Enlivening the Curriculum: Experiential Learning in Steiner-Waldorf Schools

by Eric Fairman

(© Eric K. Fairman. May 2004)

Tell me, and I will forget;
Show me, and I may remember;
Involve me, and I will understand.


Long gone are the days when a teacher could step into a classroom where students stood quietly, prepared to receive the ‘gifts’ which the teacher had to offer. No longer are students prepared to sit focused and listening to what is being offered without interruption, uninvited contributions or questions. This is perhaps no more apparent than in the later years of the middle school, especially grades seven, eight and upwards. Although boys generally appear to have the tendency for restlessness in the formality of a classroom, it is noticeable that this is even more so in the current age where youth in general, but boys in particular, have difficulty in remaining in their assigned places and sitting ‘comfortably’ on their chairs for any period of time. There is a constant restlessness with chairs tottering on two rear legs; students wriggling in their chairs; etc. And what is the standard response? To give the students even more desk work to keep them occupied, rather that looking at the causes leading to restlessness and searching for meaningful solutions to the ‘problem’!

Sometimes the simplest solution can be the panacea for a daunting problem. In this instance, maybe the simplest remedy would be to introduce more meaningful ‘movement’ into the lesson. For ‘movement’ substitute ‘activity’, for I am not suggesting extending the time spent on movement and ‘concentration’ exercises as practiced in the initial part of the first extended morning lesson* (main lesson) of each day in the early grades. [ * although commonly known as the ‘main lesson’, I believe the term tends to be rather misleading, as well as discriminatory, with respect to the other highly important subject lessons of the day.]

Regardless of the stage of development of a child, space and time should be allowed for a strong element of ‘will’ activity in all learning, especially in Steiner-Waldorf schools. This is most apparent in the years up until the age of seven, where the child is almost constantly engaged in activities of the ‘will’.

The typical Waldorf main lesson not only invokes desk study, but also brings the children into movement. From first through fifth grades, many subjects are approached through rhythmic games, singing, the playing of musical instruments, and handwork, as well as through discussion and book work. (Eugene Schwartz)(1).

Activity’ in the context to which I am alluding, takes on an entirely new connotation in the higher grades where there is generally a paucity of hands-on activities. Here the teacher will be looking for activities which in themselves act as an additional ‘Path of Discovery’™(2) and path of learning, fully incorporated into the general educational methodology.

From seven to fourteen, the child’s active participation in learning appears to decrease although there is no absence of unrelated activities!! By the end of grade six, the learning process has transformed itself into one of a more sedentary nature. It is at this stage that teachers could possibly benefit by seriously assessing their teaching methodologies, for although the syllabus for the later years introduces subjects of a more intellectual nature, it does not necessarily follow that ‘will’ imbued learning has to be relegated to a thing of the past!

The curriculum for grades six, seven and eight has a definite focus on ‘discovery’, from the political developments brought about by the Roman Empire and further into the Middle Ages; to the Renaissance with its art and music; the great voyages of discovery into the New World; the amazing discoveries in all fields of science, the Revolutions; the list is endless. When one stops to reflect on these wonderful subjects which will be shared with the students, one quickly comes to the realization that everything which was ‘discovered’ came about because of activity of the Will!

Whereas the curriculum in the primary years is more related to practical life and learning, the tendency for teaching in the higher grades is to become detached from ‘real’ life, just at the time when new ideals well-up in the young person at the time of convergence of two significance streams in their life: the loss of childhood and its sense of wonder, and the birth of adulthood and new creative powers…..a mirroring of what took place around the age of nine, but on a different level of inner development. This is a time when the young person looks out to see a world and life which both have meaning and purpose, and the dawning realization that he/she has the potential to influence both the present and future course of events. It is a time of searching for the answer to inner questions, such as:

Who am I and why do I exist?
What is my role in life and in the community?
How can I influence and make a difference in the world?

These are three major questions which confront the emerging adolescent, especially from grade nine onwards. To find the answers, requires the support and guidance of not only immediate family and teachers, but also that of friends and the wider community.

If teaching is to be effective and meaningful, then teachers have a responsibility to ensure that students not only experience an awakening of their Feeling life in presentations brought before them by articulate and thoroughly prepared teachers who are able to weave a web of soul experiences for their students, but that they also have a ‘living’ experience of the subject and are able to perceive its relevance to ‘real’ life. This can only be fully realized when students are actively involved with their Will in the learning process.

Although the ‘main lesson book’ is perceived as being central to the Steiner-Waldorf educational methodology, in that it fosters creativity and productivity with the student, it also tends to stand in isolation with regards to experiences outside of school. It is therefore not easy for the student to see any connectedness with the effort which he is expending on producing a magnificent main lesson book, to the life he will be leading once he walks through the school portals at the end of the day. I do not wish to belittle the value of the main lesson book, but I firmly believe that there are occasions when it can be dispensed with in favor of creativity and productivity in other fields of endeavor which have a greater tangible connectedness with ‘real’ life.

A teacher relates: ‘…..there is a student in one class who is extremely learning disabled and couldn’t write a research paper (if asked). The teacher for ‘Industrial Revolution’ allowed him to build a project instead of writing about it. The student built a working steam engine and took it to several lower school classes to explain and demonstrate it!

It is presumed that Steiner-Waldorf teachers recognize the central role of arts and crafts in the curriculum, an area which is generally well grounded in the lower (primary) grades. However, for a majority of high schools, it remains a big challenge to offer the broad craft syllabus as suggested by Rudolf Steiner. But even if all the proposed crafts were present within the curriculum, I doubt whether it would have any marked affect on the number of students rocking on their chairs during the sedentary lessons, filled with sedentary activities!!!

The Hiram Trust (a) in the UK has done and continues to do, a great deal to promote the arts and craft syllabus within the Steiner-Waldorf movement. Another initiative is that of the Waldorf College Project(b) which is pioneering a new Steiner-Waldorf experiential learning experience ‘….designed for students of 16 to 19…integrating the Arts, Sciences, Crafts and the environment….’ at their campus in Stroud, UK. Both of these ventures, although working with aspects of the Steiner-Waldorf curriculum, operate independently of the traditional Steiner-Waldorf schools which generally have to rely upon their own resources in respect to presenting the upper/high school curriculum, the development of which is frequently hampered though lack of facilities and funding.

As Martin Rawson(3) points out:

….a lack of resources has severely limited the development of adequate craft provision in many Waldorf schools. Most schools in the UK barely manage to provide for gardening, elementary woodwork, pottery and some textile work………For historical and social reasons education in Britain has always undervalued manual, practical work. Vocational training – as practical subjects were known – was for the non-academic pupil, those not able to pass exams, the dimbos in the cruel terminology of the pupils themselves. The Waldorf version of this was far less socially divisive, but nonetheless subtly discriminating. Crafts were seen as a healthy balance to intellectual work, somewhat like fresh air and walking, good for you but not essential. The British school exam system and the recently introduced National Curriculum place no real value on craft work, and exams take up over half the timetable of the entire Upper school. Also exams act as a force of inertia as far as innovation in the curriculum goes. For many Waldorf pupils, the exams are what much of the Upper School is about. This is most true in Classes 8, 9, 10 and 11…

What Rawson here applies to the educational system in the UK and Steiner-Waldorf in particular, can just as well be applied to Steiner-Waldorf education in other parts of the English speaking world. The lack of a full art and craft syllabus in the Steiner-Waldorf Upper/High Schools needs to be seriously addressed. Too many compromises are made with the curriculum, to the point where Steiner-Waldorf Education is being disastrously ‘watered down’ in the scramble to accommodate various national and local governmental syllabus demands, especially in some schools which have learnt to rely on government funding, as is available in NZ and Australia….strings attached!!. Continuing efforts are being made in the UK to secure funding from the state, but at the same time securing total autonomy with respect to curriculum and methodology. It would be interesting to see whether such autonomy could be a sustainable reality in the face of governmental requirements for attaining national ‘benchmarks’!

We have just to see to it that we do not allow ourselves to be persuaded to compromise…We must only see to it that we ourselves do not give up anything of our essential conceptions…we must realize that we should take a careful look at where we have gone wrong (Ed.) if we receive praise from …the present educational system…  (Rudolf Steiner) (4)

To use the words of a Waldorf parent in North America whose son spent an exchange high school year abroad in a sister-Waldorf school: ‘…..I was very disillusioned by (my son’s) experience at (the sister-school). It (the curriculum) seemed to be very watered down and ‘Waldorf’ education virtually stopped by the last term of Grade 10. After that, it was just preparing for exams.’ Unfortunately, that student’s experience is not an isolated instance.

An ex-grade twelve Steiner-Waldorf student offers the following observation:

…My parents chose to send me to a Steiner-Waldorf school because they believed in the philosophy and the rich curriculum arising from it. My early education has been incredibly inspiring and motivating; but I would have liked, and expected, that that would continue through to the completion of my education at a Steiner-Waldorf school.

…From year nine, the structure of the day changed drastically from previous years. Fortunately, main lessons continued until year eleven, although several were given by teachers unfamiliar with Waldorf, which was reflected in the lack of real substance in the lesson!!

…The grade twelve year had been even worse. The curriculum and the structure of the day were designed purely to meet the requirements of the (external) exam syllabus, in effect no different to any public school.

For myself, and a number of my classmates, the last few years were ‘empty’, lacking personal fulfillment.

Where thirty years ago no compromises were made with respect to the sacrosanct Steiner-Waldorf curriculum, now that same curriculum is being adapted and compromised so as to meet the requirements of one or another government syllabus (frequently to secure government funding). Steiner-Waldorf then gradually degenerates into just another educational methodology within the educational system, with subjects being taught by teachers with little or no knowledge of the deeper aspects of the subject, knowledge which can only be derived through the study of anthroposophy.

Together with a preponderance of classroom in-activities such as working with text books, worksheets and question papers, this becomes a matter of concern to some students, as eloquently expressed by a fourteen year old Steiner-Waldorf student:

The boredom and apathy that come from working on ‘worksheets’ and ‘question papers’, and from not being permitted to express or develop personal opinions through thoughtful conversation, is possibly more detrimental to the student’s development than teachers realize… Worksheets and question papers only increase self-consciousness and point out gaps in knowledge without giving each student the necessary support from either friends or teachers…Worksheets, far from encouraging learning and thinking, in actual fact restrict and trivialize the issues themselves and the knowledge which could be gained from cooperatively working on a subject. An educational philosophy which aspires to the promotion of the individuality of a student, can be expected to have strong reservations with regards to the inclusion of worksheets into its learning methodology.

As Eugene Schwartz writes (5):

This is a big problem … if there can’t be Waldorf schools somewhere that remain true to our principles, that don’t load young children up with homework; that don’t give them spelling quizzes when they’re young; that don’t give them tests after block studies, because the teacher can’t tell whether the children know anything or not: …then we’re in big trouble, and we might as well erase [the small stream of pure Waldorf] and just do what everybody else is doing.

Speaking with teachers at the Waldorf Schüle in Stuttgart, Rudolf Steiner(6) made the following observation:

…Head knowledge can give nothing that is of value for human inner life. And herein lies the reason why we fail to come into touch with the boys and girls who have reached this all-important moment in their lives, when they should be bringing the soul and spirit into reciprocal relationship with the bodily-physical side of their nature. How are we to find the right approach to these young people, at the hour when life itself is prompting them to try to bring their soul and spirit into connection with their physical nature?….


Quoting Karl Ege(7):

…With regard to the accelerating influence of scientific technology and academic sterility upon education, Rudolf Steiner pointed out, shortly before his death, that for the future of the new school movement it would be of great importance to turn the rudder 180 degrees in the direction of the artistic and the practical. …With this in mind, we realize how – in contrast to the emphasis which is put upon the academic – the artistic and handcraft activities are far too often carried on merely as supportive and enlivening factors. It could, however, be the other way around, that they would be the starting point, and that out of such creative, self-active and practical work the elements of knowledge and scientific understanding would be developed. …This would appear to be the change of direction indicated by Rudolf Steiner as a need for the future.

An integrated curriculum which incorporates both general learning and vocational or experiential learning is not a new concept. In the early 1900s, Europe and the US gave birth to a growing movement of progressive educationalists at a time when the tendency in educational circles was to focus more on intelligence testing, cost-management and a separation of ‘intellectual’ and ‘practical’ education. Several progressive educators, other than Dr. Steiner, emphasized the importance of an education which served not only the intellect, but one which also served the needs of the emotional, artistic and creative aspects of human development.

The foremost amongst these educators was John Dewey(8),who wrote:

…our present education…. appeals for the most part simply to the intellectual aspect of our natures, our desire to learn, to accumulate information, and to get control of the symbols of learning; not to our impulses and tendencies to make, to do, to create, to produce, whether in the form of utility or art. ……if we were to introduce into educational processes the activities which appeal to those whose dominant interest is to do and make, we should find the hold of the school upon its members to be more vital, more prolonged, containing more of culture. …..If our education is to have any meaning for life, it must pass through an equally complete transformation.

Learning, involving activity or ‘Experiential Learning’(9), should not be seen as an alternative learning method, but rather one which stands on a par with any general academic/intellectual approach. This was central to deliberations at the UNESCO 2nd International Congress on Technical and Vocational Education held in Seoul in 1999(c) :

…TVE (is seen) as the “poor relation” of general education and therefore it earns little respect. The pursuit of a long general curriculum has lead young people and their parents to believe that the only worthy path is that of general education and its coveted university diplomas. Vocational education and training, seen as the refuge of those who are not smart enough for general education, is undervalued…

Education can be a very isolationistic experience for students, when what they experience in their ‘everyday lives’ does not find its mirror image within the domain of the classroom and school, and vice versa. It is important that subjects are not taught in isolation from the ‘real world’, in isolation from life, but rather that that which is taught has meaning and relevance to life.

So one question could be:

How can subjects be presented in a manner which enables all students to see their relevance to life-outside-of-school?

And a second question may ask:

How can such subjects be actively supported by a wider community than that of the class and school?

We live in an era where the interaction between school, family and community no longer exist in the forms which they did from the 19th until the mid-20th Century. As John Kretzman and John McKnight(10) observe:

Schools have tended to distance themselves from their local communities. The vital links between experience, work, and education have been weakened. As a result, schools in many urban and rural communities have lost their power as a valuable community resource.

A newcomer to the progressive schooling movement is an educational approach known as ‘place-based’ education which is generally applicable to primary and middle students and ‘community based’ education for high school students and beyond.. The main characteristics about the ‘place-based’ approach is that it first and foremost sets out to involve the students in connecting with family, community and the local region by extending the classroom out into the community. At the same time, students are afforded the opportunity for developing and experiencing hands-on, real-life experiences. Learning is centered around authentic activities which correspond directly with tasks and life in the community, and which have an evident relationship with workplaces of today and the future. This approach enables the student to far more easily see that what he/she is engaged in has a relevance to his/her own world. It is also an educational tool that is becoming increasingly popular in primary education, especially in rural communities. However, there is ample opportunity for middle and high school classes to engage in such experiential learning programs.

Place-based education is inherently multidisciplinary, incorporating integration of the core curricula activities such as humanities, social studies, sciences, mathematics, arts and physical health. This naturally requires the involvement of teachers in bridging various disciplines, as well as giving every opportunity to call upon the wider community for work-place resources and input. As the name would imply, the content is generally specific to the sociology, geography and ecology of that particular place.

Such an approach to education not only enables the student to connect with the world in a natural manner, but also to see the relevance of what they are learning, at the same time allowing them to develop an interest in and a concern for their environment, and to become contributing citizens.

The primary value of placed-based education lies in the way that it serves to strengthen students’ connections to others and to the regions in which they live. It enhances achievement, but, more importantly, it helps overcome the alienation and isolation of individuals that have become hallmarks of modernity. (Gregory Smith) (11)

Place-based education does not necessarily mean ‘environmental education’, although it has been referred to as ‘ecological education’ or ‘community-orientated education’. I tend to believe that this approach to learning is compatible with the Steiner-Waldorf approach, in that rather than having as its goal the graduation of young people who are able to function and work in our modern highly technological and consumer orientated society, the aim is instead to prepare young people to so live and work within society that their efforts will go towards sustaining the cultural heritage and ecological integrity of the region in which they lead their lives. Such an approach to education could be conceivably referred to as ‘sustainable education’.

At the UN World Summit for Sustainable Development held in 2002, it was announced that 2005 – 2014 would be the decade of ‘Education for Sustainable Development’. UNESCO sums up the ideals as follows(d):

…This represents a new vision of education, a vision that helps people of all ages better understand the world in which they live, addressing….problems such as poverty, wasteful consumption, environmental degradation, urban decay, (etc)…This vision of education emphasizes a holistic, interdisciplinary approach to developing the knowledge and skills needed for a sustainable future, as well as changes in values, behavior, and lifestyles. This requires us to orientate education systems, policies and practices in order to empower everyone, young or old, to make decisions and act in culturally appropriate and locally relevant ways to redress the problems that threaten our common future. In this way, people of all ages can become empowered to develop and evaluate alternative visions of a sustainable future and to fulfill these visions through working creatively with others.

These ideals are definitely not foreign to Steiner-Waldorf education, for some of the ideals are already very apparent in the early to middle years of the primary school curriculum, but can become increasingly lost in the later years where teaching becomes rather ‘desk, text-book and question paper’ orientated, resulting in a loss of true human interaction.

Students need to be given the opportunity to explore the World, to see the World and to become actively and intimately involved with their immediate communities and the learning process, and at the same time, being given every opportunity to reflect on their discoveries and the processes involved. The task of any teacher is to create an environment, for students of any age, which both supports and enhances their ability to learn. Whereas in the primary school, much of the instruction was ‘teacher-centered’, in the upper/high school this will necessitate a conscious shift to a more ‘student-centered’ learning style. With student-centered teaching, it is not a matter of giving the students information, facts and figures which need mastering, but rather that students be posed the questions which need to be answered.

…questions that matter, questions that students sincerely wonder about or at least those that teachers believe students wonder about once they’re posed. These are the questions which can drive exploration and learning. (Alfie Kohn) (12)

As Christopher Clouder and Martyn Rawson write(13):

…What we can impart,….is an attitude to knowledge and learning which enhances and generates genuine enthusiasm for our social and natural environment – a form of ‘moral ecology’. Life-long learning is not only a question of accumulating knowledge but is based on the ability to learn from experience…

This supports the thoughts put forward by Rudolf Steiner(14):

…The other aspect of the social pedagogical question is to prepare people to learn from life. We do not fare well in life if we view it as a rigid and foreign object. We can place ourselves correctly in life only when every moment, every day, every week, every year becomes a source of learning for our future development. Regardless of how far we go in our schooling, we will have accomplished the most if, through this schooling, we have learned how to learn from life…

Over the years UNESCO has conducted numerous studies into the effectiveness of Lifelong Education, incorporating technical and vocational learning. At the eighteenth session of the UNESCO General Conference in 1974, revised recommendations with respect to Technical and Vocational Education were adopted. Paragraph 8 of those recommendations states

In terms of the needs and aspirations of individuals, technical and vocational education should:

a) permit the harmonious development of personality and character and foster the spiritual and human values, the capacity for understanding, judgment, critical thinking and self-expression;

(b) prepare the individual to learn continuously by developing the necessary mental tools, practical skills and attitudes;

(c) develop capacities for decision-making and the qualities necessary for active and intelligent participation, teamwork and leadership at work and in the community as a whole.

As mentioned previously, vocational/experiential learning, however one wishes to label it, is not a new idea in Steiner-Waldorf circles, for we need only to look at the Hibernia Schüle in Germany which was the focus of one of UNESCO’s most thorough investigations in relation to Lifelong Learning and the effectiveness of integration of different disciplines of education. To quote from the ‘forward’ to the report(15) :

The Hibernia School attracted the attention of the Institute (UNESCO) by the exemplary way in which three major components of the curriculum, i.e. artistic, practical and academic education, are articulated. From the very first grade up to grade 13 these three major areas are given almost equal emphasis, with the result that, at the end of their time at school, every pupil is potentially qualified to enter either university or skilled technical employment.

A recent UK education department research document entitled ‘14 – 19 Reform’ (Feb. 2004) proposes greater flexibility in learning for the 14 – 19 age group, where the emphasis will be on more experiential learning components and ‘modern apprenticeships’. This could prove to be of significant interest for teachers in UK Steiner-Waldorf high schools.(e)


The education of Head (academic), Heart (artistic) and Hands (practical) is central to Steiner-Waldorf educational philosophy, and has its reflection in the philosophies of late 20th Century educational thinkers such as Paolo Freire and Jack Mezirow who maintain that how we process what we have experienced, dictates the degree to which we achieve real learning. They describe a sequence of learning events beginning with ‘experience’ which is followed by ‘reflection’ and finally culminates in ‘action’.

David Kolb(9) describes learning as a four-part process, with (1) being observation, (2) thinking, (3) feeling and (4) doing. As learners, Kolb believes that we integrate what we sense and think, with our feelings and actions.

In experiential learning, teachers and students together agree on an authentic program or project which is best suited to the learner’s interests and abilities, leaving open possibilities for working in collaboration with other students.

Any such program/project is designed to fully engage the student in initiative taking, decision making, assuming responsibility and accountability, expectations which are of course only expected when individual students have reached an appropriate stage of intellectual development, which would not generally be before grade nine. Such demands also require that the student in wholly engaged in the program/project with all the three faculties of thinking, feeling and willing.

Programs and projects should be authentic in that they reflect or correspond to real-life experiences or needs in the home, work-place or wider community The role of the teacher is to facilitate the learning experience, support the student in all aspects of the process and to ensure that the student achieves the greatest benefit from the experiences. The process would be enhanced with active collaboration not only with teachers and peers, but also with family and mentors in the community. The design of such programs/projects will inevitably require the teacher to work individually with numerous students, which in itself demands considerable commitment from the teacher.

When experiential education is combined with place-based learning, then real-life opportunities arise for working with the community or with-in the community, such as in community-based service programs/projects which may incorporate developing work-place skills, involvement in community service or pursuing work experience opportunities within the student’s particular sphere of interests. Programs/projects can also complement subject courses in the sciences, mathematics, sociology/anthropology, environmental studies, design and technology, to enumerate but a few.

A non-Steiner-Waldorf student writes:

In my community experience, I went from learning what something is, to applying it to real life. I learned why I need to know the things that I learned in math class. I had a chance to work with some neat people who let me try out things for myself. The mentor really seemed to care about me as a person, and I had fun.

Apart from the excellent work of the Hiram Trust (UK) mentioned earlier, positive action has been taken by the Rudolf Steiner School of South Devon (UK)(f) in establishing an ‘experiential learning’ program, as teacher Jenny Milne describes in a recent article(16):

…New projects are devised each year…These projects arise out of the needs of the school or directly from the curriculum, or both. The criteria are: ‘Is it needed?’ ‘Is it real, worthwhile work?’ ‘Will the children learn something of value?’ ‘Has it a social/cultural purpose?’ But ‘Can we do it?’ comes a long way down the list…

Ms Milne also gives a brief overview of some of the activities with which the students have been involved:

…class six Romans have had a taste of drain-digging and road-building, class seven mechanics have made and repaired shave-horses and pole-lathes, a class eight experienced their own industrial revolution when expected to process the flax crop that they had grown!…


The transition from class teacher in the grade school to class guardian in the high school, varies from continent to continent, often as a direct result of government legislation regarding education and which grade constitutes the start of high school.

In the UK, North America and New Zealand, high school generally commences at the end of grade eight, whilst in Australia class seven marks the beginning of high school, even though the Steiner-Waldorf class teacher may remain with the class through until the end of class eight.

Then there are the variations to be found in numerous Steiner-Waldorf schools around the world, some voluntarily making a change to class guardian at the end of grade six and using the next two years as a ‘transitional’ period. Much debate continues to take place in Steiner-Waldorf faculties on the whole question of whether or not the class teacher should finish at the end of grade seven or eight(17).

If a program with greater emphasis on experiential learning were to be introduced into the high school, perhaps commencing with grade seven; teachers would need to engage in some serious flexible lateral thinking in order to break free of the conventions which have become established within the Steiner-Waldorf classroom over many decades.

All teachers would require an intimate knowledge of and understanding for, the interrelationship of the different subject areas so as to develop a truly integrated Steiner-Waldorf curriculum. Such familiarity with the curriculum would allow for experiential components to be incorporated across a broad range of subjects.

In considering any options for practical activities, it may be wise to firstly consider those which can be managed within the context of the class group and school. Other options can be listed which would require the assistance of adults other than teachers, perhaps initially from within the school parent community, with the possibility of extending the opportunities for active mentorship from appropriate individuals within the wider community. There are always numerous retirees who are frequently willing and importantly, also available, to share their knowledge with the younger generation.

If contemplating the implementation of any curriculum change or innovation, first and foremost in our minds must be the needs of the young people in our care. Does the curriculum, but perhaps more importantly does the methodology practiced in implementing the curriculum, recognize and complement the developmental stages of a child’s development?

Towards the end of the primary school years, we see a marked change in a child’s relationship to the world. From being a trusting, receptive children of the early years, we now meet students who are beginning to question the authority of parents and teachers, and who are showing a greater interest in the wider world and how it relates to ‘who’ they are. There is an unfolding desire to participate in life. However, teachers and parents, should take care not to awaken too early the intellectual powers needed for thinking and the formation of reasoned judgments. These powers (which Steiner calls the ‘astral’ forces) needed to develop intellectual thought, are still actively at work within the pre-pubescent child up until the fourteenth or fifteenth year.

It is only after this time, that these forces will be ‘released’ for intellectual development. There will be a gradual unfolding of the ability to form ‘real’ judgments and therefore, any experiential or hands-on learning in grade seven will need to recognize the still developing intellect of the young adolescent. As mentioned earlier, it is only towards grade nine that students begin to seek answers to the inner questions of identity and responsibility towards the community, and the world at large.

For this reason, individual work which requires significant decision making on the part of the student, is best saved for the grade eight graduation projects at the earliest, when students are in their fifteenth year. Cooperative team-work on ‘group projects’ where students are able to collaborate, should be actively pursued in grade seven. Teachers and mentors will still, at this stage, have significant input into any undertakings, especially in the areas of guidance, encouragement and final decision making!.

Rudolf Steiner(18) made his thoughts very clear when he said:

…During the ages from fifteen to twenty everything to do with agriculture, trade, industry, commerce will have to be learned. No one should go through these years without acquiring some idea of what takes place in farming, commerce and industry. These subjects will be given a place as branches of knowledge infinitely more necessary than much of the rubbish which constitutes the present (Ed. public school) curriculum during these years.

An Experiential/Sustainable educational model can be of great benefit to all participants: students, teachers, parents and the community. Enthusiastic youngsters filled with active ‘life forces’, who are challenged by formality and sedentary activities of the classroom, will find renewed enthusiasm for learning if given the opportunity to actively involve themselves in the learning process, rather than just passively listening to, and hopefully retaining, something of what is proffered to them!!

Schools and teachers have the opportunity to enliven the Steiner-Waldorf curriculum and to focus more on the arts, crafts and practical hands-on experiential syllabus in the high school. Art is well integrated into most lessons, but there is a need for practical orientated activities to also become a ‘norm’ in the lessons. I do not subscribe to the idea that all practical activities should be limited to those of a ‘craft’ nature. We live in the 21st century and all of us utilize the wonderful technology which this age offers us. It follows that older students also need to have the opportunity to work with the current tools used in modern industry and commerce, which of necessity include access to computer technology and other forms of electronic equipment, all of which are an integral part of the lives of teachers, parents and students.

Enlivening the Curriculum’ as discussed on the previous pages, will only enhance the wholistic, broad-based curriculum which is already offered by Steiner-Waldorf schools and teachers. The developmental needs of the maturing student would be better catered for and results of such experiential education has shown beyond doubt, in other educational sectors, that student’s application and participation in the entire learning process, has been considerably influence for the better by the change in teaching techniques. Other benefits are also apparent such as the resultant positive effect which this active learning has upon the social interaction and general behavior of adolescent youth,.

There is absolutely no reason for losing any of the high quality content of the vast subject areas covered in the Steiner-Waldorf curriculum. Incorporating more ‘Will’ activity into lessons where students feel that they are an active participant in the learning process, will only add to what is already a rich experience for all concerned. Maybe restlessness and inattentiveness in the classroom will become a fading memory!! All very good reasons for introducing such methodology into Steiner-Waldorf schools!! Maybe it is time to make paper aeroplanes out of worksheets and questions papers, and to recycle the text-books and teach the creative art of paper making instead!!!

Today we must learn to let people participate in life; and if we organize education so that people are able to participate in life, at the same time setting to work on education economically, you will find that we are really able to help human beings to form a living culture. This, too, will enable anyone with an inclination towards handicraft to take advantage of the education for life that begins about the fourteenth year… Rudolf Steiner (18)


We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

(Four Quartets)


Experiential Activities

Grade Seven – a few suggestions:

Integrated subjects

(not directly related to subject areas in left hand column)

Woodwork – integrated with:

Industrial Revolution

make wooden ‘spindles’ for spinning wool

Design & Technology make simple wooden spinning wheel
Physics (mechanics) make (small) weaving frames (looms)
Physics (acoustics) lyre making (pentatonic)
Mathematics (measurement) make moveable wooden toys
Ecology (timber)

Crafts – integrated with:

Industrial Revolution shear a sheep
Design & Technology carding wool and spinning
Biology (botany) collect plants for dying wool
Chemistry dying
Physics (mechanics) make simple weaving loom for Grades one/two
simple weaving

Horticulture – integrated with:

Environmental studies soil testing (alkaline/acid)
Chemistry (combustion) tree propagation/grafting/pruning
Biology (botany) organic gardening: composts
Health & Hygiene cultivation of culinary herbs (and their uses)
English (biographies – Rachel Carson or others) water quality

Marine – integrated with:

Health & Hygiene (Phys. Ed.) swimming/snorkeling
Wood/Metalwork boat maintenance
Physics (mechanics) conservation of marine species
Biology (marine) seaweed and its uses
Environmental studies

Information Technology – integrated with:

Physics (electricity) solar power
Environmental studies wind power

Industrial Technology – integrated with:

Physics (mechanics) bicycle maintenance
Chemistry (combustion) ‘lye’ and soap manufacture

Grade Eight – a few suggestions:

Integrated subjects

(not directly related to subject areas in left hand column)

Woodwork – integrated with:

Ecology (timber) make a ‘green pole’ lathe
Design & Technology make a more complicated loom
Physics (mechanics) make a simple spinning wheel
Math (measurement) joinery – learn basic joints/ make useful items
make wooden desks

Crafts – integrated with:

Design & Technology clothing design and manufacture
Biology (botany) collect willow
Metallurgy make willow baskets
copper beating

Horticulture – integrated with:

Environmental studies soil  testing (alkaline/acid)
Chemistry (food chemistry) food testing (sugars etc.)
Chemistry production of bio-fuel
Biology (botany) cultivation of nutritional foods
Health & Hygiene native foods
Horticulture cultivate medical herb garden

Marine – integrated with:

Health & Hygiene (phys. ed.) swimming/snorkeling
Environment conservation of marine species
Biology (marine) seaweed and its uses

Environment – integrated with:

Climatology build and run a weather station
Health & Hygiene research/make a healthy ‘sunscreen’ cream/lotion
Environment stream/water watch program
Ecology water recycling – use of ‘grey’ water
Biology (botany) design and construct a water ‘flow form’
Physics (mechanics) install a water driven pump
build a ‘frog’ pond to conserve species
conserve native plant species

Information Technology – integrated with:

 Physics (electricity) solar power:
Environment wind power: communication system (phone)

Industrial Technology – integrated with:

Physics (mechanics) convert a diesel engine to run on bio-fuel
Environment design and build a small wind generator to produce enough electricity to charge a battery

In addition and beyond class eight

The preceding lists are definitely not definitive in content. There are many more areas of practical, hands-on opportunities which lend themselves to experiential learning.

In class eight these could include the end of year class play, often traditionally a Shakespeare production. Whatever the choice, it opens up a myriad opportunities for student participation in overall production, from costume and set design; stage lighting; sound engineering; advertising; treasurer; catering for guests; etc.

Grade eight ‘individual’ projects where students are required to complete a project outside of school. One criteria being that they acquire a ‘new’ skill and work with a mentor (other than a parent!!).

In class eight and beyond there is every opportunity for developing skills in ‘public speaking’, commencing with the class eight project presentations to parents and guests


In the social sphere, students could undertake practical tasks within the school and wider communities, e.g. working with the aged – making music; reading; shopping; gardening, etc. Working with ‘children’s groups’ e.g. sports clubs, etc.

Charitable work – involvement with a specific charity for the year with an aim to raise a specific amount of money from class/school efforts. Preferably through truly practical efforts and not via the standard ‘re-sell’ of bought items, such as pizzas, biscuits and chocolates!! Requires the development of organizational and business skills.

Think and act ‘globally’ – especially in grade nine.

Work with community based organizations in restoring native habitat or to transform derelict land into community recreation area.

Business Management

Manage a small business enterprise as in the manufacture and sale of items for charitable purposes.

Grow and sell market produce.

Develop computer technology skills and set-up computer repair business.

Set-up a recycling enterprise.

Many of the above receive government support and encouragement in Australia under the ‘Commonwealth’s Enterprise and Career Education Program’ (2002)(g)


It would be impossible to give a comprehensive list of all the possibilities which are just waiting for teachers to discover and implement with their students.



Reference Sources

1. ‘Millennial Child – Transforming Education in the Twenty-first Century’, Eugene Schwartz (1999)

2. ‘A Path of Discovery’,  Eric K.Fairman
Resource Material for Steiner-Waldorf Grade School Teachers, Vols. 1 – 8/Grades 1 – 8

3. ‘Educating through Arts and Crafts’ (1999), edited by Martyn Rawson

4. ‘Conferences with the Teachers of the Waldorf School in Stuttgart’ (1919-1920), Rudolf Steiner

5. ‘The Changing Face of Waldorf Education’,  Eugene Schwartz

6. ‘Supplementary Course – The Upper School’ (1921),  Rudolf Steiner

7. ‘An Evident Need of our Times’ (1979), Karl Ege

8. ‘The School and Society’ (1915), John Dewey

9. ‘Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development’ (1984), David Kolb

10. ‘Building Communities from the Inside Out’ (1993), John Kretzman and John McKnight

11. ‘Place-based Education: Learning to Be Where We Are’ (2002), Gregory Smith

12. ‘The Schools Our Children Deserve – Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and ‘Tougher Standards’’ (1999), Alfie Kohn

13. ‘Waldorf Education’ (1998), Christopher Clouder, Martyn Rawson

14. ‘The Spirit of the Waldorf School’ – Rudolf Steiner
Lectures surrounding the Founding Of the First Waldorf School, Stuttgart – 1919 (1920)

15. ‘Integrating Vocational and General Education: A Rudolf Steiner School’ (UNESCO 1979), Georg Rist, Peter Schneider

16. ‘But When Do They Do Their Lessons?’, Jenny Milne
article in: Steiner Education Vol 36 # 1, ‘Experiential Learning

17. ‘Did Rudolf Steiner Want a Seven-Grade Elementary School Configuration?’, Mark Riccio
(‘Renewal’ 2002. Vol.7/#1)

18. ‘The Social Basis of Education’ (1919), Rudolf Steiner
(Three lectures)

WWW Links:

a. Hiram Trust: www.anth.org.uk/hiramtrust

b. Waldorf College Project: www.waldorf-college-project.org.uk

c. UNESCO (Seoul) Conference: www.unesco.org/bpi/seoul/ve-intro.htm

d. UNESCO – Education for SustainableDevelopment: http://portal.unesco.org/education/en/ev.php-URL_ID=27234&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html

e. DfES (UK) – 14 – 19 Reform (Tomlinson report) 17. Feb. 2004: www.14-19reform.gov.uk

f. Rudolf Steiner School of South Devon: www.steiner-south-devon.org

g. The Enterprising School: www.curriculum.edu.au

© 2023 Donna Simmons

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