What is Waldorf — A Spotlight on Waldorf Education

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Waldorf is a worldwide education philosophy that feels more like a way of life, as it extends from early childhood through the teenage years. The philosophy focuses on engaging the head, heart and mind with curriculum and practice that incorporates academics, arts and practical life skills.

The philosophy was developed by Austrian scientist and philosopher, Rudolf Steiner, who believed that social improvement and personal development had to go hand in hand. Waldorf schools are dedicated to providing an extremely nurturing environment that fosters the development of the whole child.

The Waldorf Philosophy

The Waldorf philosophy begins with the idea that childhood is made of three stages that are each approximately seven years. Additionally, enrollment director at the Housatonic Valley Waldorf School, Therese Lederer, explains that  “According to Steiner, the human being is a threefold being of spirit, soul and body, whose capacities unfold in three developmental stages on the path to adulthood: early childhood, middle childhood and adolescence.  Each stage has a specific learning style and therefore teaching method.”

These stages are:

Early Childhood: Birth to age seven

In this stage of childhood, the focus should be on developing the limbs through doing. Kids in this age group learn through their sense and through imitation, so providing a sensory rich environment is key. Children are encouraged to explore nature, use their imaginations and begin to understand social relationships.

Middle Childhood: Age seven to 14

Children in this age group are focused on developing the heart through their imagination. They learn through storytelling, drama, movement, art and music. This is the age where formal academic learning begins, but Waldorf education strives to also foster moral development and help children increase their awareness of the world.

Adolescence: Age 14 to age 21

This is the age Waldorf marks the development of independent intellectual ability along with the true ability to examine the world. Students in this age group are challenged to use critical thinking and are given increasing autonomy over their education.

The Waldorf Early Years

Therese Lederer explains that children are learning and experiencing the world mainly through physical activity in the early years, a Waldorf education strives to provide opportunities to learn through exploration and creative play. For example, children learn by participating in “household” chores and spending time outdoors each day in all weather.  At this age, emphasis is developing skills such as coordination, balance, core strength, cooperation, resilience, self-regulation, personal boundaries, and relationships.

Advantages of the Waldorf Philosophy

The Waldorf philosophy looks to preserve each phase of child development. The goal is to follow the child, not to rush them ahead. The slowing down of early childhood actually leads children to make greater leaps in competencies, capacities and skills later in life. The education they receive is on a deeper level. Children in this environment tend to have strong executive functioning skills, greater confidence and less stress.

The Waldorf Classroom

A beautiful description of a Waldorf classroom as described by Therese Lederer.

The classroom is a child’s first home away from home.  It is a place of warmth, order, and beauty. It is an environment that nourishes the senses and fosters reverence for nature and the material world.

Each day follows a gentle rhythm which provides the children with a sense of security. The day begins with circle time, during which the children sing and recite verses. Finger plays and rhymes inspire a love of language and develop children’s fine and gross motor skills. Creative free play follows and offers an opportunity for children to exercise healthy fantasy.

Playthings are created from natural, simple materials such as wood, colorful silks, shells, and smooth stones. Mid-morning, children, and teachers prepare a wholesome, organic snack.  They eat at a table set with candles, real plates, silverware, and cloth napkins. Every day of the week includes an artistic activity such as watercolor painting, modeling with colored beeswax, drawing with crayons, or Eurythmy (a movement art).

Myths about Waldorf Education

The primary focus of a Waldorf education is on play, imagination, the development of the physical body, art, and social and emotional skills. As such, a common myth about Waldorf Education is that children are somehow “behind” since there is less focus on academics. However, this is not the case. By giving the time and space to master developmentally appropriate skills, they develop an inner confidence that follows them through their academic career.

Waldorf Views on Technology

Parents who are concerned about introducing screen time and technology to their young child will find a community of support at Waldorf schools.  The “no-tech approach to learning is foundational to the Waldorf teaching philosophy” explains Therese Lederer, but that doesn't mean that Waldorf is completely anti-technology. In fact, many parents who are innovators in the tech space, or who work in companies such as Google, Apple, Yahoo!, choose to send their kids to Waldorf schools.

In Waldorf schools, timing is everything. Waldorf educators seek to first strengthen students’ ability to think for themselves and build confidence in their creativity and problem-solving skills. So that when they are older they are able to use technology as a tool—as a means, not as an end. The results of current research into technology in the classroom remain mixed. However, the science is clear that play, art, and music all support better learning and thinking.

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