Waldorf Education is a world-wide independent school movement. In a Waldorf school, the learning process is essentially threefold, engaging head, heart, and hands—or thinking, feeling, and doing. This is the basis from which Waldorf teachers work to nurture and engage each child through a curriculum and methodology that integrates academics, arts, and practical skills.
Waldorf Education has been around since 1919, when it was developed in Germany by an Austrian philosopher, social reformer, and visionary named Rudolf Steiner. Today, there are close to a thousand Waldorf schools and initiatives operating in 83 countries.
Despite these numbers, Waldorf schooling has not been widely known in the US. Fortunately, that’s now starting to change. From the the New York Times to the Nightly News, Waldorf Education has been getting a lot of press lately. With increasing dissatisfaction over the high-stakes testing currently consuming mainstream education, the growing recognition of the many benefits a child receives through experiences with art, movement, and nature, a concern over a reliance on technology by younger and younger students, and the news that leaders in the high-tech industry are touting the lifelong benefits of low-tech Waldorf schools for their own children, Waldorf Education is getting a closer look. At Sunbridge, where we’ve been working on behalf of this innovative education for more than 40 years, we’re delighted by the attention.
The Foundations of Waldorf Education
Waldorf Education begins with the premise that childhood is made up of three distinct stages of roughly seven years each—birth to age seven (early childhood), seven to 14 (middle childhood) and 14 to 21 (adolescence). Each stage carries with it characteristics that determine the way children feel about and approach the world—intellectually, emotionally, physically, and spiritually—and this, in turn, affects the way they learn. Waldorf educators believe that curricula and teaching methods may be appropriately tailored to these developmental stages, unfolding as childhood unfolds.
Early Childhood – Develop the limbs through doing
Young children from birth to age seven live primarily through their senses. They learn best through imitation. Waldorf early childhood classrooms are sensory rich, and Waldorf early childhood educators are warm and nurturing role models. Play-based activities provide opportunities for young children to explore social relationships, investigate the natural world, and expand their imaginative capacities. These activities lay crucial foundations for their intellectual, emotional, and physical development.
Middle Childhood – Develop the heart through imagination
Between the ages of seven and 14, children learn best through lessons that touch their feelings and enliven their creative forces. The Waldorf lower school curriculum is alive with fairy tales and fables, mythological sagas, and stirring biographies of historical figures. Entrusted with the essential task of accompanying their students on a several-year journey, Waldorf elementary (or “class”) teachers have a role analogous to effective parenting, guiding children’s formal academic learning, their awakening moral development, and their increasing awareness of their place in the world.
Adolescence – Develop the mind through discernment of the world
Ages 14 to 21 see the development of the independent intellect and, along with it, the ability to examine the world abstractly and exercise discernment, judgment, and critical thinking. Students in Waldorf high schools are given increasing autonomy over their education under the mentorship of teachers who are specialists in their fields.
The Central Role of a Waldorf Teacher
The individual human being who chooses to teach in a Waldorf school brings his or her full self to the development of others, providing mentoring, development, and affection that sustain the students for life. If you feel called to this profession, Sunbridge Institute is the place to prepare yourself and sharpen your skills to give this gift to others.
The Benefits of Waldorf Education
Children enjoy an unhurried childhood.
Visit a Waldorf school and watch the children at play. You’ll see children who delight in being allowed to live in the moment, who are free to explore nature and to go where their wide-eyed sense of wonder and imagination takes them. In this frenetic world of ours, where pushing children to “catch-up or fall-behind” has become the norm, Waldorf Education takes the point of view that childhood is something to be savored. By being free to develop according to their own natural rhythms, Waldorf-educated children enjoy full and rich childhoods, gaining the experiences they need to become healthy, self-actualized individuals.
Learning is hands-on and age-appropriate.
You won’t find young students hovering around a computer in a Waldorf school classroom or missing a walk in the woods or a trip to the farm in order to sit and cram for a standardized test. In Waldorf education, learning is an experiential activity. It’s not a matter of doing without certain experiences, it’s a matter of introducing children to each experience at the right time in their development. When it’s time to teach the merits, uses, and hows of technology, Waldorf school teachers do so. And the knowledge, self-awareness, and problem-solving skills the students develop through years of hands-on inquiry is of far greater value to them as learners and as humans than anything they could have picked up by sitting at a screen.
In-depth study enriches learning experiences.
The benefits of block learning have long been recognized in Waldorf education. In daily “Main Lessons,” students from 1st through 12th grade spend up to two hours concentrating on one academic subject which rotates every 3-4 weeks among the academic disciplines. The students have the chance to study each subject thoroughly and from a number of vantage points, which contributes to their enjoyment—and their understanding—of the subject matter.
Students learn how to take an active role in their own education.
From discovering the alphabet in the first grade to discovering anatomy, algebra, and US history in the 8th grade, and all the way up through their high school study, Waldorf students take part in the learning process by creating their own textbooks—beautifully-drawn journals containing stories, essays, poems, maps, illustrations, lab descriptions, and math equations. Rather than relying on pre-digested material presented to them in conventional textbooks, the act of creating their “Main Lesson” books allows children to absorb the lessons their teachers bring them and to make learning their own.
Waldorf schools produce well-rounded individuals.
Waldorf educators strive to bring out what lives in each student, but are careful not to over-emphasize one trait or skill over another. All students study math and science and learn two foreign languages; they all play an instrument and sing in the chorus; they all learn handwork and take movement classes and perform in a class play. The goal in Waldorf education is to expose children to a wide range of experiences and to develop within them many interests and capabilities. This, in turn, leads to well-balanced young people with high levels of confidence in their ability to apply skills developed in one area to another, and the knowledge that they can master anything.
Waldorf-educated individuals have a lifelong passion for learning.
At a Waldorf school, education is not measured by competition and test scores, but is viewed as a life-long journey. And an educational approach that appropriately responds to a child’s natural interest in the world cannot help but result in an intrinsic desire to find out more.
Waldorf schools are sometimes erroneously seen as “art schools” because of the depth of the fine, practical, and performing arts curriculum you’ll find here, woven in an interdisciplinary fashion among all the subjects. Interestingly, however, it’s actually the sciences that become a career choice for many Waldorf school alumni—an interest developed through years of exploration, discovery, invention, and thinking-outside-the-box approaches to life.
The Origins of Waldorf Education
In Stuttgart, Germany, in 1919, Emil Molt, owner of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory, was looking to develop a school for the children of his employees. Molt was seeking a curriculum that would not only meet the children’s intellectual needs but speak also to their spiritual essence and humanity, thus helping them to flourish in an industrial post-war landscape. To develop this pedagogy, Molt turned to Rudolf Steiner, a noted scholar, author, and educator. Steiner agreed to take on the task, under the conditions that the school be:
- Artistically and culturally enriching
- Comprehensive (that is, not split into separate academic and vocational tracks)
- Open to all the workers’ children—girls and boys—from every walk of life
Steiner insisted his school’s teachers perceive and respond to the developmental needs of the children. The intended outcome would be young people who were independent thinkers and problem-solvers, capable of creatively meeting the challenges of their time.
The inclusive and forward-thinking spirit of idealism, commitment, and engagement with the world that was needed to create the first Waldorf school continues to be needed today.
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