‘The need for imagination, a sense of truth and a feeling of responsibility – these are the three forces which are the very nerve of education’ – Rudolf Steiner.
Rudolf Steiner founded the first Rudolf Steiner school back in 1919, as a way of educating the children of employees at the Waldorf factory. These schools are sometimes referred to as Waldorf schools after that first factory school. In a time when mainstream schooling focused on reading, writing and maths, Rudolf Steiner believed schools should educate the whole child, not just the intellect.
Steiner wanted to create schools that had realistic expectations of children’s abilities. Steiner believed there were three distinct stages of child development and he created a type of school that honored them.
You can find out more about Steiner’s approach to education at Steiner School | Three Stages Of A Steiner Education.
The benefits of a Steiner school education
If you ever meet parents who have children in a Waldorf school, they will probably rave about their education and the Waldorf curriculum. The schools’ tight-knit communities seem to create a love of learning for both children and parents alike.
Here are just some of the things the parents of Steiner-educated children love:
One of the benefits of a Steiner education is the amount of time children spend with the same teacher. Unlike mainstream education, where children move year groups each year, Steiner classes cater to mixed age groups. This means children stay in a class for a number of years, allowing them to develop a strong bond with their Waldorf teacher. The same is true for parents; they are able to get to know their child’s teachers better as they are a part of the family’s life for longer.
This long-term relationship also allows the teachers to get to know their pupils on a deeper level. Waldorf education teachers know more about their students’ history; they understand their strengths and weaknesses and how to bring out the best in the kids they teach.
Unlike most mainstream schools that separate children into different academic years, Rudolf Steiner schools rely on mixed-age classes. There are plenty of benefits. First, students at the Waldorf school learn to get on with children of various ages, not just those in the same academic year. Second, the mixed-age classes allow for a supportive learning environment.
It’s common for the older pupils at Steiner Waldorf schools to help the younger ones learn; this, in turn, consolidates the learning of the older students. Finally, through spending large amounts of time together in class, groups of mixed-age children form a strong community at their Waldorf school. These schools teach children to respect others, improve their social skills, and learn to value individuals.
Steiner Waldorf education centers are not a mainstream option, which means they’re not oversubscribed or packed to the rafters. Instead, classes at Rudolf Steiner schools are usually on the smaller side. In an overcrowded classroom, teachers spend a lot of time doing crowd control but, in a smaller group, teachers are able to focus on teaching.
In a Rudolf Steiner school, where children direct their own learning, the small class size is even more valuable. Teachers act as facilitators, encouraging a creative learning environment. A smaller class size gives students more time with the teacher, allowing them to benefit from the teacher’s guidance, knowledge and experience and experience deep learning. Small class sizes also allow the children in the classes to develop strong bonds with their classmates
In a Waldorf education, children won’t start formal learning until the age of 7. Before then, they’ll be in Kindergarten. Kindergarten is a play-focused, fun space for kids to enjoy their childhood. During these early years, while their counterparts in mainstream schools are learning academic subjects, such as reading and writing, children in Steiner schools can focus on play .
The Steiner Waldorf education Kindergarten is designed to be a home from home for the children; it’s somewhere they feel safe and nurtured. Children can participate in a number of activities, such as painting, baking bread and sewing, if they wish. There is no pressure to take part in activities, because Steiner teachers see the value in free play.
One study found that unstructured free play, when combined with well-being activities – which make up a large part of the holistic education in Steiner schools – helps maintain good mental health.
You can read the study Effects of an Unstructured Free Play and Mindfulness Intervention on Wellbeing in Kindergarten Students, to find out more.
Focus on the whole child
Although mainstream schools claim to develop the whole child, in reality, much of the focus is on academics. Existing within the mainstream school system, with its standardized tests, schools are forced to focus on academics. Arts, physical education and music might be slotted in but they aren’t the main focus of the school. The Waldorf school system exists outside of the mainstream school system and is therefore free to teach differently.
Steiner schools see physical movement, artistic expression, music and creativity as integral to learning. Not only are these subjects a part of daily life but they are also used to learn about all kinds of topics. Steiner students are taught to express themselves creatively from a young age; value is placed upon creativity and children are given plenty of opportunities to develop these skills.
Help children to grow into citizens
Rudolf Steiner wanted to educate children to grow into helpful, engaged citizens of the world. This is a practice that continues today, as Steiner schools focus on engaging children with the wider world. Each individual school has its own way of helping children to grow into adults who will participate in, and improve, society. For example, lots of time is spent in nature, to make sure children grow up feeling connected to the outside world. It is hoped that this love of nature will encourage children to protect the planet for years to come.
One of the best things about a Steiner-Waldorf education is that learning is self-directed. Children aren’t left behind; instead, they are in control of the pace at which they learn. It’s accepted that all children learn at a different pace, so no pressure is put on them to hurry their learning. Instead, Waldorf teachers find ways to engage children with learning by encouraging them to pursue their interests.
Mainstream schools are often compared with conveyor belts or factories that pump out carbon copies of children, one after the other. Children who do not fit into that standard model risk being left behind; they struggle to keep up and disengage from their education.
Thanks to the smaller class sizes and focus on self-directed learning, children are not expected to fit a standard model at a Steiner academy. Waldorf educators value each individual. Whether your children are ‘square pegs’ or ’round pegs’ there are no holes to fit into; your children’s education can take any form they wish.
Learning is fun
Mainstream schools have fun lessons, too. Many mainstream teachers are good at finding ways to make lessons enjoyable but they do this in spite of the system. At a Steiner school, the classroom is a fun place to be because fun, creativity and childhood are encouraged. Children aren’t expected to sit still, be quiet or copy from the board. Instead, a Waldorf education promotes movement, interactions and practical learning. A Steiner classroom is usually bustling with life as small groups work on projects. Steiner teachers know that learning happens when children are free to play, so they don’t have the same focus on order and silence, as many mainstream schools do.
A lifelong love of learning
The aim of a Steiner-Waldorf education is not to teach children how to pass an exam but how to fill their lives with learning and curiosity. Steiner schools aim to instill a love of learning that will stay with your children throughout life. They will be able to deep dive into subjects that interest them, learn invaluable research and analytical skills and become expert in anything they set their minds to.
Children are not expected to sit for hours on end and learn about things they have no interest in. Not only does this stop them from becoming bored or disliking school, but it also nurtures their innate curiosity and love of learning. School isn’t boring if you’re passionate about the subjects you’re studying.
Stress-free learning environment
Modern children are growing up in times of stress. Much as we hate to admit it, many of our homes are high-stress environments. As parents try to juggle work demands, societal expectations, money worries, screen addiction and other demands, stress seeps into the family home.
Mainstream schools are also high-pressure environments. Their focus is placed on testing, exam results and academic achievements. Children are often expected to look forward to the next exam rather than simply to enjoy learning.
Steiner schools are a breath of fresh air in modern life. Not only do they completely eschew academic pressure, they also offer children a safe and nurturing environment. Children are cocooned in a supportive environment that exists to protect their childhood and nurture their love of learning.
Day-to-day learning is a hands-on affair at a Waldorf school. Children are encouraged to learn by doing and interacting, not by copying from a board. Children learn problem-solving skills to overcome any learning difficulties they might be having. Learning is often sensory-based and relies on the environment, natural materials and creativity. Children are free to explore their learning area and pick out different materials to aid their learning. Teachers value this hands-on aspect of learning; they encourage children to think outside the box and try out new ideas where necessary.
In a Steiner school education, parental involvement is a must. Although a Waldorf education happens at school, you will need to uphold the same values at home. Parents are expected to adopt a similar approach, giving their children autonomy and supporting their learning journey. This might mean putting as much focus on fine and practical arts as you do on academic achievements, even though all your mainstream friends are focused on their children’s academic achievements. Thanks to your child having the same class teacher for years, it is easier to build a good relationship and be able to support your child better at home.
Low-tech learning environment
Steiner Waldorf schools don’t rely heavily on technology. Instead, they focus on hands-on learning with natural materials. In the younger years at a Rudolf Steiner school, children won’t use any technology but, in the upper school, older pupils will be taught to navigate the online world safely. Although you might worry about your child being left behind in a high-tech world, in fact, the children learn technology perfectly well, even if they come to it later. And there are plenty of benefits to delaying the introduction of screens and technology until their upper school years.
Formal learning when your child is ready
In mainstream schools, work on reading and writing starts from day one. There is a sharp focus on the importance of learning these two skills, even before children are developmentally ready. It risks turning these subjects into a chore – something children learn to dread. In Waldorf schools, these skills are taught much later. This means children are developmentally ready by the time formal learning begins.
If children show interest before then, they will be supported in their learning quest. However, children will not be forced to learn until they are engaged and want to learn. Instead of sitting children down to practise writing, Waldorf schools encourage them to climb trees, knit, or bake bread, to learn the motor skills and coordination necessary for writing.
A like-minded Waldorf community
One of the best things about a Waldorf education is being part of a like-minded community. The other parents at the school will most likely value the same things you do: childhood, autonomy and a love of learning. Your children will make friends with children from other families who strongly believe in a Steiner education and have chosen this lifestyle for their children. These families will share your love of nature, respect your screen limits, and support your family’s focus on the arts. It is affirming to be part of a community that values the same things as you do; you and your children will benefit from it.