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The system of private schools is based on a philosophy that prioritizes the arts and the imagination.
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By Alex Van Buren
This story was originally published on Aug. 15, 2019 in NYT Parenting.
Being in a Waldorf early-education classroom — with its pale-pink walls and an altar-like table filled with objects from nature — is “like being in a watercolor world,” a Times reporter wrote in 1977. And plus ça change: Although each school operates independently, that rosy pre-kindergarten palette remains quite common today, said Beverly Amico, the Waldorf executive director of advancement in North America. In fact, several recurring threads tend to surface in the Waldorf pedagogical quilt. Over the years, the system of schools has gained fame and notoriety alike for its often technology-eschewing, movement-encouraging ways. Its adherents emphasize that a focus on relationships, the arts, the imagination and nature educates the whole child: “the head, the heart and the hands.”
The private school began in Europe with the philosopher Rudolf Steiner. In the spring of 1919, Emil Molt, the owner of the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany, asked Steiner to open a school for his employees’ children. That fall, the Independent Waldorf School opened. In 1928, the Waldorf school branched out to New York City, where it still exists today as the Rudolf Steiner School. Today, according to Amico, there are 125 Waldorf schools in the United States and more than 3,000 worldwide, from pre-K programs through high school.
Born in Austria in 1861, Steiner coined a theory called “anthroposophy,” a sort of spiritual philosophy that Amico explained via email as “the common principle that binds us.” She said it has “nothing to do with perpetuating a certain method, curriculum or tradition, but with developing reverence for the goodness, in the other and in the world around us … which brings with it purpose and meaning to life.” Steiner believed in reincarnation and karma, and that children were born in order to fulfill a particular destiny. His ideas are not followed strictly today. Amico said, “While anthroposophy is the foundation of Waldorf education and how we view the development of the human being, it informs teaching but is not taught in the curriculum.”
Some of Steiner’s beliefs were much more controversial. The website The Cut reported that Steiner once wrote that white people led a “thinking” life whereas black people led an “instinctive/sexually charged” life. (Amico has called those writings “painful,” saying, “As an association, we have no relation to that statement.”) He also believed he was clairvoyant, that diseases were influenced by an “astral body” and that childhood illness strengthened the immune system. Some Waldorf schools have been in the news recently because of their low vaccination rates and a lawsuit by anti-vaccine parents, though Amico said that there has not been a confirmed case of measles at a Waldorf school and that “there is nothing about our approach to education that aligns with the anti-vaccination movement.”
Favoring nature over technology
Controversies aside, in a modern early-educational Waldorf classroom the emphasis remains on the arts, nature and imagination. Students might spend time in “forest school,” rake leaves in the garden, or make sculptures from beeswax. They listen to stories, but do no formal reading or writing training. In most early-ed classrooms, technology is discouraged both at school and at home. In the words of one parent, Michael Shaun Conaway of Boulder, Colo., kids “who have been in this rich life of story go to sleep with it,” and have it inform their dreams.
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Stephanie Rynas, the Waldorf executive director of operations and member resources in North America, said that classes might be mixed-age during the early years—perhaps a pre-K of 3- and 4-year-olds, or a kindergarten of 5- and 6-year-olds. A typical class has 18-20 kids, Rynas said.
In early childhood grades, a class might have a lead teacher and an assistant. In higher grades, the same teacher might stay with a class from first through eighth grades. “The goal is to have that relationship deepen with the teacher through multiple years,” said Rynas.
Learning through the “art of movement”
Until children are around age 7, Steiner theorized, they aren’t ready for more formal reading and writing lessons. Then, they start learning language more methodically. Often, these lessons are informed by “eurythmy,” a dance-language hybrid created by Steiner.
Eurythmy is “movement, usually accompanied by piano, in a big room,” said Nancy Hoose, a kindergarten teacher at the Mountain Laurel Waldorf School in New Paltz, N.Y. “With a lot of the movement comes sound,” for example, vowels. “It’s very therapeutic for the students.” Amico described it as “an art of movement: It attempts to make visible the tone and feeling of music and speech.”
Steiner encouraged a focus on play, not academics, in children’s early years. And the school’s methods — most early-grade classrooms don’t have desks; teachers might sing to students to guide them from playtime to lunch — have found fans in surprising corners. Some Silicon Valley moguls are sending their children to Waldorf schools, embracing the idea of a tech-free life for their kids. Hoose observed her daughter in a public pre-kindergarten where, she said, she was told to sit still and listen to a teacher speak for 40 minutes. When she found a Waldorf school in Woodstock, N.Y., she said, she “felt like we’d landed in heaven.” It was in a bucolic setting, prioritizing what she said was “natural, beautiful and healthy for the child.”
“Developing a complete human being”
Hoose describes the lead teacher as “a huge ego in the room,” and defined that person’s presence as almost “priest- or priestess-like.” Physical closeness with students is considered fine in her classroom, for example, foot rubs during nap time — which takes place on sheepskin and lambskin throws. In addition to lots of play time, Hoose said her students might make an apple crisp together or do “handwork,” domestic projects such as washing the lunch dishes, preparing a meal or knitting. There is a lot of “love, caring and reverence” in the classroom, she said. (Though Amico agreed with the latter characterization, she said, “I absolutely wouldn’t call it priest or priestess-like,” adding that the teacher “is the classroom authority and a parent is the authority in the home.” As for physical touching, that varies by the school.)
“It is about developing a complete human being,” said Jason Child, a music teacher at a North Carolina Waldorf school. “It’s not about meeting goals society feels would make the child a more productive member of society.”
Many Waldorf classrooms skip recorded music in favor of having children play in ensembles — perhaps on wooden flutes, for example — and Child, who teaches ages 6 to 18, “really enjoys” that when children arrive in his classroom from kindergarten, they have already had exposure to music. He said when he was a public school teacher, “the responsibility was to help them be a little bit musical if possible.” Now, he said, he’s fine-tuning kids’ existing musicality.
Lisa Babinet, who taught at college prep schools for 20 years before teaching at a Waldorf in Silicon Valley, was “floored” by her new students. She said they asked her questions about mathematics that she “had never thought about before. They were deep thinkers.”
Waldorf tuition ranges significantly throughout the country, depending on location and whether your student is enrolled part time or full time. At Live Oak Waldorf School in rural California, for example, tuition for a five-day pre-K program is about $7,980 per year, whereas at the Rudolf Steiner School in New York City, pre-K costs $34,400. The length of the school day varies, but is typically 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 pm. for a half day, and until 3 p.m. for a full day. The schools have a financial aid and tuition assistance program supported by “a huge budget,” Amico said, that draws kids whose families have “a broad range of income levels.” As for higher education, Amico cited a recent survey of graduates, not yet publicly available, that quoted 98 percent as having attended college, and 90 percent attending one of their top three choices.
Is the Waldorf school for everyone? Babinet, who is also a parent of two Waldorf graduates, had two caveats: “Students with really severe learning differences, if they’re not thriving, it does not make sense.” And she said the small environment might be “challenging” for some kids and “fabulous” for others. But the schools’ methods please many. “It’s not that the student needs to be filled up, but held in such a way that they can gravitate towards themselves,” Conaway said. “What a gift.”
[For more on early childhood education, read about forest schools, the costly burden of child care, and the increasing academic demands on young students.]
Alex Van Buren is a writer, editor and content strategist living in Brooklyn.
Continue reading the main story
What is the Waldorf school method? ›
In Waldorf education, the learning process is essentially threefold, engaging head, heart, and hands—or thinking, feeling, and doing. This is the basis out of which Waldorf teachers work to nurture and engage each child through a curriculum and methodology that integrates academics, arts, and practical skills.What are the 7 core principles of Waldorf? ›
Core components of the educational program include the student-teacher relationship; the artistic approach; working from experience to concept; working from whole to parts; use of rhythm and repetition; and observation as the foundation for assessment.What are two key concepts of the Waldorf curriculum model? ›
Key components of the Waldorf teaching system include the following: Focus on child development. Individualization.What method of assessment do Waldorf teachers use? ›
The main emphases in Waldorf assessments that are different from standard (non-Waldorf) practice are that: Waldorf teachers practice only classroom assessments; these assessments are comprehensive of all domains (areas of development)—cognitive, affective, psycho-motor, and also social, character, and aesthetic ...What is unique about the Waldorf curriculum? ›
Waldorf schools integrate intellectual, artistic, and practical instruction throughout the curriculum. The development of social skills and ethical values are key elements of Waldorf Education, woven throughout the curriculum and every grade level.What curriculum follows Waldorf? ›
It is a methodology that encourages self-discovery, research and engagement with the subject matter so that a proper body of knowledge can be built. The curriculum places emphasis on practical work, which includes, as intrinsic to each year, such activities as handwork, woodwork, gardening, metalwork, craft and design.What is the Waldorf philosophy? ›
Waldorf Education, is an educational philosophy that emphasizes the "child-centered" philosophies of the Progressives. Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the first Waldorf school in Germany in 1919, believed that all children should be given "individualized" attention rather than just those with special needs.What is the difference between Waldorf and Montessori? ›
Even though both strategies lay strong emphasis on experiential learning and the role of the child, their underlying philosophies diverge. While Montessori education encourages natural curiosity with a focus on independent learning, Waldorf schooling emphasizes holistic advancement through creativity and imagination.Is Anthroposophy a religion? ›
Anthroposophy is a spiritualist movement which was founded in the early 20th century by the esotericist Rudolf Steiner that postulates the existence of an objective, intellectually comprehensible spiritual world, accessible to human experience.What religion is Waldorf? ›
Waldorf schools are not part of any church. They espouse no particular religious doctrine but are based on a belief that there is a spiritual dimension to the human being and to all of life. Waldorf families come from a broad spectrum of religious traditions and interest.
What is the heart of the Waldorf method? ›
“The heart of the Waldorf method is that education is an art-it must speak to the child's experience. To educate the whole child, their heart and will must be reached, as well as the mind.”What is the criticism of Waldorf education? ›
Critics of Waldorf education (e.g. Roger Rawlings) point out the mystical nature of anthroposophy and the incorporation of Steiner's esoteric ideas into curriculum. Waldorf schools have also been linked to the outbreak of infectious diseases due to the vaccine hesitancy of many Waldorf parents.How are children assessed in Waldorf education? ›
Each teacher at HWS makes daily observations of children's interest level, skills level, work ethic, learning style and social interaction. Academic assessment is an on-going process for class and subject teachers who meet regularly to discuss student progress and share both successes and concerns.Why are Steiner schools so controversial? ›
Yet Steiner schools have faced continuing controversy over some of the ideas of their founder. One of these is the claim that Steiner believed in so-called reincarnation through the races, where the souls of humans evolve through a hierarchy of races culminating in white Europeans.How successful are Waldorf students? ›
A composite profile of the recent Waldorf graduate tells us that they (practically all) attend college, for which they feel strongly prepared (95%), are accepted to the top three colleges or universities of their choice (90%), complete their initial degree (92%), and often choose thereafter to continue to graduate or ...What is a main lesson in Waldorf? ›
Waldorf Academic, Roberto Trostli writes, “When Rudolf Steiner inaugurated the first Waldorf school, he established the “main lesson”—a two-hour class during which all academic subjects except for foreign languages would be taught.What is Waldorf education in a nutshell? ›
Waldorf Education: An Introduction. Waldorf schools offer a developmentally appropriate, experiential, and academically rigorous approach to education. They integrate the arts in all academic disciplines for children from preschool through twelfth grade to enhance and enrich learning.Do Waldorf schools teach math? ›
In Waldorf Schools, math is taught in a multidisciplinary manner. When students are young, math is introduced through imaginative stories, movement, and rhythm games. Manipulatives are often used and help to make concepts like division and fractions easier to grasp.Do Waldorf schools teach science? ›
Moreover, Waldorf education is characterized by high emphasis on inquiry-based science education (IBSE).Does Waldorf use phonics? ›
All Waldorf students who speak English should learn phonics, not just those who need extra help. The approach Steiner articulated for Waldorf education is for the German language, a language that is much more phonetically regular than English.
How is Waldorf education different from traditional? ›
Waldorf School: Waldorf education takes a much less formulaic approach to the study of language arts, instead approaching and teaching topics in historically rich, art-filled blocks, by grade, in chronological order though history. Grammar lessons become more in-depth in grades 5-8.Is Waldorf good for ADHD? ›
The broad-based nature of the Waldorf curriculum appears to make it well suited to the ARD/ADHD child. Certain features of the pedagogy in particular seem to address the needs of these children.Why choose a Waldorf education? ›
Waldorf education, grounded in the life work of Rudolf Steiner, nurtures both the innate moral strength of children, and facilitates free and independent thinking, thus encouraging self-discovery. In a Waldorf school, teachers recognize the child's intellectual, physical, emotional, and spiritual capacities.Is Waldorf a religious school? ›
Like all Waldorf schools across the globe, we are not part of any church, nor do we espouse any particular religious doctrine. Our mission is to educate children, regardless of their cultural or religious backgrounds.What celebrities went to Waldorf School? ›
- Actors Anna Paquin, Harvey Keitel, Jennifer Aniston, Sandra Bullock, Julianna Margulies and Tilda Swinton.
- Kenneth Chenault, Chairman and CEO of American Express, former Waldorf student (Waldorf School of Garden City, NY)
These scientists, led by neuroscientist Larrison, not only found that Waldorf students significantly outperform their peers on standardized tests at the end of their middle school curriculum (8th grade), they emphasize that Waldorf students' superior performance occurs even though the students do not have a history of ...What is the anthroposophic lifestyle? ›
In the anthroposophic lifestyle, a diet comprising vegetables spontaneously fermented by lactobacilli, and a restrictive use of antibiotics, anti-pyretics and vaccinations, is typical.What do anthroposophists believe? ›
Anthroposophy (“wisdom of the human being”) is the body of spiritual teaching that underlies Waldorf Education and all the work at Sunbridge Institute. Through anthroposophy, an individual grows spiritually by applying uniquely human abilities to develop clear thinking and a truthful perception of the world.What is anthroposophy diet? ›
The concept of anthroposophical nutrition essentially corresponds to the loosely managed vegetarian diet. Dairy products are highly recommended and eggs are also permitted. The consumption of meat, fish, soy and industrially processed foods such as sugar and white flour, on the other hand, should be restricted.Is Montessori A Waldorf? ›
Main differences between Montessori and Waldorf schools. Academics: Montessori schools focus more on core academics, at least in preschool. Waldorf schools normally don't introduce core academics, at least formally, until grade 1 or 2. Work and play: Montessori schools favour work over play.
Is Waldorf holistic? ›
Waldorf schools have a holistic view of education — that is, we recognize that people are not just their “heads”; they have “hearts” and “hands” as well. We work to bring these aspects of each child into harmony and balance.Is there a Waldorf homeschool curriculum? ›
Oak Meadow publishes homeschool curriculum materials adapted from the Waldorf method and has an accredited distance education school. For over 30 years, Oak Meadow has created independent learning materials for families around the world.What is Waldorf daily rhythm? ›
Daily rhythm helps young children to have an understanding of time. Time is very abstract for young children and daily rhythm helps them to have a sense of predictability and security in what is happening next throughout the day. For example, something like teeth brushing, this can be a struggle in many homes.Why is rhythm important in Waldorf? ›
By setting a consistent form for each day and each week, children more easily come to understand and fully participate in the world around them. The young child relaxes into the rhythms we set for them; they find comfort and security knowing exactly what to expect each day.What aspect of the Waldorf school model is reflected by the phrase head hands and heart? ›
The model shows the holistic nature of transformative experience and relates the cognitive domain (head) to critical reflection, the affective domain (heart) to relational knowing and the psychomotor domain (hands) to engagement.What are the negatives of Waldorf? ›
Some common drawbacks mentioned in connection with Waldorf schools are the same things that many parents like, such as the lack of emphasis on technology and standardized testing, and the focus on imaginative play in early childhoood (formal reading instruction does not begin until first grade).Why are Waldorf classrooms pink? ›
For instance, in the nursery, kindergarten, and early grades, a soft, warm, pink tone is usually selected for walls and curtains because of its gently active and supportive quality. Pink is a loving, innocent color, decidedly feminine in character.Does Waldorf education prepare you for college? ›
Yes, they are well-prepared for high school and college. They move on to other educational environments with ease and draw upon what they have learned at Waldorf to fuel all of their future endeavors.How is Waldorf different from Montessori? ›
Even though both strategies lay strong emphasis on experiential learning and the role of the child, their underlying philosophies diverge. While Montessori education encourages natural curiosity with a focus on independent learning, Waldorf schooling emphasizes holistic advancement through creativity and imagination.Is Waldorf the same as Montessori? ›
While both Montessori and Waldorf schools believe children need a connection to the environment, they are different in that Montessori focuses on real-life experiences and Waldorf emphasizes the child's imagination and fantasy. Waldorf schools were founded by Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian scientist and philosopher.
What is the difference between Waldorf and Montessori programs? ›
Main differences between Montessori and Waldorf schools. Academics: Montessori schools focus more on core academics, at least in preschool. Waldorf schools normally don't introduce core academics, at least formally, until grade 1 or 2. Work and play: Montessori schools favour work over play.What are the negatives of Waldorf education? ›
Some common drawbacks mentioned in connection with Waldorf schools are the same things that many parents like, such as the lack of emphasis on technology and standardized testing, and the focus on imaginative play in early childhoood (formal reading instruction does not begin until first grade).Is Waldorf faith based? ›
Waldorf schools are not part of any church. They espouse no particular religious doctrine but are based on a belief that there is a spiritual dimension to the human being and to all of life. Waldorf families come from a broad spectrum of religious traditions and interest.Do Waldorf students do better? ›
These scientists, led by neuroscientist Larrison, not only found that Waldorf students significantly outperform their peers on standardized tests at the end of their middle school curriculum (8th grade), they emphasize that Waldorf students' superior performance occurs even though the students do not have a history of ...