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5 Unique Benefits of Waldorf Education

22 June 2011 91,637 views 12 Comments

Many parents I know too quickly dismiss Waldorf education for their children before investing any significant amount of time to understand it. The debate between public and private systems is a highly divisive issue.  Often the decision is an economic one, but I’ve found that like anything in life, if you are willing to spend a little time learning the ideology behind a new concept or idea, you will be rewarded. We’ve found this with Waldorf.  First however, parents have to put their own ingrained and traditional biases and sometimes even egos aside, and think of what is best for our children’s needs and development, not our own.  Things that we enjoyed as a child such as television, electronics and branded plastic toys are not seen as acceptable at Waldorf due to their impact on the delicate senses and nervous systems of young children.  The Waldorf approach of not having our children learn to read and write in the first few grades like the public system throws many parents for a loop. Despite public school expectations of learning to read, brain research clearly shows that 5 or 6 year old brains are simply not yet capable of understanding abstract english letters or even having the ability for any significant reading comprehension.  But understanding a bit about brain and child development quickly assures many of this approach.  In many ways, Waldorf blends “back to basics” educational techniques with modern pragmatic attachment parenting principals.

The red flags for parents considering Waldorf are often things like, no reading before age 8 or 9.  There’s no media in the classroom (e.g. logos/ads on shirts etc) or TV allowed, competitive sports only at older ages and only as an extra-curricular activity. Standardized testing is replaced with individual creative learning. Emphasis is on storytelling, art, music, dance,  fairy tales and medieval stories.  I’ve often  heard parents dismiss this approach as “flakey” or “too soft for my children” or “too coddling” or “over-protective”.  In fact, that is exactly the point.  We are exposing our children to too many adult ideas and concepts of which young brains simply cannot process. And although Waldorf is a paid private system, most if not all offer heavily subsidized tution plans to ensure that they are not an elitist option.

So, why Waldorf then?  Here’s why;

1) Age Appropriate Learning

Waldorf divides childhood development into thirds.  There is the birth to age 7 portion where children are driven by imitation of their teachers and parents.  School is considered an extension of their family, where the same teacher follows children through each stage (grade) of education, as do parents.  Spoken stories and fairytales are the focus for language development, as well as imaginative play, seasonal festivals and natural outdoor toys and influences. Hands-on crafts using wood, wool, needle-felting and knitting emphasize young children’s focus on motor skills vs desk work.

Learning to read or write, math and media are not included in this stage of development, as they are thought not to be age appropriate. Brain development experts in early childhood education would agree, especially since the left and right brain hemisphere remain largely unattached until the end of this development stage.  In fact, writing is introduced before reading as more of an artform rather than an exercise in decoding words.  This is diametrically opposed to the public system of pushing reading and writing heavily in early grades.  Music and dance is required and every student learns to play the recorder early on and then a string instrument at a slightly later age.  Children learn science from nature and hands-on experiments rather than from textbooks.  In Waldorf, spoken word storytelling is central to their academic work, taking the place of glossy picture books and even videos in the public system.  Creativity expert Ken Robinson maintains that the typical public school system “kills creativity” by focussing too much on outdated curriculum and desk-based learning.

2) Zero Tolerance for Mass Media

Kim John Payne M.ED, author of Simplicity Parenting who is a consultant and trainer to over 110 U.S. schools and a private family counselor for twenty seven years, believes that our kids are frazzled with too much media.   He has even done detailed studies comparing children from war-torn 3rd world countries who live day to day with so called 1st world countries like the US and Canada.  His conclusion was that emotionally and pyschologically, exposing our children to television, mass media advertising and electronics at a young age has the exact same effect as an early childhood spent in places like war-ravaged Bosnia or famine-ridden Somalia.  Kim Payne goes on to explain how the diagnosis of ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder) is growing, and prevelant in as high as 11% in our young children.  Interestingly also is that the diagnosis of ADHD is far higher on the eastern seaboard vs the west.  Factors influencing this could possibly include more emphasis on alternative school systems, and increased play in the outdoors in western areas.

In 1997 over five million people, mostly children, in the United States were prescribed Ritalin, and this is a rise of 700% since 1990. Moreover, at the 1998 Consensus Conference on ADHD of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) one of the stated conclusions was that “there is no evidence that treatment [Ritalin and behavioral therapy] improves academic achievement or long-term outcomes.”

Thoughts like “I was raised with television, and I turned out fine” are common.  But as parents, we’ve also grown up in a world of smoking on airplanes, no-seat belts and children with scattered or limited attention spans.  Our family has seen first hand how videos can directly cause night terrors.  Once we tossed our TV and eliminated (not just reduced) child oriented videos, our kids creative play has flourished.  In fact, this is why Waldorf takes such a hard stance on media – your children watching TV will directly impact the style and nature of play of other children they play with.  How many times have you heard a parent say “I just don’t know where she got that language from?”.  It’s often from the media your child’s friends consume. And as Dr. Gordon Neufeld says, you must not let your child’s peers raise your children (author of “Hold onto Your Kids”).  Dr. Gabor Mate who has studied and treated many kinds of addiction on Vancouver’s drug addicted lower East side sees the affects of parents letting peers raise their kids first hand.

3) Non-competitive Environment

Like many parents of our generation, life without media or competitive sports is a hard pill to swallow.  But for young kids especially, they simply prefer to co-operate and not have their skills constantly evaluated or tested.  Similarly, the Waldorf curriculum does not place importance on seat work and memorization for the purposes of testing.  The children actually write and illustrate their own handmade “text books” which are really more like organic journals that integrate their own creative works.  Learning is specific to the individual, and so there are no cookie-cutter approaches to the evaluation of student learning.  And learning is really simplified so that the same concept is approached using various learning methods vs just solely lecture.  The only real time for sit-down learning is not more than 2 hours in the morning.  Then the rest of the day, activities are created to reinforce a single core lesson, but in different forms such as art/painting and crafts that use finger or handwork, as well as acting out lessons in plays and seasonal festivals.  Children also learn by doing real “work”, such as cooking for groups, needle work, building, measuing and creating wood projects.  There is a sense of steady and predictable routine, which is important for maintaining comfort and safety, especially for young children.

4) Family Focused

In Waldorf schools, the teacher will follow the children up from Grade 1 through to Grade 8.  Other specialized or guest teachers will rotate through each class, but for the most part, a given student will have a consistent role-model, almost a surrogate parent,  follow them through their education.  The teacher is seen as the authoritative leader of the classroom, just like a parent.  Lessons that involve home-like work such as cooking, making bread and cleaning up, sweeping the floor are rehearsed and demonstrated by the teacher and students.  Even the surroundings of a typical Waldorf school classroom is focussed on calming colours for children, with typically soft pink or peach on the walls.  Cloths, silks and rugs soften the look and feel of each room, with faceless dolls to inspire creativity, and natural earth tone colours in all furnishings.  Most items, toys and furniture are wood where possible, or handmade.  This again reinforces a home-like atmosphere which is familiar, safe and conducive to learning.

5) Integrates The Natural World

Outdoor play is central to Waldorf learning.  This supports the integration of seasonal lessons and stories into the curriculum. The four seasonal festivals are Michaelmas (fall), Christmas (winter), Easter (spring), and St. John (summer). Children have daily sessions of outdoor play, not confined to short recesses, but longer periods of active time.  Crafts are always with natural fibres such as wet-felting, finger-knitting and needle-felting using wool dyed with natural inks.  Woodworking is common and even the outdoor playground more resembles something you would erect out of ropes and timbers if you were shipwrecked on an island.  Branches, leaves, plants, vines and soil are played with on a regular basis.  Waldorf schools can be considered “spiritual” in their ideas of “Mother Earth”, but they are not specifically religious, and are very open to all beliefs.  Natural beauty is echoed in all things Waldorf, from paintings to flower pressings to the festivals in each season.


  • Homeschooled Children Less Dependent on Peers | Root Parenting - Early child development research and insights said:

    [...] been since 1930).  This is somewhat ironic, since Germany is the homeland of Rudolph Steiner and Waldorf Education, a very grass roots age-appropriate approach to education which a strong emphasis on the arts. [...]

  • Education System Pushes Kids to Read Too Early | Root Parenting - Early child development research and insights said:

    [...] Schools such as Waldorf approach reading so that learning synchronizes with child development.  Unlike the US approach of [...]

  • P Sears said:

    Stopped by to learn more about your program. What role does the parent or family play in this program? and How is the community involved?

  • David said:

    My problem with Waldorf education isn’t with anything in the article. All of this is good. The problem is with Anthroposophy, the religion that all class teachers at Waldorf schools practice. Anthroposophists disagree with much of basic, proven science. They tell parents they don’t teach this, but they do. They also ascribe meaning to hair color etc and that influences their thinking about and treatment of a child. Don’t even get me started on race. It’s some bat crazy bollocks.

  • admin said:

    I do have to agree that Anthroposophy is dated in many ways, but you have to realize that it only provides a distant guiding principal for Waldorf education and not a detailed plan for teaching. Each Waldorf school operates differently, but the ideals of age-appropriateness, natural learning etc are the same. I wouldn’t let a 100 year old philosophy taint your view of age-appropriate brain centric learning. If anything, I think you’ll agree as do many others that Rudolf Steiner was well ahead of his time! :)

  • Dana said:

    Waldorf produces some of the most creative, intelligent, imaginative, and compassionate people and prepares them to be of importance in the world. Many of my peers have gone on to wonderful colleges and universities. The schools are rare gems in our society that should be embraced. I’d do it all over again in a minute if I could! I have the most beautiful memories growing up in our community.

  • Brian said:

    David: I went through public education from k-12 and graduated from an ivy league university. I own a company that builds renewable energy projects. I’ve been studying anthroposophy for 20 years. I send my children to a Waldorf school.
    1. Anthroposophy is not a religion. We have a Muslim teacher and a Hindu teacher at our Waldorf school and I’ve worked with Jewish teachers, Christian teachers, agnostics, and others. Not sure how to convince you otherwise, but that’s the fact.
    2. Anthroposophists don’t disagree with basic proven science. Not sure how to convince you of this, but if I didn’t use science my energy projects would explode.
    3. They don’t teach anthroposophy to the children in Waldorf schools. Not sure how to convince you of this but it’s the truth.
    4. Haircolor? Not a factor. Do teachers take the physical constitution of the child into account? Of course. It’s one of many tools.
    5. Race? Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.

    This article nicely describes several aspects of Waldorf education that are healthy for children. “Parents have to put their own ingrained and traditional biases and sometimes even egos aside, and think of what is best for our children’s needs and development”. Nicely put!

  • a mother said:

    My child is currently at a waldorf school. There is much I like about waldorf but there is a side to it that doesn’t jive with me. It seems very limited in some ways. Waldorf schools are often talked about as being creative. But how creative can a child be when they can only paint with 1 or 2 water colors? The arts and crafts are very defined. It seems like there is no room for other things. Maybe this is set by developmental stages. And even though the schools are very “soft” and beautiful with lovely natural toys, you start to wonder why the room must be that pinkish coral color… no room for other colors? But that’s just my opinion… I’m really into the Reggio school philosophy but waldorf ended up being my nearest option.

  • Brian said:

    To “a mother”
    You’re right; in Waldorf education the cultivation of creativity *is* set by developmental stages. Start simply, even with one color at first, and allow the child to develop an artistic sensibility that meets their developmental stage at a given time. While first grade starts with one watercolor, by 8th grade when the students study the Renaissance, the class is creating art well beyond what one might consider average for that age. But even that is not the end of the education: it is a foundation for later creativity that they enjoy throughout adulthood, whatever their task in life may be.
    From age 0-7, the child is brought to know goodness by imitating the adults around them who set an example worthy of imitation.
    From 7-14, the child knows beauty by studying under a teacher who brings everything -even the sciences- in an artistic, personal way, in an environment that values the beautiful. The child is brought to love school and love learning, and this love fires enthusiasm for the subjects that lasts a lifetime.
    From 14-21, the foundation laid in earlier years enables each student to find their path to the truth with rigorous intellectual exploration of the sciences, the arts, maths, etc.
    By starting simply and not rushing the child from an early age, hidden talents unfold in due time and flower into well-rounded capacities.

    I warmly encourage you to ask your child’s teacher *why* the walls are colored as they are in the various classes, *why* creativity is nurtured by simple beginnings in art projects, *why* even math is brought in an artistic way. It’s a rich, living approach to education that is as intellectually rigorous as it is beautiful- in a developmentally appropriate way. Cheers!

  • Vanessa said:

    I love the opening part about the scholarship programs. My son is now 5 and I’m feeling ready to introduce him to the early childhood program. (before grade 1) however I’m still paying for my student loans to become a Waldorf teacher my self:)
    Id like to learn more about the scholarships.
    Thanks for sharing this article.
    Nighty night!

  • Sydney said:

    This is a great summation of Waldorf Schools and what most of them give to children in a community. I would add that the pedagogy has a great deal of spirituality in how you relate to the children, parents and community as a whole. This is entirely unique to Waldorf as it is a foundation of what Rudolf Steiner spoke of when creating a school.
    I would, however, disagree about how Waldorf “blends “back to basics” educational techniques with modern pragmatic attachment parenting principals.” Attachment parenting is actually very far from Waldorf pedagogy , though in most Waldorf School you do find parents who choose that route. Pickler/RIE methods (http://www.rie.org/about) are more synonymous with the pedagogy, especially in the birth to 3 age range.

  • Jake said:

    Excellent summation of a Waldorf School. I am one of those Specialty Teachers. I teach music at a public Waldorf Charter school in California. It’s a hint different than what you describe, but in large strokes its the same.

    I’m also a parent of children at our school. As a parent, I love the gentle kindness evoked in my kids, and their eagerness to ‘play’ at learning. I love that when I ask what they learned today they shrug and say “I dunno…stuff”. When I ask what they played with they list off wonderful activities such as science experiments, geometry, handwork, instrument work, foreign language and a host of other fantastic “toys”.

    For those who are skeptical about Anthroposophy, look into it critically. Heck, I’m a Mormon and I teach here! Nobody ever asks Waldorf teachers to believe and practice Anthroposophy, simply to know something about it. And, sure, Steiner said some pretty crazy stuff about the “why” of his pedagogy near the end. That doesn’t mean that the “how” is any less diminished.

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