What Is Waldorf Education?
Kimberton Waldorf School, photo by Nancy Coe
Learning with one’s whole self. This, according to many educators, parents, current and former students, is the hallmark of a Waldorf education.
Perhaps a Waldorf school would offer your child a setting where they would thrive. This broad introduction may intrigue you; regardless, we hope it will inform you.
Founded in the early 20th century by Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian scientist, Waldorf education exemplifies pedagogical principals highly valued today: developmentally appropriate, deeply experiential, and intellectually engaged learning. Based on an understanding of human development and guided by a child’s changing needs, Waldorf educators believe that children who learn in a way that honors their unfolding development will gain confidence, master skills, and become lifelong learners.
Waldorf education is centered on a belief that children move through three distinct phases of development: early childhood (ages 0-7), middle childhood (ages 7-14), and adolescence (ages 14-21), and the understanding that each stage requires its own approach in order to meet the intellectual, emotional, social, and physical needs of the child. The three pillars of Waldorf pedagogy--goodness, beauty, and truth--further inform age-appropriate engagement. In early childhood, it is thought that learning occurs through exploration and play, and teachers support a child’s sense that the world is good. In middle childhood, a child’s inherently vivid imagination allows teachers to guide their appreciation of the beauty in the world. Finally, in adolescence, a search for personal and global truth informs a child’s interaction with the world.
The Waldorf curriculum is designed to nurture each child’s unique potential and support the development of critical and flexible thinking, emotional awareness and control, as well as organization and initiative. Academic work, often presented by theme, includes language arts, mathematics, history, natural science, geography, and foreign language, and becomes increasingly complex as children move through the stages of development. Academics are consistently supported by experiential learning, using storytelling, the arts, music, drawing, movement, and practical activity.
The Waldorf pedagogy intentionally incorporates outdoor education, handwork, and eurythmy into the curriculum. Outdoor education is thought to foster an appreciation of and wonder for the natural world, and to develop an appreciation for sustainability. The outdoor curriculum often includes school gardens and outdoor horticulture study, scientific observation, and environmental work. Extensive outdoor free play, with children dressed for the elements, is highly valued, as is outdoor class time for other subjects.
Handwork is a critical element of a Waldorf education, with each grade engaging in work that complements other aspects of the curriculum. Knitting is introduced in first grade, as the crossbody movement is believed to support healthy brain development, enhancing the connection between the left and right hemispheres. In third grade, as a reflection of a child’s increased self-awareness and a focus on the development of more practical and purposeful skills, children learn candle making, weaving, and working with clay or beeswax, all part of a themed study of shelter, farming, and clothing.
Eurythmy is expressive movement that captures the feeling of instrumental music and spoken language, such as poetry. Sometimes referred to as “visible song” and “visible speech,” eurythmy is incorporated into the curriculum to facilitate a deeper understanding of other areas of study. Moving artistically with a group is also thought to foster concentration and self-discipline, a sense of timing and precision, an appreciation for the beauty of language and music, as well as social awareness.
The teacher-student relationship is central to Waldorf education, and informs a specific construct: classroom teachers remain with their class through the elementary school years, from first through fifth grade; likewise, in the middle school years, teachers remain with their students from sixth through eighth grade. It is thought that, in this way, children have an interaction that will become increasingly meaningful and supportive over time, and that they will be better able to learn within a secure long-term relationship. Waldorf schools acknowledge that problems between teachers and children, and between teachers and parents, do sometimes arise. When this happens, there is recognition that it is the responsibility of the adults to address the challenges and attempt to restore the relationship through positive and productive steps.
Waldorf schools are non-denominational and non-sectarian, and welcome children from all cultural and religious backgrounds. In fact, their pedagogy is intended, in part, to facilitate understanding of and appreciation for all world cultures and religions. Over 1,100 Waldorf schools exist in more than 90 countries across the globe, and Waldorf graduates enroll at a wide range of colleges and universities, including those that are highly selective. According to the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America, professors note that “Waldorf graduates have the ability to integrate thinking; to assimilate information as opposed to memorizing isolated facts; to be flexible, creative and willing to take intellectual risks; and are leaders with high ethical and moral standards who take initiative and are passionate to reach their goals.” Waldorf Education
Annemiek Young is an Independent Educational Consultant based in Philadelphia. Once the Director of Lower School Admissions at The Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and formerly Director of Admission and Enrollment Management at Friends Select School in Philadelphia, Annemiek has more than a decade of experience in guiding families through the complexities of understanding a school’s curriculum, community, and program. She has worked with families from all around the world, offering them a framework with which to assess school options as they navigate an unfamiliar education system and determine which setting would be optimal for their child. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Boston University School of Law, Annemiek completed her final year of law school at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and most recently has been accepted as an IECA associate member.
Bennett International Education Consultancy works directly with hundreds of families each year across the globe. We support families by helping them make informed decisions about the best-fit schools for their children; with our guidance, they secure placement in preschools, private day schools, public/state schools, boarding schools, colleges & universities, including schools with particular programs, such as special needs support.