There is much to know about Waldorf education: its founder, its mission, its students and teachers and its pedagogy. We hope that this page answers some of your questions.
Rudolf Steiner, born in 1861, was an Austrian philosopher and scientist whose insights into the development of human consciousness inspired the Waldorf school movement. Steiner called this new field of study “anthroposophy” or “the wisdom of the human being.” A central tenet of Anthroposophy is that every human being has three aspects–a body, a soul, and a spirit–and that each of these aspects is crucial to a person’s growth and development. A weakness or strength in one area can have positive or negative implications in another. In the socially stratified and increasingly mechanized society of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, anthroposophists also valued the dignity of each individual, and felt that the individual had an obligation to use his or her endowed gifts in the service of others.
Steiner applied this philosophy to many fields, including medicine, agriculture, economics, architecture, and ultimately education, where his impact is felt most widely today. The first “Steiner school” was opened in 1919, just after the First World War, at the request of Emil Molt, who owned the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany. This school enrolled the children of factory employees and was considered revolutionary for its time. Unlike other schools, it was co-ed, socially and economically diverse, and featured a developmental curriculum–long before that term became the cliché it is today.
The school quickly grew from 126 to more than 1000 students. Other “Waldorf” schools soon sprang up in Germany, Switzerland, Holland, Great Britain, and on the Upper East Side of New York. Today there are more than 900 of them on six continents.
When the first Waldorf School was founded in 1919, Steiner viewed it as an antidote to what he viewed as an overemphasis on the dry “head” learning that was common in schools of the period. A child, he said, must be educated not only through the head, but through the heart and the hands as well. Thus, he infused his curriculum with artistic work, music, movement, and storytelling. He further insisted that a teacher’s job was not simply to fill the students with information but to call forth in the children the strength, the will, and the freedom to pursue their own destinies in life. Waldorf teachers hold the development of a child’s ethical and moral character to be as important as anything else in the curriculum.
According to Steiner, there are three main stages of childhood: 0 – 7 years during which a person learns primarily through doing (the hands), 7 – 14 years during which a person learns primarily through feeling (the heart), and 14 – 21 years during which a person learns primarily through thinking (the head). To force head learning on a kindergartner would not be helpful, he said, because it would weaken critical growth forces in the child, resulting in illnesses or deficiencies in adulthood. The Waldorf curriculum is based on Steiner’s acute insights into the developmental needs of children at every age, insights that were later borne out by the research of Gesell, Piaget, Gardner, and others.
The goal of Waldorf schooling is to graduate balanced individuals who can think for themselves, have the heart to serve others, and the courage to take action for the common good in a seriously divided world.
Waldorf schools are non-sectarian and unaffiliated with any particular religion. We do, however, honor the religious and cultural traditions of many races and faiths. The celebration of festivals, whether school-wide or within a given class, is a centerpiece of the Waldorf curriculum.
The Waldorf humanities curriculum encompasses the study of the ancient Hebrews and the Jewish faith in Third Grade; Norse myths in the Fourth Grade; ancient Greek, Buddhist, and Hindu beliefs in the Fifth Grade; the rise of Islamic, Roman, and Christian culture in the Sixth Grade; the history of the European Renaissance and Reformation in the Seventh Grade; and African and Asian geography and culture in the Eighth Grade.
Respect for these various traditions is what we seek to develop in the children. As one master Waldorf teacher, L. Francis Edmunds, has written, “it is surely one of the greatest blessings in a child’s life to have been able to experience reverence, devotion and awe.”
Fifteen to twenty percent of our student body is of Asian, Hispanic, or African-American descent.
Students in Grades 1 through 8 are required to take two world languages: Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. Rudolf Steiner believed that the study of languages was crucial to understanding the way people in other cultures think, and was thus central to the quest for world peace. Waldorf schools in other parts of the world make different choices: French or Japanese or Russian or Hebrew or English or one of several African dialects.
The school’s Diversity Committee meets regularly to review materials and make recommendations and suggestions for new initiatives. Click here to read the school’s Inclusiveness Statement and to learn more about our Diversity Committee.
Rudolf Steiner believed that in order for children to grow into self-confident, authoritative adults, they must be exposed in childhood to the loving guidance of a respected authority, in this case the class teacher. “All education in this period of life [between the ages of seven and fourteen] will have to be consciously directed toward awaking in a child a pure, beautiful feeling for authority; for what is implanted in him during these years forms the foundation for what the adult experiences as the equal rights of man.”
Waldorf first graders typically view their teacher as an all-knowing presence. Eighth graders view that same teacher as a mentor. In all cases, students believe that their class teacher will stick with them through thick and thin. While the class teacher is not present with the children all day every day, he or she does greet the students in the morning, teach the first two-hour lesson block of the day, supervise the children during free periods and lunch periods, and take charge of their academic, moral, and social development.
Waldorf teachers are not merely facilitators of a child’s education; they are expected to be authorities on their subject matter, as well as storytellers, musicians, artists, and actors. Most of them take summer courses that prepare them to teach the next grade’s curriculum in September.
Another benefit of Waldorf’s extended looping system is that it eliminates the “ramp-up” time at the start of each school year, during which students and teachers at other schools spend weeks getting to know each other. Waldorf teachers know their students well enough to keep them academically challenged at a level that is appropriate to each child, from the first week in September through the final week in June.
This sometimes happens. There are many different personalities in the world, and some get along more easily than others. Yet Waldorf teachers are extraordinarily motivated to find a way to work with children whom they initially may find challenging. Like a parent, they can’t just “put up with” a child for one year and then pass him or her on to another teacher the following September. This is true of the parent-teacher relationship too. Remarkable things happen when everyone understands that this is a multi-year commitment.
Waldorf class teachers meditate on each of their students every night, and parents are often surprised to find that a teacher understands their child as well or better than they do. Parents are encouraged to communicate regularly with their child’s teacher, not only during Parent-Teacher conferences but anytime they have questions or concerns. Parents receive written student assessments in essay form from their children’s teachers, one to three times per year, depending on the grade.
Class size varies by grade. Our Pre-Kindergarten classes enroll 14 to 15 children, (with parents opting to send their children two, three, or five days per week), our kindergartens each have approximately 16 students, and our grade classes may be as large as 25. Pre-K and Kindergarten classes have one head teacher and one assistant in each room.
Why do you intentionally strive for elementary class sizes of 25?
Waldorf education is a social education, and our students are taught to work in groups from early childhood on. They do their math problems together, they take nature walks together, they paint together, they do science experiments together, and they act in plays together–even to the point of learning all of each others’ lines. Invaluable yet hard-to-measure lessons are learned from this kind of togetherness. Because everybody does everything, students come to celebrate and appreciate each other’s strengths in different areas. Teachers often look to the students who are ahead in one area to assist those who need extra help. Students are taught to support each other and share what they have learned.
In a class of 25, there is a healthy mix of personalities, and students must learn to resolve conflicts with those unlike themselves. The temperaments (choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic, and sanguine) play a decisive role in the makeup of a healthy Waldorf class. Classes that are too small in size may be dominated by a few strong children. In a larger class, on the other hand, every child has the opportunity to learn how to function respectfully within a group–a skill that Rudolf Steiner thought was essential to creating change in society.
Because a Waldorf class teacher stays with a class from year to year, he or she comes to know each student extremely well. It is easier, then, for a Waldorf teacher to work with a class of 25 than it might be for a teacher in another school who typically has the same students for only one year.
The Waldorf approach goes against the current tide of teaching subjects such as reading at increasingly younger ages. In the March/April 2004 issue of Mothering magazine, Rahima Baldwin Dancy wrote: “This trend in public education began in the late 1950s, following the shock of the first Russian spacecraft, and has pushed the first-grade curriculum down into kindergarten and even into preschools. This has not led to improved learning, however; test scores at all levels have been falling ever since.
In contrast to early academics, Waldorf preschool and kindergarten teachers recognize that reading must be grounded in a rich field of oral learning and meaning, and thus they carefully lay the foundations for early literacy through storytelling, singing, and movement games. If abstract processes such as reading are not crammed into young minds but are taught when the child’s brain is developmentally ready, at around the age of seven, failure and boredom are minimized.”
Rudolf Steiner believed that before the age of seven years, a child’s time was best spent in developing the physical body in a healthy way. Children who are encouraged to be active, playful, and creative in early childhood usually turn out to be the most enthusiastic learners during the elementary years.
Waldorf early childhood teachers concentrate on developing the children’s physical coordination (which affects the development of neural pathways in the brain), listening skills (which later improve their facility with the written word), ability to relate socially in a group (which is critical to success in any endeavor), finger dexterity (which helps the child to think more nimbly), and initiative. Because Waldorf kindergartners create their own games and fantasy play scenarios, they grow accustomed to making things happen rather than waiting for something or somebody else to entertain them.
In the elementary grades, children are taught to write before they learn to read. (This instruction actually begins in the nursery classrooms, where children learn the proper way to hold a paintbrush. This is the same way they will later learn to hold a crayon, a pencil, and a fountain pen.) The letters of the alphabet are introduced in Grade One, initially in picture form.
In conjunction with a story told by the teacher (“The Fisherman’s Wife,” for instance) the children may draw or sculpt a fish that later becomes the letter F. Or a snake that becomes the letter S. Or a king that becomes the letter K. This, of course, is the way written letters evolved in ancient times. Later, the children begin to write down the stories told by their teacher (by copying the words from a chalkboard), and subsequently are amazed to discover that they can read what they have written.
Of course, there are some children who seem to pick up reading skills before the age of six or seven, with no apparent help from anyone. We don’t discourage this, but we try always to be sure that a child is growing in a balanced way in all areas–physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially–and not becoming a specialist in any one area too soon.
It is well documented that media exposure in early childhood causes developmental damage to the brain and central nervous system. Both the National Association of Pediatrics and the National Association for the Education of Young Children have established guidelines for media exposure, which are surprisingly similar to ours.
At City of Lakes Waldorf School, we have found that mass media works against the healthy development of sound thinking and seriously weakens a child’s ability to deal with reality. Students accustomed to passively receiving impressions have difficulty making the inner effort necessary to sustain an imaginative train of thought or to follow a complicated mathematical process. Even so-called educational television programs have an intellectual bias that can permanently color a child’s reaction to a subject.
Media exposure is particularly detrimental in a Waldorf school because it prevents the student from fully developing the creative thinking capacities that are central to our educational goals. We would like our students to view the world through their own eyes, rather than through the lens of someone else’s camera. By delaying a child’s exposure to mass electronic media until the student’s will and feeling life have reached a certain level of maturity, we hope to encourage an enlightened, inquiry-based relationship to technology.
At The Waldorf School, art is not a separate class, but an integral part of the day’s lessons. Students in every grade are expected to illustrate their books and papers with free-hand drawings. Students in an anatomy class, for instance, may be asked to make life-size charcoal drawings of a human skull while students in a geometry class may make origami-like sculptures out of paper. All students do watercolor painting once a week and attend handwork class twice a week.
Music instruction begins in first grade with singing and simple flute playing. By third grade, all students are playing recorder and continue to do so through eighth grade. In third grade, students begin formal twice-a-week instruction with instrumental music teachers. They begin with a string instrument (violin, viola, or cello). Students who enter the school in seventh grade and do not yet play an instrument participate in the school’s recorder ensemble. All students in fourth through eighth grade sing in a chorus.
Handwork begins in first grade and continues through eighth grade, culminating with the making of a machine-sewn quilt. Woodworking classes commence in fourth grade and continue through eighth grade.
The study of Mandarin Chinese and Spanish starts in first grade. Instruction is almost exclusively oral until fourth grade. By eighth grade, students are expected to be able to write short papers in both languages.
Music is the thread that weaves the academic day together. Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten children sing with their teachers at circle time and during most transition periods. Nearly all teachers play musical instruments of one kind or another. In first through eighth grades, children receive instruction on the recorder, and in third grade they also learn to play violin, viola, or cello.
All students in fifth grade and above participate in a chorus class once a week. There are multiple opportunities for performance at school festivals and assemblies. In addition, seventh or eighth graders may perform in a class musical.
These two educational philosophies actually started with a similar goal: to design a curriculum that was developmentally appropriate to the child and that addressed the child’s need to learn in a tactile as well as an intellectual way. Maria Montessori did her early work with street children in Italy who lived too much in their limbs and not enough in their heads. Rudolf Steiner’s work began with children in Germany who lived too much in their heads and not enough in their limbs.
A fundamental difference between these two forms of schooling has to do with the role of the teacher. Montessori teachers act primarily as facilitators, intervening only when a child requests help with an independent learning activity that has been selected by the student. In a Waldorf classroom, on the other hand, the teacher is an authority who leads the class in a variety of teacher-directed activities. This means that Waldorf children participate in activities such as singing or acting or math games or juggling that they may not have chosen to do on their own. Balance, rather than specialization, is encouraged.
In the social realm, Montessori students are taught not to interrupt their peers while they are working, but are encouraged to help younger children complete a task with which they are unfamiliar. Waldorf education, on the other hand, puts particular emphasis on the development of the young child within a group. Barbara Shell, a teacher who worked in public, Montessori, and Waldorf schools, put it this way:
“Waldorf teachers orchestrate this [social] development by modeling good social behavior with their children, by getting the children to join together in movement activities, by introducing songs and games that develop group consciousness, and by helping children learn to work through disagreements.”
Another distinction between Waldorf and Montessori preschool programs involves the role of fantasy play.
According to Ms. Shell:
“In Montessori, there is a feeling that because young children have difficulty distinguishing between reality and fantasy, fantasy should be postponed until the child is firmly grounded in reality. The tasks and activities the children do are reality-oriented. . . . . In Montessori, each manipulative material has a step-by-step procedure for being used and is focused toward a specific learning concept. Example: Math counting rods are not to be transformed into castle walls. In Waldorf, we feel that it is essential to realize the value of toys to help children to re-enact experiences from life as they actually happen. The less finished and the more suggestive a toy may be, the greater its educational value. . . .Toys in the Waldorf kindergarten may be rounds of wood cut from birch logs, seashells, lengths of colored silk or cotton for costuming or house building, soft cloth dolls with a minimum of detail in faces or clothing, allowing for open-ended imaginative play.”
As Ms. Shell pointed out in her writings, both Waldorf and Montessori teachers recognize that a child longs for rhythm and order in the world. But they interpret this need in quite different ways. Madame Montessori described the classroom as a place where children are free to move about at will and where the day is not divided between work periods and rest or play periods. Protection of the child’s choice is a key element of the Montessori method.
In contrast, Waldorf teachers see the child thriving in a rhythmical atmosphere created by the teacher that includes a balance of what we call “inbreathing” and “outbreathing” activities. In a Waldorf kindergarten, Ms. Shell said, “There are times for coming together and working as a whole group, and times for playing individually or with a few friends. There are times for directed activity like crafts or baking or painting and times for creative play-acting of a story through movement. There are times for doing finger games and times for watching a puppet show.” Students in a Waldorf classroom know what to count on from day to day and week to week.
A regular rhythm of age-appropriate activities is also employed in the elementary school. Each morning lesson has a three-step rhythm that includes recall of previously presented material, presentation of new material, and independent work. Similarly, each day and each week have a rhythm of more intensive and less intensive activities. A concentrated rehearsal of a Shakespeare play, for instance, may be followed by a 45-minute scrimmage on the basketball court. Eventually these external rhythms are internalized by the child, so that he or she is able to take up and complete the more challenging tasks of later life with purpose and conviction.
Nearly all do well after a period of adjustment. It takes a month or so for them to adapt to the use of textbooks and the taking of standardized tests. On the other hand, they often find themselves ahead of their peers initially in the areas of history, natural sciences, creative writing, public speaking, visual arts, music, movement, and social skills. More important, they bring with them an unusual passion for learning; a respect for other people, cultures, and points of view; and a desire to make a meaningful difference in the world.
High school teachers from public and private schools have told us recently that our graduates raise the intellectual bar in their classrooms, that they are naturally curious and respectful, and that they know how to use their many talents to advance the common goals of the group. We encourage you to ask high schools about our graduates.
Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten children may stay until 3:05 p.m. in our Aftercare Program, which includes a snack, rest time, and play time both indoors and out. Elementary students in first through sixth grade are accepted into our Extended Day Program, which lasts until 5:30 p.m. After-school tutoring and music lessons are offered on the premises.
We believe that a child’s mental and social development are dependent on healthy physical activity. Our early childhood classes spend a significant amount of time outdoors–in all kinds of weather–gardening, sledding, digging, climbing on rocks, and walking in the woods. Elementary students have an outdoor recess every day in addition to two periods per week of Games or Gym class, which may include activities such as sledding, skating, kickball, archery, scooter basketball, juggling, tumbling, and group games of all kinds–from Capture the Flag to Sticks and Stones. Students in fifth through eighth grade participate in a weekly circus arts class. We have a small gym, and an outdoor basketball court available for student use.
Our school participates in the Twin Cities’ League of Independent Sports Teams (LIST), a league of small private schools. Sixth, seventh and eighth grade co-ed soccer, basketball and volleyball teams compete with other independent schools in the area.
In addition, we participate in a fifth grade Olympics every year, in which students from six or seven Waldorf schools in the region compete for laurel wreaths in javelin, discus, long jump, wrestling, long run, and 50-yard dash. Awards are made for grace and form as well as strength and speed.
While Waldorf schools are faculty-directed, they cannot function without the active support of the parents in the community. At our school, parents have the opportunity to sit on the Board of Trustees, serve on long-range planning committees, assist in painting or handwork classes, act as chaperones on field trips, organize annual events such as the Holiday Fair and the Bike-A-Thon, work in our school store, plan educational workshops, coach soccer, basketball and volleyball teams, build toys or stitch puppets for our Kindergartens, create spreadsheets for planning purposes and donate their time and money in many other ways.
Most important, Waldorf parents support the work of the classroom teachers by creating a home life conducive to healthy growth. Parent evenings with the teachers and the other parents in a class help to create a caring network of support for each child and for the class as a whole. Friendships between Waldorf families often continue for decades after the children graduate.