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An Introduction to the Steiner Waldorf Movement

This is the second of a series of three blog posts, looking at the main principles of the most well known, child-centred educational philosophies today... Montessori, Steiner Waldorf and Reggio Emilia.

The Steiner Waldorf movement has proved to be the most difficult of the three philosophies for me to summarise, hence the delay in publishing it. I'm going to attempt to describe what I see as the key features, but will also provide links for those who would like to do some further reading.

What is the Steiner Waldorf movement?

'Receive the children in reverence,

educate them in love

and send them forth in freedom'.

Rudolf Steiner

Rudolf Steiner (1861 - 1925) was an Austrian philosopher, social reformer, architect and esotericist, and founder of the Steiner Waldorf movement. Steiner believed that education should be holistic, therefore teaching should be dedicated to developing the 'whole' child; head, hands and heart. A child's moral, spiritual and creative sides deserve as much recognition and attention as their intellect.

5 Key features of the Steiner/Waldorf movement...

1. Delayed formal teaching

The formal teaching of reading, writing and mathematics does not feature in the early childhood curriculum, because it is felt that children will learn these skills more effectively if they've had plenty of time and opportunity to develop socially, emotionally and physically first. Instead, young children are given the time to enjoy childhood and build strong foundation skills through an environment rich in hands on activity and play, before formal academic learning begins.

The early childhood phase encompasses birth to seven years. Kindergarten classes are typically small (around 16 children), and are mixed age from 3-7 years. The classroom environment resembles a home so that children feel safe and comfortable. There is a gentle rhythm to the day, with periods of free play and adult-led activities, such as baking, cooking and cleaning. Circle time, shared snack, stories, songs, poems and games, and lots of opportunity for outdoor play are part of the daily rhythm.

For a more detailed description of the early years within Steiner education, you can read all about it here...

2. Nature experience, leading to natural science

Nature and the natural sciences feature heavily in each phase of Steiner education. In the early years, rich, direct experiences of nature are encouraged. Children play outside in all weathers, in order to experience first hand the change in weather and seasons. Inside the classroom, natural materials are preferred for the room, it's furnishings and resources. A nature table commonly features in each classroom to showcase findings. In the later primary years, topics such as farming, man and animal, plant and earth, and geology are introduced. From 12 years, children are introduced to the experimental elements of science, beginning with topics such as acoustics, magnetism and electricity, then progressing through ever more advanced physics, chemistry, biology and ecology.

3. Nurturing imagination, creativity and practical life skills

'If a young child has been able in his play, to give up his whole living being to the world around him, he will be able in the serious tasks of later life, to devote himself with confidence and power to the service of the world'.

Rudolf Steiner

The passionate belief that imagination is at the very heart of learning stimulates and inspires the entire ethos of Waldorf teaching. Folk and fairy tales, fables, and legends are integrated throughout the Waldorf curriculum. These enable children to explore the traditions of many cultures, thus supporting a multicultural approach to education. They also enrich the imaginative life of the young child and promote free thinking and creativity. Students learn a variety of fine and practical arts. Primary students paint, draw, sculpt, knit, weave, and crochet. Older students build on these experiences and learn new skills such as pattern-making and sewing, wood and stone carving, metal work, book-binding, and doll or puppet making.

4. Waldorf curriculum and materials

Once children reach the age of 7 years, they move into the primary school phase which typically lasts until 14 years. Children usually have the same teacher throughout their primary years, enabling them to form a strong social group with their class. The Waldorf curriculum unfolds in main-lesson blocks of three or four weeks. The students create their own texts, or main-lesson books, for each subject. Many subjects and skills not considered core parts of mainstream schools, such as art, music, gardening and mythology, are central to Waldorf education. Eurythmy, a form of movement unique to Steiner schools, is also taught. You can watch a short video about eurythmy here...

From 14 years and up, children enter the secondary years, which is structured in a very different way to the primary years. Students are now taught by specialist teachers, and the curriculum strives to foster clear independent thinking through encouraging questions, discussion and criticism of ideas.

You can read more about the primary years (7-14 years) here...

And about the secondary years (14-19 years) here...

5. Anthroposophy

I have read widely about anthroposophy. The clearest and most concise explanation I have found was written by Jeremy Smith for the Anthroposophical Society website...

"Steiner considered anthroposophy to be a science of the spirit, and a necessary complement to natural science. It deals with many large questions, such as: the purpose of life, the physical and non-physical aspects of the human constitution, the nature of divinity and the cosmos, and the understanding of those universal laws which govern life. Anthroposophy is a philosophy, not a religion, and people of all religions and none have found it useful in expanding their sense of what it means to be a human being".

Steiner schools do not teach anthroposophy. Indeed, some would argue that it cannot be taught in any conventional sense. Rather, the philosophical and methodological approaches that guide anthroposophy are regarded by Steiner Waldorf educators as tools for personal and professional development.

You can read more about anthroposophy here...

Which, if any, of the Steiner Waldorf principles resonate with your family values?

We are very fortunate here in Bristol to have TWO Steiner schools ( and a great number of Steiner settings, or Steiner-inspired settings, for infants, toddlers and preschoolers.

Coming soon on the blog... an introduction to the Reggio Emilia approach. If you don't want to miss it, please consider subscribing to the blog and you will be emailed a link.

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