Waldorf Education FAQ

—From “Five Frequently Asked Questions” by Colin Price; originally printed in Renewal Magazine, Spring/Summer 2003

What is Waldorf Education?

Developed by Rudolf Steiner in 1919, Waldorf Education is based on a developmental approach that addresses the needs of the growing child and maturing adolescent. Waldorf teachers strive to transform education in to an art that educates the whole child—the heart and the hands, as well as the head.

Is Waldorf Similar to Montessori?

These two educational approaches began with a similar goal: to design a curriculum that was developmentally appropriate to the child and that addressed the child’s need to learn in a tactile as well as an intellectual way. The philosophies are otherwise very different.

Are Waldorf schools religious?

Waldorf schools are non-sectarian and non-denominational. They educate all children, regardless of their cultural or religious backgrounds. The pedagogical method is comprehensive, and, as part of its task, seeks to bring about recognition and understanding of all the world cultures and religions. 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 curriculum like in a Waldorf school?

Waldorf Education approaches all aspects of schooling in a unique and comprehensive way. The curriculum is designed to meet the various stages of child development. Waldorf teachers are dedicated to creating a genuine inner enthusiasm for learning that is essential for educational success.

Preschool and Kindergarten children learn primarily through imitation and imagination. The goal of the kindergarten is to develop a sense of wonder in the young child and reverence for all living things. This creates an eagerness for the academics that follow in the grades. Preschool and Kindergarten activities include:

  • storytelling, puppetry, creative play
  • singing, eurythmy (movement)
  • games and finger plays
  • painting, drawing and beeswax modeling
  • baking and cooking, nature walks
  • circle time for festival and seasonal celebrations

Elementary and middle school children learn through the guidance of a class teacher who stays with the class ideally for eight years. The curriculum includes:

  • English based on world literature, myths, and legends
  • history that is chronological and inclusive of the world’s great civilizations
  • science that surveys geography, astronomy, meteorology, physical and life sciences
  • mathematics that develops competence in arithmetic, algebra, and geometry
  • foreign languages; physical education; gardening
  • arts including music, painting, sculpture, drama, eurythmy, sketching
  • handwork such as knitting, weaving, and woodworking

The Waldorf high school is dedicated to helping students develop their full potential as scholars, artists, athletes, and community members. The course of study includes:

  • a humanities curriculum that integrates history, literature, and knowledge of world cultures
  • a science curriculum that includes physics, biology, chemistry, geology, and a four-year college preparatory mathematics program
  • an arts and crafts program that includes calligraphy, drawing, painting, sculpture, pottery, weaving, block printing and bookbinding
  • a performing arts program offering orchestra, choir, eurythmy and drama
  • a foreign language program
  • a physical education program

Does Waldorf Education prepare children for the “real” world?

It is easy to fall into the error of believing that education must make our children fit into society. Although we are certainly influenced by what the world brings us, the fact is that the world is shaped by people, not people by the world. However, that shaping of the world is possible in a healthy way only if the shapers are themselves in possession of their full nature as human beings.

Education in our materialistic, Western society focuses on the intellectual aspect of the human being and has chosen largely to ignore the several other parts that are essential to our well-being. These include our life of feeling (emotions, aesthetics, and social sensitivity), our willpower (the ability to get things done), and our moral nature (being clear about right and wrong). Without having these developed, we are incomplete—a fact that may become obvious in our later years, when a feeling of emptiness begins to set in. That is why in a Waldorf school, the practical and artistic subjects play as important a role as the full spectrum of traditional academic subjects that the school offers. The practical and artistic are essential in achieving a preparation for life in the “real” world.

Waldorf Education recognizes and honors the full range of human potentialities. It addresses the whole child by striving to awaken and ennoble all the latent capacities. The children learn to read, write, and do math; they study history, geography, and the sciences. In addition, all children learn to sing, play a musical instrument, draw, paint, model clay, carve and work with wood, speak clearly and act in a play, think independently, and work harmoniously and respectfully with others. The development of these various capacities is interrelated. For example, both boys and girls learn to knit in grade one. Acquiring this basic and enjoyable human skill helps them develop a manual dexterity, which after puberty will be transformed into an ability to think clearly and to “knit” their thoughts into a coherent whole.

Preparation for life includes the development of the well-rounded person. Waldorf Education has as its ideal a person who is knowledgeable about the world and human history and culture, who has many varied practical and artistic abilities, who feels a deep reverence for and communion with the natural world, and who can act with initiative and in freedom in the face of economic and political pressures.

There are many Waldorf graduates of all ages who embody this ideal and who are perhaps the best proof of the efficacy of the education.

Why do Waldorf schools teach reading so late?

There is evidence that normal, healthy children who learn to read relatively late are not disadvantaged by this, but rather are able quickly to catch up with, and may overtake, children who have learned to read early. Additionally, they are much less likely to develop the “tiredness toward reading” that many children taught to read at a very early age experience later on. Instead there is lively interest in reading and learning that continues into adulthood. Some children will, out of themselves, want to learn to read at an early age. This interest can and should be met, as long as it comes in fact from the child. Early imposed formal instruction in reading can be a handicap in later years, when enthusiasm toward reading and learning may begin to falter.

If reading is not pushed, a healthy child will pick it up quite quickly and easily. Some Waldorf parents become anxious if their child is slow to learn to read. Eventually these same parents are overjoyed at seeing their child pick up a book and not put it down and become from that moment a voracious reader. Each child has his or her own optimal time for “taking off.” Feelings of anxiety and inferiority may develop in a child who is not reading as well as her peers. Often this anxiety is picked up from parents concerned about the child’s progress. It is important that parents should deal with their own and their child’s apprehensions.

Human growth and development do not occur in a linear fashion, nor can they be measured. What lives, grows, and has its being in human life can only be grasped with that same human faculty that can grasp the invisible metamorphic laws of living nature.

For more about this subject, please see: I pushed my pre-K students toward reading. And I feel guilty about it. by Launa Hall, Washington Post, January 23, 2015.

Also see: Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose, Defending the Early Years.

Why do Waldorf schools recommend the limiting of television, videos and radio for young children?

A central aim of Waldorf Education is to stimulate the healthy development of the child’s own imagination. Waldorf teachers are concerned that electronic media hampers the development of the child’s imagination. They are concerned about the physical effects of the medium on the developing child as well as the content of much of the programming.

There is more and more research to substantiate these concerns:

  • TV and Our Children’s Minds by Susan R. Johnson, MD, FAAP
  • Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don’t Think by Jane Healy
  • Failure To Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds For Better and Worse by Jane Healy
  • Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander
  • The Plug-In Drug by Marie Winn
  • Evolution’s End: Claiming The Potential of Our Intelligence by Joseph Chilton Pearce

What about computers and Waldorf Education?

Waldorf teachers feel the appropriate age for computer use in the classroom and by students is in high school. We feel it is more important for students to have the opportunity to interact with one another and with teachers in exploring the world of ideas, participating in the creative process, and developing their knowledge, skills, abilities, and inner qualities. Waldorf students have a love of learning, an ongoing curiosity, and interest in life. As older students, they quickly master computer technology, and graduates have successful careers in the computer industry.

For additional reading, please see Fools Gold, a special report from the Alliance for Childhood.

How do Waldorf graduates do after graduation?

Waldorf students have been accepted in and graduated from a broad spectrum of colleges and universities including Stanford, UC Berkeley, Harvard, Yale, and Brown. Waldorf graduates reflect a wide diversity of professions and occupations including medicine, law, science, engineering, computer technology, the arts, social science, government, and teaching at all levels.

According to a recent study of Waldorf graduates:

  • 94% attended college or university
  • 47% chose humanities or arts as a major
  • 42% chose sciences or math as a major
  • 89% are highly satisfied in choice of occupation
  • 91% are active in lifelong education
  • 92% placed a high value on critical thinking
  • 90% highly values tolerance of other viewpoints

What is Eurythmy?

Eurythmy is the art of movement that attempts to make visible the tone and feeling of music and speech. Eurythmy helps to develop concentration, self-discipline, and a sense of beauty. This training of moving artistically with a group stimulates sensitivity to the other as well as individual mastery. Eurythmy lessons follow the themes of the curriculum, exploring rhyme, meter, story, and geometric forms.