I always enjoy visiting a Waldorf school. At some time during my visit, I am usually handed a ball of beeswax to mold when I am waiting for a new class to come in. But the most important reason for my pleasure in visiting these schools is the happiness and involvement of the children. The Waldorf system was created by Rudolf Steiner early in the twentieth century. Steiner was a Renaissance man in the sense that he was a philosopher, architect, playwright, and environmentalist—he started the movements of organic farming and holistic medicine. He also, in 1919, created his educational system at the request of the Waldorf family who ran a tobacco factory, were intrigued by Steiner’s ideas and wanted him to build a school that would reflect his views. Steiner believed that his modern focus upon mechanization and industrialization made schools too based on intellectual and technical training at the expense of the arts and music. He wanted a school in which the arts and sciences would be combined—what today would be called the integrated curriculum. The Waldorf program is unique in many respects. For one thing the teachers stay with the same group of children for a number of years. In this way the teacher really gets to know the children and the children develop a sense of group identity that facilitates learning.
In addition the children research, write and illustrate their own textbooks. Introduction to formal reading, writing and arithmetic is not begun until the children reach the age of six, or seven when children attain what the ancients called the “age of reason.” Children are also progressively taught a range of crafts and skills, such as woodworking and weaving. Much of the instruction involves biographies of inventors, artists and thus anticipates the current emphasis on narrative learning. The teachers also make use of what John Dewey called the project method, a way of combining different fields of study. For example, the students might put on a play about the knights of the round table. They would design and make the costumes, write the scripts build the scenery and act out the play. In this way they would learn about literature, history, language, math as well as practical skills of woodworking, sewing and so on.
The Waldorf schools are not as common as the Montessori schools, but are most appropriate for children who have a creative bent. Research shows that children who have attended the Waldorf schools do as well on college entrance exams as children who have attended private or public schools. It should be said that Steiner also built his philosophy into his schools. For example, the rooms for the different age groups are painted in colors that Steiner believed corresponded to the intellectual and emotional needs of that particular age group. Most contemporary Waldorf schools do not emphasize the philosophical aspects of Steiner’s position. If you are looking for a school that seeks to have children realize all facets of their personalities, then you might want to visit a Waldorf School if there is one in your area.
By Professor David Elkind, Renowned child who shares his experiences, opinions and insights on children’s perceptual, cognitive and social development. Read his blog to learn more about how early experiences in infant development impact growth into adulthood, and how you can support your child’s healthy development every step of the way.