Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) was very interested in the spiritual dimension of the education process and developed many ideas for educating children and adults that incorporated it. Emil Molt, director of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany, was interested in Steiner’s ideas and asked him to give a lecture to the workers regarding the education of their children. Molt was so impressed with Steiner’s ideas that he asked him to establish a school for employees’ children. Steiner accepted the offer, and on September 17, 1919, the Free Waldorf School opened its doors and the Waldorf movement began. Today, Waldorf education has developed into an international movement with more than nine hundred independent schools in sixty countries. There are about 134 Waldorf schools in the United States (Association of Waldorf Schools, 2007).

Waldorf schools emphasize the teaching of the whole child—head, hands, and heart. This is the way Steiner envisioned such education when he planned his school:

Insightful people are today calling for some form of education and instruction directed not merely to the cultivation of one-sided knowledge, but also to abilities; education directed not merely to the cultivation of intellectual faculties, but also to the strengthening of the will....but it is impossible to develop the will (and that healthiness of feeling on which it rests) unless one develops the insights that awaken the energetic impulses of will and feeling. A mistake often made...is not that people instill too many concepts into young minds, but that the kind of concepts they cultivate are devoid of all driving life force (Steiner, 2007).

Although Waldorf schools have many distinguishing characteristics, this dedication to teaching the whole child—head, hands, and heart—appeals to many teachers and parents.

Steiner believed that education should be holistic. In shaping the first Waldorf school, he said that from the start there was to be no classification of children into intellectual “streams,” no class lists, no examinations, no holding back in a grade or promoting to a grade, no prizes, no honors boards, no reports, no compulsory homework, and no punishments of additional learning material. It was to be a school where teachers and children meet as human beings to share and experience the knowledge of human evolution and development in the world (Morrison, 1993).

Basic Principles

Waldorf education, like the other programs we have discussed, operates on a number of essential principles

Anthroposophy

Anthroposophy, the name Steiner gave to “the study of the wisdom of man,” is a basic principle of Waldorf education.

Anthroposophy, according to Steiner, is derived from the Greek: anthros “man” and sophia “wisdom.” Anthroposophy, Steiner claimed, offered a step-by-step guide for spiritual research. Anthroposophical thinking, according to Steiner, could permit one to gain a “new” understanding of the human being—body and spirit (Foster, 1981).

Anthroposophy is a personal path of inner spiritual work that is embraced by Waldorf teachers; it is not tied to any particular religious tradition. The teacher, through devotion to truth and knowledge, awakens the student’s reverence for beauty and truth. Steiner believed that each person is capable of tapping the spiritual dimension, which then provides opportunities for higher and more meaningful learning.

Respect for Development

Waldorf education is based squarely on respect for children’s processes of development and their developmental stages. Individual children’s development determines how and when Waldorf teachers introduce curriculum topics. Respecting children’s development and the ways they learn is an essential foundation of all early childhood programs.

Eurythmy

Eurythmy is Steiner’s art of movement, which makes speech and music visible through action and gesture and enables children to develop a sense of harmony and balance. Thus, as they learn reading, they are also becoming the letters through physical gestures. According to Steiner, every sound—speech or music—can be interpreted through gesture and body movement; for example, in learning the letter o, children form the letter with their arms while saying the sound for o. In the main-lesson books that are the children’s textbooks, crayoned pictures of mountains and trees metamorphose into letters M and T, and form drawings of circles and polygons that become the precursor to cursive writing. Mental imagery for geometrical designs supports the fine-motor skills of young children (Bamford & Utne, 2003).

Rhythm is an important component of all these activities. Rhythm (i.e., order or pattern in time) permeates the entire school day as well as the school year, which unfolds around celebrating festivals drawn from different religions and cultures (Bamford & Utne, 2003).

Nurturing Imagination

Folk and fairy tales, fables, and legends are integrated throughout the Waldorf curriculum. These enable children to explore the traditions of many cultures, thus supporting a multicultural approach to education. They also enrich the imaginative life of the young child and promote free thinking and creativity.

Curriculum Features

Common features of the Waldorf curriculum include these:

  • Teaching according to developmental stages, the right subject at the right time
  • The timing and method of introducing several basic skills, consistent with these developmental stages
  • The use of eurythmy in learning
  • The inclusion of other arts, as well as handwork
  • The sequential linkage between subjects, corresponding to the student’s maturity from year to year (Foster)

The Waldorf curriculum unfolds in main-lesson blocks of three or four weeks. The students create their own texts, or main-lesson books, for each subject. This enables them to delve deeply into the subject (Bamford & Utne).

Providing for Diversity and Disability

Providing for and being sensitive to diversity is an important aspect of Waldorf education. From first grade the curriculum for all students includes the study of two foreign languages. In addition, the curriculum integrates the study of religions and cultures. As a result, children learn respect for people of all races and cultures.

Waldorf schools can also experience a certain level of success with children who have been diagnosed with disabilities such as dyslexia. Because Waldorf teaches to all of the senses, there is usually a modality that a child can use to successfully learn curriculum material, which increases opportunity for learning for children with other types of disabilities and learning styles.

Some Waldorf schools are devoted entirely to the education of children with special needs. For example, Somerset School in Colfax, California, offers a variety of programs designed to meet the special needs of students ages six to seventeen years who are unable to participate in regular classroom activities. Teachers, physicians, and therapists work closely with parents to create and implement individualized lesson plans (Somerset School, 2007).

Further Thoughts

Certainly Waldorf education has much that is appealing: its emphasis on providing education for the whole child, the integration of the arts into the curriculum, the unhurried approach to education and schooling, and the emphasis on learning by doing.

However, Waldorf education, like the Montessori approach, seems better suited to private, tuition-based education and has not been widely adopted into the public schools.

Several reasons could account for this limited adoption. First, public schools, especially in the context of contemporary schooling, are much more focused on academic achievement and accountability. Second, Waldorf education may not be philosophically aligned with mainstream public education. Waldorf’s emphasis on the spiritual aspect of each child may be a barrier to widespread public school adoption. Identification of a student’s spiritual self has provoked criticism of Waldorf education, as well as humanistic education and other approaches to holistic practices.

In addition, critics object to a number of other features of Waldorf education. These include delaying learning to read, not using computers and other technology in the classroom until high school, and discouraging television viewing and the playing of video games.

Although some see Waldorf as too elitist, the schools remain a popular choice for parents who want this type of education for their children. The intimate learning atmosphere of small classes, the range of academic subjects, and the variety of activities can be very attractive.