Waldorf education is based on the views of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), a prominent Austrian educator. It’s thus sometimes referred to as “Steiner education.”
But, what is Waldorf (or Steiner) education? Our guide covers the Waldorf school philosophy. It also covers common classroom practices and curricular approaches. Finally, it discusses important research. It should help you make an informed decision about whether a Waldorf school is right for your child.
Here, we start with an introduction to the core principles of the Waldorf philosophy. Keep in mind, not every school follows all these principles, and different schools apply them in different ways.
- Flexible curriculum
- Educating the whole child
- Formal academics begins later
- Focus on creativity and the arts
- Imaginative learning
- Practical learning
- Focus on nature
Working with the teacher, students have some leeway to work in a broad range of areas and pursue their own interests. They aren’t forced to fit into a one-size-fits-all curriculum.
On the other hand, Waldorf schools do have a curriculum. They also have core standards that must be met. A common misconception is to think otherwise. Jennifer Deathe, admissions manager of the Waldorf Academy, in Toronto, Ontario, sets the record straight.
"There is a set curriculum starting as early as kindergarten. The curriculum covers benchmarks and how children can achieve those benchmarks."
It’s just that students achieve benchmarks at their own pace. There’s also some flexibility in how benchmarks are reached. "Different children can demonstrate knowledge in different ways," says Deathe.
Many students find this approach rewarding. When given freedom, they often choose tasks that challenge and excite them. This can spark their natural curiosity and inspire a love of learning.
Educating the whole child
The focus is not just on core academics. The aim is to educate the whole child: “head, heart, and hands.” Teachers nurture the intellectual, practical, and artistic sides of students. They also instill important values in them.
Focusing on the whole child isn’t just a goal. It’s a cornerstone. Jack Petrash, a long-time Waldorf teacher, describes how teachers approach it (Understanding Waldorf Education, 2002):
“Rather than focus the educational work solely around the objective of acquiring knowledge, creating a meaningful learning process itself becomes the focus. Through multi-faceted, multi-sensory learning experiences, teachers and students use a variety of intelligences to develop three distinct capacities—for thinking, for feeling, and for intentional, purposeful activity.” [Our emphasis]
Sasha Singer-Wilson, who attended Waldorf Academy (at the time called the “Alan Howard Waldorf School”), in Toronto, Ontario, from kindergarten until grade 8, can attest to this fact.
“You’re developed as a whole person. Your hands work and your mind works and your soul works and your heart works. It’s getting them all to work together in harmony, to make you a harmonious person and a good person—that’s what it’s about.”
Formal academics begins later
Core academics starts later than in most mainstream schools. Students typically aren’t taught core subjects—such as math, science, reading, and writing—until grade 1 or 2.
The belief is that children need to develop focus, independence, and other traits first. Formal instruction can come later. It's also believed that starting abstract learning too early can impede a child's intellectual development.
Focus on creativity and the arts
Subjects are often taught through storytelling, visual arts, drama, movement, vocal and instrumental music, crafts, and other artistic media. Lessons often start with singing, music, or poetry.
This injects the arts into many parts of the curriculum. It also enlivens learning in a way that mainstream schools often fail to. In this way, Waldorf is similar to other progressive, arts-focused schools.
In Waldorf schools, art, music, and creativity are infused throughout the curriculum.
In preschool and kindergarten, the classroom is intended to resemble a home. It contains many tools and toys. These are often made from simple, natural materials. Young children are also given lots of opportunities for free play, artistic work (e.g., drawing, painting, or modelling), circle time (songs, games, and stories), and outdoor recess.
This encourages pretend play and fosters imaginative learning. It also allows children to develop important social skills.
At the elementary or lower school level, role models are drawn from a wide range of literary and historical traditions. For instance, teachers tells stories about important people, such as Mahatma Gandhi, and students do projects on them (sometimes called hero projects).
And at some elementary school programs, such as that of Waldorf Academy in Toronto, Ontario, students take part in plays chosen by the teachers. This nurtures their fantasy and moral imaginations. It also teaches them about respect, empathy, and other important traits.
Up to grade 3, students do a lot of hands-on and experiential learning. They take part in several different practical tasks, such as cooking, cleaning, and gardening. Most schools even have a schedule for jobs that need to get done. Typically, there’s a day (or time) for cooking, preparing snacks, cleaning, and so forth.
This allows students to learn important skills. They also learn to be responsible, do their fair share, and help others.
Focus on nature
Students are given a lot of natural materials. Cooking, gardening, and environmental and outdoor education are also a big focus. This promotes appreciation for nature.
It also has broader benefits. As L.D. Davey (“Play and Teacher Education”, 1998) explains: “A fundamental principle of early childhood education is that young children learn about the world most readily by interacting with their environment.”