Early Childhood Education

Steiner, Rudolf (1861-1925)


Rudolf Steiner is best known as the founder of the Waldorf School movement (see Waldorf Education). Arising from the social chaos of post-World War I Germany, Waldorf Education sought to establish a school, open to all children, that would set a foundation for social and cultural renewal. Steiner also made fundamental contributions to the fields of medicine, social theory, art, movement, pharmacology, agriculture, architecture, and theology.

Steiner was born in 1861 in Kraljevek, now known as Croatia, to Austrian parents. In 1889 he moved to Weimar, Germany, where he edited the scientific works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In Weimar he was able to meet many of the prominent artists, thinkers, and cultural figures of his time. After receiving a Doctorate in Philosophy at the University of Rostock in Germany in 1891, Dr. Steiner lectured extensively on a new science of the spirit, which he called Anthroposophy (wisdom or knowledge of man). Anthroposophy attempts to generate a “science of the spirit,” broadening materialistic views of nature and humankind to learn to perceive the forces that work within and behind them. In 1894, Steiner wrote one of his seminal works, A Philosophy of Freedom (published in German as Die Philosophie der Freiheit). In this book, he sets out to describe how the human ability to think creatively and intuitively can be a liberatory act, allowing us to move beyond mere materialism.

Following the chaos and destruction of World War I, Steiner began lecturing and writing about social renewal. From 1919 until his death in 1925 he lectured to a wide variety of groups across Europe. He guided the renewal of many areas of human, social, cultural, and scientific activities, including art, education, sciences, social life, medicine, pharmacology, therapies, agriculture, architecture, and theology. Steiner’s guidance resulted in many practical endeavors such as sculpting and painting influenced by Goethe’s theories of color and form, Waldorf Education, the Camphill movement, biodynamic agriculture, and Anthroposophic medicine and remedies. Rudolf Steiner helped to develop new techniques for painting, modeling, sculpting, and a new form of movement known as eurythmy—a way to make speech and music visible. His lectures about social life led to the formation of the worldwide Camphill movement. First established in Scotland in 1940 and based on Steiner’s ideas, there are now more than ninety Camphill communities in twenty-two countries around the world. Camphill communities house and work therapeutically with children, youth, and adults who have developmental disabilities. Volunteer coworkers live, learn, and work together with disabled people in a self-sustaining community. Residents live in extended family settings where relationships are cultivated. Volunteers and residents perform meaningful work together such as candle making, stained glass, bookbinding, weaving, woodworking, and biodynamic farming. Biodynamic agriculture is based on a series of lectures by Rudolf Steiner encouraging farmers to work actively with the forces of nature, free of chemicals. Lectures by Dr. Steiner inspired the development of a new practice of medicine. This holistic approach attempts to work out of an integrated image of the whole human being in illness and health.

In 1919, Rudolf Steiner was asked to give a series of lectures to help guide the opening of a new school for children of the workers of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany. Steiner subsequently became the director of this first “Waldorf” school, a position he held until his death in 1925. There are now more than 600 Waldorf schools all over the world. Waldorf education attempts to educate the whole child: head, heart, and hands. Through imbuing lessons with each of these elements children are helped in developing their own innate capacities. On the basis of Steiner’s notions of child development, Waldorf kindergartens are distinctive in their belief that early childhood is a time for the development of the physical organism rather than the cognitive abilities of the young child. Waldorf kindergartens and nursery classes are founded upon Steiner’s recognition that the child absorbs a host of sense impressions and naturally imitates them. The attitudes of caregivers as well as the physical environment have profound influences upon the child. Thus, a great deal of care is given to create a warm, nurturing environment filled with objects from the natural world. The curriculum reflects the rhythms of the natural world rather than the intellectual work of learning to read and write. Teachers of Waldorf kindergartens and nursery classes are specifically trained in the development of the young child, with a strong emphasis on the importance of story, song, and movement for the nurturance of the young child.

Rudolf Steiner left a huge body of work. During his lifetime he wrote twenty books, gave over six thousand lectures (most of which were transcribed and published), and wrote many essays. Initiatives stimulated by his insights can be found in many diverse disciplines in countries all over the world. Steiner died in 1925.

Further Readings: AWSNA. (2004). Association of Waldorf Schools in North America. Available online at http://www.awsna.org; Setzer, V. W. (2003). Rudolf Steiner chronological biography. Available online at http://www.sab.org.br/steiner/biogr-eng.htm; Steiner, Rudolf (1894). A philosophy of freedom (M. Lipson, Trans. 1995 ed.). Herndon, VA: SteinerBooks; Steiner, Rudolf (1928). The story of my life. Translated by H. Collison. London: Anthroposophical Publishing Co; Stewart, James (2004). Rudolf Steiner Archive. Available online at http://www.elib.com/Steiner/.

Eric Gidseg