Approaches to Homeschool: Waldorf

Dear Reader,

This post is part of my continuing series on different approaches to homeschool (see these posts on Unit Studies, Classical Ed, Christian classical ed, Charlotte Mason, Thomas Jefferson Education, Unschooling, the Puritans’ Home School curriculum, Montessori, and the Principle Approach). I am asking four questions of each of these approaches. They are:

1. What do they assume about how learning works?

2. How do they view children?

3. How do they view human nature?

4. What do they believe is the goal of education?

The Waldorf method of education was created by Rudolf Steiner in 1919. Steiner was a proponent of a philosophy called anthroposophy. He was also involved in many other areas like architecture and botany. He was asked specifically to form a school for the children of some factory workers and so Waldorf Education came about.

With regard to the first question, how learning works, Waldorf says that children are whole beings. They have minds but also senses, feelings, and a will:

“Steiner viewed human beings as consisting of three spheres of activity—the head, the heart, and the will—that manifest through thoughts, feelings, and physical actions. To educate children to be complete and balanced human beings, we must attend to the needs of all three aspects of a child’s being.” [Lawrence Williams, “Oak Meadow and Waldorf,” Oak]

So we must not educate to the mind only but include these other aspects. So Waldorf schools include a lot of arts as well as specialized kinds of movement.

In the younger years, especially before age 7 or 8, Waldorf says that children learn primarily through imitation. Thus what the teacher or parent does is important. If the mother gardens, for example, the children will learn by coming alongside her and doing what she does. It is easy for me to see how this is true with young children in particular. The Waldorf approach also uses stories and songs and fingerplays extensively in the early years. As they grow, art is added and finally in the teen years a more intellectual type of learning  is introduced along with the arts. The Waldorf method is opposed to traditional book-learning for younger children and does not introduce reading till age 7 or 8:

“Waldorf education is not anti-intellectual. It is, however, anti-early intellectual. At heart, Waldorf education aims to be therapeutic and its goal is to foster the development of healthy well-balanced individuals. It is deeply felt in Waldorf circles that premature intellectualism can drain and deplete a child.” [Donna Simmons, “An Introduction to Waldorf Homeschooling,” Christopherus Homeschooling .org]

Even in later years, the physical aspect is still important. They say that “Activity always precedes ‘head work’.”

When children reach the age of more organized schooling, their lessons take about 2 hours. One subject is done at a  time for  a period of a few weeks. This has been compared to a unit studies approach to education. They do not use textbooks but instead have the children create their own course books as they learn which reflect their own knowledge. This is similar to Charlotte Mason’s  approach or the Principle Approach in that the child cements their knowledge by recording their learning in some way:

“During these years and throughout high school, topics from the curriculum are taught in 3 – 6 week Main Lesson blocks. The first two hours of each morning is devoted to in-depth study of the topic at hand: this is when Good Books (also known as Main Lesson Books) are created. This is something like the Unit Study approach favored by many homeschoolers.” [Donna Simmons, “An Introduction to Waldorf Homeschooling,” Christopherus Homeschooling .org]

While parents may be the teachers in early years, traditional Waldorf education says that they should not be after a certain point (I think it is around age 8 again). The Oak Meadow Curriculum which calls itself Waldorf-inspired says:

“First, although Waldorf schools recognize that parents serve as valuable role models and teachers for their children when they are young, they traditionally believe that parents should not serve as the primary teachers of their children beyond the change of teeth. They feel that the proper development of the child’s individuality requires someone other than the parent to act as the primary teacher. ”  [Lawrence Williams, “Oak Meadow and Waldorf“]

In the middle years, one teacher will stay with the student for a number of years. However, in the teen years, different teachers are required for the different subjects.

I have already alluded to some of the answers to questions 2 and 3, about the child’s nature and human nature in general. People are seen as spiritual beings. This belief is based in anthroposophy which you will  recall was the belief system of its founder, Rudolf Steiner. There seems to be some debate as to how important anthroposophy is to Waldorf education today. There can be no doubt, however, that it forms the philosophical basis of this educational theory:

“The anthroposophical view of child development forms the philosophical basis for the educational theory, methodology of teaching and curriculum. Anthroposophy includes the belief that humans possess an innate spirit which, having passed through previous lives, in the current life works to fulfill a chosen purpose in a karmically determined environment. After death, the spiritual individuality returns to the spirit world where it will prepare for a future reincarnation. Waldorf pedagogy views the teacher as having ‘a sacred task in helping each child’s soul and spirit grow.’ Anthroposophy itself, however, is explicitly not part of the Waldorf curriculum.”   [“Waldorf Education,” Wikipedia]

I would think that one could follow a Waldorf model without believing in anthroposophy but not without some sense of the child as a spiritual being.

The individuality of the child is also appreciated (so much so that the parent is not seen as a fit teacher). There is a sense of specific purpose in the life of each one, an idea that we have also seen in other methods as well:

“Waldorf schools recognize the essential divinity within each human being and seek to instill within the child a sense of wonder and reverence for the divine purpose that expresses itself through all creation. They accomplish this through fairy tales, legends, and myths that reveal the divine pattern, through music, art, and dance that open the heart to the beauty of creation, and through the reverence that the teacher brings to the learning process itself.”  [Lawrence Williams, “Oak Meadow and Waldorf“]

As I have alluded to above, Waldorf education sees three stages in the child’s development. We have seen such staged views in many other methods of education (Classical jumps to mind first). Waldorf educators see a distinction, however. In their view, it is not just that children are not yet developed but that they are somehow fundamentally different from adults:

“One key difference here is that though all these other educators of course also recognize distinct stages of child development, for them what this means is very different than what it means to a Waldorf person.  One could (somewhat crudely) summarize Dewey, Holt and Montessori as saying they have an “apprentice” view of childhood. Children are younger, less experienced – but in essence not much different than adults. Therefore, it is simply a question of creating the optimal environment, opportunities for learning. Children should be allowed to lead in their educations as, through the act of learning, they will learn what they need to know.

Quite different from this is  an anthroposophical or Waldorf  point of view, the key element being that little children have a totally different consciousness than adults – even than older children. It is not simply a matter of being less experienced. It is about the little child having a totally different perception of life – and in part, this has to do with the strong spiritual connection little children have – their sense of oneness – the natural religious state of the little child that Steiner refers to. So for a Waldorf person, it is not just that children have less experience – it is that their experience of life is different from an adult’s – and part of an adult’s job is to guide them toward their next stage of life, as their development naturally unfolds. And some of that guidance definitely involves teaching.” [“The Waldorf View on Teaching,” Christopherus Homeschool .com]

The three stages, from the Waldorf point of view, are described as follows:

“The threefold nature of the child manifests through consistent developmental stages, and education is most effective when it approaches the child through the attributes of each developmental stage. These stages are not based upon arbitrary theoretical concepts, but upon observable phenomena in a child’s life. According to Dr. Steiner, The first stage begins at birth and continues to the change of teeth, and during this stage the will, expressing itself through physical growth and movement, is the predominant force in the child’s life. The second stage begins at the change of teeth and progresses through the onset of puberty, with the focus upon the child’s emotional nature. In the third stage, the faculty of thinking predominates, and the child begins to explore the world of thought and become an independent human being. ” [Lawrence Williams, “Oak Meadow and Waldorf“]

These stages are tied to specific developmental milestones such as the losing of baby teeth. Another example would be a change they see around age 9 at which point the child becomes more independent of their parents. These stages are then tied to specific curricula.  For instance:

“In Waldorf schools, Third Graders study Building and Farming, two practical Main Lesson blocks which, on a subtle level, can really speak to the inner experiences of a child who is ‘creating her own self’. Likewise, the Third Grade block on Old Testament stories, with its themes of right and wrong and man’s relationship to God’s authority, is a subject that most 9 year-olds can really relate to (if only subconsciously). ” [Donna Simmons, “An Introduction to Waldorf Homeschooling“]

This leads us naturally to the question of goals. If the child has a divine element and yet is in a different stage of life, then the goal is to develop them, to move them along on this path. Although children are seen to have unique calling, the goal of Waldorf education is a broad-based one. It is to give a good foundation rather than to help the child specialize:

“An almost Renaissance approach to education: a true liberal arts education where all children take all subjects and do not work only in areas in which they excel.” [Donna Simmons, “An Introduction to Waldorf Homeschooling“]

Put another way:

” . . . one’s early education should give one a palette of experience from which to choose the particular colors that one’s interests, capacities, and life circumstances allow. In a Waldorf high school, older students pursue special projects and elective subjects and activities, nevertheless, the goal remains: each subject studied should contribute to the development of a well-balanced individual.” [“Curriculum,” Why Waldorf Works .org]

The goals then, while broad-based, also relate first of all to the individual:

“The best overall statement on what is unique about Waldorf education is to be found in the stated goals of the schooling: “to produce individuals who are able, in and of themselves, to impart meaning to their lives”. [“Waldorf FAQ, ” Waldorf Answers .com]

There is also a more public component. Waldorf contains a strong emphasis on social responsibility:

“Waldorf schools seek to cultivate pupils’ sense of social responsibility, respect, and compassion; to develop their cooperative capacities; and to enable them to contribute to societal and cultural renewal.”    [“Waldorf Education,” Wikipedia]

This gets us back, perhaps, to where we started, the role of anthroposophy in Waldorf education. While some sites I read would say that you can make use of Waldorf without its original philosophical basis, others hold that the two cannot be divorced. The Christopherus Homeschool Curriculum, another Waldorf based approach, holds that “it is really not possible to separate anthroposophy from Waldorf education at essence” (“The Waldorf View on Teaching“).

So I guess for myself, as I look at this approach, I want to know to what degree anthroposophy really affects is. Where is this philosophy seen in the educational methods? How does it play out? How did it shape this approach and make it different from others  I have looked at?

I am not sure of the answers to all these questions. There is a lot about the philosophy in particular that I cannot wrap my head around. What I have got so far is that anthroposophy says that the spiritual world can be known and understood just like the physical world. I can see how this would have educational implications. If we can know the spiritual world, we should also be teaching it to our children, not confining them to just more physically tangible subjects. But there is also an element of evolution added into this. That is, as physical beings have evolved, so too there is believed to be spiritual evolution. From what I have read, this evolution is believed to have come not gradually but in larger steps. The great religious thinkers of history (as they would call them) represent new levels in human spiritual development. Buddha and Christ are two prime examples of this:

“Another piece of all this is the importance of the Christ in the evolution – spiritual evolution – of humankind. Just as the Buddha brought His great gift of Compassion to humanity, the Christ brought His great gift of Love.” [“Anthroposophy, Religion and Waldorf,” Christopherus Homeschool]

I am not sure how to answer my own questions about how this plays out. But what I think I see is that there is a kind of evolution of the individual. That is, children are one kind of being that must be educated along to become fully developed adults as hopefully we are. But there is also a grander spiritual evolution of humanity, and we should also educate our children so that they can play a part in it. That is where the emphasis on social responsibility would come in. Our goals are not just for the individual but also for the role they can play in the larger scheme of things.

As a side note, I don’t get how reincarnation fits into this. It sounds like every re-birth would be a step backwards since the soul has to begin again as a child and be re-educated. I do see how a belief in reincarnation would lead to a respect for the child who may indeed be an older soul than you or I (but of course it is not a belief I subscribe to).

Waldorf education seems to me to be a product of its age. It came at a time after Darwin’s theory of evolution when people were wrestling with how this idea of evolution might apply to the religious or spiritual side of life. For some of course, there was a conflict and they rejected the idea of human evolution on religious grounds (and still do). For others, like Steiner seems to have, the idea was not rejected but expanded to encompass more than the physical universe.

Personally, while there are statements in the Waldorf approach that I would agree with, like that children are spiritual beings, I cannot as a Christian accept it for its philosophical underpinnings. I do not think that we can use our scientific principles to know the spiritual world. Nor do I think that there is the kind of spiritual evolution that Steiner saw or that Christ is merely one cog in such an evolution. As a Christian, I believe rather that he is the turning point and climax of all of history.


9 responses to this post.

  1. I know I’m coming upon this series 2+ years after you wrote them, but thank you! My eldest is three and I’ve been trying to decipher between different homeschool educational models, while desiring to truly keep Christ the center. Your posts are refreshing!


  2. […] approaches to education lend themselves more to a short-term goals. The Waldorf method is an extreme example in that it does not even view the child as being the same sort of […]


  3. […] also fit here as above all it seems to be about molding the child and developing his faculties. The Waldorf school may as well. It certainly views the child as something almost other than human who has to evolve […]


  4. […] As you may have discerned from the use of the word “dullard,” this is an older book, originally published in 1909. The years before the First World War were very fruitful for educational philosophies. It was a time of hope. With the ideas of evolution behind him,  man firmly believed in progress and the world wars had not yet come to disillusion him and show him of his depravity. Charlotte Mason (CM) worked in this period (though beginning a bit earlier) as did Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner, founder of the Waldorf movement. […]


  5. […] to do this, but there are those who almost make children a separate species (though not Christian, the Waldorf method is the most egregious example of this). We need to be careful not to do so. Children are fully […]


  6. […] Rudolf Steiner (see also this post on Waldorf education) […]


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