The Waldorf approach to education began with one school designed for the children of the workers of the Waldorf-Astoria Cigarette Company and it blossomed into a worldwide educational movement (Uhrmacher, 1993). Basically, Waldorf schools are private, nonsectarian programs with an arts-based curriculum. Children learn subjects such as literacy, math, science, and so on through artistic activities.

Waldorf schools apply the thinking of Rudolf Steiner, who developed a system of education in Germany in 1919 as an alternative to traditional education (Foster, 1984). Steiner, like many early childhood educators, believed in educating the whole child, but his interpretation of whole included the mind, the heart, and the will.  Steiner also believed that curriculum comes from the child. "Education does not give or take but strengthens the forces within each child" (Aeppli, 1986, p. 10). Said differently, you must know children well in order to educate them. Waldorf teachers have two major intentions as they work with children:

  1. To develop subject matter through image, rhythm, movement, drawing, painting, poetry, drama, and so on;
  2. To involve aesthetics in all that is done throughout the school day (aesthetic conditions) program. (Uhrmacher, 1993, p. 89)

Basic Ideas of Rudolf Steiner

Rudolf Steiner's thinking about curriculum was similar to the thinking of John Dewey. Contrary to the thinking of many educators, Steiner pointed out that teachers do not provide experiences for students. You may be startled by that idea, but his thinking was that teachers provide conditions (such as materials, space, schedule, etc.) and then each child has her own experience. So, one way of looking at Steiner's educational system is to examine some of the conditions of his schools (Uhrmacher, 1993, p. 91):

  1. Aesthetic conditions. Those conditions that enhance a child's appreciation of beauty and sensuality
  2. Social conditions. Those conditions that promote or strengthen interactions and relationships between children, and between children and adults
  3. Symbolic conditions. Those conditions such as stories, pictures, rituals, and ceremonies that will teach and influence children indirectly
  4. "Sensitive" conditions. Those conditions that enhance a child's perceptive abilities or a child's "feeling live"

Some of these conditions may sound unusual or be difficult to understand due to a translation of Steiner's ideas into English.  However, when we visit a Waldorf classroom, you'll see what those conditions look like in practice.

Visiting a Waldorf School

It would be ideal to spend a whole day in a classroom, but for the sake of brevity, we'll drop into different classes at different times of the day.

Waldorf Approach

Atlantic Monthly writer Todd Oppenheimer describes his visit to a Waldorf kindergarten class in San Francisco: "I felt my stomach relax. The lights were dim, the colors soft pastel. Intriguing materials for play were everywhere. The children had organized them into a half dozen fantasy worlds—there was a make-believe woodshop in one corner; in another, reminiscent of a farmhouse bedroom, two girls were putting a doll to bed in a cradle".

In a third-grade class, Mr. Stevenson places sunflowers and pumpkins on top of an orange cloth in the center of the room. He asks, "Could we please begin, everyone?" The children who are in the classroom go into the hallway and line up at the door. When the teacher is ready, the children come in one at a time to shake hands and hear, "Good morning Ethan. . . . Good morning Talya. . . ." These greeting are followed by morning circle to recite verses. The students and teacher bend down from the waist, arms stretched toward the ground and say, "The earth is firm beneath my feet." They rise and move their arms above their heads with "The sun shines bright above." They continue with the verse and body movements and recite it five more times, using quieter voices each time. When they finish, there is silence for a brief time (Uhrmacher, 1993, pp. 87, 91).

As Ms. Hernandez introduces math thinking or numeracy to young children, she takes a stick and allows the children to see and experience it as a whole. Then the stick is broken into 2, 4, and 8 pieces. "The child observes that by splitting the big 1, the smaller 2, 4, and 8 arise, and that the pieces become smaller the more the stick is broken." An alternative to the stick is to have children work with a large lump of clay and work it into 2, 4, and 8 smaller lumps. After the children have experienced numbers with varied concrete materials, they can begin to count. Counting is done with clapping or foot stamping. We hear, "Clap two times, four times, and eight times." Later, we hear children saying, "I have two eyes, two ears, two arms, two hands, two feet" (Aeppli, 1986, p. 47).

Children and family members arrived at the little preschool in Pacific Grove—such a calm and welcoming environment. "It was a little confusing, however, because the rooms were almost bare, none of the usual toys, only a child-sized lunch table and chairs, and some hand-made objects, scarves, and baskets of natural items" (K. Driscoll, 2003, personal communication). None of the adults appeared to be in a rush and there was much conversation between them and children. As the morning proceeded, children wandered in and out of the rooms, spending time in the garden or sand area, telling stories with the available objects, or sitting quietly as if in reflection. Hearing them address each other with "Dear Emily" or "Dear Alex" was unusual to hear but it was the norm in this preschool. Late in the morning, one of teachers asked the children if they would like a story. Children responded with "Yes, please," or put away their materials and approached where she was sitting. She was wearing a wide full skirt and she spread it on the floor around her and the children sat on its edge. The teacher had a felt horse and king in her pocket and she began a story about them, placing the figures on her skirt. Before long, the children added detail to the story or asked questions that took the story in another direction. It was completely interactive storytelling.

You may want to visit a Waldorf school for yourself to see more of Steiner's thinking. You will find the visit a very inspiring experience.