What is a "Waldorf School" (and why do we love it so much?)

Copyright (c) 2008 by Kenny Felder

In 1998, our oldest daughter was ready to enter kindergarten. As a long-time victim of the North Carolina public school system, I was determined to search through alternatives for my own children. The Friends' School, Duke School for Children, Durham Academy...the list goes on, each with a wonderful philosophy and wonderful teachers to go with it. We investigated all of them, and ultimately wound up at the Emerson Waldorf School. I had never heard of a Waldorf School before.

In the following ten years, I have become passionate about Waldorf education. It has played a major role in the lives of all four of our children, both at school and at home. I encourage all parents who have access to a Waldorf school to seriously consider it for their children. More importantly, I encourage everyone involved in the public schools, especially at the lower levels, to study Waldorf pedagogy and take lessons from it, because I think it has the seeds of the reform that our schools so desperately need.

This essay will not give you that study, obviously. My only hope here is to convince you that these schools are worth looking into.

The big picture

A Waldorf school is not about what facts a child will learn; a Waldorf school is about what kind of person the child will grow into. The education is guided by two fundamental principles.
  1. Every person contains the capacities of thinking, feeling, and willing (symbolized by the phrase "head, heart, and hands"). While traditional schools focus almost exclusively on the first, a Waldorf school brings the three capacities to maturity together.

  2. A child goes through a number of specific, well-defined stages on the road to adulthood. (The Waldorf folks have a whole system, similar in some ways to Piaget's famous progression, but more spiritual in nature.) Developmentally appropriate experiences nurture the child and his growth.

The problem with generalizations of this sort is that they sound like whatever you want them to. It's like a corporate mission statement that says "We synchronize our diverse efforts with an intense focus on delivering excellence in customer satisfaction"—it looks nice on the annual report, but it's hard to believe that it comes up in strategy meetings.

But the Waldorf school really is guided by these principles in every day-to-day decision. The rest of this essay is going to show a lot of examples of the Waldorf school in action. As you read each one, consider how it helps to nurture the capacities of head, heart, and hands; and also, how it attempts to meet the growing child where he is.

A first look at the the kindergarten

Let's paint a picture of what you might see in some non-Waldorf kindergartens.

In a lot of the public kindergartens, the race is on to see who can push the kids the fastest. The kids are sitting in desks in rows, filling in worksheets, learning as much math and reading as you can cram into a 5-year-old.

In a Montessori kindergarten, quiet children work independently on activities that teach particular skills. "Put the round peg into the round hole." If you put the round peg into the square hole, an instructor gently corrects you, so you learn the skill. (See the comments at the end of this essay for a correction of my misperception of Montessori.)

The first time I walked into a Waldorf kindergarten, the children had stacked all the chairs and tables in the middle of the room, covered them with blankets, and made a rocket ship. This was more my kind of place.

A Waldorf kindergarten is about socialization, about imagination, about active play. You will never see blocks with letters or numbers on them. They develop a variety of pre-reading skills, exercising motor coordination and the ability to follow a story, but they do not teach reading or math in any way.

This does not mean that you cannot teach a 4-year-old to read—it means that you should not. The first 6 years of childhood are a beautiful, magical time; if you push the child into intellectual abstraction, you cut short this phase of childhood, and the growing person will never reap all its benefits. (And incidentally, you don't buy any other benefits in return. Studies indicate that children who read in kindergarten have no advantage by the fifth grade: they do not wind up better or more avid readers.)

You are also unlikely to see a toy train set. A train set says to the child, "I am a train set. These pieces fit into those pieces to make a bridge that the train can go over." Much of the imaginative work has been done for the child, by the designer.

What you will see are formless wooden blocks that the child can turn into anything his imagination can conjure up. You will see finger-knitting and possibly baking. You will hear wonderful stories told by the teacher (but definitely never see a television). Parents are encouraged to follow similar guidelines in choosing toys for their homes. One Mom told me proudly, "Waldorf children are the kind that if you give them a train set, they will turn it into an airport."

Grade school, and math

The first grade is a very different experience from kindergarten, and the transition is honored at our school in the ceremony of "crossing the rainbow bridge." The kindergarten teacher escorts the child to the bridge. The child crosses, and is met a twelfth grader who hands the child a rose and then turns him over to his first grade teacher. The message is clear: after one, two, or even three years of kindergarten, you are ready for something bigger, something new. We rejoice with you. (At the end of the year, this same first grader will present a rose back to the now-graduating high school Senior, closing the loop.)

The first-grade teacher who greets that child will now be his main teacher for eight years. The teacher will grow with the class. Waldorf teachers have told me that, by the end of the first year, they feel they are barely getting to know the kids; they can't imagine starting over at that point.

The first grade looks much more like a conventional classroom. The children sit in chairs, behind desks, in rows. They begin their study of letters and numbers, of the four arithmetic processes, and of two foreign languages.

But how are these topics approached?

One of the first Waldorf grade school exercises I ever saw was a second-grade math lesson. The children stood in a large circle and tossed bean bags to each other. They were not tossing the bags randomly, but in a pretty complicated pattern. While they were tossing the bean bags, they were also chanting numbers. Soon there were several bags going at once, so the children had to look where they were throwing at the same time they were watching to catch. It looked fairly chaotic and surprisingly difficult: in fact, when the teacher invited parents to try it, we had a harder time than the kids did.

But when we came to understand it, we realized that the children were learning their "threes" tables. (one two) THREE, (four five) SIX. They were learning the old-fashioned way: by rote repetition. And they were learning with their eyes, as Geometric points along a circle. And they were learning with their ears, by the chant. Most importantly, they were learning in their hands and bodies. The purpose of the exercise was not just to "make learning fun," although it certainly had that effect: it was to make the learning deep.

To this day, my own daughter (now in the ninth grade) tends to avoid calculators when most of her public school peers use them mindlessly for even the simplest operations. Numbers are tangible and comfortable for her.

Stories and history

The general curriculum of stories is, as far as I know, shared by all Waldorf schools around the world. While different first grade teachers tell different fairy tales, they all tell fairy tales. They all proceed to fables in the second grade (but these fables never end with "the moral is..."). When you come to understand this progression of stories, you get a glimpse of how Waldorf teachers view the growing child.

As an example, suppose you asked a Waldorf teacher "Why do you tell Old Testament stories in the third grade?" You might be worried that the teacher is trying to turn your child into a Jew, Christian, or Muslim. You might be worried about the opposite, that the teacher is trying to covertly imply that the Old Testament is analogous to the Norse mythology studied in the fourth grade. Both views are completely foreign to how the teacher looks at it (or how the child looks at it). The teacher's answer will sound more like this.

A child lives in continual contact with the world of spirit. Somewhere around nine years old, the child comes fully into his body, as if entering the real world after a nine-year dream. This transition is painful; the child feels an acute loss that he cannot articulate, much less explain. (Re-read the last chapter of The House at Pooh Corner if you haven't in a while: Christopher Robin is losing the imaginative world that he has built up so carefully, and he knows it. Once it was pointed out to me, I could see my own children losing their own Hundred-Acre Woods. In fact, I could remember losing mine.)

So, his teacher shares with the third-grader the story of Adam and Eve being expelled from paradise. The teacher would never say "Now children, this is analogous to what you are going through," and the children would never form that thought. But they live into the story, and find it in a model, a guide, and even solace.

A sixth grader's world is very different. He lives in a world of hierarchy, of rules, of right and wrong, of rigid structure. He is offered a look at his own world through the history of the Romans. Unlike previous years, he is not only given mythology: the study of real history begins here. But once again, the teacher would never say, "Here are people who thought like you," and the child is unlikely to form that thought either. The child has the opportunity to watch a set of codes. The men organized into phalanxes, and the phalanxes into armies, and the armies followed the generals, and the generals obeyed the emperors, and the emperors took over the world.

The Waldorf curriculum was laid out by Rudolf Steiner, a German mystic who created a spiritual system called "anthroposophy." Personally, I haven't read much of Steiner's works, and what I did read, I didn't really understand. The teachers are all well versed in anthroposophy, but they never teach it to the students. Relatively few of the Waldorf parents I know have studied Steiner's works.

But we all believe in Steiner's view of what a school curriculum can be: not a series of subjects to be learned for their own sake, but a carefully crafted journey through childhood. If I happen to have the only kids on the block who know who Nero was, that's just a bonus.

A few other tantalizing glimpses

When I put together a marketing brochure for our school, I collected a bunch of little "snapshots" that show how head, heart, and hands are exercised at various levels. Every one of these is a real-life moment at our own Waldorf school. While other Waldorf schools will do different activities, they are all guided by the same underlying principles.

Some impressive quotes

I just like these.

"Waldorf education taught me how to think for myself, to be responsible for my decisions. In all the Main Block lessons—in history, science, philosophy—we really probed the importance of values and beliefs."
Kenneth Chenault
Chairman and CEO, American Express
Listed by Ebony magazine (alongside Michael Jordan, Rosa Parks, Bill Cosby and Colin Powell) as one of 50 "living pioneers" in the African-American community

"We love Waldorf kids. We reject some students with 1600s on their SATs and accept others based on other factors, like the creative ability Waldorf students demonstrate."
Donna Badrig
Associate Director of Undergraduate Admissions for Columbia University

"The first time I understood the benefit of a Waldorf education was my first week in college. Students around me were flipping out because they were afraid of writing papers. At High Mowing [Waldorf School] we had at least ten pages to write every night."
Julianna Margulies
Actress, former Waldorf student

"Waldorf schools generally turn out young people who get into the colleges of their choice, but more importantly are well prepared for life."
Eric Utne
Founder, publisher, and former editor-in-chief of Utne Reader
Now a Waldorf teacher

"The advent of the Waldorf schools was in my opinion the greatest contribution to world peace and understanding of the century."
Willy Brandt
1971 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

"My daughter's experience at the Waldorf school has been both exciting and mind opening. I hope that more people can make Waldorf education available to their children."
Russell Schweickart
NASA astronaut (Apollo 9) and technology advisor, 19631979

"Whereas postmodern schools are struggling to develop integrated curricula, Waldorf teachers have always taught math, science, literature, and the arts as part of an organized whole."
David Elkind
Professor, Tufts University

For more information...


From: <author wishes to remain anonymous>
July 22, 2012

I just wanted to point out what I perceive as a misunderstanding of Montessori philosophy in your essay. You mentioned that Montessori is the child quietly sitting tyring to put the round peg into the round hole and the teacher gently correcting him if he puts it in the square hole so that he learns the skill. That is anti Montessori. If you were to use that scenario: the child tries to put the round peg into the round hole. If he tries to put it into the square hole, he realizes it doesn't fit and tries and tries again until he gets it because the materials are self correctng. If he doesn't get it for days, weeks or months, it doesn't matter because the point of the exercise is not to learn how to put round pegs into round holes, rather to develop a sense of order, concetration, coordination and independence, to gain sensorial input from the material, and to aid the child in his self construction.

Many of the things you love about Waldorf are strong principles in Montessori. Granted they are very different in many ways, and perhaps you were turned on by the atmosphere of Waldorf and turned off by what you perhaps saw as a clinical setting in Montessori, but I'm sure you don't appreciate when people misrepresent your philosophy, so I wanted to make sure you were not misrepresentig another's.

From: Kenny Felder
July 22, 2012

Thanks so much for pointing that out! I will be the first to admit that I don't know much about Montessori, and I do want to get my facts straight. I would say that "clinical" may not be the best description of what I saw, but it isn't too bad either. I think I saw more "concentration and coordination" than I wanted, and not enough "wild fun and creativity." One Montessori student told me years later that when they poured water into beakers, they were actively discouraged from pretending they were having tea or anything imaginative. For me, that's taking away the best part!

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