of play. It has been incredibly gratifying to watch the business grow year-after-year, and to receive such positive feedback from parents, grandparents, and teachers on the inspiration they have received from my efforts.

I have been at it for seven years now. I have never worked harder or more hours in my life, but I have never enjoyed my work as much as I do now. I just heard a quote today:

“There is no such thing as work/life balance. There is only life.”

I think the key to a fulfilling life is to find meaningful work that you love. When you do, you will watch that line between work and home fade away.

How does Bella Luna inspire the digital screen generation of parents and children to slow down and have real play? How has this affected the way you have chosen to grow your business? 

Our goal is to get children to turn off screens and turn on life – to get kids playing out of their own imaginations, to get them outside and connected with nature, to get them interacting with one another, and to get them making art and crafts with their hands. 

This is becoming a bigger and bigger challenge in our digital age. Technology is not going away and kids today will spend much of their lifetimes looking at screens, but I feel it is so important for parents to help their kids have an unplugged childhood, and encourage their children to PLAY.

Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, stressed that imaginative play in early childhood is the key to creative thinking later in life. Those children who spend their childhoods dreaming and imagining are going to be the problem-solvers of the future. They will become creators of new technologies, not just passive consumers of it.

What do you think are the biggest issues of child development that are being overlooked by this digital era? And what is Bella Luna doing to inspire healthy development amongst its community?  

Too few children today have enough time for free, unstructured play. Too many children are over-scheduled with school, music lessons, sports, and enrichment classes. This is a shame. It robs families of time together. Too many children don’t sit down to dinner with their families. Young children are experiencing stress and are being medicated for it in record numbers. It creates stress in families.

Part of my mission is to assure parents that less is more. You may think that by not providing your child with every possible enrichment opportunity, he may not be as successful in life as his peers, but by allowing your child plenty of downtime and as much family time as possible during childhood, your child will grow up to be a happier, healthier and more well-adjusted adult.

Enjoy these years with your children! As all parents of grown children can attest, they are gone much too quickly!

Photos that appear in the blog text were taken from Bella Luna's Blog or whimsical Instagram 


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