Waldorf Education started in the early twentieth century, under the guidance of Rudolf Steiner. Since then, it has become one of the largest independent school movements, with over a thousand schools, two thousand kindergartens and sixty special education schools in over sixty countries.
One of the reasons why this educational approach has been taken on by so many various cultures is that Waldorf education aims to educate and accompany the life journey of the whole child, as a person discovering the ways of the world in a certain place and time.
As opposed to a “from the outside in” approach to schooling, Waldorf education nurtures the skills and capacities that are always emerging within the child. Instead of relying on an externally fixed curriculum (often not developed by educators) or expectations of children’s performance in a “one size fits all” model, Waldorf education bases its approach on the very foundations of human experience.
In order to provide age appropriate curriculum while challenging and respecting every child’s individual journey, Waldorf teachers have extensive studies in child development. Both mainstream science and pedagogy, alongside with Anthroposophy, inform the practices of the teachers.
Rudolf Steiner proposed that human development happens in stages (not unlike renowned child development psychologist Jean Piaget), each lasting about seven years:
Birth to Seven: As new beings in this world, very young children are striving to unite with their surroundings, as well as learning that this is a good, safe place to come into. Most of brain development and neural connections linking sensory experiences happen in early childhood, as well as the so called “windows of opportunity: crucial times in development where there is a major opportunity for an experience to have the greatest effect. Some of these experiences are attachment (the life-giving bond between child and caregiver, arguably the most important factor in healthy development), physical growth, motor and speech development.
In the preschool years, it is also the first time a child might be cognizant of experiencing the changing in seasons for the first time, and their social horizons are being expanded beyond the family nucleus.
The preschool then, becomes a home away from home, where children can experience the world around them in a safe and open way, within a physically nurturing, warm and child minded environment.
In Kindergarten, children are aware of their ever growing skills and are ready to use them to serve their evolving ideas. The teachers provide a variety of challenging opportunities for each student to expand their knowledge and mastery of crafts.
In the early years, teachers understand that young children want to be part of what is happening in the world around them, so they teach out of imitation. By being present and compassionate, the teacher sets the tones for the “rules of the land”, and the children understand that this is the expectation in the “kingdom”.
Because the expectations are developmentally appropriate and expressed lovingly and firmly, the children feel a safe framework around them within which they can act freely. If a child is having trouble remembering or following the rules of the land, the teacher will kindly bring the child closer and help her remember, reinforcing rapport and a support, providing the tools the child needs to do better next time. A consistent routine and rhythm also aid in creating a healthy breathing sense of time, as well as allowing the child to chose a different way of acting the following time. This fosters self discipline and awareness for others and their needs. It also offers the possibility of coming to these experiences out of one’s own volition (not because of externally imposed constricts). These skills can be the key to a successful and productive life in the future.
The teacher provides plenty of opportunities for chopping vegetables, baking and using kitchen tools, sewing, painting, woodworking and many other practical and artistic activities. There is no need for constant verbal instruction as the children are drawn to the teacher’s meaningful activity, and observation skills are developed and translated into action. In this time of their lives, children are experiencing the world through their will: their drive for connection and exploration is the main force behind their growth and development.
In order to nurture this growing body, Waldorf teachers provide wholesome snacks and an aesthetically pleasing environment. Understanding that young children are literally using large amount of energy in building their bodies, teachers nurture the sense of warmth and touch.
Natural materials provide non synthetic sensory experiences, and care for seasonal appropriate clothing protects the growing forces of the body, so the building blocks can develop in a healthy, thorough manner. Through movement, children also explore all planes in space and develop a sense of balance and an awareness of their place in the physical world around them. By observing the child and out of their knowledge of child development, teachers plan to provide movement opportunities that will allow for the neural and motor development that is so crucial at a young age. Since the outdoors provide rich, ever changing sensory experience and countless physical obstacles, Nature Walks and time outside are usually a staple in Waldorf programs. Children also feel the dependability and fluidity in Nature’s reliable yet ever changing essence.
Open ended toys such as wooden blocks, silk scarves and a basket full of stones elicit a child’s inner picture and promotes social interaction, as children explain and negotiate ideas with their peers. The building steps of physics are explored when blocks are stacked and buildings are erected, math is put to use in the kitchen while measuring, and problem solving is an everyday thing when one needs to “feed” a whole class with only a basket full of shells.
Simple, open ended toys also allow the possibility of re creating the environment at the whim of imagination.
In the most natural way possible, and out of their own inner experiences, children develop resilience, flexibility and ingenuity: skills that will prove helpful in any walk of life.
Bearing in mind the relationship between physical movement and speech development (pattern, metric and the mood of sounds and words), early childhood Waldorf teachers provide daily chances to develop a relationship with the spoken word through the class’ musical framework, traditional songs and games. This is seen specifically in Circle time and Story Time. In order to meet the child’s quest for authentic knowledge, Circle Time and Story Time are carefully planned to meet the children where they are at: sometimes therapeutic stories are picked, sometimes folk tales and songs, and many times fairy tales, which feed the child’s imagination with an archetypal image they can recognize as true.
The inner wisdom of these tales, plus the rich language they provide, are nourishing for the young child. Oral stories are often told, so children are allowed to create mental pictures (a skill which will come in handy when formally learning how to read). The teacher might also present a puppet show, deepening the experience, and with favourite stories, sometimes plays will arise after the children have internalized the sequence, plot and lines of the story.
As the class follows the cycle of the year in the form of the seasons, many opportunities arise to develop powers of observation and connection. Believing in meaningful learning, teachers plan according to seasonal moods and colors, edible produce and crafts for festivals. Watercolor painting, cooking and handwork showcase the colors of the rainbow and the flavour of the seasons, spanning from yellow paint and corn, to apples and red leaves, to orange pumpkins and pies in the fall. With winter, the cooler colors and warmer foods and products such as soup and wool might become a staple in the class life. With the growth of Spring, rainbows of color and garden produce announce the return on the Sun to our land.
During the school year, children develop at their own pace, while being supported and encouraged to grow and experience in a conscious, patient manner. Through many movement and speech experiences, children grow confident in their physical abilities, and their capacity for expression and social interaction evolves in many ways. The feeling of family encourages children to work cooperatively while asserting oneself and caring for others, as well as nourishing the sense of self within a community. By being trusted and encouraged to participate in meaningful activities, children’s confidence in their skills and their understanding of the environment grow, creating a healthy framework of how the world works upon which the child will build later experiences. As a consequence, self awareness and discipline, the ability to tackle challenges creatively and confidently, and the foundations for human experience within and with others are gifts children are receiving during their first years at a Waldorf school
-Article written by Lucia Perez, our Preschool Teacher
-Free to Learn: Introducing Steiner Waldorf Early Childhood Education, Lynne Oldfield, Hawthorn Press, 2001.
-Our Twelve Senses: Wellsprings of the Soul, Albert Soesman, Hawthorn Press, 1990.
-Beyond the Rainbow Bridge: Nurturing our children from birth to seven, Barbara J. Patterson and Pamela Bradley, Michaelmas Press, 2001.
-Understanding Waldorf Education: Teaching from the Inside Out. Jack Petrash, Gryphon House.inc, 2002
-Developmental Signatures: Core Values and Practices in Waldorf Education for Children Ages 3-9, Rainer Patzlaff, Wolfgang Sassmannshausen, et al. AWSNA Publications, 2007.
-The Foundations of Human Experience, Rudolf Steiner, Anthroposophic Press, 1996.
-Children: A Chronological Approach, Robert V. Kail, Theresa Zolner, Pearson Canada, 2012.
- Foundations of Early Childhood Education, Dietze, Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006.