If you’re starting to think ahead to your child’s education, you might be wondering what a Steiner, or Waldorf, education entails and why some parents rave about it. When considering schooling for your child, you have a number of options available to you. There is mainstream schooling, which is what most families choose for their children. However, you can also choose from Steiner education, Montessori education, homeschooling and unschooling.
In this article, we’re going to look at the basic principles of a Steiner School. Steiner schools are sometimes referred to as Waldorf schools because the first was set up to teach the workers’ children at the Waldorf Astoria Cigarette Factory. The first Steiner school opened in 1919 and there are now hundreds of Steiner education centers across the world.
What is a Steiner School or Waldorf School?
A Steiner education offers education for the whole child. This holistic education doesn’t simply focus on the child’s intellect or on academic subjects; instead, the education is designed to help in all areas of child development. A Steiner or Waldorf teacher looks for ways to inspire children to want to learn, harnessing the child’s in-built curiosity and following where the children lead. The Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship offers a creative learning environment in line with the child’s development.
The school’s founder, Rudolf Steiner, believed strongly in the importance of the arts and physical movement, so these were incorporated alongside academic disciplines. Compared with modern mainstream schools, which are seen as having an academically rigorous approach and are exam-focused and lacking in the arts, Steiner Waldorf schools offer a curriculum bursting with creativity and fun.
Children at Waldorf schools tend to spend much more time on fine and practical arts than their mainstream counterparts. Similarly, Waldorf students are encouraged to move their bodies regularly and be active rather than spend most of the day at their desks. Pupils in a Steiner Waldorf education center are encouraged to feel connected with nature and spend a great deal of time outdoors. Bush walking is a common feature in Australian Waldorf Schools, and a respectful relationship with nature is encouraged.
To provide a more meaningful teaching experience, Steiner teachers tend to teach using their knowledge and experience rather than relying on textbooks. Children often learn through doing rather than simply copying out information. The idea is to engage children fully in their learning so they develop a deeper understanding of each topic.
The three stages of child development according to Steiner
Dr Rudolf Steiner wanted his schools to prepare children for life and equip them to contribute positively to society. To achieve this, he thought it was important, when teaching, to take into account the child’s age and developmental stage.
Steiner believed that there were three main stages in child development, each lasting around seven years. Each stage focuses heavily on encouraging imagination, creativity and artistic expression, as well as teaching academic and practical skills.
A Waldorf school focuses on the developmental needs of the child at each stage.
The three stages are:
Formal schooling doesn’t start until the child is aged 7; before then, younger children spend time in Kindergarten. This nurturing home-like environment is perfect for early childhood and allows children to focus on play and hands-on activities, much like a mainstream nursery. The main difference is that Steiner pupils stay in this environment for much longer compared with their mainstream peers, who begin formal education earlier.
Kindergarten activities include role-playing, baking, drawing, story-telling, music, craft and gardening. Children have access to basic, unfinished toys that will spark their imagination at playtime.
You can learn more about the benefits of simple toys in our article Sick Of The Mess? Why You Should Re-Think Playtime Mess.
The focus is on developing the children’s imagination and allowing them to learn through play. They learn to sew, use tools and bake bread. Kindergarten is about building strong foundation skills that will aid their further education.
Children begin formal schooling at age 7 when they move to elementary school. It is common for Steiner pupils to have the same class teacher throughout their elementary school years, allowing them to develop a strong bond. All subjects are taught using creativity, story-telling and physical movement, where possible. Children spend time learning about poetry, giving speeches, playing games, performing plays and more.
During the elementary years, it’s common for children to learn a second language. Steiner pupils are taught to be active global citizens, so an understanding of the wider world is important. Topics such as literacy, numeracy and science are taught in blocks, allowing children to immerse themselves in the subject. The mixed ability approach allows children to work at their own level, with some getting deeper into subjects if their ability allows.
3. Secondary School
By high school age, children are ready for more complex concepts and analytical skills. In a Steiner Waldorf education, this upper school stage is about fostering idealism and embracing critical thinking. Children are encouraged to follow their interests and explore areas in more detail. This deep learning in middle school allows them to build on their existing knowledge. They might learn research skills, analysis, thesis writing and presentation skills. Allowing children to focus on their areas of interest allows them to enjoy learning. On this learning journey, they will further develop the skills they mastered in the elementary stage.
Criticisms of Steiner schools
Waldorf schools are usually fee-paying schools, and this means many children miss out on this type of education. However, many schools offer reduced fees for families who need them, so it’s worth contacting your local school to find out more.
Another problem with Steiner schools and Waldorf education is that although they have mixed-ability teaching, they are not known for being particularly tolerant schools. According to a 2021 study, entitled The young child’s journey of ‘the will’: A synthesis of child-centered and inclusive principles in international Waldorf early childhood education many are unable to offer the support necessary for children with additional needs or behavioural problems.
If you look back on the writings of dr Rudolf Steiner, you will find some racist and offensive ideas and beliefs. These beliefs have been rejected by the modern Steiner schools movement. Steiner schools consider themselves a force for good, and many have anti-racist policies in place. If you’re concerned about racism, contact your local Waldorf school to find out what action they’re taking to be anti-racist.
Another criticism of Waldorf Education is that schools do not follow the standard curriculum. Although many see this as a positive thing, it could be an problem if your child were to switch to mainstream schooling. Waldorf pedagogy doesn’t focus on academics, so younger pupils could be behind their mainstream peers, which could be problematic if you move your children to a mainstream school only to discover they are behind their peers.
Find out more about Steiner schools
If you’re interested in learning more about Steiner schools, you should contact your local Steiner education center. There are hundreds around the world, so if you have your heart set on a Waldorf education for your kids, there might be a suitable school nearby or close enough for your children to attend.
It is essential to remember that Waldorf schools can differ significantly, with some having superior facilities and others being more established. Contact your local Steiner school to find out more. Ask if you can visit the school to see lessons in action and find out more about the Steiner Waldorf education philosophy. There might be open days so that interested families can go along to see the school and speak to the teachers and parents.
It’s always worth speaking to current and previous parents who will be able to give you insight into the school. No school is perfect and speaking to parents (and pupils) is the best way to discover any potential difficulties.