Waldorf Education: An Introduction


Waldorf education recognizes that the formation of a child’s mind academically is inextricably connected to the development of his or her body and spirit, and so Waldorf schools aim to educate the whole child: "Head, Heart and Hands."

Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, based his philosophy (known as Anthroposophy) on the belief that every human being is born with the innate capacity for inner transformation. The goal of Waldorf education is to develop a student’s ability to access his inner resources in order to transform both himself and the world around him.

Founded in the early 20th century, and supported by contemporary brain research, Waldorf education seeks to nurture the whole child through experiential education that engages their imagination and their intellect, the right brain and their left brain, their body and their spirit.

In a Waldorf classroom, children experience age-appropriate hands-on learning that integrates arts, nature, and movement into every day learning, strengthening the child’s ability to apply classroom learning into their lived experience. An emphasis on the arts develops a child’s creativity and imaginations, and empowers them to become creative thinkers and problem-solvers in adulthood.

The Waldorf curriculum was designed to introduce subjects, grade-by-grade, to meet the child’s natural human development. A holistic approach nurtures the child’s mind, body and spirit, with the goal of creating whole human beings.

This comprehensive style of education and child development seeks to produce young adults who are creative thinkers, intellectual risk-takers, and engaged citizens. A Waldorf educated student is prepared to encounter the challenges of the world around her with creativity, flexibility and self-awareness.

Early Childhood: Preschool and Kindergarten

Waldorf early childhood education is grounded in three beliefs about the the life and development of young children:

  1. Young children’s imaginations are wildly active. Their imaginary worlds are intertwined with the physical world around them. Young children often have vivid imaginary friends or an alter-ego. They easily transform themselves into other people or animals.
  2. Young children learn best through imitation and repetition. Think of a time you have delighted a child with a game or a book and has been met with repeated cries of “again!” as the child delights in the experience and yearns to repeat it.
  3. Young children experience and explore the world through all of their senses, with less reliance on sight than adults. Rudolf Steiner described the young child as "wholly sense organ" and have very sensitive senses of touch, warmth, and well-being.

Waldorf early childhood educators seek to create a learning environment that nurtures the young child’s imagination and senses, and provides plenty of repetition.

Classrooms are arranged to create a home-like environment. The learning activities mimic home life, bringing the child in to the basic activities of life in an age-appropriate way, such as:

  • Chopping vegetables to make soup
  • Raking leaves to care for the yard
  • Sweeping the floor to care for the house

Waldorf fills the learning experience with pleasant sensory input.

  • Playthings made from natural materials–like wood, cotton, silk and wool–that are safe to put in one’s mouth (as young children are wont to do!)
  • Furnishings that are pleasant to touch 
  • Preparing and eating wholesome foods to nourish a child's sense of smell and taste, as well as their bodies
  • Singing, humming or strumming a pentatonic harp quietly as children play.

Stimulating children’s senses in an intentional, yet gentle manner creates a calm and encouraging setting for learning and play.

During the school day, the young child develops through imaginative play, whether through dress-up, playing with dolls or creating play-worlds out in nature. Early childhood educators know that fostering the imagination in early childhood leads to stronger creativity later in life.

Finally, bringing the children out of the classroom and into the natural world is an essential part of the Waldorf experience, cultivating children’s natural sense of wonder in the world around them, and providing an accessible learning laboratory for scientific exploration.

    In all of these ways, the child is constantly learning and developing in an age-appropriate manner. Traditional schools may focus on school-ready goals such as learning the alphabet and counting. The Waldorf approach prepares the child for a life of learning in community, fostering imagination, a sense of wonder and curiosity, and participation in a loving and learning community.

    This early childhood foundation will equip a child to flourish in an academic environment when they are ready for first grade at age of six or seven.

    Grade School: First through Eighth Grade

    Between the ages 6 and 7, a child’s brain becomes ready for intellectual development and the academic work of grade school.

    The aim of the grade school years in Waldorf education is to develop the whole child into a learning citizen, ready to engage with the world, with skills developed in creative problem-solving, adaptability, and cooperation.

    Long before Howard Gardner developed his theory of multiple intelligences, Rudolf Steiner recognized that children learn best when they are intellectually engaged in multisensory ways. And so Waldorf education, since the 1920s, has always been hands-on, interactive, and multidisciplinary.

    One of the distinctions of Waldorf grade school education is the cultivation of a learning community. Ideally, a student learns and grows with the same class and teacher from grade 1 through grade 8. "The class teacher" is a guide through the students’ academic and personal formation, getting to know each student and family deeply. This relationship allows the teacher to serve as mentor and guide as the child grows and develops.

    The class teacher is responsible for the core academic learning and fostering community within the class. The school day starts with a "main lesson block" for one to two hours. Rather than having a daily period for history, a period for science, a period for math, and so on, the class will instead focus on a single subject unit for several weeks at a time.

    While the block may be a subject in science or language arts, the approach is interdisciplinary, incorporating several different approaches while focusing on one major learning topic.

    For example, in a first grade language arts block, a student will learn to draw the alphabet, incorporate storytelling, and developing her drawing and geometry skills as she learns to form the shapes of the letters. A sixth grade main lesson unit on astronomy might incorporate history and mythology into the scientific learning.

    Rather than using textbooks, students document their learning by creating their own "main lesson books"–an artistic rendering of the academic lessons learned.

    After the main lesson, other special subjects are incorporated into the rest of the day and taught by other teachers. These specialty subjects may include:

    • One or two foreign languages
    • Music
    • Singing
    • Fine Arts
    • Handwork
    • Eurythmy (a form of movement developed by Rudolf Steiner)
    • Games and physical education

    One of the hallmarks of Waldorf education is that ALL students participate in all artistic classes, not just the "talented" ones. All students learn to play an instrument, sing, knit, and perform in class plays, based on the belief that we are all born with these capacities, and experiencing them all is what makes us fully human.

    As in early childhood, creativity and imagination are engaged, and outdoor play and learning are essential parts of the school day. Throughout the eight years of lower and middle school education, Waldorf students develop strong communication and social skills–a strong foundation for success in high school and as world citizens.

    As the students advance, increasing intellectual rigor and more artistic freedom is introduced, preparing the students for higher levels of study.

    High School

    By the age of 14 when a student typically enters high school, her brain is ready to engage with critical thinking. Teens begin to challenge authority and the question the world around them. They yearn to find their own identity as they mature into adulthood.

    Waldorf high school teachers strive to meet the developmental needs of students of this age by offering greater depth, and inviting engagement with increasingly sophisticated subject matter.

    The multi-modal, interdisciplinary, kinesthetic approach of Waldorf education reaches teens across multiple intelligences and learning styles. Waldorf high school pedagogy continues to use a variety of modes of instruction, deepening their academic learning, teaching them to think critically, and training them to communicate their developing ideas in clear and compelling ways.

    As in the lower and middle school grades, the day is structured with a longer main lesson in the morning, covering subjects–such as math, science and history–with electives and track classes integrated into the rest of the day.

    Students continue to document their work through their main lesson books, which become increasingly sophisticated along with their studies. As in the lower schools, the formation of the class community is critical as these adolescents learn to build relationships that strengthen and support each other emotionally as well as intellectually.

    For those who want to know the essence of Waldorf education in a nutshell, perhaps the words of Rudolf Steiner sum it up best:

    Receive the children in reverence; educate them in love; let them go forth in freedom.

    Please share your thoughts, ideas, or questions by leaving a comment below!

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