Waldorf education, also sometimes known as Steiner Education, is a specific approach to pedagogy that was developed by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in 1919. Emphasizing creativity, learning-by-doing, craft, storytelling and a focus on the natural world, Waldorf is one of the fastest growing alternative school systems in the world, and is, ironically, surging in popularity in high-tech communities like Silicon Valley, as described in this New York Times article from 2011.
Rudolf Steiner believed that human development goes through very specific stages, and that in the first stage of early childhood (birth to age seven, when children lose their baby teeth), children learn best through play, exploration and imitation. Waldorf education heavily emphasizes maintaining natural daily and seasonal rhythms. Classroom activities typically involve baking, cooking, knitting, painting, telling stories, music, tending plants and playing outdoors, as well as cleaning, sweeping, washing dishes and other household ‘chores.’ Classroom toys and play structures are simple, unstructured, and made only from natural materials such as wood, silk and wool.
Waldorf is decidedly anti-plastic, anti-electronics and anti-screens (television, computers, phones, etc), so if your iPad is your toddler’s best friend – this is probably not the school for you.
While Waldorf schools aren’t specifically activist in their approach to environmentalism, everything about the Waldorf structure is organic and focused on our connection as human beings to the natural world. Children spend time outdoors every day, and all play materials, classroom decor, festivities, food and stories told in the classroom revolve around the changing seasons. Children in Waldorf schools learn how to do and make things for themselves (food, toys, stories) and I believe this pioneering DIY ethos is crucial in developing resourcefulness, competence, and critical thinking in young children.
The foods cooked and eaten in Waldorf schools are generally all simple, unprocessed, whole foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables and grains, and the Waldorf toys also mirror this focus on the simple, pure and wholesome.
Treehouses (made from whole logs), unpainted wooden arches that can become jungle gyms, seesaws or boats depending on how you orient them, knit critters without faces or details, silk scarves that can make capes, dresses or can help build a house are all common items a parent will find in a Waldorf early-education program. Waldorf toys are designed to foster creativity and multiple ways of play, with the soothing and not-over-stimulating aesthetics of muted colors and natural textures.
My 4 year-old son is in a Waldorf ‘kindergarten’ right now, and the structure of each day is generally the same: he arrives in school, enjoys some unstructured play time at the beginning of the day, then helps to bake bread, grind grains or chop vegetables with the other kids and teachers. The kids then set the table and sit to eat the snack they made, then clean up and wash dishes. Then they go outside to the garden, where they plant seeds, watch the turtles and fish in the ponds, and play in the treehouse. After the garden they come back inside, have some quiet time, then engage in arts and crafts projects (painting, felting, knitting) and then close the day with a story, puppet show or song. I personally love my son’s school and I know that the peaceful, nourishing environment of his classroom has been really good for his development.
Despite the fact that Waldorf schools don’t teach reading and writing until age seven, I’m not worried about the fact that Waldorf doesn’t emphasize academics in early childhood. I don’t believe 4 year-olds are ready for abstract, intellectual thought, but that developing the imagination, vocabulary, communication and creative-thinking skills at an early age is the best way to set the stage for the abstract thinking that begins to happen after age 6 and 7. More importantly, it’s been scientifically shown the surest way to squelch the joy out of learning is to focus on rote memorization, abstraction (flash cards? phonics?) and tests. So I believe the early childhood education programs that are too academic can actually do more harm than good to a child’s natural affinity for learning. My son is already showing an interest in letters and numbers, but I think the best approach to literacy and numeracy is to let it come naturally as part of a child’s developing interest in stories and communication.
All-in-all, I think Waldorf is a fantastic approach to early education and I would recommend it to anyone who feels comfortable detaching from technology for a small part of the day to tune in to life’s rhythms. Though it may seem counterintuitive, I’m not surprised that Waldorf education is so popular amongst the Silicon Vallery digerati. Despite the convenience and advances that digital technology has brought to modern life, I think many can agree that a life too dependent on technology is missing something.
By Jill Fehrenbacher, from Habitots, Green Education Series