An Introduction to Waldorf Education

Despite the fact that there are over 100 Waldorf schools and kindergartens in the USA (and about 1000 more in countries as diverse as Mexico, Latvia, France, Germany, Israel, India and Egypt), Waldorf education is not well known. Indeed, those of us who work with Waldorf are almost invisible! My hope is to address this imbalance and to help get the word out about a form of education which others might find beneficial to their children.

The following is a distillation of some of the characteristics of Waldorf education. In this article I want to discuss Waldorf education as it has been developed in schools.

From birth through about age 7, children live most strongly in their bodies and should be allowed to actively explore their environments. Whilst little children need to be active, it is healthy and strengthening for them if the parent frames the child’s days with strong and balanced rhythms, weaving between active and quiet times: outdoor play, followed by quiet story time, followed by a meal, followed by creative play, etc. Young children learn best through imitation and it is important for the child to be surrounded by the good example of adults doing meaningful work for him/her to copy: for instance, s/he should be encouraged to join in while mom tends the garden and home. There should also be plenty of time for unstructured creative play. Simple playthings such as wooden blocks, sandboxes and a few pots and pans from the kitchen are best as they provide plenty of scope for the child’s imagination to stretch and grow. There is no formal teaching during this time.

From 7 – 14, the grade school years, children are viewed as living primarily in their ‘feeling life’. This doesn’t mean that children don’t ‘feel’ before this age, rather, during this period they learn best through an artistic and imaginative approach that stirs their feelings. By hearing the great myths and legends of various cultures, the adventures of heroes and explorers, and the struggles of men and women throughout history, children’s feelings are deeply affected and a moral basis to their learning is laid. By using an artistic approach to all material – drawing, painting, modeling, acting, etc. – the teacher helps each child unlock his or her artistic abilities, further deepening the child’s experience of and feelings for what he is studying. Each child makes a ‘Good Book’ for each topic studied, a beautiful record of the experiments, essays, poems and drawings created, as part of understanding the topic at hand. In creating these Good Books, in exerting the will to use best handwriting and to work with care, each child sees that s/he is a creative person who is able to work hard and make something beautiful. This can help dispel the nonsense that only some people are artistic. We’re all artistic: It’s part of being human. Some of us may have special gifts and be ‘artists’, but, if our upbringing and education allow it, we can all create beautiful things.

During these years and throughout high school, topics from the curriculum are taught in 3 – 6 week Main Lesson blocks. The first two hours of each morning are devoted to in-depth study of the topic at hand: This is when Good Books (also known as Main Lesson Books) are created. This is something like the Unit Study approach.

A clear curriculum is followed from First through Twelfth Grades. Based on a careful study of how children change and develop, the curriculum speaks to the needs of the growing child. An example of this can be seen clearly in the Third grade curriculum: Generally, at 9 years old, there is a change, a growing sense of separation from parents in the child. Questions of authority, of right and wrong, and of selfhood arise. In Waldorf schools, Third Graders study Building and Farming, two practical Main Lesson blocks which, on a subtle level, can really speak to the inner experiences of a child who is ‘creating her own self’. Likewise, the Third Grade block on Old Testament stories, with its themes of right and wrong and man’s relationship to God’s authority, is a subject that most 9 year-olds can really relate to (if only subconsciously).

Again, in later years, one can see the graceful way in which the Waldorf curriculum mirrors the inner reality of the developing child: At age 12 most children are very down-to-earth and legalistic in their thinking, preferring to argue in terms that are black and white. Who better to study at this time than the Romans, that most pragmatic of civilizations? And what better artistic expression than to learn to draw with charcoal, to work with black and white, shadow and light – and to learn about shades of gray.

This Main Lesson form continues throughout high school. Even though the students now use some textbooks, they continue to make their own Good Books. Many a Waldorf student who has gone on to college has referred back to the Good Books they made in high school. And the curriculum’s subtle ability to address the needs of the child, now youth, continues: It can be deeply meaningful for a 16-year-old, struggling with his own questions of “who am I?” and “what is my purpose in the world?” to study Hamlet as well as the medieval grail story of Parsival, that blundering hero who didn’t even know what questions to ask?

Now in high school, students are expected to exercise their full intellectual powers and the work is very rigorous. An artistic approach continues and there is real effort to maintain a balance in the student’s learning program, with the goal of producing well-rounded, well-educated individuals who have an ability to think independently and to function in the different spheres of adult life.

A few further hallmarks of Waldorf education include:

An almost Renaissance approach to education: A true liberal arts education where all children take all subjects and do not work only in areas in which they excel.

Activity always precedes ‘head work’. For instance, children learn to write first, copying letters and later, words into Main Lesson books. Reading follows writing and it is the children’s own writing which serves as their text.

The approach to learning is holistic – the arts, humanities and sciences are viewed as interwoven with one another, not as separate fields of life or experience.

Throughout the school years there is an emphasis on moral qualities such as truth, beauty and goodness. These are not sermonized to the children but rather, children are surrounded by these qualities, in the way the classroom and school is built and cared for, in the actions of the adults around them and in the content of the lessons. Fairy tales, legends from many cultures and tales of heroes and saints help lay moral foundations for the children, as do reverential celebrations of the religious and seasonal festivals of the year.

Electronic media such as television and computers – and especially hand-held electronic games – are viewed as detrimental to the healthy development of children, especially young children. Children need to learn from people, as ‘learning’ involves much more than the mere conveying of information. Over the years, Waldorf teachers, as well as parents, have observed the negative impact of such machines on children. Televisions, tape recorders and computers are not used in Waldorf elementary schools. Computers are used in moderation in the high schools.

Waldorf education is not anti-intellectual. It is, however, anti-early intellectual. At heart, Waldorf education aims to be therapeutic and its goal is to foster the development of healthy well-balanced individuals. It is deeply felt in Waldorf circles that premature intellectualism can drain and deplete a child, and that the recognized overlapping of the label ‘gifted’ with the label ‘ADHD’ is no coincidence. By avoiding early intellectualism and really allowing our children the time and space to develop their imaginations and to experience life at their own pace, we can allow children to develop the physical and emotional strength to really fly with their later academic learning. Waldorf seeks to avoid the scenario of hothouse flowers — plants which bloom early and bright, but often lack the strength and substance to grow and flourish over time.

In Waldorf, we would use watercolor paints with our young children, and allow the children to experiment with blue, then red, then yellow, and slowly and meditatively experience the interplay of those colors. We would recognize that our children are laying the foundations for meaningful intellectual understanding of the phenomena of color which they will study in physics when they are 12 or 13. By singing and playing, clapping and finger games with our little ones, by reading to them and telling them stories, we are creating the basis for an ease with language which will make later reading, and especially writing, much easier. By helping the young child develop his ear for language, by letting him absorb the nuances of our language, much of the later agonies of phonics and grammar can be avoided.

This means a relaxed approach to the early years. For those who know of them, Raymond and Dorothy Moore advocate an approach that many Waldorfers can relate to: A secure, nurturing environment with an established routine; participation in chores and housekeeping; and avoidance of television, computers and other electronic media. Add in simple playthings, plenty of time outdoors, singing and storytelling and you’ve got your own Waldorf kindergarten at home!

As our children grow, those of us inspired by Waldorf education can adapt the curriculum and Main Lesson approach in a way that suits our family. The approach I advocate is to use the curriculum as a guide, to understand the hows and whys behind it, and to be open to taking wide forays into territory dictated by the interests of one’s children. Thus in our family, we have spent a lot of time on space exploration and paleontology, topics not found in Waldorf elementary schools!

I been associated with Waldorf education for more than 20 years: as a teacher, youth worker, parenting educator and I attended a Waldorf school from 4 to 18. To me, it is a beautiful and profound form of education, one which truly cherishes childhood. If you want to know more about Waldorf Education, here are a couple of basic books on Waldorf education:

You are Your Child’s First Teacher by Rahima Baldwin, and

Waldorf Education: Rudolf Steiner’s Ideas in Practice by Christopher Clouder and Martyn Rawson

Image courtesy of Florian K.

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