Early Childhood Education
Waldorf education is one of the largest international independent school movements in the world and is based on the work of Austrian scientist, philosopher, and researcher Rudolf Steiner. In 1919, as Germany faced the task of rebuilding its economic, political, and social systems, Steiner was asked to create a school for children of the workers at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory. He envisioned a school based on an integrated view of human development and curriculum. Steiner framed three stages of development on the way to adulthood: early childhood, middle childhood, and adolescence. Each stage of development was to be met with an integrated curriculum that allows for the nurturing of new capacities.
Rudolf Steiner proposed that teaching must be viewed as an art rather than a science, and thus the teacher needs a wide array of artistic abilities from which to draw. The teacher must become a master of pedagogy, artistic skills and developmental knowledge. There are training centers within the United States and in many other countries. The training is rooted in Anthroposophy, a comprehensive view of the human being as a spiritual as well as a physical being. This plays out in the classroom through activities that appeal to the head (thinking), heart (feeling), and feet (willing). Lessons and activities are composed so as to allow all three components of the young child to be active. Each stage of development offers an opportunity for one or another of these components to be predominant. In early childhood it is the will that is the initial focus, in middle childhood it is the heart, and during adolescence teachers appeal to the thinking of their students. This is not to say that in each stage the others are ignored, but rather that each stage has its own point of engagement.
Contemporary interpretations of a Waldorf education adhere to most of these early principles. Waldorf educators generally receive intensive training in Waldorf pedagogy as well as in child development, painting, music, handwork, and movement. In the Waldorf kindergarten and preschool, the teacher is a specialist in early childhood education. It is through the will, through activity and imitation, that the child is educated at this age. The Waldorf kindergarten is a carefully constructed environment where children play creatively, in surroundings filled with objects from nature and toys that encourage imagination and fantasy. For example, natural construction materials such as wood and stone are preferred over commercially produced building blocks. Children are taught to use natural dyes for the creation of fabrics that are then used to make costumes for their imaginative play. Often these kindergartens are composed of children of mixed ages, ranging from three-and-a-half to five years old. Thus some children may be a part of one class for more than one year.
Rhythm is an essential component of the kindergarten classroom in a Waldorf school. The day is structured in such a way that children have the opportunity to engage in expansive, energetic activities like free play followed by more concentrated activities like morning circle, where songs, poems, circle games, and stories are shared. Alternating active and receptive activities allows the children to engage in tasks with greater attention. Children internalize this daily rhythm and develop a sense of certainty and freedom as they move within the structure of the day in the kindergarten.
Just as the day has a rhythm that helps the children to feel secure as they move through their daily activities, the Waldorf kindergarten also establishes a weekly rhythm. Each day of the week will be marked by a focal activity such as baking, painting, movement, cooking, or modeling. Seasonal festivals that help instill in the children a sense of participation in the workings of the natural world mark the rhythms of the year. Upon entering a Waldorf kindergarten, one is quickly struck by the materials that are provided for the children’s play and exploration. Cotton, silk, wool, beeswax, wood, and acorns are found displayed in inviting ways. Most of the materials come from natural sources. Toys are often very simple, suggestive ones, allowing the children to play creatively with them. There may be a large basket of small pieces of branches from a birch tree, for example. These may be used by the children as building blocks or for any number of imaginative uses. Often there will be cloaks, crowns, sashes or simply a basket of cloths that can be used by the children as they enter into imaginative play.
Play is a fundamental activity in a Waldorf kindergarten. It is through play that the children learn about themselves, each other, and the world that they live in. Teachers attempt to create an environment and activities that provide inspiration for the children’s play. Stories, puppet shows, and carefully created toys allow the children to fully live into their play.
As movements toward academic standards continue to press children to learn reading and writing at ever-earlier ages, Waldorf kindergartens resist this direction. Feeling that the academic work is more appropriate for middle childhood, these kindergartens focus on developing other foundational skills for school and lifelong success. Although many of the activities may be viewed as part of a prereading curriculum, the Waldorf kindergartens prefer to frame such activities as storytelling, dramatics, and poetry as ways for children to learn about their own inner and outer worlds.
Recognizing that imitation is a fundamental way that young children learn about the world around them, the Waldorf kindergarten teacher attempts to fill the day with a conscious use of physical gesture. Poems are recited using the body expressively. Movement games also allow for simple gestures that allow the children to be fully active. The new developments in the neurosciences have demonstrated a connection between movement, memory, and the continuing growth of the neural pathways in the brain. Waldorf kindergartens have based their approach on this premise for the better part of a century.
As children progress into the early grades, they leave the kindergarten teacher behind and forge a new bond with a Waldorf elementary school teacher who, ideally, will be their teacher for the next eight years. This “class teacher” will need to grow along with the children, as he/she will teach all of the academic subjects throughout the eight years of elementary school. Special subject teachers teaching handwork, music, movement, and foreign languages may also work with the class primarily in the afternoons. The mornings are reserved for academic work.
In the Waldorf elementary grades (grades 1 through 8), academic subjects are taught in what is called a “main lesson.” This lesson lasts for two hours or more every morning. During the lesson there will be a variety of activities (e.g., recitation, movement, story, an artistic rendering of the lesson), but the focus is on one subject at a time. There may be a four-week-long “block” of math followed by a six-week block of history, for example.
In first grade, the children slowly learn their letters. They are presented through stories, poetry, and song. Many children may have already learned the letter names, but they are reintroduced in such a way as to connect them with pictures and stories that will bring them to life. The teacher may prepare the room with an elaborate chalk drawing of a bear, for example, and tell the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Over the course of the next day or two the bear may slowly be transformed into the letter “B” by way of drawing. The children may use their bodies to make the letter, walk the form of the letter, draw or paint the letter with vivid colors, learn rhymes that reinforce the qualities of the letter, etc.
A quality that is consistent throughout the early years of a Waldorf education is that of “wonder.” Throughout kindergarten and the elementary grades an attempt is made at each step to imbue the children with a sense of wonder as they learn about the natural world, the social world, and the world of academics. Subjects are presented in such a way that the child’s imagination and body are engaged in the learning. The world is presented as a beautiful place and it is unfolded before them like a vast mystery.
Today there are more than 800 Waldorf schools worldwide, with more than 150 in the United States. The movement has a central organization known as the Association of Waldorf Schools in North America (AWSNA), but each school retains its independent identity. In addition, the kindergartens are served by the Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America (WECAN), which provides a central source for continuing training and resources for early childhood educators.
Further Readings: Clouder, Christopher, and Rawson, Martyn (2003). Waldorf education. Edinburgh: Floris Books; Wilkinson, Roy (1982). Commonsense schooling. Surrey, England: Henry Goulden. Association of Waldorf Schools in North America, http:// www.awsna.org