Waldorf 101

 This page is for all you new folks, who’ve maybe heard of Waldorf but don’t really know what it is or who’ve stumbled upon this site and haven’t even heard of Waldorf education.


Click here for a short biographical essay on Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education and of Anthroposophy.

Rudolf Steiner in 1919

Rudolf Steiner in 1919

The following is a distillation of some of the characteristics of Waldorf education. The list is far from complete. Compiling it has not been straightforward because Waldorf education is not a series of do’s and don’ts. It is a process, a living tradition based on a particular understanding of child development. Additionally, Waldorf education has been primarily developed in a school setting and many of the hallmarks of Waldorf education only apply in schools. Nevertheless, we have given it our best shot, and the following should give you a very basic understanding of what Waldorf education is about. Please refer to the articles highlighted at the bottom of the page for more information.

Under 7s: Learning is based on imitation; the imagination is nourished by the use of simple natural materials and playthings, creative play, no premature intellectual development. There is no ‘teaching’ at this stage, but the children’s capacities are enhanced by listening to stories, painting and making crafts, singing and celebrating seasonal festivals.

7 – 14: An artistic, imaginative approach is taken to all lessons – thrilling tales of adventure in history, true hands-on learning, children creating artistic representations of what they learn. First Graders are introduced to academic work gradually, and always with activity preceding ‘head work’. For instance, the children learn to write first, copying letters and, later on, words into Main Lesson books. Reading follows writing and it is the children’s own writing which serves as their text.

14 and up: The focus is on rigorous intellectual content (but never neglecting the artistic). Lessons are taught by specialist subject teachers.

An almost ‘Renaissance’ education: a true liberal-arts education where all children take all subjects and do not work only on areas in which they excel.

  • Aiming to produce independent thinking individuals who can navigate any field they come across, not narrow specialists who know nothing of life outside their specialty.
  • Holistic in approach to learning – arts, humanities and sciences are viewed as interwoven with one another, not separate fields.
  • Emphasis on moral qualities such as truth, beauty and goodness which are not sermonized to the children but rather the children are surrounded by these qualities, in the way the classroom and school is built and cared for, in the actions of the adults around them, and in the content of the lessons.
  • Fairy tales, legends from many cultures, and tales of heroes and saints lay moral foundations for children.
  • There is a harmonious balance to each day’s lessons and to the seasonal arrangement of the curriculum. There is a time for activity (movement, clapping games, etc.), a time for taking in (listening to stories or lessons), and a time for artistic activity.
  • Each morning throughout Grades 1-12 starts with a two hour main lesson block. These blocks run for 3-6 weeks and are devoted to in-depth study of a topic from the curriculum. For example, 3rd graders have a main lesson on Farming, 5th graders have a main lesson on Botany, 8th graders have a main lesson on Chemistry, and 12th graders have a main lesson on Architecture.
  • During the main lesson, the children also spend time playing recorder, singing, doing a few mental math exercises, or whatever else the teacher feels is necessary to engage the children in their hearts, heads and hands.
  • Ideally, each 1st grade class starts with a teacher who will be their Class Teacher for the next 8 years. She or he teaches main lesson blocks as well as other subjects and is the children’s friend, guide, and main authority figure during their time in school.
  • In addition to their main lesson blocks, the children have lessons in foreign language (usually two), handwork, eurythmy (a form of movement), games, music, crafts/woodwork, and other subjects depending on grade level. They usually have weekly lessons in Math and English in the older elementary grades, in addition to the in-depth main lesson blocks on elements of these subjects.
  • Practical activity is seen as an essential part of learning. Children are always, if possible, allowed to experience material first, then create their own artistic impressions of it, and then discuss or otherwise intellectually grasp the subject. An example of this could be children walking patterns on the floor which represent a five-sided star, then copying that pattern into their main lesson books, then talking with their teacher about all the 5’s around them (fingers, starfish…).
  • There are no text books in Waldorf elementary schools and few in high schools. Lesson material is presented creatively and imaginatively to the students by the teacher, who uses no notes or books in his presentation. The students make their own textbooks, usually referred to as main lesson books, which contain stories, descriptions, experiments, poetry and verses, all beautifully illustrated. A book is made for each main lesson block. (For more on this please see our Unit Studies page and Homeschoolers’ Work.)
  • Electronic media such as television and computers – and especially hand-held electronic games – are viewed as detrimental to the healthy development of children, especially young children. Children need to learn from other people, as ‘learning’ involves much more than the mere conveying of information. Over the years, Waldorf teachers, as well as parents, have observed the negative impact of such machines on children. Televisions, tape recorders, and computers are not used in the Waldorf elementary schools. Computers are used in moderation in the High Schools.

Waldorf education was founded by the Austrian philosopher, scientist and spiritual teacher Rudolf Steiner. It is one of the so-called ‘daughter movements’ of the anthroposophy (or ‘spiritual science’) that Steiner worked to develop in the early part of the 20th Century (along with Biodynamic Agriculture, Anthroposophical Medicine, Curative Education for children with special needs, and various artistic expressions including the new art of movement, Eurythmy).

Sometimes the schools are known as Steiner schools, but more often are called Waldorf schools, after the first school – the Waldorfschule – founded in Stuttgart, Germany in 1919 for the children of the workers at the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory.

The schools spread throughout Europe and then to North America. Today there are over 1,000 Waldorf schools and kindergartens in countries as diverse as Mexico, South Africa, Canada, Italy, Estonia, Japan, Argentina, Australia, Israel, India, and Egypt.

Each school in each country is different and the particular cultural influences of the country or community surrounding the school are brought into the curriculum. Nevertheless, all Waldorf schools work with a specific understanding of child development, rooted in Anthroposophy. The original curriculum, developed in Germany in the 1920s still forms the basis for all Waldorf schools, but there has also been much growth and change as Waldorf schools respond to the different needs of modern children.

Each school is independent. The teachers within a school work together on the basis of consensus and without hierarchy. There are national associations of schools in different countries – such as the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America (AWSNA) and the UK Steiner-Waldorf Schools Fellowship.


© 2023 Donna Simmons

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