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What is Waldorf Education?

Waldorf education is a worldwide system of education for preschool through grade 12 developed from the indications of Rudolf Steiner. Steiner, an Austrian scientist, educator and writer, turned his attention to education after the First World War at the request of Emil Molt, who helped him found a school for the children of the workers at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart in 1919. The impulse for "Waldorf education," as it came to be called, spread throughout Europe, with the first school in America being founded in New York City in 1928.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Steiner.jpgSteiner was a pioneer in the area of developmentally based, age-appropriate learning, and many of his indications were later born out by the work of Gesell, Piaget and others. In addition, he sought to develop a balanced education for the "whole child," one which would engage the child's feeling and willing, as well as thinking, and would leave his or her spiritual nature acknowledged, but free. From preschool through high school, the goal of Waldorf education is the same, but the means differ according to the changing inner development of the child. According to Steiner, "Our highest endeavor must be to develop free human beings, who are able of themselves to impart purpose and direction to their lives."

Because of this emphasis, the Waldorf Schools were closed by the Nazis during World War II, but soon reopened and have spread in the last two decades to such troubled areas as South Africa, Palestine, Eastern Europe and Russia. In 1994 there were 640 schools, 1087 kindergartens, more than 300 curative (special education) centers and 60 teacher training institutes in 46 countries which are based on Rudolf Steiner's pedagogical impulse. Growth of the movement in America has been very rapid since 1980.

Thumbnail image for Baking pie w Faith.jpgEarly Childhood Education
During the early childhood years, the child is surrounded by a homelike environment which encourages imaginative free play and artistic activity. Steiner recognized that the young child learns primarily through example and imitation, with an emphasis on the importance of movement, rhythm, fairy tales and oral language. Steiner felt that it is not healthy for children to concentrate on cognitive skills such as reading, writing and math until the body has reached a certain level of maturity, freeing the forces of growth for cognitive work. This change is signified by many signs, including the eruption of the adult teeth and the child's ability to reach over its head and touch the opposite ear. Children are carefully evaluated for readiness for first grade, and most schools request that children turn six before school starts.

Many schools have mixed-age kindergartens, with children from 3-6 years old in the same room. Typical daily activities in the preschool/kindergarten include free play, movement games, story circle, and a craft or artistic activity (water color painting, beeswax modeling, coloring with beeswax crayons, baking, and so forth). Puppet plays, nature walks and celebrating the festivals are frequent events throughout the year.

Thumbnail image for watercolor goose.jpgThe Elementary Grades
In the elementary school (grades 1-8), all of the subjects are presented in a lively and pictorial way, because Steiner found the elementary-school child learns best when information is artistically and imaginatively presented. The same teacher stays with the children from first through eighth grade, teaching the "main lesson" subjects, which include language arts, mathematics, history and the sciences. Main lesson is taught during the first two hours of the morning in blocks of three to six weeks per topic. Students create their own "main lesson books" as artistic records of their learning, rather than using textbooks or worksheets. During the rest of the day, special subject teachers fill out the curriculum with two foreign languages, orchestra, singing, arts, crafts, gardening, eurythmy (a movement art developed by Rudolf Steiner) and physical education.

HSmainlesson2.jpgThe Waldorf High School
The adolescent's emerging powers of analytical thinking are met and developed in the Waldorf high school, where subjects are taught by specialists in their fields. The role of the teacher is seen as helping the students to develop their own thinking powers. A key to this process is presenting students with an immediate experience of phenomena, such as hands-on experiments or primary sources in literature and history--instead of predigested work from textbooks or anthologies. The rapidly changing psychological nature of the adolescent is addressed through each year's studies being tailored to the central "questions" that live in the hearts of the students of that grade. --Rahima Baldwin Dancy. Written for The Encyclopedia of Childhood.

Baldwin Dancy, Rahima. (1989, rev. 2012). You Are Your Child's First Teacher. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed.

Childs, Gilbert. (1991). Steiner Education in Theory and Practice. Edinburgh, UK: Floris Books.

Finser, Torin. (1994). School as a Journey. Hudson, NY: SteinerBooks.

Richards, M.C. (1980). Toward Wholeness: Rudolf Steiner Education in America. New York: University of Columbia Press.

Staley, Betty. Between Form and Freedom. Hudson, NY: SteinerBooks

The Association of Waldorf Schools of North America, www.awsna.org
Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America, www.waldorfearlychildhood.org


Rahima Baldwin Dancy, BA, MS, is a trained Waldorf elementary and early childhood educator. She is internationally known as the author of You Are Your Child's First Teacher on Rudolf Steiner's indications for early childhood.

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